By Ejiro Joyce Otive-Igbuzor
Excerpts from my book, The Travails of Omotejomo
Back at Jọmọ’s home, her father is still bearing a grudge and has threatened to disown her if she continues to turn down Mazi Ibe’s marriage proposal. Jọmọ had sense enough to “follow him gently” like Auntie Kohwo advised. It was a few weeks to the WASC Exams and Jọmọ did not want to ruin her chances. When she broke the news to her family about the Old Students Association registering her for the exams, her mum smiled broadly but she saw the smile disappear as her dad glared at her. Unlike Kohwo, her mum, Kọkọ has always been cowardly. Her greatest ambition in life is to be the obedient wife who says yes to everything that Ọga says. Jọmọ wondered about the Biblical injunction for wives to submit to their own husbands. Does it mean ‘wives, have no say whatsoever on any issue?’ Autie Kohwo argues with her husband, Uncle Ọchuko. She is highly opinionated, and he seems to be very proud of her.
One day, Jite, Jọmọ’s dad mentioned that Mazi Ibe was coming to visit. Jọmọ knelt down and begged her father to let her write the WASC Exams before proceeding with any other arrangements with Mazi.
“Of what use? You write the exams and pass, then what? Even if you gain admission into the university, where am I supposed to get the money to pay your fees and sustain you in school? Many rich Igbo men allow their wives to go to school and read to any level. If you are good to Mazi Ibe, perhaps he will support you to study but for now, there is no need to delay your destiny.”
“My destiny, Papa is to become a Medical Doctor. Please – ”
Jite cut in before she landed “This conversation is over.” Then he turned to Kọkọ and said, “You better call your daughter to order.”
Kọkọ is beside herself in thoughts. Of her four girls, Jọmọ is the only one that has shown great zeal for studying. I would love to be the mother of a Doctor. It is interesting how people around here value doctors. The moment your child graduates as a Medical Doctor, your name changes. Everyone begins to call you Mama Doctor. Why is Jite so resistant to the idea of being called Papa Doctor? The only value he sees in all our girls is the bride price that they can fetch. But if the bride price for our first three daughters have failed to change our lot, what difference would Jọmọ’s make? Oh, I almost forgot. Mazi Ibe is rich. This would probably be different but there is an honour greater than money. See me now, what other life do I have beyond waking up every day, cooking for my family, supplying palm oil to my customers and opening my legs wide for Jite every night. Ah, but becoming Mama Doctor would spice up my life. I will go and consult with my sister, Kohwo. She seems to have a solution to every problem. She is reputed for thinking outside the box. Now that Jọmọ has written the WASC Exams, the next move would be to dissuade Jite from forcefully marrying her off to Mazi. Ah, Lord, where would I find the courage to stand up to Jite? I have allowed him to boss me around from day one. He sees himself as the only wise person in this family. No one else’s opinion counts. I need my voice back. Yes, I will go to Kohwo.
Jọmọ woke up to the sweet and unmistakable aroma of Oghwoevwri, the queen of all soups in Urhobo land. What’s the occasion? Oghwoevwri is the soup for special occasions like marriage and burial ceremonies. Jọmọ ran outside. She must have overslept. She greeted her mum and picked a bucket to go to the well.
“Don’t worry my dear. I have filled the drums already. I have also swept the compound. You just go take a bath.”
Jọmọ looked at her suspiciously. She was unusually endearing and she is yet to figure out why. No one ever absolves me of my duties and now she is asking me to go take a bath? Since when?
“Mama, what is going on?”
“Going on? How do you mean?”
“Why are we cooking Oghwoevwri, Mama? What’s the occasion?”
Kọkọ adjusts her wrapper and puts on a plastic smile.
“Your Papa has an important meeting with the kinsmen today, so we are cooking for them.”
“Really? And because of that, you want me to go take a bath this early?”
“Shuo! Una see me see marioka o. Over sabi! Is it now a crime for a mother to ask her daughter to take a bath and look good for the kinsmen? Ọghẹnẹme biko ọ! Abeg, go baff oo.”
Jite came out of his room with a stout-looking male relative who goes by the nickname, Onogbo, the cat for his exploits in local wrestling. They spoke in whispers.
Jọmọ greeted her dad, the way Urbobos greet their elders. “Miguo, Papa.”
“Vredo, my child! Have you had your bath?”
“Oya, go take your bath.”
Now, I am in trouble, Jọmọ thought. Something is definitely fishy here. Her father sounds too sweet this morning. Why is everyone doting on her suddenly? What do they care whether she takes a bath or not? What? She filled a bucket with water from the drum, picked up her soap and sponge, and entered the bathroom. Lord, please save me from my conniving parents. Auntie Kohwo, where are you when I need you?
