Posted in Girls, Short story

Saving the family

SAVING THE FAMILY

(c) Folakemi Emem-Akpan

You’d always known that this day would come. Yet, your knowledge does not equal acceptance, and your knowledge doesn’t stop your heart from threatening to beat out of your chest, neither does it stop you from breaking out in a hard, cold sweat even though the weather is bitingly cold.

It is early in January and the harmattan season has descended with a vengeance. As you rolled out of bed this morning, you shivered as your cold feet made contact with the even colder floor, and it had taken you all of one minute to be done in the bathroom. Because your family cannot afford frivolities like hot water baths, you take cold baths no matter the weather, not even when you are sick. So, you dumped the half bucket of icy water over your head and ran out of the bathroom

You had watched in front of the broken mirror you share with your youngest sister as the breath escaped you in icy vapours, and you had thrown on three layers of clothing.

But you are no longer cold. There is a heat boiling from deep inside you and the only way that your body knows to respond is to break out in sweat.

How could things have turned this sour just a few days after the New Year celebration. On that day, you’d worn your newly purchased second hand gown, but it had felt brand new to you. You’d felt like you were on top of the world, like you were a princess who had the whole world at your beck and call. You guys were a complete family again; your father, your mother, your four sisters and your three brothers.

All had felt right with the world. There wasn’t much to eat in your house, but you’d made the rounds to more prosperous homes with your siblings and had eaten so much you had a tummy ache for days. You had felt like a child again, not like a young woman, not like someone on whose shoulders lay a weight of responsibility. You had been a child again, and now you are to be one no more.

When your mother pushed you out into the world eleven years ago, it was unwritten that you would one day follow in the footsteps of all the women of the family. By the time you were born, your mother had already given up two daughters, already knew what if felt like to send daughters off into modern slavery.

And, she knew, even as she breastfed you and stroked your head, that she would one day give you up too.

You are the last daughter and your mother has already done this four times. What you don’t know is that it has never been easy for her, has not gotten easier with regularity, and that she cries into her pillow almost every night.

“Beatrice, you should be ready. She will be here any time from now, and we don’t want to keep her waiting.” Your mother calls to you from just outside the house, where she is spreading freshly washed clothes on the clothesline.

She is talking about the woman who will convey you to Lagos, the woman who took the last two of your sisters, the one whom you blame for wringing the joy from their eyes. And now, she’s coming to take you.

You feel the tears roll down your cheek, feel the sadness overwhelm you from the inside out and you feel like you are drowning in a sea of misery.

You sigh, rise to your feet and pick up your luggage, a tattered hand me down travel bag that has been used by many siblings before you. You take a last look at your room, the one you share with your littlest brother, the one where you have felt warmth and love and security. Then you close your eyes to your childhood and step out into adulthood.

You are going to the big city to become a house help, just like all four sisters before you have been. Born and raised in the dry arid village, with no viable means to support a family, most families sent their daughters to Lagos, Abuja and other affluent cities to serve as house helps to big madams. Your mother was a house help before you all, came back home when she was eighteen, met and married your father by the time she was nineteen and proceeded to have a whole parcel load of children.

When the rainfall comes, your father’s tiny piece of farmland manages a meagre harvest at best. Your mother had tried not to have to send you to Lagos and had been making do with what she could sell from your father’s land, but then there has been no rainfall in forever, and there is no produce, nothing. Nothing.

So, to Lagos you are headed.

You are next in the long and unending line of daughters sold off into modern slavery as house helps.

You are not supposed to know, but you know that your parents have already received the payment for your first year of service, and it was that money that was used to repair the collapsed roof of the house. There had been that initial gush of hope when your sisters made plans to return to their duty posts and had their conveyor come get them two days earlier. You were not included in their travel plans, and for a full day, you’d dared to hope, had dared to exult that you were not going to be called upon to save your family.

But yesterday, Mama had called you into their room, kissed you on both cheeks, held you to her chest and told you were going to leave the following day. She’d smelt of palm oil and freshly fried garri, and you wanted to cling on to her forever, to take in the smell of her and never let it go. You’d wanted to go back to New Year’s Day, to take a stroll through your cold dusty village, to sit in a circle and eat from the same bowl from your siblings.

But as all good things do, your dream is fading, ending, forever gone.

You hold your childhood in your fists one more time, then release it, let it blow into the four corners of the earth.

When you step out of your room, you are ready. You are simply the next girl in the Asiegbe family to go work to feed your family and even though you’d rather not go, duty beckons.

Your tears are gone, your hiccups are gone. And when you face your Mama’s emaciated face, it is with a broad smile on your face. But that smile does not reach all the way down into your belly.

Posted in Life commentary, Short story

Losing myself

losing self

Losing myself

© Folakemi Emem-Akpan

As I do every morning, I leave the little boy behind in bed. He is a persistent little bugger, the little dude is, and would come in to me every night, climb into bed beside me, wrap around me those long-forgotten dreams, aspirations, and hopes.

