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Whose Wife is She?
By Cheluchi Onyemelukwe (Nigeria)


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© Copyright by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe, 2005.



The thing about death is that it is so final. You cannot plead with it. No amount of tears or cajoling or anger will change the fact. You can fling away your faith or cling to it. But that won’t change anything.

And death can be very frustrating. Of all the things I ever thought of death, the grieving and the crying and the pain, I never thought of the sheer frustration it could bring with it. To think that all explanations, all the things unsaid, have to wait until you see the person again, assuming you believe you will, is not just painful but overwhelmingly irritating.

So it was with me. I had bargained with God when my mother called me from Enugu. As I flew down from Lagos, I made some more promises. No more affairs, I will rededicate my life to you, and a lot more. It was no use.

I have always wondered how people bear the death of loved ones. Of course, I had known people who had lost family and I always mouthed the usual platitudes to them. But, as my mother used to tell me, when one sees a corpse unrelated to one being carried to its burial, one assumes it is a piece of wood. Now, I knew better.

But, my deepest pain stemmed from not being able to explain my failure as a woman.


I stared at my mother’s back as I applied cream to it silently, watching it squirming as she made her point passionately. I knew that to say anything other than “Yes ma,” would only invite a lecture that would take rather longer than I wanted. As usual, she was going on about my single state.

“You are about to graduate from university,” she said as if I did not already know that. “Your friends are already settling down and you don’t seem to want to follow their good example,” she continued. “It is better to do it now that you are young, otherwise you will find that when you are professionally established, men will run away and what would have been the use of all this education?”

I did not realise my education was only a gateway to marriage, I thought, hoping that she would finish soon. Time was when parents would not send their daughters to school because they might not be able to find any man willing to marry them. Now women went to school so that they could get married. At least, that was what I understood my mother to be saying.

Unfortunately, my father chose to join the conversation at that same time, having just finished having his bath. He came into the bedroom, a towel round his waist, his hair dripping water.

“Your mother is right,” he said. “Marrying while you are still in school is the best thing a woman can do for herself. Otherwise, once she starts working, men start to see her as ‘too sophisticated’ and they may think that she knows too much and will challenge their authority if they marry her.”

Men must be stupid then if they were really afraid of marrying educated and established women, I thought, continuing my own inner conversation. Anyway, I knew my parents were just old-fashioned. The kind of men they were describing must be from their own generation, certainly not the young men of today who went to school with women, and who were after all no better than the girls at getting good grades or at anything else. In fact, in my class, there had been more females than males and a female was likely going to be the best graduating student.

I smiled at my father, took my hands off my mother’s now perfectly oiled back and made my way to the door to give my father some privacy in which to dress. I prepared to breathe a sigh of relief. My mother, however, appeared to want the conversation, if you could call the one-sided talk that, to continue.

“Nne, you are pretty now, but beauty fades and then one becomes an old cargo,” she said cajolingly, apparently wanting me to contribute something to this “you need to settle down” talk. I would have laughed at the use of the term “old cargo.” But that would have offended my mother, who would take it that I was not paying serious attention to what was meant to be serious advice.

My father agreed with her. “When you are young, it is easy to think you will never grow old.”

It was now my beauty or potential loss of it that was going to be a problem, not my education.

“And,” my mother added, “Marriage does not stop you from doing anything you want to do. In fact, you will be more secure.”

I smiled at her, trying to pretend that I was really interested in this subject.

This marriage issue was one thing they were in complete agreement about, so I prayed that my father would, for once, try to be on time for the village meeting they were attending. I planned to go back to school the minute they were out. Asking them to drop me off would be to invite more of the same lecture, cajoling and advice.

My father turned to the mirror and started to comb his bushy 1970s style Afro which looked a bit like Soyinka’s hair, spraying water all over with each brush of the comb.

As I left, I heard my father say, “You have to talk to her about this seriously.”

“I have talked to her” my mother said. I could hear the exasperation in her voice. “She won’t listen. Why don’t you talk to her?

“I thought this was more the mother’s province,” he replied.

“You two talk about everything under the sun, and now you tell me that this is something you cannot talk about?”

I quickly went to my room. What was the fuss all about? Marriage at twenty-three? I loved my parents but they really could be annoying.


“We are very proud of you,” my great uncle intoned in his scratchy old age voice. “You have done well. I hear you are making big money in Lagos,” he said. I looked at the cunning old man with what I hoped was an expression of innocence and humility. I knew where he was going. He would be sure to ask for money for tobacco before I left.

