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SHORT STORY: AGADI NWAANYI BY EZINNE UDUMA

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SHORT STORY: AGADI NWAANYI BY EZINNE UDUMA

At the ripe age of fifty-five, they call me ‘Agadi Nwaanyi’—an old woman—as if I’m one foot in the grave. Time has draped many names over my shoulders: from ‘Ada’, a name for my youth, to ‘nwaanyi chara ucha’, the epitome of purity. I’ve been ‘obidia’, the heart of her husband, and endured the hollow title of a ‘woman without child’. Now, ‘Agadi Nwaanyi’ attempts to cloak me in its aged whispers, but I wear it with defiance because I refuse to act my age.

Forty-five years ago, when I was still Ada, my father held my hands as we walked side by side. Our footsteps stirred the red dust, and the sun painted our shadows long. We reached Okagbue’s obi, where, after whispered conversations in muffled tones, my father left. I remember him standing up hesitantly, dusting his animal skin, and looking at me one last time as if to remind me of what we discussed. I nodded; I understood I was meant to stay here until he paid Okagbue the thousand bags of cowries he owed him. I held the raffia sack that contained a few pieces of my clothing tightly against my chest, naively believing I wouldn’t be here long.

I sat in Okagbue’s obi for a long time after my father left. I later realised they were deliberating where I would stay. Okagbue’s compound was a labyrinth of wives, each with her own flock. Nkechi, the eldest, presided over five daughters. Her hut overflowed with feminine energy, and I knew I wouldn’t survive there. Nnenna, the youngest wife who was almost my age, saw me as a rival, her eyes slicing through me like a knife newly whetted. Her disdain dripped from her lips like okra soup and the way she spat on the ground and folded her nose made her hut a no-go area. As dusk painted the sky with strokes of fiery orange, it was decided I would stay with Nneka, the middle wife. 

Nneka was charming to me when she wanted to be. She never struck me except the one time she caught me sleeping while the bitterleaf soup blackened on the fire, its acrid smoke simmering into the air. Her hand, as fast as lightning, left imprints on my face for weeks. Nnenna, the ever-vigilant hawk, seized every chance to scold me. “Ada, why did you leave the yam outside for the goats to eat?” she would chide, her voice laced with scorn. “Ada, should I leave the child suckling on my breast and come and fan that fire for you?” Her tongue clicked with disapproval. Nkechi remained invisible; her eyes cast far away. Her mind was preoccupied with greater troubles; no suitors had come for the hand of any of her daughters.

As fate would have it, my prediction came to pass. A year later, to the relief of Nnenna and the anger of Nkechi, my bride price was settled at ten bags of cowries—ten cowries because the rest went to settle my father’s debt. It was a quick affair. Though I had expected to be married off from my father’s compound, soon I was settled into the life of my new husband.

Onyekachi was the only man who managed to remain a bachelor until he was 40. “Can a man go to pick a bride empty-handed?” he would ask when confronted with the fact that he had not brought one woman to christen his obi. This was a lie and deflection because everyone knew Onyekachi was a drunkard, so it had been surprising and highly suspicious when he showed up at Okagbue’s compound with just enough cowries demanding to pluck a flower. 

Our wedding night was still, and I waited as a woman would for her husband on the wedding night, adorned in beads and immersed in camwood, but he didn’t come into my hut. The same thing happened on the second night, and after the third night, I stopped retracing the uli patterns on my body. 

The good thing about Onyekachi was that he was nice and easy-going when he was sober. He even cooked a few times, a rare feat for most men of his age. But when he was drunk, he tongue-lashed me, his words spat out like angry venom.  “Why is my food not yet ready, eh? Your mother did not teach you how to bend your back like a woman? Set your eyes to the ground and be a good wife. Woman, if I come and meet you in that kitchen, it will not go well with you!” All these I deemed empty threats because he never hit me.

Two years into our marriage, the women who had praised my name, who had applauded me for managing a character like Onyekachi, and who had frowned at my insistence on going to the stream despite their pleas that I shouldn’t work too hard, began to drill holes into my stomach with their eyes. I heard the crowded whispers when I passed, and initial friendliness waned.

