Tag Archives: Igbo mothers

Happy International Women’s Day

Today, I would like to remember my maternal grandmother, Madam T.E. Obiora.My grandma.We spent holidays with her at Number 9 Egbuna Street, Onitsha growing up, all of us grandchildren raising hell – quietly. She was not big on noise. Or going downstairs and talking to the neighbours, divulging all her business. She had hearing like a bat! Even when you thought she was sleeping just the creak of the door would have her shouting ‘Onye n’aga ebe ahu?’ – ‘Who goes there?’ in a very awake voice. I think my mother got her catlike sleeping reflexes from her.

My grandmother and I really started getting close when I was an adult and especially after I left Nigeria for the UK. I used to call her for a chat and even though she was never ever frail up until the day she died, I was no longer scared of her.

She had all her teeth; white and solid like ivory walls. I think they remained that way because she always brushed her teeth with an atu – a chewing stick first, rinsed and then used that old timey Close-Up toothpaste that left you with the inability to taste anything for a good few hours. My grandmother was very very clean. Clean to the point of freakishness. If you coughed while you were cooking, you could be sure she was going to eat fruits and nuts the whole day.

This is the last photograph I took of her. It was taken in 2008 on our way to my father’s village for my elder sister’s Igba Nkwu Nwanyi traditional wedding ceremony. By the time I got married the next year, she was dead. The story was that she received news that her last living relative had died, went into a coma and slipped away ten days later. She was 91.

My grandmother was strong and stubborn. She bore all five of her sons first and sent them off to fight in the war, whilst looking after two young daughters. She was enterprising; in peacetime she owned and operated a bakery (with vans and whatnot) and during the war she ‘cooked’ soap and ran a mini-restaurant from a mud stall in Neni. She was one of the people who still operated traditional finishing schools for young girls/new brides before they went off to live with their husbands.

Mama Onitsha as we called her was a staunch catholic, a fierce mother and grandmother. She carried a lot of guilt for the sins of her ancestors and her children within her, like a good catholic should. She could sit and worry at something for hours, mulling it over, turning it this way and that. Her sighs would shake her shoulders. I think I got that part from her. And we all think it is what killed her.

My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller; she filled our ears with folk tales and fables. But it wasn’t until the year before she died did I get the story of what had been bothering her all her life, what she felt she had to atone for.

Today I celebrate my ancestresses through her;  my paternal grandmother Ogbueshi Felicia Mgbeke O Emelumadu and my great-grandmother  Nne Irugbo, my other great-grandmother Nne Okereke and all others unknown to me. I pour out wine for you today and leave a morsel in your memory.

P.S: I am still open to communication if you guys want to hang out while I am sleeping. And Mama, yes. I got your message.

The Hero Series: ‘How to please my Igbo mother-in-law’.

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I don’t have an Igbo mother-in-law. I do have an Igbo mother though. And Igbo aunts, cousins and grandmothers, so hopefully I know what I am talking about.

See, pleasing your Igbo mother -in-law is simultaneously the easiest and hardest thing to do. To survive, to even get through your marriage and come out the other side ready and waiting for death to ‘do you part’, you first have to accept one simple fact: You do not own your husband. She does.

You must also accept that the Igbo mother-in-law does not hate you – unless you genuinely catch her trying to do away with you and I mean without a doubt, everything she is doing is for the good of her son. And you love her son right? You both want the same things. Stop fighting her on everything and just get on with it.

The Igbo mother-in-law is merely trying to show you how your life will be. In a few years, you would have morphed completely into her that you will have difficulty knowing where she stops and you start. Learn from her. The reason she is the way she is comes from the fact that her own mother-in-law had the ideal marriage with her son, as she had with your husband before you came along and spoilt everything. Every sensible woman knows, the only perfect husband out there is the one you give birth to yourself. Why do you think you’re having such a hard time, going on search engines, trying to find out a way to please her? You’re the other woman. Deal with it. You can have your own marriage once you bear a son.

Which brings me to my next point: BEAR SONS. I cannot stress this enough. Try to only have one more son than your mother-in-law has or there will be hell to pay. Are you trying to show her up? You only need enough sons to convince her that her name will not be forgotten. You need to also show her that you are not barren and what other way is there, than to beget individuals that will later on beget others? It’s like a living spring, flowing and flowing.

