Slim’s brain worked at top speed. He weighed the options carefully, debating how much to tell her. From what her cousin had said, Anjola was quite obsessed about studying abroad. She had been talking with his friend, Debo and some words filtered into his ears but the one that had piqued his interest more was when she said, “She will be doing as if she keep money somewhere that will take her to America. Every time, Harvard, every time vintage.”
He had been fascinated by this interesting bit of information since he had been looking for a way to reach her, so he grabbed the opportunity. After she left the bar alone that night, he followed her, in a hope of talking with her. But that had changed.
“I just want us to be friends, really,” he said finally. She gave him a look that said he might as well have told her the earth was flat and he knew he had to play his cards right.
He raised a palm, “I know what you’re thinking but I already have a girlfriend.”
Slim wanted to believe that flicker in her eyes was disappointment but he did not flatter himself.
There was silence for a while as she seemed to think.
“I dunno…” she began.
He played the last card. “And the processing is not entirely free like you pointed out. I’m willing to forgo the regular fees students pay for our services. But you’ll have to buy the materials.”
Her face seemed to relax at that and he smiled inwardly. Good, it seemed, was too hard for this girl to believe.
* * * *
Anjola nodded her head slowly. “That makes sense. But about the friendship thing, I’m not sure yet.”
She had a problem with planned friendships. She knew she had to be deliberate about making friends but there was something more interesting and believable about the spontaneity of making friends, the way two people seem to ‘click’ without forcing anything. Maybe it was the romantic in her. Besides, she felt very uncomfortable and unsafe with men now.
What Henry was offering her made sense, in a way, but she needed to be sure. She longed for an open window in this choked, dark room she was in, and maybe this was it, but she just had to be sure.
“Don’t you have like, fliers or something?”
“We do but I didn’t bring any. Plus we are just starting out so don’t expect anything fancy.”
She wanted to ask more questions. Who was he, really? Why did he feel the need to carry a fake American accent around? What else about him was fake? Why was he always wearing a hat? Did he believe in God? Where did he come from? Why was he being so nice?
But she did not ask any of that. It was probably too early to anticipate anything good in her life, but hope was a tiny flicker in her already. Her life was too messy, her heart still so fearful but the possibility that this might actually work out drew her. As she watched Henry adjust his ever present hat, she felt the strings of a life-long dream tugging at her reservations.
Sometimes in life, she reasoned, you just had to take risks. It was proof of maturity. And since she felt years older than sixteen already, she took the plunge.
“How do I start?”
* * * *
The following week, Anjola returned back to school, knee-deep in missed notes and assignments. And if it had not been for Bose who offered to help her with the piled up work, she would have dug several meters more into the pit of depression she was already in.
On the first day, she felt like she had stepped into some kind of haze, a movie scene she had happened to walk into. People flew by, voices buzzed over her head, hands waved at her…it was all disjointed. It did not make it any better that half the things they said in class sounded like Mandarin to her.
And she hated that.
It was unfamiliar and scary. At most points, her mind would just go…blank. She would find herself just staring emptily at the teacher’s forehead, or out the window, beyond the broken fence…or just at nothing. Once, Miss Lola called her name in English class and she jumped a bit.
“Stand up! What did I say last?” the slender teacher asked, her mouth coated generously with red lipstick as usual.
“Umm…” her eyes roved the class for help. Bose was mouthing something she couldn’t make out.
“You see your self? You’ve also joined the unserious students abi?”
Anjola knew her mind had become jumbled since that day but she did not know just how bad it was till then. Miss Lola had let her go because she knew Anjola did not normally act that way.
She spent the rest of the day and other days mostly by herself, staying back in class during lunch break with Bose hovering over her sometimes and asking her all sorts of annoying questions: What’s wrong with you? How were you finally able to get money? Did I do something wrong? Won’t you eat? Even when Nkechi had taunted her with the rumour that she now had a boyfriend, Anjola just gave her a look and said nothing. When the girl had seen that silence was hard and boring to fight against, she left.
Henry had come to the bar on Monday. He had presented her with some forms she needed to fill and sheets that held details of the program. She had told her mother about her plan to school abroad and the woman had not taken it well.
“Where do you want me to get the money from ehn? Why can’t you just write JAMB like other people? Must you go abroad?”
“I’m trying to work towards a scholarship. I just need money for some registrations and materials.”
“The money your father kept in my hand abi? You better go and look for work after your WAEC exams. You cannot come and kill me.”
She always brought up her father whenever they talked about money – which was often – and this made his absence lurk like a stalking shadow in their home.
“Please now. Besides, it’s not now so you’ll have gotten the money before then. I just wanted you to know so…..”
Anjola fled when she saw her mother pick one of her slippers with the obvious intention to throw at her. There were no customers in the bar and she was glad for that.
“Get out of my sight! Foolish girl. Ah, ah. You cannot even pity somebody.”
