This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2023

Wife Material

Blessing O. Nwodo

A woman in a patchwork dress cooks with a worried expression while an apparition of her mother lectures over her shoulder

Illustration by Akem

The noisy blender whirred, its blades rotating rapidly, crushing the brown beans for the steamed moi moi that Jide, her boyfriend, liked. Ogechukwu placed her hand on top to prevent it from moving as it juddered on the kitchen counter, the vibrations taking her back to a time when such electronics were forbidden at home, mainly because there was no stable electrical supply to power them and something more important always swallowed the money intended for appliances. She could picture her younger self stooping or bending with her mother over a kerosene stove on the rough cement floor—because a well-trained woman doesn’t sit in the kitchen. Back then, her Wife Material was no more than a handkerchief.

At the age of thirteen, Ogechukwu could make ambrosial egusi soup, with just the right amount of palm oil. Her okro soup was equally as tasty, paired with smoothly pounded yam that slid down the throat easily. She knew just the right amount of cocoyam to add to onugbu soup to make the spicy soup thick and rich. Her Wife Material grew until it became a wrapper she could tie proudly.

Her two younger brothers liked her onugbu because she chased away the striking bitterness of the leaves by washing them thoroughly in a bowl with small amounts of palm oil to reduce the foam, and salt to give the bitter leaf a short stringy shape. She could prepare moi moi with slices of boiled eggs and smoked fish. She could even bake; she baked birthday cakes in university to make extra money. By then, her Wife Material had become a massive patchwork of multicoloured ankara—complementary pieces stitched together and accumulating daily, as fast as she learned.

“Is that how you will behave in your husband’s house?”

If Ogechukwu lost a pound every time her mother asked her that question, she wouldn’t be on a ketogenic diet. It was flung at her most whenever her mother thought she was failing at some womanly task, like cooking or cleaning. It could be that she had asked her to prepare pap for the family to eat with akara, bread, or cooked beans. The one thing Ogechukwu could not make no matter how hard she tried was pap. Pap was designed to reduce her Wife Material, or so she thought each time her mother asked her to make it. Her mother would put chunks of the semi-hardened paste in cold water, making sure to keep it from becoming too watery or too thick. She would stir till all the lumps disappeared, pour boiling water on the mixture till it rose, stirring continuously, achieving a creamy porridge ready for sugar and milk. It was an act of magic Ogechukwu had yet to master.

“Ogechukwu, wetu anya na ala, bend down like a woman and look at things. Let it not be said that I did not train you well, so that when it is time for you to get married, nothing will hold you back,” her mother would say each time she failed.

Ogechukwu recalled the miniscule kerosene stove lit to warm the soup—for storage since there was no fridge. The small kitchen with its smoke-blackened walls was oven- like. From time to time, her mother would drag her right index finger across her own forehead, gathering sweat before flinging it away. Ogechukwu cringed every time it hit her. She’d rub her eyes, irritated by the kerosene fumes, looking longingly through the window at the dust her brothers raised while playing football, their shirts, which she would later be asked to wash, thrown carelessly aside along with their shoes. Her already irritated eyes filled with resentment and envy. There was no time for her to play; her time was for learning everything it took to please strange men who she was certain weren’t learning anything to please her if they were anything like her brothers.

“You won’t watch what I’m doing here, keep looking out the window. After now, they will say I didn’t teach you anything.”

Her mother lived in constant fear of they. Gripping the metal bars that guarded the windows, her face pressed against the warm metal, Ogechukwu was sure they had better things to do than worry about whether she could make pap.

Mama, who will say it? Who are those people who do not live here but keep dictating how I live in this house? Her mind screamed but her mouth refused to move and she swallowed her words like a ball of fufu dragged through soup and thrown down an open mouth. If she had an alarm that jolted her awake in her mother’s overpowering voice, she would never be late for anything.

Earlier that week, before Jide wanted moi moi, Ogechukwu had been to the market to buy ugu for soup. She’d just left work bone-tired, but Jide texted to say he wanted vegetable soup. She didn’t want to cut the leaves as it would take up more of her time and she had a report to send to her boss that night. She stepped up to a seller’s makeshift stall, a wooden table shaded by a sturdy tarpaulin roof, the same fabric as the Wife Material wrapped around her body. As she carefully selected the vegetable bunches she wanted from the pile, she tried to tell the seller to cut the leaves for her. Yet, when she opened her mouth, she heard a loud voice “Ehn! What happened to your hands? You want them to say that I didn’t train my only daughter well?” Her eyes darted around anxiously for her mother, her voice seemed to be coming from the mouths of multiple women in the crowd. Ogechukwu dropped her hands. “Pack it for me. I will cut it at home.”

