The taxi cab that transported Pelewura and her late mother’s friend, whom she called Maami, stopped at the black gate that secured Baba Alaje’s house. When they got out of the cab, Pelewura got a closer look at the gate and saw that it was reddening from rust. While Maami knocked and waited for somebody to let them in, Pelewura looked at the house. It was big and brown, and she knew it had been standing for some time. One could tell that a rich man lived in it.
A man, the gate-man perhaps, finally came to open the gate for them. The gate-man knew Maami; it was obvious from how ebulliently he greeted her, but that could have been because he hoped she would give him money when she left. When she left, without her.
It was a one-story house. The first floor had a balcony on which one could stand and observe what was going on downstairs, and even outside the spacious compound where two cars— one Pathfinder, one Honda— were parked. It also had four pillars holding the front beam up. From what she could already see, it had all the characteristics of an Ibadan Big Man house.
The gate-man did not offer to lead them into the main house, and Pelewura knew that it was because Maami was no longer a stranger to this house or its owner, and soon, even she would no longer be.
The large doors were thrown open at the first knock and Pelewura was met with a plump, near-fat woman with beautiful dark skin and big cheeks. She was dressed in a brown iro and buba, and brown leather slippers.
“Iya mi! E kaabo. Welcome.” The woman enveloped Maami in a hug. She hugged Pelewura too and smiled broadly at her. The woman sounded cheery, too cheery, and Pelewura knew that this was her Senior Wife. And she knew that all this cheer could not be real, because wives of the same husband were meant to be rivals, contenders of the same prize, and even secretly dislike each other. There was no way a woman could truly like for her husband to bring in another woman right under the roof they both shared.
Pelewura did not like that this woman was pretending to be happy to see her, that she was here, and so, she made up her mind to be wary of her.
The living room was wide and painted a cream colour. There were four brown sofas framing it; a three-sitter, a two-sitter, and two singles. A big rectangular glass table sat in the middle of the room on a plush tiger print centre rug. Air conditioning hummed and chilled the room suitably.
This was her new home! Where she would be wife. Something was jumping excitedly inside her, and she herself felt like jumping.
On one of the sofas, the three-sitter, sat her new husband. This was the first time she would see or meet with Baba Alaje. He was fat and dark-skinned, with a pot belly that was suitably big for a rich man.
“Good morning Baba,” Maami said to him, bending. She glanced sideways at Pelewura and Pelewura knew to kneel immediately, bowing her head.
“Good morning,” he responded to Maami. His voice was deep and rich, and it sounded throughout the room. “Come,” he said to Pelewura, gesturing with his hands.
Pelewura shifted towards him, still on her knees. She did not raise her head. In this position, she looked at her silver lace wrapper and the sleeves of the stylish buba—which was bought for her by Baba Alaje, and he even gave her the money to sew it through Maami—and thought that these were the best clothes that had ever graced her slender body.
He put his arms around her, then touched her shoulder. He touched her chin with his fingers and gently tilted her head, looking at her with such an intense gaze, as if telling her not to be nervous, promising her that her life would never be the same after this, that she and poverty had stopped being acquaintances the very moment she got here.
She looked at him too; at his deep, brown eyes, at his healthy cheeks, at his supple dark skin. And bowed her head again.
“Baba o!” Maami was laughing excitedly and clapping, implying tremendous support for their union. Pelewura thought she heard her Senior Wife laughing too.
The navy blue gele on her head felt tight and she could not wait to remove it when she got into bed, when she got into bed with him. She, his fresh, young meat. Suddenly she wished she were still a virgin, because she wanted to give herself to him in every way pure, every way possible.
She wondered how old he was. When she asked Maami, Maami had said “What is your business with that? He is a Big Man, that is all you need to know! Look, our lives have become better!”
But now as she was looking at him, she thought he could be anything from fifty to early seventies. That was how healthy he looked.
“E se,” he said to Maami, smiling. “I will see you. I have something for you—do you want cash or cheque?”
“Cash, sir!” Maami said, smiling with all her teeth showing and nodding enthusiastically.
