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Lawyer, activist and social commentator ‘Oze D. Patrick-Akhaba is also a Global Youth Ambassador. She writes very passionately about growing up in Nigeria just before independence in the 1960s. Omosi, her new short story, is an encapsulated prism of the essence of independence – a re-evaluation of expectations. Did anything really change with independence for the common man? Was anything even expected to change by those who know?
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Omosi takes us on a psychological detour of what independence should really mean, not just at the national level, but also at a deeper, more personal and more intimately connected level, as seen through the eyes of a girl child for whom chains of stereotype is a more stifling concern and self-liberation is the only imperative path for growth and freedom.
Date: 28th Sept. 1960
Location: Royal Exchange Quaters, Flat B3, Benin City
Time: 10:24 pm
Glass shards glittered like scattered gems upon the hardwood floor, as dim light from the lowered lanterns shifted across them. Taking a cautious step into the darkness of my small room, I hear a shallow scream.
Closing my ears, I make my way towards my high-top feathered rafia bed, as I try to pull myself together. As I climb my high-top feathered rafia bed, I try to picture the scenario happening outside my room. Sighing wearily, I silently pray the noises to come to an end.
“What a fitting end to my melancholy day!” I close my eyes tight against the sudden swell of anguish. Tears that had crowded for release all afternoon, burned against the backs of my eyes. For a moment, I let my shoulders hunch beneath the weight of my grief as a tremor shook me.
Instantly, a deafening silence filled the house. In that void of sound, in the part of my mind not shut down by loss, I suddenly acknowledged the stir of seemingly trival questions.
“Why hadn’t I taken away the mirror Mr. Tony Whitewash gave me this morning, after myself and mamaa were done admiring ourselves? Why did papa, oh no, Father, always get so angry? Why did mamaa never call for help?”
From the other end of the house, I can hear a soft scuffling. Probably mamaa scooting around the sitting room, in hopes of getting all the shards of scattered glasses. I drag in a cleansing breath as I hold on tight to my faded wrapper, acting as my body cover.
I want to get up, to help mamaa but I don’t know if I want to look at her yet. She wouldn’t want me to. Maybe in the morning. Definitely. I move aside my wrapper, as I climb down from my high-top feathered rafia bed. Gently, I open my wooden door as I peep out the corridor. Just then, I hear a sharp moving thud on the floor. Papa was coming. No, mean to say Father. I scurry back to my bed and lay face flat, as I shut my eyes tightly praying papa, oh Lord, father, not to come into my room. I hear my door creak open. I feel papa, oh for heavens’ sake, father, just standing at my door, looking at me, holdingthe only black torch we have. The same one Mr. Kevin Blaire gave to him, in an exchange for some dry bushmeat mamaa’s brother brought us.
“Omosi?” I hear him call.
I ignore his call, pretending to be asleep. I hear his heavy sigh as he shuts the door behind him and thuds away. I use the term “thud”, because papa’s feet, no, father’s feet, never seemed to touch the floor. His heels just made heavy noises on the floor with his every step, as if he would be any slower, were his feet to touch the ground.
I wait a while as I count to 20 before I open my eyes and turn my face up. Everywhere was quiet. Still. Blackness welled over me, as I gradually let sleep in.*********
Date: 29th Sept. 1960
Location: Royal Exchange Quaters, Flat B3, Benin City
Mamaa was getting my hair done in cornrows. She had just prepared our favorite morning meal. Akara and pap. Or like papa, no, father, requested, ‘Bean ball cake and corn pudding’. We were waiting on papa, no, father, to get dressed before we ate.
“I hear you are the family to see, if you want something done.” That was how the white man standing on our front porch introduced himself, with the warrant chief standing beside him. He took us by surprise. He wants to see papa. I mean father. I don’t like surprises.
It was by surprise they took my two brothers, Uwa (13) and Ofe (12), away. They were offered scholarships by surprise to Kings college at Lagos. The white men said, they were amongst the five brightest boys in our town. They also took my big sister, Etse, away to England. They said she was a fine intelligent young woman. They said she had to study Law. So, at 17, she packed a small bag and went to England. They said I was still small at 10. I had just started primary school. So there was no surprise for me.
The white men seemed to love my papa, no, father. My house is always stuffed with news and life, nights and complications.
In the book I read last night, before father and mother’s brawl, a boy loped toward the crossway, throating his mysterious songs. His bones spoke like umbrella ribs as he gulped tons of fire – I think I was behind him, in a soft plink of self. Then horns blared at the crossway, and snatched his presence. He let a sharp howl that pierced my being, that locked my heart with a deep eye of resistance, as he slipped into a dark aspe. My colloquial voice of conscience was half-drowned. The boy was still at the crossway, and I was still there too. This time, I wasn’t behind him.
I looked at the white man and the warrant chief sitting on our sofa waiting. They (the whiteman) gave us this flat and fine fine gifts. We have ceramic plates and metal cutleries. We even have a colored television, scented soaps and small sized mirrors. Yesterday, we got a standing mirror but papa, no, father broke it.
