Nene was an angry young man. Not that he had a violent temper and fought shamelessly on the street where he grew up. His was a different anger. In a way, when combined with his other qualities, it was a good anger. Nene was angry at the situation of things around him. He was partially frustrated because after all the years he had spent acquiring his undergraduate degree, and after all the stories of success he had heard awaited him as soon as he got into the world, reality hit him like the sting of ice cold water on the face of a groggy, reluctant school boy.
Nene’s mother, Sisi Nene had gotten her name because of her then little Nene. Being a young bride at the time, the neighbours called her Sisi. After Nene was born, she was promoted to the title of mama Nene but as she had retained her youthfulness and beauty, some still called her sisi. As Nene grew older, but while still a toddler, he was asked at a family and neighborhood party, what the name of his mother was. He searched through the crowd, pointed at his mother and called her Sisi Nene. Running to her, he hugged her in a way that was both sweet and comical. Since then the name stuck.
‘This is one of the happiest days of my life,’ Sisi Nene said to her son that evening. ‘I have always felt a deep sadness and shame at not being able to help you financially. Now that I can give you this money, even if only as a loan, I am truly happy and feel a sense of pride.’ She forced a smile as she handed Nene a hundred thousand Naira. She was still beautiful, but the young bride of many years ago had become a middle aged woman who had survived the countless ups and downs of African styled marriages and the added on harsh socio-economy of sub-Saharan Africa.
In Buchi Emecheta’s ‘the joys of motherhood’, we find one of the principal characters being a labourer. Earning five shillings a week, he divides his earnings (if I remember correctly) in this wise: one and a half shillings for each of the wives, and two for himself. While you may consider this generous, it is in no wise so. The wives had children with the lead character in the story having four or five. Being ‘African’ women, they were to take care of the children and the home – there was barely any chance of them being able to contribute financially in the marriage. From the stipend given by their husband, they were expected to feed and clothe themselves and their children. They were also expected to feed the man. His two shillings was kept for local gin. It couldn’t pay school fees if he saved all of it, so there was no need for that.
It’s not that Sisi Nene was poor and wretched, or that she was abused physically by her husband. In truth, her family was looked on as being wealthy. They could afford the pleasures of the occasional holiday trips abroad, good clothes and proper education for the children. Nene’s father had even been a top government official at one time. But the presence of wealth in a family does not translate to a lack of emotional or psychological abuse, or does not mean that everyone in that family is wealthy, healthy and free. This was the situation of Sisi Nene, and in reality, of a good number of African women.
In the first part of this essay, I argued that marriage in Africa places a huge yoke on the African woman. I gave examples and instances of how this happens and state that the situation is in fact enhanced by the subservient behaviours and actions of the women folk themselves. While that essay was written with a sense of urgency and anger, and with very strong language, this part, with a tone of calmness and seeming maturity further explores the horrors of the situations in African marriages.
When Sisi Nene went home to Ikot-Ekpene for the burial of a relative, she sat at the burial reception with three women who had been married for between ten and fifteen years. As they spoke on this and that, they came around to the issues of their men. The three women told how that despite the fact that they were asked, at the beginning of their marriages to seat at home to care for it and the kids, their husbands, rich or poor, it didn’t matter, barely gave them enough money to maintain a befitting lifestyle. In the case where the man was wealthy, the societal need to keep up with the Egbedeyis (Aka the Joneses), led the women to spend upkeep monies on clothes and jewelry.
This was not done out irresponsibility or negligence (the children suffered from these actions; food and clothing were poor, but the portions for the Lord and Master of the house had to have generous amounts of meat, fish and other sea creatures) but because the repercussion for not doing so could lead to further disaster. If a wife repeatedly appeared in modest apparel beside her husband at functions, she would soon be relegated to the background, and a newer, ‘more modern’ wife would take her place.
Sisi Nene heard from one of the women, of a certain man who after being sent to Teachers’ Training College by his semi-literate wife, abandoned her on the grounds that she was too dirty for a man of his new position. The women’s talk was not all sadness though, as the three women went on to tell Sisi how they realized that theirs was a doomed fate, and soon resorted to squeezing out the required upkeep amounts from their men using various, many times, crooked means. They all burst into laughter when Sisi Nene mentioned that she had only learned to do this after twenty years of marriage. After the session of amused laughter, one of them asked Sisi Nene in a very serious tone ‘How have you been living all these years?’
Sisi Nene is not one of the few African women to have cast away a bright and promising future for the sake of family and children. In my limited interaction with people, I have come across women who, despite their evident progress, agree that marriage is an unfair sacrifice, and that women are not given the option of leaving bad marriages because our society severely punishes women who leave their matrimonial homes. But those who complain, but at the same time possess a fair amount of wealth and freedom are also few. The majority are deprived, harassed, cheated, and even beaten. For many, it is for the sake of the children, and the importance of presenting a stable home to the world that they remain. For most, it is the acceptable (not accepted, mind you) position, for no one has ever taught them otherwise. It is their lot.
In Buchi Emecheta’s story, the lead character is a woman who despite all she does to keep her family together and take care of her children, becomes estranged from her husband, loses him, loses her children, then loses her sanity. A tragic end. While we may rejoice that this is not the progression of marriages in Africa, the situation is quite close to it. What happens to the women who are bruised and raped all the years of their marriages? They mostly outlive their men. Then they are further plundered by his family. They are cheated out of meager inheritances and soon forgotten. Hair shorn, set in a corner forever, they lose both benefactor and due to non-use over time, any shrewdness they may have had for making a living. Is one who has lost her senses not better than such in at least, two ways? At least, they cannot live in shame. They cannot be bitter. They cannot feel cheated.
As Sisi Nene learnt to make demands from her husband, as she put her feet down that there would be increased participation in the responsibilities of the home, and as her children got older, she began to taste in trickles, the sweetness that life offered indiscriminately to both men and women. She began retaining her profits. She began paying off her debtors. The sleeping pills reduced. She was far from her childhood dreams (Who could give her back all those twenty years) but she was happier, and that mattered.
So when it happened that Nene mentioned that he needed some money to complete the fees for a management program, but couldn’t get the needed amount until months later, Sisi Nene could assure him of her help. The next day she went to the bank, smiled from ear to ear at the cashier and made a withdrawal of two hundred thousand Naira. She would give her son half, and the other half would buy goods in the market. She would sell them and make a profit. Life had begun to look good for Nene, but only at forty two.