african love::part two



i have met so many courageous nigerian women who empower me to speak my heart. one, a radio host and poet, says that she sat and asked herself about the things that make her happy--writing, family, friends, fulfilling work--and realized that she could achieve the happiness she seeks without ever getting married. she is tired of singledom being portrayed as an affliction one must be delivered from, imagines that if most women sat and really asked themselves whether marriage was right for them, the answer would be: no. as she speaks, i cannot believe my ears, that she dares say these things out loud that i have thought in private. i want to shout 'amen' or something of the sort, but i am still afraid to speak as loudly as she does, lest someone hear me.

another friend of mine says simply, of a man she is dating, 'we could have five or ten happy years together, with or without children.' i have never heard anyone say something like this before. she is lovely, an academic and a writer, committed to taking her career to the next level. she also confesses that she does not cook very often, the stress of market and all, to which i reply, 'i can't believe you're saying these things out loud.' we gist about all these women who talk of 'combining' career and family and motherhood. who drive from their full-time jobs back home at night to prepare dinner, who must look beautiful at all times and be good in bed. it is simply too much, she thinks. we laugh heartily at this unrealistic expectation nigerian men have, that we will be everything at all times. she refuses to combine.


a local uyo publisher, who heard i was writing a memoir about my mother, has offered to do a feature story on me in his magazine. he invites me for a drink during which he will conduct the interview. he does not know my house, so i wait by the side of the road for him to pick me up, the occasional car slowing down as tho i am a prostitute. finally a truck stops and it is him, i climb inside and we drive the short few blocks to the hotel where he is meeting a friend--a pdp politician, fat with open teeth. another friend joins them, and another, and then i imagine i must really look like a prostitute--young, unmarried, surrounded by all these brash older men.

they order a bottle of red wine and the publisher removes his sandals as tho at home, rubbing on his big toe. they talk of the floods in lagos. the politician, a geologist, tries desperately to describe the laws of tectonic plates to the publisher, who refuses to believe that a tsunami will ever sweep away the island. the pitch of their argument rises and rises, until i excuse myself to check my e-mail. i have work to do and this outing is proving a waste of time.

at the front desk, i learn that the internet is not working. on my way back to the bar, i pass the restaurant where a table of youngish men are finishing eating. one waves at me and i wave back--as i am the sort to say hello to a perfect stranger--and he jumps up from the table to come talk to me. in a slight british accent, chuma tells me that he and his friends performed at a huge concert for the governor's birthday party, missed their flight and are stuck overnight.

he asks what i am doing here. i say that i'm supposed to be getting interviewed about my work, but the interviewer hasn't asked a single question, instead keeps topping off my glass of wine. chuma jokes that perhaps the guy isn't as much interested in my art as my art, tracing an hourglass figure in the air. i laugh. he gives me his card, i say i'll call, knowing i won't. back at the bar, the publisher makes a point of asking why i spoke to this other man, why i accepted his card, when i am supposed to be here with him. i realize that this isn't an interview over a drink at all, but just a drink. he is a fool. i pity his wife and son--who is always jumping on him and disturbing his sleep, he says, and is the reason he rents a fifteen thousand naira hotel room in the middle of the day for a siesta.

i tell him i'm going home.


on a long walk from the hotel, she thinks of how it was when they first met. when he spoke to her and she glimpsed the softness he hides beneath all the jokes and laughter. she liked the way he smiled and kept looking off to the side as tho seeking refuge from the intensity of her stare. did not notice him taking tiny steps backward, too, uncomfortable with how close she was standing. perhaps it was all there in that first meeting--her coming forward and his backing away, her coming forward again, oblivious. and on the long walk to the lekki gate, past the water that she wants to sit and stare in, she does not know whether to laugh or cry at having seen him again.

he stood there in his brown caftan, waiting as she ran to him. they hugged and she exhaled a breath she'd been holding for months into the space between his chin and collarbone, breathed him in again, filling her lungs with his scent. they kissed. and then he pulled away to go inside where they talked--with none of the urgency of those past months, when he'd say, i miss you, i love you, when will i see you again? and when he slept off that night, she lay next to him wondering why she still felt on the other side of the world. as if he had erected some invisible, impenetrable force field guarding himself from the ferocity of her love. and before she left the next day, when she gave him a gift--a book--it was not out of love, but rather fear that she might never see him again.

and that morning when she leaves, walking past the boats and water, she thinks of her life and her lost love; until night covers day, and the pain of loss no longer dwarfs the ache of love.


ambo comes on foot through the front gate, a surprise that he has come at all on such short notice. we met by chance last christmas in calabar, through friends of friends, and i'd recently heard he moved to lagos. he is tallish, thick through the neck like a rugby player, a former fashion designer turned lawyer specializing in oil and gas. manages to stop by the house in ikeja mere hours before i'm heading back to new york.

we exchange pleasantries, chat about our mutual friends, while my cousin's three children play nearby. i introduce him to my cousin's wife, who has come into the parlor. when she leaves, he asks, 'are these her kids?' 'yes,' i say. 'wow. she looks so young.' 'well, they're tall, so they look a lot older than they are,' i say. the eldest, named after my mom, is seven, and the youngest is two. i try and imagine having had a child at twenty seven, when my cousin's wife was pregnant with her first. i can't. 'so when are you ready for yours?' ambo looks at me, smiling. i suppose, at twenty nine, it is not a ridiculous question to ask, though i find it slightly off putting.