After you have borne the boys, bear her some daughters because your mother-in-law has found out the truth a painful way: you may smother them with affection but the sons always leave them and take up with someone like you with your French manicure and lace front wigs. The daughters on the other hand, stay. Besides, when the girls grow, she will have a relationship with them that she never managed with you, your husband will be released into your care and you can start the ‘happily ever after’. If you have only boys, you’re screwed. It doesn’t matter if she has a daughter of her own, your mum-in-law. A daughter is not a son, neither is she a granddaughter.  Apples and oranges and ube are not the same fruit.

Then of course there is the normal stuff; agreeing with whatever she says, not spending too much of her son’s money beautifying yourself (yes, even if you earn a salary, it is her son’s money), sleeping in her room/hut/wing whenever you’re back in the village NEVER MIND that as a woman who has borne children, you have by Igbo law, earned the right to your own room/hut/wing. This is an assumption of course. If you have not yet borne children, you’re to sleep where she tells you and shut up. Relinquish the rights to your kitchen. Whenever she comes around, seek her permission/counsel on all matters including what her son should eat. It’s not as if what he’s been eating from you could technically be called ‘food’. Put yourself down at every opportunity and do not ever have a different opinion to hers. You want her to like you right?

Of course you could always see this for what it is and stop trying so damn hard. She’s not God. She can’t create or turn you to dust (again, physically harming you is the exception). She’s a woman who’s been number one for the past 30-odd years and has recently had to contend with her son thinking the sun shines of another woman’s bum. That look he used to give her –  the look that told her that he trusted her with his whole life –  he bestows on your frequently and in non-life-saving conditions. You could see things from her point of view as well as establish yourself in your home/marriage/family. You are the mother/wife  and she is the mother-in-law. You could let her know by your actions that it is a privilege to get to her position, to be somebody’s mother-in-law. It is your time now. You should not have to apologise for loving her son. Some women liken the wifely role to that of the neck. It’s your duty, now CARRY THAT HEAD.

The best way to please your mother-in-law is just to be yourself.  No woman wants a lickarse for a daughter -in-law. What sort of sons are you going to raise then? Them of the feline variety probably.

But most importantly live for your time. Live in your time. You don’t want to be that woman whose daughter-in-law stays up at 2:34am asking Google for ways to please her mother-in-law.

Mama mama, nne, nne: Part 3

“Tell my mother what?” Chidi asked. He was still looking at me, daring me to speak something into existence.

“That you’re … gay?” I took a step back.

“I am not gay.” The tension went out of his shoulders. As they dropped, the corners of his mouth lifted. “I am like you, really.”

“You are…like me?” I took another step back.

“Yes. I am a woman.”

“Oh-kaay. Listen, I was just trying to help your mother, you know in case she was an angel or an ancestor or something…” I trailed off. “The point is I’m going now. Good luck.”

“Wait!”

“No.”

“Seriously, wait!” His hands encircled my wrists. Chidi dropped them as if they burned. “Wait,” he said again.

“Why?”

“I can’t explain it, but it’s just….there is something about you…you’re right, I need to tell her. Just stay. I feel like I can do it with you around.”

“Are you joking? We only just met. In fact, we haven’t really met…this is ridiculous.”

“Lower your voice, she will hear you. Just stay for drinks. A glass of juice? You can’t just leave like that.”

“Watch me.”

“You’ll hurt my mother’s feelings.”

“I don’t care.”

“Yes, you do.”

“No, I don’t. You don’t know me. Oh my God, what am I doing here?”

“You have to stay. You have to help me. All my life I have been wanting to tell her. Now you show up and everything  just seems right. I have to tell her now, don’t you see? And you have to help me,” he repeated.

“This is madness. I don’t know you!”

“I could be an angel or an ancestor. You don’t know.”

“It doesn’t work like that. You have to be old…”

“An ancestor trapped in the wrong body.” Chidi smiled, doing the light-in-eye thing.  His joviality clashed with the gravity of the situation. I studied his face. The brightness in his eye seemed somehow forced, his eyebrows raised slightly too high.

