By Ucheoma Onwutuebe
- INTRODUCTION: BUSH BAR
If you meet Zimuzom at the end of the month, he will be lavish on you. This is when his containers bearing electrical appliances from China have crossed the high sea and arrived safely on Apapa shores, when all his orders are intact and the customs officers have stuffed their pockets with “money-for-small-stout” which Zimuzom gives them without fail.
But first, he will take you to Bush Bar, the famed nkwobi joint on Prisons Road where a coven of thieving politicians and big men gather to decide the fate of our small town over kegs of palm wine and plates of assorted meat.
Have you ever been to Bush Bar? There is always a first time. When his car pulls into the untarred road and you see a mud house with a thatched roof and hear the rabble of beered-up men, you will ask yourself, “What am I doing here? What sort of bushman brings a girl here on a first date?” You will regret the three hours you spent highlighting and contouring your face, shunning food to fit into the lilac body-con dress you wear. Worst still, if your mother catches you here in the midst of men of dubious character, she will drag you home by the ear.
You prefer subtler, urbane spots, like the wine bar in Golden Valley where the ambience is more Instagram-able or even Alexander Lakeside where the catfish pepper soup is on point.
When he reads the disappointment on your face, Zimuzom will say to you, “Mummy, you’re going to love this place.” Follow him. You’re already here, might as well do your time. No one survives Zimuzom without a dose of culture.
The voice of Flavour N’abania, blaring over the speakers as he sings of the destructive powers of a woman’s waist, will usher you into the dingy space. You will hate the wasps circling the soot-coated tungsten bulbs, hate the plastic tables and chairs. You will hate the green bottles of beer on the tables, the leering men with their big stomachs, laughing and coughing too loud and too long, showing the meat stuck between their teeth. You’ll recognize their faces from the government calendars hanging in your office. Chairman of Water Cooperation. Deputy-Chief of Staff. Commissioner for Education.
When I was Zimuzom’s babe, one evening at Bush Bar, I watched the Commissioner for Sports laugh his way into a heart attack. The sales girls ran outside to call his driver. The driver walked in and saw the spectacle that was his boss. The driver hefted the commissioner over his shoulders and marched to the car, slamming the door too hard, perhaps in haste, perhaps in disgust. Two weeks later the commissioner was back laughing his loud laugh.
The big men come to Bush Bar for the nkwobi, its taste unrivalled in the whole of eastern Nigeria. They also come for Udaranwannu, the infamous matron. Whatever she puts in her food has the top men of our city wrapped around her thumb. They eat while staring at her waist until they spend the entire state budget in one night, and then on the radio the next day, you will hear: “The allocation for primary school education has been slashed in two due to unforeseen circumstances”.
Udaranwannu is the unforeseen circumstance.
Months later, when you get territorial, you’ll confront Zimuzom for staring too long at Udaranwannu’s waist.
“Mummy,” he’ll say to you. “I see no one’s front or back but yours. Who is Udaranwannu compared to my baby?”
I remember my first night at the bar. I eyed the goat meat sautéed in palm oil, potash, utazi, and enough pepper to make the nose run.
“Mummy, eat,” Zimuzom said to me as I picked at the food gingerly. “Are you afraid of the goat?” He jabbed the meat with his fork. “Look, the goat is dead. Stop mercy-ing for it.”
Just as we were rounding off the meal, a policeman came over and whispered to Zimuzom, “My oga wants to see you.”
We followed the policeman down a dimly lit corridor, a supposed inner chamber for the crème d la crème, and arrived at a room with comfy cushions and a muted television showing Channels TV. The smell of cheap air fresheners mingled with mothballs and onions.
The policeman’s oga happened to be the deputy governor of our state, whose hands were on Udaranwannu’s waist, but the woman paid more attention to the wad of crisp notes she counted briskly.
“It’s not enough, deputy,” she said, spitting on her hand to count again.
“Count it well,” the deputy governor said.
“It’s remaining 10k,” Udaranwannu grumbled.
Zimuzom cleared his throat. “My able deputy governor, here I am.”
