In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta publishes the regional winners of the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. Innocent Chizaram Ilo’s ‘When a Woman Renounces Motherhood’ is the winning entry from Africa.
Read this between clenched teeth, a taut smirk plastered on your face. Try to taste each word as if it will escape from your mouth, like air.
When a woman renounces motherhood, no one asks her why she did it. How dare you give up on such a beautiful thing; nature’s call embedded in your vagina, crested on your breasts?
Read this as if you’re running out of breath. This is the same pitch your mother uses to greet your father’s friends who walk past her kitchen as she alternates between fanning the charcoal stove and plucking the chicken.
When a woman renounces motherhood, she is forced to walk from her house to the stream, a clay pot filled with ash balanced on her head, and tell the whole world how she has failed as a woman.
Read this in the many voices of women who tattle about ‘My husband this’ and ‘My husband that’ in hair salons.
When a woman renounces motherhood, we will point at her and say to our daughters: ‘This is what a woman should never become.’
Read this in the cacophonous chatter ndi umunna use to decide the fate of women.
When a woman renounces motherhood, we must cuddle and pet her husband. His chi must be stone-hearted to have left him in the hands of such woman. One of us will volunteer to find him a new wife, that is if he has not already found one for himself.
Read this and try not to feel anything.
When a woman renounces motherhood, she leaves what used to be her home with nothing. No money. No children. No anything. And God help her if she does this in old age, when she can longer fend for herself.
The telephone ringing in the parlor jars with the tranquility of the afternoon.
‘Caro,’ Nwakaego calls from the bedroom.
The telephone pauses, as if to catch its breath, and then continues to ring.
Still no response.
Caro, Nwakaego’s housekeeper, must have left the house without telling her again. She probably forgot to lock the back door as well, the same way she did the last time, and the time before that. Nwakaego makes a mental note to resound it in Caro’s ears when she comes back, that sneaking out so she and Kunle, Mrs. Kasandra’s live-in driver, can fondle themselves in the backyard is not more important than the security of the house. Every day news of Area Boys wandering into homes with unlocked doors in Lagos floods her social media feeds. Everybody talks about it; in church, at work, in the mall down the street. Last week, they burgled her friend Anaeto, who had forgotten to lock her door when she got back from work.
‘I was in the shower when they came in. Thank God they did not check the bathroom. If not, we’ll be telling another story,’ Anaeto said to Nwakaego when she visited her the morning after the robbery.
Nwakaego shoves aside the pile of paperwork she was working on before she slept on the bed and heads to the parlor for the telephone.
‘Nwakaego, kedu? How are you?’ Her mother’s voice rasps through the tiny holes of the receiver.
‘I am fine Mama. I hope all is well?’
‘Nne, all is not well. I have decided to renounce motherhood. Kpa, I am not doing again.’
Nwakaego’s palm tightens around the telephone, as if it will squeeze out what she has just heard. ‘Why now, Mama? You’ve been a mother for thirty years?’
The woman at the other end of the line clears her throat. ‘Nne, it’s long overdue. Your father has always found a way to make me stay, reminding me of how Emeka, you and the twins need me, and the consequences that will come from me leaving. Not this time.’
‘When is the renouncement?’
‘The day after tomorrow.’
‘Yes. I want to do it quick-quick. I don’t want any of you to make me see reasons not to do it. Let me hang up and call the twins. I’ve already spoken to your elder brother, Emeka.’
‘Mama, lemme call someone. I have a friend who works with Amnesty International. You shouldn’t do this, it’s fucking 2019.’
‘Ibiakwa, you have come with your abroad talk,’ Nwakaego’s mother chuckles. ‘When Barrister Obiageli renounced motherhood last year, she brought policemen to protect her from you know. Iyasikwa, they said none of the policemen could move a limb until the ceremony was over.’
‘That’s superstition biko.’
‘Nne, save your breath.’
‘I’m coming back tomorrow.’
‘K’odi. We’ll see tomorrow.’
