But, of course, he dares! Nothing shows the precariousness of a woman’s position in society quite as the loss of her husband.
Abibatu Abeke watched the man entering her house via the back door, moments after giving the most perfunctory of knocks on the open wooden door. She had had that door installed a few years back, moving the previous ones made of corrugated roof to the hitherto raffia-covered kitchen and bathroom doorways. Like everything about this house, it was the best, most practical version that money could buy.
Now, if only it could keep out the uninvited visitors, even while left ajar…
The wider glare of midday sun did little to lift the dark of the interior and cast the man’s hesitating shape in a shadowy silhouette. But she would have recognized him anywhere, even if she had not just been listening to him knock on her front door and call out her moniker in increasing faux concern for the past few minutes. She had listened as he appeared to give up, then heard his footsteps coming around the house when he decided to try the back. Because it was closer to the backyard and the conveniences found there in and was mostly screened from the rest of the iga by her fence, she always left the back door open. Her closed front door had become a signal of sorts to the village women that she was not receiving visitors.
It was a practice she had adopted in those first few days after Lasisi died, when it seemed like every woman was taking turns to bring her food, sit with her, commiserate in words and sighs in equal measures, and… She had been perilously close to going mad!
As someone who had coordinated the women’s support during more than one official mourning period, she knew what they were doing. She appreciated what they were doing. In fact, she had been gratified to note firsthand that those concerted efforts to bring food and sit with the women who had just lost their husbands during the first forty days where they were expected to stay indoors, and mourn, did help.
Then it had gotten too much. After the daze, when she could finally think about what they were all saying… That Lasisi wasn’t coming back – that no, he wasn’t at the farm and soon to return. That he had indeed gone to the farm and had been done in by a snakebite so poisonous that he had been dead before the nearby farmer who’d heard him shout out could get him home. That Eyitoye was now one of those children occupying the precarious situations in life, that of an orphan…
It had been too much, and she had not wanted anyone around for that. She had, quite by accident, discovered that a closed front door deterred her well meaning visitors and attendants. Fearing to interrupt her if she was taking a well needed rest, they vowed to return later in the day unaware that she had been just inside the door, listening.
Thereafter, the door stayed close for longer in the mornings. And the women supported Mama Raufu only at the times she opened her home to them. Her sister and Shadia, of course, knew to come round back and now, apparently, so did Lasaki.
Watching her late husband’s little brother, the one he’d done his best to raise, now a grown man himself, strikingly similar in features but lacking the undefinable air of serene goodness that was Lasisi, she wondered – precisely – why he was there. She had not seen him in years. His visits to the village had become increasingly rare and Abibatu did not venture afar, except for her trading. Although his brother saw him at least once after every harvest, he had been – to all intent and purposes – lost to the village for several years now. He hadn’t even come to see her when he had rushed down the last time, on getting news of his brother’s demise. As a much younger full brother to her dead husband, he could have without flouting the norms of the opo period. Like he was doing now. He had just chosen not to, before.
‘I didn’t think you’d come to see me,’ she let her voice give away her presence in the shadowy darkness of the corridor to which his eyes were still, undoubtedly, adjusting.
‘Mama Raufu.’ His head swung around in an almost comical fashion, his gaze seeking, then homing in on her where she sat on the tattered remains of her opo mat, which she had felt the inexplicable need to situate just inside the closed front door just after Eyitoye left for school, for no justifiable reason whatsoever. ‘I didn’t see you there.’
Knowing her snort conveyed her disdain for the triteness of his comment, she let the silence linger. Had Abibatu Abeke even been the sort of woman who valued people’s comfort levels in awkward social situations, she was certain that something about losing the man who was your anchor to societal validation would have cured her of the habit.
May you come to an ignominious end!* She mentally cursed the snake again. In absence of anyone else, the long-gone reptile was the recipient of all of her recent malevolence and ill will.
‘Erm…S’alaafia lewa? How are you coping?’ Lasisi – he called himself Joonu* now – ultimately pulled his voice over his discomfort.
Abeke relented. ‘Daada la wa. How is Ota? I expect you are here for the forty days rites. When are you going back?’ A moment, then ‘Or are you planning to stay?’
His fleeting hunted look furnished with the answer before his rushed, ‘O ti o! As soon as the final rights are completed for Egbon mi, I have to be back at school. My students start exams next week.’
She nodded. They were quiet for a bit; she still sitting on her forlorn widow’s mat and he, leaning on the wall – clear on the other end of the corridor. The silence was pregnant with their shared weight of societal expectancy. As Lasisi’s only full younger brother and the wife with the least number of children, a union between them was the natural order of their social norms.
‘Will you do it?’ Abibatu finally asked.
She didn’t think he would – he hadn’t lived in Jilete since he moved to Ota for more book learning as a young man of fourteen or fifteen rains, and he had accepted the igbagbo faith not too long afterwards. Even when his brother had been alive, he barely came to the village anymore – school and the responsibilities of his teaching job always seemed like just a convenient excuse to her.
Not that she wanted him to – she already had her own plans laid out. Still, a wise woman leaves no room for surprises. Plus, men are more amendable when they believe themselves to be the mastermind of a plan. And, for Eyitoye at least, she needed this stranger who used to be the adorable little brother of his father.
‘No.’ He didn’t pretend not to know what she was talking about. It was why he had come to see her, after all, at this time when he knew her son was in school. ‘I cannot, Mama Raufu. I am a Christian now, I cannot marry except in the church – and that must be to one woman only. I –’
When it became obvious that his words had failed him, Abibatu asked, ‘Have you told the olori ebi*?’
Being the oldest male (with sound mind) of the family via male lineage, the olori ebi – as the statutory head of the extended family – adjured these cases. Keeping the social order of the clan, ensuring all women had male support and all children were cared for. The current olori ebi for their iga was Lasisi and X’s eldest half-brother, a fair and mild-tempered man but even John knew how strong a hold tradition had on the village society. He certainly wasn’t going to please his brother with his perceived rebelliousness.
Lasaki – Joonu! – turned his face away, the stiffening of his body and twitching of his jawline betraying the tension he tried so valiantly to conceal. ‘No, I haven’t. I will. I just…’
Maybe it was the certainty that she would not have to marry him – and she would have, if that was what it took – but Abibatu felt a sudden rush of remembered affection for the boy she’d once mothered. He was only about seven or eight rains older than Raufu and when she had married his brother, she had looked after him as much as a fiercely independent man-child of that age would allow. He had always been different, quiet and only interested in his books and his brother, but she had become fond enough of him when he went off to live in school a few years later. It was his dismissive attitude afterwards that she had loathed, abandoning his brother who had done so much for him, abandoning his religion and the ways of his people – even now, coming down only a few days before the final rites for his brother.
Yet, his selfishness played well into her plan. And could she, especially, blame anyone for leaving behind their family, customs and tradition?
‘Leave the olori ebi to me,’ she told him now. ‘I will talk to him. I do – ’ She put up a hand to starve off his proffered words of appreciation. ‘ – have a condition. Just one. That you take Eyitoye with you to Ota when the time comes and see that he learns all the book learning there is to succeed. You have been telling your brother for so long that book learning is the future of this new Nigeria that you all keep talking about. Well, if that is true, my son must have all the book learning he can to be successful.’
*Head of family/ clan