The Land of Honey
I can’t believe today is the day. The day I kind of become Mrs. Apparently of all the degrees in the world, this is the most sought after: master of romantic studies (Mrs) with honours. Zimako has honoured me by making me his princess. He says he’ll be calling me “Obidiya.” So this is how it feels to be intoxicated with happiness.
The excitement was palpable as dancers jumped down from a luxurious bus, which was showing signs of wear and tear from years of travel on the roads of eastern Nigeria, proudly bearing the inscription, “The young shall grow.” The drum-mers upped the ante as soon as they espied the dancers. The Atilogwu troupe accompanied the groom’s people all the way from Imeobodo. Costumed gaily in their colourful regalia of bright red, yellow, and green, they set up their stall under the fruit tree. They could not stand still; as they pranced on their tiptoes, their anklets jingled in rhythm to the percussion of ogene and udu by the musicians.
They were followed closely by two Hiace buses which offloaded Zimako’s kinsmen from Imeobodo, led by Ogbandiogu, the go-between; he had mediated between the families. A convoy of prestige vehicles majestically made their way into the compound. Some village children trailed in pursuit; others gazed in awe as they observed the event. Passers-by and market women shouted, “Ndi-ogo Nno, O,” welcoming the guests and in-laws as they arrived for the Igba Nkwu Nwanyi, the traditional wedding rites and payment for the bride.
It was business as usual for the okada drivers. These daring motorbike riders served as public transport. They zoomed along the dirt road, raising the ubiquitous red dust that coated everything in view.
* * * * *
It was quite a spectacle.
Some mmanwu, or masqueraders, were out displaying their art. Their otimpkus surrounded them, plucking branches from trees, and in a display of supernatural endurance, flogged each other as they gyrated.
The scene was set. It was billed as the wedding of the year.
The cat that got the cream was the only way to describe how Zimako was feeling.
They had come all the way to the village, as is customary according to native law and custom. His parents, Ichie and Okpue-umu-agbala, his twin sisters, Makua and Chinazo, and of course his brother, Okwe, were key players.
He was the diokpala. The family were not to be outdone and had come in a big way for the ceremony.
* * * * *
Zimako pinched himself to be sure he was not dreaming. Anuli was a beautiful bride. She was his prized jewel and he was a very lucky man indeed to have won her heart. She was all he had dreamed of and more.
* * * * *
The elder kinsmen were in camera haggling about how much I was worth. They wanted the Ndi-ogo to know that I was a valued flower in my father’s compound, in whom much had been invested. Now that I was yielding fruit, Ndi-ogo wanted to take me away; it is true that Ndi-ogo had shown excellent taste, but it would cost them. This banter was in good spirit and eventually they agreed on a worthy price.
Ndi-ogo brought out their chequebook and the elder kinsmen became incensed. They demanded the payment in cash and extinct coins in akpa-ego. They argued back and forth on what would be a reasonable bride price, otherwise they threatened that it was over – they were prepared to leave. One allegedly almost came to fisticuffs with Papa Philomena. At this point, Prof (my father) spoke up and said I was not for sale and no price would make up for his loss; he was gaining a son, he said, and extracted a promise from Ndi-ogo that they would love his daughter like their own. That settled the matter. The parties sheath their proverbial swords, Prof had said it all.
The group made their way down to join the gathered guests, who were waiting with bated breath to know if deliberations had gone well. The MC handed the microphone to Ogbandiogu, who made a short speech and called for me to come out.
* * * * *
I came out dancing and smiling bashfully. As I approached the elders, I was handed the gourd of palmwine to present to the man who would be my husband. I knelt down before Zimako, took a sip, and then tenderly looked up and passed the gourd to him. Drinking from the cup with a confident swig, but leaving the dregs, he sealed our union as man and wife. The crowd clapped their hands in congratulations.
The eldest of the kinsmen was then handed the microphone, and he started to pray. Using Schnapps as libation, he prayed for good things that any newlywed couple desires. He called on the gods of the land present and witnessing the journey of the young couple to bless us with good luck, fruit of the womb, long life, joy together, and a peaceful home that welcomes strangers and prosperity. The crowd concurred, answering, “Ise!”
The formalities were over for now; it was time for Zimako and I to have our first dance as groom and bride. Zimako and I joyfully took centre stage in the central clearing, swaying to the rhythm. Guests sprayed us with naira and dollars, sprinkling the cash on us in a flamboyant display of generosity.
Soon we were joined by my friends in aso-ebi—gaily, uniformly dressed maidens instantly recognised as friends of the bride. These women, who had come all the way from the city to support me and celebrate with me, hoped to find a man of their own today if single. Meanwhile they showcased themselves, serving as hostesses for the day, and they danced and collected the money that was now lying in the dust.
The floor was open to everyone.
My mother strutted and danced as mother of the day. Her friends were identifiable by their own aso-ebi, which was fuchsia pink and gold head ties with matching aso-oke as sash. They sprayed her with cash as they danced along with her. Prof, my father was in full traditional ibo regalia – Isi-agu, joined her on the dance floor with his friends, spraying her lavishly.
Food and drinks were served.
