What Matters is the Way We Are
By Ayodele Morocco-Clarke
Monday, May 10, 2010.
For years, I have written this letter numerous times, initially in my head and subsequently on paper. All my previous efforts have failed, for I ended up destroying each draft before I could summon the courage to post it to you. After Balkisu told me that she saw you and you had enquired after me, I have resolved that this time, things will be different; there will be none of that dilly-dallying vacillation that has characterised my previous efforts. This letter will be sent even if I have to trek all he way to the post office in Bukuru and bribe the postmaster to deliver it personally to you.
I do not remember the first time I clapped my eyes on you. It must have been sometime during our inaugural ceremony. Most of us were between the ages of ten and twelve, and we had just started secondary school at Queen’s College. Like every other first former, I was preoccupied with feelings of self-pity, of fear and anxiety about the new journey upon which I was about to embark on. Being enrolled in a boarding school was a daunting prospect for all of us, since no one had been away from home for any extended period of time. Unlike most of the other new students, I had a minute edge. My cousin was already a student at the school and being a senior prefect, she was able to smooth over my rough days, helping to make the change easier.
Homesickness was a feeling that became second nature to us in those first few weeks of our stay in a new environment. Many a night, newcomers could be heard crying into their pillows and there were a few “seniors” who, remembering what it felt like when they first came to the boarding school, tried to comfort the distressed pupils.
My cousin shared the same dormitory as you. For the first few weeks of our time in school, I spent all of my free time in your dormitory in her company, and since you and I were both new students who shared similar interests, our bond grew.
Emotan, I know it has been several years since I last saw you, but little everyday things bring thoughts of you flooding straight to my heart. Just yesterday, Halima, my little five year old daughter, scrapped her knee while playing with the other children in the yard. While I was comforting her, she put her angelic little arms around me for a hug and this reminded of the countless cuddles you and I shared.
That hug brought back the memory of the day you came sobbing to my room in school. Some wicked “Senior” (do you remember that that is what we called all students in years higher than us?) had given you the excessive punishment of scrubbing the smelly school toilets, in addition to making you kneel for three hours under the scorching sun, simply because you forgot to take her food to her in the dormitory. You felt doubly aggrieved because being in the third Form you had been humiliated in the presence of junior students.
I remember the tears streaming from your bloodshot eyes, and you attempting and failing to wipe the snot that was escaping from your nose with your sleeve. I tried to comfort you as we lay in my bed, gently hugging you to myself and stroking your hair until you fell asleep in my arms.
It was right there in my bed while looking at your beautiful face in repose, that I realised for the very first time that I loved you. I had just turned fifteen and my feelings for you both scared and confused me. These were not feelings a girl was supposed to have for another girl. I recall gently extricating my arm from underneath your shoulders and leaving you sleeping on my bed while I disappeared to one of the empty classrooms to analyse the strange emotion I had started to feel for you.
The next few weeks were traumatic for me. I avoided you as if you had a communicable disease which would spell my end. I stopped attending school lessons if I suspected you would be there. Luckily, we were in different classes and avoiding you was not too hard. I no longer spent time in my room since I knew you always sought me out there. I only returned to my room late after the night-time bell had been rung, since I knew you would be in bed in your own dormitory. Numerous times, my room-mates gave me messages from you saying you had been looking for me. Still, I avoided you.
Everyday, I was afraid to look anyone in the eye lest they saw my secret and accused me publicly. I dreaded the moment someone would shout ‘Hauwa is a lesbian. She is in love with Emotan.’
One night, more than two weeks later, I returned to my room really late to find you lying in my bed waiting for me. I would have beaten a hasty retreat, except that you saw me at exactly the same moment I saw you. I remember how my heart leapt when I saw you, while simultaneously the bottom fell from my stomach. I had dreaded this moment and felt ill-prepared. I could not think of anything to say to you.
‘Why have you been avoiding me?’ you asked.
‘Hello, Emotan. How come you haven’t gone to bed,’ I replied, stalling for time.
‘You know why I am here,’ you snapped, sitting up and swinging your legs over the edge of my bed. ‘This is the only way I could see you since you started avoiding me. What did I do wrong? Why are you avoiding me Hauwa?’
‘I am not avoiding you.’
‘How come you have not replied any of the messages I left for you?’
‘I was going to. I have just been a little busy, that’s all,’ I responded sitting on the bed next to you.
How could I tell you why I had stayed away from you? How could I tell you that I loved you? I recall you looking at me in disbelief, cocking your head slightly to the left in that endearing manner that you had, and fixing your penetrative gaze on me, making me feel like you saw right through to my soul.