“Soon, we will be drinking wine and collecting bride price” he said. I smiled at him. Indeed, I could see him wiping his mouth and readying himself for the palm wine he would drink and the pounded yam and egwusi soup he would swallow when the time came.

My grandmother said, “She has done very well,” then she added, “I thought Ogbonna was coming back today, isn’t it time you went to see him?” Ogbonna was my great uncle’s son who sold tobacco in Enugu.

My uncle knew that his sister had just dismissed him and though he lingered for a while to see if my mother or I would come up with some money, he was soon shuffling home after promising to bring my grandmother some tobacco the next day.

I had finished my course in the university and graduated with a good result: a second class upper. I had also found a job with Accenture in Lagos. The interview was tough and I was surprised when I was called and told that I could start work. The money was not too bad. Other corpers were earning less than I was and I was certain of a job at the end of the national youth service year since they usually retained their corpers. My parents were excited about the job. But, they also hoped that I would meet the man of their dreams this year.

So too did my grandmother. My mother had suggested that we should visit her since I had not seen her in the one year that I had been in Lagos. My grandmother was getting older. Her skin, which had always been wrinkled for as long as I could recall, was much drier than I remembered. Unlike herself, she did not tie her scarf, and her scanty and nearly bald hair, dotted with short, thin, gray hair made her look even older. In fact, she looked frail and her increasingly stooped posture did not help matters. She must have shrunk several inches since I saw her last. But that did not stop her running about looking for food to give us, even though we assured her that we had eaten before coming. Eventually, we had to eat some okpa that she had made and it was delicious.

Towards the end of our visit, she said to my mother, “Mama Oyinkwo has been asking after you. I think she wanted to talk to you about Oyinkwo’s new business in Enugu.”

“Yes, I heard that he opened a shop in New Market. I understand he is selling okporoko. I think I should pop over and see her and greet Mama Stella too,” my mother replied. With that, she conveniently went into the nearby compounds to chat with my grandmother’s neighbours.

“Nne,” she said fondly, “let us go to my room,” getting up to go to her room. A cat scurried out of the door as I walked in behind her.

“Useless cat” said my grandmother. “She comes in at all odd hours and slips under my bed. No one can tell where she spends the rest of her time.”

“Does she have kittens?” I asked to make conversation. I was a little nervous about the coming tête-à-tête. I wasn’t quite sure what the conversation would be this time. Surely, I had passed the ‘keep your legs close together, and avoid men otherwise you will get pregnant and bring disgrace to your family’ stage.

“Yes, she had kittens some time ago, but some kind of illness killed them all, except for one which I gave to Mama Oyinkwo. Rats were harassing her.” She sat on the bed and motioned for me to do the same.

She looked at me for a few seconds, searching my face for some kind of sign. That made me uncomfortable. I did not know whether to look at her directly, which could have been construed as rude, or to look away, which could have been thought to be a sign of inattention. I chose a point between her face and the wall behind her. She turned away from me and stared for a bit at the wall filled with hangings of old clothes, bags and other things I did not know. She then brought out her small snuff box from inside her wrapper in which she always tied it and put some snuff into her hands, carrying some with her thumb into her nose and sniffing. I knew that posture, something big was coming.

When she had finished sniffing her snuff, a habit the doctor had warned her to give up and which she had refused to, she began to speak. “Nwam, you have done very well. I am proud of you. I know your parents are proud of you too. There is nothing like putting in a lot of effort into bringing up a child and seeing that child grow up and be successful.” She paused. I did not say anything. I was not meant to.

“Now that you have finished school, and have got a big job in Lagos,” I would hardly call my youth service job a big job although it certainly had the potential, I thought to myself, “there is only one thing left that will round you off as a full woman and make me and your parents happy. And that is marriage. There is nothing as good and satisfying as seeing a young woman, well brought up, from a good family, who knows what to do and does it at the right time.

“I have been waiting for your parents to tell me that so and so person is coming, so and so person is asking for your hand in marriage, and I have not heard anything. I thought about this while you were still at university, but I kept the thought to myself and bided my time.” She stopped again and looked at me, perhaps to see if I was paying attention. I was.

“You are a grown up woman, you are no longer a child. When you were a child, people asked, ‘whose child is that?’ Now that you are grown, people are going to be asking, ‘whose wife is she?’ And that is the way it should be. If you study all the books in the world, and you don’t get married, you have lost out. If you make all the money there is in the world, and you don’t get married, you are empty-handed.