Long after the telephone let out a dying beep, Nwakaego continues to wonder what has gotten into her mother’s head to make her decide to renounce motherhood. All these years, her mother has nurtured four children and a husband, blown coals to make fire, even though she knew it reddened and stung her eyes all night, scrubbed oil stains off her husband’s singlets and helped the children find their missing socks on school days. She never complained or paused to think of herself: what she wanted, the things she needed from her children or her husband in return. A wry smile was always plastered on her face, even on Saturdays when she sat under the udala tree and stitched up the parts of her skin that had torn under the weight of being a mother.
The back door creaks, disrupting Nwakaego’s thoughts. She senses it must be Caro sneaking back into the house. Nwakaego walks into the kitchen, just in time to find her housekeeper gently letting go of the doorknob.
‘Good afternoon Madam. I go outside make check if the cloth wey I wash for afternoon don dry.’ Caro reels off a rehearsed explanation before Nwaekgo can even open her mouth.
‘Shebi you and Kunle don dey do una suwegbe for backyard? Issorait. Continue.’
Nwakaego loves her newfound pidgin English speaking prowess, even though her friends have told her how horrible her pidgin-English sounds with an American accent infusion. Anaeto nearly laughed her neck off when Nwakaego said juarè instead of the conventional jare at another friend’s wedding, the week before.
‘Madam, I swear na cloth I go check. They never dry. One of them fall for ground sef, I come rewash am. If you think say I dey lie go ask . . .’
Nwakaego waves Caro to stop talking and rustles up a stern look. ‘Lock my door before going to see your boyfriend.’
‘I no get boyfriend. True to the Most High Everlasting God.’ Caro rubs dust off the kitchen floor with her right index finger, licks the tip and points towards the ceiling.
‘Na you sabi.’
At this point, Nwakaego is tempted to give Caro the talk. You know, basic sex ed, how whatever she is doing with Kunle, no matter how harmless it seems, can result in something else. But she decides against it. Anaeto nearly got herself into big trouble when she gave her housekeeper a pack condoms. The girl had called her mother in the village and told her that her Madam in Lagos wanted to turn her into a prostitute. Nwakaego will give Caro the talk eventually, but not today when her mind is running haywire with her mother’s call.
‘Wetin Madam go chop this night?’
‘Plain coffee. No milk. No sugar.’
‘Na so so coffee and tea una dey chop for Hafad.’
‘All na the same.’
Caro and Nwakaego break into a synced laughter. It is almost impossible to get angry with someone like Caro.
Later in the evening, as she sits on the bed, sipping coffee and folding the clothes for her journey the next day, Nwakaego remembers how her mother will often remind her that motherhood is a vocation, something that one gives one’s all to and never expects anything in return. A sacred cross. A burden one cannot put down. If any woman will renounce motherhood, it certainly should not be her mother.
‘Onitsha! Onitsha! ‘E remain one make ‘im full.’ A tout yells and bangs his fist on the bumper of a rickety Peugeot 504. Crumpled naira notes rear their edges through the fold of his right palm, as if they are struggling for fresh air. He wipes his brow from time to time with a torn Arsenal jersey strapped across his chest.
‘One chance. Madam, you dey go?’ The tout asks Nwakaego.
Nwakaego shakes her head and drags her box to the other side of the park. She is going to Onitsha, but certainly not in an unregistered akanelu that may stop her halfway to her destination.
‘All these oloshos wey full Lagos.’ The tout makes to spit out, but the spittle sticks to his jaw. ‘You go talk say you no get money to travel.’
His voice rings clear. Everybody in the park stares at Nwakaego. Some nod in affirmation with the tout while the others shake their heads in pity and give her reassuring glances.
‘She be responsible woman,’ another tout says.
‘See her short skirt. Na olosho joor.’
‘But she no wear yellow eye shadow.’
After close to an hour of scouring the park, sifting through cars and making judgments about drivers and conductors, Nwakaego finally boards a bus.
Between the man who is sitting beside her, using every gallop pass to mistakenly touch her breasts, and the evangelist screaming about repentance and hellfire, Nwakaego wills herself to prepare for what lies ahead. She had tried to reach the Onitsha Divisional Police Command on phone the night before, but could not get through. When she finally contacted them earlier this morning, they told her that the Nigerian police do not meddle in native customs and tradition.
‘Oga stop touching my breasts!’ Nwakaego bursts out as the bus plunges into another pothole.