The man held up his hand, silencing Zimuzom while his eyes feasted on Udaranwanu’s moving lips.
“It’s not enough,” the matron repeated.
“Okay. Timothy,” The deputy governor signalled the policeman who dug out more notes from a brown envelope and handed them to the woman.
She smiled. “I’d bring you your special now, sir.”
“This woman, you will not kill me,” the deputy said, smacking Udaranwannu’s behind. I cringed. Then he turned to me and Zimuzom. “Ehen, Zim my boy, you’re here.”
“Good evening, sir.” Zimuzom bowed.
“You did a fine job for me last time. The new air-conditioners you supplied are superb.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Since I returned from Dubai three months ago, I have searched tirelessly for that same brand for my wife without success. I would need you to supply six more to her office.” The deputy governor paused and stared at me. “And who is this one beside you?” he asked, pushing Zimuzom aside to have a better look.
Smiling and scratching his head, Zimuzom pulled me closer to his side. “She’s my girl, sir.”
“Really? Your girl or your wife?”
Zimuzom smiled. “My girl.”
“Nne,” the deputy governor said to me. “How are you?”
I genuflected, getting into the mood of the occasion. When this happens to you, do not overthink it. You will find yourself acting accordingly. I, too, could not believe my humility in the face of corrupt power. I forgot all my revolutionary tweets about terrible politicians and called him Sir.
“Zimuzom, it’s high time you stopped this my girl, my girl things.” The older man warned, stabbing the air with his finger. “You are no longer a small boy. Get a wife.”
“I hear you, sir,” Zimuzom said, scratching his neck.
The older man ran his lewd eyes over me and all I could do to keep from plucking his eyes was look at the bulbs.
Yes, I agree: Bush Bar may be a shoddy place where leery men congregate but how many times in your life do you get to meet a politician face-to-face? I walked away that night with the deputy governor’s card. “And if you need anything,” he’d said to me. “Just write me an email. I will help you.”
- AVOID HIGH-CLASS RESTAURANTS
Here’s a thing not to do: never bother Zimuzom to take you to nobler restaurants. He detests snobby spaces where waiters respond in English when he speaks to them in Igbo. Four months into our relationship, I grumbled him into taking me to the Alexander Lakeside. The waitress came over to take our orders.
“Good evening,” she sing-songed. “What would you two be having this evening?” Then she handed Zimuzom the menu with her left hand. Her left hand! A major indignity to Zimuzom, a bonafide son of the soil, a man who took his first chieftaincy title at thirty.
“Do these girls lack home training?” he asked me in Igbo, loud enough for the girl to hear. “Why is she giving me something with her left hand? Is it madness?” I ignored him and studied my menu, praying the girl did not understand, hoping that this mishap would not poison the entire evening.
It did. The meal took too long and Zimuzom hissed when the dumplings and shrimps arrived.
“Is this all?” he asked the waiter. “Or are you bringing the main food?”
“Enjoy your meal, sir,” she replied with a thin smile and walked away.
Zimuzom turned the shrimps this way and that. He shook his head.
“You can order fried rice instead,” I said, hoping to salvage his mood. “Order something familiar.” But his mind was no longer there. He excused himself to the bathroom as I took pictures of my meal. He returned and sat sideways, fiddling with his phone, ignoring his food.
When the bill came, he frowned and argued with the waitress. “What rubbish is this?” he asked, nose flaring as he studied the paper. A hush came upon the restaurant, and I knew the other diners had pricked their ears to listen.
“Baby, let’s pay and go,” I said, afraid this would be one of those meme-worthy moments that could go viral if someone caught us on camera.
“Is this not what people use in cooking three pots of soup with change? And here I am spending it on rubbish food I did not even enjoy.”
I kicked him under the table, hoping he’d stop the madness.
“Don’t kick me, biko. This is too much.”
I pulled out my card from my wallet and flashed the waitress a smile. Two people cannot be mad at the same time. This was my mantra in our relationship and should be yours too.
