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Stories

JANE’S BURDEN : By Prince Omasanjuwa Oshodi

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On this Saturday morning, the sun shone over the skyline through a sparkling eastern cloud. Can’t tell exactly what time of day it must have been: 9, 10? I’m not sure, now.

I didn’t quite get sufficient sleep on Saturday mornings, or so I’m prone to thinking; (my mother always thinks otherwise though). She says I’m lazy and that it will be a miracle when a man finally asks me to marry him. I chuckle each time she said this and she did say it often. I am only 16 and barely out of Senior Secondary School; who wants me for a wife…in this age and generation?!

There were times I thought my Mom dramatic and exaggerating, but she loved me!

“I’m your mother” she repeatedly said and made sure every moment of that counted: from conception to whatever day was the challenge!

“I bore you in this my womb” she would always say, pointing at her now rumpled stomach flab! “I cannot deceive you.”

Mom had a shop where she carried out her petty trade in local confectionaries and food items such as Bread, Egg-Rolls, Peanuts, Milk, Fruit Juice, Rice, Garri, Beans and soft drinks. It was my duty to man the shop on Saturdays since I wasn’t in School on those days. Mom said she was teaching me “to learn to earn outside paid employment”.

There are so many things Mom is teaching me and all at once…sometimes I feel they are too many: endless counsels of menu in the Kitchen (whilst we prepared meals), talks of chastity, whenever my monthly cycle showed up and lessons on money, every time I am in the petty trade shop. The irony I’m not able to understand however, is that each time I was beginning to feel wearied by Mom’s lessons and counsels, something happens to reinforce her voice in my head: once she talked no end about being vigilant in one’s business and careful with money; a few days later, I lost a whooping N2, 420 miscalculating a Customer’s purchase. It was a shameful day for me, more so, because Mom refused to yell at me!

“I’m happy God chose to teach you Himself” she had said softly, clutching the notes of the sales I had made. She went on to sit quietly afterwards, but wouldn’t let me attend to anyone else, that day. I felt quite bad and irresponsible.

Next was when Miss Jane got pregnant, unmarried! It was a huge scandal!

When the rumour broke at first, Mom called me into our room and said “Erinma, a woman must manage her affairs well and wisely; the fall outs of wrong decisions, have no ears for after-tales and excuses. Whilst tomorrow waits, you must make the most of today.”

I tried for many days to understand that statement and I finally did when the details of Miss Jane’s predicament became clearer: she had been raped on her way from her bar-tending job, late one night. Everyone was sad but blamed her for keeping company with slothful drunks and a wayward boss. They all said Miss Jane was well-mannered and didn’t deserve what had befallen her. I didn’t know who her boss was, but the neighbourhood talked endlessly about how much of an indecent woman she was. Many still, wondered why Miss Jane couldn’t have gotten herself a better deal of a job, no matter how menial.

“Maybe if she had a better education…” I’d heard Tope’s mother say to Mom in our shop, “…she would have had better work opportunities. You see why it is important for girls to take their education seriously?”

“Either way, my sister…” she continued, “…rape or not, a woman who does not know the importance of self-respect, ends up with out-of-wedlock pregnancy.”

She finished this assertion with a tone of finality whilst packing her purchase of two tins of tomatoes and darted me a warning glance.

I acted blank. I certainly couldn’t have shown any opinion (spoken or implied). By Mom’s rule, I couldn’t have heard that conversation!

I heaved a deep but hushed sigh after her departure whilst pretending to be focused on tidying the displays of our wares: I wouldn’t dare let Mom get the faintest glimpse that I was listening-in on adult conversation. She calls it bad upbringing.

Those words she spoke hit me very hard. Being a girl isn’t as attractive, if you ask me.

A shrill scream from the room next door to my mother’s Shop stopped my thoughts. I dashed out of the shop. Though Mom had given strict instruction that on no account were her wares to be left unattended, it would have been wicked to hear such piercing cry and be unmoved.

Besides, my legs moved before I could think and it was Miss Jane! Her Room was next to Mother’s Shop.

(We all lived in one room apartments, respectively, except for Mrs. Omokhai who lived in two. Mom said it was because they had six kids and Mr. Omokhai had a reasonably good income working for a Construction company. It was only Mom and I, so, I think our one room space was just enough).