Anjola fought back tears. She considered telling Adio but knew his support was very unlikely. And she realized then that she was on her own.
On Tuesday, Victoria called and they spoke for about three minutes, both of them gingerly stepping around the conversation as though scared to say too much. She had tried to get her to go to church on Sunday but Anjola had refused.
Victoria did not bring it up again, of which Anjola was grateful. But she did not stop asking her about her non-existent devotion and this annoyed her.
She just did not understand.
How could she understand when everything in her life was working just fine? How could she when she had never so much as stepped into the threshold of the horror and pain she lived every day? It was easy for her to tell her to pray when God seemed to be more interested in her own prayers. It was easy for her to say “God loves you, Anjola” when she could afford anything she wanted and had a functional, loving family to call her own. She just could not understand.
But of course, she did not tell her all these. What was the point? It wasn’t Victoria’s fault her life was so perfect. It wasn’t her fault that God cared for her more. She wasn’t the one Anjola was mad at. It was God. This was all His fault.
He had betrayed her.
Before ending the call, she told her about going for some medical tests and promised to take her to the clinic when she was ready.
Mrs. Adegbite called her on Thursday, asking her to describe her house address and Anjola had politely declined.
“Let me come and meet you ma,” she said.
“No, I want to come to your place. Or is it out of bounds?”
She wanted to say yes but changed her mind. “I don’t know. But aren’t you busy?”
“No. I’m on a shift. Besides, I didn’t want this to wait any longer. Really, it’s not a bother. You are much more important.”
She sighed. “Alright ma.” After giving her the address, Anjola frantically began to clean up the room but gave up when she realized it was pointless. When three adults, two teenagers and three children lived in a poorly ventilated room, tidiness was just impossible. She had tried but it never worked. Thankfully, she was the only one at home.
She arrived after about forty-five minutes, handing her a package that held drinks and all sorts of goodies. They sat on the bed and before long were actually having a conversation and Anjola was surprised. She had expected it to be really awkward especially since they had practically nothing in common but that didn’t happen. They talked about the news, books and other random things.
“How is your son?” she asked.
“Oh, he’s better now. He only had a light sprain on his left leg. It was a miracle to be honest.”
“Yeah, thank God,” she looked around and pointed at a small framed picture of a smiling woman carrying a baby and a frowning child by her side, on a small table beside the bed. “Is that your mother?”
“Oh. She’s beautiful. You look so much like her.”
Anjola did not know what to say. She did not consider that a compliment. The last person she wanted to look like was her mother and it did not matter that she was indeed beautiful, but Anjola considered beauty to be something that ran deeper than the skin.
As if reading her thoughts, she said, “Of course, you don’t have to be like her,” she paused and looked at her. “Like I said the other day, the mistakes your parents made are not your fault. You don’t have to live your life in their shadow. You have to believe that you were not a mistake. God made you come through them for a purpose.”
She snorted, unmindful of how rude it may seem.
“You have to believe me, Anjola.”
“I can’t. It makes no sense. Okay, let’s assume he did have a plan for putting me in this hole. But why did he allow this happen to me? What did I do that was so horrible?”
“I understand how you feel.”
“No ma. You don’t. Nobody does.”
“Yes, I may not fully understand how you feel because no two pains are the same but I’ve been there before,” she paused and had that same intent look she had on her face that one time at the office.
“I was also raped.”
Anjola stared at the older woman’s face in shock. No. She could not have heard her correctly. This woman with so much virtue and goodness could not possibly have been abused. She was too peaceful, too happy, too strong and gathered to have gone through that horror. She had to have meant something else. So she waited; waited for her to correct herself or confirm she had indeed heard her wrongly.
“So you see, you are not alone.”
She shook her head. “I’ll tell you later. But first, I want you to tell me everything that happened.”
Anjola considered this and decided she would tell her but only in bits and pieces, she couldn’t bare herself completely.
But by the time she opened her mouth, she found herself spilling everything. She relived the horror, fear, confusion, anguish and shock of that night. The smell, the sound, the sharp pain were ever before her, so vividly. And she told her all. She told her about the nightmares, the depression, the anger, the guilt and everything in the aftermath.
At some points, she paused to dissolve into broken sobs or to just breathe but Mrs. Adegbite said nothing, just holding her when she cried, handing her a tissue from her bag or waiting…listening.
“I just got so mad at God. I felt…feel so betrayed. And I can’t stop wondering why. Why? Why me? Why such a terrible waste? I tried to keep myself and it all ended in the hands of somebody I don’t even know. It’s just so unfair…so, so…” she broke into sobs again and cried till she felt she had exhausted all her tears.
“I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Adegbite said after Anjola calmed a bit, her voice breaking with emotion. “I felt that way too. Yet I cannot fully understand, as you pointed out. But God does.”