The white men come once a while to take palm-wine and bushmeat. I have lovely dresses and pretty sandals. But I still hate surprises.
“Nygbia papa. Good morning Papa” I say as I rise up from the stool I was sitting on, so that he could get a full view of me.
“What did I tell you about using the word papa, Omosi?” He squeezed his temple a little to form a small frown. “Good morning Father” I reply as I corrected myself.
He never let me use the word papa or mamaa. He says its the bush man way of saying it. He preferred I use father and mother, if I don’t want to use mummy or daddy. I felt daddy and mummy was too childish. I was no longer a child. Father and mother felt too foreign. Like what the white man would say.
I liked using papa and mamaa, it felt African. Mamaa didn’t mind me calling her that but in front of Father, I call her mother to avoid scolding. Even though, it made it seem official.
I went in with mamaa as we left father with his visitors, to discuss.*********
“Mamaa, am I going to stay with you at the main market today?” I looked expectantly at her
She smiled at me, as she straightened my dress. “Of course you will, I promised yesterday.”
“Thank you mamaa.” I looked at myself on the wall mirror as I smiled widely “Does Papa know?”
“Not yet Omosi. We will inform him on the way.”
“Oh please, let’s remind him of my birthday too. You know It’s in 2 days time”
“Am sure your father knows your birthday is October 1st. You will be 14. You are growing oo.”I grinned a little as I stared at my chest in the mirror…not a single mound of flesh round my chest region. What a shame! Etse started growing breasts when she was 12. Why was I any different? I scowl at myself. Mamaa seemed to notice.
“Don’t rush it dear, it will come. Every woman must have something. Yours seem to be taking their time. It must be because you are special.” she smiled as she pulled at my cheeks. I half-smiled in return.*********
We eat breakfast in silence with father’s visitors on our dining. I feel akward eating with them on our table as i spoon in my corn pudding. I wonder why my mamaa is smiling so warmly at them and offering them more of our corn pudding, asking every time, if they’d care for extra milk. The white man looks like he loves our food. He just keeps grabbing at the bean ball cake and I am cautious not to laugh lest papa, oh, father, strikes me. I look at my parents. How well they hide what happened last night. If only they knew I was awake, listening, observing. I grab another bean ball cake.**********
Father dropped us at the market with his rugged Peugeot 504, after mamaa had told him that I was going to stay at the main market with her today. He was one of the many few who had a car in our city. He seemed a bit reluctant, letting me go to the market. He had wanted me to stay at the Local library to read some books. Mamaa says it will help me learn the ways of womanhood. Father felt otherwise. He wanted me to read lots and lots of books.
On our way to the main market, some men inside father’s radio talked about our independence. They say its happening on my birthday. October 1st, 1960. Mamaa says its a lie. I hope it is a lie. I do not like the idea of sharing my birthday with Nigeria. No attention would be given to me. I pouted as I looked out the window.
“The government has been lying to us for three months now. I doubt the Queen will grant us this independence.”
“I am optimistic about us gaining our freedom. It’s high time we ruled our country by ourselves” Father replied
“I heard they were fighting in Lagos. They are wondering who to give the head of state.” Mamaa began to re-tie her scarf, tucking it in tightly at both ends.
“How can they be wondering? We have plenty people who can lead us. Was it not last month, they had a fight at Onitsha? Who calmed down the people? Men like that, can lead this country.””Well, let’s see if truly we gain our independence on October 1st. They have lied to us a lot anyways. This won’t be the first.” mamaa ended.
I held mamaa’s hand as we walked into the main market. So many people had wares to sell and barter. This was not my first trip to the main market but today was surely going to be my longest stay at the market.
Unfortunately for me, I stepped my left foot on a beggar, sitting quietly on his own. I muttered a quick sorry, as I looked down at him with pity. I had seen him before in this market. Thrice maybe. I pulled on mamaa’s wrapper as we continued walking.
“Emeh, Omosi? What is it?”
“May I have some coins please?” I remember Reverend Sister Faustina’s Cathecism classes. God loves a cheerful giver, she will say. “Emeh zeh? Why? What for?”
“It’s for the beggar.” I pleaded as she looked at me and back at the beggar afar off.
“Just this once…” She responded as she unzipped her small hand-bag and handed me three 50 kobo coins. I open my eyes in delight.
I run back towards the beggar as I put in the three 50 kobo coins into his bowl. I felt good within me.
“Thank you little one” he seemed to whisper.
I am not little, I say to myself defiantly. I am not sure what happened but an egg seller was shouting at three people, after she accidentally stepped on the beggar again. Just then, I felt somebody yank me away from the scene.
“Don’t you know when to leave a place? Can’t you see there is a chaos there?”
I looked behind and saw mamaa panting.
“What is happening, Ma?” I asked
“I don’t know, Omosi. Let’s go!”
With that, she pulled me away, as we disappeared inside the market, admist the masses of people who had come to the market that day.