In this excerpt from Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta’s 1994 novel Kehinde, the title character, Kehinde Okolo, is a Nigerian woman who has lived in London for 18 years, most of them with her husband, Albert, and their two children. Though she has grown to appreciate the relative freedom and affluence she enjoys in London, her husband convinces her that the family should return to Nigeria. He goes first, a full two years before she does. When Kehinde finally joins Albert in Lagos, she is stunned by the noise, the dirt and the chaotic hustle and bustle — and ultimately by the subservient position she is expected to take to her husband. But there’s an even more shocking surprise in store for her, one that will change her life forever.
Suddenly, without warning, they were plunged into a maelstrom of fumes, car horns, careering big yellow buses, minibuses packed to capacity and people: the heart of Lagos, Lagos Island-Eko. Kehinde, unaccustomed to the noise and chaos, was startled, but Albert steered his way adroitly through narrow side roads cluttered with abandoned cars. They turned at last into a small but freshly tarred road, lined with colorful bungalows. This street was cleaner, though the smell of rotting rubbish coming from the open gutters was suffocating. Albert stopped finally in front of a neat bungalow painted pale blue and white. Two wide pieces of plank had been nailed together to form a bridge over the gutter, which smelled so bad that Kehinde wanted to throw up. A girl ran out to meet them. “Welcome, Madam, welcome, Sah,” she greeted, as she pulled the bags out of the trunk. Kehinde was maneuvering herself out of the car when her attention was diverted to the main door of the house. She was dumbstruck at the sight in front of her. A very beautiful, sophisticated, young pregnant woman, with a baby on her left hip, stood in the doorway, wearing the same white lace material as Albert. Her hair, drawn back and plaited in the latest upside-down-basket style, made her face look narrower, so that her swollen belly was like a badge of womanhood in contrast to her leanness. She scrutinized Kehinde insolently, smiling in a mild and unenthusiastic way. She did not attempt to come and help with the unpacking.
“We’re coming,” she told a neighbor who wanted to know if Kehinde had, by sheer accident, met her sons who were studying somewhere in the East End of London. “I have to take her to her room. You can ask her later. After all, you’re neighbors now,” Ifeyinwa explained. She pulled Kehinde more determinedly, so she had no choice but to follow. Ifeyinwa led her to her room. It was clean, simply and neatly furnished with one of the three single beds she had bought in London. Where was the king-size bed on which she and Albert had spent a fortune in Harrod’s? Albert had said in his letter that everything had arrived in good condition. She had never had a separate room from her husband in all their married life. “Little Mother, Ifi, call Albert for me. Where is he?” Kehinde besought her sister. Ifeyinwa opened her eyes in horror. “Sh . . . sh . . . sh, not so loud! Don’t call your husband by his name here-o. We hear you do it over there in the land of White people. There, people don’t have respect for anybody. People call each other by the name their parents gave them, however big the person. We don’t do it here-o. Please Kehinde, don’t-o.”
Kehinde heard herself laughing mirthlessly. “What are you talking about? I said I wanted Albert. Where is he?” She made her way toward the door, but Ifeyinwa restrained her. “Where are you going? Come back in, just come back. You will see Joshua’s father later. Just come first.” Her eyes were red and her voice was agitated. “Where do you think you are? This is Nigeria, you know.”
“I know that, that’s what everybody says,” said Kehinde. “‘This is Nigeria, this is Nigeria,’ as if the country were not part of this world.”
“Sit down, baby sister. Do sit down. You left home a very long time ago. Here men move together, you know. We women stick together, too.”
“Educate me, please. Have I just got married to Albert and you are now going to tell me what marriage is all about? Where is he, anyway?”
“He knows I’m here and won’t barge in like that. He’s a cultured man. You must stop calling him by his given name. His sisters are in the front room, and so are many of his friends and neighbors to welcome you. You are not going out there shouting his given name as if he is your houseboy, as if you circumcised him. What a cheek! What do you want him for, anyway? He’ll see you by and by. Just get dressed; get ready to go and see those who have been waiting to greet you.”
Kehinde looked around her once more. “This is not our room, surely?”
“Our room? This is your room. I chose it for you. Next to Joshua’s father’s own, this is the best one, even better than Rike’s own. She has to share hers with her maid and her baby, and she is next to the room kept for your husband’s sisters, who can be very noisy during their visits. You’re lucky. Joshua’s father allowed me a free hand. He is cultured, that husband of yours.”
“You talk about my husband as if he’s a stranger to me. We married 17 years ago, and I should be telling you about him.”
“That’s one of the things you must learn. Stop calling him ‘my’ husband, too, you know. You saw her, that shameless one with a pregnancy in her belly and a baby on her hips. . .” She trailed on, flailing those annoying arms, and not even standing still. She stopped for breath suddenly, gasping. Kehinde made as if to stand up, but she pulled her down again. “Sit down and calm yourself.”
