The Village Square Journal brings to you the winning story of the 2019 Paula Chinwe Okafor Prize for Creative Non-fiction – a literary prize administered annually by The Crater Library Festival. The 2019 Prize was won by Temitayo Olofinlua.
“You may have learned from your mother or any other hunted woman. Smiling at devils is a useful learned thing. Swallowing discomfort down in spades. Holding it tight in your belly. Ageing on the inside only. Keeping it forever sexy.” ― Yrsa Daley-Ward
I: Are You Not a Woman?
I have injured myself again. The broken china decided to punish me for being careless. As I packed its shattered pieces, glistening on the floor, it left a wide thing on my index finger that could not be kept from my mother. That is why I am sitting down here in front of her, why she is sitting on a small stool in front of me, dipping and dipping a towel in the steaming bowl. That is why the steam from the bowl is mixing with my sweat, mixing with my tears, streaming down my face and forming a small pool on the floor. Mother squeezes the towel until every drop of water falls from it.
“I am dead-o.” I shout before she brings the hot towel anywhere near me.
“The dead do not scream.” She pulls my hand closer to her, trapping it with her left armpit.
“Pa ara e po,” she says, ordering me to brace myself, to gather myself together.
To express pain is to let yourself go. To let your body scatter in many places. To scream is to transport your voice, your pain, your body to places beyond you. The pain is soon to hit me. I shut my eyes tight. I shut myself tighter.
“Don’t you know you are a woman?” She asks, drawing me from my reverie.
I do not understand her. What does being a woman have to do with this pain permeating my body? What does it have to do with shouting out pain? Today, I refuse to be a woman. I scream myself hoarse. After mother is done with “burning” my wound to “heal” it, she applies methylated spirit. It shoots more pain from my finger through my body, making me dance an ugly dance, as it moves swiftly though me, to my brain; it sits there while I seethe.
“Wrap your pain inside your body.” My mother says, taking the now cooling bowl away.
“Your body is where it belongs. It must not be scattered for all to see.” The wound heals. The scar remains.
II: Hello Pain
It takes me years before I understand my mother’s question: Don’t you know you are a woman? It takes my period arriving for me to feel this pain associated with being a woman. It comes with the blood clots streaming down my thighs. The pain makes me curl up in bed, days before I even see the blood, making my waist heavier for my body to carry. When it finally arrives, the aching spreads beyond the waist, straight through the ridge of my spine.
Mother does not understand how period pain bends your spine and curls you into a foetus. Her period never brought pain. Mine, warns my body before its arrival. And when it arrives, it commands my world to a halt, like a Nigerian politician arriving to commission an incomplete road, causing traffic, causing the people to be at a standstill. And once done, blowing dust and siren in their face as the entourage hurries away.
It is in the way period pain forces my body to stop that I gradually begin to understand it. I start to touch it, to feel its rough jagged edges. Now, I prepare for its arrival, getting things done quickly before it knocks at my door. I have become familiar with it, touching my belly with a warm bottle, using its heat to cancel the pain in my waist. Pain cancels pain. At other times, I pop the pills. Paracetamol when it is a slight pinch. Ibuprofen when the long nails of pain pinch deeper. On some nights, I pop no pills; I pop a can of Star. The slumber knocks the pain out as long as my eyes are closed. The next morning it is there, in my body waiting for me.
I wince as I gather my body together as one. Every month, we know ourselves better. Month by month, pain becomes less and less a stranger. Period. When it arrives, I pull a seat and invite it to drink: beer or coffee?
“Blood,” it says, “your blood.”
“Cheers,” we click glasses. I shudder; it smiles.
My first child chooses to stay in my belly beyond the days that we expected him. A doctor looks at my distended stomach and demands a scan. After the scan, the doctor says that if the child doesn’t come out within the next two days, we may have to bring him out.
“So how can I hasten him?” I ask, not wanting to go under the knife. I want to be there, to be awake, to hear his first breath, soft against my chest, his first cries renting the room. I have prepared for it, for the pain to come.
