Iya Chinyere was having a bad year. Her business was not doing well, her daughter’s school fees were past due, and her husband had finally left her for a mama-put owner on the next street. It had been bad enough when he had simply been sleeping with one of the maids of the rich family next door; she had resented that woman’s superior tone when she told Nneoma that she needed to “control her husband,” as if she handpicked his affairs. She was tired of reading formal, rude notes from her daughter’s school about non-payment of fees, pinned to her daughter’s uniform as she returned early after being turned away. Why couldn’t they just cane her and let her stay in school like they used to? she wondered. But in truth, Iya Chinyere’s real problem was a nagging feeling of insufficiency, that nothing she did was good enough anymore, that the magic spell that had saved her once before was now wearing off.

Prior to her marriage, when she still went by Nneoma, she had never felt special or destined for great things. She did not miss the sneers on her friends’ faces when they announced their wedding dates to her, looks of those who were enjoying a privilege they knew was out of her reach. It was in those days that she really turned to religion, spending hours begging and pleading and binding and casting, seemingly to no effect. Then like something out of a fairytale, Obiofor strode in, armed with a large group of relatives, requesting her hand in marriage. She had never met him before, but his mother was a family friend, and he lived in Lagos, and what else did a girl really need? The marriage was hasty, and the ride back to Lagos was sheer torture, but Nneoma didn’t care. She also didn’t care that the “house” they lived in was a one-room apartment in a building of very small one-room apartments, even smaller than her home back in the village. Or that her neighbors refused to learn her name and insisted on calling her omo-ibo till she had her first child. None of this bothered her because she had found a husband. She had won.

Her husband worked sensible hours as a ward attendant at the General Hospital, and his biweekly paychecks transformed their small apartment into a proper home. Her mother visited a few months into the marriage, and went back laden with so many gift parcels Nneoma worried she would be kidnapped on the journey home.  Roughly a year in, Nneoma became pregnant and had her baby in a comfortable private ward at the hospital. At her daughter’s naming ceremony, the fragrant, intertwined aromas of peppersoup spices, dry gin and pipe tobacco rose and hung in the air like incense, giving the room a solemn, mystical air as her child’s names were given.

Ife-chinyere – what God has given

Nwaebuni  – the child has elevated our status

Onyemaechi – who knows what tomorrow brings??

So, when the little things started to go wrong, Nneoma shook off any foreboding and found a way to adapt.

When her husband lost his job, she opened a shop and sold medicines and herbs. When the angry NAFDAC official burned her wares and told her it was illegal to sell drugs without a license, she switched to selling beer and stout. When she was run out of the beer business by the woman who suddenly opened an identical shop next door and played very loud music, she started selling soft drinks and snacks. And when Chinenye, her daughter, ate some of her wares without permission because she wanted a snack, she beat her. But when her husband told her he was leaving her and their daughter to move in with the mama-put owner, Nneoma found herself at a loss for what to do. She initially intensified her prayers and church attendance, but she scaled back when the pastor started asking her to come to his house for “special prayers and blessings.” She solicited advice from the hairdressers across the street, but withdrew when she realized she was simply feeding the rumor mill. She even went over to the woman’s house to fight her, but her husband took sides with the woman and Nneoma was beaten and utterly humiliated. This left her with a very bruised ego and a lot of pent up rage. 

Akudo, her teenage neighbor, did not know this. She was used to getting things her way, and cutting people down with her acid tongue when she didn’t. So, that morning, Akudo got up early to fetch water at the communal tap and found Iya Chinyere’s jerry-can under the soon-to-disappear stream of water. Unable to wait for the huge container to fill up, she pulled it aside and placed her bucket under the tap. Iya Chinyere came out of her room just as she did so.

“What are you doing there!? Did you not see my container under that tap?” Iya Chinyere shouted. 

“I no get time to waste, dey wait may that your container full! Some of us get work for morning,” Akudo shot back. 

“I said, put that container back, now!”

“Mind yourself o, Iya Chinyere! How I go wait make that whole container full? Na for only you dem bring wata?”

“Is it me this ozu-mmo  is talking to that way? Am I your mate?!”

The yard erupted in a whirling flash of bodies, containers and water. Iya Chinyere knocked Akudo to the ground and cautioned her against such an unwise action in the future, punctuating each syllable with a heavy-handed slap. The neighbors rushed out, wondering what the early morning commotion was about. They waded in and separated the combatants, but only after hanging back for a good two minutes to watch and chuckle amongst themselves. Akudo was led crying back to her room, screaming empty threats and warning her helpers to leave her to return to the fray. Iya Chinyere walked calmly back to her room. She sat down on a stool, and as the morning rays came in through the window, they landed on a smile so big it seemed to swell her face, her entire body. There were still some things she could do very well, after all.

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“The stories of working class women of color are under-documented.”

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