Story by: Ejine Okoroafor (Part 4 of 6)
We continued to watch her as she hitched up her skirt and waded into the river, moving nearer to the marshes to scoop fresh water into her bucket. She started dragging the bucket filled with water back to the banks and I quickly rushed to help her raise and balance the bucket on her head.
‘Thank you.’ She stated in a timid voice. Her accent was different. She sounded Hausa-like, pronouncing her “T” more like a “Z”. She was embarrassed to have me standing so close to her. She hadn’t really needed my help.
‘Do you know how to make kwili-kwili?’ I enquired; half in jest and also letting her know that I knew her Northern origins.
‘You like kwili-kwili?’ She returned before bursting into a hearty melodious laughter, causing some of the water spurting out from her bucket to her blouse.
‘Yes, so you will make me some?’ I persisted.
‘Yes.’ She agreed simply.
‘I will come and get it from you.’
The boys wouldn’t stop teasing me after she left. They wanted to know what I had said to her to make her laugh so heartily. I refused to oblige them. They were amazed that I was keeping a secret and that Maryam had quickly responded to my charm. She was evidently very shy and would always hurry away or break into a run to escape being courted.
I saw Maryam at the marketplace a few days later. She was helping out at her mother’s stall selling food products. She had started giggling when she saw me. I was glad that she remembered me. I reminded her of the kwili-kwili that she had promised me. She had boldly inquired where and when I wanted them.
We met up at the village square the next day. She quickly passed me a paper wrap of kwili-kwili. I munched eagerly on the small crunchy and tangy peanut bites, a peculiar northern delicacy. I asked if she had made them herself and especially for me. She initially pretended that she had before admitting that she brought them back with her from Benishiek, where she had used to live in Bornu State.
I enquired shortly why she bore facial marks and why her name was Maryam, both factoring more with Northern or Hausa culture than our Igbo culture. She explained that she was named after her mother’s best friend, a Hausa lady of the same name. She’d accompanied Fatima, her best friend and Maryam’s daughter as she was getting her tribal marks and gotten same. Her parents were infuriated when she had returned home one day bearing two vertical sore tribal marks on her cheeks, but nothing could be done about them by then.
I commented that she was the prettiest Hausa-Ibo lady that I had ever met. She laughed heartily. I made her promise to teach me Hausa language.
There was certain innocence to Maryam. She was untouched, earnest and reminded me of a fresh flower in bloom. She was full of laughter and cheer.
We didn’t negotiate our friendship or stipulate the terms. It just felt natural for us to be together. There was an unspoken promise of an everlasting bond. We thrived in each other’s company. I liked to tease her, to hear the merry chime of her laughter and indulge the earnestness of her tales and mind. She made me carefree.
Not everyone was thrilled with our relationship as much as we were. Her family and friends thought our ten-year age difference and my previous reputation as a village lothario mediated against a lasting relationship. They feared I will only break her heart but Maryam refused to heed to anyone’s advice and stayed with me.
I was absolutely committed to Maryam on my part. For the first time in my life, I was in love. I loved Maryam. I wanted to hold her in my arms forever. I wanted to protect her. I wanted to give and buy her things. I wanted to make her happy and keep her laughing always. I felt like I found my missing part and was whole.
We spent a lot of time together, chatting endlessly and laughing together. We intermittently had our lover’s tiff but we couldn’t bear the thought of being away from each other for too long so quickly made up. Maryam was the center of my world as much as I was hers.
When news came that I made the list of supposed aides, travelling with our traditional ruler on his biannual medical checkup in the USA, I was absolutely elated. Our traditional ruler, Chief Okoronkwo had adopted to placing a few of our youths’ names on his list as aides while procuring visa to travel abroad. This was a chance for a lucky youth to remain and resettle abroad. My family has been lobbying for years on my behalf. I had graduated from the polytechnic 3 years ago but so far, have been unable to secure a job. This news was therefore the best thing that could have happened to me, besides meeting Maryam, of course.
I had hesitated to tell Maryam my news; mainly because I couldn’t predict her reaction. I had to tell her immediately before she heard it elsewhere. I hoped that she would appreciate how important this opportunity was for me. I couldn’t afford to miss it. Who didn’t aspire to travel and live abroad? This opportunity was for both of us. I will send for her once I was settled. I’ll now be able to give her the “life”.