Baba Sule has beaten his wife again, and as usual, she has brought the dispute to Mu’alim to mediate. The assailant stands, puffing, his arms crossed, his fists hiding under his armpits. He is shaking his head and squeezing his face, stamping one foot as though if he had the chance he would beat her again. The assaulted, Iya Sule, is curled on the floor like a dirty sack, a distance from him, sobbing, her head and long hair naked.
From behind the small high window in the red clay wall where we hide and watch and eavesdrop, the naked hair is how we know it’s a serious one. People come to settle quarrels here all the time, mostly well dressed. But when we see a fight or beating that tears off the woman’s veil, leaving her head bare and her hair naked like this one, we know it’s the worst kind. We press our ears to the redness of the wall in the semi-darkness, and climb on our tiptoes to peep. Our ankle beads clang as we push ourselves to get the best view.
We feel pity for Iya Sule, but more than that, we feel jealousy for her. We feel jealousy because we also get beaten — one of us is still on the ground away from the window, like Iya Sule, huddled like a dirty sack, face covered in tears and her veil shredded, but no one knows this except us and our children. We can only report a husband for someone to mediate if that someone is superior; a person the husband could never dare raise his voice or hands to.
There’s no such person to Mu’alim for us. After God in this life, it is him. Not even the colonial master, the white man, dares bother our husband. Such is his might.
He just finished talking, addressing Baba Sule.
“It is wrong to hit a woman, I always tell you,” he shouted, looking from the crying woman to her husband and shaking his head. “Idiot!”
We raise our noses — the gesture when you catch a lie. We argue in quiet murmurs and move away from the window to console Aisha, the one of us who is sobbing on the floor, wet from tears and sweat, brown from rolling in the dust, her hair naked.
Then, we hear a fourth voice begin to speak. It is soft like a child’s, a frightened child. Our eyes widen and we rush back to the square window, tripping over ourselves and tumbling into the wall. We climb on our tiptoes again and peep, this time wearing bruises from scratching our bodies against the roughness of the mud wall. We do not mind the bruises, as long as we see from whom comes this fourth voice. The voice is thin, breaking and shaking from behind a purple veil on one side of Iya Sule, even farther from Baba Sule.
“I-I want t-to go home,” it cries, her voice shaky, just like her body. “I d-don’t want t-to b-be with him.”
We do not see her face, but already we can tell she’s like us — iyawo sara.
We, too, had cried, although some only inside of us; we, too, had wanted to return home, although some could not say the words; we, too, had not wanted to be with the man we were gifted to, but this was a deal about us in which we had no say.
There are women who live out puberty and have charming suitors come to ask for their hands in marriage. That’s not us. Our fathers either owed, or needed a loan, or wanted protection, or wanted to please a powerful person, or just could not afford to feed everyone anymore and had to give some away. For us, womanhood arrived the day those decisions were made, at whatever age it met us, chests still as flat as the back, yet to experience blood leaking between our legs. It didn’t matter. We struggled through the first couple of weeks, and then we were sunk in. We became a part of the setup, bearing sons that might take an iyawo sara, too, someday.
There’s something about this one’s voice; the gentleness, the absence of fight, the surrender, the lack of the stubbornness that made us run back home only to be bundled and sent back by our fathers. This something, we hear it in Aisha’s voice, too. It is one of the things that make her different from us. We do not understand why this iyawo sara has it, though in Aisha’s case we understand perfectly.
Unlike us, Aisha is not an iyawo sara. In fact, she doesn’t even know she’s an iyawo at all. She’s our husband’s fourth wife even though no one gave him her hand in marriage. It’s been six full moons since she arrived, three days after the moon ate the sun out of the sky in broad daylight. She was sitting on a white horse and turning heads as she rode past. We were under the big shed of bamboo and thatch where Mu’alim is mediating between Baba Sule and his wives. We were backing babies, splitting wood, grinding pepper, fanning fire, pounding yam, but we stopped and stared like everyone else, at the first woman we had ever seen ride a horse by herself and on her own.
