On Mimi’s 19th birthday she got a pen. Her Uncle said it was a symbol of hope, to help her to aspire to achieving great things. She thought it was ironic that the person who could have paid for her education, but always came up with an excuse each term a school semester began, could give her such a gift. As if her were mocking her, as if he were saying, “I might not be able to pay for your schooling, but here’s a pen, I tried didn’t I?” How foolish. His first child, her cousin, Mabel, had gotten into University that year. Maybe if her mother was not dead, she wouldn't even be living in this hell of a house. She never knew her father- all she knew was that he was an Urhobo man- her mother used to say, “Urhobo-wayo do not trust any of them”. She wished her mother had taken her own advice in the first place. Mimi won’t be here living such a shitty life.
She didn’t even know whether the man was still alive, her mother had kept mum about him throughout her life. Growing up without a father, being taunted by the other kids and pitied by the adults were things Mimi had gotten so used to that she simply didn’t care anymore. But when her mother left, it was like she lost everything. The woman had a protracted lung illness from years of daily exposure to the harsh firewood smoke cooking rice or stew at the back of her buka. Within months all her earnings were dried up on hospital bills. The nurses had said she kept repeating “My daughter, my daughter” on her sick bed. Eventually her daughter became her younger brother’s ward.
That was three years ago. Now Mimi tries to concentrate on the fresh pepper and onions she’s grinding in a mortar, the onions stinging her eyes sharply, causing her nose to run. Her Uncle’s wife, Aunty Caro, comes into the kitchen.
“Why can’t you grind this thing properly? At your age I was the one cooking everything in my father’s house! Lazy girl! And you want to go to University kwanu? You think University is for lazy people Tufiakwa!”
Because you attended one, Mimi thought.
Aunty Caro snatched the mortar from Mimi. “I must do everything by myself. Oya go and start pounding the yam osiso!”
The baby started crying in the living room. Mimi’s Uncle, Bright, yelled, “Caro come and carry this baby ooooo”. Aunty Caro hissed and muttered under her breath. The third child, Joshua, a five-year-old boy, wandered into the kitchen.
“Mummy I’m hungry ”
“Am I playing hia?!” Aunty Caro screeched. Out of fear, the child scampered away. The baby’s cries had become wails by now. I had already started pounding the yam.
“Caaarrrooo!”, Uncle Bright’s voice boomed.
“I’m coming, I’m coming o”. She had finished with the pepper. She washed her hands and arms thoroughly with soap, then went to get the baby in the parlour. I could hear her cooing and whispering to her.
After cooking, cleaning and bathing the second child, Nnamdi, 7 and Joshua, Mimi was only able to get to bed at 11:30 pm. She slumped onto the mattress beneath the window, and moonlight illuminated her face. The crickets were particularly noisy tonight, and because they were in the middle of the rainy season, even the frogs had joined in their numbers, filling the air with Croak!! Croak!! for every Crickitt Crickitt. She pressed her nose to the window, inhaling the fresh, rain-scented air of Enugu in the rainy season, accidentally poking the torn net out of its place. A couple of mosquitoes took the opportunity to enter through the open space, just before she could tuck the net back in.
She reached for the slightly broken, still functioning Nokia phone her Uncle had given her last year to check for any text messages. Only her friend Winifred had sent her a message. In that amusing, half-English, half-who knows what language of most young people’s texts, “Com 2 anty ada house 2mor 10 o’clock”. Mimi was excited. Winifred had been secretly teaching her how to weave hair, without her having to look for money for apprenticeship at a hair salon. Mimi was picking up fast, and very soon she would be able to take appointments for simple styles like cornrows and braids. She needed the income- her Uncle rarely gave her any pocket money. Almost all her clothes had at least a tear or a hole and the little underwear she had were practically rags. If her Uncle, or worse, his wife, found out that she was taking lessons, they would try to exploit her, or worse, burden her with more housework.
She met Winifred at the local market two years ago. She had come from a village in the East and was finding it difficult to communicate with the traders in pidgin English. Some of the traders were taking advantage of her and charging more than was worth. Mimi had helped her out with her shopping, saving the girl a serious whooping from her mistress. Winifred was a vivacious girl, funny and energetic and they grew very close over the years. They’d had a few quarrels- one was over the fact that Mimi was always correcting her friend’s English- which was very embarrassing to Winifred, a proud girl.
“Madam English. I know you know more than me but why are you always abusing me because I can’t speak it like you? Every time you are always disgracing me…”, She had complained bitterly
“You mean ‘Embarrassing’….”, Mimi corrected.
“I’m not abusing you. You don’t take to correction”
“Me I don't take to correction? Okay now. Since you know everything, bye-bye. Enjoy your life”, she said, and walked out, leaving Mimi alone in front of the unused shed where they usually met. Mimi didn’t go after her and they ended up not speaking for weeks until she went to Winifred’s mistress’ house with the boli she had bought Winifred. She asked Mimi whether she thought they were back to being friends simply because Mimi had bought her boli. She said “Yes of course”. Winifred smiled.
Another of their spats was about Chris. Chris was Winifred’s neighbour who was fond of Mimi, who he met on one of her visits to Winifred’s house. He was so taken with her that he often came looking for her at home. After he visited once and he was both threatened and insulted by her guardians, he took to cleverly timing his visits, showing up when he was certain they would be absent, bringing her small gifts to display his affection. He‘d always called her Nwanyiocha, mispronouncing the word in his funny accent. However Mimi kept turning him down politely, saying she would only like for them to remain friends. This didn’t discourage him in the least.
