Mother had dragged me to many weddings in my lifetime. Sometimes it was a friend of hers. Sometimes it was a relative of fathers. Sometimes it was a friend of a cousin of a friend’s friend.
Today was no different. I still had to sacrifice my Saturday sleep. I still had to empty my wallet for clothes and gifts. I still had to squeeze into an Ankara dress worth two months of salary. But this time, it was my sister dragging me to the wedding.
We arrived three hours early to help the bride prepare. No, let me rephrase that. My little sister, Ngozi, hauled my half-sleeping form into the backseat of a taxi. Then, after an hour of weaving through traffic, hollering at other taxi drivers and stopping for fuel, our dilapidated ride arrived at the bride’s house.
The entire compound was alive with busy young women. Even the bride was running helter-skelter, shouting demands into her cell phone while watching over the cooking. She reminded me of Mother; running round the house every morning in a loose blouse and wrapper, tackling back-breaking chores while the rest of the family slept. No doubt the groom was doing just that; sleeping, while his beloved shouldered all the responsibilities alone.
Four hours later, the cooking was done. I heard —as I lifted the dishware into the trunk of a black jeep decorated with red ribbons— the bride yell at a bridesmaid over the phone to hurry. She had left for the venue two hours ago to manage things on that end. I didn’t understand her urgency. It was common knowledge that guests typically arrived two hours late.
“No! Set it up there, not here! Somebody decorate the high table! Where is the DJ?” We arrived at the venue just in time to find the bride —Temilola or Damilola, or something like that— screaming at the people running from one canopy to another. She welcomed us with a tired smile, her round face glistening with sweat in the afternoon sun. Then, after we unloaded the jeep, she hurried into it and drove off to the makeup studio with her maid of honour.
We immediately started placing the coolers of food on the blanketed tables in front of the canopies. The early birds had arrived; just a handful of people scattered under the white and yellow canopies.
“Mma!” I heard a familiar voice call my nickname. Soon after, I was trapped in the suffocating embrace of Father’s mother.
“Good…afternoon…ma,” it was a miracle that I even managed to get those words out as I breathed in herbs instead of oxygen.
“How are you? I hope you're studying hard at college. And Ngozi? Where is she?” Grandmother finally released me from the hug. She was dressed in a yellow blouse and red wrapper. Her short hair was wrapped in a matching red hair tie, or gele, as it is natively called. There was another elderly woman beside her, dressed in the same attire. But, unlike Grandmother, this woman was thin. So thin, in fact, that she looked like she might break if I so much as shook her hand.
“I’m fine. Ngozi is over there,” I pointed to another canopy in the open field.
“Enjoy this wedding oh! The next one will be yours,” Grandmother’s friend joked. In the past, my response to such statements had been to nod and smile politely. But now, the mere thought of it made me shudder.
“I’m glad to see that you aren’t letting your mother’s sins affect you,” Grandmother put a chubby hand on my shoulder. I resisted the urge to shake it off.
“Oh, so she’s that Adamma?” her friend asked. Grandmother nodded, and the fragile woman looked at me with pity in her eyes. My hands curled into fists at my sides, and I turned to leave. I didn’t need to hear another lecture about my mother’s ‘wickedness’.
“Where are you going?” Grandmother stopped me in my tracks, “Come and greet the rest of the family. NGOZI!”
And just like that, Ngozi and I were dragged into the tradition of mini-family reunions. As usual, we spent several minutes greeting men and women who we hadn’t seen in years, and they marvelled at how much we’d grown. This time, however, there was a fresh face in the mix; a cheerful baby boy. Father’s son, not Mother’s.
Soon enough, the groom, his family, and the other guests arrived. The ceremony began with an opening prayer. I didn’t bother listening though. It was always the same; committing the day into God’s hands, thanking Him for the couple, wishing them a long and happy married life…
Long and happy. I snorted, and Ngozi gave me a curious look. “Sorry,” I whispered. There was no use explaining. She wouldn’t understand; no one would.
After the exhaustingly long prayer, it was time for the bridal train. Everyone cheered as the bride danced into the field, her anklets jingling with each step she took. Her caramel skin —and her bright red wrapper— shimmered in the afternoon sun. But most impressive of all was the smile that lit up her face; never wavering.
The bachelors sitting behind me, however, seemed to be more interested in the bridesmaids swaying behind her. They laughed and whistled as they took their picks. When I was 9, at the wedding of an uncle I’d never met before, I had asked Mother why the bachelors always did this. She had smiled and said, “Because they are men, and men will be men.”
“Men will be men,” I muttered through gritted teeth, digging my nails into my palms, “and women will be trophies.”
“What did you say?” Ngozi turned to me again.
“Nothing.” I tried to return my focus to the bridal train, but they were gone. I had missed the entire performance.
I had always failed to notice the important things. I hadn’t noticed the bruises on Mother’s skin, or the exhaustion in her eyes. I hadn’t even noticed the pregnancy tests filling the trash cans at home.
The bridal train returned a few moments later for the most important part of the wedding; Igba Nkwu, the wine carrying.
The bride was given a glass of palm wine. The groom sat among the other young men. They were all dressed in blood red native attire.
The bride made a show of looking for her groom in the crowd, but the smile they shared before she began her “search” gave her away. Soon enough, he’ll be sharing that smile with someone else, laughing behind her back as she fell for all his tricks.
The bride tried, and failed, to wipe the smile off her face as she weaved through the red sea of men. She knelt before her groom, presenting the palm wine. The crowd cheered. He took a sip, then she. Then he took her hand, and helped her up. They danced hand in hand, faces glowing with smiles as they approached the high table.
They knelt before the bride’s father. He gave them his blessings and, after the vows were taken, downed the glass of palm wine. He then rolled up a fresh N1,000 note, and put it in the empty glass.
The deed was done. They were married.
The rest of the ceremony flew by. The couple left to change their clothes. Food was served, and a comedian kept the guests entertained.
“Look at this!” a man standing a few rows ahead of me shouted at his wife —it was easy to identify couples at weddings, they always wore matching clothes. He pointed at the little girl holding his hand, her pink dress stained with mud. “Look at what your daughter has done!”
Your daughter, because children only belonged to the father when they were good. Otherwise it’s the mother’s child; her mistake.
The wife bowed her head. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry” Mother’s last words. The only words on her suicide note.
The newlyweds returned to receive gifts and well-wishes, after which the ceremony would end. The gifts were mostly household objects and money. I personally had nothing to give, but it felt wrong to leave the innocent woman without a warning.
“I pray you have a son very soon,” I said. Because if you don’t, he’ll find someone else who will.