We were still staring when the horse strode onto the footpath leading to our husband’s earthen palace and stopped before us. Our mouths were still agape when she greeted us. We only heard it the second time.
“Eku ile o,” she said.
“Ekaabo o,” we responded in a chorus.
“Please I ask of the renowned Alfa Nla, the solver of all problems, Alhaji Shehu Ige Mu’alim.”
Her voice was soft like a child’s, a frightened one. There was a shiny black veil draped over her head, strands of hair spilling into her face from beneath it. She was ebony-skinned, big-eyed, narrow-nosed, thin-lipped, and had layers of white powder covering her round face. Still, we raised our noses to how she’d described our husband. We rolled our eyes, planted our soiled hands on our waists, stamped one foot like we were bracing for a fight, and queried: “And why do you ask of our husband?”
It was then that Mu’alim emerged from the darkness behind the doorway. We fell to our knees and decorated our faces with fake smiles. “This woman asks of you, Mu’alim.”
She was already climbing down from the horse. She quickly went on her knees, too, creasing her white-woman gown in the soil, also the bottom of her fancy handbag. Mu’alim’s lean face wore a smirk that reeked of mockery. Ignoring us, he greeted her, helped her up and led her inside. Our eyes were still on the empty doorway, our minds heavy with the weight of jealousy when the horse neighed loudly, jolting us and startling our back-strapped babies.
We went back to splitting wood, grinding pepper, fanning fire, preparing a meal from which this strange woman would eat even though we didn’t plan for her to, wondering who she was and why she was here. We packed moulds of pounded yam on a clean sheet of cooking leaf, and egusi soup with assorted meat in a calabash. These we served to Mu’alim with another calabash containing water to wash his hands. He sent us back with the food for not bringing any for his guest. We were bitter and we raged inside. Why did we have to labour to make a meal for a proud, pompous, spoilt little girl who couldn’t even greet us properly? We masked our anger behind straight faces as we brought back the thoroughly beaten yam and soup with layers of red oil floating on top, for him and for her.
At first, this pretty woman who arrived on a white horse bothered us, but with children to watch, gossips to catch, lovers to sneak to, we soon forgot about her. It was a surprise when we came back to make dinner at sunset and the horse was now tied to a far corner of the shed, the same spot where it is lying now, beating its tail around, listening to Mu’alim and the feuding family.
After Isha’a prayer that night, Mu’alim stopped by the doorway when he came back from leading prayers, looking like walking holiness in his tall turban and flowing jalabia. He said as he pulled at the beads on his tesbir, “Prepare a place for my guest to sleep.” We murmured our grievances under our breaths, never loud enough for his ears. We registered our displeasure on our faces, never bold enough to hold his gaze. But for the strange woman who was the reason for this, we weren’t so shy.
We walked into her, pretending not to know she was there. If she put a foot wrong, we met her with a chorus of admonishments. But still, she smiled, and curtsied, and offered to help with our chores. Later before we all went to sleep, we sat around a fire with our children, telling them tales of ijapa in the moonlight. She sat with us and listened with the children. Soon we were clapping together, and laughing together, and holding hands with her as we all sat in a circle.
“Who are you and why have you come here?” We asked.
Then she told us a story, sad and strange.
“I’m sure you’ve heard about the big war, the white man’s war.”
We chorused a nod.
“Forty-five thousand Nigerian soldiers were enlisted for the war. One of them was my husband, Akanbi.”
She showed us the image of a man like the ones we see in front of The Yoruba News, wearing soldier cloth and cap. The story was a little confusing, but we liked this handsome man, so we listened.
“He was sent with some others to fight against Japan in a place called Burma.”
We did not know this Japan, and we had never heard of Burma. Still, we listened.
