Art by Amanda Maciel Antunes
Ada snipped her hair with a pair of scissors, tufts of hair falling to and scattering across her dressing table. Photographs of Agbani Darego from various newspaper cutouts were tacked into the wall above her dressing table. In each, Agbani wore a velvety dress and a glittering silvery crown on her low-cut hair. Ada grinned. She would become a model. A popular model. Soon. She was preparing for the audition coming in a few weeks. It had taken three years for her to get the invite. For the first two years, she applied for the audition but received silence. Silence that stung her and wrung peace out of her mind. She’d sobbed and grumbled and refused food for some days until her husband, Ncheta, pacified her. And when, three months ago, she saw the invite in her mail, she screamed, ran to her husband, and hugged him tightly with tears in her eyes.
She rubbed her hair smooth with shea butter and admired her new look in the concave mirror pinned to the wall. Earlier that afternoon, she’d washed her hair with conditioner and warm water. Now she swayed to an imaginary music, her steps measured, waving her hand at an imaginary audience. Then she saw Ncheta standing on the other side of the room near the doorway, his face lined with anger and his fists clenched. He started to approach her, but Ada hurried towards him and kissed his cheek, only for him to push her aside and into the wall. Ada stared at him with startled eyes.
“What’s this?” he shouted. “Jesus! What the hell have you done?”
Held between the walls of her husband’s sudden vexed actions and the pain of her bruised elbow, Ada winced. Ncheta grabbed her hand.
“Why are you looking like this?” He shook her.
“Stop it, Ncheta. Stop it!” Her words, mixed with spittle, settled on his face.
Ncheta didn’t stop. He held her wrist tightly, the pain sinking deep into her bones.
“Stop this. You’ll wound me more.” Ada flinched. Then she touched her wrist. “What’s all this for?”
“You don’t know what it’s for, huh?” he yelled. “When did I marry a woman looking like this, with this haircut? Answer me!”
Beads of sweat fell from his face and pelted Ada’s arm. She moved away from him. Barking, he tore down the photographs of Agbani on the wall, his voice thundering into the heart of the silent night. “It’s because of this nonsense,” he said. “No more. No more.” He repeated it as he shredded everything.
Ada felt that the neighbors who lived in the next flat had heard Ncheta’s voice and would ask her in the morning if everything was alright. She didn’t want that. She had been avoiding her neighbors’ snarky discussion about her. The shame of being asked about Ncheta’s bizarre rage struck her with silence and she went into the bathroom.
Two days later, Ada sat on the sofa, mindful of her bruised elbow that was gradually healing. She was flipping through channels on the TV when someone knocked on the door. The sound was heavy and unrelenting. Ncheta would never knock that way. Anxious, she started to the door, opened it, and found her mother-in-law, Nwanyi Mma, standing outside with another woman behind her dressed in a red dress and clutching a handbag. She was Auntie Ego, the wife of Ncheta’s uncle. Ada greeted them, but Nwanyi Mma only sized her up, sighed, then walked inside. Her curvy backside shook as her footsteps hit the tiled floor with agility. Nwanyi Mma had not changed, Ada thought. Her dark skin glowed with the elu-aki she’d rubbed. Although gray hair peeked out of her gele, Nwanyi Mma remained Ada’s stout mother-in-law. On the other hand, Auntie Ego with her powdered face and neatly penciled eyebrows seemed younger. Ada whispered to her how beautiful she looked. Auntie Ego grinned and sat down.
“So, it’s true, Ada?” Nwanyi Mma held her hands across her breasts. “Ahn ahn. I can’t believe it.”
Ada stared at her, her face contorted in confusion. “I don't understand, Mama.”
“You don’t understand what? What is this?” Nwanyi Mma yanked Ada’s stubby hair.
Ada winced in pain, moved away from her mother-in-law, and muttered curses upon her.
“Or do you want to kill my son? Tufiakwa.” Nwanyi Mma spat and snapped her fingers. “Over my dead body.” She snapped her fingers again.
“Ada,” Auntie Ego called her. “The Umuada sent us here to confirm.”
“Confirm what?” Ada widened her eyes.
“That you cut your hair while your husband is still alive.”
Ada gawked at Auntie Ego, then at Nwanyi Mma, who blew hot with rage. She knew this wasn’t some sort of joke. But it was still a joke to her, how these women had left the village miles away to tell her about what?
“You must do something to this hair,” Auntie Ego said. “Before the news, I mean the truth, finds the women and the entire community.”
“You’ve to listen to her,” Nwanyi Mma said. “If it means using gum to put back the hair, gbo.”
“A woman’s hair,” Auntie Ego continued, “I mean the decision to cut it, rests on her husband.”
“But I have a reason for cutting it.” Ada snorted with displeasure. “Are you not going to hear me out and know why I did it?”
