The men who put numbers to the crates bite their beer-soaked lips and shake their drunk, little heads at Okorowanta’s charade. His peers, dressed in pure white, long-sleeved Senators and sequin-studded georgettes make efforts to pacify him even if he is now quiet and just fumes.
Eager guests had begun to defy the order of the canopies and are walking to the edge of the field where the commotion brews. He sees the bottles in their hands and curses at how carelessly his money is being pilfered, swearing at their baskets of bellies.
It is pointless what the girl’s family tries to do when they send for the older men because he barely looks at them as they speak, semi-circled about him, throwing parts and parcels of vain wisdom. When they think they have placated him, nodding at each other, he simply reiterates over his voice: “I will not be sold a wife” and they sigh in frustration. One elder, smoothly shaven, undone by facial wrinkles, had said that he had come too far to retreat and he responded, saying it was better to begin to turn clean water into an empty drum than to continue to pour into a septic tank simply because it was already almost full. Another elder mentioned that a full septic tank was usually a good sign, and Okorowanta thinks he is not worth a single strand of his grey hairs.
It is his friend, Beinmote from Benkiri, who is able to move him away from the spectacle he has orchestrated. He puts an arm around his stiff waist and walks him to a corner of the fence before he says:
“It’s funny how you’ve assumed the role of the bride to attract all these attention to yourself, Okoro.”
“It’s my wedding, too, you know. I deserve every attention,” he replies.
“True. True. So tell me, what happened?”
And his tongue cuts loose. His arms that until now folded on his chest in idle protestation flies into unchecked gesticulation. His eyeballs outdo their sockets. His words are pushed by and drenched in saliva.
“Can you even imagine these people…” he starts.
His back-stepping had begun that day of the knocking of door when he came with his uncles and best friend to Ohafia, to the red earth compound in Elu to formally declare his intention. As soon as his oldest uncle cleared his throat to break the silence in the room, the girl’s sober father stopped him by the show of an open palm in the air and gestured with the same palm towards the glass table in front of them. The silence resumed, only this time his people now cast sharp and confused glances at one another.
“If this is a gathering of men, what is here to show for that?” said the man, to put them off their glaring misery.
“But we are your guests,” one of his men worded his bewilderment.
“Ordinary guests? If I have a premonition of why you’ve come then this could only be to your advantage, not so?” he asked.
And his uncles conferred with themselves right across his face while he looked on as unperturbed as Uncle Feghabo had advised him to be, prior, even if in the end he had been the one to fork fifty thousand naira from the pigeonhole of his Land Rover parked at the entrance to the compound and young men had had to be skilful in stocking the rums and gins till there was barely the space on the table to lodge a toothpick in.
The drive back to Yenagoa was an exercise in self control. One hand on the steering and the other elbow jutting out the window, Okorowanta looked on. His uncle, Obiene, who noticed that he stared at rather than watched the road attempted to expunge the gloom with which they had all left the meeting.
“You can see what it means being a man?” His eyes sought Okorowanta’s through the rear-view mirror as the smile in his voice did a response. Neither came. He did not relent. “Don’t worry, my boy. It’s a matter of time. When the woman comes in, all these expenses would not matter anymore. It’s always like that.”
“Mm mn. No. I don’t think so. This is not even bride price and I’m being robbed,” Okorowanta said and punched the steering. The Rover wailed. “This is evil!”
“Nooo. You’re not thinking this properly,” Uncle Feghabo, who nestled his big body between both men at the back, barged in. He, too, sought the rear-view mirror. “It’s not a cheap girl that you have found. This one is well brought up. She has a university degree and like you said she’s going for another. I wonder what for anyway. But all that schooling and upbringing, do you know what it cost her people?”
“So I’m being sold a wife?” He said more than asked.
The three men at the back looked at each other and fell silent. One of them sighed.
What did they know? These village men. If their wives were not their cousins, they were their cousins’ cousins. A basin of shrivelling yam tubers. A bail of cheap cloths. Married. These men, who had traded in the idea that he reeked of cash and busied themselves with laundering his money since his arrival, would never negotiate this bride price thing to his advantage. He loathed and envied their stance — involved but not.
