My father married seven wives, one for each day of the week he liked to say. He would boast about how he controlled seven women when most men couldn’t even handle one, between gulps of Star lager he would compare himself with King Solomon and declare himself the son of thunder and lightning. He always had a bottle of Star by his side and a stick of cigarette in between his fingers, when I light a cigarette today it is my father’s face that makes me smile.
I wasn’t born to any of his wives, I was born to the wind. She was the one who got away, the one who did not need marriage to legitimise sex and she was the one who thought me inconvenient and took me to my father when I was two. She would come to see me on the last Saturday of every month, bringing dry fish and dawadawa with some naira notes which she would squeeze into my palm before pulling me to her breasts and kissing the top of my head seven times.
Sometimes she came alone, other times she came with a man who would not even come out of his car. The car was never the same and I had no way of knowing if it was the same man or different men, one did not ask ones mother such things. She made grand promises all the time, she told me how she was building a house where she and I would live in, we would have many servants and I would eat anything I wanted. I soon learned to fold my arms behind my back while she spun her tales, I would watch her lips move and wish I were in the parlour with my father who never lied to me.
On my tenth birthday she brought a cake to my school, she wore a black gown that swept the floor and on her head was a precariously perched black veil. My teacher snickered as she set up the cake on the table and I knew that I was going to be the topic of the staffroom grapevine for the month. A photographer took pictures of my mother and I while my classmates had a unified look of shock on their prepubescent faces, my mother would overwhelm you when you first met her. She sang old Nupe songs and danced round the class as she told them the story of my birth, it was a story she lived to tell- the twenty-eight hours of terrifying labour that brought me to this world and made her swear she would never have another child.
When I was thirteen I wanted to visit her, to see where my mother lived. My seven stepmothers thought it was a bad idea when I mentioned it, they told my father of my intentions and told him to talk sense into me. The women acted like I belonged to all of them, I spent each night of the week in a different wife’s quarters, and on the days my mother visited they would sit on the verandah watching us and throw sour looks at her.
“I want to spend the long vacation with you, I have already told Baba and he says ok” I looked at the ground and inspected my left big toe.
“Well you can’t” she said tartly, “I live with a man and I cannot take you there because that is no place for a child”.
“If you do not take me with you then don’t bother coming to visit me again” I shook my head to keep the tears at bay.
“When you grow older you will understand but I will respect your wishes and never visit you again”.
My father’s voice is usually the first I hear every morning, he calls me at 5am my time no matter where I am in the world. His scratchy voice rouses me into full consciousness but this time his words make me sit up.
“Baba repeat what you said” I whisper in a voice I do not even recognise.
“Your mother is dying and she wants to see you, she’s asking for your forgiveness.” He rasps between coughs, he has emphysema and he considers it just rewards for all the sticks he puffed.
She never came to see me after that afternoon in June when I gave her that ultimatum and when my father asked why she stopped coming, I mumbled “I don’t know”. My stepmothers showered me with more love than I deserved and when I graduated from a university thousands of miles away from them, they threw a big party in my honour and printed Ankara with the my graduation picture on it and wore it proudly.
“Which of my mothers are you talking about? Baba, I spoke to them on Sunday and they were all fine”
“I am talking about the mother who gave birth to you, Hassana Asmoudu” He clears his throat and inhaled deeply.
“I do not know anyone by that name Baba and since all my mothers are healthy, I’ll assume this message is meant for someone else”.
“Is that all you have to say?”
“Yes Baba”. I look at the only picture on my bedroom wall, it was one of me with my stepmothers and it was taken only last year when I was summoned to see Baba before he joined his ancestors. The wily old goat just wanted to see me, I am certain he will outlive me even when with his emphysema.
There are many things about that picture that makes me smile whenever I look at it, but today it is the love that shines through that brings a smile to my lips. I walk to the picture and kiss it just before dialling my first stepmother’s number.