“And you cannot marry just anyone. I don’t know the kind of men who talk to you,” she looked at me as if she would want me to tell her. I found myself wondering what she would think if I told her about my boyfriend Chike whom I would marry one day.

“But, you come from a good family, a family that you must honour. Don’t look at riff-raff. Look for a man who is wise, like your father. A man who can feed you.

“And don’t wait for too long. Time does not wait for any one, particularly a woman. Before you know it, time will come and go and men will no longer consider you attractive. Every man wants a woman who is young, who can give him a child. Now that you have finished school and found a job, it is the right time to settle down and do what God sent you to this earth to do.”

She did not have to tell me what God had sent me to do. It was to marry and have children. I got her message loud and clear. Apparently, she felt that my parents were perhaps too ‘educated’ to tell me the clear facts. I wished I could tell her about my father’s fumbling efforts to talk to me last night on this same subject. Obviously, he felt my mother was not talking to me enough. What was it with this marriage business that had everyone on edge?

“This is not about education. It is not something that you learn within the walls of a school. There is nothing wrong with education but everything has its time. What I am telling you is what a mother should tell her child. The things that I have seen from the foot of a giant tree, if you climb to the top of that same tree, you will still not see them.” She stopped. She had said what she wanted to say. There was a small silence. After a while, she looked at me with a question on her face: did you hear me?

My mind had wandered a bit. Should I tell my father that having his bushy Soyinka hair dyed would look better than wearing it all grey like it was at the moment? Why on earth did he not cut it short? He would look younger. Or maybe my mother did not want him to look younger and perhaps attractive to other women. My grandmother was waiting for an answer as I processed these thoughts through my head.

“Mama, I have heard what you said. I am thinking about it.” I answered almost automatically because there was nothing else to say. I knew from experience that if I said nothing at all (my first inclination), she would be upset with me and think that I did not take her words seriously. And I was not really sure I did. But I knew, like my parents, she meant well. She was speaking from her own experience, what she knew from her own life and the lives of people she had known, and the dictates of the culture in which she lived.

“Good girl,” she replied. “I know that you are a wise child, and you will set a good example for your younger siblings,” she smiled at me. Suddenly she stood up. “Let us go look for your mother. It may be that she has forgotten that she is going back to Enugu today and the day is far spent.” Our interview had ended. The important message had been passed on.


“What is going on between you and Chike?” Ngozi asked.

I knew that tone. When Ngozi spoke like that, I knew it was going to be a lecture from a best friend who looks out for her friend and who means well. It was the same tone she used when she had warned me to be more careful after I had had the scare in my final year at university, when my period had not come for two months. Ngozi was the only one to whom I had confided my fears about the time Chike had failed to use a condom, and I had had to take postinor. I was terribly afraid that the worst had happened. She was the one who calmed me down and made me go to a clinic and get a test done. Fortunately, it had turned out to be nothing, or at least it was not a pregnancy.

Ngozi had become more serious since her marriage two years ago. Now that she was a mother, she seemed even more settled. I had just flown down to see her new baby. Thinking about how nice she had been to me made me feel bad that I had avoided telling her for months. The fact that she had moved from Lagos to Abuja had not helped. I should have told her long before now that Chike and I had broken up because her question was simply, ‘what are the two of you waiting for?’

I told her now.

She screamed. “What? You and Chike have what? When? What happened?”

“I don’t know,” I replied quietly, answering only her last question.

“Is it serious?” she asked. I said yes.

“I don’t understand you. How can you say you don’t know what happened? When the two of you have been together since university? How many years were you together, six, seven? And you let it go just like that? You did not even think to mention it to me?” The questions burst from her, giving me no chance to reply.

Not that there was much to say. I was not sure what had happened myself. Chike had decided he no longer wanted me.

Chike had graduated a year before I did and like me, he got a job almost immediately. Like everyone else, I thought we would get married eventually. When my parents were talking about marriage, I had always felt comfortable, knowing that it was only a matter of time. Unlike some other girls, including my friend Ngozi, who did not have boyfriends when we left school, I thought marriage was pretty well taken care of and under my belt. It was only a matter of time for Chike and me to make enough money for all the expenses that went with the ceremonies. All the time my parents were worrying, and even my sisters were wondering what I was up to, I was confident that by twenty-seven at the most, I would be settled.