“All right. I am coming.” He stood up and said to Pelewura, “Sit down, my dear.”
My dear. Her heart was buzzing with happiness again.
She looked around the living room, taking in more details. You are now a rich man’s wife. And then her eyes met her senior wife’s.
Her senior wife had a soft look on her face. When Baba Alaje returned with a big wad of five hundred Naira notes and gave it to Maami, she got on her knees and thanked him profusely.
“Baba Modupe! I thank you! I have spoken to your wife. You know she is a good girl. May your marriage be fruitful; may she give you many strong sons!”
“It is nothing; we are now family, after all.” Pelewura was oddly very pleased to hear her new husband’s rich voice again. “Thank you. Amen.”
Maami turned to Pelewura’s senior wife. “Mama, thank you ma. You have been so kind.”
Maami stood up, gave Pelewura a smile, and asked her to see her out.
“Be a good girl. A good wife. Submit to your husband always. Do everything he asks of you.” I knew by “everything” she meant my wifely duties. “And… don’t be rude to your Iyale. Your senior wife is like your mother, in the home of your husband.”
Pelewura nodded as they walked to the gate. Maami handed the gate-man a hundred Naira note before she stepped out of the compound. Pelewura shook her head to clear her thoughts. She shouldn’t be thinking about her late parents now.
Pelewura was in her shop examining her goods. This was all she did these days; rub her hands over plastic bags that contained lace materials, lace materials that nobody in the town could afford to buy because they were too expensive for them. She compared patterns, took pictures, and posted them on her social media, and it was mostly from social media that her customers came.
Other times, Pelewura sat in her shop, staring into the distance, occasionally checking her Facebook, even though she rarely got any notifications.
She looked around the shop her husband had rented for her six months ago, just one week after she moved into his house. He had asked her, one night during dinner, when he paused from smacking his lips, obviously greatly enjoying the food she cooked, if she would like him to rent her a shop. Her eyes had widened. He asked again, and she nodded.
She was still meek then, so meek. All she had ever been was a housegirl or a salesgirl. And now, she was to become the owner of a shop. Was this how quickly one could become successful? Just find a rich man who would marry you?
He had said he would start work on it, and she shifted her chair back and knelt in appreciation.
She did not know what to feel when her senior wife offered to buy lace materials for her to sell. She was not even given a chance to accept or refuse the offer, because her husband immediately nodded, enthusiastically, and said it was a good idea, because her senior wife knew the market more than she did, and so would get a good worth of his money.
When she heard the knock on her door, she stood up to welcome her friend.
Wunmi, a woman Pelewura met on Facebook and became friends with, entered the shop and shut the door behind her. Wunmi was a fast talker, quick walker, fairly tall, had skin the colour of the shell of coconut, and very shapely hips. Both friends hugged and went to Pelewura’s table where she took stock, and sat opposite each other on white plastic chairs.
“How are you? You look tired. No not tired; dull. Are you okay?” Wunmi reached across and touched Pelewura’s forehead.
“I am fine.”
“I wanted to ask if you are already pregnant,” Wunmi said teasingly.
Pelewura smiled a little. She was thinking about how when she first got to Baba Alaje’s house, she couldn’t wait to conceive for him. But now she thought she didn’t want it to happen anytime soon.
“Are you happy?”
Was she happy? Pelewura did not know. Perhaps she did not know because she had never experienced happiness, to know how it felt. Happiness had never been the goal, just comfort. She had been poor for too long. Now, she was well-to-do.
“I am happy,” she answered, because she knew that if she said otherwise, Wunmi would be worried, or would try to make her talk about her “unhappiness”.
“Okay. That’s good.” Her friend stretched her legs, then recrossed them.
“And how is your Iyale?” Pelewura knew that Wunmi was not asking about her senior wife’s health, but about how her Senior Wife treated her.
“She…” Pelewura hesitated.
“Don’t tell me she is giving you trouble?” Wunmi’s shoulders were raised, like one who was about to fight.
Pelewura shook her head and pressed her lips together. “She is suffocating. She… acts as if she is my mother, as if I am here for her to guide.”
