Monday, 30 October 2017

Nwakaego

 
     It was a night of celebration. Many people had come for Ifeanyi and Nneka’s wedding at Umuji village. Finally, the wedding ended. The newly wedded couple now had time alone together.

“I’ve waited this long for you,” Ifeanyi told his wife holding her lovingly.

“Me too,” Nneka whisphered.

He kissed her. “Darling, did you lock the door?”
Suddenly, five boys burst in holding guns. The couple could not scream for fear of the guns. The intruders had their way with the bride and left as soon as it was over. It was no longer a happy wedding night but a night of terror. The next morning, the whole village heard about it. Things would never be the same for this couple.

One day, Nneka broke the silence, “Darling, do you still love me?”

Ifeanyi was silent for a while. “I…don’t know.”

By then, her protruding belly was obvious. The following day, she left for the city.
 
         The city life was new and difficult for Nneka. There was nowhere to go till she eventually met a ‘nice’ Madam who helped and gave her a one-room apartment in her yard. Time went by and Nneka put to bed a daughter. She named her, Nwakaego meaning a child is more important than money.
Later on, the ‘nice’ Madam began demanding for her rent.
“I don’t have any job!” Nneka cried.

“Then, you have to work for me!” Madam snapped.

Nneka had no choice. She had a rent to pay and a daughter to take care of. So, she began ‘working’ for Madam.

Nwakaego grew and was fortunate to go to school and wear nice clothes unlike her mates in the yard. This sparked up envy among them.

“Na because your mama dey follow men!’ one girl lashed at her in furious jealousy when Nwakaego showed the girl her new wristwatch. 

It hurt Nwakaego deeply but it also opened her eyes to some things she never really took notice of. She noticed the revealing clothes her mother wore daily, her many male friends, her late nights out…. 
 Then she noticed her mother lose weight and complain of being sick. It became so serious, she had to go to the hospital. 

     One day, Madam picked her up from school.
“Your mother wants to see you,” she explained to a surprised Nwakaego.

Her mother was in the hospital bed. Nwakaego gasped when she saw her mother. She looked just like the AIDS patients she saw in her textbooks. Her mother could hardly move and struggled to talk; she began crying.

“Nwakaego, I’m so sorry… but I did all these because I loved you.”

Nwakaego too cried and held tight to her frail mother. She spent the rest of that day with her sick mother. When dusk came, Madam insisted that she leave the hospital; she had to prepare for school the following day. Amidst tears, mother and daughter kissed each other good bye. It would be the last time she saw her mother.

One day, Madam called Nwakaego. “Your mother is dead,” she told her plainly.

Throughout that day, Nwakaego cried.

As usual, she continued going to school until she was made to stop because she had not paid her fees. She ran to Madam for help.

“If you need money, you must work for me,” Madam said matter-of-factly.

Nwakaego agreed but it was not what she expected. At only age twelve, she was introduced into prostitution. Madam paid her money enough for only the rent and feeding. When she turned eighteen, she decided she was big enough to stand on her own and left Madam and the yard she had lived in all her life.

This time, she ‘worked’ for herself and was able to rent a one-room apartment in Diobu, the ghetto part of the city. She was well known as a ‘runs-girl’ in that area for her ‘work’ and never lacked customers. Even the so-called soul winners seemed to know her kind of work especially one Father Amadi who came every Saturday morning for evangelism. The most annoying part was that his messages always seemed to be directed at her.

“Give your life to Christ now,” he would cry over his microphone, “If Christ comes now, would you make heaven?”

Such talk never moved her. She had longed stopped believing in God. Why would God allow her to go through such a hard life?
One day, while on her ‘night duty’, a rickety car stopped by her. The driver had broken teeth, a blind eye and reeked of alcohol and marijuana. 

“Babe, come na. I go pay you well,” he drawled.

Nwakaego was really repulsed by him.
“You of all human beings?” she snickered, “Dog beta pass you. Abeg, no be me and you.”

His countenance changed in anger. “Wetin you mean by that?” he growled.

