There is a hotel in the Village on the way to the stream; at least it calls itself a hotel. It’s a small concrete bungalow with a tin roof and a concrete courtyard. A dented oil drum sits at the corner of the building to catch rain water. Dingy curtains cover the open windows and doors. Outside a big signboard says ‘Sunrise Hotel’ above badly painted pictures of green beer bottles and a goat head. At night red and blue light bulbs glow surreally in the surrounding darkness like Christmas lights.
Chidimma passes the hotel on her way to the stream every day. It looks modern and inviting in a village of mud huts and colonial buildings. She wants to go in and maybe stay in one of their rooms. The hotel rooms she sees in Drum magazine have nice beds with head boards, closets and bedside lamps, not like the iron bed she sleeps on in a stuffy room with clothes hanging on pegs in the wall lit only by a dim kerosene lamp.
She asks her half-sister Eunice if they can stay there. ‘Only prostitutes stay there’ Eunice answers disdainfully. Chidimma read about prostitutes in the Bible, they are bad women that make men do bad things and go to hell. She doesn’t understand what they do but she understands that they are paid to do it and they do it with lots of different men and that was really really bad. She’s been told that good women only do it with one man, they marry him and they never get paid for it.
Chidimma doesn’t want to get married. Married women always look unhappy. They talk different when their husband is around and they behave different too. They look wary, like children trying to behave well in front of adults. And when they don’t behave well they get beaten or punished just like children too. Chidimma can’t wait to grow up, she doesn’t want to be a child and she doesn’t want to be a wife. She doesn’t want to be a good woman.
Good women get up before sunrise to fetch water or strain cassava meal at the stream, sweep the compound, feed the men and children, weed the yam farms or go to the market to buy and sell with babies strapped to their backs or hanging on to their breasts. At sunset they come back to feed the men and children again and put everyone to bed. Sometimes there is a wedding or a burial feast to attend and break the tedium.
Chidimma feels a familiar wave of darkness threaten her as she imagines a life time of drudgery. The darkness comes more frequently now. She day dreams of life as a prostitute in Sunrise Hotel instead, of wearing nice clothes, of men who will love her, of sleeping in a proper bed, of having electricity every night, of watching television and having a drum full of water in front of the house.
Charlie doesn’t propose. He just starts calling Chidimma his wife every time he sees her. Soon everyone is calling her his wife too and she almost starts to believe them. He is a handsome and popular student at the only high school in the village. It is for boys only so Chidimma can’t attend and her father can’t afford to send her to a girl’s boarding school. The way Charlie looks at her and smiles makes her squirm but he doesn’t pinch her breasts or try to kiss her when no one is looking like some of the old men in the village.
Charlie and his brothers visit her brothers, their friends, often. Chidimma’s brothers make her sit with them while Anayo, a bus conductor, tells wild stories of the witches and magicians living in the cities he visits.
When the sun goes down they set up a portable turntable powered by a car battery and play music. They remove the speaker from the casing and suspend it over the mouth of a clay pot to make it reverberate like a woofer. A single bare bulb lights up the dingy room and their eager teenage faces. They sing along to Nico Mbarga’s ‘Sweet Mother’ .
I no go forget you
For the suffer wey you suffer for me yeah
Chidimma’s mother died when she was born. She listens to the words of the song and wonders what a mother’s love feels like. She flips through her brothers record collection. He has about a dozen albums. His most prized possessions. He saves his kobos to buy records and music equipment. He’s in demand as a DJ around the Village and makes some extra money too.
Chidimma reads the names of the bands absentmindedly; Bunny Mack, Black Children, Ofege, One World, Wings, Semi-Colons, Comrades, Actions. The male bands look modern in afros, dark glasses, tight shirts, flared trousers and platform shoes on the covers. She flips to an album with a woman on the cover. ‘Nelly Uchendu’ ‘Love Nwa Nti Nti’ it says. The woman gazes into the distance wearing a traditional costume.
Anayo changes the record.
