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Nigeria will be fifty-four today. The air is chilly and the sun is still sleeping. Girls are busy with chores and gossip. In this hostel, we always have something to say. I walk up to Aisha while trying to wrap my wrapper over my head and shoulders. Aisha is my sweeping partner. She is dark skinned and gap toothed. She talks like a stereo and keeps a record of every girl. I think I like her. As soon as she sees me, she gives a mocking smile at my sad defence for the cold air. “You go soon become dagbo, no worry”. She hands me a broom and picks another up. As we stroll to Sapphire Hall, Ene from block five is being carried out in a cluster of friends. Aisha starts to give an explanation. I like her for this too; I do not have to ask. “Ene still has panic attacks, she cannot handle dark rooms. Her parents died in an unfortunate attack in Benue state. She is said to be the only survivor of the attack, but that was no consolation as she had to deal with the rapes that came after. She cries without any warning” Sitting beside her is the robust Tina. Tina eats for tomorrow and next. She is the only girl who goes to the kitchen during siesta. No one knows her story but we all know her laughter is synonymous to chewing teeth.
We are clearing out every corner for the launching programme. We just got a new centre for baking and important people will be coming to support. After sweeping, Aisha and I walk down to the tap to get water for a bath. Mama Deborah had given a talk on looking our best and keeping to time. Nobody planned to be late by the number of buckets at the water station. The noise was a mixture of shouts, laughter and semi whispers. Some girls rehearsed lines and songs. I would not be giving a line on stage today but I would love to sing another day. As Aisha moved to join her sisters from the North, I stood alone and was grateful for the time alone. Fetching water was a chore I had enjoyed even back at home, as I would get some minutes to myself. As buckets moved in the line, I remembered the movement of the line at Papa Doctor’s house. That was the first and only borehole in the village. I was at this borehole when my younger brother came dragging a carton of soap as his truck to pick me up. “Mariah, mama said you should run home now” he had definitely not been running or shown any sign of haste, but, I knew mother would only blame me for arriving late and not the messenger. I didn’t wait for my turn to fetch, when mother said “run”, one did not bargain or hesitate. My Brother followed at a distance. I entered through the back. The buzzing flies on the plates outside caught my ears but I marched right in, through the short, dark corridor while calling on my mother. “eh, come here, to the frontage” that’s when I saw the tall woman. She saw me first and greeted me with a smile. As I went on my knees to greet, she pulled me up and asked me to “relax”. My mother had such a smile as had never seen before. Wait, I had seen that smile, I had seen it when my brother was born. She had smiled almost as much as my father had. After dinner that night, my mother asked me to sit down. “Leave the plates; your brother would wash them tomorrow. Sit down” as I made my way back to the stool, I was wondering if Henry could wash plates as he did not even know where the sponge was kept. My mother then explained that I leave for Asaba the next day “your aunty will be coming very early, I have packed your things” I understood her but did not really agree that the tall lady was my aunty. I saw all my aunties when my father died and they lived close by. My mother had no siblings, her brothers and sisters had died when they were small. Mother continued to speak “You will go to school. A bigger school and become a doctor”. I remember thinking about coming to build another borehole and having people call my mother “mama doctor”. I did not sleep that night. I kept thinking of the borehole I would build.
I was in JSS two when mother got sick. She had called with Papa Doctor’s phone. My aunty promised to send some money for the drugs. Mother died the next day. Henry was taken to my Uncle’s place in Port Harcourt. My aunty was worried about me. “Mariah, it is okay to cry”. But I could not cry, I tried but the tears were lazy. That night, I thought about the borehole, and then I cried.
The sun was awake now and grinning like a woman with a first son. I moved my bucket forward and listened to the song from the Emerald choral group “I’m a living, breathing, walking, talking, moving miracle. People said I’ll never, but Look. Stop. Watch.” I tied my wrapper around my waist as it was no longer chilly. The girls sang beautifully but lacked a good alto singer. I sang alto in the church choir and aunty said I sang like “a shy Dolly Parton”. Her husband was also a pastor in church and I was used to serving at least a batch of disciples every Sunday. I had always enjoyed going to church but I didn’t go to church when it happened, I went to school. The first person I told was Vivian. Vivian was my best friend. I did well in maths and she could not understand why we had to look for ‘x’. She spoke with an American accent and was the editor for the press club. The first day I arrived at my new big school, she was asked to go to the principal’s office and was talking her way out of the task “cross my heart ma’am, it was an honest mistake. I’ll never it again” She had said “sh*t”. True to her words, I never heard the word again, until I told her. How we became friends, I do not remember. But, as time went on, I tried to help her find ‘x’ while imitating her accents. Vivian was the first person to give me ‘the talk’ before my science teacher gave a brief explanation on the reproductive system in class. Vivian laughed really hard when I asked if she had seen a penis. She also spoke about rights, rape and many other things that made little sense to my thirteen year brain.