“Exercise more.” He says. I walk back to my friend’s house. The road is uphill and it demands more pressure to climb. As I inch closer to the house, I walk back and return. Going and coming, back and forth, I continue until my feet are tired. I make this walk every evening. Yet, rather than come out, my child sits in my stomach, a sigidi—a statue—refusing to budge despite the sacrifices of its worshipers. It’s deadline day. I am put under. That experience is a series of first—first time hospitalised, first drip, first surgery, first baby, first death, first resurrection.
Before I walk inside the surgery room, I try to imagine what will happen in that theatre as gloved hands tear through layers and layers of my skin, reaching inside me to pluck my child. Pain is knowing that I will never know what happened in there. The now fading scar, lying below my belly, hiding beneath the folds of flesh is a silent testifier of my pain. It reminds me, even when I want to forget. Strange hands were here. It reminds me of how my body was opened up so that I would be clothed—omol’aso—your child is your cloth. It reminds me of how I died, so that I could give life — bi inabaku, a f’ erub’ oju; b’ ogede b’ aku, a f’ omo e r’ opo — if a fire dies, it is replaced by ashes; if a plantain dies, it is replaced by its sapling.
When my eyes open, my ears also open. The whole room turns round and round, as a loud whirring pierces my ears. Soft raindrops caress my face as I am wheeled into the maternity ward, a robe covering my nakedness. I struggle to match voices with the blurry faces in front of me. I feel nothing until my baby starts to cry, until he is tossed into my arms.
“Feed him.” It is the nurse.
My right hand is strapped down by a drip; drugs flowing through my veins, antibiotics washing my body clean of bacteria, pain relievers bringing calm after a storm.
“You have to suckle him or else your breast will be hard.” She places him beside my breast, my nipples in his mouth. The hungry boy suckles. He draws my pain with each suckle. In that moment, I experience the answer to my mother’s question. I do not feel all the joy, love and excitement associated with motherhood. I feel a sense of responsibility, for this tiny thing that wades through my pain just to be fed.
I learn that to be a woman is to be able to bury your pain in your body, to be able to fold it neatly, like freshly ironed clothes after you have worn it once, the heat from the iron melting away the smell from your sweat. To be a woman, your pain must not stand in the way of your motherhood. To be a woman, you must be able to take all that life brings your way, to carry it on your shoulder as though it were a feather, to carry all your sorrows within you and not break, lest you are swallowed.
Days later, still in the hospital, now sitting, my son looks at me, as he smiles a toothless gummy smile. He seems happy to see me. In that moment, my eyes locked in his, his in mine, I know that my life will never remain the same again.
“I think about the tragedies the women in my life have faced. How every time a child gets sick or a man leaves or a parent dies or a community crumbles, the women are the ones who carry on, who do what must be done for their people in the midst of their own pain. While those around them fall away, the women hold the sick and nurse the weak, put food on the table, carry their families’ sadness and anger and love and hope…. Have women been the Warriors all along?”― Glennon Doyle Melton, Love Warrior
IV: United in Pain
My second son comes like my first. He is carried out of me. I do everything I read in the books, so that I will not have a big baby. I do everything so that I will be able to push him out myself. I want to deliver like the biblical ‘Hebrew woman’.
On the day he should have come, I barely weighed 60kg. Yet, like his brother, my sacrifices mean nothing. He is in no hurry. He is brought out of me one humid Wednesday evening. He comes out a small dainty thing, at first.
Days later, he becomes a small dainty yellowy thing. Jaundice. I am recuperating by the drip when they carry him away from me, to be tested; to be sure that what the doctor’s eyes saw was what was in his body. Then, he is taken to the photo-therapy lights to suck the yellowness out of his body.