Can you remember how you quizzed me endlessly that night, refusing to take my denials as a suitable answer? You’d have made an excellent interrogator, for you vehemently brushed aside my protestations. My defences crumbled under the barrage of your verbal battering, leading me to foolishly risk all and confess about my feelings. I discovered that you felt the same way I did. So engrossed were we in our self-discovery that we got very little sleep.
Together, we agreed to surreptitiously explore our feelings slowly, shielding it from the world and the possible corruption of wagging tongues. We forged a bond that was even closer than the one we had previously had, causing our schoolmates to refer to us as “Timon and Pumbaa”, like the characters from the Lion King movie.
My bed became our rendezvous spot, witnessing many a delightful romp. Initially, it was playful, but as our feelings gathered momentum, so did the intensity of our exploration.
Emotan, do you remember how we used to skip classes so that we could remain behind in the empty dormitory? Do you remember how we always turned my bed into a tent by hooking up some wrappers and sheets to the top bunk, letting them drape downwards to cover my bed which was on the lower part of the double bunk? We had such fun.
One incident sticks out in my mind like pomegranate juice on a white muslin cloth. It marked the turning point in our relationship, taking us down paths we had shied away from. I had just finished my Literature lesson – or was it English Language? – and together with numerous classmates, I was in a hurry to get to the chemistry laboratory, in a bid to secure a Bunsen Burner, as there were not enough to go round all the students.
Stepping out of the shade of the classroom, the heavy arm of the sun dealt me a ferocious punch in the face. Recoiling, yet reluctant to be left behind by my mates, I carried on in the intense heat. My head pounded with each step I took, making me feel as though a rock band was having a drumming practice session on it. The sun was unrelenting, enveloping me in an intimate embrace; slipping underneath my clothes to get closer to my skin, squeezing tightly until all I could do was gasp for breath. Vision blurred, my last memory was of me staggering along before I succumbed to the pain.
When I opened my eyes, I was lying in one of the beds in the school’s sick bay. You were seated on a chair at my bedside, your brow furrowed with worry lines. You told me that I had fainted.
My head still hurt and my mouth felt bitter. The doctor came and told me that I had malaria and I was signed off classes for a week. You seldom left my bedside, skipping your own lessons to keep me company. And when I was discharged back to my dormitory, you accompanied me, helping me take my unstable steps.
Lying in bed that night, I suffered a relapse after you had returned to your own dormitory. I lay in bed shivering uncontrollably, my teeth chattering involuntarily while my temperature shot up. My headache which had been banished by the malaria drugs and pain killers which had been fed to me intravenously, decided to make a comeback. It pounded the inside of my skull with such methodical vindictiveness that tears spurted copiously from my eyes.
Someone must have sent a message through to you that I had taken a turn for the worse, because one minute I was writhing in pain shivering and the next, I felt your gentle arms around me, soothing me, while your body helped to keep me warm under the blanket.
Waking up early the next morning, you were still in my bed. Loath to interrupt your slumber, I gently extricated my body from your embrace, unfurling my limbs before soundlessly slipping out of bed. Taking a bath seemed a good idea as I felt much better. Unfortunately, the physical exertion proved too much for my weakened body, and I was saved from collapsing to the floor by a fellow student who had seen me swaying unsteadily on my feet at the bathroom taps, where I was attempting to fetch a pail of water.
It was a defeated me that was led and helped back into my bed. You were livid at my antics, calling me an idiot who never obeyed orders. Apparently, I was supposed to be bed bound until instructed otherwise, and like a good patient, I did as I was told. You continued to stay with me, nursing me back to health, seldom returning to your own dormitory and carrying on boycotting your classes.
The wrappers and sheets were once more used to metamorphose my bed to a tent. When students had returned to the dormitory, the wrappers screened us from prying eyes.
One day, you were lying in my bed and I was lying on the next bed since the bed owner was away attending her lessons. My recuperation from the malaria bout was almost complete, and I could have attended my daily lessons had I had the inclination to do so. However, the prospect of continuing to laze about in the quiet solitudinous comfort of the dormitory, whilst everyone was elsewhere, proved a greater temptation.
You were regaling me with one of your outlandish tales – though I cannot recall what it was you said – which had me howling with laughter. I also cannot remember what prompted me to leap across to my bed where you were lying, to tickle you. I know that we both collapsed on the bed chortling loudly, tears streaming down our faces, hiccups escaping from our mouths sporadically.
Exhausted and lying next to you trying to catch my breath, I maintained a companionable silence. And till this day, I am still unsure what exactly happened next, for somehow or the other, we shared a kiss. It was my first ever kiss, your first kiss, our first kiss, and it was sweet. Sweet like sugarcane, sweet like honey, and my heart hammered underneath my breast, threatening to break loose and gallop away.