My sweetie my sugar my baby my lover
So honey let me love you
Let me love you forever wo yeah
Charlie comes over, sits next to Chidimma and holds her hand. Suddenly her father rushes in with a machete. He threatens to kill Charlie for defiling his daughter but everyone escapes through the window. A few days later her father’s half-sister Ahuekwe comes from Town and takes Chidimma away with her. She says Chidimma needs a woman to raise her now. She promises to send Chidimma to high school and to look after her like her own daughter.
Chidimma is excited. She’s never been to Town before but she’s heard it has tarred roads, electricity. and houses bigger than Sunrise Hotel. She packs her Sunday best in a plastic bag and waves good bye.
Chidimma is faintly disappointed to find Ahuekwe doesn’t live in a big house but rents a garage and two small rooms with a lean-to kitchen, a bucket toilet and a shower stall out back of a modest old building but its better than the Village. Ahukwe lives with her teenage son and daughter and runs a beer parlour in the garage. The garage is lit with red and blue light bulbs just like Sunrise Hotel. At night men bring beautifully groomed women wearing short dresses and high heels. Chidimma serves them beer and pepper soup.
It is late in morning and the rooms are stifling in the tropical heat. The beer parlour isn’t open yet. Ahuekwe has gone to the morning market to buy ingredients for her famous Chicken Peri Peri and Goat Meat Pepper Soup.
Chidimma sits outside and watches people go by on the busy street. The same people pass every morning. One is a young woman the street children call ‘Fela’. She is dark and skinny with a buzz cut. She wears chic clothes with flip flops and a mad expression on her face. They say she used to dance for Fela in Lagos. Chidimma saw a picture of Fela and his dancers in Drum magazine once.
Friday, Ahuekwe’s seventeen year old son comes home from school unexpectedly and calls Chidimma into the bedroom. He smiles, she smiles back. He’s a day student at a local high school. She doesn’t expect him to pull her to him in a bear hug or to start grinding his erection against her. She stiffens and tries to pull away but he holds her tighter. He only lets go when he hears Ahuekwe’s voice outside. Ahuekwe doesn’t ask why Friday is home from school or why Chidimma is trembling and shaken.
Every day after that Friday comes back from school when his mother is at the market. Chidimma tries to avoid him but he stalks her patiently. When she tells Ahuekwe she is accused of lying and punished. Anna, Friday’s sister returns from boarding school and Chidimma tells her too but Anna just laughs. ‘Don’t you want to be a woman?’
The beer parlour is always busier when Anna is home. She is beautiful with velvety chocolate coloured skin. She sits and drinks with the men that come alone. Anna invites Chidimma to sit with them once in a while. Chidmma crosses her legs, smokes a cigarette like Anna and tries to look grown up.
Sometimes Anna leaves with one of the men and she doesn’t come home till the next morning. Ahuekwe doesn’t say anything till it’s time for Anna to go back to school and she asks her mother for money. Ahuekwe is livid. ‘Have you been sleeping with that man for free? Go and collect money from him. Foolish girl.’
Anna takes Chidimma with her to see him later and asks him for money but he says he doesn’t have any. They argue. Chidimma asks to use the bathroom. He gets up to show her the way. As soon as they are in the hallway he pushes her up against the wall and puts his tongue in her mouth. She struggles. Anna watches. When they leave he gives Anna some money.
Next time Anna comes home from school she has a new friend called Nkeiru. Nkeiru is very glamorous. She looks like the models in Ebony magazine. Anna begins to dress and look just like her. One day Anna and Nkeiru dress Chidimma up and take her out with them. They go to another beer parlour and meet a man. They drink lots of beer and pepper soup and then they all go to a hotel together.
Its not like Sunrise Hotel. This hotel has four floors and many many rooms. The wood panelled reception area is five times bigger than Ahuekwe’s two rooms and garage. A cheap dusty cut glass chandelier hangs in the centre of the lobby, only two out of 12 bulbs work. The carpet is encrusted with dirt, thread bare in high traffic places and frayed at the edges near the wall.
The cracks in the over stuffed imitation leather armchairs to the left of the entrance make them look like giant turtles in the gloom. Plastic plants and flowers sit on coffee tables. Chidimma looks around in awe. They go into the bar. Uniformed waiters serve them ice cold beer in tall fragile glasses that aren’t chipped.