He would talk to me all night. He would besiege me with ideas and visions of what could be, what I should be doing, how I should be planning.

But I always left him behind in bed in the mornings, because he has no place in real life, no place in my everyday hustle.

Life is not for dreamers, I have since realised, it is for people who would hold their lives in their hands to put food on the table.

A long time ago, almost so long I have difficulty remembering it, I had been a dreamer. I had looked at the world with huge white eyes, had believed wholeheartedly that I just had to keep doing what I was doing for victory to come.

As a child, I’d loved to draw. It came to me naturally, and my fingers always flew over paper whether I was using a pen, a pencil, a piece of charcoal. I would look at an image, and it was like my fingers had a brain of their own, because they would remember and render back that image in an eerie likeness. I had entered several competitions as a child, had been lucky to win one of them aged twelve.

And that winning had been the cause of my sorrows, because it had filled my head my head with dreams of one day becoming a professional illustrator. I entered several competitions after that, lost every one of them, but I was firm, almost pig-headed, in my belief that there was a pot of gold on the other side of the rainbow.

And then life and reality set in.

I got my girlfriend pregnant. We were both only 20, and we thought we were going to have a go at it, be fantastic parents, take the world by the horns, be able to provide for this child while still having great lives ourselves.

One thing they don’t teach you early enough is that parenthood is a long, arduous journey and that your middle name becomes sacrifice after you’ve had a child. We were both still schooling, both working at low-income jobs, and we tried so hard to save, tried so hard to make a better life for our son.

We scraped by, we managed. I dropped several courses at school, spread my coursework so that I would eventually spend five years instead of three in school, just so that I could have time to work more. I worked and was so bone tired at the end of the days that I didn’t touch my sketch pad. On days when I didn’t go to work or go to school, I was still so fatigued I didn’t have the patience or the inspiration to put pen to paper.

And then Mariah fell pregnant again. We hadn’t planned it, just like we hadn’t planned the first one. Life became even harder, working to keep a family of four together on minimum wage, while still paying for school.

My dreams went adrift just a little further.

In four years, we had three babies. I dropped out of school so I could concentrate on work and keeping body and soul together. Mariah did the same. We didn’t tell ourselves we had quit school. Instead, we told ourselves we were postponing our education.

And postpone we did. For one year, for two years, for three years.

And then Mariah fell ill.

She’d been complaining that her bones ached for a while. She would come back from work and picking the kids from day care and would literally collapse onto the sofa, unable to bear her own weight anymore. She would cook in the kitchen, her body leaned against the wall, her breath coming in gasps.

I encouraged her to go to the doctor’s, but she didn’t want to.

“It’s just stress.”

I knew it wasn’t stress and I pressured her day after day to go to the hospital. But she wouldn’t, and I knew she didn’t want to go because it was going to cost us money that we didn’t have.

I blame myself till tomorrow that I didn’t insist, that I didn’t bundle her to the hospital myself, that I didn’t drag her kicking and screaming to go get checked out.

She collapsed on the kitchen floor one blustery cold night, and I didn’t find her until thirty minutes after she had fallen into that heap. By the time we got to the emergency room, we were four months too late. She had bone cancer, and it had progressively eaten at her bones for months undetected. By the time she started to feel weak in the knees, she was already at the tail end of things.

They gave her six months to live, and she didn’t even last that long. Two months after we got the prognosis, she gave up the ghost. It had been two months of agony, of soul-searing pain, of nights spent crying silently into my pillow, of mornings spent putting on a brave face for the world.

We buried her on an impossible hot afternoon, left her in the cemetery, and went home to echoing walls and empty dreams.

I was twenty-six, halfway educated, father of three, an unskilled worker, a widower, and I was lost. I would roam the little apartment at night, stroking the kids head, searching for Mariah’s shadow. I would soothe the kids as they shot out of bed with nightmares, but there was no one to soothe mine, no one to tell me that it would be okay.

So, I worked hard. By then, I had become a manager at the shop where I’d once been a salesperson, was earning better pay, but it all disappeared in the face of diapers, baby formula, and daycare. Family pitched in, helped where they could with money, time and kind words, but there was a gaping hole in my heart that no one but Mariah could fill. But Mariah was gone.

And because dreams are only dreams, I now know there would never be a professional illustrator me. There are bills to be paid, children to be cared for, and life to battle.

So, as I do every morning, I leave the little boy behind in bed. He is a persistent little bugger, the little dude is, and would come in to me every night, climb into bed beside me, wrap around me those long-forgotten dreams, aspirations, and hopes.

He would talk to me all night. He would besiege me with ideas and visions of what could be, what I should be doing, how I should be planning.

This morning, I sight the easel pushed into a far corner of our room, shake my head at the ridiculousness of it all.

I know I am losing myself, one piece at a time, but I do not care.

Life is for realists, not dreamers.

 

 

NB: I believe in dreams, no matter how hard or far off they may seem. I am a dreamer. and I encourage you not to give up on yours, no matter your circumstances right now.