Ilemona had just got back from the market and was about to start preparing supper. The sun was going down and Baba would be back home soon. He didn’t like it when he had to wait for his evening meal. She had to hurry. The little children in their family compound were playing with an old car tyre, taking turns to move it around with a stick while the older children were playing a game of Whots. They had started to argue that Ocheja had cheated in the card game and they would have to start a new game. Ilemona smiled as she watched them squabble. She missed the times when she and her best friend, Unugwa would argue over matters as trivial as this. But Unugwa was now married and living in Lokoja with her husband. The news of Unugwa’s engagement had come as a shock to her. Unugwa had never mentioned that she was getting married even though she had known about it for a long time. Ilemona had not understood it; she still didn’t. They told each other everything. She had told Unugwa when she started having her secret meetings with Oyidi, the palm wine tapper’s son, under the cashew tree in her father’s farm. They were coming back from Iye Ele’s kiosk when Unugwa had broken the news.
‘I am getting married Ile’, she said, looking down at the reddish earth. She examined the sand like someone who was seeing it for the first time. She sounded defeated.
Ilemona laughed. She believed that this was one of Unugwa’s jokes. She had once lied that she was pregnant for Adejo, the pastor’s son. Ilemona was so worried that she didn’t eat for days. She could only think about what Unugwa’s parents would do to her. Her father was a retired soldier and she was an only child. They were about to graduate from secondary school at the time. But what could have inspired this new lie? Perhaps it was the Mexican soap opera they usually sneaked to watch through Baba Enejo’s window. He was the only one with a functioning television in Odu-Ofomu. The love interests got married in the last episode.
‘Please stop this Unugwa. Your lies will get you in trouble someday’, she said as they approached the rusty red gate that led into Ilemona’s compound. But Unugwa said nothing. Ilemona looked at her friend’s face and it became clear that this was not one of her petty jokes. Her lips didn’t twitch as they usually did when she was telling her cynical lies. She wasn’t blinking really fast.
Ilemona was speechless. They had been making plans to go to university together the following year. After hearing Laraba’s incredulous stories about Dugbe Market, they had decided that they were going to go to the University of Ibadan. They had never been outside Kogi and they were going to use this opportunity to do so. Unugwa clearly had other plans.
‘I’m sorry Ile, I didn’t know how to tell you. I didn’t want to hurt your feelings,’ she pleaded. She was fiddling with the pack of Tom Tom they had bought from Iye Ele.
Unugwa never really wanted to go to university. She had simple needs. All she wanted was a man who could take care of her and with whom she would start a family. She had always secretly nurtured hopes of having a big family and being a housewife but she could never mention these things to Ilemona. Ilemona would judge her. She would not understand. Ilemona had big dreams.
‘Who is he?’ Ilemona finally managed to ask. She wasn’t going to be upset. This was not beyond Unugwa. It was something she could do. She was just disappointed that Unugwa hadn’t told her earlier. She had been dreaming of them living in Ibadan and all the things they would do at university. She felt betrayed.
‘His name is Aliu. Aliu Achor. He is a businessman and he lives in Lokoja. I met him during Tiki’s wedding last year. He comes from your mother’s village’.
Perhaps this information, that he comes from Ilemona’s late mother’s village, would endear him to her but Ilemona was silent. She simply nodded. She couldn’t understand why her friend was doing this. They had just graduated from secondary school and she was only eighteen. Certainly, Unugwa wanted more from life. It might have something to do with her family’s current financial situation, she thought. Maybe she was marrying him to help settle her father’s debts. Was she being forced?
It was a small wedding. There was just enough jollof rice and fried meat to go round. They had a few crates of Fanta and Coke and some kegs of palm wine. Nothing went to waste. The street children made sure of that. No one in Ofomu passed up an opportunity to get free food. Ilemona watched Unugwa dance. It was hard to watch. They looked awkward dancing together, her friend and this businessman from Lokoja. No one came forward to spray money on them as they danced. Times were hard. Unugwa left for Lokoja soon after with her new husband. Ilemona watched as they drove away in Aliu’s old Mercedes Benz, waving as they disappeared into the night. That was the last time she had seen Unugwa.
Baba got home late that day. He smelt of palm wine and snuff. Ilemona brought him his food and watched as he ate. He was not always like this, her father. Life had changed him. He was once the headmaster of the only primary school in their village. The Local Government Chairman had wanted him to promote his son who was meant to repeat a class, as he did not meet the required grades to progress. He refused to be bribed and so he lost his job. A new headmaster was appointed days later and the Chairman’s son was promoted. Her father was never the same again. It had hurt him, how easily he had been replaced.
She waited for him to finish eating before she brought up the issue of her schooling. He had been strangely silent about it. She didn’t want him to forget.
‘Baba, school starts in September and I would need some money to buy some things’, she reminded him as she cleared the table. Baba was silent. He stared into space as he picked his teeth.
‘There is no need for that. I have found you a husband. You will marry Yahaya Amodu,’ he finally said, without bothering to look at her. For the first time in years, Ilemona thought about her mother whom she had never met. She had died during childbirth. She wondered if things would have been different if Mama hadn’t died.
Ilemona knew who Yahaya Amodu was. Even if Baba had really arranged for her to be married off, she was perplexed as to why he would choose this very man. Yahaya already had three wives and had children that were older than she was. But Yahaya was rich and as it was commonly said, the one who has the palm fronds owns the goat. She stared at her father. She could not recognise him anymore. Who was this man telling her he had found her a husband? The same man who had once taught her the importance of education? This man with his slumped shoulders and recently acquired potbelly from his visits to Iye Memuna’s bar. She did not know this man. She said nothing as she carried the plates to their small kitchen. He was drunk after all, she thought.
Ilemona realised her father was serious when Yahaya started to visit them with tubers of yam and bottles of brandy. She would hide when she saw his car pull up in front of their gate. She would watch him struggle to get out of his car. His stomach would not let him do so with ease. She imagined struggling to get out from under that stomach. She shuddered at the thought. She would watch as he wiped the sweat from his bald head after he had successfully gotten out of the car. She listened as he told her father how her father would get the money as soon as he was married to Ile.
It rained heavily that night. The gods knew that she needed everyone to be fast asleep. She had told them so. She didn’t take much. She only took some clothes and some food in case she got hungry on the way. She also took some of the money Yahaya had given her father. He had hidden it in an empty water pot in their kitchen. She wouldn’t take everything. Her father had to eat. She waited till the rain subsided before she went to her mother’s grave. She didn’t know the next time she would be there. She knelt and prayed for guidance. Their dog watched her. She watched him too. She would miss him but this was not the time to be sentimental. She knew what she wanted. Ilemona had big dreams.
She did not look back as she ran to the motor park. She watched Odu-Ofomu disappear from her life as they drove to Ibadan. The village was dead but she was alive. She was about to learn the way.
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