Anna tells Chidimma to go upstairs with the man. She tells Chidimma he will give her money to buy new cloths. He is middle aged and fat. He lounges in an armchair like a toad. His belly sits around his large frame like a barrel. His lips look thick and slack. His eyes are flat and cold. His face gleams with sweat and grease. He breathes with difficulty. Chidimma shudders and looks at Anna with a plea in her eyes but Anna ignores her.
She lies frozen with revulsion under him on a bed upstairs her face averted while he heaves, grunts and sweats on top of her. She doesn’t let him kiss her. She thinks of the money he will give her but when they leave he gives the money to Anna and Nkeiru. They don’t give Chidimma any.
Nkeiru knows a lot of rich old men. She takes Anna and Chidimma with her to visit them. A lot more men come to Ahuekwe’s beer parlour too. They buy lots of pepper soup and beer and try to get the girls attention. Ahuekwe smiles broadly as she counts her money. Everybody is making money except Chidimma.
Then Chidimma gets pregnant and Ahuekwe sends her back to the village.
Chidimma’s father and brothers are mad. They beat her to make her tell them who got her pregnant but she doesn’t know and doesn’t say anything. Ahuekwe watches and listens, urging the men on. She calls Chidimma a stubborn, wilful and ungrateful child. When Chidimma, one eye swollen shut and bleeding from the nose collapses at Ahuekwe’s feet, she moves away with a scornful look on her face. “Stupid girl. I told you not to be moving about with men! Where are they now?” Chidimma tries to speak but Ahuekwe kicks her in the mouth.
Her father picks up a large log and takes a swing at Chidimma’s head. She scurries away just in time, gets up and runs out of the compound. “Don’t you ever dare to come back here again unless you are coming with the man that got you pregnant. Useless girl.” Her fathers words pursue her. She runs past a sea of faces gathered watching the drama. Some came out of their huts to watch and listen, some stopped on their way to the market where they will tell the story later to those who missed it.
No one comes forward to intervene. No one wants their daughter to get pregnant before marriage. Its a disgrace, a sure sign of a bad upbringing and poor pedigree. So no one wants to interfere when a man disciplines his daughter when it happens. Within days Chidimma’s disgrace will be whispered all over the village as an example of what happens to bad girls that have sex before marriage.
Chidimma disappears down the footpaths that criss cross the village farmlands till she collapses near the edge of the forest that surrounds the village. Sobs rack her body for a while then she is still. She jumps when a hand touches her. A soft voice asks ‘What is it my child?’. Her eyes focus and she stares into an old woman’s kind weathered face. Chidimma recognises Alumma and collapses gratefully at her feet.
Alumma is a poor, childless spinster who lives in a small mud hut all by herself near the border of the village. Everyone calls her a witch. She is always quick to point out an injustice and she always knows whats going on in the entire village. She heard Chidimma’s story in the market.
Alumma takes Chidimma home and nurses her till she is strong enough to help her around the hut and on the farm. Four months later, just before the first harvest, Chidimma gives birth to a baby boy attended only by Alumma in their small mud hut. The rain hits the thatch roof and muffles the babies cries. Neither the spirits nor the people hear him arrive.
“The deities be praised. The vampire witches and wizards that prey on women at child birth cannot fly in the rain.” Alumma says as she cuts the umbilical cord with a knife.
Chidimma and her son recover well and quickly. She is so grateful for a speedy and strong recovery she calls him Ekene. No one comes to visit Chidimma and her baby. No one brings her fish and yam for her confinement. Soon she is back on the farm with Alumma, her baby strapped to her back.
Each morning when she goes to the stream she passes the Sunrise Hotel. Each night asleep on a raised platform near the cooking pit she dreams of a big house, with a large busy kitchen, a tank full of water nearby, and plastic flowers decorating the coffee table in the living room.
When Ekene is 18 months old Chidimma weans him. He is a strong stocky baby and loves to run around kicking a football. He calls Alumma ‘Nne’ and she dotes on him. Chidimma leaves him with Alumma and moves into the Sunrise Hotel. It took her a whole year to save enough money to buy a nice dress and a pair of platform shoes.