I was stupid to listen to her advice that day. How could she have said to tell my aunt? Who does that? And how could I have listened to that “piece of garbage” as she would say? Who tells a woman that her husband raises my skirt whenever she leaves for work? It started during the long holiday. I had finished with the junior secondary school exams and aunty enrolled me for computer lessons down the street. I would help prepare Malcom and Bella, help with breakfast and Pastor would drop them at school while aunty went to work. Pastor would be back for a few hours before going to church for counselling sections. I would lock up and he would drop me at the computer centre and proceed to church. Classes started at 11:00 am and closed at 1pm so, I had time to get lunch ready before the children came back. I was running some water for a bath that Tuesday morning when Pastor walked into my bathroom. He looked at me in a funny way. I asked if he needed my attention and he nodded. When he took off the maroon coloured towel from my chest, I felt very afraid. Somehow, I knew what was going to happen, I pleaded. He said it would not hurt and nobody needs to know. I called him uncle, I kept calling him uncle and could say nothing else as he led me out of the bathroom. He did not drag me; he simply led me like Abraham led Isaac. When he started to take off his belt, I called him “pastor”. When he finished, he got up and chuckled “you did not even cry, you liked it abi, you have been doing it abi?” It happened again, and again, and again.
There were two more buckets before mine and Aisha’s. She was still talking with her sisters and laughing loudly. Vivian had said to tell my “aunt”, she would definitely get him to jail she added. That evening, as we made white rice and chicken sauce, I told my aunty. She was stirring the sauce and didn’t do so for long. It started to give up and burning smell when she walked out of the kitchen. As I turned off the gas cooker, I heard shouts from the masters bedroom, I could not hear what was being said as my aunty was screaming and crying too. I knew Pastor was in the room but I didn’t hear anything from him. When she did not come back to serve the meal, I yielded to Malcolm’s plea and gave him some rice and chicken sauce. I served Bella and myself too. I was taking the third spoon of rice when aunty came to the dinning “pack your things, you leave tomorrow” Her face was puffy and she sounded like someone who had sang on a key that was too high, for too long. That night, I dreamt of a borehole, it was bringing out clean water but as soon as I placed my bucket under the noose, it started to gush out blood. The next day, my aunty drove with me from Asaba to Abuja. She cried at intervals but did not say a word to me. Apart from the trip from my home to her house the first time, I had not travelled again, so it was difficult to keep my eyes open throughout. I must have slept because I heard my name only when the car had stopped. Aunty got down and I asked if she wanted me to come with her, she shook her head and I sat back. I looked around; there were big, enclosed buildings with several types of flowers at every corner. Aunty came back after a long time. She sat with her hands on the stirring wheel and I wondered where we were going next. She did not say anything for a long time but when she did, she was crying “you will stay here; I cannot have a liar in my house. My husband is a man of God and the devil will not succeed. Get down”. As she drove off, I wanted to scream after her, I wanted to apologize, I also wanted to say I had never lied to her, I wanted to cry but I just stood there with a box beside me and my school bag in my hand. I was still looking at the closed gate when a lady in white shirts and blue jeans called me by my name, took my box and welcomed me to “Diamond Foundation”
Aisha came to pick her bucket after I had moved them to the umbrella tree by Ruby Shoes. As we approached the hostel, Aisha gave me the gist from her circle. They had been talking about the presentations for today; the girls in the Sapphire Fashion were going to steal the show with their fashion parade. She wondered why I had not been chosen as my height would definitely pass for a professional model and models were not expected to “shine teeth.” She suddenly asked “will you continue with the sewing or join the new bakers.” Before I could respond she asked “what do you want to do later” I will build a borehole. She looked confused at my answer. “A borehole, what will you do after the event?”