For three days, his father and I shuffle between the maternity—for early morning baths and doctor’s checks—and the pediatric ward. We hold shifts around the clock to ensure that the handkerchief protecting his eyes from the direct glare of light stays in place. We slap biting mosquitoes off our flesh as we watch. We did all we could to hold our baby down here, on this earth with us. During this time, I learn to ignore my pain, to pretend that it is non-existent. Whenever it arrives on the operation site, I bring out my bottle of methylated spirit and cotton wool, clean and clean even as I continue watching over my baby. I do not entertain it to a drink. I am too busy ensuring that I do not return home with an empty nest in my hands.
Every morning and evening, we carry him into the laboratory. He is pricked. With each prick, his screams pierce the silence in the air as some of his blood is drained into a small tube with his surname written on it. Every day, the results from his blood work shows increasing bilirubin levels in his body. Dr Google tells me that the higher the levels, the higher the damage to the child—brain damage, even death. I am suspicious of the lights here—the place does not look like the photo-therapy units I see online. I am more suspicious of our lack of electricity. He is not getting enough of the not-good-enough photo-therapy light: That’s a fact. We are afraid of losing our child, my husband and I. So, we take him away.
As the cab carrying us home stopped at the hydra-headed junction, we weighed our options: What do we do? What do we know about caring for a jaundiced child? Where can we take him?
“Should we go to UCH?” I ask unthinking.
You see, University College Hospital, Ibadan, a Federal Teaching hospital in Ibadan is famous for protocols, queues and lack of beds. The peeling walls of the towering hospital can be seen from afar. Today, we do not have a choice. It is our only choice. We carry our swaddled child and head to UCH.
This is after another child that was born on the same day as ours underwent EBT–Exchange Blood Transfusion—a medical procedure that involves taking out some of her blood and replacing it with another blood, a way of “crossing out” the bilirubin levels in her blood. Her screams as she was transfused on a table in the open air still rings in my head; this was after the chief pediatrician asked me: are you Jehovah’s Witness? Is that why you don’t want blood transfusion for the child? We sign an undertaking that we took our child away against medical advice.
That night as we arrive at UCH, the pungent smell of drugs mixed with disinfectant rush into my nostrils, I look at the doctor, a young looking dark complexioned man and ask,
“Will my child get the kind of treatment you would give your own child?”
“Yes,” he assures me as he takes the child from my arms, place him in the last available bed, in a room where he shared with another baby patient. There is a sink opposite the bed, a hand washing soap stands atop it. We are given a list of things to buy—drugs, syringes, cotton wool, and more— and the items sit in a nylon hanging at a corner of his bed. We fill all the necessary forms as we hand him over to the hospital. Blood is drawn. Tests are carried out. The treatment begins. I feel as if my son is treated like a human being: his eyes are covered with a black sleeping band that makes me call him my Spiderman; his penis is also covered before he is swaddled in diapers. Asides these coverings, he is naked as the blue glow of the light shines on his skin. Goosebumps rise on his skin. A nurse shows me how to turn the machine on and off. She instructs me to wash my hands before and after I carry my child.
That first night, I cry myself to sleep in the ward, on a hard bench as I wait for dawn to crack. That is the first and last night I sleep at the hospital. I have to leave him every night, there under the light. I have to t(h)rust him into the hands of nurses, praying that by the next morning he will be better, that daily, the light sucks out the bilirubin in his body.
The noise of walking feet and voices of other mothers arriving to take care of their children wakes me in the morning. I see women gather around the low benches as they bring out their breasts and squeeze and squeeze milk into open cups bearing their children’s names. I join the other women, breasts in palms, squeezing and squeezing milk into cups. Strangers united in mission: to nourish their children to health. As drops of milk fall into these cups, we swap greetings; exchange tips for coping with hospital life.
“The more hot pap you drink, the more you lactate. So better to drink it before coming here.” “Better to sit down straight, your back relaxed before you start squeezing.”
“When they give you a long list to buy things, just buy what you can afford.”
After several minutes, I squeeze a full cup of breast milk but there are some black particles sitting on the white fluid. I’d to trash the milk as the nurse said it was not good enough. Then, I washed my breasts before squeezing again. That day, I return home to take a bath and change my clothes. Every step is a prayer, to once again return home, with my living healthy child in my arms.