A friendly-looking middle-aged woman was sitting in the parlour when Jọmọ got back into the house. She was clutching a black box. They exchanged greetings and Jọmọ went into her mum’s room to dress up. She is overly cautious. If they try anything funny, I will run to Auntie Kohwo’s place, she thought. Lord, let it not be what I am thinking o. Do they have plans to marry me off to Mazi today? Ha! God! Let them try me. I will so disgrace them by pouring the wine on Mazi’s head. If they force me to go with him to his house, I will bite him like a mad dog before running away. Lord, help me!
Her mum got into the room after she was fully dressed. She informed her that her attention was needed in her father’s room. What? Her dad hardly invited her to his room!
“What for?”, Jọmọ asked.
“Just go and ask him,” Kọkọ replied, looking away.
Jọmọ got to the door leading to her dad’s room. She noticed that her mum was following her closely. She stopped in front of the door and made the sign of the cross. Then she knocked and stepped in. Her mother did not follow her and her dad was not in the room. The woman with the black box was seated on her dad’s well-dressed bed and Onogbo, the cat was standing and facing the wall. His intimidating muscles were vibrating like one hungry for a fight. The woman invited Jọmọ to sit beside her on the bed and began to explain to her. Jọmọ’s heart was pounding rapidly. As if to drive the last nail into the coffin, Onogbo, the cat stepped forward and locked the door, removed the key and put it in his pocket.
“My name is Nurse Erhiori. I work at the clinic but also double as a circumciser.”
‘Circum…what? What has that got to do with me, please?” Jọmọ gazed at her, alarmed.
“Well, my dear girl, it’s your big day. I am here to circumcise you. It is a tradition that every girl who is of age must fulfil, especially one preparing for marriage like you.”
“Excuse me, Ma, I am not preparing for any marriage o. Which one is circumcision? I will not do it. Isn’t that a barbaric tradition of old? Mama,” she screamed, “Mama oooo.”
Onogbo turned to look at her, his countenance fierce and merciless. “Shhh! No noise. Make it easy for all of us by cooperating.”
“You see, if you calm down and cooperate with me, we will be done in five minutes. It’s a simple procedure, my dear. I will inject your clitoris with anesthesia. It will deaden the place and I will cut off your clitoris with a surgical blade. My own procedure is modern o. Some other persons use crude, unsterile instruments that could cause an infection. If you do not cooperate, he” pointing at Onogbo, “will help me hold you down. If you struggle, you might make me cut the wrong place mistakenly and that will not be good. Come, my child, let’s do this as gently as possible. Just lie down, open your legs and we will be fine.”
Jọmọ began to sob profusely as a feeling of loneliness overwhelmed her. She looked around her and the place felt like a slaughterhouse. She was caged and no one was going to rescue her, not her beloved mother, and definitely, not her father. I’m done for.
“Open my legs with this man in the room?”, she managed to ask.
“I am not looking o, Ẹhẹnn. I am minding my own business,” onogbo said.
“Please ask him to leave the room,” Jọmọ requested.
“Only if you promise to cooperate. If you give me any headache, remember that he will be outside the door.” The Nurse turned to Onogbo and said, “Brother, make you stand outside. I go call you if I need help.”
Onogbo grunted, opened the door and stepped out. Jọmọ was worried that perhaps, just by looking, the nurse might detect that she was no longer a virgin. That increased her resolve not to do it. In addition, she recalled reading an article in the school library about female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting (FGC) or female circumcision, Oyavwe. The article mentioned that FGM was being practiced in all States of Nigeria to various degrees. In that article, the issue of whether ‘mutilation’ was a correct coinage for the process was discussed. Jọmọ aligns with the proponents of this term because mutilation means disfiguring or injury by removal or destruction of any part of the body. In Jọmọ’s case, it was her clitoris, in other cases, both the labia minora and labia majora (the inner and outer folds of the vagina) could be removed. In her view, the term ‘mutilation’ does justice to the physical and psychological trauma that accompanies the ritual. She even read that FGM could result in some form of morbidity, even mortality. I shall not die, she declares in her mind. What on earth have I done to deserve this ill-treatment from my own parents? I didn’t ask to be born, after all! I had no choice of parents. Lord, why me?
Her heart was thumping as she racked her brain for what to do. Her eyes caught the open window overlooking the bed. It was a low, simple, all – wood framed window that opened outwards and had no metal protectors. She got up from the bed and asked if the nurse would let her go to the loo before proceeding. Nurse Erhiori shook her head vigorously and began another round of counselling.
“I know what that is all about. There is no way I am letting you step out to the bathroom until we are done. Come on my girl, believe me when I say that it is better not to postpone the evil day. All of us, grown up women had to do this at some point…”.
Jọmọ did not hear much of what she said as she planned to spring a surprise that would daze her and everyone who had a hand in this plot. Nurse Erhiori was still speaking when Jọmọ moved to the door of the room and turned the keys, locking them in.
