By Oluwabusayo Madariola
The two girls were expelled from school on the morning of Friday, the 25th of June 1993. As they stood side by side in the Kupoluyis’ large sitting room that afternoon, the breeze from the ceiling fan exploded into the younger girl’s chocolate face as if a door to a large cold room was flung wide open. Like a bronze statue, she stood still, holding tightly the hand of the stick-thin older girl who was like a matchstick dipped in tar.
Shayo Kupoluyi, a heavily built, almost ten-year-old who was quite tall for her age, had turned on the two bullies who were tormenting Mona, the small, dark-skinned girl. Mona was twelve years old and Shayo’s roommate. A few moments after poking Mona in the head and calling her the descendent of the serpent that lied to Eve in the Garden of Eden as they got dressed for the morning assembly, the bullies were down on the cemented floor of their hostel room. One had clutched her knee as she wriggled around the floor in pain. The other coiled at a corner like a badly beaten boxer. Blood was oozing out of her nostrils like palm oil from a leaking gallon.
Romolake Kupoluyi was beside herself with worry when the Reverend Sister Principal of her daughter’s Catholic Girls’ School at Ado town called her to come immediately. She’d driven her white Subaru under the tender blue skies of Idanre town to Ado for an hour and twenty minutes in fright, watching out for street riots. The previous night, the military Head of State annulled the general elections that took place on the 12th day of the month, and the atmosphere in Nigeria was thick with fear.
“I warned you after last term’s incident not to shove seniors you see as bullies against the wall, but you got worse.” Romolake Kupoluyi’s helpless look horrified Mona. However, Shayo’s nose was twisted up in defiance, with her lips pressed together. “What you did to defend your friend was an absolute breaking of the school rules. Sister Priscilla said that if she hadn’t interfered, the parents of those girls could have reported this case to the police.”
Romolake was dressed in a matching blue ankle-length Ankara skirt and flared round-neck blouse with high shoulder pads, which made her neck look as long as a turkey. She was of average height with dark patches on the skin beside her eyes, which looked resignedly at the girls. They were standing in front of her with the tall wooden cabinet beside them and the opened louvre windows behind them.
“I know what the seniors did to your friend was wrong. Calling her names and pushing her around, as you explained, but why would she lie that her parents lived in London when they asked her where her parents were?”
“We won’t be accommodating her. That would be an insult to Sister Priscilla and the other Sister who raised her to take her in,” Romolake said, looking at the girl with midnight dark skin and remembering her older daughter, Shayo’s sister, as she lay in the open casket during the wake keep held for her in January 1991. If she’d been alive, she would have been fifteen years old.
Shayo’s body jolted as if a lightning strike surged through her. “Mummy, she doesn’t have anywhere to go! Sister Priscilla said she couldn’t come back to the convent.” Her hand protectively went around Mona’s shoulders.
Mona’s body shook with fear, and her eyelids fluttered as she stayed close to Shayo. Romolake could see why her daughter flouted the boarding school rules to defend her. She had once had the jet-black skin of the girl with the bright white eyes but had taken the advice of some friends to ‘tone’ her skin to a lighter shade to ‘hold’ her husband. It was believed that men stayed attracted to women with lighter skin.
Romolake sighed painfully. Her life was hard. If only she were enough for the thirty-eight-year-old man she called a husband. Mr. Samuel, as she referred to him, stayed in the residential building of the state-owned palm oil-producing facility at Obua as the general manager. It was two hours and twenty minutes away by road from Idanre town, where the family resided. He used to go home every weekend, but his visits had become irregular for about two years.
Her late older daughter was not Mr. Samuel’s biological daughter, but he’d accepted the thin, dark girl as his when he married her in December 1982. The girl’s father had vanished from their community like a puff of smoke after she told him about her pregnancy. The embarrassment she’d faced in the small gossip-mongering agrarian community called Owena as a young girl, who got knocked up without a man to call her daughter’s last name by, had driven her into near madness. Her parents had sent her to her maternal grandmother out of shame.