Nwakaego simply hissed and began walking away from the due-for-repair car.
“Get her into the car!” she heard him order someone.
Without warning, she was overpowered and her face was covered by a drugged handkerchief. She could not scream as she was immediately gagged, and even if she could, no one would hear her. It was a lonely street at a dangerous hour of the night. She could sense being hauled into a car back seat before slipping into unconsciousness.

         When she woke up, she found herself lying on a bed in a nice bedroom. “Where am I?” she wondered.

Just then, a plump-looking man came in. She recognised him.
“Father Amadi,” she croaked weakly, “Where am I?”

“In my house dear,” he replied standing by her bedside. “I found you lying unconsciously on the road on my way home from a night vigil. You had only a top on.”

Nwakaego could only imagine what could have happened the previous night. She closed her eyes in shame.

“It is well, my daughter,” he comforted stroking her head.
        Father Amadi was the residing reverend in the Catholic church just close to his house. He took care of Nwakaego and talked to her about God. One day, he told her the story about the adulterous woman in the bible whom Jesus forgave in John 8:1-11.

“Nwakaego, Jesus loves you and forgave you. Why not come to Him?”

But Nwakaego did not. She found it difficult to believe in a God who had let her pass through so much. Still, she wondered if Father Amadi was right. He said he was an imitator of Christ. He was very caring and forgiving. Could Jesus be like that too?

Father Amadi was a voracious reader and had a library in his house. Whenever she was bored, she would read the books there. She began to read the Bible but still had her doubts. She read Francine Rivers’ ‘Redeeming Love’. She cried after reading it; the protagonist’s life was like hers. She also read about Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou. Both had been rape victims but did not allow that to stop them from becoming something in life. She came across newspapers with stories about girls who committed suicide after being raped. She was saddened by their tragic ends and felt their lives would have had a better ending had they got back on their feet.

  She was reading the bible one day when she came across a passage in Deuteronomy 30:19-20a: “Today, I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live. You can make this choice by loving the Lord, your God, obeying Him and committing yourself to Him….”

Right there, she chose life.
One Sunday service, she entered the church where Father Amadi preached.

“2 Corinthians 5:17,” he was saying, “This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!”

Yes, she believed in Jesus. That day, she gave her life to Christ.
With Father Amadi’s encouragement, she became a counsellor in church especially for the young girls. Through that, she was able to reach out to many broken girls and women. Then church members noticed her gift and began to invite her to speak in religious organisations, schools and conferences. Later on, she started an NGO for sexually abused and rape victims. With the many donations to her NGO, she was able to give out scholarships to female students from poor families as well as start-up capitals to promising female entrepreneurs who had neither jobs nor any business.

      Whenever she was invited anywhere to give a talk, she would always emphasise, “Anyone who believes in Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! Your past does not determine your future; your present does! So, take positive steps today, so that your tomorrow would be better than your yesterday!”

The Kalabari's Iria

The Kalabari’s Iria
         Onyinyechi scrolled through her Mother’s What’s App contacts. She was going through each of them. One of them shocked her.

“Onyi, what are you doing with my phone?” Mother asked as soon as she saw Onyinyechi.

Onyinyechi was too distracted to respond to that question.

“Mummy, your young friend Aunty Ibufuro has gained so much weight just after her first child and why is she doing her traditional wedding again?”

Mother took her phone from her and looked at Aunty Ibufuro’s What’s App profile picture.

“Oh, that’s not her wedding. It’s just her Iria.”

“Iria?” Onyinyechi was confused.

Mother sighed knowing she had a lot of explaining to do.

“Iria is an important ceremony by the Kalabari people. Kalabari is an ethnic group in the South-Western part of Rivers State. It is made up of three local government areas: Akuku-Toru, Degema and Asari-Toru which is the traditional headquarters.
The Iria cultural dance is displayed at important occasions such as chieftaincy installations, marriage and burials. It is also performed after the ‘fattening room’ period. The delivery of the baby – usually the first child- marks the beginning of the preparations for the fattening room. The new mother – the Iriabo- is confined to a ‘fattening room’ for three to six months, depending on the financial capacity of her husband. During this period, she is pampered and receives many gifts and food items. She is served delicacies like ‘onunu’, ‘isila’ and ‘ikili-odu’. She is expected to gain weight – in fact, it’s a proof of beauty and that her husband has taken care of her well. She would be taught dance steps to showcase at the Iria cultural dance. For the dance ceremony, she would be dressed in the typical Kalabari traditional attire.
A wrapper – George or Indian- would be wrapped around her waist like a full skirt, and a piece around her chest area. Her neck, thighs, ankles, arms and waist, would be adorned with coral beads. She would also hold a saucer on one hand and a walking stick on the other hand. She would dance to the admiration of all, to the beats of drums and songs of the women. Some spectators even shower her with money or even traditional clothes. Later, the guests and families would be served sumptuous meals and various drinks.”