“If she wants somebody to guide let her call her children back home, abi? Or let her ask your husband to pour his semen into her – that is if her rusty womb can still hold a child.”
Pelewura was not taken aback at Wunmi’s rudeness; it was one of the things she admired in her friend. In fact, she wished she could be that outspoken, that brave.
She let out a croaky laugh. Pelewura knew that if it was Wunmi who was in her position, she would not be as weak as Pelewura was.
“I know their type,” Wunmi continued. “Old women who wasted their youth doing nothing, being fat and undesirable, coming to stress a young woman’s life. Are you the cause of her misfortune? She needs to leave you alone. Look, I don’t know why you are so soft. If I were you… you know me, na? She wouldn’t dare.
You are in your husband’s house. She needs to let you be, to let you enjoy your youth and your life.”
Pelewura nodded, taking in Wunmi’s words.
“And you too, you need to stop letting her turn you into a ball and kick you around. You are younger and stronger than she is. Don’t let her ride you. And if she does… she may be an elder, but elders that do not respect themselves are asking for disgrace, so show her disgrace. I am so passionate about this because I dislike seeing young women waste their lives away. I want you to enjoy your life.
Make her realise that a new queen has arrived.”
Later, minutes after Wunmi had left, Pelewura thought that a new queen had not arrived. She would never be queen in Baba Alaje’s house.
She would never be happy in Baba Alaje’s house as long as her senior wife was still there. And Pelewura wanted happiness—because she already had money. She deserved happiness. And she deserved to have it, at all costs.
She might have never experienced happiness, but she had experienced unhappiness. She was experiencing it now, and it was because of her senior wife.
It was so ridiculous, how she, Pelewura admitted, made her feel insecure. The woman was the matriarch of the house and Pelewura, even with all her youth and light skin, could not take that from her.
Senior Wife thought herself to be a mother hen. She moved about as noiselessly as a feather brush, yet it was she who ruled the home, who put everything where it was and made it all come together to work. Or, Pelewura thought, did it with their husband’s money.
When was she going to step back and let the new, younger wife take over? Pelewura hated that their husband always sought her advice before doing anything. What was she there for, then? He even looked at the woman as if he was still in love with her. Was that even possible? How could he see her, Pelewura, and still feel anything for the old woman? It was so bad that their husband shared the nights he spent with each wife equally – Pelewura had three nights, Senior Wife had three nights, and he spent Sunday nights alone because as he said, “he didn’t want to finish his water” and “he needed to refill”. Pelewura had the same amount of sex days as her senior wife, and Pelewura was over thirty years younger than her.
Pelewura suspected that what Baba Alaje still found attractive in Senior Wife – because Pelewura thought there couldn’t be anything else – were her deep, deep dimples. And maybe her buttocks, and Pelewura had to admit, she wasn’t nearly as endowed as Senior Wife in that area.
While the woman had deep dimples, Pelewura had deep tribal marks that marred her skin.
All of it made her sick.
Pelewura was unhappy. And what was the use of wealth, if one could not enjoy it with happiness? This was the first time Pelewura would be experiencing money, and God knew she wanted to enjoy it in all ways possible.
When did she even become this weak? Only years ago, Pelewura fought a woman who was her boss then, when she worked as a housegirl. The woman had been beating her for so long and Pelewura continued to respect her, to take the beatings. One day came and the woman beat her so much that Pelewura restrained her by holding her hands. The woman, infuriated by Pelewura’s audacity, pushed her and hit her head on a wall. Pelewura had switched their positions so that it was the woman whose back was against the wall, and hit her head against the wall until it bled.
She knew how to defend herself. So who was Senior Wife, against her?
She would not let her life waste away because of an old woman who did not know her place.
The senior wife, Mama Kolade was inside her husband’s room, writing a list.
She was the wife who went into Baba Alaje’s room. Pelewura was not bold enough to; it was something she never did, unless she was called in there.
Baba Alaje entered the room. Mama Kolade turned her gaze to him, surprised that he left his visitors in the living room.
He looked… occupied. He went to a drawer and started to ransack it. He didn’t even acknowledge her.