As I sit here writing this letter, I can still feel the velvety softness of your lips and I remember what that kiss tasted like. It is a memory that has kept all these years. It is a memory that keeps me company often.
Initially, guilt ate into us and we avoided situations where we were left alone. We grew awkward in each other’s company, loath to touch one another and thereby stoke the embers of a lustful desire that threatened to burst forth, taking us hostages.
It was only a matter of time before our resolves were worn down by the magnetism of our mutual attraction. Like disobedient hunting hounds, we refused to heed the whistle of decorum regarding interpersonal relationships between members of the same sex. We were powerless to the pull of self-discovery and became even closer than we were before.
Where we had hitherto spent our waking moments together, we also spent our sleeping moments in each other’s company, bodies curled tightly together to fit unto the narrow cot of the lower bunk bed. Though most nights were spent in my dormitory, some were spent in yours too.
Tongues started to wag; the rumour mills went into overdrive. People began to wonder why we were always ensconced in our secluded tent. They asked why we were forever together. They wondered why we shared the same bed when the school rules did not allow it. People talked, questions were asked, eyebrows were raised, and grumbling could be heard. Why? I do not know. For surely, we were hurting no one by our actions. The rumours began, spreading fast and viciously like a bush fire aided by the strong harmattan wind. We became the fodder for idle tongues, and on numerous occasions had to endure meddlesome interlopers unceremoniously poking their heads round the sheets that formed our tent in a bid to catch us out.
I can remember your response, when dejected by all the tongue-wagging, I had suggested that we take some time off. You had said ‘Hauwa, it does not matter what people say, what matters is the way we are.’ I have remembered that, because it is so true.
We carried on with our relationship, becoming careless along the way. I can still feel the humiliation of being caught in a compromising position by that busybody Chibuzo and the attendant brouhaha that followed; the disgrace of facing the principal’s wrath, of being called on to the stage during the school assembly and exhibited under the label of mortal sinners.
Our suspension from school was hot in the middle of the scandal that rocked the whole school. It took a long time for me to get over the shame. You see Emotan, the problem is when I was with you, I forgot who I really was. I forgot that I was a Muslim girl from a strict background. I forgot that the consequences for me would be dire should news of my indiscretions ever make it back home. And by God, I surely paid the price. I am still paying the price.
If you cast your mind back, you will recall that while Mrs. Okoro was charged by the principal with the duty of taking you back home to begin serving your suspension, I was stuck with that wicked old witch, Mrs. Aremu. My punishment started the second that we boarded the bus that would take us to my state. It was a long and tedious journey which was made unbearable by the whining, damning voice of Mrs. Aremu, telling me how I was going to hell, how I was a disgrace to my family, the school and womanhood. She wore me down with her sanctimonious verbiage that I wished the torture over as soon as possible – no wonder her husband abandoned her, she must have nagged him out of their matrimonial home.
I needed no soothsayer to tell me that she was going to paint the blackest picture possible to Baba, embellishing it with non-facts to buttress her point in making me out to be an immoral “muff munching hussy”. And I knew that Baba’s fury would be boundless, and reprisals for my actions would be harsh.
Even I could not have foreseen the extremity of Baba’s actions. He felt I had dragged the honourable family name in the mud. He was offended by Mrs. Aremu’s obnoxious attitude, feeling humiliated when she suggested that he had not brought his child up properly. He ended up throwing her out of the house, saying that it was her useless school that had corrupted me and told her that it was only over his dead body that I will return to school. I was devastated when I heard Baba say I would not be allowed back, but I thought that with time, he would change his mind after he had cooled down.
This might have happened, had the news of my disgrace not spread all over town. Till this day, I do not know how the story leaked, but it is well known that people revel in gossip, delighting in other peoples misfortunes. My people say that a man’s reputation can be ruined through gossip in the time it takes for his wife to cook him a hot supper.
Things degenerated after that, culminating in Baba sending me down to his brother who lived in our village, in a bid to ride out the gossip. My every waking moment was watched. I was not given any freedom and I was made to work hard. I never did tell you this Emotan, but all the time I was in school, I was betrothed. I had been promised to another in marriage since I was a child. It is a common Hausa tradition, and I was only allowed to go down south to school with the consent of Ibrahim, my betrothed.
When news of my shenanigans was brought to the attention of Ibrahim and his family, our engagement was called off. Ibrahim announced that he had no intention of marrying a lesbian slut. This of course brought further shame on Baba. He lost face among his contemporaries and blamed me for his fall from grace; for the ridicule he was subjected to. Baba was a proud man, and because of me, he could not walk with his head held high any longer.