“How long have you known?” I asked, cursing my curiosity. Chidi took a deep breath.

“Since I was three, maybe before that. I used to be quite fond of my mother’s things; her perfumes, hats, shoes….I loved her dresses and her lipstick. Once she caught me stuffing her bra with toilet roll. She thought it was funny so she took a photo on her Polaroid.” Chidi’s lowered his voice. “I still have that photo. I found it when I turned 18. I looked so happy. I haven’t been that happy in a long time.” He sat down on the last step. “Of course, when you’re three, it’s cute. She let me try on a few more things when I wanted…well, technically she didn’t let me but she didn’t stop me either. When I was eight, my father walked in on me trying on one of my mother’s wigs with some clip-on earrings. I still have scars on my back.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms. “She just stood there and let him do it. After that, she started locking her door for a while.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” He shrugged.

“I just never felt like I belonged, in here.” He touched his heart. “Or in here.” He touched his head. “Even in my dreams, I was female.” His voice shook. “You should see me in my dreams. I look spectacular.”

“I’ll bet you do.” Chidi beamed at me. His
complexion was doing the hypnotic thing again, making me dizzy. “How are you doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Nothing. Listen, the good news is, you don’t need me at all. Your mother already knows that you’re a…ah…”

“A woman.”

“Right. I wasn’t sure whether to say ‘transgender’ because doesn’t that mean something different to ‘cross dresser?’ Anyway, she knows. You are just dancing around each other waiting for who’ll say it first. Com’on. Look at you. Is there another reason you’re not married?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty perfect, aren’t I? I’m such a catch.”

“Stop beating yourself up. You’re probably right to want to tell her, that’s the only way you can start living the life you want. But…can I leave first before you do? I really shouldn’t be advising you either. It’s not my life. I walk out the door and you never have to see me again, but your mother is your mother. You’re linked forever. You’ll need to handle it delicately.” A sigh whooshed out of me. “I’ll shut up now. And I really must go.”

“Where are you going?” The woman eyed me. “The corn is almost ready. I peeled off the husk and put it in some water in the microwave. This country, eh?” She looked at Chidi. “How can you keep someone standing like this eh? Take her coat now. My daughter, oche dikwa. We have seats.”

“Eh, Mama, you know that I can’t stay. I have to get home to…I have a date with my friend.”

“He can join us, the more the merrier. Call him. Let me see this person who my Chi-boy does not measure up to.” The woman started tugging at my coat-sleeves.

“Mama, I’m sorry but you’re being a bit…I hate to be rude but…”

“LEAVE HER ALONE!”

Chidi stood to his full height. The woman froze. In the silence that followed I could hear my heart making its painful way back down from my throat. ‘No,’ I thought. ‘Please God, no.’

“Is something wrong with you? How can you raise your voice to me?” The woman’s hands were still on my sleeves. She started tugging again. “I am trying to do what’s best for you. I will not be the only woman in my age group not to have grandchildren because her only child is picky…”

Chidi wasn’t finished. “Leave her alone, Mama. And leave me alone too. I am tired of all these girls you keep shoving in my face. A WOMAN DOES NOT MARRY A WOMAN WHERE WE COME FROM! Let me be who I was born to be!” Just like that, he stopped. He dropped down on the step again. I imagined I could hear a ‘Pffffft’ sound as air went out of him. It was as if he was folding in on himself.

As Chidi spoke, the woman fell against the wall as if she had been struck. Now I could see her swelling, filling up as her son seemed to be deflating. She opened her mouth.

“WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!! Chim o!!!! Chidi alaputa m o!!!! Alu emee m o!!!! Ndi ilo m!” She jumped up and let herself fall to the ground. I could not get my feet to move. The woman stood up again, jumped as high as she could and bashed herself upon the floor again. Chidi reached her at the same time I did. She punched him in the stomach and spat on his head. “Ewoooooooo!!!!!

I couldn’t identify which fluid shone the most on her face; spit, snot or tears. They all mingled in one soupy mess, gluing her eyelashes, running into her mouth.

“So you are still talking this rubbish? You are talking like a drowning man, oooooo Chidi nwa m anwu oooooo!” She started singing a song of mourning: ‘My child is dead, lost, gone forever.’

