Mother was eighteen years old when she met my father in May 1954. She was an epitome of beauty – tall, fair in complexion with striking facial features that would have inspired many artists to roll out their canvases and paint portraits of her.
She was partly educated, having attended school until standard three, when funds became limited for her education, and that of her siblings’. It pained her deeply, but she resigned to fate and kept herself busy by helping her parents on the farm, or by selling fruits and other farm products at the village market.
It wasn’t long afterwards, suitors started to ask for her hand in marriage. Mother chose to marry my father, Mr Ben Chukwuma, because he was the most educated among her suitors; being the only one who completed standard six. She thought that he would be cultured, appreciative of the advantages of education, and would perhaps, assist in furthering her education. How wrong she was! She would have been better off marrying Oga Tobias, the timber merchant who although had two wives, took better care of his larger household than Father ever did of the four of us.
I think Mother was also swayed by Father’s good looks. He was a tall, slender, young man with an athletic build. At the time of their union, he worked as a court marshal abbreviated to “Kotuma” by the illiterate villagers in the colonial court. His job had entailed working closely with the British colonial masters and interpreting from English to the indigenous language. Father always wore heavily starched khaki shorts and shirt with black knee-length stockings, and a pair of black lace shoes. He sported an uneven afro with a slit in the bevelled edge. He had a pair of silver-coloured reading glasses which he called “Onyokometer,” a term he conjectured to mean reading glasses.
Whether he actually needed a reading aid was doubtful though, because he often left the glasses at the middle of his nasal bridge, and looked above it, rather than through its lenses.
Mother was the envy of her friends when Father asked for her hand in marriage. He was twelve years older but nobody seemed bothered by the age difference. She confirmed they were relatively happy for the first five years. He was a good husband and provided for his household, generously. All the same, he was brash, hot-tempered, and easily irritated. Mother learnt how to handle him and meet his needs as perfectly as she could.
The downturn in their marriage came with Nigeria’s independence in October 1960. The British colonial masters adjudicating in the colonial courts gradually returned to their homelands. Customary courts were established, and officers of the Nigerian police force started to serve as court officials. Kotumas were gradually phased out in all the regions, between 1960 and 1967. They were like fish out of water and had great difficulty adjusting to their forced unemployment. Finding a suitable job wasn’t that easy either.
Father lost his job in 1966. He became less caring and more irritable. My mother tried to be patient with him. But as some financial hardship set in, the quarrels doubled and they began to drift apart.
Mother engaged in petty trading. Father felt it was not a befitting job for his wife. However, they had three young mouths to feed. So he said nothing.
The months rolled by and Father was finally employed as a teacher in the village primary school. His employment brought a much-needed succour to the family. Unfortunately, it was while teaching at the school that he met Clara; 35 years old, slim, fair in complexion with brown eyes, wide nose and firm lips.
Clara had been a maid to the wife of one of the British colonial masters, and after they left Nigeria, she found it difficult to fit into the traditional society from which she had become estranged. She had a false sense of grandeur and superiority, which made her look down on the ‘common folks,’ as she called them.
She lived in a small apartment close to the village primary school. At the left wing of the compound, a proud mango tree stood, bearing ripe fruits. At the opposite end was a small garden maintained by a little boy, not more than thirteen years old, who she paid peanuts.
Hoping to make her business work, she would dress up in the mornings and sit outside the house in a cane chair, waiting for her ‘clients.’ She seemed to have an endless supply of flower-patterned cotton dresses, which, combined with a generous afro hairdo, became Clara’s signature look.
In the afternoons, she would don a wide-brimmed hat to protect her from the sun. She called her business a café. The women whose husbands were frequently seen there called it a brothel. Clara would buy daily newspapers for her clients, serve them tea, coffee, and biscuits in the blistering, hot tropical sun while engaging them in a heated discussion of events making waves in the national and global political scenes. In the evenings, she sold liquor and snacks.
Father became a regular visitor at Clara’s café, and it made things worse for us at home.
My siblings lived in fear of our father and tried to stay in his good books as much as they could. This wasn’t easy as Father was a very difficult man to please. A small mistake such as dragging one’s feet on the corridor could result in one spending several hours in his ‘guardroom,’ after some admonition from Onyedumekwu. His guardroom was a large wardrobe in his study. In comparison to my siblings, I was the most frequent visitor to that room.
Staying in the guardroom meant no food, no water, and no conveniences. We were allowed to use the toilet only before guardroom ‘admission’ and it didn’t matter how long one’s ‘sentence’ lasted.
My longest sentence was two days. I have forgotten what my offence was, but I remember being asked repeatedly by Father to beg for my release from the guardroom.
Like the story so far? See details below
Book Title – Shadows From The Past
Author – Chigozie Anuli Mbadugha
Get a copy here – Shadows From The Past