The man sitting beside her adjusts his spectacles and mumbles an apology.
‘Madam, calm down. Na just breast the man touch, he no off your pant,’ the man sitting directly behind Nwakaego says.
‘Why should I calm down?’ Nwakaego shoots back.
‘Brethren praise the Lord. Can we now see how Satan manifests to thwart the gospel of Jehovah.’ The evangelist seizes the moment to continue her preaching.
‘Mama, good afternoon.’
‘Nwakaego, ibata go. You are back.’
Her mother’s response is forlorn. She does not even stand up to hug Nwakaego and say nnua or ask how Lagos’s heat has dealt with her one-an’-only daughter. Nwakaego lodges her box against the wall but still, her mother does not look up. Her hands are busy with the loom at the other end of the room, between the bags of egusi and the akpati filled with her old lappahs.
Kpa Kpa. The loom’s wooden frame bounces away.
‘Mama, ke k’ime? How are you?’
Nwakaego goes over to the loom and hugs her mother’s shoulder. It is supple now, the shoulder. The last time she visited, her mother was so bony she had to buy an extra tin of Ovaltine and Peak Milk.
‘I have never felt this good in a long time,’ Nwakaego’s mother says.
She snips a knotted thread with a pair of scissors, straightens the fabric so as not to tangle the warps with the wefts, and stops weaving. Her face glows when she looks up at her daughter, the seemingly permanent wrinkles and blemishes are all gone.
‘I am weaving the lappah I will wear tomorrow in front of ndi umunna and tell the whole world I am done being a mother.’
Apart from the frayed edges of the lappah, the weaving is almost done. Wavy red and blue lines run across its warm, black background.
‘See, it is soft-soft, like wool.’ Nwakaego’s mother says as she pushes the lappah against her daughter’s chin. ‘I went round and round Nkpologwu market before I could find the perfect thread for this weaving.’
‘What happened, Mama? Why are you renouncing it now?’
‘Go and ask that pig.’
‘He is not a pig, Mama. He is still my father.’ Nwakaego pulls up a low stool from under the loom and sits down.
‘Support him like you always do.’
‘I am not supporting anybody.’
‘For thirty years, I have soaked my palms in boiling water for that yeye man. I have never asked for any payment or reward or even a spiteful thank you. I can tolerate your father gambling and drinking away the small money he makes from his vulcanizing business, but I will not allow him to rub cow shit on my face. To think that I gave up everything I would have become and followed that man. His dreams, if he had any, became mine. Your father beat me because I refused that he will bring one of those chicken peri-peri girls that serve food at Mama Tiro’s restaurant into this house as his new wife. I swore by the mushrooms on my mother’s grave never to allow it happen.’ Nwakaego’s mother blinks and flicks off the cluster of tears clinging to her lower eyebrow. ‘Lagos is a long journey. Go and rest, Nwakaego.’
Nwakaego slumps on the thin mattress at the foot of the loom, closes her eyes, and begs for sleep to come.
Kpa Kpa. The loom continues to work the edges of the lappah.
As usual, her father is sprawled on the wooden lounge on the veranda. He hums and thumps his chest to the tune of a popular highlife beat that has no woman, no wahala in its chorus. It is well into the night now, the udala tree at the center of the compound has swallowed half of the full moon.
‘Good evening Papa.’
‘I thought you will not come and greet me.’ The old man clasps his hands together and draws them to his sides.
Nwakaego forces out a smile. ‘It’s not like that o. I was sleeping. The bumpy journey rearranged my bones and I did not want to disturb when you were snuffing utaba with your friends.’
‘Your mother must have told you her side of the story.’
‘Emm . . .’
‘Nwakaego, you should understand that men have needs and at your mother’s age, she cannot meet some of these needs. Do you know my blood has stopped rushing when your mother touches me in bed?’ He grins and gives Nwakaego a playful nudge. Seeing that his daughter does not as much as budge, he stops grinning. ‘Why is your face like shoveled dung? Learn how to smile. It is this type of face that will chase men away from you. Your mother’s renouncement is enough husband-repellant, don’t make it worse.’
The old man springs up from the chair and goes into the house.
