An excerpt from Where Women Are Kings

Elijah, my lovely son, my beloved,

I want to tell you your life. Everyone has a story inside them, which begins before they are born, and yours is a bigger story than most will ever know. They say I shouldn’t tell you some things, and that words can hurt little ears, but, son of mine, there are no secrets between a mother and son. A child has seen the insides of its mother’s body, and who can know a secret bigger than that? And they say a lot of things, those English. What they call “child abuse,” we Nigerians call “training.” So don’t mind them.

Your story begins in Nigeria, which is a place like heaven. There is continuous sunshine and everyone smiles and takes care of each other. Nigerian children work hard at school, have perfect manners, look after their parents, and respect the elderly. Nigeria is brightness and stars, and earth like the skin on your cheeks: brown-red, soft and warm.

I am full up with proud memories from Nigeria. Most of all I remember my family. Mummy — your grandmother — was famous for shining cooking pots and shining stories. “Long ago,” she would tell me and my sisters, “a woman, so full of empty, sold her body as if it was nothing but meat for sale at the market. She traveled all over Nigeria, that woman, looking for something to fill up her insides, and learned many languages, searching for words to explain the emptiness. And people liked
this empty, clever woman: she was made of starlight; her heart glowed silver. They listened when she spoke her many-language words, telling the places she’d seen: of Jos, where the sky rained diamonds, and the North, where men disappeared inside walls of sand, and the Delta creeks, dancing with river spirits. And so the people made her king. And the land filled her up, and the emptiness was sky. Nigeria is a place where women are kings. Where anything is possible.”

All my childhood she cleaned her pots while I watched, listening to her stories, to her songs, contented as any woman who ever lived. Mummy’s singing was loud, which was a good thing as my sister, your aunt Bukky, from whom you inherited that beautiful skin tone, had the kind of voice that reached inside your face. I remember one day her begging Mummy to share secrets. The sun was only half risen, yet we’d been up for hours, listening to Mummy sing and Baba snore.

“Please,” Bukky whined. “Please, Mummy. I won’t tell a soul.”

“I’ll never tell you my secret ingredient.” Mummy shook her head until her beaded plaits clicked together. She laughed. “Never. You can pester me all day and my mouth will be closed
tight as Baba’s fist on payday!”

“Please,” Bukky said, looking at the cloth with which she was wiping the pots. “It could make us rich. Imagine, a formula that cleans pots that well for sale on Express Road!” Bukky was always looking for ways to make money, and she was foolish. Once, she’d nearly been arrested after a man told her he’d give her one hundred U.S. dollars to carry a bag through airport customs. If Baba hadn’t driven past and seen her out of school and hanging around with a bag that wasn’t hers, she would have been thrown in prison. And if it had been Mummy who’d driven past, then Bukky would be dead, for sure. And who knows if the gates of heaven would open for such a crime, even if it was born of foolishness? But the things that sit in my heart are not Bukky’s foolishness, or our parents’ exasperation. Rather, the light in the compound, dancing on the metal of those cooking pots, making a thousand patterns in the dust and on Bukky’s pillow cheeks; Mummy’s laughter; Baba’s snoring. The tiny emptiness, where you would grow. A place where women are kings.

I remember that the house, with broken stairs and a leaking roof, had a central courtyard where Mummy washed rice in one of those pots; I swear our rice was the cleanest in all of Nigeria. My sisters, Miriam, Eunice, Rebekah, Bukky, Esther, Oprah, and Priscilla, spent their time looking in Mummy’s other shining cooking pots, examining the thickness of their eyebrows, the distance between their eyes (Bukky always said you could have parked a car between Esther’s eyes), the shape of their lips, the curl of their eyelashes. Baba chuckled with laughter whenever he saw them looking in the pots, and patted me on the head. “Lovely Deborah,” he said. I never looked in a cooking pot. I knew, even from such a young age, that it was sinful to be vain. I was a clever child, Elijah. Gifted. I knew the Bible so well that I could recite Psalms from the age of one year. I’m not sure if it was my not looking in a cooking pot or my willingness to study the Bible that made me Baba’s favorite. But I knew that I was. And every daughter who is her father’s favorite grows up blessed, as I was.

Really, we were all blessed. We loved school and attended the Apostle of Christ Coming Senior Department, which was only a fifteen-minute walk away. But we loved coming home from school even more — to eat dinner together and talk through the day, and read the Bible, or the other books that Baba bought for us from the store near his work, or books given to us by Mummy, which were so often read that they stayed open, as if their stories were alive and wanted to be heard. We lived on the outskirts of Lagos, in the suburb of Yaba, near the bus stop on University Road toward Yaba Cemetery: me, Mummy, Baba, my seven sisters, aunts, grandparents, and my brothers, Othniel and Immanuel — although Othniel was busy training to be a pharmacist and always out at work or the university library, and Immanuel spent all his time with his girlfriend, who lived on Victoria Island. Immanuel’s girlfriend was even more of a top secret than Mummy’s cooking-pot paste; she had starred in a music video and her parents were separated and never attended church.

Church was always a big part of our lives. When you live in a place like heaven, you cannot forget to thank God. And we had another reason to love God: our uncle, Baba’s brother, was born with the voice of God in his heart. Uncle Pastor performed miracles. He could make a dying man live, and turn around a family’s bad luck to make them the most fortunate family in all of Lagos. I’ve witnessed it with my own eyes. I’ve seen many things. One man prayed for the miracle of financial security and returned to church a week later with a winning Lotto ticket, a new Rolex watch, and a girlfriend with breasts so large that Baba could not help commenting on them, and Mummy made him put all the naira from his pocket in the offerings bin. How we laughed, Elijah! Our church was a place of happiness, and your little face led me back to it, back to our parents’ laughter. We’d all watch the way Mummy and Baba teased each other: his pretending to choke on her cooking; her calling him “bigbelly man.” Their laughter. The way they looked at each other, and at us. It was such a happy home. A family. There is nothing sweeter than that.

Mummy and Baba had strong foundations to their marriage, so, when the winds blew too hard, nothing fell over. They were friends first, for so many years, and when I became friends with Akpan, I remember Mummy and Baba looking at each other and the smile they shared. They wanted strong foundations for me, too. They were so happy when your baba led me under the palm tree, producing from his trouser pocket a ring that shone like a midnight star and must have cost six months’
salary. They knew something of how marriage can work. They felt happiness, but also relief. Even in a place like heaven, life is difficult for women. If it hadn’t been for your baba, Akpan, asking for my hand in marriage, I do not know what would have become of me. And, son of mine, that is the situation for women the world over.

I was lucky. Akpan became my friend. He visited all the time, and every time he visited I liked him a little more. He had a kind face and he believed in things, and often had a Marks and Spencer carrier bag full of gifts for us: a matching goldplated jewelry set for my sisters and me, a travel alarm clock for Mummy, though she never traveled farther than Ikeja and didn’t have any AAA batteries, anyway.

Sometimes, when I was a child, I heard God in my ear — heard His voice as clear as the colors of morning. When I told him, Akpan said I had a spiritual gift. He said God had chosen me to whisper secrets to, because I was beautiful. He called me his angel and my heart swelled so much I struggled to breathe. It was many long years before we were married, and before Akpan got a visa for himself and a spouse visa for me so that we could leave our home and come to England, to the flat in London where we made you on the first try. The stars were bright that first night, Elijah, as though the Nigerian stars had traveled over to Deptford to light up our lovemaking. You were born from love and Nigerian stars and secrets believed.

You are loved, little Nigeria, like the world has never known love.