Whenever his anger takes over him, sheathe your own sword. Don’t be afraid to spend money on occasions like this. Zimuzom will reimburse you. There are many ways to get money from him. That same night, our next stop was the cinema, another place I had badgered him to go with me in the bid to discover a world outside Bush bar, but he swerved right, and before I knew what was happening, we were on Prisons Road, heading to his favourite place.
That was the beginning of the end, his unwillingness to take in my world. That night, I refused to get down from the car and he went to eat his nkwobi alone.
- HOW TO MEET HIM
I will assume you work in finance or telecoms, those jobs that train women to acquiesce to male customers. Businessmen like Zimuzom are calculative about who they date. They prefer women who know the value of time and money. The day I met him, I did not know he was a man running an empire. He didn’t dress like one. It was a Thursday afternoon at the bank. Thursdays came with their peculiar loll and inertia. Customers trickled in and out of the empty banking hall, and to pass the time, Ogbenyealu and I watched the news on AIT. The air conditioner was broken and a small bowl collected the drip under it.
“Just take a look at how dry this banking hall is,” Ogbenyealu said. She was a striking black beauty and my strongest ally at the bank. “Bet on it: on Friday, those crazy customers will fill this place as if their houses are on fire.”
“I wish everyday was like this,” I said. “No customers to bother us.”
“Don’t say that too loud. You want them to sack us? How many tickets have you posted today?”
I counted the leaves of my tickets. “Twenty-three.”
“All morning?” Ogbenyealu asked. Between us, she was faster and she made fewer errors. She had joined the bank three years before me, and I shadowed her for months before Kingsley, our cash officer, allowed me to attend to customers on my own.
The intercom rang and I picked it up.
“Come upstairs.” It was SM, the branch manager. I reached for my shoes under my table and smoothed my skirt.
“Is my hair scattered?” I asked Ogbenyealu as I patted down my weave.
“Go and answer him,” she said without inspection. “He’s not looking at you. SM is a married man.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Then use the mirror and stop bothering me.”
“He’s watching me on CCTV. I don’t want him to get ideas.”
“Then just go. When will you stop being afraid of that man?”
“When he stops scaring me.”
I climbed the stairs, unsure what my offence was this time. At the last staff meeting, SM accused me of not putting my beauty to good use for the benefit of the branch. “When you joined us six months ago,” he scolded, “I was happy. In my mind, I thought, Young, fresh blood has come to attract all the depositors to us. But to date, you have not opened one single current account. The only customers you attract are roadside akara sellers.”
Often, I asked Ogbenyealu, “Why is SM always picking on me? I am not even a year old here.”
“He is one of those people who love to bully beautiful women.”
“But he doesn’t bother you.”
“He stopped when I made my mother transfer her retirement funds to our branch. I think you should tell your mother to do the same.”
I chuckled. My mother? Funds? Where would she get the money from?
At SM’s door, I knocked before I opened it. A blast of cold air hit me. How come the manager’s office was a far cry from the state of the banking hall? Everything in his office was crisp. The flat-screen TV, the upholstery, the fresh paint on the wall, the potted plants. Whereas the banking hall looked godforsaken.
There was another man with him in a face cap, T-shirt and jeans. On his feet were clean bathroom slippers.
“Take this man downstairs and deposit this money for him.” SM pointed at a brown envelope on his glass table. “Make sure you post it immediately. He needs to get the alert right now.”
I took the money and headed for the door.
“Thank you, sir,” I heard the man say.
“Don’t mention,” SM said to him. “Tell your friend to come and see me regarding the loan. I am sure we can work out something.”
On the stairs, the man walked behind me.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Fine, sir,” I said.
“Why are you calling me sir?” he asked. “I’m not an old man.”
I turned around and peered into his face. We were at the bottom of the stairs now and he was panting.
“You are obviously old,” I said. “Just these small stairs and you’re out of breath.”
He laughed. “Are you new? I have never seen you before.”
“Not so new anymore. I joined six months ago.”
“What is your name?” he asked.
At the counter, after I posted the deposit, he gave me and Ogbenyealu two thousand naira each for lunch.