“Many of the men have returned since the war ended in 1945. The wives of some who didn’t return have received letters or uniformed guests telling them their husbands died as brave men. This is 1947. I have neither seen Akanbi nor received any letters or guests. In fact, the stipends they used to send stopped coming, too, a long time ago.”
“Haaaa…” We held our mouths apart to her tale.
“I have bought every edition of The Yoruba News to see if anything will be said. Now my savings are drying up. This horse, Egbin, is all that is left. She is special to him and I fear I might be pressed to sell her before his return. This is why I have come, so Alfa Nla can help me talk to God to bring him home quick.”
“And why would such a fine man go to fight in the white man’s war, another man’s war, leaving his beautiful wife behind?”
“He wanted the rewards they promised. He wanted to be able to give me a good life.”
By now she was crying and we were wiping her face with the edges of our wrappers, pulling her head onto our shoulders, and rubbing our palms against her back. We went to sleep hoping she finds her husband. She seemed so in love with him, a feeling unfamiliar to us. And so we also wished it was us in her place, having a handsome, strong and loving husband who would do anything to give us a good life; having no use for side-lovers. We were jealous that she could read The Yoruba News. Our parents didn’t think we were good enough for school, so whenever we saw this newspaper, we could only glare back at the black and white images.
After Subuhi prayer the next morning, Mu’alim summoned the guest.
“Aisha!” He called her.
Together they set out on Egbin’s back. They didn’t return until a little before sunset.
She seemed tired and didn’t greet any of us. When Mu’alim asked for his food after saying his prayers, he said, “…and hers, too.”
At first we didn’t think much of this, but many times we checked the mat we had laid for her, we found it empty. At midnight, when we couldn’t take it any longer, we met ourselves in the courtyard before Mu’alim’s door, each tiptoeing out to see if she was indeed sleeping with our husband. There was no clearer answer and none as soul-piercing as her moans and groans, and the familiar creaks from the wooden bed within.
The next morning, we were back to walking into her, pretending she wasn’t there, and meeting her with a chorus of shouts if she put a foot wrong. But still, she smiled, and curtsied, and offered to help with our chores. When we declined, she sat our children by a corner, cane in hand, and began to teach them how to read The Yoruba News. A while later, she was standing before us, eyeing the horse sitting behind.
“Why would anyone put a horse so close to where they cook, with its urine and dung smelling so badly? Shouldn’t it be in a stable?”
“Stupid question. Is it not your horse?”
She furrowed her lids, stretched her arms out by her sides and lifted her shoulders. We peered into one another’s faces, puzzled. Then we turned back to peer in hers.
“Who is Akanbi?” We asked.
“Who is that?” She returned. We exchanged looks again, sighed and smacked our palms in disbelief. The young woman from two nights ago was gone. This one standing before us was now one of us; a new wife for Mu’alim; an iyawo sara that he has gifted to himself with no one’s consent.
“Do you even remember your own name?” we asked.
“What is my name, please?” She asked.
“Aisha!” We chorused, going back to our chores and her going back to teaching the children.
She was bubbly and excited reading to them, betraying no sign that she just learned she was amiss at her own name. One of the children asked a question about what she was reading and she put down the newspaper to answer. We, too, listened as she explained why the moon ate the sun in broad daylight, and we wondered why she came to Mu’alim for help in the first place, because even he did not know why this happened.
We felt pity for her, but we felt even more pity for ourselves. We would share the same reality — a marriage in which our consents were not sought, but unlike her, we were well aware of our situation, yet we couldn’t do anything about it. We had birthed children for the man and for their sakes. What really could we do?
Sometimes we wonder if somewhere deep inside, Aisha still remembers or longs for her Akanbi; if she still hopes he comes back to her. But these days she’s been sneaking away to a new lover.
Members of the town council paid Mu’alim a visit earlier in the evening today. Among them was a young, slender man with neatly shaved hair, cute in the thick bottle-glass his eyes stood behind. He had recently returned from studying in the white man’s land, contested in the new local elections, and won. The visit was to seek Mu’alim’s support for himself and other new members.
