Pain

I Used To Like Tomatoes

 

This poem by Dambudzo Marecher was originally published in 1992 in his collection of poems 'Cemetery Of Mind, Which Of You Bastards Is Death?'

I get tired of the blood
And the coughing
and more blood
I get out of that flat real fast
to some cool quarrelling bar
and talk big to bigger comrades
washing down the blood with Castle an’ Label
shaking hands about Tsitsi bombed to heaven
trying to forget I don’t like cooking in dead people’s
pots and pans
I don’t like wearing and looking smart-arse in dead
people’s shirts an’ pants
(They said yoh mama an’ bra been for you
said these are your inheritance)
I’m soon tight as a drum can’t drink no more
It’s back at the flat on my back
swallowing it all red back hard down
I woke up too tired to break out so bright red a bubble.

 

About Dambudzo

Dambudzo Marechera was born in Rusape in 1952. His first novel, House Of Hunger (1978), won the 1979 Guardian Fiction Award. This was followed by four other novels: Black Sunlight (1980), The Black Insider (1990) and Mindblast (1884).

His poetry, collected together in Cemetery Of Mind, was published posthumously in 1992. Today, Marechera’s work, ideas and defiance live on in Zimbabwe, particularly amongst the youth, for his willingness to be the lone outsider, challenging conventional and authoritarian views.

This poem was originally published in 1992 'Cemetery Of Mind, Which Of You Bastards Is Death?'
Source: Poetry International. Image: Fabienne Verdier. All rights reserved.

 

TBBNQ Reads: Stay With Me By Ayòbámi Adébáyò

BY AFOMA

This copy of Ayòbámi Adébáyò's Stay With Me was kindly sent to The Book Banque by the Nigerian Publisher, Ouida Books, in exchange for a review. All thoughts expressed in this review are honest, and that of the writer, Afoma.

Image:  Tobi  for  The Book Banque .

Image: Tobi for The Book Banque.

Like it happens with all the books I have read and loved with a dizzying fierceness, I knew I wanted to read Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me the second I heard about it. I read everything I could find online about the author, and every review of the book I could find. Imagine my joy when I discovered it was also out on Audible! I listened to this book from start to finish in two days alternating between time on the floor with the narration sped up to times two and running errands in town completely oblivious to the world at narration speed almost doubled.

This is what Stay With Me does to you: it commands your entire world to a stop. Set in 80’s Nigeria - predominantly in Ilesa, Osun State - the novel tells a story of a young couple - Yejide and her husband Akin. These two protagonists, married for four years, are accustomed to familial interference on account of Yejide’s ‘childlessness.’ On this one visit, however, the couple’s fate is thrown into a whirlwind, and their marriage is left at the bay of despair.

In what was a norm in preceding centuries, Moomi, Akin’s mother, procures a new wife for her first son; one they believe will bear Akin a child - a child they think will “call another one into the world”, be it for Yejide or the good of the (extended) family. What initially was a mother’s attempt to save face and a much-sought after proof of femininity, this becomes the beginning of Yejide’s undoing: “like a hastily tied scarf coming loose, on the ground before the owner is aware of it.”

 

THE INADEQUACIES OF LOVE

Love, growing up, has presented itself as all powerful, all forgiving, all encompassing — and then there is the story of Akin and Yejide. Some parts of the story are told from Akin’s perspective, including his meeting and falling in love with Yejide; knowing from the first moment he saw her that he wanted to marry her. It is obvious that Akin does love his wife, in his own twisted way. He wants her to be happy, so much so that he goes extra lengths to reaffirm his love and respect for her, even after giving into his family’s request of a second wife.

Akin and Yejide’s love story is enviable at the start. Akin ends his relationship with his current lover just hours after setting his eyes on Yejide and then they are married before the year ends. Four years after marriage, their love is however stumped not just by their childlessness, but also by his initial reticence about her longing for offspring, secrets Akin keeps, and the ensuing deception he perpetrates.

