meeting mrs. usanga


mrs. usanga (l.) with CCC students

Classes have long been dismissed and this corner of the quad is absent the voices of girls on their way to lecture hall. Vice Principal Affiah and I come to the music room, an enclave nestled behind the assembly hall where Cornelia Connelly students hold plays and meetings. Where the soil has eroded away, the building's foundation stands half a foot above the ground.

"Watch your step," Mrs. Affiah says, pointing to a giant crack in the cement that has caved in near the doorway. I hop over it and step inside the room, where a tired-looking, middle-aged woman in a headtie and native dress sits at a table with three other teachers, discussing the events of the day. They greet us as we walk in and I wait to be introduced.

While Mrs. Affiah banters jovially with the women, my eyes graze over the room. Etched into the wall in chalk are a series of chord progressions, the day’s lesson, I imagine. Unlike the music rooms I've known in the States, this one has few instruments aside from an odd pile of traditional drums wedged into a dark corner between the door and a bookshelf. In the adjacent corner sits a pile of costumes used by the cultural dance group. There are no books to speak of. But how do they teach here? I wonder.

The women quiet down suddenly as Mrs. Affiah introduces me, finally, as the daughter of a late old girl of CCC.

"The face is very familiar," says the woman in the headtie. "What was the mother’s name?" She asks the question of Mrs. Affiah, her eyes fixed on me.

"Her mother was a sister to Lady Valerie Ebe." At this news, the woman lets out a yelp and claps her hands together, jumping to her feet.

"Elizabeth! She was my school mother. We stayed in Saint Joseph’s dormitory together."

She flies over to where I stand, taking me by the wrists and pulling me closer to the sunlight streaming in the door. Opposite the doorway, a student swings by both hands from the branch of a frangipani tree whose tired stump pokes out from a rubbish heap. As the woman tilts her head backwards, inspecting my cheekbones, eyes, and mouth, I can hear the girl laughing with her friends on the ground below. After what seems like hours, she releases me, satisfied with the results of her cursory examination.

"Same face," she says, returning to her chair. She sits down with a sharp exhale that deflates her shoulders and chest, her face bearing a melancholy expression as she bows her head in thought.

When she finally speaks, it is to say, "My name is Felicia Usanga. Your mother was my school mother. There was nothing that she wouldn't do for me. She wrote me letters even after she crossed to that side." She raises an arm overhead and points across the room, like a compass, to America. "Until 1975 when she said she was getting married. She said she would send a letter with the new address, but we missed each other. I never got the letter. When I heard about her death--"

She stops mid-sentence, her voice choked with tears. I feel sorry that she must feel this pain again, to look upon the image of her long lost school mother--gone forever, without so much as a goodbye--in my cheekbones and smile. But in another way, I am glad for her pain. We share something, motherless daughters, an emptiness inside that can never be filled, an ache that will never wane. Her sadness helps me know for certain that I am not alone, that my mother was loved. After a long silence, Mrs. Usanga speaks again.

"I am happy for this day. God has brought us together again. I could have left early after classes, but God asked me to wait and see. I didn’t know that God asked me to wait and see good things."

-- Excerpt from Elizabeth's Daughter, a work-in-progress by Iquo B. Essien (aka Alligator Legs)

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