'i have a lot of projects i'm working on and i can't seem to figure out when i'll have twenty years to devote to a child project,' i say, laughing, hoping this will be the end of it. but ambo launches into a retrospective about his career, being formerly married to fashion, how the top five nigerian designers are all unmarried workaholics. he tells me i should combine my career with family and, as he goes on talking about a colleague whose son just graduated law school, i see the genuine longing he has for a different life than the one he leads.

his eyes are wistful. 'i wish i had not neglected that part of my life. i really love this,' he says, taking in the children, their story books, the cartoons on television. it is the kind of tender moment i am unprepared for, the kind of thing i find completely disarming. i sit quietly for a minute, and somehow manage to articulate something i've never said out loud--an explanation, of sorts, or perhaps a peace offering.

i say that the thing i know called marriage is a thing of sacrifice and struggle. that i do not think of a wedding and a home or even a handsome man, but rather the struggle i will pass through as a wife. that it is something i do not want. there is the distant hope, yes, that i could enter into it and not be crushed by the weight of this institution. but i am more likely to meet a man and fall in love and spend the rest of my life with him than to marry and become his wife, an unconditional servant. it is something i would hardly wish on my worst enemy. ambo argues, trying to reason with me that my marriage could be different from all the ones i've ever seen, that every person has a different story. this makes rational sense, i suppose.

later on, after he leaves, i think about something a gifted writer told me once when we were discussing my book. we talked about how my mom wanted to be a nun, but came to the u.s. instead and married my father. i spoke about the difficulties she passed through in the marriage, the crosses she carried. when she asked whether i was married, i said no, that i didn't quite 'understand' its usefulness. and she said that one of the most interesting parts of the book will be understanding why the main character (me) feels the way she does about marriage and motherhood. why she resists and rejects it. that it has everything to do with her mother.

i suppose i only half heard her then. it was not until i said this to ambo, months later, that i finally realized the truth in it.


she longed for a mate who wanted nothing from her, but to whom she could freely give her entire self. someone elusive, whom she had not been able to find in all her years. so she loved and lost and loved some more, until their faces and names blurred together like the swill at the bottom of a pot of stew. and at the end of loving, of filling herself up with them, she wondered why she had not considered simply loving herself.

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  1. So Beautiful, this is.
    I think I understand how the fear of having to live a life of servitude can deter a young woman from getting married. That's what it is; FEAR. It's understandable, but should not stand in the way of the true happiness that a union can bring( not that one can't be happy alone). The trick I guess is finding that person who will respect you enough to help you grow as an individual in ur pursuits, i.e. One who will not expect you to completely loose your individuality for them.
    Worse than the expectation to drop your father's name and bear Mrs Somebody, there's the expectation in these climes that you stay married even though it's killing you- It's supposed to be the Right thing to do.
    Iquo Eke

  2. Another successful day dodging "responsibility" - of a different sort.

    "this isn't an interview over a drink at all, but just a drink." - :) yep, a lot of people have all the time to goof.

    Going back to read the rest.

  3. this is rich writing here! i love it. whatever you are doing, keep doing it. beautiful.

    re: marriage and family, a woman i deeply respect recently reminded me that i'm the age she was when she had her last kid. she suggested that i ask my mom (she knows my mom has passed from this life) some questions about these relationship struggles we all encounter. i have been gingerly tiptoeing into that territory. been kind of summoning up my mom every now and then. i imagine as you complete this work you will have many occasions to do that. i'm so excited for the final draft, although i imagine even that will be just the beginning.

    love you!

  4. @kia: my mother used to say to me, 'you are a much more nurturing woman than you pretend to be.' if she were alive, she would certainly be yelling it right now, tho i think i still wouldn't be listening. when she first died i had this overwhelming urge to mother because i missed her, and then when some years passed, i saw it for what it was and went back to my original position. it must also be said that very few men have made me think of settling down and/or giving birth. in fact, they've largely all made me want to stay single! lol. :) i don't ask my mother about these things. she made choices i wouldn't have made, and she couldn't make my choices now even if i wanted her to. there is only the still small voice inside me. it urges me to be free. whenever it says something else, i'm sure i'll listen. :)

  5. @iquo eke: i thot i left a comment here days ago but the computer certainly ate it! lol. thank you for the kind words and the support. i am always grappling with the reality that fear itself has no power apart from that which i give it. it is equally scary to realize i'm actively living the opposite of my mother's life. meeting you, my namesake, and thinking about how you balance your family and also your writing and crochet work made me think a lot about my own life. this is something that will take awhile to figure out, but i'm sure i will! talk to you soon, love. :)

    @t: so glad ur in my life. an inspiration! dodging and all. :)

  6. The issue of marriage has obviously struck a nerve here! When I read it, '4' was also the excerpt that moved me. Like the 'gifted writer' in your piece, I often wondered whether your aversion to marriage/child-bearing was directly related to how you viewed your mother's life. I am eager to see how how/whether this resolves in your memoir.

    With regards to marriage itself, as with most things it depends on the individual, on where we find meaning in life - for some it is their work, others, relationships, some their children, and for many all of these. For you, it seems that you have found the things that are fulfilling and meaningful to you and those are enough, you don't need to look elsewhere.

    But the sacrifice and struggle that you "do not want" isn't unique to marriage. I'm sure you have sacrificed and struggled in your career as a writer and you probably do not regret those experiences. They have shaped you, exposed some unknown parts of you and shown you what you are made of. This struggle, though at times difficult, is not one you disdain but something you cherish, even welcome(?)because of the fruit it will bear. I see marriage in the same way - a beautiful struggle. At times it may difficult, you often have to sacrifice but the character you build in learning to be selfless can hardly be comparable to any other experience in life. This union - marriage - is the hardest thing I have taken on in my life and is the thing I cherish the most.


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