The slow and heartbreaking transformation in their marriage testifies to the truth that love cannot fix certain things. It shows how love can become a burden; how this burden, if it stays too long, will see that “love bends, cracks, comes close to breaking and sometimes does break.” Notwithstanding, as Adébáyò writes in insightful prose, Akin and Yejide’s complex relationship shows that “even when it's in a thousand pieces around your feet, that doesn't mean it's no longer love.”

Although he tries to hold Yejide up in the dark times, Akin is not without reproach and as such, in the earlier parts of the book, the reader is more than likely to judge him. However, as the story progresses, it is plain to see that Akin’s character is compelling and human. One becomes privy to the pressures he faces and the intentions behind his decisions. Despite the weight of Yejide’s pain, one is forced to understand that Akin has his own demons to contend.

The complexity of his choices caused me anger, heartache, sorrow and confusion.

Still, I am moved to ask, what are we all if not flawed?

 

AIN’T I WOMAN ENOUGH

The reader discovers that Yejide is motherless; having lost her mother only minutes after her birth. The absence of a mother is life-changing for Yejide, as it should be. She is unable to call anyone else Moomi, finding the “very thought sacrilegious, a betrayal of the woman who had given up her life” for her. That is until she meets Akin’s mother - a woman whose embrace makes her heart sing the very word she never thought she would use again.

Moomi’s warmth is replaced by hostility, and it soon becomes clear that Moomi’s affection is largely dependent on Yejide’s ability to “manufacture” grandchildren. One is forced to wonder: isn't the true essence of motherhood pure, unconditional love? How much choice does a motherless child have in picking the kind of love they deserve?

Yejide’s motherlessness and subsequent childlessness bring to mind the powerful concluding sentence of Taiye Selasi’s short story:

In the peculiar hierarchy of African households the only rung lower than motherless child is a childless mother.

In Stay With Me, Yejide has the misfortune of being both. Each page flipped is an affirmation that she truly is alone in the world. I am also really drawn to the way Adébáyò explores the notion that a woman is only ‘woman enough’ when she has children and no scene screams this better than when Moomi tells Yejide that “women manufacture children and if [one] can’t, [one’s] just a man. Nobody should call [one] a woman.”

It is interesting that although this story is predominantly set in 1985, childbearing is still revered in the Nigerian society as the supreme validation of womanhood; a sort of prestigious ‘accomplishment’. Also discomforting is the idea that mothering must be legitimised by suffering and toiling. Again, Moomi tells Yejide that before asking God for a child she must ask for the grace to be able to suffer for that child. I appreciate that preparation for a degree of self sacrifice should precede childbearing, but does motherhood equal suffering? Should it?

 

THE BURDEN OF AFRICAN ‘MANHOOD’

In telling a part of the story from Akin’s perspective, Ayòbámi Adébáyò highlights the psychological impact of societal pressures on men. As the story unfolds, it becomes easier to side with Yejide, to understand her frustrations and resentment where Akin is concerned, but by including Akin as a narrator, Adébáyò gives him a chance to tell his side. This allows the reader to step into Akin’s shoes and see things from his perspective. Thus, his actions, though unjustifiable, can be ‘understood’.

It is impossible to avoid a key reason for Akin’s deception: the insufferable fragility of African masculinity propagated by our society. Just like in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart where Okonkwo’s manliness is proved by the number of wives he possesses and his inability to confront his emotions about Ikemefuna capably, Akin’s manhood is contingent on his ability to facilitate the ‘manufacturing of children’. It is from such emotional and mental chokeholds that Adébáyò hopes for men to “liberate themselves.” 

Similarly, in a TEDx talk, Ghanaian, Sangu Delle addresses this issue of being an ‘African man’ and suffering in silence. He says:

Our [...] struggles do not detract from our virility, nor does our trauma taint our strength.
...[Men] need to stop suffering in silence.

While Delle’s talk hinges more on mental illness in relation to the African man, the same thread runs through the issues faced by men like Akin. African men need not feel like they need society’s permission to express emotional turmoil or to seek help. It is important for men - and boys, alike - to understand this, as it will help to bridge the gap of double standards, and allow African men and women the freedom to be who they want to be. 