“That reminds me, Baba Kolade,” she said, adjusting her glasses, “Are we not painting the house this year?”
He looked at her. “No, Mama Kolade, we are not.”
An understanding passed between them, and Mama Kolade nodded. Baba Alaje got what he needed and left the room to go back to his visitors.
The only time that Baba Alaje did not have the house repainted any year was when his business was not going very well and he was running at a loss. Mama Kolade knew that that was the case now too; she had suspected it. Money had not been flowing the way it should.
She hoped things would get better before the new year. In two weeks, they would be in 2019.
Then she wondered why she pitied him.
Just when was she going to reap the fruits of her labour?
Maybe it was because everything he had to his name today, she built with him. It was she who was with him when he had nothing; no money, no business. It was she who sold her mother’s gold and gave the money realised to him, to buy his first bags of cement.
Why, was it not when he started making money that they finally decided to let her most recent pregnancy stay, and named him Kolade—[this child] brought money?
Before that, she had aborted three pregnancies for him, because he was “not ready”. She sighed. She had done so much for him.
And now, now that he was something, that she had helped him become something, the way he thought was most suitable to pay her back was by bringing in a toothpick-legged girl from nowhere to take her place.
Men were truly ungrateful, wicked creatures.
The girl was what Yoruba people called Atokowabaleje—one who comes from the rough farm to ruin the pleasant home. Ever since the girl had come, with her light skin that Mama Kolade thought was definitely not natural, Baba Kolade had stopped taking her along to events and dinners and important meetings, and had replaced her with the girl.
Perhaps that was why his business was fumbling, she thought maliciously.
No, she reprimanded herself. She shouldn’t think about her husband like that. It was both of them against the problem.
But was it fair, that the lace materials that she and him sewed exclusively, had now turned to clothes for three—and was now gotten from Pelewura’s shop?
She was tired of always thinking about these things.
Was she going to sit around mopping when nobody cared, or was she going to take her life into her own hands and find a solution to her situation, before it was too late?
Mama Kolade knew the answer.
Imagine Mama Kolade’s fearful shock when she went to a cleric, a week later, and got to know that it was even worse than she was thinking; Pelewura actually used juju on her husband.
She had face-palmed herself. How did she not see it? Of course Pelewura had. Her husband was not this kind of man. He had always loved her and shown it, he had never acted like she was not enough for him, yet all of a sudden, he was bringing a new girl into their home, not as a house help, but as a wife.
All of it was abnormal and suspicious, and yet she did not see it until now.
Mama Kolade decided that it was truly not her husband’s fault, and in fact—he was spiritually sick at this time, therefore she would not be a good wife if she left him to his problems—as she had been planning to do.
It was up to her to save her husband. She was his wife, his real wife; his only wife. The cleric had told her what she had to do—Pelewura had to be sent away from their lives spiritually. He had said that the madness would start in just a few days. Pelewura would run mad and enter the streets naked, and her juju would clear from Baba Kolade’s eyes.
Baba Alaje supposed he had no one to blame but himself.
It was he who had become rich and decided to betray his wife of nearly thirty years, by bringing in a girl who was not even as old as Mama Kolade’s first child, as a new wife. And it was he, alone, who would bear his misfortune.
When his cement business folded in half in just under eight months, he sat down on his buttocks and thought all was well. When his employee ran away with his money, he was still sitting. But it was when the ship carrying a container of his goods capsized that he knew he had to go to elders, and try to find out why this was happening to him.
The cleric he went to had told him that his new wife, Pelewura, had a bad luck spirit—whatever she came in contact with was sure to be ruined. He had asked, in despair, what he could do about his situation, and the cleric had said she had to leave his house. Baba Alaje was already talking about how he would chase her out of his house with the polythene bag she came with, when the cleric reprimanded him and said she had to leave out of her own volition, because if he forced her out, things would become worse for him.
He then thought, wisely, that if he could not send her out, he could subtly frustrate her so she would leave on her own.
On the morning of December 26, Mama Kolade was in a cheerful mood. She was taking out her ironed lace and gele which she would wear for the day’s occasion – it was her husband’s birthday, and she was going to make it his best yet.
