They said he was a rich man, and that he would take care of me.
My father, a well-known dibia, had consulted the gods and the forecast was good. He was from a good kindred, well-respected among his people, and could provide for his family; and that was enough for my father and more than most girls got, but it did nothing to calm my nerves. I did not know much about him but his home was only a walking distance from my father’s house; so I told myself that if all hell broke loose, I was not too far from home. I was my father’s heart, so it would only take one cry from me, and his ancestry would be cursed forever.
I did not deceive myself though. I knew that if I went back home, it would have to be for a good reason.
Anyway, I did not wish for that; and from what my friends had heard about him, he was a good man. Actually, my friends said I was lucky and that they wished they were in my shoes, but I was not feeling so lucky. Instead, I was suspicious. Men who had more than two wives made me suspicious. Having two wives was commonplace, but why take a third? “His first wife couldn’t bear him a child.” My know-it-all friend, Ebere, had discovered. “So that one is just taking up space in the house. You will be the proper second wife, not the third.” I felt a tinge of guilt as my best friend callously shooed away the relevance of his first wife with a wave of her hand; but the guilt did not rid me of my concerns.
I remember when my father called for me the day he came with his people to ask for my hand. My feet were rooted to the ground in the small room I shared with my siblings in our mud house. It was not until he called my name again and added “nde oso ohwi no?” demanding to know where I was, that my feet suddenly began to work again but only momentarily for I froze when I saw him. What nobody, not even Ebere, had warned me about was how handsome he was.
I quickly got my wits about me and greeted. The last thing I needed was my father asking me where my manners were; I would have died of embarrassment. But just as the words left my lips, he stood up and I became awe-struck again. Nobody warned me about how tall he was either! I told myself I had to remember to pinch Ebere for keeping me so uninformed. The man must have thought me a deaf mute when I did not respond to his “kedu?” I just nodded and scurried off. I do not remember much else that transpired during that brief meeting but I remember the way he smiled at me. I remember it because it had made me shy. He looked at me like he had never seen anything so beautiful and that smile haunted my dreams for days.
We were married two moons later, and I remember how nervous I was on the way to his house. As we walked the wide sandy road that led from my father’s compound to his house, accompanied by his kinsmen, he kept glancing over at me. I kept my head lowered, trying not to bring attention to myself – which was difficult to do because every inch of me rattled with each step. I knew it was customary but the jigida on my hips, the cowries on my ankles and the beads on my wrist were driving me insane. How was a girl supposed to walk unnoticed if she was a walking musical performance? Perhaps a better question was how I expected to go unnoticed on the day of my marriage.
The third time this tall, handsome man would knock me off my feet was when we arrived at his house. It was the most beautiful structure I had ever seen. It looked as tall as the big houses I had seen in the white man’s magazines that Ebere had managed to steal from somewhere. The only difference was, there was no ground floor; instead there was a staircase leading up to the first and only floor. It had beautiful shutters that were painted white to match the unique black and white pattern painted on the rest of the house. To the left of it where earthenware pots that stored water for household consumption, and to the right where beautifully trimmed flowers.
It was perfection.
As expected, there was a crowd waiting for us upon our arrival; many with happy faces and some with suspicious looks. I heard a few say “she is beautiful” but they sounded more disappointed than pleased; and I could have sworn I heard scorn and hatred in some of those voices. I tried to ignore it.
As is the norm with Igbo traditional weddings, the festivities continued through the night. I was shown to an expansive room where I was to stay, and it was only after hours of waiting for my husband to come in that I realized it was my room. I heard through village gossip that he had given me the best room as I was his pride and joy. It made me happy but I did not let it get to my head. In as much as the youngest wife was always the favoured one, I certainly did not want to step on the toes of the older wives. There was no telling what benefits their allegiance could bring. More important, there was no telling what untold disasters their hatred could. Nevertheless, I was happy. He was a good man, and a good provider.
Six years and three more wives later, my husband was still a good man and a good provider, but I was no longer the wide-eyed gullible young girl he had married. I had become a little hardened and learnt quickly that not everyone that smiled at you was your friend. Especially when you were the first one in a polygamous household to give your husband a son.
I learnt that if you cooked, you stayed in the kitchen till the food was ready, then you took it up to your room and made sure that your children ate ONLY your cooking.
I also learnt to guard my firewood like a hawk, and lock up all my cooking utensils in my room as they tended to disappear. You can say I was paranoid, but we all were.
Cooking meals for our husband was done on rotation, as was sharing his bed; even though the other wives claimed he frequented my room more than he did the others. In fact, till today, people still swear that I was his favourite, but I stopped thinking that way a long time ago.
You have to admit, it’s hard to do so when you are the third of six wives.
He was away on business in the North as usual when word came to us that he had taken ill and died. Azubuike, my youngest, was still breastfeeding at the time. Cries went up all around the living room where we were gathered, but I was in a daze. He looked, and had always been strong and agile, so how could he just die? Thanks to my upbringing, my first thought was that his death was not natural. Suddenly I started to look around the room suspiciously at all the other wives. None of us worked, we were all housewives and for that reason alone, one could argue that it would not make sense for any of us to kill our husband – especially as he was the sole breadwinner, but I have heard women kill for many reasons and since every wife had adopted an “every woman for herself” attitude, everyone was a suspect. Suddenly realizing I was the only one not wailing, I quickly came to my senses and started weeping quietly but audibly, lest all gathered think me the culprit. Cradling Azubuike to my chest as I heaved back and forth, I wondered how my children and I would survive.
The men that brought the bad news, members of my husband’s umunna, waited for us to cry a little longer before they continued. They went on to let us know that they had decided amongst themselves to train their brother’s children, and the sons were their first priority. The gasp left my lips before I could stop myself. All I had were sons; three of them to be precise and from what these men had just said, they were all going to be taken away from me.
It was then that I began to wail.
They said he was a rich man, and that he would take care of me; yet here I am grieving his loss and the loss of my children.