“He’s nice,” Ogbenyealu said, pocketing her share.
“But why is he wearing too much perfume?” I asked.
“When next he comes, you ask him. Oh, here he is again.”
I looked up. “Did you forget anything, sir?”
“Stop calling me sir. My name is Zimuzom. And I forgot to take your number.” He pulled out his phone and handed it to me.
“Here’s my card.” I ignored the phone and handed him my business card with rehearsed pomp.
“Oh okay,” he said as he studied it briefly and slipped it into his pocket. “I will call you this evening.”
When we were sure he was gone for good, Ogbenyealu said “He looks like a businessman.”
“He can look like whatever. He’s not my spec.”
“The day I’ll finally meet your spec, I will kill a goat. Let’s check his account balance.”
“It’s against the policy,” I said.
She took his deposit slip from me and her fingers rapped on her keyboard.
“Wow, wow, wow,” Ogbenyealu whispered as she pulled her chair closer to her screen.
“Why are you crying like an ambulance?” I asked.
“Chinanu, the guy is loaded.”
I peered into her computer. True, the account had money in eight digits.
“These businessmen always borrow money,” I said. “It’s possible he doesn’t own it all.”
“For someone to have access to this amount, he wouldn’t struggle to buy you recharge cards or Fenty Foundation. Go out with him. Your hypergamous dream is about to come true.”
- WHAT YOU STAND TO GAIN
Bags, shoes, new phones. Don’t be surprised at his great taste. He is not an impeccable dresser, but he will fill your wardrobe with original YSL bags and Chanel jewellery. He will transfer bits of that eight-digit money into your account by way of apologies when you two fight, and with him, lacking would be a thing of the past. Enjoy the kisses too. I was shocked at how good he was. I had thought that a man who swore by bushmeat would use too much teeth. No. Your head will reel when he tilts your face to his and tenderly counts your teeth with his tongue. In those moments, he will rival all your lovers, past and future.
Ignore the stark differences between you two. You wish he possessed more finesse and wasn’t so obsequious to politicians. You wish he didn’t pull at the ears of his salesboys when they dropped a carton of electronics or misplaced money. If you tell him to take it easy on the boys, he will say, “Those boys need to be taught that I don’t have a tree in my backyard that grows money.”
You wish he wouldn’t dismiss your slow pop songs and call them music for weak men. I complained to Ogbeanyalu about this but she said, “Chinanu, you too dey complain. One day you will outgrow Sam Smith. You’d be so preoccupied running his businesses that you wouldn’t find time to debate music choices.”
- THE THINGS YOU WILL LOSE
If you’re on the slender side, endure his subtle jab about your weight. When he says to you, “Mummy, eat. You need to put on flesh,” assume that food is one of his many love languages. I used to take offense at this until I got used to it. I wasn’t new to the constant pressure to put on weight. Even now, whenever I travel home, my mother dips her fingers in my clavicles and says, “When are you going to fill up these empty buckets?” Perhaps that’s what people who love you do, worry about the meat on your bones, how lean it is or how fluffy it is. And since you are with a man who likes meat on his plate, isn’t it only natural for him to also like meat on his woman?
- HIS MOTHER
Prepare to bow down to worship his mother. Forget that he calls you Mummy. The original Mummy shall not be trifled with. Soon you will realize that all of this, this relationship, has been a long audition for her. Your job, your looks and your background need to be approved by the Queen Mother. Soon, you will learn your education, those nights you spent burning midnight candles, solving calculus and quadratic equations, were all for her approval. And you must also call her Mummy.
“Why should I call her Mummy?” I remember protesting. This was before I met her, when Zimuzom would call her in my presence and ask me to say hello to his mother. “She’s not my mother. She has to manage ‘Ma’. That’s the only name I can spare.”
“But I call you Mummy,” Zimuzom pleaded. “What’s the big deal? Can’t you do this one thing for me?”
