We were five, sitting on the ground, playing tinini tanana. We scrambled up, laughing when the whirring of an airplane in the sky interrupted us. We jumped, shouting and waving, telling it goodbye, telling it to greet our spectral mother who sold caked pap, because the last two she gave us filled our tummies. We sang, straining the veins in our necks even though the airplane could not hear us, even though none of our mothers sold caked pap.
I called Tola’s mother mummy as I did not have one. Tola and I both referred to his father as sir because he was always carrying a cane. I slept over at their house most of the time because Nike, my late mother’s sister was barely at home.
I was bent over, breathing as I had learnt from ante-natal classes. I abhorred the smell of my breath, and everything around me: the white walls, iron rails, cold metal chairs. For the past three hours, I had only been two cm dilated.
A male doctor who had been poking his fingers inside me threatened to induce me if my contractions did not progress, as if I was intentionally holding them back. As if it was my fault that Tola got me pregnant and disappeared.
Nothing prepared me for this. Even my body turned against me, and my period did not stop flowing until after the first three months. How could I have known?
Right after the End-SARS protest, Lekki Toll-Gate massacre, and the President’s speech, Tola, along with several of our friends decided Nigeria was too much for us; we agreed that one day, it would kill us too.
We talked about leaving, discussed countries with tolerable racism, better government, and opportunities. But then, the sun rose the following morning, and we all went on with our lives, except for Tola.
He began spending longer hours on his computer, looking for fully-funded Ph.D. scholarships. And one morning in December, he packed his bags and left.
When Tola finally picked my calls one month after he left Nigeria, he spoke with a perfect British accent. Tola who would never use fork and knife to eat his swallows, even if it was a meal with the Queen herself.
“Abi is this not Tola? Tola Fawunmi, your father was a retired headmaster in Omu-aran,” I spat out the words, as hard as I retched every time I smelled tomato paste. “It’s Ayo. I’m calling from Nigeria.” I was supposed to be the only Ayo in his life, the one he was going to marry before God answered his UK prayer. “Tola, sh’o momi mo ni? Stop this joke abeg, will you say you don’t know my voice? This is Ayo, your… your… girlfriend!”
“Oh, Ayo. For a minute, I thought it was a prank call, you know? How are you? UK is fine.”
“See, I just want you to know that we are pregnant. All this one you’re sounding posh posh is not my business.” Perhaps, the reason I did not end the call immediately and wait for him to call back, so I would let it ring and then pick after three or five missed calls, was because I knew he would never call back. Yet, I hung on to hope, a fragile thing. A desperate thing.
I waited for him to apologize, and with joy, tell me his family members would be visiting mine. And that his aunt or cousin who lived in Ilorin would bring me efo riro and whatever I was craving for at the moment. He was not supposed to end the call and blacklist my number.
I bit hard into my face towel and slapped my thighs repeatedly until the pain subsided. Resisting the urge to pull off my gown, I sat on a cold metal chair and stared at nothing.
“Nurse, come please.” I grabbed the hem of her gown. “After all this pain, how can you people say it’s still two cm?”
“Madam, I am sure your doctor knows what he is doing.”
“Okay, I want a female doctor. One that has at least, given birth before. Someone that understands what I’m going through.”
“Madam, we are short on staff with the strike and Covid-19 regulations.”
“Just be going.” I grabbed the window sill, howling like a madwoman. This pain demanded to be felt exactly how it expected to be felt; there was no class or sophistication about it.
My phone rang. “Oh Pastor Eli, you say God has forgiven me, but why am I still being punished? Why?” I burst into tears. My baby protested with vibrant kicks.
“No, sister Ayo, don’t be like that. Remember we agreed to see this baby as God’s gift and nothing less. Pastor Stella and I are on our way. We have been praying for you and can’t wait to see our beautiful princess.”
Pastor Stella was Pastor Eli’s assistant. She had added me to a group chat on WhatsApp for moms. There, someone had posted a link, inviting expecting mothers to download the PregnaCare App and track their baby’s weekly growth. Every Friday, I refreshed the app to check if my baby was now the size of an apple, lettuce, cabbage or watermelon. It could also tell me if my baby now had eye lashes, could hear my voice and many other things.
A few years ago
Tola had moved to Ilorin for his Master’s degree. He searched for a self-contained apartment for about two weeks before deciding to move into my place.
“What’s the point of wasting money when we can live together?” he asked.
I was at the ironing desk, pressing glittery stones into a Hollandaise. Yet he wrapped me from behind and smothered my nape with kisses. I turned around to face him and he raised his hands in mock surrender. He knew better than to fool around when I was at work. One mistake could cost me ten customers.
“My beautiful Ayo, so that’s how we have become husband and wife, eh? It’s to born baby that is left now o.”
He became bolder in his advances after that, and I let him. He touched me as though my body was part of the deal for his 20k part-payment for the apartment which should have been 40k, by the way. I realized later that Tola was like too much mango: sweet until it turns your stomach against you, making you wish you had stopped after the first few bites.
On my twenty-fifth birthday, he vanished in the morning before I woke up, and did not return until 8 pm when I was closing up the shop. He led me back inside, holding a tiny cupcake in his hand, and a small box.
My eyes stung but I was determined not to ruin my day. He opened the box and brought out a new tape rule and a pair of scissors. I told him he was thoughtful. My old scissors and tape rule were only two weeks old.
We ate the cupcake, pretending I did not know he had bought it from the vendor down the street, at 150 naira, after flirting with her. I never asked for too much, I only wanted him to stay with me and allow me mean something to him.