She once broke a nail while hand washing Jide’s jeans. That same day, she used those aching hands to sweep and mop his entire house. Overnight, her Wife Material increased by a full yard.

The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. This was why, earlier that morning, she had cancelled movie day with her friends to go to the market to buy smoked fish for the moi moi she was making for Jide.

“Aren’t you coming again?” her friend had asked over the phone.

“If I finish on time, by God’s grace I’ll be there.”

Her friend sighed. “Just say you’re not coming,” she said as she hung up.

“By God’s grace” was Ogechukwu’s way of saying she didn’t know what time she would finish and didn’t want to commit. She had learned it from her mother. It was what she said whenever she was invited anywhere. It was also her mother’s way of saying that she could not control time, but she had to make the best of it nonetheless and get married before her youthfulness faded. Perhaps that’s why she had named her Ogechukwu—God’s time.

Ogechukwu’s mother had told her on countless occasions, her round brown face contorting in well-meaning concern, “I am teaching you how to cook and you should be grateful. In my time, no one taught me how to cook, I learnt on my own. To keep your man, you must learn to cook, and cook well or else he will be snatched by another woman.” She said snatched as though a man were a ballot box hijacked by thugs during an election, not a human being with a choice in the matter. Ogechukwu often wanted to ask her mother “So why did papa leave you for another woman even with all your cooking skills?” But the words clung desperately to the roof of her mouth.

“Baby, are the beans not blended yet?” her boyfriend called from the sitting room. She wanted to ask him if he was deaf and didn’t hear the noise of the blender but she raised her voice to reply “It won’t take much time!” They had met at a traditional wedding. Her friend was getting married to a Yoruba man and to show her support, Ogechukwu had bought her asoebi, made from the bride’s Wife Material, cut and sold by the bride to guests to be sewn into various styles and worn to the wedding. “God’s time is the best. He will do your own for you when he’s ready,” her friend had said the day she bought the fabric. Ogechukwu wanted to retort that she had amassed many more yards of Wife Material than her friend had, and that when she finally got married, she would still have a thousand more to keep her husband warm after selling asoebi; but she decided to keep her peace so nobody would say she was jealous. On the wedding day, she had arrived at the bride’s house early to help with the cooking and had left the others when the work had considerably reduced to go and get dressed. The wedding was supposed to begin by 3 p.m., but Nigerians operated on African time: if you wanted them to show up by 3 p.m., you had to write 12 p.m. on the invitation. Especially in Lagos, where the traffic turned a thirty-minute journey into a two-hour one. It was cause and effect. The guests came late because they knew if they arrived early, nothing would be ready, and the organizers didn’t prepare as early as they should because they knew the guests wouldn’t come on time.

The bride’s friends cooked at the back of the bungalow, while the front hosted the decorated canopies, chairs and tables for the guests. Some women stirred fried rice garnished with carrots, green pepper and peas, using a long wooden spoon to reach inside the gigantic aluminum pot that stood on a tripod over a fire of wood, paper and charcoal. Others fried large pieces of meat and fish, some made semo for the soup, some packed the already prepared jollof rice into huge coolers procured for the purpose. Ogechukwu wanted to take a picture of her outfit for potential suitors to admire. Where else to snag your own husband than at a wedding? She decided that she didn’t want to stand in front of the canopies or the food, so she walked down to some cars parked by the side of the narrow street and gave a boy playing with a tyre her phone to take the picture. She picked a gleaming red car and began posing in front of it, when the car door opened and a man stepped out of the vehicle wearing the uniform of Yoruba demons—a billowing Agbada.

“That will be 15,000.”

“Excuse me?” She turned to him.

“You changed your pose fifteen times.”

“Oh, good joke,” she chuckled in relief.

But his face turned deadpan and he said in a menacing tone,

“Who is joking with you? Give me my money jare, did I buy the car for you?”