The morning Uncle Obiene showed him the list of required items, he arched his lips upwardly left, scowling, as his eyes ran down each cursive line (the writer must have been pleased by the oncoming loot) to the bottom of the page where the total amount was written and cross-written in bold ink (the writer must have wanted him to know he was being looted). When it was clear to him that both the zeros at the end of the figure did not denote kobo values but stretched that amount into the millions that it is, he swallowed the pellet gaping behind his throat, ripped the paper into a thousand parts, muttering, “Crass madness,” before wheezing out. Everyone in the room, including his aunt and cousins, stared in befuddlement at the pieces of papers that danced before their eyes and settled everywhere.
Later that day, when he returned, and after straying round the house for fear of engaging with anyone’s accusatory glare, he leaned by his sister’s, Nengi’s window. She had a guest.
“Okoro can actually afford it. He just doesn’t want to,” she said. Someone must have caught that piece where the total amount was painted.
“I don’t think there’s any man anywhere who refuses to afford a bride price especially if he likes the girl,” the male guest responded.
“Okoro is that man,” Nengi almost interjected. “It’s this US journey that’s making him misbehave. He calls it objectification of women but he doesn’t want to tell that to the elders because they’ll start all those talks about different cultures, and you know he knows nothing on culture. He’ll loose.” The crass boldness of her guts.
“Well if he has all that money,” the voice began, stretching thin at first and then mellowing into an endearment as of someone turning on his side. “Maybe you can… he can… you know.”
“No, Joe,” she retorted. “My brother will not help you pay my bride price. No. Be a man for once in your life please.”
Okorowanta snorted when he imagined the shock on the young man’s face. Our plight, Joe. Our plight.
By the evening of the next day, he was a troubled man. He turned over and again on his bed, tortured by the conspiratorial silence that bored into all the walls and quarters of the Daukoru mansion.
In the preceding days, the house had bustled about his arrival from the United States of America. It resonated when the news of gifts of dollar bills exchanging palms began to float wildly and neighbours began to call at his doorstep to share tiresome jokes about how they washed him as a child and wiped catarrh from his nose with their bare hands, even if he clearly remembered not remembering them.
When he broke the news of his marriage to Uncle Feghabo and after Auntie Numo had overcome her shock at an Igbo wife (because thank God he had not returned to Nembe with an Oyibo woman instead) the mansion was overtaken by a gleeful tumult so that whenever he turned and caught a pair of eyes beaming, he knew he was responsible for whatever joy leaped behind those eyes. He had been responsible for a lot of joys.
Now he was responsible for a lot of anomalies: the slur in the men’s voices when they managed to respond to his greeting, the women pretending not to see or hear him coming, the constant stun in Uncle Feghabo’s eyes whenever they talked and Auntie Numo attending to him with compact enthusiasm as though she did not privately fume and wonder what recent demons had located her sister’s son. The gloom that had been born looked like it would live for long. And for what?
He jumped down from the bed and marched to where the older men sat on plastic chairs in a circle and by the gate consuming a bottle of gin and probably dissecting his matter because they quietened when he got near.
“I’ll do it,” he said with pocketed hands.
“You’ll do what?” Uncle Feghabo asked. The smile in his voice betrayed the curiosity in his eyes.
“I’ll pay. Tell them to resend the list.” His eyes which were fixed on the dark of the sky only looked down when the sound of the soft cackling of paper began to produce from behind one of the men. He peered at Uncle Toru furtively, but it was the older man, Obiene, who stood up to clarify things.
“Okoro, we your uncles are not babies at matters like this,” he began. We were not surprised in the least at your earlier disposition. In fact we expected it as the reaction of every serious-minded man. Had you agreed at once, I personally would have demanded that you slowed down. Were we not patient with you while you considered your options? And now that you’ve chosen to be the grown man that you are, are we not still with you?” He turned to look at the other men who nodded hastily, too hastily and to Okorowanta’s detestation. He tilts the piece of paper, showing it to the distant lightbulb and makes to call an item.