“Any married woman who cuts her hair when her husband is alive is inviting death upon her husband.”
Ada stared at Auntie Ego, her mouth open.
“Whatever reason it is, no married woman cuts her hair unless to honor her deceased husband. The Umuada do that. I mean the cutting of hair. But if for any reason you’ve to cut your hair while your husband is still alive, then your husband makes the decision. He cuts the hair himself.” Auntie Ego saw how confused Ada was. “Just do something about it. Anything.”
The three women fell silent, but filled the room with their stares: Nwanyi Mma and Auntie Ego watched Ada who watched the standing fan that stood close to the TV as it hummed. Ada felt as though her life was spinning and disappearing before her.
“Ada,” Auntie Ego said. “Did you hear what we said?”
“And one more thing,” Nwanyi Mma said. “Kill the idea of going out to show your body.” She screwed up her face. “I heard you want to join these people who . . . sometimes go naked in public.”
Go naked? Ada thought, her lip jutting out. Unbelievable! Like seriously? She couldn’t imagine it now. “Okay, I’ll—” A smile flashed across Ada’s face. “Mama,” she looked at Nwanyi Mma, then at Auntie Ego. “No problem. I have heard you. I’ll do something.” This, Ada knew, was a lie. She didn’t know what she would do, but she needed the women to shut up and leave.
That afternoon, Ada paced the room, mulling over the drama with the two women. What do I do? My God! She ran to the bathroom to urinate, which she’d done thrice in a few minutes. Once back in the room, she grabbed her phone and dialed Ncheta’s number. It rang but went unanswered. She dialed again and again until the metallic voice announced that the number is currently switched off.
Ada fretted, her breathing fast. She picked up her phone once again, having decided that she would call her mother. But her mother did not answer. Ada dialed her mother’s number again.
“Hello, Mum. Good afternoon . . . Yes . . . I don’t know. Didn’t you go to work? . . . Alright.” She breathed fast, listening to her mother talk about an incident that had happened at home. Ada became antsy at her mother’s rambling.
“Mum, wait . . . oh yes, he’s fine,” she said after her mother asked about Ncheta. Ada couldn’t wait. She cut in on her mother, told her mother about the stressful dilemma.
“A married woman?” her mother said.
“It’s forbidden. Highly forbidden unless upon the death of her husband,” her mother said.
Ada didn’t know what to say. She wanted to ask her mother if she’d ever cut her hair. Perhaps before her father died. It’d been twenty-five years since her father died. Only a year old at the time, Ada remembered her father through his photographs. What was it like, mum? She wanted to ask her mother, but all she heard was her own huff.
“Ada, is everything alright?”
“Yes.” She exhaled.
“Or did you cut your hair?”
“Me? No,” she said with a phony cadence. “Okay, Mum. Bye.”
Her mother called back again. “Ada, why do I think you’re hiding something from me?”
“Me? Nothing. I’m hiding nothing.”
“If you say so.” Her mother hung up.
“Ada stayed quiet. She tightened her lips, balled her fist. But she remembered the night when her mother had told her to be a good wife, to satisfy her husband so that he would not go after other women. This was after she’d found condoms in his trousers.”
That night, Ncheta came home late and went right into the bathroom. Ada tried to remain calm as though she were still asleep. Just after he’d dried himself and joined her in bed, Ada sneezed. Then she tossed so that her body touched his. Ncheta didn’t speak or lift himself. Ada, a bit agitated, sat up and turned on the light. She stared at Ncheta whose eyes were shut.
“I can’t imagine that you told your people about this.” She nudged him. Ncheta said nothing. “We need to talk.”
Ncheta turned to the edge of the bed. “Don't worry me,” he grunted.
“What do you mean? This is my hair, my body for Christ’s sake. Goodness! I don’t even understand all this!”
“Your body?” He sat up, his back propped against the headboard. “I don’t have anything to say to you.” He sighed and went back to sleep, leaving Ada to either empty or knot her rage.
The next night, as they lay in bed, Ncheta grabbed Ada’s buttocks, slid his hand under her night dress, and moved up her thighs. Ada hit his hand. “Don't touch me,” she said. But Ncheta pulled her close to himself. She shrugged.
“You want to deny me my right, abi?” he said, gasping.
Ada stayed quiet. She tightened her lips, balled her fist. But she remembered the night when her mother had told her to be a good wife, to satisfy her husband so that he would not go after other women. This was after she’d found condoms in his trousers. For days that grew into weeks, the thought of Ncheta in another woman’s bed troubled her. And when she informed her mother, her mother grew alarmed. Ada still couldn’t believe what she’d said. “I understand. Maybe he wants it too much. Don’t deny him your body.” Ada wanted to scream no, that she had always obliged Ncheta herself.
