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 would make a portrait of her mother shrouded in darkness, holding a clay oil lamp. When Chaya closed her eyes she could see the full image, the jellyfish-like light patterning the space around her mother’s head, her free arm reaching out, as if to Chaya beyond the frame. In her vision, her mother’s hand covered Chaya’s face, blocking any sound from coming out.
When my mother was 13, she used to wake up at sunrise every day and carry him on her back to queue for rationed rice. Later, while he and the five siblings would slurp the steamy rice diluted with hot water to fill up the bowls, my mother would fan the charcoal stove with one hand, the other holding down the growling of her belly.