By Bunmi Sofola
Buki grew up in a sprawling house – a very impressive one in the Yaba area of Lagos where the family home was situated. It was the only house in the vicinity with a semblance of security.
Whilst other children played freely in the streets, Buki and her three siblings had each other for company. “We always looked different whenever we ventured out of the house,”Buki recalled.
“The other kids always looked tatty and unkempt while we wore good clothes and shoes. “Rich man’s kids” some of the children spat at us but with a reverence look in their eyes. We felt privileged. It was a long time before I cottoned on, to what was going on in our house.
My dad, a senior government official, lived in the front house with Big Mama who bore him no children. I was in the secondary school when the whole set-up became clear to me. After being unable to give our father children, Big Mama agreed for him to take a second wife – that was how my mother came into the house.
She was a petty trader and never went to school. She was, therefore, no threat to Big Mama. But she was good-looking and intelligent, a mother of four lovely children. She also knew her place. Important dignitaries always went to the front house where dad received them with Big Mama by his side.
We were never encouraged to play in their tastefully furnished sitting room – we had ours conveniently located near our mother’s apartment. Life was good though.
We went to the best schools, ate well but dad remained something of a house master – overseeing to our welfare but seldom showing the love and affection I found in homes of my friends who were in the same social class as we were.
Whenever my friends visited, Big Mama would peep in once in a while – like a host. I had to explain to my friends that she was dad’s first wife – an embarrassing situation for me. Why couldn’t she play with us? Show us some affection?
“In the mean-time, dad got a third wife. Would you believe it? What was his excuse this time? More children? This new wife was a fire cracker – an illiterate who had a sharp tongue in her head and it wasn’t long before she got Big Mama ranting. She was fertile too. In five years, she’s had five children – two sets of twins and a son.
She was also a trader, dealing in textiles. Once in a while, she turned on mum too and you could hear both of them a mile off. Dad, poor thing, always stayed in his room whenever there were any fracas – as if by doing that, the problems would go away.
I was 14 and in the second form at the secondary school when our mother left the house. She told us she was going away and would be back soon. She didn’t keep her promise. Months after she left, she came for me. Her younger sister was waiting for me at the school gates and she took me to where she was. I was confused.
What the heck was she doing in this hovel? It a ten-room bungalow, she was holed up in one of the murky rooms. She looked so sad and embarrssed to see me. She then burst into tears, thrusting the baby she held in her arms at me. Haltingly, she explained that the man she was involved with before she was ‘arranged’ for our father tricked her into sleeping with him.
After she got pregnant, she discovered he wasn’t as rich as he said he was and she had no clue as to how to get rid of a baby. It was the third wife who told our dad when she caught her retching a couple of times with mourning sickness. Dad then advised her to leave so she wouldn’t bring disgrace to the family.
“I was too young to understand what was going on. How could our mother leave a beautiful home for this slum? Was she insane? Was she charmed? She tried to blame her plight on her old lover using charms on her – but now the baby was here, he seldom took care of them. Her savings were gone, but she was trying to get her shop going again. Falteringly, she asked if I could bring my post office savings book the next day so she could use the money to kick-start her trade. Dad had opened one for each child and I’d gazed in wonder as my money grew over the years. Yet, I couldn’t allow her to suffer this way.
“The next day, I went with her to the post office as I wasn’t legally allowed to take out the money. True to her promise, she started trading again and looked better whenever I called – which wasn’t often. I didn’t want to take the risk of being caught with her.
“When the poor girl was about seven years old, she died from convulsion. Surprisingly, our mother wasn’t heart-broken. Neither was I. Was it poetic justice? She always looked anaemic and malnutritioned. Maybe her immune system wasn’t strong enough to fight the disease that eventually claimed her life.
I was already an undergraduate when this happened and closer to my dad than I ever was. After my youth service, I didn’t know where I got the courage to discuss mum with dad. I told him it wouldn’t be to his credit if mum continued to live in squalor when we all lived in a sprawling house with some of the rooms empty.
Could she come back to live with us just as our mother and not as his wife? Dad was pensive for a long time. He then urged me to discuss things with Big Mama without letting her know he was aware of the object of discussion. Big Mama was now frail anyway. She still looked pretty but suffered from severe arthritis. After I’d told her, I let her believe I didn’t have the courage to broach the subject with my dad. She said I should leave things to her.
“Four months later, mum was back in the house but her effervescence was gone. She was glad though, to be amongst her children who were doing exceedingly well. Sadly, when dad passed on, she played no elaborate role in his funeral. Big Mama had died earlier and, as soon as I go married, I asked mum to come live with us.
Dad’s third wife was always spoiling for a fight and, if we weren’t careful, the whole street would know why mum had to leave the house. We lost mum too two years ago and all my siblings, together with some of our half-siblings, gave her a wonderful funeral.
I don’t know what hurt her more, her betrayal of her husband or the fact that dad never referred to her in his will, not even as the usual mother of my children used in such wills by these crafty lawyers. I’ve since turned my back on the family house as our half-siblings have completely taken it over. After all, dad left it to them in his Will and all he gave my mum’s children was his own house. Talk about the sins of the parents being visited on their children…”