But, three years out of school, at twenty-eight and with a good job and having begun to think that the next step was marriage, I began to suspect that Chike was playing around. I tried to pretend for a while that I suspected nothing because I did not want to confront him. If there was anything I detested, it was confrontation. Also, I had built many of my plans and my dreams around our relationship, and for me it had ceased to be simply about ‘love’ but also about the direction I had planned for my life. In fact, I even became a better girlfriend than I had been hitherto, asking no questions, not showing up without calling first, cooking all kinds of food and storing them in his refrigerator, all the while praying, “God please let him not say he does not want the relationship anymore.” I was already in my late twenties and time, which waits for no woman, was passing. I was not quite sure when I had become desperate, or if it was the pressure from my family since my younger sister got married the year before that drove me to such crazy state of mind.

This went on for over a year. But, in the end, he had dumped me. In fact, he did not even have the courtesy of telling me it was over. His new girlfriend, soon to be fiancée, gave me a call and requested very politely that I should refrain from remaining in contact with Chike. So, we finally had the confrontation, if you could call my crying and pleading to know what went wrong a confrontation. He had little to say and that in itself was shattering.

The painful thing was that I had turned down a number of guys for Chike. I remember Ngozi telling me at the time, why don’t you give this guy or that guy a chance. You can never tell, they may be better than Chike, she would say. A big factor in her opinion was, of course, more money. So, the more money a guy had, the more Ngozi would try to persuade me to give him a chance. But, I always refused. Chike was it for me. I did not want to start afresh with anyone else. Besides, what if it did not work out with someone else? I did not have time to start all over with someone new.

I was reluctant to tell Ngozi that he and I were completely over, but I tried to explain now, telling her that she had found someone else and that I had even heard that they were getting married.

“You mean you let him go like that, without a fight?” was her question when I explained that he had found someone else. If it was sympathy I was expecting from my practical friend, I had obviously come to the wrong place.

“I always told you to be careful with that guy. All these school relationships have a way of not working out. How could he do that to you after you had been together for all those years? Who is this new girl anyway?” she said heatedly.

“I don’t know” I murmured. The tears were starting to come again. I tried to hold them back. She came round and sat with me and held me. We said nothing for a while and then her baby woke up and started screaming for his mother. She went to tend him. Looking at her carrying him and then feeding him reminded me of all that I was missing.

After a while she asked, like my mother would if I could have this sort of conversation with her, “Are you seeing anyone else?”

I said no.

“I am very sorry this has happened. But you will get past this. Don’t let this put you off men.” I would have found that last statement really funny under different circumstances. She was my age and there she was giving me advice like I was her child. But then, maybe that was what motherhood did to you.

But I knew what she meant. She did not have to tell me that at 30, as an Igbo woman living in Lagos, time was not exactly my best friend at the moment. The weight I had put on in recent months did nothing to rejuvenate me.

“You know, we are going for a wedding next Saturday, maybe you can fly down from Lagos and go with us.”

Was that funny or what? Fly down from Lagos to Abuja for a wedding to which I was not invited, in the hope of finding a man? I knew she meant well but I was not quite that desperate yet.


“You were always your father’s favourite child, you know,” my mother said to me.

I knew that. As with most fathers and their first daughters, we had a special relationship, at least in the early years. When it became apparent, that I either had no intention of settling down and getting married, or, was unable to find and hold on to a man who would marry me, our relationship had changed. We still spoke but it was not the same. I always knew that he was worrying about it, even when we were talking of something else. Remembering this and the fact that we had not really ironed this out before he died made me want to weep. I wanted to see him now and say, “Daddy, it was not my fault. No one, at least no one I could have considered, would have me for a wife.”

His death was so sudden. He was here one day and the next he was gone. He had had a stroke one afternoon and even though my mother rushed him to the hospital, they could not save him and he died the next day. My siblings and I had come home to be told that we were fatherless. The funeral the previous day had been harrowing, perhaps even more so because there had been no emotional preparation.

“He was a good man,” my mother said, tears spilling from her eyes. I sat close to her holding her heaving shoulders. She raised her hand to pull her scarf in place. As was the custom, she had shaved her head bald to mourn my father, but ever conscious of her appearance, she covered it with a scarf.

“He was a good man,” she said again, sniffing and dabbing at her face with the end of her wrapper. “He would have wanted to see you settled, you know. That was what he wanted more than anything. To see you married and become a mother.” I said nothing. This was not the time to argue with her or make excuses. Indeed, what was there to say?