“What was that?”. The nurse was both surprised and enbarassed.
“Just making sure that Onogbo does not come in to see my nakedness.”
Jọmọ then knelt down and begged her, “Please, Ma, have mercy on me. You and I know that the myths around this barbaric rite are not true. Help me, Ma. Just tell them that you have done it.”
“What? No, no, no, that is not possible o. You want the gods to punish me?”
“So, an educated nurse like you believes that the gods would punish anyone for not perpetuating a barbaric practice?
“I did not institute the practice, my dear. I am only an instrument to fulfil tradition.”
“Okay, let’s do this,” Jọmọ said calmly.
“Ehenn, now you are talking, my dear. Before you know it, we are done.”
The nurse began to relax. She turned to open her box to bring out her tools and Jọmọ took advantage of that moment of distraction. She sprang onto the bed and jumped out through the open window. Nurse Erhiori was dazed. She first stood there, mouth agape before she remembered to shout. She started screaming as she fiddled with the keys with shaky hands. Everyone in the sitting room was alarmed as they all ran towards the door, worried that something had gone wrong with the procedure. She kept on shouting “Hweeke, hweeke, odjere ooo, she has run away.”
“What, run away, how?”
Onogbe was the first to speak. The nurse merely pointed at the window. Everyone showed their surprise somehow; some clapped, some squealed, others opened their mouths wide and snapped their fingers. Onogbo ran out, panting. He did not go far before he found Jọmọ. Though she successfully jumped out through the window, luck ran out on her. Her dad was seeing off a friend and had taken the road behind the house. Jọmọ jumped right into his arms. He could not hold her down because it took him time to make any sense of that. Then she heard the screams from his house and asked the young men around him to give her a chase. She barely missed being crushed by an on-coming vehicle. She was dragged to the house and right back to her dad’s room. This time, there was no question about whether Onogbo would be present or not. She first got a few slaps from her dad, then she was forcibly made to lie on a mat. Onogbo sat on her chest, facing her and holding her hands. She was told that two more men would come in to hold her legs apart if she did not ‘behave’ herself. Her mother came into the room and cajoled her in between sobs.
Jọmọ was exhausted, she knew that there was no going back. She opened her legs and felt the sharp pain of the needle in her clitoris and as the nurse injected, every pain was gone. The entire area felt numb. Whatever else the nurse did, Jọmọ tried not to think about it. A part of her body created by God was about to be cut off to fulfil a warped tradition, something instituted by ancestors who never saw the walls of a school. A fellow woman is the instrument in the hands of the gods to perform this ritual.
In a few minutes, it was over. Madam Nurse was still in shock as she put a sanitary towel between her legs to soak any blood from the cut site. When they came out of the room, she saw the triumphant look on her dad’s face and the faces of all the others in the parlour. She loathed them with every bile in her. Their ‘evil plot’ did work. She was waylaid; she did not see this coming. An irreversible damage has been done to her body.
As she stepped out of her dad’s room, Nene sprang up from her seat and began to hail her like a child that has done the family proud –
Ọmọ r’Idjẹnẹkpo; (Daughter a lion)
It was a victory chant. On a good day, she would be expected to respond with smiles and to sway in pride. Instead, she rolled her eyes, glaring at everyone in the room and let out a long hiss.
“What? Are you for real? Ọjẹfia! Insubordination!,” Jite squealed, his brows furrowed.
He got up and charged at her but everyone, including Jọmọ, knew that he was bragging. He would not dare hit an Ọvwa on her day of ‘honour’. She walked towards the exit door and was stopped by her mother.
“Ọghẹnẹme, my God, where do you think you are going?”
“Mama, get out of my way o. I am going wherever I like; anywhere but this house full of hatred. You people have butchered me like a goat and taken what you want out of my body. What do you care where I go?”
Everyone is surprised and they do some consultations in whispers. They agree that what she deserves is some sound beating or a good knock to reset her brain but they let her off because it was afterall, her ‘big day’. Jite had to muster every patience left in him to handle the situation calmly. He walked up to Jọmọ and places a hand on her shoulders.
“My daughter, you need to calm down. We have not done anything out of place. This is an honour that every girl happily enjoys at puberty. You see these women here? They were all circumcised. Even in the Bible, Abraham’s sons were circumcised…,”Jite was explaining but Jọmọ cut in before he landed.
“Sons, not daughters Papa. Everybody should leave me alone, I am going to Auntie Kohwo’s place.”
“No, you can’t go anywhere for a couple of days, till the ceremonies are over.”
Jọmọ became apprehensive. So, they are not done with me?
“What ceremonies again?”, she asked.
“Sit on your bed and the women will explain to you. In the meantime, I will go look for someone to call Kohwo.”