She pursed her lips, then clasped the bedsheets. Her heart was racing, racing with fury. Ncheta was moaning. She shut her eyes, her mind filling with the image of unknown women hitting her. Terrified, she drew in air and tightened her fist on the mattress. Then she pushed Ncheta away, rolled out of the bed, covered her mouth, and ran to the bathroom, where she fell to the floor sobbing.
Almost immediately, Ncheta was at the door, turning the handle, trying to come in, banging on the door, ordering her to come out. But she would not. He growled, muttered something and smacked his head.
Three days later, Ncheta traveled to the village to see his mother. He navigated through the rocky, bumpy road flanked by huge guava and palm trees, inhaling the musty smell of harmattan wind. He knew he had missed this place and would like to spend some time here—but not now. Not today. Because he told his mother, as soon as he settled inside the parlor, how a mess his life was; how Ada would not talk to him; how his family was crumbling, and how he might go mad.
“Shut up!” Nwanyi Mma shouted. “How can you say that because of a woman? Uh-huh?” Ncheta gawked at his mother, who was scolding him nonstop. He had thought of the best way to relay this to her, the best way to not light up her rage.
“We’re talking about my wife, Mama. My family.” He scratched his head.
“And is your wife not a woman?” She sneered. “Listen, a woman must be submissive to her husband. That’s the way it should be. The way it has been.”
“Lekwa anya, that woman doesn’t deserve to be your wife,” Nwanyi Mma said, stone-faced. “She should be running around, crying, pleading on how to be pardoned for what she’s done. But no. She’s eaten a hard bone. Instead, you came here, running your mouth like anumanu, to plead on her behalf.” She eyed Ncheta.
“It’s not what I’m saying, Mama.”
Nwanyi Mma widened her eyes. “Then what’s it?” She regarded him; her eyebrow furrowed. “I wonder if you suckled these breasts.” She shook her flaccid breasts. “You’re a fool.”
“Mama, I want to settle this as a man, in my own way.” Ncheta frowned at his mother, but she made a clicking sound behind her throat.
Nwanyi Mma grabbed her son’s left arm and started shaking it. She looked into his eyes and said, “You must be mad. Where have you learned this embarrassing disregard for our culture. Huh?”
“Why does it demand too much from us? See, Mama, I’m not interested in it anymore.”
“Shut up! That girl you call your wife can’t . . .”
Ncheta left her and walked to his car. Nwanyi Mma stood there, her hands fluttering in the air, yelling and cursing her son until he sped off, leaving her encased in a spiral of dust.
Ada returned to her mother’s house. The three-bedroom apartment looked exactly the way it had the last time Ada came home: the peeling yellow paint, the flowers that gathered around the building and the small kitchen behind the house. Her mother emerged from the backyard, wiping her wet hands on her wrapper. Seeing Ada, her mother screamed and embraced her.
“My goodness! Ada, what happened?” her mother asked, staring at the bags beside Ada. “Let’s go inside.”
“I left Port Harcourt. I left his house,” Ada said. Then she told her mother what had happened three days ago. She had been in Umuoma—Ncheta’s hometown—having decided that she would prove before her mother-in-law and other women that she was innocent. That she had no intention of seeing Ncheta dead. Although Ncheta didn’t want her to do it, he couldn’t stop her.
On the evening of the event, two women led Ada away only to bring her back with a white wrapper tied around her breasts. She stood barefoot with the other women around her. Ada swore that she’d never thought of hurting Ncheta. Never thought him dead. Not for any reason. She repeated after the woman carrying the calabash filled with water from the shrine of the goddess. “Should anything happen to Ncheta, let the goddess strike me dead.”
Ada mumbled this at first, the words hanging behind her throat like a huge lump of eba. Ada didn’t know what to do or say to the eyes around her, questioning or demeaning her. The woman held out the calabash to Ada, who stayed silent. Someone bellowed behind her: “What is she waiting for!”
She shook her head like a bird emerging out of water. As if her feet quickened under the burning earth, she took the calabash from the woman. It reeked of dead fish and rotten melon. Ada almost threw up. But she held her nose. She was conscious of the mocking voices of the other women, the bellow in Nwanyi Mma’s voice, and the scorn in her eyes. She dropped the calabash and rushed out. The women, surprised and angered, screamed her name.
“I couldn't do it, Mama.” She made a clicking sound behind her throat. “I'm tired of everything.”
“I knew it the moment you asked me about cutting of hair.” Her mother’s eyes were misty. She sniffled and said, “I experienced a similar thing in the hands of your uncles when your father died. They accused me of killing him. They wanted me to swear. They wanted to silence me.” She blinked her eyes. “I didn’t want to tell you this. I felt it’d be different for you. I wanted it to be.” Tears fell through her cheeks. “That’s why I sent you away to Kaduna. I wanted to keep you away from here. I wish you married from another tribe. It would have been different. Maybe.”
Ada stared at her mother, undone. She was sniffling, holding back her tears.
