Everything changed when Mama Asabea moved into our homestead. She was like the dry humid air that blows over our farmlands before the advent of lip-cracking harmattan. We were playing in the dusty compound when she arrived in a rickety bus. Kweku, the only one among us who had been to a secondary school says the inscription on the bus read Sexual Sins Few Escape. I wondered what that meant, sexual sin. That question did not hold my imagination for long. I had more pressing issues to engage my attention on at the moment. This included the large melons jerking feverishly on Mama Asabea’s chest. It looked like a jaunted hill atop a flattened plain. She falters in her steps like one who bears a heavy load. There was not much to see in her upper body. Her breast has claimed most part of her chest. The magic was in her voice. It boomed loud and clear like the village gong gong beater’s drum. Her voice takes one’s attention away from her shriveled legs. They looked frail as they struggled to hold the disproportionate body erect.
In the small constricted verandah in front of our house, I could hear the cloaked voice of my mother muttering to herself. Across the distance it sounded like the hissing of an angered mamba. I froze in my steps and peaked up my ears to listen; “the evil men do, even the devil himself is shocked at their behaviour”, I heard her say. “I would go for the saucy part of a roasted antelope if I happen to be a thief. What is the essence of settling for the maimed skeletal part of the meat when you would still be punished if caught? Men and their nonsense.” Obviously, I did not understand such complicated adult talk. I could really not see the link between Mama Asabea’s arrival and thieves stealing roasted antelopes. So, I shifted my attention back to Mama Asabea. The other children in the compound were busily helping her offload assorted luggage from the back of the car. Here a pestle, there a mortar, till all her luggage were packed safely away. I could not join the children because of the look in my mother’s eyes. It sparked thunder and all other vociferous missiles. I was still recovering from the beating she gave me on the day I followed Kwasi’s mother to the market. I positioned myself under the small guava tree and carefully watched the unfolding drama.
In her loud thunderous voice Mama Asabea boomed “I greet you all people of this house. Special greetings to my co-wife who has refused to acknowledge my presence by not coming to meet and greet me properly.” At the sound of her voice windows were clicked shut, doors banged shut and keys were turned in their locks. Everywhere murmurs of disapproval were heard. It was as indistinct as the faint humming of an unfettered bird. Discordant sounds of disapproval rang loud and clear from behind shut windows.
Mama Asabea’s voice splintered the murmurs into a thousand pieces. Beating her over-sized melons of breast, she thundered “where are those offsprings of cockroaches who hide under filthy disdainful shutters to spew out stinking rubbish? I say, where are they?” There was a deafening silence. You could almost reach out and touch the coarseness in it. This reminded me of a banku gone bad. It was almost as if everyone had died and only lingering ghosts remained. I watched my mother busy herself with pots and pans. My friends ceased their laughter and jumping around to observe what would happen next. It was more like the silence that accompanied the death of a loved personality. My insides turned. I knew the outcome would not be pleasant. It felt like the day I forgot my Memory Verse on stage. Father’s face had reddened with dismay. I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me up whole. This is how I felt now.
Against this background of silence which acted as a shield, hurried movements were felt instead of seen and heard. Then a voice rang out. It was as clear as the flow of our village stream after a heavy downpour. There was a time when I could even count the tiny fingerlings swimming in the very bottom of the lake. The face the voice belonged to came out from the mud cake kitchen. In our compound, the kitchen was separate from the main house. It was built with mud bricks and roofed with green thatch. The roof hanged up there in the kitchen like a black cloud. It bore cracks in places which housed lizards. My mother says the mud kitchen tells the compelling tale of our uncomplicated origins. This is where Asantewaa emerged from. She was still clad in her farm clothes. Holding one end of her faded cloth which had obviously seen better days, she wiped away the tears in her eyes. These were not tears from sorrow; they were from the sting of smoke from the hearth. A filthy tattered headband was tied around her disheveled head. She jerked the duku off her head, threw the wooden ladle in her hand away and readjusted her muddied cloth. She looked like a wounded lion whose cub had been wrenched from her arms. Asantewaa had a shrill piercing voice, like that of a police siren. She jumped up and down, stormed the ground with her bare dust-covered feet and rushed on Mama Asabea. The latter stood her ground, unfazed by Asantewaa’s crazed dance. It was like a meeting of two malevolent spirits. None of us blinked for fear of missing out any part of the drama.
