Lasisi Ayinla was an entirely ordinary young man.
He was the sixth of nine brothers from his father, who had died when Lasisi was just witnessing his thirteenth harvest. His father had not been a particularly successful farmer and his holding had been modest. Half of it had been given to the cousin who married his youngest widow – the only one without an adult son to assume responsibility for her. The remaining half was held in trust as a communal farm for his four bachelor sons, of whom Lasisi was the youngest. In principle, they were to farm the land together to provide food and a bit of income for themselves, their mothers and sisters. In practice, the easiest way to bring into prominence the hairline fractures in a polygamous family setting, causing it to widen into huge craters of almost impossible dimensions, is to ask four headstrong young men, brothers from different mothers who had spent a marital lifetime married to the same man, to cooperate – on anything.
Suddenly, they couldn’t reach a consensus on what to plant, when to plant, how to farm it, how much each brother got, or… the list of dispute and disagreements would be miles long.
Being the youngest and the least volatile, Lasisi often felt caught in the crossfires. When the oldest of them would pull rank, and the next two – who happened to share a mother – would gang up, he found himself resigned to accepting the short end of the stick. That first harvest after their father’s death, his allotted share was barely enough to see himself, his baby brother and his mother through her opo period, never mind the dry season. His older, married brother had to supplement them with supplies from his stores more than once. Even after the Baale and the village elders intervene, dividing the farm into roughly equal portions, the adolescent Lasisi had found it impossible to fully cultivate his portion, despite working from sunrise till sunset every day except on Jimo.
His mother, already well into middle aged by then, could not stand him working himself to the bone, as she put it, and soon joined him on the farm. Despite the years since she’d not had to accompany her husband to the farm, on account of his proliferate loins, his mother came out with him every morning at dawn, staying until the glare of the noon sun forced her to retire. But even with the two of them, the work was a lot and each planting season, his half brothers encroached more and more on his portion of the land.
By the time his mother died, six rains after his father, Lasisi was tired and downtrodden.
He deemed himself a failure and blamed himself for the death of his mother. A woman her age had no business facing the perils of farming. His brother, Lasaki, was dependent on him, the little boy having refused to move in with their much older married brother. During that period immediately after their mother’s demise, Lasaki was the only reason he got up every morning. His guilt and his feelings of inadequacy collided with the acute sense of loss from the death of a parent, felt in a way that he had not with his father’s passing, and it all seemed like too much on most days. However, having an innocent human being who looked up to him and depended on him for basic survival was a powerful enough motivation to get him through the motions. He woke up daily, cared for his brother, looked after and then harvested his crops.
He existed, barely.
The Baale must have noticed the state he was in, because he would not let him decline the offer of a job to clear the old medicine woman’s hut for a group of strangers just at the start of that rainy season. In the end, it was easier to accept, especially when the job promised to pay two shillings per day.
With his little brother tagging along, Lasisi and another young man cleared the little debris from inside and around the hut, and helped the strangers settle in. The village women showing up on that first day, presumably to welcome the newest addition to their village, was Lasisi’s cue to escape. But the next day found him, after putting in a cursory few hours on his farm, returning to the little hut on the outskirts of the village with a sprint in his step that had been missing for many, many months.
As the days rolled along, his gloom lifted incrementally, and he found his purpose in building a life for this strange family; a widow, her son and her siblings, as he’d heard from the scuttlebutt in the village. His fascination with the young woman was startling, quite innocently at first. She was intense in a way that he had noticed very few people – male or female – were and had definite opinions on how she wanted things done. First, she had wanted a privacy fence, then a raised platform and roof for her cooking area, both of which were alien to Jilete village. She did not bat an eyelid as she worked with them, showing them how it was done. Then she was forceful about how much land she wanted cleared for what Lasisi knew the elders had intended to be a vegetable garden, but she had obviously envisaged as a fully-fledged farm. And when they had come upon the abandoned herb garden, she had insisted they leave it intact, even though clearing around it meant even more work than originally planned.
But while the other man baulked ever so often, challenging her every decision in the way of men who laboured under the perceived ignominy of working for a woman, Lasisi masked his growing captivation with her under a placid expression. She eventually overcame the numerous objections by promising to pay them a pound each to do the job the way she wanted it done and was satisfied enough after ten days to give them their wages.
Then she had asked him, only him, to stay on for the next season.