“Mama, I am not dead.” Chidi looked as if he would throw up. The woman continued screaming. “Mama, please keep your voice down, we can discuss it.” She lobbed spittle in his direction.

“Oh, Papa Chidi why did you leave me? Now they have taken the food prepared for me and they have eaten it. What will I tell our people?”

“Mama, I am still here. I am still your child. I am just not your son.”

The woman got up, untying and tying her wrapper. I looked away. There was a clattering of crockery in the kitchen and she came out again. She had a meat cleaver in her hand.

“Since you say you don’t want to be a man, let me cut it off. Aga m ebe gi amu kitaa! Give it to me. I will bury it at home and mourn my son.”

“Mama! What are you doing…!”

In a leap, I was outside the door and running down the street. I slowed to a jog when I hit the side street, surprised to have come to the bus stop quickly. I put my hands on my knees, my guts threatening to spill from my nose. I felt a disturbance on my thigh and reached inside my pocket.

“Hello? Nwunye? You were supposed to be here ages ago. Where are you?” I said the name of the street. “Another bus should be along right about now. If you get on it I’ll see you in 7 minutes.”

I craned my neck. “It is.” The red smear was getting larger and larger, taking the shape of a bus as it approached. “But you know, I think I’ll walk. I’ve had enough of buses for one day.”

Mama mama, nne nne.

As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I had made a mistake.

“Ah, nne. You are Igbo.” The woman I greeted tucked her phone away inside her bag and beckoned. “Come closer, good girl. Nwa azulu azu.”

I obeyed, wishing that I kept my mouth shut when I heard her speaking on the phone. But her Igbo was so old, so melodious….she reminded me of my grandmother. I greeted her in Igbo even before I realised what I was doing.  I broke my one rule and I was going to pay. I just knew it.

“Onye ebee ka ibu, who are your people?” The woman asked. I felt her eyes weighing the fullness of my breasts, circling my waist and spanning my hips.

“My father is from Oba and my mother from Neni,” I answered the traditional way. I willed myself to do something disrespectful; putting my hands on my hips or in my pockets, or starting my answers with ‘Nya eh’ or ‘Nna eh‘ but my tongue just wouldn’t obey. And I needed my hands to steady myself on the bus.

“You are a true Igbo girl. You know, looking at you I could have sworn you were one of them,” she pointed with her mouth to include everyone else on the bus. “I did not know you were our people.” I made a sound on my throat, unsure of what to say to that. She didn’t seem to notice. “You are not married?” My ring finger burned from her gaze.

“No, Mama.”

“Ah, that is good. You will give me your number. My son is looking for a wife.”

“I have someone, Mama.”

“Someone?”

“We are friendshiping together,” I explained using the Igbo term.

“Yes, I understand. But perhaps you and my son will friendship too, see who you like best. Ogoli nuo di n’abo, omalu nke ka nma.” She pulled out her phone and looked at me. “Ah, you’re not sure? Look, my son is very handsome, intelligent and tall. You will not have akakpo children n’etiwaro slate.”

“Mama, it would not be fair on the man I am with. Just as it would not be fair if I was going with your son and gave my number to someone else just to see.”

“Ok.” Her mouth turned down at the corners and she put her phone away again. “But my heart has received you already. I am sure my son would have liked you. Please press the bell for me, this is my stop.”

“Yes, Mama.” I did as she asked. “Go well.”

“Thank you, my daughter,” she raised her voice forcing a few heads to look up and turn around. “Oh, these old bones. Standing up is such pain. If I only had daughters to help me go to market…Ewuu chi m o!”

“Oh my God driver don’t move!…” A voice shouted.

The woman lay by the side of the road, the contents of her bags scattered around and under the bus. Passengers alighted to help her.

“Is she hurt?…”

“She just fell…”

“Why isn’t her daughter doing anything…?”

There were eyes all over my skin, but instead of a mild irritation at having their daydreams interrupted, they were filled with something resembling judgement.

“Did she push her?” The question broke through in a way the stares could not. My arm had shot out as soon as I heard her scream and connected with the woman’s waist but somehow she managed to wriggle past and end up on the floor.

I had a suspicion she did it on purpose.

(Part 2 tomorrow)