 

CULTURE JAMBOREE 

From Adébáyò’s use of indigenous language to the retelling of two Yoruba folktales, this book is peppered with reminders of its origin on every (other) page. The author’s value for (her) indigenous language by the use of intonations on her name on the book cover, and Ijesa Yoruba - not just ‘mainstream’ Yoruba - through the novel also emphasises the value placed on culture, heritage and language.

The intertwining of history and prose, as the author does, I found simply enjoyable! I believe that this the easiest way to teach history - a subject that had been scrapped from the Nigerian curriculum. The story is casually and yet intently built around a constantly evolving nation from coups to democracy. It is a reminder that whether or not a country falls, life goes on; people fall in love in the midst of riots, marriages crumble as dictatorships fail, and love bends as a nation finds its feet. 

Almost unmissable is the culture of polygamy - which was very popular in the setting on the novel - that hovers around the story. Though this journal notes the most popular reasons for becoming a second wife, - to include wanting a financially secure environment and parental pressures - Yejide is convinced that “women who never back down, who come with strategies under their wrappers and were never as stupid or as agreeable as they seem” become second wives. The book showed how the culture of polygamy, most of all, creates enmities among women, and no such animosity for the man who marries them all.  

Above all, Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Stay With Me  is a story of desperate longing that will leave you turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. Yejide’s story is compelling but also, most characters in this book feel complete, full and rounded. I only wish one knew more about Dotun - Akin’s brother - but perhaps the story just was not his to occupy. Hands down, one of the most engaging books I have read this year!

 

Prose: Shapes by Eloghosa Osunde

This piece was originally published by Olisa.Tv for a literary supplement by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Looking into that kitchen is my first memory of real regret.

Before it, it was still just a dusty Wednesday morning, and everybody was still loved.

First, Grandpa banged the table while saying something. Grandma was still frying puff puff. He turned her around and slapped her. Twice. Her hand flew up towards him in response, but it met her side again, by itself. She lowered her body at the knees, and then said something, but I only saw her mouth move. She looked weak like this – hands flailing feebly in the air, trying to catch the words, her thinning, jet-black hair reaching for her shoulders. She always dyed it. Always.

Her mouth was still moving when he swung his left hand to her jaw. After, he made, with his right hand, a tight fist inside her hair. When he had secured the tuft, he turned his hand clockwise on her head. I could see the middle. There were stray grey hairs there; and for the first time, I imagined Grandma’s whole head grey. She wouldn’t look the same.

As he was pulling it, his eyes were protruding, glass hard, catching the light from the kerosene lamp. Surrendering now, her own eyes withdrew, until they were half-open slits, bloated with water and betrayal.

When he released her, strands came crying down. He did not look like this was the first time he’d done this. Grandma’s mouth was ajar, but I couldn’t tell if it was in shock.

It was over – until he pushed her out of his way, towards the raging oil. I imagined myself running fast and far into the street, red sand bloodying my sandals, clinging to my calves — but my chest was tight and my parents and relatives were in the living room – so I stood there under the window and willed my lungs to catch the air.

When I got back into the living room, Grandpa had brought in the puff-puff and everybody was eating it while he sat and talked bitterly about the government. Grandma came back in looking normal. She said- “I knew you people would clear it.”

Everyone else laughed. I stayed bent over, eating and eating to quiet the anger, to level the pity. She sat next to my dad. After me, he was the first to notice her arm. He asked.

“Eze yo e,” Grandpa was the one who replied. Don’t mind her. “You know your mother. When she’s in the kitchen, it’s like she forgets that oil can burn. I always tell her to reduce it, she doesn’t listen.”

Grandma picked up some tissue and dabbed it to my father’s mouth. “You want to complain, but see, na you enjoy pass.”

His concern did not fade, so she looked this man – my father, her son – right in the face and she smiled. “Ihon ne. I have heard. Next time, I’ll be more careful.”

Some women are candles; will weep under the heat of the fire, and then wax cold.

I found the exit to my own childhood at ten. That was also the year I stopped looking my mother in the eye.

When you see a person you respect shattered into pieces by someone they love, there’s an illogical resentment that eats your mind. At first, you grow to hate them for not helping themselves. Then you hate yourself for not being mighty enough to save. The aggressor stays untouched in a faraway bubble of forced reverence.