“Well, we were given a week to agree or disagree to this demand. We have time. We will beat down some of the things here, especially this number of cows I see, this town is not a cattle market, after which we will tell your in-laws that we have indeed not bitten more than we can swallow.”
Okorowanta lost count of the number of crates that stacked in the lorry that left for Ohafia two weeks after. He simply bit his lips and shook his head at how he had surrendered to his own robbery, and then this morning as the newly purchased packs of beer were thrown across the cement platform and some were lifted into a separate vehicle, he frowned, walked up to the lankiest man and tapped urgently on his shoulder. The man winced from the pain as he turned.
“Why are those drinks entering that Hilux?” he queried. “They are for today. Now. This wedding. Here.”
“No, sir,” the man said. They are for the family. They say their drinks are not complete. No Guinness. And the Star…” the man scouted on the packs scattered on the floor with his eyes before saying; “Remaining seven crates.” Then he turned back to his job.
“What nonsense,” Okorowanta says to Beinmote. “Apart from selling a wife to me, this gang of drunks are robbing me.” He sighs, shakes his head and says; “I will not have thieves for in-laws,” then throws his hands into his pockets and looks away.
Nne Nneoma makes another hopeful attempt at tying the headgear. It is her fifth this morning. Adaobi sighs and sucks her teeth at the cramps ransacking both her legs up to her waist. The cushion on the chair cushions nothing because now her buttocks feel like strips of hollowed hardwood in themselves. All these shenanigans for a wedding to be done with in minutes.
Behind her, two of the ladies are making last minute adjustments to her gold lace sprawled on the bed. One woman, overtaken by her own zeal breezes in and out of the room with either a bag or sack or empty hands. The remaining, three girls, sit on the bed doing nothing but amusing themselves with the delay. Adaobi catches the giggle on their faces each time the gear collapses on her head.
Her mother places a reassuring palm on her shoulder. She smiles into the mirror and sees the wetness on her mother’s eyes. Magically, it flashes before her eyes that all of their sweet moments are about to become only memories. She reaches for the hand still smothering her shoulder and rubs it, even leaning on it. When she makes to raise her face towards her mother’s eyes, Nne Nneoma quickly grips her head with tight hands and holds it in place. Adaobi slaps the woman’s hands off and makes an utter mess of the scarf. The girls do not hold their laughter. One of them throws her body across the bed and guffaws into the flowery, blue sheet. Nne Nneoma is irked, the way she tilts her head to a side, standing akimbo.
“Bikō nye àyi efè,” her mother says and everyone except Nne Nneoma saunters out of the room. “Nne?” her mother calls. Nne Nneoma closes her eyes, breathes in, opens her eyes and marches out of the room. She slams the door behind her that both women jerk in shock.
“You said she was good,” Adaobi starts.
“Shshshsh. She’s only nervous. What do you expect?” Her mother says, moving to sit on the edge of the bed.
“Nervous? Is this her first time?”
“Everyone in Ohafia knows that your wedding is one of a kind. You can’t blame them for trying at their best. Don’t mind the drama I hear he’s acting outside.” She frowns as soon. “Don’t they all always throw tantrums? Ask him for a chicken instead and he’d be just as troubled.”
“Mama, Walter has been through a lot these few days. Please try not to stress him any further.” Adaobi begins to do her headgear. She holds both extreme edges and make to cross them but her hands only end up hovering atop her head, as if undecided in themselves.
“Nne,” her mother calls, heaving up to her feet to continue from where Nne Nneoma stopped. “Don’t worry yourself.” She folds the long edge of the material into several pleats and wounds it around Adaobi’s head. When she begins to make the knot, she continues; “Seems you don’t know you’re worth more than all of these. Left for your father and I you should even wait a little more.” Clearly, she had been a student of Papa. He said these same things to her repeatedly, except when he did his eyes screamed them.
“I’m not going to act like I don’t know how these south-south men can be with women,” her father told her the day Walter came with his people for the first time. “The fact that they have proven their seriousness without room for doubt is the only reason I’m swallowing this insult,” he said the day Walter left his house with his people for the last time. True that. When she hinted to them on the phone that she found a man, she tensed at Papa’s sudden cold demeanour because he had assumed it was a white man. And after when she corrected the impression – which had not even meant much to him since the said man was not Igbo – he began to press for a wedding in the village.