When I ran in, Miss Jane was sitting on her floor, groaning in desperation and holding anything and everything she could reach: her bed, the bed sheet, even her night dress! I saw her veins tighten with every hold like they would pop and the object she held on to, would disintegrate. I also saw her protruding tummy heave back and forth with each tightening grip. It was terrifying!

“Are you all right, Miss Jane” I managed to ask in my shock.

Her response was another shrill! I became confused.

As I made to run out her door and call for adult help, I bumped into Mom! With my heart in my mouth, I stood transfixed! Again, my Mom surprised me: “Go…” she said. “Get Mrs. Omokhai and Mama Tope and lock the Shop.”

I did as Mom asked and returned a couple of minutes later with Mrs. Omokhai and Tope’s mom.

“Labour has started” Mom said knowledgably to Mrs. Omokhai and Tope’s mom as we entered. We need to take her to the hospital. You…” she continued, nodding at me, “get Adekunle.”

I scampered to the room opposite Miss Jane’s in search of Adekunle: he was a taxi driver.

“Mr. Adekunle…” I shouted as my pulse raced up and down. I hit his door as though to bring it down.

“Sir, Miss Jane needs to be taken to the hospital. Her baby is about to come.” I yelled without courtesy.

I heard ruffling sounds, as he probably struggled to get to his feet. He unlocked the door and threw it open; wide enough for me to see him hurriedly fetch his dark grey trouser from a wooden rack and jump into it. It was the first time I glimpsed a peek of his room and he didn’t seem to mind! I later heard that when women are in labour, everyone around them lose a measure of concentration.

His eyes were unsteady; I guess I had just cut short his Saturday morning sleep. I overheard him singing aloud late last night. He usually does when he’s drunk. He had no wife or child living with him. I wouldn’t know if he had any in his Village.

“Sir, your zip…” I said, tapping his shoulder politely, not looking at him. In his haste, he had forgotten to zip his trouser.

“Eehe-en, thank you” he said unabashedly. “Wetin happen to Miss Jane?”

“Sir, she is in pain in her room, expecting her baby. My Mom said to call you; she needs to be taken to the Hospital, immediately.”

Soon afterwards, neighbours from the adjoining houses gathered as Miss Jane was encouraged by Mom and the rest of the women to walk to Mr. Adekunle’s car. It was a rickety Peugeot 504 wagon and often made a lot of noise on starting.

Every one took turn to speak to Miss Jane about being strong and courageous. She nodded in-between groans.

As the car bellowed away, a thick cloud of dark smoke from its half cut exhaust enveloped us! This wasn’t surprising, it did so every morning and I usually wondered what the problem was that couldn’t be fixed, once and for all time. It was as though a stutter bomb had just been dropped on us, as we all went into a choking frenzy of cough, cuk, cuk, cuk! I worried for Miss Jane and wished we had hired some other cab.

Our exasperation relieved when the car reversed and turned into the adjoining street on our way to the Hospital; it had stabilized, it seemed.

***

“What are you doing here?” Mom asked in obvious shock when I alighted with the rest, from the car, at the Hospital. “Did I ask you to come?” she continued, bewildered.

“Was anyone of us thinking straight when we left the house…?” Mrs Omokhai cut in, in time to save me from Mom’s wrath.

“Did anyone of us have the clarity of mind to know what decisions we were making?” She insisted. “…we couldn’t even have a single regular conversation on our way here. You may have asked her to come without knowing it.”

Maybe not they, but I had clarity of mind…my head was very clear. I was afraid and confused, but I was curious and wanted to see. When Mom didn’t give any contrary instructions, I ceased the opportunity and prayed she would let me.

Mom gave me a long stare that said “…you will explain your actions…” as Mrs. Omokhai and Tope’s Mom called out to her to help with Miss Jane; they reminded Mom there was no time to waste!

Mr. Adekunle and I carried the bags containing all that Mom and the other two had packed for the Hospital and walked behind them as Miss Jane continued to groan. Can’t say I knew their contents at the time I was carrying them.