For a long time, pointing fingers and sniggers followed him down the street everyday. My mother and siblings were subjected to the same shame and for that I was truly sorry. The thing is when I was with you, I never thought of the rippling effect my actions would have on my family. I had no way of knowing that what brought me such happiness would bring my family so much sorrow, so much misery. I did not act maliciously. I never intended for any of this to happen. What is it that is said about a person not choosing who they fall in love with? I never intended to fall in love with you. I just did.
As a punishment, I was made to stay in the village with Baba’s brother for almost a year. My education was well and truly over. Baba’s brother had poured scorn on Baba’s initial decision to send me away to secondary school. He always thought Baba was too liberal and had disapproved of the idea of educating a girl.
All the punishments that Baba should have heaped on me were done by Uncle Haruna. He seemed to relish his role as my tormentor and practically turned me into a slave. I did back breaking work on his farm from dawn to dusk, six days a week. And I was made to wear a Niqab every time I left the house and whenever male visitors came calling. My arms and feet were always covered, so you can imagine the torture I went through, roasting under the clumsy apparel in the baking heat, doing hard labour on a farm, from morning to night, day in day out.
My father was a practicing Muslim, but he was always easy-going. He was not a fanatic like Uncle Haruna and the sharp contrast in the difference in the lifestyle I had had at home and the one I was forced to live under Uncle Haruna was difficult to adjust to. I was under surveillance everyday. If Uncle Haruna was not watching me, then it was one of his wives. Even his children watched me. I could see the disdain, the disapproval on their faces, in their eyes, from their mannerisms. With their eyes and mannerisms, they tried and judged me. They didn’t want me living under the same roof as them, eating the same food, breathing the same air. I had brought dishonour on the family. I was a disgrace, a freak, an aberration who needed to be expunged unceremoniously.
It was Uncle Haruna who convinced – no, bullied – Baba into giving me away in marriage to Alhaji Bala. He told Baba that he should be grateful that somebody respectable wanted to marry me and said that he was surprised that I had even managed to bag one suitor. According to him, he doubted that any other self-respecting man would come to ask for my hand in marriage after the scandal that followed me around like a bad smell.
That is how I finally left Uncle Haruna’s household to marry Alhaji Bala. My husband is a kind old man, but I do not love him. Like many girls in these parts, I had no choice in the selection of the man I was supposed to share connubial bliss with. I was not consulted, and my feelings on the matter were irrelevant. Had the decision been left to me, I would not have picked a man who was thirty-two years older than me, nor would I have chosen someone who already had three wives. I doubt if I would have gotten married as early as I did.
I have many regrets in my life. I regret not being able to finish my education. I regret not rebelling when my father insisted that I marry Alhaji Bala, my husband. I regret letting you slip away. Though I was powerless at the time, this is my main regret. In the midst of these regrets, I am grateful for my children. Did I tell you I have two children? Abdullahi and Halima almost make the total eclipse of my life worthwhile. In moments of dark depression, I can draw on them as the only reason why I must not give up.
In quiet moments, I allow my mind to dwell on thoughts of you. These thoughts even come creeping up on me unbidden when I least expect them. And this has increased since I heard from one of our old schoolmates that you got divorced from your husband last year. She also told me that he treated you badly, and though I do not know him, I hate him for doing that to you. I cannot bear to think of you being sad.
Do you ever think of me Emotan, like I think of you? When I close my eyes, I see us as we used to be; young and in love. Adventurous, mischievous and full of dreams. I see us, laughing, skipping along happily. The irony of life is that happiness can be so fleeting, so transient. Part of the quirks of youth is the ability to take things for granted because then we are so carefree. By the time we acquire wisdom, our youth would have retired so far into a distant horizon that it almost seems like it was a hazy dream – and a dream that belongs to someone else at that – leaving us with nothing but the ashes of our memories.
Everyday, as I reminisce on times past, I can recall your little idiosyncrasies; the way you threw your head back when you laughed, the way you cocked your head to the left when you were concentrating. I remember what you smell like, the feel of your skin, what you look like when sleeping.
That is all I am left with; my memories. I miss you terribly. But then, I always will.
Though the years have gone by, you are never far from my thoughts.
Ever Your Loving Friend,
Ayodele Morocco-Clarke is a Nigerian lawyer and writer of mixed heritage who has a passion for literature. She is the editor of Critical Literature Review and her written works have appeared in Saraba Magazine, Author Africa 2009, Hackwriters (a University of Portsmouth magazine), Sphere Literary Magazine, Storytime and on The Clarity of Night blog.
She also has work forthcoming in The Anthology of Immigrant Writing (2010) and African Roar [2010 short story anthology, co-published by Lion Press and StoryTime due for release in May 2010]. Ayodele is currently finishing work on a short story anthology of her own and has recently started work on a novel which she hopes to publish in the not too distant future.