Growing breasts is awkward at any stage, but it is worse when you’re very young. Say, nine years old.
First comes the inevitable bumping into things; table corners, doors, elbows. Somehow things that co-existed peacefully with you for many years set out to get you. They hate you. This time also coincides with you expelling bodily fluid, forcefully. It’s not a coincidence that a little squirt of wee or a tear escapes whenever your buds slam into an object. Sometimes, spit and snot too. It’s that painful.
Then when you think you’ve just about managed to navigate through the minefield of your surroundings, your mother notices the buds on your chest. I mean, how could she not? The dark bits have grown to twice their size. And it’s off to the market where she ignores all your hints for the lovely okirika bras with thin or ribbon or ruched straps, dainty flowers, silky balcony cups. She plumps instead for the bra-tops.
A cheer goes up when your mother goes into a proper cement-blocked shop instead of the wooden, secondhand tables and stalls. Separated by the motor park, the factions glare at each other.
“How much are those?” Mother points. They are Aba-made with straps as wide as your arm, so bright and shiny, you know the material can only be rayon; the kind that drips after washing no matter how hard you squeeze.
“Ah-ahn, madam, those ones are not for you.” You are saved. You flash the woman a look of gratitude. “Is it for your daughter? Try these.” The woman reaches for another. These have lace in front, the scratchy kind that your mother’s curtains are made from, in packets with ‘Xian Xing’ and ‘Made in China’ stamped all over them.
“No, no,” Mother shakes her head. That one will tear easily. What is wrong with the one I picked out? Will it not last?”
“Everything has its grade,” says the market woman. “I just thought the other ones more fitting to a woman of your class. Nne don’t you like them?” You know any response will earn you either the abuse of the woman or serious flogging from your mother when you get home. You gaze instead at the piles of okirika bras and pants tugging at your eyeballs.
It’s like another world over there; piles and piles of colour like so many flowers strewn in the breeze. Even the half-shimis are colours other than blinding white and black and they have full-slips which you can never find anywhere else. The women there sit fanning themselves while big girls in expensive shoes creep into their stalls, away from the cheaper items piled on the outside. Everything does have its grade. You sigh and try to concentrate.
“Look, she is going to boarding school soon, I need something that will last for a long time.”
“Eh, madam why didn’t you say so?” The woman fumbles in the stacks and hands something to your mother. “This one has pockets inside, under the armpit, for hiding money. We only sell to boarding school children, this one. Housemaids come to buy but I am a Christian, I do not sell so you can steal from your madam and hide it. We even have the pant…” She shows your mother the zip. It looks like the one from your school uniform. The type that always catches your skin at the back and causes you to dance in agony. Your elder sister finds this morning dance amusing and can often be heard chanting ‘Fatty bum-bum’ under her breath all the way to school. You cannot deal with the additional torture.
You pull on your mother’s hand. You don’t want those pants. Mother takes her hand away and pushes your shoulder, not hard, but enough to leave some distance between you. “No, I don’t want those. How much are the bra tops?” Your heart sinks.
Later when your mother is not around, you search her trunk, the big one that holds all the special things she had when she and Father lived in Great Britain. You are sweating in panic but you cannot bear the thought of wearing the bra tops. You know it is here anyway, your elder sister wore them…ah ha! You pull at the strapless bra and wince as it smacks you in the face. You pack everything exactly as mother left it so that your theft goes unnoticed. You rationalise that it is not theft. The bra would have come to you anyway. You’re just taking it ahead of schedule. You stuff your skin-coloured salvation down the front of your vest and run to you room. You will wear it outside as soon as you can.
When Mother sends you to buy roasted corn the next day you can hardly believe your luck. You run in and strip off the vest under your dress and replace it with the bra, doing up the hooks behind your back. You know they are not straight but you don’t care. The cups have something sticky on the edges to hold them up but you find it still slips. You grab the money and run out before your mother changes her mind.
You pick Mama Chioma out of all the corn roasters because she is a mother. She is easy to talk to and you can’t wait for her to ask what you have been up to. She welcomes you warmly but before you can bring the topic round to your life, the neighbourhood kids arrive with their noise and the moment is lost. These are Chioma’s peers; the kids from Number 5. The directive from your mother is that interaction should be limited so you keep to yourself and wait for Mama Chioma to finish roasting your corn and only answer questions when they are asked of you.
Just as you lean forward to accept your parcel from Mama Chioma, one of the girls steps forward. “Eh? What am I seeing? I ma na obele nwaa yi blown? Can you see what she is wearing?” She pronounces ‘bra’ like it’s a colour, switching the ‘r’ for an ‘l’. They all start laughing. The girl tries to get a better look and you hold up your arm in defence. One of the corn cobs falls on your chest and burns you. You throw it off, undoing a button in the process.
“She is! She is wearing a blown! Which breast is she covering?” The kids laugh some more. You look to Mama Chioma for help. She has to stop them, she is an adult after all and you are her paying customer. But Mama Chioma is smiling. She blows on the cob which has fallen, pats it down and sticks it back on the fire for a few seconds. She hands it back to you. “Greet your mother for me.” She is still smiling and you know the kids have her tacit approval to behave as they please. They will probably laugh together after you are gone. You will never buy corn from Mama Chioma again.
When you get home, only the thought of being punished keeps you from going into your room to cry. Mother breaks you a piece of the grounded cob which you accept. Eating it feels like munching on dust. You pray for lightning to strike every one of the kids who laughed at you.
You don’t count on how much worse it gets when men notice them…