Pulling off his gloves and pressing a glob of hand sanitizer on his palms, Dr. Bolaji smiled at me for the first time.
“You’re doing well. Your baby is doing her best too. We’re at four cm now. I suggest you walk around the hospital compound.”
“Please, I need water. Coldwater -”
“No way. Errmm, I mean, just in case we settle for a CS,” he said and left.
When I drifted off to sleep after a long walk, my aunt, Nike, who was now dead, appeared alongside my late parents, their faces a splotched painting.
“Nurse! What is happening?”
My stomach fell and rose to heed the burning in my cervix. As though to relieve my body, my mind travelled to my village: four children – Tola, Iyabo, Faruk and Arike playing tinini tanana outside. I went into the house to get water for everyone. Nike was sprawled on the floor, swimming in a small pool of her blood while a tiny half-formed thing was in the middle of her thighs, twitching with life.
A nurse I had not seen before rushed in. “I can see your baby’s head.” She rolled a pair of gloves onto her hands and reached inside me. I yelped at the intrusion of her fingers. “Good. Whatever you do, Do. Not. Push. Has your baby been kicking?”
A wayward pain slithered across my back, forcing me to lay still. I tried to remember if I could identify a kick amidst the turmoil in my stomach.
Few minutes later, she was joined by an older nurse. They moved me to another bed, hoisting it up and spreading my legs apart.
“Push only when I say push. If you like, tear your vagina,” the older nurse pointed an index finger at me in warning, as she spoke.
Had somebody said something horrible about me to this woman? Did her native doctor tell her I was the one responsible for her misfortunes?
She slapped my thighs as I tried to close my legs. “Young girl, push. Do you want to press your baby’s head?”
Would she be this mean if I was wearing a wedding ring and the man I had seen earlier, pacing in the reception with his military uniform and gun was my husband?
I pushed hard, meeting the eyes of the nurse who had checked me before. They were soft and consoling. I pushed again, reminding myself it was all for my baby.
“When you were doing it, you did not shout like this o, you were enjoying it. Push again.”
I bit down the caustic response dancing on the tip of my tongue.
My body jerked up and fell heavily on the bed.
My baby slid out, slimy and tired. I only saw the back of her head before the older nurse took her from the younger one and went to clean her.
My body was a long yawn, dripping with blood. When the placenta emerged later, it was black and bloody, my companion for nine months.
“Dr. Bolaji should be through with the other woman now. Call him to stitch her. How’s the baby doing?”
Dr Bolaji came in smiling. He looked genuinely happy for me.
“I see you have given us a beautiful girl. “
I looked away to the other end of the room where my baby was being cleaned up. I wondered what she looked like, if she would love me.
“I will give you an analgesic for the pain, it will be over before you know it.”
My body was tender and sore, I was afraid to move. The kind nurse came to my bed as Dr Bolaji finished up, a small swaddle in her hands. I sat up and held my baby, her eyes flickered open and close, her fingers falling slowly to my chest. Then she moved her head sideways and fell asleep. To my relief, she looked nothing like Tola. This time, when they took her away again to the table, amidst a flurry of activities, I let her go with a satisfied sigh.
I cradle my flat tummy in the back row of a sienna bus. I look over my shoulder at the boot every now and then, to peek at the item I have just purchased: an electric chest cooler. It was placed carefully on an empty crate.
The woman sitting next to me is screaming into her phone. “Okay o! Look here, Bolanle, I beg you with almighty God, bring one bra for me.” She raises a finger in the air as though she can see the caller.
The driver spares her a glance and promptly increases Wasiu Ayinde’s “Ade Ori Okin” playing through the speakers. A song I will play and dance to when I get home.
Once, I attended a class online for people who needed help remembering things. I close my eyes, replaying the chatter word for word, anything to keep my mind from my daughter, Ifeayo. The child who has taken so much from me and given me nothing in return. I pay the driver and wait for him to help me with my cooler in the boot.
It drizzles. Once in a while, I stop and look up; basking in the light headed-ness I feel when the rain falls directly on my face. At this point, I am the only person on earth; the rain is here for me alone.
I hurry, my daughter is the only one at home. It’s been over a month since pastor Stella stopped speaking to me. And my neighbors are evil; they only know how to gossip.
When I get to the compound, I ignore my neighbours sitting in a small cluster, talking in low tones when they see me. Their children run to greet me and I give them sweets from my bag. They run off to show their mothers whom I suspect will force them to throw the sweets away.
I open the door to my flat and breathe in the sweet smell of baby powder, lotion and silence. Ifeayo never cries.
I drop my bag on the chair and tear through the duct tape on the carton. I carefully plug the refrigerator to the wall socket and wait for it to get to 100 percent. I then go into my room to carry Ifeayo. I usually leave a solar-powered fan on for her because she sweats a lot, and I worry she may have rashes. But with this refrigerator / baby cot I have gotten for her, I have managed to solve two problems.
I open the latch and a gust of cool air rushes at me. I fold her blankets and pillows at the bottom of the refrigerator and quickly change her clothes, a teal top with “I Love My Mom” on the front, and purple pop socks. I replace the cotton wool from her ears and nose with new ones. Her diapers are dry, but I change them anyway. I close the latch and switch off the socket. Their advertisement says the refrigerator retains its coolness for 12 hours.
I switch on my Bluetooth speaker and play “Ade Ori Okin” and begin to dance on my seat.