It’s not my fault his request came at a time I was still learning to be proud of my own mother. I was becoming serious about undoing the years shame had trailed me in our small town as the only kid whose mother ran away from a marriage. And because events did not pan out the way she had planned after the split with my father, my mother’s life was very hard in Umuahia. Many times, I caught her gazing into blank space, watching the wind dance behind the curtains in our cramped living room, and I was angry that she wasn’t as alive as the other mothers on our street. For that, I didn’t allow my classmates in boarding school to see her on visiting days when she came with her worn wrappers and threadbare sandals. I would make her leave immediately because I didn’t want my friends to see that my mother had the posture of the forlorn, that she breathed like she was afraid of taking too much air, too much space. At the time of Zimuzom’s request, I was learning to see her as the brave woman who had packed her things that fateful Saturday afternoon and escaped my father’s angry fist forever. My mother ran away because she feared the beating would drive her mad, and I was learning to forgive those years when, in the middle of a fight, the girls in boarding school would say, “After all, your daddy has never visited you because he does not want you and your wretched mother.”
When I took Zimuzom to my mother, she disapproved of him. It wasn’t in her to exert her will on me, but she always aired her view in her small, tired voice.
“His gra-gra is too much,” she said when his car pulled away and the goodbye smile still hung on our faces. “There is something too sprightly about him.”
“He’s just a lively person,” I said in my boyfriend’s defence. “And you even laughed at his jokes.”
“He will swallow you. Believe me, I’ve been there.”
Do not believe your mother. Take sides with your man and tell him all your familial woes. I told Zimuzom about my father and how he started a new family after we left him, told him how my father never lifted a hand financially to raise me. Zimuzom hugged me and said he was now my Daddy.
“Why did you tell him?” Ogbenyalu asked me, dismayed. I was visiting her one Saturday morning and we were having a breakfast of yam and scrambled eggs.
“Duh, he’s my boyfriend,” I said. “We tell each other everything.”
“He will use it against you,” Ogbenyalu said. “Have you forgotten he is a traditional man? Unless he changes, he will always have the notion that whatever made your mother leave your father is hereditary, that you come from a lineage of flighty women.”
I love Ogbenyealu for her street wisdom and how she plied her own relationships with cunning, but I was beginning to find her constant emotional arithmetic exhausting.
“He’s not like that,” I said as I took the last cube of yam and went to the kitchen to wash my hands. “We made a pact to never lie to each other.”
“You could have held back this one until you were certain.”
“But sooner or later he’d find out if he investigates. And why are we even talking like this? You’re also one of those who believe being raised by one parent is a thing of shame?”
Ogbeanylu licked her plate with her tongue, kicked it aside and lay on the cold tile. “You know how these traditional people think. Anyway, he may not be the problem. His mother must not find out. You have to find a way to win her heart. You have to prove to her you are different from your mother.”
- HOW I FAILED
This is a question you will ask yourself in no distant time: how do I please the Queen Mother? What is the cost of her love? I got the answers wrong, and if you are serious about this thing between you and Zimuzom, you must pass this final test.
Story of my failure: some weeks after, the Queen Mother summoned me. Her son travelled to Apapa to claim his containers of electronics that arrived from China. So, I went alone to meet her. I needed help in gauging the cost of her love, so I took Ogbeanyalu with me to the fabric market and I bought two rolls of Hollandis, six yards each, one with green patterns and one with blackbirds mid-flight. I also bought seven long okporokos, straight from Madam Nneka’s warehouse.
“Are we not buying too much?” I asked Ogbenyealu when she made a detour to the crayfish stall. “What we have is enough.”
“Enough?” Ogbenyealu stared at me in disbelief. “Chinanu, are you sure you’re serious about winning this woman’s heart? This is your grand future we are trying to secure.”
I grudgingly paid for the full bucket of crayfish, and I was silent in the keke that drove us home. I wish I found the words to tell Ogbenyealu that I wasn’t mad at her for making me spend so much money. I was mad at myself because I had never given such thoughtful gifts to my own mother.
Queen Mother was in her garden shovelling manure when I arrived. The air was redolent with the smell of dung, but I did not pinch my nose. Her corn grew well and the okras were in season.
