The Traditional Wife
By Ife Watson
Monday, October 29, 2012.
“An African man loves a submissive woman who allows him to be the real man in his home.” Grandma said.
I tried to wear a straight face as I sat in between my mother and my grandmother on the long sofa in the living room. I was getting married in two month time. So, I was receiving traditional marriage rules from two generations. Akin and I had decided we wanted a Yoruba traditional wedding with all its fineries. We did not want the modernized version that was now wrought in contemporary weddings. Even some people no longer collected the required items such as the tubers of yams, kola nut, atare, adun, and the other items on the list. Mum had been delighted when I told her over the phone about our decision to toll the traditional line.
“That’s what I’m talking about. You make me really proud. Now, I know those core values I taught you are not lost to the winds,” Mum had crooned.
It felt good to hear such pleasure in her voice, so I swallowed the words that threatened to spill off my tongue. Was it not the love for everything foreign – international education, international money or even an international identity that made my parents send me to the United States after I finished junior secondary school? I’d cried and balked for many days because I was in the throes of infantile love and did not want to leave the country. I thought I would die without Lekan’s butterfly kisses but alas I forgot him in my first year in America.
“Make sure you always have a hot meal ready at all times for your husband; even if he wakes you up in the middle of the night, you should be ready to enter the kitchen.”Grandma continued. A titter escaped my lips before I could stop it. The attempt to remedy the mishap was unsuccessful because Grandma’s characteristic scowl slowly settled on her face.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know how to cook?” Mum said.
I started to twiddle my fingers and tap my feet to a hidden melody in my heart. Of course I know how to cook; it only depends on what has to be cooked. If they were referring to those instant noodles you dunked in hot water, strained in the colander and added the ready-made spices, then, I was sure I knew everything about cooking. However, Grandma and Mum had another idea in mind.
Grandma continued dreamily - “You know there is nothing like a well-cooked egusi soup with soft pounded yam to gladden a man’s heart.”
Pounded yam? This was turning into a huge joke; I had not even made simple eba in the last ten years. Mum had never allowed my brother and me to come home for our holidays. She said there were evil people in the extended family who did not wish her children well. So, my brother and I had spent all of our vacations abroad. My parents devoutly came every Christmas to have the singular family time of the year with us.
“I guess there are modern pounder machines now?” I said, turning to my mother.
“Ehn? Yam pounder, did I hear you say?” Grandma jumped in.
She gnashed her toothless gums in dismay. What kind of a woman uses those machines to cook a traditional meal? Grandma said that the pestle and mortar gave the pounded yam a distinct taste that the machine could not. I noticed my mother had kept silent throughout the exchange. She must have been thinking about the traditional culinary lessons I never received from her.
“Well, I could learn,” I said in a bid to pacify Grandma’s growing displeasure. I knew Akin did not really care for food. He ate anything I placed before him – the order-in pizzas, the hastily cooked pasta and the sausage sandwiches I made. A strange thought nettled me. I did not even know if he had a favourite Nigerian dish. We had never talked about such things. I only knew he had such a passionate love for our fatherland. That was why
we he had made the decision of remaining in Nigeria after our wedding.
“We should all keep working towards the betterment of our dear fatherland. A mother does not throw a recalcitrant child away with the bath water.” Akin said with his eyes shining brightly. I always kept a tolerant smile on my face anytime he started those patriotic sermons. I did not fancy arguments on political topics. I loved to talk about money, you know – avenues to wealth. Of course I love fashion talks too - the trending Chanel, Christian Dior and Gucci stuffs. What woman does not like that?
“Are you listening at all?” Mum said, as she gave me a sharp jab on the shoulder. “Ouch! That’s quite painful,” I complained. Grandma was asking if I knew how to make akara and moin-moin. I nearly made another gaffe by asking what those were, before I remembered that moin-moin was a kind of pudding made from grounded beans. I was getting tired of all the food-talk. I wondered what was really wrong with them. Did they think marriage was all about cooking and eating? What about the other nice things like companionship and intimacy?
I thanked my stars; I was not getting married to one of those old-fashioned egoistic African men who actually think their wives must worship them like a deity. “I believe every woman should be respected,” Akin had said to me. He stole my heart one night in the Yale’s Graduate Students’ Dining Hall where we had met. He seemed so different from the previous men I had dated. Before I met Akin I had the perfect stereotypic definition of men – white men were finicky, African-American men were irresponsible and African men were unromantic and egoistic. Akin laughed in a rich sonorous voice when I recited that cryptic definition to him. “Most African men merely hide under tradition to abuse their women. The real African tradition respects women.” He said. Even though, I thought otherwise, I’d kept mum because I wanted to appear pleasant on first impression.