Returning from her grandmother’s farm with her four-year-old daughter under the damp September weather, a dull red Volvo honked and parked by them. Romolake, with a rolled pad of weaved weeds on her head and a big log of wood resting on it, had kept walking, inhaling the earthly freshness of the thick, lush greenery by the roadsides.
A strongly-built man of average height, dressed in grey baggy trousers with an almost knee-length, large double-breasted jacket, got down from the car and said hello to her. King Sunny Ade’s hit song, Mo Ti Mo, played from the car stereo as he asked for her name with a smile. He had a thick and dark mustache on his brown face. She looked at him and rolled her eyes. Evil shall not befall me a second time. He looked like the surveyor from the big town that had broken his promises to her at the age of seventeen. The surveyor was why she’d dropped out of school and lived in a hamlet. At twenty-two years old, she’d become wiser. Without a word, she propelled her daughter forward without as much as another glance at his smiling face.
Two days later, she’d met him with her grandmother on the small wooden stool in front of her thatched hut. That night, her grandmother, who had only four teeth left, convinced her in her croaky voice to marry him. “You and your daughter would have a man to look after you.” Samuel Kupoluyi showed up with twenty-one members of his family to ask for her hand in marriage in December 1982. She’d relocated to the hilly town of Idanre to live with him. In September 1983, she bore him Shayo.
The telephone rang. Shayo pulled Mona’s hands, and they moved to the left side of the sofa with spiky wine upholstery. Romolake went to the second layer of the cabinet and picked up the receiver of the dark grey turn-dial phone with her right hand. She straightened out the entangled curly cord with her left and spoke into the mouthpiece, “Hello.”
She stared back at the fragile-looking girl beside her heavyset daughter. Mona’s neck was cast down like a person who was about to be beheaded by an executioner and had resigned to fate. Both girls still had on their blue checkered short-sleeved school uniform, white socks, and brown Cortina shoes.
Romolake ran a finger through the ridges of her rough black hair, which was weaved to the back. Although she was only thirty-two years old, she sighed heavily as if the weight of the world were on her protracted shoulders. She stared at her dark knuckles and light-pink left hand. Her stressful daily ritual of applying the specially made skin-lightening cream all over her body to get Mr. Samuel’s attention wasn’t working. The last time he was home three months before, he had said her skin looked like the inside of grilled pork tenderloin.
“How are you again, sir?” she said into the phone. “Yes, sir, they’re still right here.” There was a brief silence. “No sir, she isn’t staying. I’ll find a way of getting her back to school…” Romolake frowned. “Did you say you’re coming?” Her voice was frantic. “Tomorrow? Hello!” Romolake’s long neck dropped to her chest as she dropped the receiver on the phone box.
Shayo's eyes widened in anger as Mona sniffed back tears. “She isn’t going back.”
Romolake heaved a sigh. “Shayo, Mona has to go back—”
“No!” Shayo huffed at her mother. Her eyes glowed and hardened like a predator watching prey.
Romolake’s nose flared suddenly, and in five deft movements towards Shayo smacked her in the face. “How dare you look at me like that?!”
She roughly pulled the girls apart and glared at Mona. “Go and pick your box. I’m putting you in a commercial vehicle back to the convent. Next time, don’t hiss at the sisters who took you in as a baby. Hissing at your elders is very rude!” she said through gritted teeth as she pointed toward the door where two boxes and two buckets were.
Shayo jumped in front of Mona and screamed, “She will not leave this house!”
Romolake bent down sharply and pulled off one of her black slippers as she advanced towards her daughter, who was hiding Mona behind her. “So this was how you screamed at Sister Priscilla when she was meting out your punishment after what you did?!”
Shayo slanted her upper body backward and crossed her fisted hands at the wrists to act as a shield. Whack, whack, whack, thwacked the flat hard rubber against her raised forearm guarding her face and head.
“I will beat that rudeness out of you,” said her mother.