When we filed in to greet the guests, our hearts jumped into our mouths whenever this man’s eyes locked with Aisha’s. While he didn’t give much away, Aisha curtsied a dozen times and couldn’t rid her powdered face of a naïve teeth-revealing smile. Mu’alim’s face was long and grim, his eyes narrowed. We could already tell what would come after. When he got in after Isha’a prayer, riding on Egbin’s back, the horse wearing a neatly trimmed mane and an ornamented mask over its head to disguise its ill-health, he called her in and within seconds her thin voice rang out in screams, contained within the mud walls and lidded by the thatched roof. We knew we couldn’t stop him, but still, we pleaded and pulled at his clothes.
By the time we heard a different scream from outside, stopping him and making him rush out to find out what was happening, her veil was in shreds. Through the window, we’d seen Baba Sule with his back bent, one hand on one knee, the other to his chest. Iya Sule had her two hands raised, wailing. Egbin was lifting herself on her hind legs, neighing, punching her fore-hooves feebly into the air.
It must have been Egbin’s fit that made us miss the new iyawo sara, the owner of the fourth voice. Now, Mu’alim is sitting on a raised stool. Baba Sule is folding his hands behind his back, his head bowed. Iya Sule, like Aisha, is still huddled on the ground, shaking with sobs. Egbin is lying on a bed of elephant grass in her spot, throwing her tail around and grinding her teeth. The new iyawo sara is kneeling, thanking Iya Sule.
“He-he b-b-beat her because she-she wouldn’t le-le-let him when he tried to f-force his way on me.” Her sobs stutter her words.
“That is very bad,” Mu’alim said, running his long fingers through his greying beards.
We were tired of peeping and eavesdropping, watching and listening to our husband pretend to be what he wasn’t, so we left the window and returned to Aisha. This was when we noticed the blood pooled between her legs. How did we not know she was pregnant? This is the same thing we’d all endured, happening to her, too. This was full circle and we were one now through the entire length of the dark, suffering loop.
At some point, a man dressed in soldier uniform like the one Aisha showed us walked in. Egbin staggered from her bed, kicked her fore-hooves in the air and neighed, the loudest we’ve heard her.
“That is my horse, and I’m looking for my wife,” the man said, his frowned face moving from Egbin to a fear-gripped Mu’alim. This was Akanbi, finally here to break the censor his wife was trapped behind. But this part happened only in our minds.
It will be real another day, maybe, but tonight one of us will wait in our familiar stranger’s creaky bed, bathed and naked, prepared to endure his boring pleasures. The rest of us will care for our new family, Aisha. We will clean her up and dab her bruises with long-soaked agbo. We will give her some to drink and tuck her in for the night. Then we will go to bed wondering if the meek councillor will do anything with all his power or simply save his own head and leave her to suffer like our own lovers always do. We will think of how likely it is that the new iyawo sara succumbs tonight. We will imagine how long it will be before Mu’alim mounts his high stool to mediate another dispute. We will wonder if we will continue to fold our arms and allow this same life of shreds befall our daughters.
Ibrahim Babátúndé Ibrahim
started reading at an early age, influenced by his grandmother’s storytelling of African folklore. He picked his first James Hadley Chase novel at 8, and for the love of stories, was done with both the Quran and the Bible by the time he was 10.
After he was forcibly sent to science class in high school for acing his exams, it took him 20 long years to finally find his way back to his passion in March 2019 when he left a ten-year career to become a writer.
In that time, his works have appeared in Door is a Jar Magazine, Ake Review, Agbowó Magazine, Black Muslim Reads Anthology, Analogies & Allegories Literary Magazine, and more. He was also a finalist in Goge Africa’s #GogeAfrica20 Writing Contest, as well as Ibua Journal’s Packlight Series.
His work explores the human experience from an African perspective. He’s @heemthewriter across social media.
Cover image credit: Doyin Deji