He burnt her with a cigarette. He cut her hair in her sleep. He threw her down the stairs. She stayed. He brought home a third wife. He threw her across the room. She stayed. He took her favourite clothes outside and burnt them. He locked her outside the house. He threatened to leave if she didn’t lose weight. She starved, and stayed.

She stayed, and it was that anger that continued to heat my heart, until one day, all that was left was a hard black thing.

The day it broke, I had just returned from school with a Best In English certificate that I was dying to show her. In the corridor, I heard her talking. When I got close enough to the door, I realised I was eavesdropping on a conversation with God. It was not the first time. I did not leave.

I knew that what she was doing was crying, but this was the type of cry that sounded like it belonged to something specific; like dying, like death, like mourning.

When I later learned the word groan at school, I thought of that hot afternoon, crouched outside my mother’s door, the sound of ache dragging itself out of her small throat.

I did not tell her I heard her begging God to either shove my father back into his senses or take her life. I didn’t tell her that I heard her voice go raw from pleading. I didn’t tell her that I thought there had to be other options.

I thought instead, that if the feeling she was feeling was a real, tangible thing, it would have looked like a deep pool of thick black liquid; and if I fell inside, I would never be able to come out.

Well, some women swim.

Lamide had just come back from London for the summer and I went to her house to sleep over. Her parents had brought a whole suitcase of sweets, toys and movies. There were so many things I was itching to tell her, like that thing about Toyosi and Benjamin and there were things she wanted to tell me too, like her crush on the white boy with grey eyes; so we stayed up even when her parents locked up and went to bed. At midnight, we went downstairs as quietly as we could, to steal more green Skittles.

When we got down, I told Lamide that we should play hide and seek one more time. She was the one to hide. When it was time for me to go seek, I heard the door slam from upstairs.

Somebody was coming downstairs very quickly, so I switched off the lights and hid under the stairs. It was Uncle Femi. I knew this because the steps were heavy, and Aunty Eseosa’s voice was trailing behind him.

“Femi, come back.”

“No, you want to disrespect me in my own house, abi? Is it not because you see me at home that you can ask me stupid questions? I’m the one that caused it. It’s my fault.”

“Femi, you’ll wake the girls…”

“And I don’t care. Let them wake up. I try my bloody best. Do you hear me? I try.” I’d never heard him talk to Aunty like this before. Hearing him raise his voice, I felt like there was traffic in my chest.

They were by the kitchen now and Aunty Eseosa held him by the back of his shirt and knelt down. “Ok Femi,” she said. “You’re right. I just thought that…”

“Thought what? That I would apologise and promise to never do it again? Is that what you want?”

“Listen, I beg you Femi, calm down. People can’t find out about this. Think of me. Am I not enough? What will people say? Tell me what she is giving you. Tell me what she is doing. I will do it, I swear. I will do it.”

Aunty was touching Uncle’s waist in the way I should not have been seeing, but I could not stop looking. He had calmed down now. She undid his belt.

After a long blank stare at her, he held her hand and lifting it slowly, he said: “Eseosa, you forgot to clear that table.”

He did not give her a chance to get up before he turned around, tall and square shouldered, and made those six big steps to the front door.

Some women stay in the mess, and beg.

It can be anything or anyone. It can be the door. It can be the restless, ruthless ghost of your relationship. It can be your own self. It can be the man you thought you loved. It can even be God.

But someone must suffer.

This is what Grandpa said that Christmas, in the heat of the conversation about politics.

Somebody must suffer.

So, on her way back to her room, Aunty stopped at Lamide’s room to check if we were there. She turned on the light and when she did not see us there, she shut the door and I stopped hearing footsteps. Usually, she would let us stay up all night if we liked, as long as we didn’t make too much noise; but that night seemed like it would be different. Afraid now, I started tiptoeing away from under the stairs. I don’t know where I was trying to go, but I kept going until Aunty suddenly yelled. “OLAMIDE!” I tripped over myself. She shouted again. “Olamide, don’t let me count to five.”

By the time I got up there, my friend had already surrendered herself to her mother and was screaming. Aunty was almost at the end of the cane, pieces scattering around her feet.