She smiled as she remembered how she had entered his room few days ago (a privilege only she had), got on her knees and offered him a cheque she had written. She knew he did not have a lot of money and she wanted to contribute to his birthday and end-of-the-year party, in order to make it a resounding success despite his tight funds.
It was one of the things that Baba Alaje loved about her—how she knew what he was feeling and how things were for him, without him telling her. He knew she did not want him to be disgraced, did not want people to start speculating – people who already did not wish him well anyway, but still came to his annual parties – when this year’s wasn’t as buoyant as the previous ones.
He tried to shrug off the slight guilt he felt, but he could not.
When Mama Kolade did that, she thought she saw a loving glint in his eyes and thought, My husband is not completely gone.
It was up to her to bring him back—and she had already initiated her plan. She felt no regret.
The party would start when the first hungry man or woman came. For now, the hired cooks were still preparing the various kinds of food for the occasion.
Pelewura was just coming from Baba Alaje’s room—she actually went in there. Her husband had not come out at all that morning, so she went into his room. It was a first for her—and an achievement, though he was responses were glum and monotonous.
Pelewura frowned as she remembered hearing her senior wife reciting Baba Alaje’s oriki, his lineage praises. Pelewura did not know them.
She went to the backyard where the cooking was taking place. There, she met her senior wife in charge, as usual. It was her senior wife who was directing everybody on what to do. She was as in control as she looked.
Pelewura pressed her lips together and went to another part of the backyard where a cook was starting to prepare a soup.
“Use groundnut oil. Don’t use palm oil.” She wanted to do something, to exercise her right to have a say and lose this inferiority that she felt.
“Ma?” The cook raised her head and turned to Pelewura. “Mama said I should use palm oil for this soup.”
“And I’m saying use groundnut oil. Or can I not give you orders?”
“No Ma, it’s not… it’s Mama that said I should use palm oil…”
“What is happening there?” Mama Kolade suddenly said.
“It is Aunty that is saying…”
“Iya, please bleach the palm oil and start cooking the soup. Time is going,” Mama Kolade said in a dismissive manner, and just like that, Pelewura knew that Mama Kolade had heard her, and had decided that she, Pelewura, was not important enough to give orders in the house.
So Pelewura decided to do what Wunmi’s cleric told her to do. Before, she had been hesitant to use the substance as she was told. But this… this that Mama Kolade had done, was the final straw that broke the camel’s back.
Night had come, and the party was over. Mama Kolade was cooking a soup, Pelewura was cooking a soup. Mama Kolade was inside her room, Pelewura was in the kitchen.
It was now or never—she had to do this now, now that she still felt angry. Anger was a very efficient emotion, Pelewura was realising. She hoped that the substance would do its work—that it would paralyse her senior wife. She had made sure to tell the cleric that she did not want Mama Kolade dead; only inconvenienced. Pelewura opened Mama Kolade’s pot, emptied the bottle that contained white powder in it, and stirred the soup.
Since it was one of Pelewura’s days of the week, feeding Baba Alaje was her responsibility.
She dished his food, dished hers, and went to knock at his door. She did not enter this time—and he did not invite her in. He simply told her to go and eat hers, that he would join the table soon.
It was after Pelewura was done eating that Mama Kolade went and checked on her own soup, saw that it was done, and dished for two. Mama Kolade entered her husband’s room and said,
“Baba Kolade, food is ready. I cooked the soup with ogiri and iru—no modern seasonings. Just as you like it. Consider it a birthday gift.”
He was delighted, and also thought—what better way to begin the frustration of his newer wife, than to refuse to eat her food, and instead, eat the older wife’s?
And so he followed his older wife to the table to eat.
Two minutes into the meal, Baba Alaje’s intestines started to twist first. Then, Mama Kolade let out a groan that sounded like a trapped animal in distress, as she started to feel some discomfort too.
Oblivious to the situation, Pelewura strolled out of her room and decided to clear Baba Alaje’s plates, when she saw what was happening, and her eyes widened in fear as she saw her husband’s lifeless body and Mama Kolade vomiting and thrashing in pain on the floor.