Everyone was having a great time.
* * * * *
Zimako sat back in his mock throne under the marquee and grinned contentedly.
He cast his mind back as he smugly observed the dancers, elders, and invited guests who were here to celebrate with him and Anuli.
* * * * *
Yes! Yes! Yes!
Zimako made a fist and raised one leg, bending his knee. Then he jumped and punched the air.
“Yes!” he shouted again. He was filled with joy. Zimako and Anuli had been dating exclusively for over a year, and from the moment he laid eyes on her, he knew in his bones that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. She was everything he hoped for and more. He was a lucky man. After one year of courtship, he decided it was time to find out if she felt the same way about him. When she said yes, Zimako could hardly believe his luck!
* * * * *
Zimako felt his heart pounding. The prospect of approaching Anuli’s father was one that filled him with trepidation. He knew Anuli was the apple of her father’s eye. If he decided he was happy to accept Zimako as his son-in-law, that would set in motion the whole traditional wedding brouhaha. That was what he dreaded the most. He had heard urban tales of how that could make or break a full-fledged man. He knew that in-laws could be sly, demanding, obscure and weird, setting the bar high for an unsuspecting groom. It was a rite of passage that was not for the lily-livered. It was a journey that transformed boys to men.
Zimako had always hoped that when the time came for him to take a wife, he would know what to do and do it with dispatch. Now he was not so sure he was ready and able. It was a merciless process, and every action was subject to scrutiny from elders and in-laws alike.
First things first; he had to inform his parents of his plans to marry Anuli.
When Zimako phoned his father, Ichie Adiora, to inform him of his intention to take a wife, Ichie was pleased. The date was arranged for formal introductions, and he took Anuli back home to the village – Imeobodo, where his parents resided to introduce her to the family. This would also give them the opportunity to observe her and see how well she would fit into the family. Okpue-umu-agbala, as Zimako’s mother was popularly known, had carried out the covert traditional tests to see if Anuli was wife material. She was required to cook ofe onugbu, a traditional Ibo delicacy of bitter leaf soup, and they observed to see if she knew omenana and understood the proper order for serving kolanut to the elders.
Ichie was satisfied with Anuli; he could see why his son had fallen for her charms. She was pretty and respectful and did not have any airs about her. Okpue-umu-agbala, however, had some reservations and was reluctant to give her seal of approval. No woman was good enough to take care of her boy; but in the face of Ichie’s unstinting approval, she was cowed into silence.
* * * * *
I was dancing my heart out and having the time of my life. It was my day; I had dreamed of this day. Since being a flower girl as a child, I had subconsciously been planning this day. Zimako had done me proud. He promised and he delivered. If this was any sign of our life together, I was sure I was doing the right thing.
* * * * *
“I’m so excited! He proposed! On bended knees…!” I had broken the news to my sister Chiamaka. “Zimako asked me.”
Chiamaka whooped. She sounded nearly as excited as I was feeling. She and I were very close. She more than anyone else knew I had fallen hard for Zimako, and in the early days she prayed he would not act like one of those Lagos boys who trampled on the affections and hearts of those who gullibly fell for them. They were now comfortably friendly, like brother and sister. She was happy for me.
“So, when are you getting married? Do you like the ring? Of course I’m going to be your maid of honour!” She said all this without stopping to catch her breath, then feigned a cough. It was no secret that I was Dad’s favourite, and anyone who wanted to marry me had better be ready to answer to him.
“Zimako is in for it. Dad will chew him up and spit him out. Hmmm, I’d like to be a fly on the wall. Promise you will give me the low-down verbatim,” Chiamaka said.
I had to agree with my sister. “I know, I have already warned Zimako. He knows it won’t be easy.” We laughed raucously.
“Mummy will be so proud of you; I want to be just like you when I grow up,” Chiamaka said affectionately, giving me a tight hug. She was the best little sister.
That Saturday, we hit the Lagos–Ibadan expressway. Zimako was more nervous than I had ever seen him. He was dressed in a simple brocade Senegalese-style kaftan. He did not want to appear too ostentatious.
The first time we had gone to Ibadan, he was smartly dressed but did not wear a jacket. Prof asked him outright where his jacket was. That had been a tense visit; my two favourite men sparring with words, fighting over me, it seemed. Dad interrogated him about his career, his ambitions, his pedigree, and then his intentions. I remember being tickled by that phrase, “Are your intentions honourable?”
It was midday by the time we finally arrived. The one hundred and fifty-kilometre journey could be done in two hours, but the poorly maintained expressway was riddled with potholes. And then on arrival in town, the congestion and confusion that is characteristic of the Dugbe Junction added another hour to the trip. Mummy was worried and Prof was getting impatient.
My parents lived on the University of Ibadan campus. The house I’d grown up in was a bungalow on a quiet, tree-shaded avenue. Observing the campus and our home through my fiancée’s eyes, I remembered him commenting on how clean and Old World everything seemed. The driveway was swept clean and neatly lined with Mummy’s floral pieces, and the lawn was well-manicured; Mummy was proud of her garden.