The Hospital was a large compound of multiple small blocks; each had its description on its wall: MATERNITY, PHARMACY, OUT-PATIENT, WARDS, LABORATORY…many units; pretty much same with the one Mom and I go to. It was easy to think all Government Hospitals are built to look the same. I’d never been to this one before, but it felt and smelt the same as the one I was used to. I was to observe that the Hospital Staff behaved the same, too: no courtesy or compassion, irritable, rude and nasty; shouting endlessly at sick people and impatient with everyone! I think the Maternity Staff were worst!

They yelled constantly at pregnant women and made very sarcastic comments. One comment was too jarring for my ears, Mom had to ask me to leave the Maternity area and wait in the hallway…and all this time, no one had attended to us.

Miss Jane continued writhing in pain on a wooden bench, as nurse after nurse walked by like it didn’t matter. It was a wicked sight and I thought they said nurses were inspired by Florence Nightingale (whatever the story was)!

While we waited, Mom, Mrs. Omokhai and Tope’s Mom relentlessly encouraged Miss Jane with varying suggestions and humour. They also took turns to narrate their childbirth experiences in Government Hospitals: after so many years, I found that none of the experiences they shared seemed different from Miss Jane’s, right now!

As I walked away to the Hallway, I heard a nurse say they could bring Miss Jane. That was a relief.

The Hallway was a long one with lots of old equipment, especially beds and cage-like metal constructions wrapped in green cloth. Cobwebs dangled freely from its high ceilings and crevices. It smelled of strong disinfectant and partly of all manner of drugs. It also had a lot of adjoining doors and human traffic (mostly Hospital Staff), going to and fro the rooms. I wondered why they seemed so busy, yet, not attending to their patients.

There were a number of pregnant women walking the Hallway, too. Each had a subdued painful mien and almost all of them, had at least one of their hands on their waists. So many babies waiting and wanting to be born, I thought to myself, staring at each passing pregnant woman.

I leaned on the wall, unable to walk the distance to the waiting chairs I’d seen earlier, when we were coming in. I was restless and hungry and didn’t want to be far from the Labour Room. When I looked again at the chairs, I noticed that Mr. Adekunle was sitting on one of the rows, asleep. I couldn’t blame or begrudge him: it’s been the longest one or two hours of my lifetime!

I walked over to the windows of the Hallway: they occupied a length of the Hallway’s left and through them one could see the rest of the Hospital premises. I could still see a lot of persons walking about the Hospital: very many sick persons, I reflected!

I stood, looking, when I heard Mom’s laughter close to me. I turned sharply in shock.

“Don’t panic…” she said. “Miss Jane has had the baby.”

I cupped my mouth with my hands and flew into Mom’s arms at the same time!

“Look at her…” I could hear Tope’s Mom say proudly.

“You couldn’t stay in one place, abi? Where is Adekunle; we should thank him o!”

I pointed, speechless, at where Mr. Adekunle was and continued holding on to Mom.

Tope’s Mom fetched Mr. Adekunle. With broad smiles, he came over to us, half running!

“Na wa o, Mrs. Njoku…” he said addressing Mom. Each time he called Mom, “Mrs. Njoku”, it was with an accent and it made me giggle.

“We thank God o!” he said.

“Ami o” the women responded. “We thank God, indeed!”

We saw Miss Jane, some minutes later and she beamed with joy. When she saw me, she stretched forth her hand to me…I hesitated, not knowing what to do. Mom nodded approvingly at me and I held her hand.

“Thank you, Erinma…” she said. “God bless you.”

“God bless you too.” I replied, half shy and half proud! Proud of me, proud of Mom, proud of Mrs. Omokhai, Tope’s Mom and Mr. Adekunle and proud of Miss Jane!!!

“It’s a beautiful baby…” I said.

“He’s a boy…” she replied.

“Look at her…” Mom said smiling at me. “Do you still wish you were a boy?”

I shook my head vehemently! I’ve just seen the pride of womanhood…a beautiful new baby with delicate fingers was lying in a small iron cot beside me. He was asleep and enviable. Beautiful and harmless; helpless and tender! An instinct to protect him filled my heart. Life is such a mystery.

“Oh! She wished she was a boy?” Mrs. Omokhai asked.

“It was her favourite tantrum each time I scolded her and reminded her she was a woman.”

I hugged Mom, embarrassed.

“I’ll never say that again.” I whispered.

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