On a day when the air was thick with dust, and the sun hung low, my mother-in-law arrived, her face etched with rebuke. “Mama nno” I greeted, attempting to move the raffia bag from her tight grip. She waved her hand in silent protest. “I won’t be here for long. Bring me a stool”.  “Where is my son?” she said as soon as she sat. Her eyes roamed the compound, missing nothing. “He went for a meeting,” I replied, wondering what the reason for this visit could be.

“In my time, if you didn’t have a son, another woman would take your place, let alone not having a child.” She paused to look at my confused face. “Hasn’t Onyekachi been merciful enough?” She thundered. “Did I do a bad thing when I gave my son cowries to pay your bride price?” Her voice shook with anger. “Why do you fold your hands and do nothing? Are you happy about your childlessness?” I stood silently with tears slipping down my cheeks. “My child, I am not here to hurt you. If you cry now, what will you do when you go outside? People will do worse. They will call you an Osu. All I am saying is start looking for a solution.” And with that, she left. Onyekachi came back home to meet my tear-streaked face, and after I told him the reason, he ignored me and barked for his food.

Mama was right. People did worse things. I couldn’t dare utter words when women spoke because I had no sign that I was a woman. When the men danced during the new yam festival, their legs vibrating with energy and their backs dripping with sweat, Chikamso, my nemesis, would sneer, “Go and join them. After all there is no evidence that you are a woman.” And I would weep beside Onyekachi, hoping he would be merciful enough to save me from shame and finally touch me.

I never knew a day would come when I would be forced to do unthinkable things but of course, I am a human being. The first time I was forced to crawl all out of my shell was because of Chikamso. I had arrived at the women’s meeting to discuss the preparation for Mama Adaego’s daughter’s wedding, when she had stood up, her voice piercing the air: “I thought this meeting was only for mothers. Why is there a man in our midst?” I sat silently waiting for a rebuke, a reprimand, hoping for a defender, but nobody spoke up. “How can a woman whose breast has never been suckled know what it means to send a child away for marriage?”  she continued, her voice reverberating through the thick leaves. 

Silence settled like a heavy fog, eyes darting in every direction but failing to meet mine. Just as if it wasn’t enough, she finally hit the nail on the head. “Ada, leave us!”

I gathered my bag slowly, tears welling up. “Chioma,” I said, my voice unexpectedly rising, “you are quiet, but you waited for five years before a child formed in your womb. Eberechi, you have turned away, silent, but your daughter was returned to her father’s obi because she could not bear children. And you, Ifunanya,” I said, poking my fingers at the oldest in the group. “Your son has picked three wives, yet none has had as much as a miscarriage. Yet you all sit here and watch.” 

I walked away, the soles of my feet scratching against the hot sand. I walked on and on until my feet started to hurt, but I didn’t stop until I arrived at Mama’s place. She didn’t need to ask if all was well at home. My puffy eyes had already answered the question.  For the first time, I finally breathed the words out loud, “He has never touched me”. Before the words could stray out of my mouth, Mama covered my mouth with the quickness of a child dropping hot yam. 

“Shhh! Don’t say it again.” 

“But Mama….”

“Ekwukwala ya ozo” She half-screamed. “Go back and prepare food for your husband. I will talk to him.”

That was the first night Onyekachi lifted his hands to my face. He hit me fiercer than Ikenna played the drums at the square, his voice matching the beats of his hands.

“You… talked…to…my mother….eh. You…. went….to…. tell the…. whole…. village…. I refused…to…do…my…. marital duties.” When the neighbours rushed in, pleading, he refused to tell the reason for the beating. So, I stayed for five years like a lamb in a slaughterhouse, wondering what the next day would bring. I accepted the names and the insults, ashamed of my problems. I walked the paths of Arochukwu, head bowed, back hunched because I deemed myself ugly and undesirable. 

