Art: Olumide Oresegun
You were a late bloomer, almost fifteen when you started growing breasts; small mounds on your chest. Painful at first and you despised them. Your mother came home one evening with a white training bra; she could not hold her excitement. The next morning, she yelled when she saw you wearing your white uniform without the bra, the white training bra. She showed you how to adjust the strap, how to clip the two separating parts, how to move the bra from the front of your chest to the back. You stood still; listening quietly as your mother taught you how to wear your most intimate cloth as a woman. That morning, you cried in the car as she dropped you in front of your school gate. The boys will look at you funny; you were always one of them. You wore your brother’s clothes for end-of-term parties and rapped to American artists with them. You were nicknamed Missy, Eve or Janet Jackson depending on who was calling you. You loved being the last flat chested girl in your class. You watched the girls in your class discuss their period pains and cramps and every night you prayed your period and your breast never came. It was too much, but they arrived. Your breast now and soon, you were sure your period would come. Soon.
Your mother told her friends proudly, “My Ada is now wearing a brassiere” as she pointed to your chest. She began to give you the monthly night talks –to avoid men and tell her when a man touched you or made you feel uncomfortable. She always had a smile on her face, and her face seemed to brighten up when she told her friends about the two tiny mounds on your chest. Her first daughter was finally becoming a woman; her Ada was blooming. Your mother with her moon smile and her dark skin, you had your mother’s skin color but your father’s eyes. Your father’s fair skin, his albinism, his eyes were very light brown, and you inherited every feature from your mother but her eyes. They were a contrast, their younger pictures with your father and your mother holding each other, her Afro and his sunglasses, her small frame, and his height. Her boldness and his reserve nature, he was strict only when he had to be, and she was the talkative whose friends visited often.
Your mother always wore a red lipstick on Sundays when she attended her Umuada meetings; she had a routine, she would walk out of her room with perfume scent clinging to her skin as she asked you how she looked. She always looked gorgeous, “Obiageli, how do I look?” she would say and watch you reassure her of her beauty. Your father always laughed at the both of you. He called her Obidiya, the heart of her husband. She looked like the women in those foreign magazines she bought, the magazines with headlines like, “black is beautiful” and you often wondered why that had to be declared. American magazines are funny.
Two days after you turned sixteen, your first period arrived with a stain on your white cotton underwear. You were in school when it arrived and you rushed with your best friend to the sickbay; Auntie nurse as everyone called her calmed you down and told you everything will be okay. She gave you a sanitary pad, described how to wear it and sat you down to explain the days and how to count it. When your mother returned from her store that evening, you told her how your period arrived. She smiled proudly. Her Ada was now a complete woman. She cooked ofe onugbu with the bitterleaf you washed with potash two nights ago; your favorite soup, she gave you extra pieces of meat, and she told your brothers not to eat with you. Your brothers ate from one plate, and you had yours, your emergence to womanhood had to be celebrated. The generation is buzzing away, lighting up the house and the ceiling fan slowly bringing in a bit of a breeze.
Your brothers were eating without their shirt, you sat, legs crossed to the side as you quietly swallowed tiny morsels of garri after dipping it into the soup. Your mother told your auntie, her sister who was visiting, “my Ada is now a woman, and my daughter is now a woman. She has seen her first period.” They sat around exchanging stories about their daughters’ stages of puberty. Your younger brother Onyedika stuck his tongue out towards you, you rolled your eyes at him.
It was sometime after the Christmas holiday break; you were sitting around when fair skinned Chinyeaka, the most desirable girl in your classroom screamed, “charcoal!” at you as her friends laughed. Her friends were the first to try on make-up, some had to wash it off before leaving school, but in school, they wore eyeliners and shiny lip-gloss. She had the skin color your auntie bought from Mama Jide’s store, the one she mixes and applies daily every night whenever she visits. Your mother would scold Auntie Chinwe for trying to bleach, but she smiled and winked at you. Auntie Chinwe was loved by men, she always had a different accent when the men came to pick her up or drop her off; she would lie to her sister, your mother she was visiting a friend but she would take you to nice restaurants where the men paid, and she giggled with her freshly imported British accent. Chinyeaka had that skin, the one the boys in the class nicknamed opioro mango, a special sweet type of mango with very bright yellow color; The type of yellow Auntie Chinwe created by mixing Mama Jide’s creams and applies on her face every night.
Chinyeaka dared you to say anything as the entire class watched quietly, you could hear her friends giggling quietly as your friends shook their head, telling her to stop it but Chinyeaka was having a field day, “blackie!” she screamed with spite. Yes, once upon a time Chinyeaka was best friends with you, but the friendship faded away when she started becoming popular, when your hips got wider and when her makeup became a bit bolder. She needed someone cool, and you were not a match for her. She outgrew you. You watched Chinyeaka walk away, looking at you, daring you to say something. She was chewing her gum loudly. Your friends told you not to listen to her rant; she was just angry. Someone told the class two weeks ago during midterm exams that Chinyeaka’s mother has been living in Italy for two years now, rumors have it that she is a prostitute there, something that was becoming popular. Women leaving Nigeria; promised a better life in Europe but end up in Italy working as prostitutes. Chinyeaka walked in front of you, chewing her gum loudly and her little gang behind her. She was the leader.