She looked around, embarrassed, collected her phone from the boy, and gave him a twenty naira note for his help.

She turned to face the man again. “I apologize for using your car. I can delete the pictures if you like.”

His blinding smile broke out in full force again, confusing her. “I was just kidding!” he burst out laughing.

She turned away angrily intending to ignore him, but throughout the wedding he tormented her by popping up unexpectedly, persistently asking for her number until she gave in. A week after that, he called just as she was shuffling through the drawers in her bedroom, searching for a rubber band to tie her hair.

“Hello gorgeous,” he drawled.

“Who is this?”

“The man of your dreams. What’s all that banging? Are you cooking something in the kitchen?”

“No, I’m looking for something.” Ogechukwu was relieved that he had called. How would she do her own wedding if men collected her number and didn’t call?

“Oh, it sounds like you’re cooking. Bet your food tastes wonderful though.”

She’d laughed dryly, squeezing her patchwork absentmindedly. Two weeks later, she was cooking at his house. “Why not? My kitchen is bigger than yours,” he’d said, after she’d offered up a weak refusal to his initial request. Now, his friends came over regularly to fill their bellies.

“Our wife,” they hailed, as they gobbled down meal after meal. “Original Wife Material!” Ogechukwu felt proud of her nearly-complete patchwork, wondering how many more yards she needed to be considered worthy of the ultimate prize—marriage. One thousand yards? A million? Was there ever enough? This Wife Material business was beginning to feel like a lifelong audition. Who decided what was enough? The material was getting too heavy for her to drag around whenever she needed to display it.

One of Jide’s friends had brought his girlfriend over once. A lithe, polished lady, her weave flowing down to the middle of her back, her naked skin glowing like she had been injected with glitter. Ogechukwu didn’t have friends who had no Wife Material. She sometimes saw them in public—naked women with nothing to cover their bodies—and she pitied them. This one ate eba with a fork while others used their hands.

“I love eba,” she’d said in a soft, alluring voice “But it gets under my nails you see.”

Ogechukwu had looked at the long, red acrylic nails, topped with tiny glittering stones shaped into a heart. How does she wash clothes, she’d thought.

“Thank goodness someone invented a washing machine,” the girlfriend had said as if she’d heard Ogechukwu’s thought. “Damilare gets someone to come twice a week to do the cooking. Jide is so lucky he found you. I can’t even trust Dami’s boiled eggs.” She smiled sweetly at her boyfriend who’d bent to whisper in her ear, making her laugh out loud. The laughter irritated Ogechukwu, as if they were mocking her. She looked at the posh creature and imagined what her Wife Material would be, if she had any; it would be made from a rich blend of velvet and mulberry silk, draped effortlessly over the chair like a cape.

As Ogechukwu watched the beans swirl noisily in the blender, she felt as though she were one of them. Whirling recklessly against her will, without direction. Her right hand moved to her phone, her fingers dialed her mother’s number.

“Hallo!” The blast of her mother’s voice bowled her over. She bulldozed on. “Kedu? How are you? It’s been long you called. What’s that irritating sound there?”

“I am blending beans for moi moi.”

“With what?” her mother asked incredulously.

“With an electric blender,” she replied in a subdued voice. “Ogeeeee!” Her mother stressed her name in its short form.

“After all my efforts? What happened to the mortar and pestle! What if your future mother-in-law sees you now? She would think you’re lazy and capable of finishing her son’s money with these unnecessary machines!”

Ogechukwu pictured her mother’s rough, leathery hands, toughened from decades of labour, capable of carrying hot pots straight from the fire without flinching. She thought of the Wife Material wrapped around her mother’s neck and body—a coarse fabric woven from gristly ropes.

Through sudden tears, Ogechukwu stared at the blender. She turned it off, then forcefully ripped off her Wife Material, screamed through the blinding pain, and flung it angrily to the ground. She watched it fall into a heap, and for the first time, felt like a feather rising into the air. She stared at the crumpled fabric that had once been her pride, and recognized it for the load it had been. She grabbed her bag from the counter, strode triumphantly to the sitting room naked, and pushed past Jide, ignoring his perplexed shouts.

“What is it? What of the moi moi? I’m talking to you!”

His continuous enquiries and yells dulled into background noise as she pushed the house door open and became one with the night.

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