When she looked at me and pointed at me with the half cane, her face was ablaze with something. “I’m using your friend as the scapegoat so you will know next time. When adults are talking, you, you should be fast asleep.” Afterwards, I watched my friend pick up the pieces of the cane.

I bent down to help and started crying. I told her I was sorry. As I was saying it, she sat down on the floor and held her nose so her own cry wouldn’t make noise.

Aunty called up the stairs asking Lamide to bring her car keys. It was almost 1 am; I checked. When she came back upstairs, we did not talk. She turned off the light and we laid there with our backs to each other.

Later, she tried to wake me.

I heard her because I wasn’t sleeping in the first place; but because I didn’t know how to talk to her, I closed my eyes tighter.

Then she said, “Babe, wake up. Seriously, wake up. My mum went out with a knife.”

Some women crack at the head, break open, and bleed a tidy trail of madness.

She had a soft voice once. She was tall, with smooth light skin. She’s still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known, but all the while, she carried herself like she thought life was heavy – like her own beauty was a secret she was left out of.

Two years after she got married, Aunty Sasu, my mother’s sister, had become half her size. She was drowning in her clothes. Everybody saw. She always wore sunglasses. Everybody knew.

After she called their father crying for help that day, she called my mother. His final word had been- “Stay. Them no dey send pikin go husband house make e quick return. Stay.”

She left behind four children and many questions.

My mother brought her journals home, because she did not want anyone else reading into Aunty’s head. I picked one up one day. At the bottom left corner of the middle page, she wrote an isolated sentence.

Some things you’ll never know for sure, because nobody talks about them. But also, because that is how this life is. Before the answers,

Some women get buried.

Grandma left him on his 70th birthday. He woke up that morning and did not see her in the kitchen. This is how he knew. The flour was there, to make the mixture. The sugar was there, to sweeten things up. The yeast was there, to raise everything. But she wasn’t. She left four whole full bowls of puff-puff on the table. Beside them, her key to the front door. She did not explain herself to anyone. It has been ten years since.

We were sitting outside that day – her on the brown stool, and me on the floor – when Aunty Glory, our help at the time, told me that she had called off her upcoming wedding.

Earlier in the year, he’d asked her to submit her phone to him every weekend. He’d also told her that she would have to stop doing hair too, to focus on the house. She agreed. One day, she forgot to hand in the phone, so in the name of anger, he punched the wall right by her head. She called for the neighbours and after she’d left, she opened the back of the phone and threw the SIM in a nearby bush. She said that was how she knew that she would not go back.

We had six braids to go. Her hands were shaking in my hair. “See, I no fit lie, I still love Kenneth die.” “But”, she said, “I no fit let person kill me on top love. After all, no be only him dey.”

When Aunty Itohan, my mother’s best friend, found out that her husband Uyi had been cheating on her with a banker named Tope, she did not make a scene. He left his phone at home that day. She didn’t know, and quite frankly, it wouldn’t have made a difference if she did – she never checked his phone. But she was tidying his side of the room when the notification came in. There had been six missed calls earlier, which she did not hear, and now one text message that read: “Make time tonight.”

She was still holding the phone when the picture came in. It was taken in front of a bathroom mirror. The woman stood in front of it, slender and tall; her bare body, full in all the right ways. She looked like sin.

Looking at this woman, Aunty thought of her husband – his hands, her hips, his lips, her stomach, his tongue, her thighs, her mouth, his waist, below, their bodies, the motion, their bodies, the sweat, the bodies – and she decided then, that she would not wait.

Imaghi setin. I could not.

It was our house she came to. It was my mother’s shoulders she cried on.

“I’ll be okay”. She said this, dipping her tongue in and out of English and Edo. “It’s just that for now, this pain is raw in my chest.”

This year, we sat together in her house with her new husband Uncle Nosa, and in an unrelated conversation about peer pressure, she said to my sister “…and listen, you must just be careful love, because we are malleable, you know? Every single one of us”.
We are.

We are.

But, some women will not bend.
— Eloghosa Osunde

Source: Olisa TV, 2015. Permission Obtained From Author. All Rights Reserved.

Image: Eloghosa Osunde