You met Akanuche during your last term in secondary school; he was tall and skinny. He walked with a limp, slightly bent like all the cool boys in the neighborhood. Akanuche was the most popular, he was just admitted to the University, the teachers were on strike and Akanuche was staying with his mother down the street from you. His house a purple faded color was a ‘face-me-i-face-you’ with tenants sharing two toilets and a communal kitchen. Your house, the one your mother finished building after your father’s death five years ago, the two-storied building with a large fence, barbed wired, a small garden and a poultry farm you picked fresh eggs from every Saturday to make moin-moin was painted white and everyone in the street called it white house. It was beautiful, with trees surrounding it, a large cashew tree you kept climbing even after your mother warned you severally. Your mother had a small Internet cafe right after the big black gate and a small house for Musa the security man who made chai, listened to Malian music and prayed five times a day. Musa with his kind eyes and bleached white kaftan. Your mother hired Akanuche to take care of her small Internet cafe.
Everyone was trying to get into the internet cafe business, Nigerian youths were finding opportunities faster now, and information was less expensive. After the military had ended their tight grip, slowly Nigerians were beginning to have access to the outside world through the Internet. Getting internet at home was still very expensive but with the rise of internet cafes, entrepreneurs were taking advantage of charging people by the hour to use the internet, check their emails, try to apply for American lottery, and in some cases, convince foreigners there were millions in Nigeria waiting for them if they could just send a few thousands of dollars. Your mother made sure Akanuche did not allow boys who did this, popularly known as ‘yahoo boys’ in her Internet cafe. Akanuche was good with customers, and he was loved by the neighborhood. He used his popularity to charm customers into the store. He had beautiful skin and a smile that made your heart ocean ready to swim.
You listened to Whitney Houston and thought of Akanuche; you read the romance books your friends sneaked into school, and you thought of him. You thought you caught him staring at you, but Mariam, your neighborhood friend who loved to tell you everything about everyone who lived in your street told you Akanuche had a type. Mariam was convinced you were not his type. He liked light skinned girls. She said it while rolling her eyes and chewing her roasted corn. She saw him with another girl kissing behind their house two Saturdays ago, the skinny girl who attended your rival secondary school. She was sure he had a type, and you were not his type.
Still you wore skirts instead and powdered your face; you wore lip gloss, the only make-up your mother allowed and you made your hair. You made braids because it made your face look even more beautiful. You sneaked into your mother’s room to apply her perfume on your neck, just like the American movies you watched. You imagined Akanuche kissing you. You wanted to be ready.
That August was your last term in secondary school. Akanuche walked into the house, and you were alone. He wanted to leave the store keys and book records with you at the end of the day. He told you how his girlfriend Hadiza was a pain. You had seen them together; she wore tight white trousers and red lipstick, she attended the same university as Akanuche. She had the skin color your Auntie Chinwe bought from Mama Jide; her hair was long. She was part Fulani, part Urhobo. He was worried Hadiza was cheating with a rich chief, Hadiza snapped at everything he did, she refused to pick up his calls. You do not remember why you said it, but you did, you said you wished you could kiss his pain away. He dared you, moving closer and you never felt your heart beat so loudly. Your lips were getting dry; you locked hands with him as he kissed you quickly and you began to shake.
“Obiageli, is this your first time?” Akanuche said quietly, almost whispering.
“Yes. My first time.”
“I will not hurt you. E nu go”?
“Yes…yes…thank you,” you said, out of breath.
It was better than the romance novels you read, better than how your friends in school had described it. You closed your eyes; you heard your heaving breathing, your wanting. It happened again. A kiss there, a kiss here. You were sure this was how love felt. The first time he undressed you and kissed you everywhere, you stopped yourself from breathing. He would return to you again and again, you needing him; him needing you.
It has been two years since you left secondary school and the university strikes were happening almost every three months. Your parents were worried. Eventually, you got admission to University of California, Los Angeles. You told Akanuche you were leaving for America; your visa will be picked up next week. He told you he loved you. You wept, quietly on his thigh. Akanuche ran his fingers through your braids. That was the last time he made love to you, Lagos heat cooled off with heavy rain, the rain beating against the rusted corrugated roof of his parent’s home.
You disliked Los Angeles, you found Americans too cold; no one knew their neighbors. One of your classmates asked if you lived in a tree. In a sociology group meeting, they asked about the war in Nigeria and how poverty felt? You became an African who must have escaped a war, a war you knew nothing about. You became an African who was poor, whose life must have been a midnight clip on local news asking for aid. You called Akanuche often, you messaged him often, you bought cards, scratched it, dialed the numbers, waited impatiently and when his number rang. He laughed when you told him was quite interesting, how people viewed Africans like they had nothing close to anything in America, how so many people taught everyone was poor and starving.
He laughed. He would tell you quietly how he was naked in his bed. When Akanuche was going to sleep; you were going to class. When he was going to class; you were going to bed. However, there were in-betweens. When you both talked on your separate beds in two separate countries. When he saved his money to buy a computer and how he pretended to kiss you through the webcam. How the video messages became a Saturday routine. Your Saturday night was his early Sunday morning. The in-betweens. You moaned to him on the phone; you missed his body, you told him.
He was going to graduate that year. Finally, after the teachers called off their strike, he was going to be the first graduate in his family. You were going to call him on the day he graduated; you set your alarm. Time difference or not, you would call Akanuche. There, the in-between, your time.
Ijeoma Umebinyuo is a Nigerian writer. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria. She is the author of Questions for Ada, her first published collection of prose poems and poems. Her writings have been translated to Portuguese, Turkish, Spanish, Russian and French. In 2016, Ijeoma Umebinyuo was named one of the top ten contemporary poets from sub-sharan Africa by wrtivism.org.