After Chris had written the JAMB examination thrice and failed, he decided that University was not for him. Much to his parents’ exasperation, he wanted to become a musician instead- music was his passion, especially Reggae music. He had CDs of Bob Marley, Lucky Dube, Majek Fashek, and Ras Kimono in the small room he shared with his brother. He had already started growing out dreadlocs when his mother showed up in his room one morning, asking him to cut the hair or leave her house immediately.
Winifred had liked Chris for a while and when he began display his feelings for Mimi, she became very jealous, often ignoring her friend for days. She was hanging out clothes to dry one day when Chris hollered at her.
“Yes”, she answered eagerly
“Erm…..did anything happen to Mimi’s phone? She has not been picking up..”
“Why are you asking me?”, Winifred gritted her teeth
“Are you not her friend?”
Winifred hissed. “And so?”
She cut him off. “Please if you want to go to her house, go, and stop asking me silly questions”, she said as she disappeared into the house with her basin. Chris was stunned. He tried to talk to her after that day but she kept avoiding him.
Finally Mimi had decided to approach her friend about her attitude towards her. While they talked, Winifred broke down and confessed that she’d had feelings for Chris for months and she was very hurt when he took to her instead. Mimi agreed to talk to Chris on her friend’s behalf.
However one day, Chris called her.
“I want to see you”
“I’m busy o”
“Port Harcourt. I might not come back soon. Let’s see tomorrow at that place”, he said, referring to the shed.
The next day, Chris was already waiting for her when she got there. He attempted to embrace her but she objected.
“My girlfriend. Wont you miss me?”, he asked. Mimi slapped at a mosquito that had left a red swelling on her leg.
“When are you going?”
“Next week. My parents are sending me to stay with my cousin there”, he said, frustrated.
“They said I have to get into school next year and he will help me so that I’ll pass the next JAMB”
He stared at Mimi incredulously. “What’s good about it? I have already said that this path is not for me”
“You’d better be grateful. Do you know how many people want to go to ….” She stopped abruptly, embarrassed. He looked at her in pity, not knowing what to say, and she changed the subject.
“Winifred likes you”, Mimi blurted.
He was shocked. “Me! Why?”.
Mimi looked at him like he was being absurd. `“Why don’t you ask her yourself? I have to go now, I have a lot of work to do before Aunty Caro comes back please. But I wish you well in your journey”, Mimi said.
“Thank you. Errm….I will call Winifred”, he said. They said goodbyes and parted, each knowing he wouldn’t.
Winifred and Mimi had this game called, “One Day” with which they shared dreams with each other. They were meant to talk fast, and whoever got stumped and couldn’t go further lost the game.
“One day I’ll save so much money and go to school”
“One day, I will build big house like my madam”
“One day, you will marry James”
“One day………ehnn!”. Mimi burst into laughter at the look on her friends face. James was a local drunk, who admired Winifred. Whenever he was very inebriated, he would compose songs with her name and sing them out loud, staggering on the streets. Some days it was, “Wini-Wini, follow me, oya make we go London today today”, other days it was “You fit fine o …You fit fine o…But my Wini…my Wini she fine pass jor!” Sometimes the lyrics were so bawdy that mothers would have to cover their children’s ears.
“Na you go marry James”, she said
“Me? Abi you..” Mimi’s voice trailed off and Winifred reached for her hair. “Ah oya sorry. Sorry now!”
“One day, I will marry Oyinbo man”
Mimi started, surprised. “Why now?”
“Don’t you know? All this oyinbo films they show on TV, don’t you see that they are usually very rich? If I marry Oyinbo I will not stay in this nonsense country again. I will not be eating garri and soup everytime again. I’ll just be doing fine hair and wearing fine clothes like Aunty Salome”
“Ehnnn but you can still marry Nigerian that has money” Mimi reasoned
“Na true o…but it cannot be the same”
Mimi smiled at her friend’s simple-mindedness, not attempting to pursue the topic any further.
That was months ago. The next week, Winifred started working as an apprentice in Aunty Salome’s salon. Her madam had paid for her apprenticeship because she was very hardworking. Winifred was so excited. “One day, I will have my own salon!”, she had exclaimed, while she was sharing the news with me. Mimi tried to be happy for her, but Winifred must have noticed her moodiness.
“Don’t worry. You will still go to school. Do you want to learn hairdressing?
”My Uncle can never allow me”
“You won’t tell them. I will be teaching you small small as I am learning”.
Mimi felt so grateful that she embraced her tightly.
Years later, she would meet Winifred in Balogun Market in Lagos, buying Christmas clothes for her kids. Mimi’s eyes would meet hers across the street, and they would run to each other, amidst honks and noisy hawkers, her pale arm around Winifred’s dark shoulders. Winifred would take Mimi to her small salon at Yaba, where she had three girls working for her. Mimi would tell her about her program at the Lagos State Polytechnic, how she combined catering with home hair appointments and in order to make ends meet and how she didn’t have time for any man right now. They would talk about Aunty Salome, James, Aunty Caro, Aunty Ada and Chris, Chris who had died in a bus crash on his way to Port Harcourt, Chris who had wanted to be a reggae musician. Winifred would show Mimi her children’s pictures, two beautiful girls, with skin as dark and as hers. Mimi would raise an eyebrow, “Your husband?”
And Winifred would laugh and say, “Yoruba man. From Abeokuta”.