“When your uncles wanted to rob me of your father’s property, nobody taught me to stand up for myself. You know what?” She moved close to Ada and clasped her hands. “Every woman deserves her dignity.”
“His family doesn’t think I deserve that,” Ada said. “Especially his mother. I’m just tired.”
“My daughter, to tell you the truth, you can survive the inadequacies of a partner,” her mother said. “But the taunts of in-laws can overwhelm you. When I noticed this, I was pregnant with you. Ada, I could’ve miscarried you or something. Maybe disappear and marry again. No, I didn’t. I chose to have you. I couldn’t abandon an innocent child growing inside me.”
“Mama,” Ada said, her eyes widened, “Are you saying I should go back to Ncheta? I can’t stay in that house and carry all that burden.” Ada shrugged. “I want to be myself, Mama. After all, I’m still twenty-six.”
“Are you pregnant for him?”
“Pregnant? No, I’m not.”
“Good. The first thing men are taught to forget about us is that we’re humans.” Her mother whispered to her. “But you don’t owe anybody your body or your life. Not even Ncheta. You’re going back to Port-Harcourt.”
“Why? What for?” Ada stood up. “Or are you asking me to leave.”
“Far from it. Ada, you have a job, don’t you? And you have a life. And your dream to be a model? You must never let marriage break or steal your dream. Go back to your life; a woman doesn’t need a man or marriage to become whoever she wants to be.”
Ada rested her head on her mother’s shoulders. She felt the warmth of her mother’s shoulder, the same warmth she felt when she was a baby. Her mother patted her back like she was crooning her to sleep. They stayed like that for a few seconds.
“I still love him,” Ada whispered.
“You’ll be fine. Trust me.”
Resplendent in a velvety dress that outlined her body, full and curvy, Ada was ready for the audition. For the last few days, she was unsure if today would come, couldn’t believe that she would wear her dress and stiletto heels with poise before the tiny crowd gathered there. She rubbed her sweaty palms again and again. The DJ was blasting the room with 2Face’s “African Queen.” Ada mumbled the lyrics and nodded to it. This was a song she admired, that redirected her to herself, and made her know her dream was valid. In the disco lighting, in every corner, at each table, people chatted and smiled and laughed, their faces streaked with neon red. Her mother couldn’t come to Lagos. She had gone for a work seminar in Calabar. However, Ada brought her childhood friend, Ukamaka, to the event.
“You can do this,” Ukamaka said, holding Ada’s fidgety hands.
“Thank you for being here. Always.”
“Of course, you know it’s nothing.” Ukamaka whispered to Ada. “Anything for you, babe.”
“Seriously?” Ada picked up her phone, swiped it and messaged her mother. She told her mother that the event was about to begin. She hadn’t thought that this event would be so glamorous.
“Who are you texting?” Ukamaka tapped Ada’s hand and tried to look at her screen.
“What?” Ada widened her eyes in surprise. “My mother. Just her.”
“You don’t want me to know the new man, abi?” Ukamaka teased her. “It’s not good o.” She puckered her lips.
“I don’t know what you are saying.” Ada stretched her phone to Ukamaka. “See? It’s my mother. Are you fine now?”
“Don’t mind me.” Ukamaka grinned and touched Ada’s arm. “Look behind.” Ada did and there, a few tables behind theirs, Ncheta was seated. He smiled at Ada. She could feel her eyes grow larger, bulge, as though she was embarrassed.
“I can’t wait to see both of you back together.” Ukamaka looked at Ncheta, who was still looking their way.
“It won’t happen,” Ada said. “I know my limits now.”
“What do you mean?”
She smiled. “I’m a woman who is aware of her limitless force.”
“I think he still loves you.” Ukamaka looked at Ncheta. “He’s here. For you.”
“I love him too, Uka.”
“Then go back to him.”
Ada shook her head. “I won’t.”
“See, Uka, you can love someone and still want to stay away from them. Sometimes it’s better for everyone.”
Someone spoke into the microphone. The hall fell quiet. After a few introductions and announcements, the contestants started strutting to the stage. Ada stood up, drew in a deep breath.
Ukamaka took her hands. “Good luck, Ada,” she said.
Ada smiled, her face lit up with excitement. Before she swaggered to the stage, she turned around towards Ncheta and saw him clapping. Then he waved at her.
Okechi Okeke is a teacher and writer whose work has appeared in The Economist, Protean Magazine and elsewhere. He is a recipient of Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award and finalist for Awele Creative Trust Award and the K and L Prize for African writing.
Amanda Maciel Antunes
Amanda Maciel Antunes is a self-taught artist from a small town in rural Brazil who lives and works in Los Angeles. Her work merges durational performance with painting, photography, sculpture, sound, film, and assemblage, using public and communal spaces as points of departure. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and is included in numerous private collections.