Sariatu, our wife! Baba acknowledged my entrance. Windows had been thrown open and the parlour was bathed in darting rays of sunshine. The ceiling fan whirred furiously overhead, and a standing one rotated below, working in concert to keep sweat from the in-laws faces. I knelt down to greet the family patriarch, a smile plastered on my face to mask my apprehension. Baba's walking cane rested against the carved mahogany arm of the sofa. He wore one of his special embroidered dashiki tops that must have been high fashion when I was a girl. Now it spoke only of longevity. He wore matching trousers and cap. The outfit had kept its shape, thanks to careful treatment with starch. The widow next door to him in the village did his laundry for him. Some whispered that she did more.
The room quieted down and the gully between Baba's brows deepened. He removed his cap and began to pray. That I would not bury my children, that I would live long, that I would remain the first in my husbands house. I held out my hands in supplication and said amen at every pause.
The in-laws nodded reverentially. To my left on the lone raffia chair, Babas younger brother, a man with powdery white hair and quiet ways, chanted softly, "May it be so," assenting to the prayer.
What will you eat? I asked, my eyes sweeping across the faces, when Baba was done pronouncing blessings. They maintained a studied conviviality, but I could see they had a serious reason for coming here.
Baba took a shot of the Schnapps in his glass and winced as the drink burned down his throat. God bless you, Sariatu, he replied. Food can wait.
My daughters had served soft drinks to everyone else. Now I knew why Gani bought two crates of drinks the day before. He sat next to Baba, walled by his family. My stomach tightened.
Dear wife, rise. Baba made room for me on the sofa, between him and the armrest. We are here for an important matter, one which is a source of joy to us as I am sure it will be to you. You are to have a helper. A second wife for your husband.
I stole an anxious glance at Gani who avoided my eyes. Next to him was Hafsanat. When her husband took another wife five years before, she packed her bags and came to us. She wept endlessly, moaning about men's capacity for betrayal. As days turned into weeks, people began to snigger. Some berated her as childish; after all, where would she go at her age with six children?
I wanted Hafsanat gone. She adopted a domineering attitude towards women like me who married into her family, doing unto us what her in-laws did unto her. She was beginning to crowd me out in my own home. Tired of rebelling against her marital situation, her defiance thinned and she sought my advice. What was it about this community that turned carefree young women into dutiful mutes once they were married? she asked. I had no answer, merely told her it was best to return to her husband. Because I wanted to be rid of her.
Was this satisfaction in Hasfanats eyes as she smiled at me? She sat with the family as an elder, though three years younger than my husband. She had put aside her own pain to watch me swallow mine.
Hafsanat poured another measure of Schnapps for Baba who put his cap back on and cleared his throat lengthily. Murmurs merged with the whirr of the fans as the family told Baba to take it easy. "Thank you, thank you," he replied, between coughs. His chest settled down and he turned to face me, his eyes purposeful once more. Things have progressed between your husband and the young lady in question, he informed. She is pregnant and may well produce a son. Hence the reason I have come all the way here to talk to you.
"The reason we have all come," Hafsanat echoed.
How my mother fretted about my lack of sons. It would work against me in the end, she always feared. I had told her not to worry; I just had to keep trying for another child in the hope it would happen. But with no further invitations to my husbands bed, there was no chance of that.
"Sariatu, what do you think?" Baba asked me. I could feel the weight of the family's expectation and gave the only acceptable response, a smile. I knew their courtesy could easily be replaced by hostility if I said the wrong thing.
I welcome a junior wife, if that is want my husband wants, I said, my head bowed.
The room broke into laughter and I could feel the tension lift. "Ah, that is exactly want he wants," Hafsanat cackled and took the opener to another bottle of Fanta.
Embrace your wife! Baba commanded his son who obeyed, like a stilted fool.
Hours later, the in-laws filed from the veranda into the rented Kombi bus that had brought them. They thanked me for the food I laid out for them, after they had delivered their news of another wife. The pounded yam was of a most delightful consistency, Hafsanat said, adjusting her headscarf. Her long skirt and puff-sleeved blouse were made from flaming orange batik, and matched the gloating tenor in her voice. And the egusi stew was delicious, Baba said. Hafsanat entered the bus after him, though she lived only streets away and could have walked.
I waved them off, wishing I could just as easily shake Ganis hand off my shoulders. While the in-laws drank and chattered in the parlour, I had toiled away in the kitchen to get their food ready. Baba's words of Clara burned on my mind as I drove pestle into mortar to pound the steaming yams.
Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
Ganis Fall by Molara Wood