When Asantewaa spoke, it was surprisingly in a calm controlled voice in spite of her aggressive mannerism. It felt like the first cup of water one draws from the pot long before the birds start their chirping. “I thought women are supposed to be each other’s keeper. I thought they were to stick as close as thieves. My fellow woman is my sister even if we belong to different far away clans…” In a voice that lashed out like a whip made from cow tail Mama Asabea rudely interrupted, “…keep your stinking backward assumptions to yourself. Who has asked of your opinion anyway? Now listen co-wife, if you want to witness any form of peace in this house, learn to know your place. Take it as an advice from one sister to the other.” We all watched in anticipation. We were waiting for what Asantewaa would do next. Her actions surprised us all. She shook her head, slowly unwrapped her cloth like a man would unravel a precious stone and knelt down in the dust. Even Mama Asabea was shocked. She stood there, a giant iroko tree defying crashing winds, and watched in wonder and amazement. Asantewaa’s shrill shriek cut right through the gathering dark clouds. Later that evening, over our evening meal, I heard my mother narrate the incident to Papa. “It was a lament meant for the gods; she began in the voice my math teacher uses before Monday morning mentals; hideous and calm. It was cloaked in years of oppressive silence. There was neither air nor life in the words; they seemed choked—devoid of breezy life. I felt her pain, my husband, I did feel what she felt. It cut to the very marrow of my bones. This is the wail of a woman whose world has come to an end. And it has, my Lord it has.” My mother paused as suddenly as she had begun. In the dim light of the kerosene lit lamp, I thought I saw what looked like a tear travel from her eyes to her bare heaving chest.
Papa stopped chewing noisily on his food, swallowed the morsel in his mouth and gulped down water from the silver mug. He looked like a man lost in deep thought. His voice, when he spoke, was contemplative, “Whatever it is that is eating up Asantewaa completely baffles me. What is sinister about a man getting a second wife so he can secure his name in immortality. If Kwadwo her husband dies today, who will carry the light that will show the way to his ancestral hut? Must he remain lost in the Spirit World just because he agreed to please his woman here on this side? As Papa spoke, his brows furrowed in deep creases. It was clear this was a matter that touched him deeply. I was eagerly waiting for the last morsel and meat he usually leaves in his plate. In the coolest of voices my mother muttered, almost as if she was unwilling to speak. She said, “What do we women know? Our heads are merely for decoration. This is why we project desires above prudence. Why else does a woman exist except to fulfill the desires of her Lord and master?” Papa snarled his consent and went back to his meal.
I tried to see my mother’s face through the gathering darkness. I was trying to see my mother’s face in the gathering dusk. I was more surprised at what she said than how she said it. Just last week I had to go meet her on the farm after school. I had to wait a while as my mother busied herself collecting cocoyam and cassava leaves. Then we had to branch to Mama Oforiwaa’s farm so we could all come home together. Everyone in our little village of Sekyere Krom knew the story of Mama Oforiwaa. The rumor mongers said she had eaten all the children in her womb. This is why she could not bear children for her husbands. She had been married for three consecutive times. All the men had returned her back to her family. She had become an attractive but unwanted piece of polished furniture. Now her latest husband had married a new wife whose skin shone like diamonds. They say in comparison, Mama Oforiwaa stood like a pale shadow blending into the background. Well, that is what I have heard people say. As the three of us journeyed home, I listened to the conversation between my mother and Mama Oforiwaa.
“My sister it is not easy living in the house of a man who does not even recognize your very presence.” Mama Oforiwaa’s voice was dripping with unshed tears. My heart went out to her. I wish there really was something I could do for her. She had been nothing but kind to me. She is always giving me one fruit or the other. Many times, she had even come to my rescue when my mother wanted to give me a good beating.
My mother continued from she where had left off in the same voice and tone, “Forget these men with over-bloated egos. They think we women are not capable of rationale thought. In the end, we will all see the anus the of the fowl when the wind blows.”
Mama Oforiwaa’s voice was still somber when she said, “My sister why must we wait till the toad dies before we witness its true length? Why?”
This time there was fire in my mother’s voice when she spoke, “Patience, dear Patience”.
Recalling that conversation in the dark of my Papa’s hut sent a shiver down my spine. Perhaps my mother was planning something sinister. She just wanted to lead my father on so he would be caught unawares when she struck. This is why I did not breathe any word to a soul when I heard Mama Asabea and my mother talking in whispers behind our hut. I did not also open my mouth when I saw my mother pouring a whitish substance into Papa’s supper. I was even silent throughout Papa’s funeral. During the days after the funeral, I walked around like a man caught in a dream that consumed all his fantasies. Why then should I open my mouth now that Mama Asabea sneaks in every night to share my mother’s bed? With which voice will I recount the sound they make as they giggle together in bed, that sound that comes across in waves like the moaning of cats when they chase each other across our courtyard?
Afiah Obenewaa is a writer living and working in Accra, Ghana. She is also a lecturer at the Department of English Education, University of Education, Winneba. Some of her works have appeared in online journals like the Mamba, PoetrySoup, ActiveMuse and Hakara, among others.