By Anote Ajeluorou
UNOAKU firmly and grimly tells her first daughter: “Azuka, what have I done to deserve this shame? Tell me what I have done. I have not asked you for too much. Some of my fellow women here in Igunze have gone to America and London for Omugwo. After the rogue, Chima, deceived us, I have accepted it that way. Maybe it is Ijenma that will take me to the land of the white people… Why do you want to take the cup of water out of my mouth?”
And then the clincher: “You have to go back to Lagos. Look inwards and find out where you’re erring. Then kneel down and ask for his forgiveness. You will see that he will change. All I know is that I will not allow my fellow women to laugh at me as someone whose daughter’s marriage has failed. What eyes would I use to look at them at nzuko umuokpu?”
The damaging trope of men as scum is well-known, and Ndidi Chiazor-Enenmor’s If they Tell the Story’s (Walnut Publishing Ltd, Lagos; 2021) has fleshed it exceptionally. Of men who brutalise their wives for their own failures, especially for their inability to have male children which crime they visit on their hapless wives. But the role of mothers as ally in the abuse their daughters suffer in the hands of the men they marry is yet to be fully explored in Nigerian fiction. Here perhaps is where Chiazor-Enenmor excels in her novel. Bad as it is, husbands abusing their wives is a fairly common phenomenon, sometimes to the point of inadvertently murdering the wife. But what support system against such abuses is there from the women these hapless daughters call mothers? How do mothers help perpetrate the abuses wives suffer in their husband’s homes? How much of the village, vain pride of mothers is at stake in the marital misfortunes of their daughters, and how does that help exacerbate the situation?
Beside the men as scum trope of serially abusive husbands, some of the salient issues Chiazor-Enenmor teases out in If they Tell the Story are here with us. And this is instructive in how fellow women are wittingly or even unwittingly enablers of the tragedy that befall other women in society generally where support of one woman for another comes in fits and starts. From some mothers to their daughters, it’s even worse. Greed and whatever shred of small pride they claim to have stand firmly in the way until it’s too late. Regrets do not bring the dead from the grave or even assuage a wounded soul. Azuka, the protagonist of this searing novel, gets to the nadir of marital woe, but is only saved by fellow women, with one of them coincidentally turning out to be the ex-wife of her abusive her husband; the ex-wife Ekaete had also suffered her own share of Nduka’s apparent madness, but she was smart enough to get out faster than Azuka, and to become a source of refuge for brutalised women like her.
After she lost her father at an early age, Azuka’s life’s journey took the worst possible form – serial abuse from his mother’s cousin’s wife in Port Harcourt as house girl and random randy men. Poverty dodges the heels of her small family of three – mother, a younger sister and herself until Igunze town union comes to their rescue by sending her to university. But getting a job proved its own challenge. But Azuka is lucky, or so she thinks, when she lands a travel and tour agency job in Lagos. That is where she also meets her husband, a churlish man whose unnecessary outburst in a travel ticket issue would bring them together. They would then marry. But that’s the beginning of Azuka’s marriage woes and the dimming of her bright smile. Her honeymoon period does not last more than six months after which her husband Nduka tires of her. Her pregnancy brings them close again, but only as it lasts till she puts a baby girl to bed. The baby is Nduka’s wrong gender for his desired child; it was why his first wife fled for dear life, but Azuka does not know this. Nduka then resumes the physical abuse that redouble in frequency and vehemence, including serial rape of his own wife, Azuka.
The last straw is when he douses her travel passport in palm oil to prevent her from making an official trip to Kenya, which she is leader, and knocks off her tooth in the ensuing fight. She goes to the village to her mother for succour, somewhere safe to keep her child, so she can rebuild her life away from her marital woes, but her mother is not having any of it. She is concerned about her status as mother-in-law who must not miss omogwo visit she is entitled to when Azuka has another child; she is concerned how her fellow women will laugh at her in the village when they learn her daughter’s marriage has failed. Azuka’s mother, Udoaku, values these two status symbols of village womanhood above the life and wellbeing of her own daughter and becomes a willing ally of Azuka’s husband’s abuse of her own daughter.
Eventually, Leave and Live Foundation provides rescue and refuge for Azuka who then determines to go in search of her village heartthrob, Chima with whom she entered into blood oath of undying love as teenagers after circumstances tore them apart; it is why she landed Nduka as husband. Chiazor-Enenmor owes her readers a sequel to If they Tell the Story and continuation of the Azuka-Chima unfinished story. The editing of this novel should have been tighter than it is. But it doesn’t remove from the accomplishment of the book.
Chiazor-Enenmor has given her fellow women a curd to chew upon in If they Tell the Story, especially mothers like Unoaku who believe that their daughters do not amount to much unless they find a man to marry, and must therefore die in the marriage no matter what, since husbands do no wrong. Chiazor-Enenmor has mined the mind of one mother in whom is embodied the mindset of many mothers for whom a daughter’s marriage is the passport to the good life their own ill-fated marriages denied them. They project onto these daughters all their failures as wives in the hope that the daughters would provide them the redemption they crave. Azuka is convinced that her late father would have protected her and even physically fight Nduka and never chase her back to her husband’s home to continue suffering.
Only Bode, Azuka’s colleague at work, would seem to counter the vexious notion that marriage is the crowning glory of a woman even when the marriage has become bondage that has turned the woman into complete wreck. Azuka asks the nagging question on the lips of most abused women: “So if I leave (my marriage), what becomes of me, what will people say?” and again: “What life does a woman have outside marriage?” The fear of what people will say, of pandering to society’s judgement has led many women to their death in marriages. Gospel singer Sinachi’s case is still fresh in our memory, of a woman who failed to leave her abusive husband so she could live, but ended up dead instead.
Also, Chiazor-Enenmor exposes the mental state of men like Nduka, men who believe that having daughters is the wife’s fault, who in spite of their education still do not know that a baby’s gender or sex is solely the responsibility of the man. This ancient mindset has been the ruin of many a woman in marriages. From his two wives, Nduka has five daughters, yet he still blames them for his ‘misfortune’ in not having sons, and resorts to abuse to chase them away, so he could find yet another wife, another victim.
Chiazor-Enenmor’s If they Tell the Story is a searing narrative of one woman’s ordeal that speaks to our hearts, of the childhood trauma a young girl suffered and who would later be abused by a brutal husband who drives her to the fringe of insanity, and is only saved at the last minute from an unlikely quarter. This is an important book for Nigeria’s so-called modern men and mothers who are yet to rise above the mental state of their ancestors in spite of their education and exposure.