I had gone past the stage of saying that that it did not matter if I married, that cultural and family pressures on women to marry were simply unacceptable, to admitting to myself honestly that I was lonely and wished I was married. After the breakup with Chike, I had told myself I could not believe I had totally abandoned my senses in the desperation to marry. Had I really been willing to foist myself on someone, a cheater, all to keep a tradition alive? Had I really been willing to cave in to societal and family pressures? After the Chike affair, I promised myself that I would keep my maiden name when I married and not take any man’s name. I would maintain my independence and not subject myself to domination by any man. But, I had since come full circle. I was willing, no, desperate to become a ‘Mrs’ and cook dinner for a man and call him to come, “The food is ready. Come and eat” and do all the things I once derided.

Since my last relationship with a married man ended, I was lonelier than ever. I had called it off myself. He had been kind to me, in his own way. He was also rich and had found it easy to be generous with expensive gifts and to take me on expensive trips abroad. Not that I needed money really, my job was quite sufficient to meet my needs. But, it was no longer worth it just to have someone admire me and make me feel wanted only on a temporary basis. I had tired of all his excuses, his calling his wife from my bed to make excuses for not being home, and simply not being there when I needed him. I grew tired of the sharing and the hiding.

He looked surprised when I said it was over. He looked as if he wondered what a single 38 year old with ever diminishing prospects of catching a man of her own could do with herself alone. I wondered too. These days it seemed only married men were interested in me. Younger, single men tended to look for university babes, such as I had been at one time. Now, I was a business executive, accomplished and old. My mother’s warnings in earlier years seemed to have come true. Men, at least Nigerian men, Igbo men, did not want a woman who was too accomplished. I had done well professionally and I was proud of myself, but professional achievements, as my mother used to tell me, did not necessarily make for a warm bedmate.

The years of wearing aso-ebi were past. I had worn all the colours of the rainbow in aso-okes and head scarves for the weddings and traditional marriage ceremonies of my friends and sisters. Now, when I was asked to wear aso-ebi for a ceremony, it was more likely to be a christening, or a funeral.

I envied my friends whose children were growing up and with whom I had less and less in common. Even knowing that some of their marriages were not always happy and that equality was a word very few of them dreamt about did not make me less envious. Though I enjoyed my freedom to come and go as I pleased, I was still jealous. When they complained about their husbands I wanted to tell them that I would change places any day. I suspect they already knew this. At least, none wanted to be in my shoes. Unmarried and childless.

Ngozi, my closest friend always seemed to pity me though she tried to hide it. Occasionally, she still gave me advice on how to handle men and get them to say they would marry me. “Don’t tell them your real age” she told me once. As if I would. “Would you consider being a second wife?” she asked me another time. I was not sure. In the past, perhaps in my early 30s, I would have said no. But, these days, I was not too certain. Maybe I would. No one had asked me yet.

I had long since stopped walking out to the altar when the priest called for people to come out to be prayed for in my church. After the wedding of any member, the following Sunday would be a thanksgiving, after which singles would have a priest pray for them. The men searching for their missing rib, and the women searching for the ribcage from which they had been plucked, would flock to the altar to receive the same blessing the just wedded couple had received. There were always more missing ribs than there were ribcages. I had stopped going with the twenty-somethings. Although chubbier than I used to be, I did not look too old, but it embarrassed me to be walking down to be prayed for, year after year.

My colleagues at the office had that faintly pitying look. Once I was put out by the shoddy work a junior had submitted to me way past the deadline. I made it very clear that he would have to be penalised for it. No sooner had I left the office than I heard another colleague telling him not to be too upset with me, “You know how depressed and irritable women become when they are getting old and there is no husband.” I wanted to go back and scream at them, but I walked away because I knew such behaviour, apart from being unprofessional, would only encourage pity and gossip and confirm my supposed misery to them.

My plight seemed to follow me everywhere. My four siblings were all married. The families of their husbands and wives were well represented at the funeral. These in-laws came with gifts of abada and jorge, cows and money, dancing to the beat of traditional drums to mourn and honour my father as required by custom. I, the ada, the first daughter of my father, had no one come to mourn my father. A few of my old friends and friends at the office had come, but it was not the same thing. Nothing brought home my shame more. But, was it really my fault?

As I held my mother’s heaving shoulders, I remembered something my father, in all his bushy and grey-haired wisdom, once said to me, which I had rejected then. “A woman is nothing if she is not married. She may have all the degrees in the world, but if she is not married, in our society, she is regarded as nothing.” My grandmother, God rest her soul, had said the same. There was a time for a woman to be someone’s daughter. And there was a time for a woman to be someone’s wife. Was there a time to be single and content? Or was it really true as my father said that a single woman was nothing. Nothing but a failure, an object of pity. Or a spinster. Which was all the same, or was it?

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