Adaobi pulls herself up at once to her mother’s face and waddles the startled woman back to the bed. Pressing gently on her shoulders, she sits her down and drags the chair across. The screeching of the chair against the tiling upsets her mother as much as the whole scenario. Adaobi plumps on the chair and tucks her face at the woman’s. There’s an urgency in her manner.
“I’m not kneeling,” she says. “I’ve been meaning to tell you this but I keep forgetting. Don’t want to take you by surprise today.”
Her mother frowns.
Adaobi sees the confusion and hears the question. “I mean Njideka had told me about the going down on the knee and giving him wine to drink and all that.” She pauses. “I’m not doing it.”
Her mother stares at her mouth, scowling, as though if she could only decipher the source of the rubbish she heard she could understand the rubbish itself. “This is not a talk for me, nne,” her mother says finally. “Have you told him, your father?”
Adaobi shrugs. “He’s been pretending to not hear me. Obviously he thinks I’d swallow my words. What do I care anyway?”
The first time she had mentioned kneeling down to Walter he had been amused by the mere thought of it. He even dared to laugh. Sitting under the yellow lights of Patrono Restaurant in downtown Oklahoma where he worked as a Marketing Manager in one of the new firms and she had just obtained her first degree in Journalism, they sipped on glasses of red wine and made jokes about what Njideka had only intended as a passing quip.
“But why would you have to do that?” he asked, still beaming.
“Apparently,” she put down her glass, “my people’s understanding of a submissive wife.”
“And why would you have to submit?”
“Who says I’m submitting shit?” she cackled.
“I know. But then why?”
And she dismissed the conversation with a wave of hand and a clicking of the tongue because his palms were apart and they were open and his head was tilted to the one side and his lips had arched to the other and it was all the first thing he did before he tired her out with an endless rant on barbaric African traditions.
Adaobi scours her mother’s face for the faintest hint of indignation. She could say, All these years I’ve trained you and you dare to embarrass me, or your father will be mad at this. But she just sits there, like her, contemplating whatever. Yet none of it is strange. Her opinions, since America, had blossomed in value. Sometimes, all of the family swallowed whole what she proffered for fear that a prolonged argument would give starkness to their collective illiteracy. Other times it was to give credibility to her literacy. What father would spend all this money on his daughter’s foreign education and not give esteem to her every jerk and sneeze?
A soft knock interrupts them.
“Ò ginī mèlù?” her mother quarrels.
“Mama, she needs to prepare. It has started,” the voice, of a timid and teary girl, is urgent.
Her mother’s frown collapses into a reckless smile. “I told you he’d come around. Ngwa nu,” she says and gets up to leave.
Okorowanta had walked away from Beinmote with unsteady feet and unstable thoughts. Not many things are as unsettling as being starkly opposed by the one person who should be seeing things through your eyes. How could he, Beinmote, have referred to the hefty sum he paid as only a token of agreement between binding families? And yes while it might be true that women were not owned any lesser in places where they had been the ones to pay dowry, what about the matter of his embezzled drinks? And then somewhere in their squabble, there had been a comparison between bride price in Nigeria to alimony in the US. The crass boldness of his guts. If he was going through with this it was for the sake of sheer peace.
The ongoing procession has been an instruction onto patience. From his allotted seat at the back of a canopy, he strains his neck and tosses his head this way and that in search of the tall and mesmerizing figure that was his bride. The same procession of ladies go in and out of a building two more times and in a different outfit each time, but without her. He begins to suspect a mishap and thinks to go check on her, but the look of query in Beinmote’s eyes outdoes that of worry in his.
The music is of a slow tempo, serenaded by the pompous whistling of a young man’s flute. The drummers, even if barely in contact with the skins of their drums, attempt with gleeful zest. Okorowanta nods and taps to the music. He struggles in vain to recall what the music would have sounded like if it were a Nembe wedding. But he remembers hazily that it more than often demanded a spectacularly arrant waistwork from the women to its restless melody.