Nwakaego has always wanted to be the perfect daughter for her father, but there is always a hole in the wall echoing that she is never enough, that no matter how she stretches herself, he will not look at her with the same eyes he looks at his sons with. All these years, she has continued to skin herself for her father’s approval – maintained an impeccable academic record, taken his side in his many squabbles with her mother, got into Harvard on full scholarship and nearly forfeited her passion for economics to study engineering. Maybe it is time she stopped.
Her mother is not in the room when she wakes up. The door is unlocked so Nwakaego knows her mother has gone to the stream to announce her renouncement to the world.
‘Sister Nwakaego, good morning.’ The twins, Chima and Chime, chorus as she walks into the parlor.
‘See my ejima oo! They are now taller than me. When did you people come back?’
‘Around midnight. Brother Emeka picked us up at Lokoja,’ Chime, the taller of the twins, answers.
‘See as you dey shine. You dey chop Lagos money alone.’ Chima, the older one, tugs at Nwakaego’s cheeks.
‘Have you had breakfast?’
‘Yes, Ifebuche fried akara and made akamu.’
‘Who is Ifebuche?’
‘Our new wife. Sorry, Papa’s new wife.’
The twins have already started squashing the memories of their mother to make room for our new wife in their hearts, even before the renouncement is complete.
Outside the house, Emeka, their father and a woman are talking in low tones. The woman, who is just a tad older than Nwakaego, has her hands wound around Nwakaego’s father’s waist. She must be Ifebuche.
‘Papa, good morning. Brother Emeka, good morning,’ Nwakaego mumbles a perfunctory greeting as she walks past them. They do not respond.
In the evening, the house begins to fill with people. The canopies beside the gate are crammed with the sweaty bodies of aunties, uncles, nephews, nieces and cousins. Nwakaego’s father and other members of Oriego Age Group are downing shots of schnapps in the parlor. They are patting his back and telling him to dibe, that he should endure, that his new wife will be a better replacement for that heartless woman.
Four women, wearing long, flowing gowns, drag Nwakaego’s mother to the center of the compound. One of the women, Ogoli, slaps Nwakaego’s mother and spits at her. The other two, Ure and Ugo, rip her lappah into pieces. The crowd jeers and the naked woman cups her face in her palms.
‘You are a failed woman, nobody will ever need you,’ Ogoli says as she grabs Nwakaego’s mother’s breasts. She places a hot rod over each nipple, until she is certified they are sealed. Then she smears nzu on each of the burnt tips.
Nwakaego turns her face away. Chima and Chime have been holding her hands the whole time to stop her from disrupting the renouncement ritual.
The crowd disperses as the ceremony winds up to an end. Nwakaego’s mother is free now.
‘Nwakaego, you have to listen to me. No man is ever worth giving up your dreams for,’ Nwakaego’s mother says as she zips the last of her box. ‘Before your father married me, I wanted to be a . . .’
‘Mama, look. Milk is dripping from your left breast.’ Nwakaego gasps and rummages through her handbag for a tissue paper to dab the wet patch on her mother’s blouse.
‘This is impossible.’ Mama removes her blouse. ‘You see these three veins on my left breast, they are for your father, Emeka and you. The vein pumping milk is yours.’
‘What does this mean?’
‘That you still need me. Set me free Nwakaego, let me go.’
‘I don’t know how to set you free.’
‘Nwakaego, your breast is also dripping milk. Do you realize what this means? That I am now a burden to you and you are also a burden to me. But I will keep this a secret. I don’t want to ruin your life.’
‘Why keep it a secret?’
‘You will be banished from your father’s house if he gets to know about this. And I know how you are your father’s daughter.’
‘Maybe I am not my father’s daughter after all. Maybe I am my mother’s daughter.’ Nwakaego holds her mother’s hands. ‘Come with me to Lagos. You’ve always wanted to see the world; the world is in Lagos.’
‘Lagos or no Lagos, you are the world I want to see.’
So the daughter kisses her mother’s forehead and they wait, in this dimly lit room, for nightfall, when they will leave and no one can see them.
The overall winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020 will be announced during a special award ceremony which will be broadcast online at 1pm BST on 30 June 2020. See here for further details.
Image © Abrinsky