Lasaki had heard the reasons she put forward – the land was more than her brother could manage on his own, she was more of a trader than a farmer, her sister was more suited to the herb garden, etc, etc – but he had dared hope that, in time, other reasons would come to light. By the time the next planting season rolled in, two of his half brothers had married the widows of their uncles and inherited their own farms. Lasisi found it easier than anticipated to negotiate a cut of the harvest from the last brother, for his sole use of the land. Fortuitously, this brother had been enamored with a recently returned-to-the-village widow and was eager to have the land to himself. It all seemed serendipitous.
Somehow, though, five harvests had come and gone, and Lasisi was still just the hired hand.
Abeke, and this was how he thought of her, illicitly in his own mind, had grown into a formidable woman. Her prowess at trade, her tireless mobilization for social welfare, her subtle but obvious influence on daily village life, and even her inexplicable friendship with the imam’s literate elder wife made her appear further and further out of his possible reach. By the time he found out that Jagunmolu was one of the men courting her hand, Lasisi was berating himself as all kinds of fool.
How had he let the idea that this woman may potentially want him steal so many seasons of his life? Thinking back to those first days following her arrival in the village, he re-examined all their early interactions and, with hindsight, mentally flogged himself for his presumptuousness. She hadn’t been shy of her partiality to him, she had been indifferent!
The woman did not do shy.
Now, he was well beyond his twentieth rains and he had nothing to show for it. He lived in his mother’s old hut, a few steps away from his stepmothers and stepsisters, who still felt entitled to make his life miserable with their never-ending requests for help with ‘heavy’ chores. He had no farm of his own and a rather modest, pittance really, of a savings for his years of toiling for his stupidity. Even Lasaki had left him during the last full moon, the boy having impressed the teachers at the local school – he had been sent away to a much larger, advanced – secondary – school in Ota, a big town said to be almost a full day trip by truck.
To make matters worse, he had no uncles left alive to give him hope of inheriting a wife. He would have to woo one. A frightening prospect for a modest, retiring and almost poor man.
Once he backed himself into this corner of realization, Lasisi had to act. He mentioned to Sumonu, knowing he could not face his sister with this, that he would not return to work with him after this harvest. He informed him of his resolve to ask the elders for a piece of land of his own so he could start planning for the future. His carefully worded explanation notwithstanding, the younger man gave him such a look of understanding that Lasisi feared he might be privy to his desires, his long but falsely held belief. When the other man started making conversation about the specifics of his plans, Lasisi self-consciously kept his head down, gripping his hoe with suddenly clammy hands as he mumbled his answers. Answers that revealed that he, really, had no current prospects.
He was so mortified that it took him a few days to notice the hints that Sumonu was dropping into farm conversations. Hints that grew less subtle as the conversations grew unusually more frequent. Farming is a labour-intensive exercise and very little energy is expended on chit chat. Yet Sumonu seemed to suddenly spend more and more time nattering on about his family, specifically his sister – and did he know her name was Abeke? What she did the other day, how her trade was going, an anecdote she had shared about something that happened in the market, what a good mother she was, and how easy Raufu made it for her – he was such a good boy. And did he know, the teachers say that he may also be sent away for school in Ota in another rain cycle or two! Ah, Abeke would be so proud…
Even Lasisi could only pretend at ignorance for so long.
Several days of this information bombardment later, he summoned the battered bits of his courage, threw down his machete and interrupted yet another soliloquy on the woman he dared not believe, again, could be his.
‘Sumonu, I want to marry your sister. Do you think she would have me?’ His voice croaked and sweat poured off his face, quite excessively for the mild mid-morning temperature.
The young man gaped. His look was chagrined, surprised and pleased all at once, an interesting expression to behold.
‘I will talk to her,’ was his noncommittal response. ‘Why don’t you come over before sunset this evening?’
When her bother came in from the farm much earlier than expected that afternoon, within moments of her own arrival from the market, Abeke could not place the curious expression on his face.
‘E ku ile, Egbon mi,’ he greeted.
He barely acknowledged her ‘Kaabo!’ before he said, ‘Your plan worked. Lasisi asked to marry you. I asked him to come over before sunset.’
Watching his retreating back as he entered the hut, Abeke finally made sense of the expression he had been wearing.
It was a man realizing, for the first time, the power of a woman’s machinations.
opo- a (variable) period of mourning for a dead husband