Mona jumped in front of Shayo’s elevated arms to block the oncoming blow, but Romolake, in her intense anger, shoved the frail girl to the side. Mona collided with the dining table. Her legs collapsed under her as if they were made of mush.
“Don’t you dare counter my decision again!” Romolake yelled at her daughter and dropped the slipper as she angrily slipped her foot back into it and turned. Three steps got her to Mona. “Get up now!” She pointed towards the door. “You are going back to the Reverend Sisters, and I don’t care if they throw you out like your mother who didn’t want you.”
Romolake immediately regretted her words. She stood still. Her head went down to her chest. She exhaled deeply, walked towards the sofa, still with a bowed head, and sat down like a defeated cat in an alley catfight.
“You always turn a blind eye to the wrong. I will not,” said Shayo, pulling Mona behind her as they walked slowly towards the door where their boxes were with metal and plastic buckets. The metal bucket was the weapon Shayo had pulled out from underneath her bunk and smashed into the seniors’ knee and nostrils, respectively.
“What did you say?” Romolake said, charging towards her daughter with the madness returning to her eyes. She pulled off the slipper again and raised a hand, but Shayo made no move to block the anticipated blows. Mona, however, quickly turned her back to Romolake, perched on her toes, and stretched out her body as she embraced Shayo in an attempt to block the oncoming hit with her back. Romolake froze with a bewildered frown. Her raised hand hung in mid-air as if commanded into stillness by an invisible force.
“It’s okay, Mona,” Shayo said, gently pushing her friend to the side. “You’d beat my sister whenever she reported what my daddy did to her whenever you were not in the house. You’d tell her to shut up. You always yelled at her that she was lying.”
Romolake’s eyes widened as she slowly dropped her hand.
“Why are you surprised? Don’t I live in this house?” Shayo shrugged and spoke slowly. “I knew that whenever my daddy told me to go into my room and called my sister into his, after which he’d lock the door, he would be touching her. Then I showed you the letter I saw in her school bag that Saturday morning where she’d written to her class teacher about what my dad did. You burst into our room and beat her severely with a belt. I still remember the marks on her face and neck. Then the next day, my grandmother came and told me you said my sister would be living at Owena with her and grandpa. I heard when you said, ‘I can’t lose my marriage because of a child whose father didn’t claim his responsibility.’ She and my grandmother died in that accident on their way back… Did you ever confront my daddy?” Shayo squinted with pain in her eyes.
Romolake gave a loud wail that unnerved Mona. Shayo, however, was unperturbed. She threw herself on the terrazzo floor and wept. When her wailing subsided and gave way to quieter sobs, Shayo continued, “If I’d confronted my father, maybe he would have stopped, but I didn’t.” Tears cascaded down her eyes. “Now my sister is gone from me.”
“Mona and I will leave this house and go to Owena to my grandfather because I know you don’t trust my father not to do the same thing to Mona. You’d rather get her out of the way no matter the danger that poses with what is happening in town.” Shayo didn’t take her teary eyes off her mother. “But I’ll no longer keep quiet when I can do something about what is wrong. And I’m not sorry that I attacked those seniors. They both deserved what they got.” She turned to Mona and pulled her hand. “Let’s go,” she said as they picked up their boxes.
“Wait…” Romolake called out in a shaky voice. “Please don’t go. Both of you. I—”
The phone rang. Like her feet were caked in mud, Romolake got up and stiffly made her way to the cabinet.
“Hello,” she said and listened. Her head was bowed to her chest. “Yes, I’m here,” she said into the receiver. “Yes, she’s staying…and you’re staying right where you are.” She heaved heavily. “You heard me.”
Shayo turned sharply to look at the woman on the other side of the room. Her mother seemed transformed in a way her brain couldn’t explain. Romolake’s voice was steely as she said again, “Stay right where you are…and don’t you dare me.”
Slowly, she put down the receiver and walked heavily back towards the door. The sitting room became dim as a blanket of dull clouds enveloped the earth. Romolake embraced the girls, rocking them from side to side. The sound of the oscillating fan was the only other audible sound apart from their collective breathing.