“These are the things that keep me from boredom,” she said to me. “If not for this garden, I wonder what I would do with my retirement years.”
She showed me how she watered her ugu leaves, how to spot pepper with the strongest spice. She was proud of her gardening, but her waist was suffering for it. Years of teaching and working as a headmistress still kept her vigilant, ready to pass on knowledge, ready to correct.
She brought a stool outside for me and I laid my gifts before her. She looked at them from the corner of her eyes and it became apparent to me that even in years to come, I will always use bribes to win her over. The pepper soup she served me had too much pepper in it and she didn’t offer me water until I started coughing. Even to this day, I still think she wanted to choke me on purpose.
“I can see that my son is hellbent on marrying you. I cannot come between you two.” I noticed she was no longer looking me in the face. She addressed the air between us.
“You were raised by a single mother?” She asked the air.
“Our people do not marry girls raised by flighty mothers. But if you must continue with my son, you have to follow me to a deliverance service so I can rest easy in my grave, knowing that I did not hand my child over to forces I cannot explain.”
You, too, must have heard of such deliverance services. Prayer warriors chant and dance around the possessed and the possessed foam at the mouth evicting the evil spirit in them. They wake from the trance brand new.
“You have to follow me, just in case flightiness runs in your bloodline.”
I chuckled. That was the moment I knew that this whole thing was bullshit with a capital letter B. There were many things I had quietly considered letting go of in the course of my relationship with Zimuzom: my job at the bank; my dream of getting an MBA, my love for Sam Smith.
“I won’t go, ma,” I said to her.
She turned to me, surprised. “You wouldn’t even think about it?”
“There is no point delaying you. I just don’t believe in such things.”
“So do you want whatever made your mother a single parent to follow you?”
Let it follow me, I wanted to say. I wanted to tell Queen Mother that my mother’s leaving was an act of courage and courage was a good thing to follow. Because I knew I would never see this woman again, I stood, gathered my gifts and left.
In the keke that drove me home, I worried for my future. A life with Zimuzom will be predictable and easy, the opposite of my mother’s. What wisdom was there to squander it? Who else would love me in spite of my family history? Who else would legitimize my place in the world? Tears welled up in my eyes but I wiped them. I had already failed the test.
The next day, at work, I told Ogbenyalu what happened, and that I haven’t picked up Zimuzom’s many calls.
“But if you know you are not a witch,” she said, perplexed, “why are you afraid to follow your mother-in-law to a prayer house?”
I told her I was not afraid. It was never a question of fear.
“So if it isn’t for fear, why did you chicken out?”
“Because I smelled the disapproval from the get-go. Why should I proceed?”
Zimuzom returned from his journey three days later and came to pick me up from work. I didn’t respond to his greeting as I entered the car. He knew I wanted to get straight to the point.
“Mummy, follow my mother to the deliverance, please. It’s not a big deal.”
“It’s a big deal for me. I won’t do it.”
“All my brothers’ wives did it. It’s just her way of making sure her daughters-in-law do not have bad energy.”
“I’m not going.”
“So you don’t think I’m worth it? What is humiliating about going to a prophet’s place? Is it not the same thing as going to church? Just follow her. Thirty minutes and it’s all done.”
“I don’t think I can continue with this relationship,” I finally said. “I don’t want this relationship anymore.”
Bikes hooted and sped past. Someone got into the car parked opposite us and when the driver flicked on the headlights, things around us came to life. The sad face of the crucifix resting on the dashboard, air freshener wound around the rear-view mirror, the gold chain on Zimuzom’s hand, the hairs on his arm. I looked at him. He stared ahead, clenching the steering wheel. He held his lower lip between his teeth like someone enduring a nurse’s needle. He drove me home in silence.
The next Saturday, I went home and gave the gifts to my mother. E
Ucheoma Onwutuebe is an MFA student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. She has received residencies from Yaddo, Art Omi, and the Anderson Center. She won the 2022 Waasnode Fiction Prize and has appeared in Catapult, Bellevue Literary Review, Passages North, and Prairie Schooner