V: The Rise
“You will rise…and are you less of a woman for this? No. What is woman? Woman is this— enduring. Listen girl, you will survive this–you will. But what fool said you had to do it silently? Here is a tip—scream”― Salma Deera, Letters from Madea
We spend days on standby in the hospital’s restroom with two beds. The nurses always need you to buy things, from cotton-wool to baby food, to answer questions, to do something. You may be needed to do blood work, and to run around carrying small bottles with your child’s blood from one floor to another floor in another building. In the restroom, we rest our tired bodies, side by side on the beds. Others perch on any available spaces, shutting their eyes in quick naps. Once awake, we swap tales of our birth experiences. `
“My baby has been here for five months,” the light-skinned petite woman says, going into the child’s medical history, how she was born premature—barely 24 weeks—and how she has survived.
“I had twins, the first did not make it,” says the hijabi woman who has to get rid of her hijab every time she comes into the ward. She wears it back in the dressing room before she heads home.
“My child did not cry when he was born,” another woman says, narrating how she ended up spending days and days at the hospital, and how she looks forward to going back to her trade, to being normal. As they speak, I think of how a woman’s body is seen as a life-giving thing, always giving and giving. Yet, I wonder: what happens when that same giving body births a half-formed thing that takes and takes, drains and drains her until she is all but an empty hole? What happens when the body refuses to hold the living thing inside? How does the world hold such women? Many times, it turns around and calls the woman a witch for something that she has no control over as though she willingly decided to squeeze her own womb together, cause herself pain, until the child arrived, dead or alive. It seems as though by sharing the stories, pain becomes easier to bear. It is as if with each passing tale, two burdens are lifted–one off the tale teller, the other off the listener.
These stories also make me ponder on my mother’s question: how womanhood is measured by how a woman carries her pain? Was it the same reason some nurses were unkind to other women during labour? It is assumed that a woman should carry pain well, without wincing. This same thought flows into the depictions of womanhood, of how the best women are thought of as the ones who bear it all in silence. In my mind, I see that popular image of a woman with multiple hands, doing so much at once, bearing a lot of burdens on her back too. I doubt if that is the ideal image every woman must aspire to. I think about how many women die trying to be that ideal.
Here, in this room of women, I remove the cotton wool and methylated spirit from my bag and clean my operation wound. Here, when your cotton wool finishes, another woman offers you hers. We are all bound together in our pain, broomsticks held together by a thin rope, wincing as it sweeps us everywhere. Here, we do not care to be ideal women, we are real with our pains.
There is a way that listening to women who stare death in the face, who yank their children out of its jaws drains and strengthens. It is like a jar being emptied and filled at the same time. It seems that by sharing, stories and resources, by holding our hands together, patting one another on the back, we become more alive.
I learn that motherhood is not just about having a child, it transcends seeing yourself through your child, it is a journey where you choose daily, to see and be yourself. It is hard, for the world wants us to be lost, to be swallowed, to be unseen. In that room, I join other women, acknowledging my pain, seeing myself.
One by one, our children are discharged. One by one, we leave the room, the hospital. As you leave, you share whatever medical supplies you have left in your child’s bag with those you leave behind. They share their smiles with you.
I am leaving, lost in the support of these acquaintances who are now my sisters, cradling my child in my arm, tears welling up in my eyes, threatening to break my eyelids.
“It is well,” one of the newly-come women says, patting me on the back.
“Thank you!” I respond but what I really want to say is this: “This pain did not swallow me, it will not swallow you.” It is an acknowledgement of myself, of the other women, of our pains, of finding joys through pain. I turn around to leave.
The tears come down.
*Temitayo Olofinlua is an award-winning creative writer and
editor who calls herself a general content busybody. Her first and second
degrees are in Literature-in-English from the Obafemi Awolowo University and the University of Lagos respectively. She is currently a Ph.D., student at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan where she is studying
(c) Featured image courtesy of Femi Amogunla