They say love is like an obsessed lover you can’t hide from. When my heart jumped when I saw Ibeh, I disregarded it as the signs of my blood. I was always cranky during my time, but when I started to tie my wrappers tightly to reveal the gentle swell of my breasts and rub the sweet-smelling camwood, I knew it wasn’t just my blood. I fetched my water slower and lingered in the market longer to catch a glimpse of the sculpted lines of Ibeh’s back, the firewood tactically placed on his shoulders. As unbelievable as it seems, I swore nothing would happen. I swore I would stay loyal to my husband. After all, like Mama had said, “He has only beat you once. He doesn’t disturb you for food like other men would. Don’t let that little problem make a difference. He is a good man.”

But the rigidity of Ibeh’s length was insatiable, the grip of his hands strong, the impact of it all leaving me temporarily paralysed. The first time he snuck his fingers into the hole beneath my thin cloth and placed his hands over my mouth. “Obi’m not too loud,” he chided. I knew then I could not let go. Every night, Onyekachi came back drunk and angry, too unconscious to know what was truly going on. I would run to his hut, my heart dancing with excitement, anticipation, and fear to meet him under the dull moonlight playing his flute. Like a young girl filled with desire, lust, and blinded by love, I had no care in the world. Words unspoken and actions perfunctory, he would reach to the fold of my wrapper, and all hell would break loose.

It was on one of these days, while I was splayed out on the raffia mat, eyes closed in writhing pleasure, my moans reverberating to the clouds, that I heard battered feet, blaring fires and chants. “It must be the vigilantes. They are just doing the usual.” I whispered to Ibeh, who had paused to listen. The chants heightened, the ground trembling with their marching. I will forever remember the panic on his face, the swiftness with which he grabbed his animal skin, his forehead glistening with sweat. The confident man vanished, replaced by a fearful boy. Worry hung in the air, the realisation of the impending doom settling in.

“Ibeh, come outside!” the first voice screamed. The voice I would later realise to be Buchi’s voice, Ibeh’s closest friend. What choice did he have when duty called? “Do not make us drag you out. Save the last shred of dignity you have!” another voice countered. Ibeh looked at me with a forlorn look, a look I had seen too many times on my father’s face. He dusted the animal skin and made his way out of the hut, disappearing into the searing night, footsteps fading. After his exit, the sound of departing feet showed that the other men had left, too. The night dragged on, and I heard nothing, not a single word or a single chant. Even the owls were silent. I never saw Ibeh again.

Like a chicken whose breeze has uncovered its buttocks, I left for home when the sun had already set. The secret was out in the open; what was left to hide? I arrived at a quiet compound, but my mother had trained me better to know that my troubles weren’t over. The umuada arrived soon after, the sound of their brooms announcing their entrance.

“Anyị na-achọ?” The leader’s voice cut through the stillness.

We are looking for?

“ ajọ nwaanyị,”  The others chorused.

A wicked woman

“Anyị na-achọ?”

We are looking for?

“ajọ nwaanyị”

A wicked woman

“Anyị na-achọ?”

We are looking for?

“ajọ nwaanyị”

A wicked woman

The chants rose and fell, as their long brooms hit my back whenever the forceful movements of my waist came to a halt.  So much so that by the time I reached Eze’s place, my back was streaked with long red marks, and my movements were weakened noticeably. I cast my eyes to the ground, afraid to look up at the chiefs staring back at my bruised body. Onyekachi sat on a stool, his eyes sober. My life was in his hands. It was his choice to make. It was his decree what punishment I should do. I was at his mercy.

“Rio ya! Beg him!” the women screamed. A small crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle. The rest of the activities followed in a daze. Days later, I would be told how Onyekachi had stood up and asked the King to let me go, his eyes glistening with “Ironic sympathy.” How the people had named him a hero for taking back the harlot who couldn’t give him a child. 

The crowd murmured, torn between admiration and disdain. “She’s lucky,” they whispered. “She does not deserve him.”

But did they know? Did they know the half of it?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ezinne Uduma is a nursing student at the University of Northampton, who blends her medical insights with storytelling. Her narratives often explore the intricacies of life and Africa.

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