“I am sitting down. I am calm. You are the one who has been walking up and down like . . . like . . . oh, Ifi, I don’t know like what. Are you trying to tell me that Albert’s got another wife and that he is the father of the baby that woman was carrying?”
Ifeyinwa nodded mutely, tears rolling down her face. “Her name is Rike. She actually pushed herself on Joshua’s father. When I heard she’d had a baby boy, I knew Albert would marry her. Few men would say no to such an educated woman once she’d had a man-child for them. His sisters would not have allowed it, and you yourself wouldn’t let Joshua’s father throw away a man-child, would you? Then, before we could bat an eyelid, she was carrying another one. But I thank your chi, that has made you into such a strong woman, that at least you are the mother of Joshua and Bimpe. This one, with all her bottom power, cannot take that from you. This is nothing that has not been seen or heard of before. It happens all the time. My husband has two other wives, and we all live in two rooms. At least here you have a whole house, and Albert is in a good job.”
Kehinde was kneading one of the pillows she’d taken absentmindedly from the bed. She stared at her sister. She could now see why the two of them had been left alone — so that Ifeyinwa could prevent her from going out and making a fool of herself. Her eyes were red, but there were no tears. Her voice, when she eventually found it, was calm, but from a distance. “So, Albert married her because she had a baby boy for him, enh?”
Ifeyinwa was crying for both of them. She looked at her sister again and their eyes met. Kehinde tried to imagine the anguish and helplessness she must have endured these last months, not knowing how to break the news to her. Something inside her advised caution, to act coolly and thank God and her culture for her sister’s support. She asked breathlessly, “Do Joshua and Bimpe know?”
“Of course they know. I told Bimpe not to mention it to you in her letters. She is full of understanding, that girl of ours. I told her it would probably shock you and that it is very unwise for people living alone to suffer such shocks. It is better to break it to you this way, don’t you think?”
“But why didn’t Albert give me even a hint that this was the way of life he wanted?”
“What rubbish you talk. Men don’t say such things. It’s like asking why a man did not tell his wife before taking a mistress. But he must have left hints; you have seen it in his behavior. You were probably too sure of your position to notice and too busy giving him orders. Why do you think he was not keen on your returning immediately?”
“That was my fault. I wasn’t sure I wanted to come back just then, and of course there was the house to be sold.”
“Ah, you see what I mean. You forgot it was Lagos he was returning to. There are many ways of catching a fish, and Rike used the cleverest. She met Albert when he was low, with neither job nor accommodation, and presented herself as a ministering angel, even taking him to her church. She became so enmeshed in his life that when the children returned, Joshua thought she was one of their aunties. And when he found out, he soon became reconciled to it.”
“But what did he say to his father?”
“To his father? What could he say? This is Nigeria; you don’t talk to your father anyhow.”
“Oh my God, why have I been so blind? How can Albert have changed so fast?”
“I tell you, Rike is a clever African woman, in spite of her book knowledge. But don’t worry, you’ll soon get used to it, and then you’ll be wondering why you worried in the first place. Albert is a good, hardworking man. Just relax and enjoy your life.”
Kehinde was too overwhelmed by her sister’s news to count how many faces she saw that night, of old friends she had forgotten, people who had been children when she left and were now grown men and women with families of their own. Her only emotion was one of consternation at how much had changed, but she viewed it all with detachment. On the faces of some of the women, however, she could clearly read a combination of helplessness and sympathy. To the one or two who expressed themselves verbally, Ifeyinwa replied: “But now Joshua has a brother, to back him in a fight. Ogochukwu will always be there to support him from the rear.” All agreed that there was nothing as heartrending as a single male defending his father’s compound. Though nobody said it directly, the consensus obviously was that Kehinde should take things as she found them.
She caught sight of Albert once or twice, at the center of proceedings, ordering drinks, seeing to the music, and accepting compliments on behalf of his senior wife. He was remote and distant, as though tradition had put a wedge between them, just as it apparently had between him and Joshua, or Joshua would have protested. He must have learned quickly that here a father was to be respected. Kehinde’s heart went out to her children for the adjustments they had been forced to make.
It was a long time before Kehinde was allowed to leave the party, and she was exhausted. She fell at once into a deep sleep, visited by fragments of the past, as if in her depleted state her spirit was seeking solace in its own beginnings.
© 1994 Buchi Emecheta. Published by Heinemann. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copies of Kehinde are available in bookstores or by calling +1 (800) 793-2154.
Buchi Emecheta was born in 1944 in Lagos, Nigeria. She emigrated to London with her then-husband at the age of 17 and started writing as a 22-year-old mother of five. Emecheta, who still lives in London, has written 13 books of fiction and nonfiction, numerous children’s books and two plays. Her work returns again and again to the theme of women struggling for self-realization in both traditional and modern settings. “I write fiction,” Emecheta once observed. “But I try to ensure that it’s relevant to the kind of life that I have: I try to capture the kind of people that we are.” (First published in Essence April 1998.)
Culled from emeagwali.com.