Onyinyechi was fascinated. “But is this necessary seeing the whole process is expensive and time-consuming?”

Mother bobbed her head in thought. “Perhaps it’s not compulsory or it is… You see, men whose wives do not go through this process are ridiculed most at times. The dance attests that the husband is able to take care of his wife. That is why the Iria is held in high esteem.”

Onyinyechi nodded as she took this in. “This Iria sounds interesting. I would like to see one someday.”

“If you marry a Kalabari man you will do it,” Mother said smiling.

Onyinyechi shrugged. “Maybe, but I will go on a weight loss diet after that.”

Mother burst into laughter at this and Onyinyechi could not help joining in.

Traditional burial in some parts of Ikwerre

     One Saturday morning, Oyinyechi and her mother paid a visit to Mrs Woke, the wife of the deceased – Mr Woke. 

Mr Woke had been a ‘Knight’ while Mrs Woke had been a ‘Lady’ in the Anglican church that Onyinyechi and her family also attended. The burial had taken place in Omademe, a part of Ikwerre Local Government Area, so Onyinyechi and her mother had to travel all the way from Port Harcourt to the Wokes’ family house in Omademe. The couple was well known in church, so the house was filled with church members, as well as their relatives and friends, helping in the house and comforting Mrs Woke. After paying condolences to Mrs Woke, Onyinyechi and her mother headed back to the city.

“Thank God for Christianity,” Mother said on the drive home.

“Hmmn…Why do you say that?” Onyinyechi asked curiously.

“I said that because Christianity has helped in removing some unfair traditional practices. In the past, widows suffered greatly in the hands of their in-laws and even their family members during the burial rites of their deceased husbands.
The widow would be dressed in black and would be escorted by a more senior widow to climb the Ojo. Ojo means bad. The Ojo is an elevated platform built from the Oturu tree. A long bamboo is then mounted by the side of the Ojo, on which the deceased’s Oha (red cap) and his old clothes are hung. This showed that the deceased belonged to the Oha – the company of leaders with the highest title in the land. The corpse of the deceased would be placed on this Ojo and there would the widow and her escort remain till the following day, when the corpse would be buried.
As she is seated on the Ojo, she was expected to cry for her late husband. Those around her – mainly women- would try to make her laugh even up to tickling her! If she laughed, she would be made to pay a fine for committing such an abomination.”

“But that’s not fair!” Onyinyechi chirped in, piqued, “That means she always has to put on an act of sadness and force herself to cry. It’s not easy at all and those tickling her are just making things difficult for her.”

Mother shrugged. “It was the practice then. The widow would be made to carry a machete with a small padlock tied to it anywhere she went with the belief that it would protect the widow from bad spirits. The widow’s hair, toe and finger nails would be cut and put in her late husband’s grave. In some cases, during and after the burial of the husband, the widow was beaten and forced to sleep on plantain leaves or mats spread on the floor. Throughout the mourning period, which was usually for a year, the widow was forced to wear sack cloth, walk barefoot, prohibited from entering any vehicle and forbidden from entering another relationship with a man. If a widow happens to die during this mourning period, it was regarded as an abomination and she was denied a befitting burial. Strangely too, such traditions were usually enforced by fellow women who may have acted out of jealousy or revenge.”

“So, such practices have stopped now because of Christianity?” Onyinyechi asked hopefully.

“I believe such practices are rare now or are now of the past.” Mother replied.

There was silence as the car drove on.

“Thank God for Christianity,” Onyinyechi muttered.

“Yes, thank God,” Mother concurred.