Jọmọ had no choice but to sit down and wait for Kohwo to come. Her parents obviously left the latter out of their plans for fear that she would ruin it all. Kohwo had her ways. She has always been a non-conformist.
Her bed located in the parlour by the window over-looking Onoshọhọ’s house has been draped in new bedsheets. She wonders where they got money to buy the new sheets. How come my parents always seem to have money to carry out their evil schemes?
According to Nene, she was not permitted to sit anywhere else except on this specially prepared bed. She would have to sit in a basin of salted warm water, morning and evening, to hasten the healing process. The nurse also gave her some pain killers for when sensation returns to the cut site and she starts feeling the pain.
Nene and her mother continued to explain the rules. According to them, Oyavwe is celebrated as a rite of passage to puberty. Traditionally, the Ọvwa’s (circumcised girl’s) family observes a seven – day period in which she is pampered and treated to special meals. If she is already engaged, the betrothed husband pays for the special treat. He also comes for a sleep over at the bride’s home – yes, they lie on the bed and romance but do not have sex for obvious reasons. Jọmọ smiled at the thought of Mazi Ibe, the old fool coming over to sleep on her bed and she imagined how she would bite him all over, if he dared. I am not engaged to him anyway.
Nene and her mother also informed her that a special group of younger girls, Ikọvwawould usually throng the house; they come to celebrate with the Ọvwa. On the seventh day, the Ọvwa and her Ikọvwa would dress up and be decorated with camwood (ohwa or isene). The Ọvwa would don a special fascinator made of expensive beads, Ugbẹrivie, on her hair and they would sing and dance in a procession to the market square where they would receive special gifts in cash and kind. The following morning, the Ikọvwa are dismissed in a special ceremony where gifts are distributed to them.
Jọmọ smiled at the prospect of rubbing camwood and dancing on the street with some silly little girls to the market in a show of shame. It will not happen. Seriously, is this the old stone age?
“You people are joking right? If you know those Ikọvwa, please tell them to stay away, if not ehnnn…,” she threatened.
Nene squeaks and claps, “Okpemu! Shuo. Jite, where did you get this girl from? Ọnana igbagbati o! Echarọbo! The gods forbid!”
Just then, Kohwo walked in and Jọmọ got up to run into her arms but she felt sharp and peppery pain between her legs. Kohwo stepped forward to hold her and Jọmọ started sobbing.
“Auntie, they cut me like bush meat. They cut me…”
“Cut you…what are you saying?” She turned to look at Kọkọ who avoided her gaze. “Kọkọ”, she screamed, start talking, what did you do to her?”
“She was circumcised,” Kọkọ said.
“What? In this day and age? Oh, my sister, you have done it again. Why was I not informed? Wa mr’ekpanana djidji, fafarhien(Oh, what a foolish person)?”
“We did not tell you because we know you and your useless modern views. The deed is done. If you have a problem with me fulfilling culture and tradition in my own house, please leave,” Jọmọ’s father put in, his tone, authoritative.
“Brother Jite, you are such a shameless bushman. For a person who used to work in government, you are a disgrace. One day, very soon, I will bring agbegilodo (a lorry) to pack my sister’s stuff out of your house.”
Jite laughed scornfully, “Agbegilodo, you don’t need that to take your sister from me. Her stuff will barely fill a Ghana Must Go bag. You might as well take her with you today. Abreze!”
Kohwo held Jọmọ close and led her to sit on the bed.
“Don’t worry my dear,” she whispered, “it will be well. They got us this time but never again. Henceforth, we will be miles ahead of them. Don’t cry again, you hear? Stop now before you make auntie cry. It’s okay my dear.”
“Auntie, it’s peppering me,” Jọmọ cried.
“That is normal. It will subside, you hear? Thank God it is only clitoris naa. In some places, it is both clitoris and the vaginal lips o.” Jọmọ cringed. “Did the circumciser give you any pain killers?” Jomo nodded.
“Kọkọ, please boil some water,” Kohwo requested.
Jọmọ took some analgesics. She wanted to urinate but held it in for a long time. She just could not imagine how painful it would be when urine splashes on the cut site. She tried to figure out the link between the clitoris and the urethra. All the Biology she learnt was mostly to pass exams. She wished that she had the Biology textbook so she could check the drawing right now. Her father never bought any textbooks; not even the compulsory ones. She was always on the list of students to be punished or sent home for not having a textbook. Her mother raised some money to photocopy the smaller ones like the Economics textbook, and she had to make do with either borrowing from the library or borrowing from friends. When she could not hold the urine in anymore, she got up to go to the bathroom. She had some warm water in a bucket to wash herself up. She did urinate and it hurt badly; she screamed in pain. Hopefully, the pain would subside gradually as the days go by.