As we got out from the car, in a show of solidarity, Zimako and I held hands, and I leaned in and kissed him lightly on the lips, him trying to deepen the embrace and me teasing, pushing him away with a promise to deliver more later, when he had passed the test. I reminded him, “Prof will try to unnerve you, baby. Don’t let Dad make you nervous.” Zimako squared his shoulders and indicated he was ready to make a good pitch to win my hand. I could not stop smiling. My fingers were crossed.
Prof was listening to the BBC World Service News, but as soon we came in, he approached us, gave me a warm hug, and offered Zimako a handshake. “You are looking just like your mother when I married her,” he said, and we laughed and hugged again. He was more formal as he addressed Zimako. “Young man… ”
I tried to read his body language, but found it difficult to interpret. I reached out to hold Zimako’s hand and it felt damp with sweat.
“Mummy! We are here!” I called out as I made my way to the kitchen. I gave Zimako a reassuring glance, but that was the best I could offer him. The tension in the room was stifling.
Mama was cooking enough for a banquet. Her face lit up when she looked up and saw me. “Omalicha nwam, how are you? Hope the road was not too bad. How is work? You are looking very well.” She rose to give me a half hug, holding the large wooden spoon in her right hand.
“I can’t complain, Mum,” I said. “Come, Zimako is in the parlour with Papa. You know he will grill him if you are not there.” Mummy had a calming effect on Prof. She would stare him down when he tried to bully anyone she thought was the underdog. We chuckled.
“What? And take the fun out of this for your father? Let Zimako face the music. My daughter, men are funny creatures. If we don’t make it tough for him, he will not value you. No, let’s give the men some time. You know, you don’t want him to think he is getting you cheap. Nwam, let him squirm and prove he is man enough to win your hand.”
I looked around to see what I could do to help. “Mummy, you have already done all the cooking; there is nothing left for me to do.”
“You are right, my daughter. Come to the room and chat with me while I get changed.”
Mum and I made our way to her room that adjourned the master bedroom. My parents had never shared a bedroom. There was a connecting door between both rooms, and when the door was open they had a full view of each other’s room. The smell of Mum’s room was comforting. It had a faint smell of cotton and mothballs, and the fresh fragrance of clean washed clothes. She settled down on the bed and patted it for me to sit beside her. I sank onto the bed obligingly. I knew this meant that Mummy wanted to impart some pearls of wisdom.
“Nwam, congratulations! Chiamaka hinted at your news.”
I smiled but was seething inside, mentally wishing I could strangle Chiamaka for stealing my thunder. Mummy read my mind. “Don’t look so mad.” Mama laughed. “You know your sister.” So much for surprises.
That was just the beginning. Mummy had more to say. “Anuli, I want to talk to you because many people go into marriage not being prepared, but I want you to enjoy a happy marriage like your father and me, even better.”
She had my full attention. “You see, your husband loving you is all well and good. Indeed, that is the start. Your husband’s love for you is very important, but… ” She paused for emphasis, looking into my eyes, plumbing the depths of my soul. “If you want that love to last, you have to also win his respect.”
I was listening closely.
“To achieve that, you have to exhibit maturity beyond your years. No matter how angry or upset you are, make sure that you always have his food ready and set out on the table for him. It is true that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
I wished I had a notepad in hand.
“Number two: whenever you are in public, let him enjoy the limelight—don’t upstage him. Men’s egos are very fragile and sensitive; keep your opinions till you get home.”
I wanted to say something; this pandering to his ego was rather archaic. Once again, as if she read my mind, Mummy stared me down in that way she had. “Sshhh, I am still talking, Anuli. These things are true and I want you to take them to heart. You will not regret it. Three, do not give voice to your anger—calm down, and remember that he loves you and does not mean to hurt you. Speak honestly and tenderly to let him know if he hurts you. Do not be ashamed to reveal your vulnerabilities.” Mummy finally took a deep breath. “Can you hear me? Are you listening? Do I still have your attention?” she asked. I nodded. She wrapped up, “Last, do not give him any reason to feel jealous or insecure.”
Mummy was done. I had not realised I was listening with bated breath. I took a deep breath in and heaved a sigh of something akin to relief.
“Nwam, I think I have covered everything unless you have anything you want to ask me.”
“Mummy, it is about infidelity… ”
Mummy looked at me with concern bordering on panic. “No, no, Zimako has not been unfaithful. He is the most loyal and dependable guy, but you know Lagos women. What should I do if I suspect something is going on?”
Mummy had moved away to the dressing table when she concluded her talk; she came back to the bed and sat down beside me. “If you ever suspect there is a strange woman in your marriage, do not confront him; he will become emboldened. Use guile to introduce the discussion. Let him know that you will not tolerate it if you ever hear there is such a thing going on, and that he will lose your respect. He will not be sure if you know, but to retain your respect, he will work hard to end the affair.”
Mummy looked really lovely when she was done. Her headtie Ichafu was very elaborately tied. We headed back to the parlour where Zimako and Dad were chatting over a bottle of palmwine. Zimako was relaxed. I was happy that he had somehow managed to hold his own. I caught his eye and gave him an enquiring look. He winked back and gave me a thumbs-up.