She shook her head wildly. “No. No, He doesn’t. If He does, why did He do this to me?”
“Anjola, God didn’t do this to you.”
“But He allowed it! Why? I just need to know,” she sniffed. “If He cares so much about me, why did He allow my life turn out this way? If I know, then maybe I can somehow let this go, maybe I can somehow…forgive him.”
Mrs. Adegbite shook her head and said gently, “You can only forgive an offender, Anjola. God is holy and just. He doesn’t need forgiveness.”
“What is justice? Is it not about being fair?”
“You are thinking that way because you believe this is all God’s fault. It is not. We live in a fallen world, a world broken because of the sin of man. Every human has a choice to either do good or carry out evil. That is not God’s fault. He is angry about sin. He hates it. He hates it so much and loves us so much that He had to pour out that punishment we deserved on His son. Do you understand that?”
“That…makes sense in theory. But I still don’t understand why. It is just too…painful.”
Mrs. Adegbite sighed. “I know. I know. That’s why the answer is not to run from God. He is the only one who can heal you, Anjola. I cannot do it. Nobody can. And it is a process. Mine took ten years. It all depends on you.”
“I don’t know…”
“Let me tell you my story.” The older woman pursed her lips and took on a faraway look.
“I was about your age when my father left us. With five children, it was really hard for Ma’ami* to cope so I and my elder sister had to fill in. We hawked all sorts of things; from pepper to fufu* and other things depending on the season.
One day, while I was hawking alone – because my sister fell sick – a man we called Jaja back then, called me so he could buy fufu and I foolishly entered his house but then he pounced on me,” her voice broke slightly. “He was a family friend, always trying to help us since Ba’ami* left us so I felt I could trust him. He warned me not to tell Ma’ami or I would die. I believed him since everyone suspected he had powerful charms. So I slowly died in silence, not telling even my sister who I was very close to.”
She stopped and Anjola watched the emotions play on her face in the darkening room. There was pain but also a certain kind of peace that almost made it look like she was narrating someone else’s story.
“It happened twice. The other time was when Ma’ami told me to take rice to him on Christmas day. He pounced on me again, I screamed but no one heard. He was a bachelor so he lived alone. When Ma’ami asked me why it took me so long, I lied that I went to my friend’s place afterward. I cried every night and anytime aunty mi – my sister – caught me crying, I told her it was because I missed Ba’ami.” A generator began to hum with a sickly vibration outside the window, joining the sounds of children at play.
“By then, I was already eighteen and eventually God blessed us and I was able to go to the university and that was where I met Christ,” She smiled slightly.
“It was like fresh air. Yet I was seriously flawed, from my father’s flight to the abuse and years of silence and bottled up rage. I was able to talk with someone who pointed me to Christ and mentored me. I started to seek God and gradually, I was changing. I don’t know how but He did it. After spending so much time with God, I just looked back one day and realized most of the pain was gone. I was finally able to forgive Jaja and he even gave his life to Christ. He was never able to marry though and died some years ago.”
“I met my husband in school and that was another struggle. I spent two years running away from him. My experience made me hate and mistrust men so much. But Bode was so patient with me, such a blessing. And God used him to teach me so much and change my perception about men. It took ten years and I’m still learning but it was such a beautiful process.”
“Wow,” Anjola finally whispered.
“And yes, I also asked so many ‘whys’ but looking at my life now, at what God has brought me through and who I have become because of it, I would not change anything if I could.”
“Wow,” she said again, unable to find the words. Since that dark day, she had felt so alone, so alienated from all that was real and good. But now, sitted with this older woman in their darkening room, she did not feel so alone anymore. There was something about their shared pain that made her feel like she had stumbled upon a cup of water in a desert. It didn’t take the pain away but somehow, it felt lighter. Just a little.
“I know we’ve said a lot. So I think we should stop here for today so you can process all we’ve discussed. We should meet next week so you can ask me all the questions you have then. Is that okay?”
“How is school going?” she asked as she stood to leave.
“Fine. Kind of…” her voice trailed off. Mrs. Adegbite caught the hesitation in her voice and sat back down.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know…. I can’t seem to concentrate anymore.”
“Wow. That’s serious,” She thought for a while. “When next will you be seeing Victoria?”
“On Monday, I guess. She said she wanted to take me to the clinic for a test.”
“Oh, that’s true. You know what, I’ll come pick both of you on Monday to the hospital where I work. I have a busy schedule that day so both of you should come and meet me at the bus stop. Is that okay?”
“Yes ma. Thank you ma,” Anjola said, meaning every word. These people were the best thing that had ever happened to her.
* * * *
Fufu – staple food made from Cassava
Ma’ami – my mother
Ba’ami – my father
Sorry I didn’t post this last week. Sally (my PC) is very sick…among other wonderful excuses.
And as compensation, you’ll notice I made this episode longer.
Don’t forget to comment and share if you feel the need.