“Now to an important aspect, remember to be a decent wife in the bedroom,” Grandma said, as she pulled on her earlobe for emphasis. Decent wife in bed? I wondered what that was supposed to mean. I looked at my mother. She nodded her head in agreement with Grandma.
“Can you explain that better to me?” I asked with a feigned innocence in my voice.
My mother shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. I was secretly happy to see my always-composed mother ruffled by the sexual subject. She belonged to that particular age where sexual topics are almost taboo.
“You should know what we mean by that. It means you should not be too forward with your husband. Let him be the leader,” Mum finally said amidst several short coughs.
“Really?” I interjected.
Grandma passionately added - “Yes, you should not make noises like a harlot. A respectable woman should know how to take her pleasure in silence.”
I realized that the gap between our generations was indeed trench-wide. Silent pleasure? If only they knew about the many adventurous things I had done with Akin and my former boyfriends. Though, they were still saintly acts in comparison to some of my friends. Lakeesha had told me that there was nothing as thrilling as exhibitionist sex. Oh yeah, crazy – getting it down in public places. She called me a restrained African girl because I thought it was an outrageous idea.
“That’s enough for today,” Mum quickly said, when she noticed that I was yawning and stretching pointedly.
“Remember to be respectful to your in-laws,” Grandma added as I escaped the stifling atmosphere in the room.
I did not remember my grandmother’s last words until I went to visit Akin’s family. They welcomed me with open arms. Akin’s mother served us steaming amala and ewedu. She raised her eyebrows in disapproval when I asked for cutlery to eat the food. I thought it was gross the way Akin dug into the food with his fingers. After eating, we moved to the living room where we talked about the wedding plans. Akin’s father kept calling me Tokunbo even after I had corrected him several times.
“Kemi, stop reminding him of your real name, that’s rude.” Akin whispered fiercely into my ear. Rude? Was his father not the rude one for insistently calling me a wrong name? I did not like the notion of sharing the same name with the second-hand goods that were imported into the country. I remembered Professor Nagel’s lecture on the thingification of humans. People were increasingly appropriating humans on the same scale as material property.
That was just the beginning of my missteps that day. I had talked with Akin’s younger sister several times on webcam. I liked her. She was very warm with me and always talked in excited tones about everything. So, when she entered the room I jumped up and hugged her. “Tolu, you look so much bigger from the last time we had video chat,” I said. I noticed Akin’s mother saying something in low tones to her son. But I did not think it was about me.
“Mum says you’re too untraditional in your ways,” Akin started as we prepared for bed that night. My heart skipped a beat at his words. Me and my big mouth! I must have said something wrong. “What did she mean by that?” I asked. Akin told me it was wrong to call his sister by her name.
“How else are people called except by their names?” My breath quickened as feelings of exasperation began to build up in my chest. Then, Akin started the lecture on traditional ethos. His sister’s name should be preceded by the title of aunty because in-laws are to be respected.
My jaw sagged in surprise – “But I’m older than Tolu. It’s really silly to call her aunty.”
Akin told me to get used to the idea, if I wanted to have a good relationship with my mother-in-law. The feelings of tension moulded into a tight ball in my chest.
“I thought you said you were not into old-fashioned African ways,”
“If I said that, then I meant backward African ways,” Akin replied, as he sauntered into the bathroom.
I’d never truly considered the essence of African traditional ways. I just felt they were largely things people did in the past before the rise of civilization. I’d often deemed myself a pan-citizen of the world. Anywhere in the world can be home to me, as long as I have my loved ones around me. I did not know how to be loyal to this unfamiliar African culture but I decided to be unfazed by it.
I was already lying on the bed when Akin came out of the bathroom. I surveyed his well-toned abs in admiration. I wondered whether it was untraditional to make love in the in-laws’ house. I reckoned it was not forbidden since we had been placed in the same room.
“Move to the other side,” Akin said.
“But I want to sleep on this side of the bed.” The times Akin had slept over at my apartment in New Haven, we had never argued about the side of the bed to sleep on. So, I found his insistence absurd.
“Have you ever heard of a real man sleeping by the wall with his wife on the same bed?” Akin posed with a mirthless laugh. All in one day, I’d been told of so many don’ts in the traditional way. It made me quite upset.
“Maybe this traditional wedding was a bad idea after all,” I mumbled under my breath.
“What did you say now?”
“Nothing,” I replied.
I smiled to myself as I moved to the wall position. I’d just passed my first test towards becoming a traditional African wife.
Ife Watson writes creative fiction. Her works have appeared on Naijastories, Talesetc and Worldreader app. She is at present a postgraduate student at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.