Eleven-year-old Veronica died in labour. Her kinsmen said that starting her period earlier than the rest of us made her a woman. Her cervix had insisted otherwise.
It’s not as if I was so surprised when they married her off. Everyone admired her supple skin, her baby face, her petite frame. But be careful when the person whose gaze you hold is a man. He won’t only admire you, he will desire you. If he is old and rich enough to be taken seriously, soon desire will grow into an uncontrollable urge as it is wont to. One ordinary sunrise will then find him taking concrete steps to own you.
I first met Veronica when we were looking for someone to braid our hair for school. She came to our house in her loose fitting Ankara wrapper and blouse. She was about my age but how she acted like a woman who had lived long enough to be confident in her skin I do not know. She was also astute, and I remember her calculating how much she was owed without a calculator. She braided my hair into neat cornrows that lasted for two weeks at least. She was very professional – she always came on time and she never made excuses. I became her regular customer.
One day, I noticed many people streaming out of Veronica’s house as we drove out of the street. I don’t remember where exactly we were off to, I just remember the crowd that had formed right beside the orange gate of the street – hearty men hugging and shaking hands, women tagging along, equally satisfied and jubilant.
In a few days when it was time to get our hair braided again, we were offered Veronica’s sister Anita in her place. Anita’s braids were not as tight as Veronica’s but they worked. She was more subdued but she also came on time. Our icebreaker was nearly always a ‘How is Veronica?”, to which she would say “Veronica is fine” and add a “I just went to visit her last week”, or “I am going to visit her next week”, or “she is in her husband’s house”.
We soon established a schedule. She would knock on the gate and I would come to see her with my stool, which I would sit on as she moisturized my scalp and braided my hair into the style the prefects demanded that we wear for that week- “all back”, “police cap”, sometimes “two steps”, or “Evelyn King”. Rarely, she would make my least favorite style – “teacup and saucer” – box braids standing tall at the center of my head, and around them, cornrows falling centrifugally.
Later that year, one of those “How is Veronica?”s ended in a matter-of-fact but pained “Veronica is not with us again”.
Before then, it had not occurred to me that giving birth, something spoken about so ordinarily, could take a life, worse still, that of a girl like Veronica.
There is no telling what the initiation will involve, that valley of death the woman goes through before earning the coveted title of “mother”, even better than “wife”. Yet not all women die. Some only come out of the initiation fires with scars from the knife. Or with a vagina they cannot recognize. Or with stretch marks. Or fat.
Or changed in every other way but the outside. The respectable young lady would be transformed from an object of desire to an animal feeding her young. She would relieve herself of blouse and bra, with them ladylikeness, to nurse in front of men and boys and random passersby. That would be a wonderful liberation if she could not only do this upon expiring out of virginal desirability.
Perhaps it was a privilege still – she had earned the right to be nude in public without being judged. The only other way for a woman to earn this right was for her to be past her prime – with breasts defeated by gravity to show for it.
Or perhaps it was that her body had become something other than hers – a noble, utilitarian thing.
If my husband and family would not think me mad perhaps I would have voiced this hesitation to him. I had no dream of my body being other than mine, not even for noble reasons. I did not want to unstrap my nursing bra, to reveal my breasts, fair from being hidden away for years, nipples swollen and sore, tapped for milk, watched by my mother in law for technique, and used to stuff a child’s mouth. I did not want my vagina to be a common thing peered into casually, entire fists shoved into it. I did not want to simply be another mammal with child. I did not want my body to be a new country – not after I had suffered to reacquaint myself with her after puberty – with new landmarks and languages and signposts.
I can see how I could be seen as selfish. My husband is an honourable man and so are his people. In marrying me, he saved my entire family from poverty. He built my father a house and sent my siblings to school. He has never beaten me. He sent me to university. I know they will say all that education is why I can think such an unspeakable thing. If children are a blessing from God and I don’t want them, am I not the devil?
He was thirty, worldly and handsome. I, sixteen and naive. My parents had already agreed before I ever spoke to him. They waited for me to finish secondary school and then they told me. Why did I not say no, you ask? I did not know what “no” was. Who refused the honour of being taken by the first son of the richest man in town? A small girl like me?
I keep the pills in my office drawer instead of at home. When I get home at night, I join my hands with him and we kneel and pray as we have for the past seven years for many children, but at the very least one boy. I accept every invitation to attend night-vigil after night-vigil for women looking for the fruit of the womb with my mother-in-law. This shows her I am serious about conceiving. The pastor pitifully tells me that it will be my turn this time. There is nothing God cannot do. I humbly but forcefully say “amen”, signaling to my watchful mother-in-law that I have received the prayer by faith.
She is not a wicked mother in law, the type to call you a man because you have not borne kids, or to find her son another wife even though I would understand if she chose to.
Each month is advent. We wait expectantly for the promised child. Sometimes, she says to fast during that window of time and fast I do. Then we wait.
When the blood comes, I go to her crying. She holds me and tells me all will be well. I acquiesce upon being commanded emphatically to have faith.
Why do I indulge her, you ask. Why not? She looks to God for her solution and I look to medicine for mine. For that I should be thankful to God.