Alumma doesn’t stop her and Chidimma ignores the sad resignation in the old woman’s eyes as she leaves. They don’t speak about what she is about to do. They both know it has to be this way. For Chidimma there is no other way. Her desire for a better life flares into an overwhelming burden of ambition each time she looks at her son.
At the Sunrise Hotel she quickly learns to please the clients and ignore the taunts of the self righteous and soon has enough money to move back to Town. She rents a room in one of the numerous brothels. She is popular, vivacious and kind, she builds a long list of regular customers and the other prostitutes come to her for help, advice and counselling.
She sends money to Alumma and Ekene regularly and lives frugally. When she opens her own brothel the other girls rush to rent with her. She is always fair. She takes in only the highest paid most popular girls. Business is good and she treats the girls well. They make her President of their association. Chidimma is a long way from Sunrise Hotel.
In a few years she builds a big house in the village where Alumma’s small mud hut once stood and buys Alumma a ladies motorcycle to replace the bicycle she bought for her earlier. Alumma never actually rides the motorbike unless she goes pillion with Ekene. She says she’s too old to learn but she likes to see it parked in the hall way of her new concrete and zinc bungalow.
Chidimma threw a lavish feast for the house opening. Villagers and relatives came from all over the state to see with their own eyes the house that Chidimma built.
They all came back for her lavish Igba Nkwu wedding five years later too.
Chidimma met John at the Oriental Hotel in Town. She was sitting at the outdoor bar alone. Her pampered skin glowed in the light of the setting sun. As soon as John saw her he knew he wanted to marry her. John was a trader. He owned many shops in many Towns across the country and more than 150 apprentices and employees worked for him. He sold motor spare parts he imported from Taiwan.
He walked up to her and told her he loved her. Just like that. She laughed. ‘Love? I am a prostitute. Do you want to buy me a drink?” He started seeing her every day, he paid to be with her all day and all night and wouldn’t let her go out with any other man. He bought her expensive presents. When he asked her to marry him she laughed him off but he kept on asking till Chidimma finally said yes.
But first she tells him why she didn’t want to be a wife, she tells him about the married women in the village. And he promises her they will never live in the village. He promises they will live in Lagos far away from the village. Then she tells him about her family. Her son, Ekene, Alumma, her father, Ahuekwe and her children. He promises to make her family proud of her.
The wedding party lasted well into the night. The whole village came to witness the nuptials and eat plenty jollof rice. A high life band played Ebenezer Obey’s hits. People danced in her fathers compound under the naked light bulbs strung across the fore yard for the occasion. He was the official host. And very drunk. He pointed at Chidmma with pride;
‘That is my beloved daughter. She is a great lady. She has brought great wealth into my compound.” he boasted with a wide toothy grin.
Chidimma and John, dressed in rich lace and brocades and traditional ivory and coral jewellery sit in plush winged armchairs on a raised dais at one end of the compound. John’s prosperous friends and business partners come up and present them with gifts of money, drinks, home appliances, fabrics and even a car.
Chidimma’s funeral is even more lavish than her wedding.
She was 57 when she died. John was inconsolable. Their five children were inconsolable. Their three children-in-law were inconsolable. Their seven grand children were inconsolable. Alumma had passed away the year before. Chidimma had given her a befitting burial, feeding all the village groups and erecting a tomb stone for the old woman, something she was not entitled to as an unmarried childless woman. She would have been buried in the garden.
Chidimma was buried like the grand lady that she was. She had made many friends and belonged to many social groups. In Lagos she had become a renowned business woman with John’s support and many of her partners, associates and clients, past and present, came to pay their respects and condole John and her family. Some just came to see the woman they had heard about. The great woman that was once a prostitute. They came in their colours. There wasn’t enough parking space and there wasn’t enough sitting space but the crowds kept coming.
“She died too young” they lamented “May those that cut short her life never know peace”
In the village her legend lives on and little girls still dream of being a prostitute and escaping to the city.