The music changes along with the instrumentals. A live band’s performance usurps the calm nature of proceedings, renewing his frantic search for Adaobi. In the warming of things he glimpses at the front row of the canopy the gyrating figure of his younger sister and her futile attempts at forcing her fiancé, Joe, into a couple’s dance. He almost laughs aloud when he imagines the burden besetting the young man’s mind and causing it to lag so. He takes a pen and a sheet of paper from Beinmote and starts scribbling.
A scream fires into the air. She emerges, Adaobi, second to last in a retinue of beautifully dressed ladies, adorned on the neck and on the wrists with reflectively glittering accessories. His heart leaps. A familiar current runs about his limbs and converges just below his waistline. She could as well simply lift from the ground and float towards him like the angel she was being that while her company jived and pumped and stamped she appeared to him to be skidding forward, as if transported on invisible wheels, while swaying easily to Flavour’s Ada encouraged by the triumphal vocals of the live band.
He is buried in his thoughts of her and does nothing to comport himself against the reckless grin on his face. The moments – all of them – drift past him, unattended. He is suddenly a man being approached by the smartest and most beautiful woman he could ever dream of being married to. She holds a glass of palm wine on one hand while the palm of the other hovers upon the glass. He cannot help but be enchanted. He stands on his feet and almost spreads his hands when Beinmote tugs at his Senator as if to remind him that he is to be searched for and not darted to. He sits down, like a mesmerised idiot, at the same time she is before him.
He regards her for the first few seconds and makes to rise on his feet as a swift hand weighs down on his thigh, pinning him to his seat. A woman with a poorly assembled headgear comes up behind Adaobi. She whispers something into her ears to which Adaobi smiles and shakes her head. The woman recoils. She then proceeds to explain her point, but Adaobi flings her head even farther away from the woman’s eager lips. The distraught woman spins around and spreads her hands for the members of the high table seated in the canopy opposite theirs. A few members of both extended families pool, exchange consultations and dismiss almost at the same time. There is a little more bickering – hush-toned – between some of the men. It spills into an agitation and bothers around a protest till Adaobi’s father comes and orders the aggravated men to be taken behind the canopy. Okorowanta recognises one of the vexing men to have joined the bus from Nembe. He had heard him make a complaint about the puffed shoulders of educated Igbo women.
Adaobi looks down at him and smiles anew. The grace in her demeanour is effortless and unfazed. It is a sharp contrast against the disgust on the faces of some of the puzzled guests. It lures him upward to take the cup from her hand. She sips from it and hands it to him. As he collects it, he leans in to her side and whispers; “Why does this whole thing remind me of Adam and Eve?”
She giggles and returns the leaning. “Have you been undressing me in your head, Mister Walter Okorowanta?” she asks and he roars with a careless laughter to the consternation of all their guests. She watches him gulp all of the wine before she says, “I hear you did not want to be sold a wife.”
He shrugs. And shrugs again for lack of what to say.
“Well,” she continues. “What do you think? Have you been sold a wife?”
He glances at his shoes, letting his mind ruminate on the most recent spectacle and then looks up at the numerous pairs of eyes that size them up, most of which had still not overcome their hysteria at the her guts and says; “Your point is clear.” They both smile at each other and once again he is wont to whisk her away at the moment. “Mrs. Adaobi Okoro…” he begins to say but she cuts in. “Not yet,” And leads him by hand towards the centre of the canopies amidst rampant ululation.
When they emerge at the front of his canopy, just before they step out into the glare of every guest, he slips in two papers into Joe’s folded arms and winks at him. Joe studies the papers and gasps. He pretends to collapse into his seat, flailing both hands. When his fiancée comes to him, she tries to pry both papers from his grasp but he clings firmly to the one, squeezing it, while carefully folding the other, tucking it into his pocket and patting the pocket. Joe cackles when he reads the urgent questioning on her face. But instead of explaining he simply stands to his feet, beaming with a wry smile, and makes to join his brother in-law at the centre of the canopies. He drops the squeezed of the papers on her thigh before leaving. Nengi straightens the piece and begins to read quietly.
Not to be more man than you already are. But as a token of agreement, can you even imagine…?
Facebook – Odafin Odafe Okoh