Saving Agu’s Wife
This is part of our special feature, Beyond Eurafrica: Encounters in a Globalized World.
So Yaradua goes to Israel on an official trip. He gets sick there and dies. His entourage is told, ‘Well, you’ve got two options. Your president was a Muslim and so must be buried quickly. We can bury him here at no cost to you since he was our guest or you can take his corpse home but that would cost a lot. Thousands and thousands of dollars.’ Yaradua’s men beg for a few hours to think about it. Five hours later they come back to the Israelis. ‘Well?’ The Israeli president asks. The head of the entourage clears his throat and says, ‘Your offer is very generous but we’ll turn it down. Thing is we all know the story of the famous someone, the son of a carpenter, who was buried here and who rose after three days. We don’t want to take that risk!’
The laughter bursts in to the kitchen and Prosperous shakes more salt than she intends to into the simmering pot. It must be John telling jokes again. A raised voice says over the laughter, this is an old joke. Yaradua’s been dead two years already. In any case, you’re not right. Muslims are not buried. They are cremated. For their sins, they are burnt. You’ve not told that story well.
Someone – perhaps the one who told the joke – shouts the voice down: You’re the one who is wrong! Cremation is forbidden in Islam. Another voice shouts something she does not clearly hear. She cannot tell who is speaking. All the men sound alike. That’s what this place has done to them – homogenized their voices. It is almost as if they were clones of each other. Their stories are not that different. They have all escaped something – religious riots, poverty, dead end lives – and are hoping to resurrect here.
What plans they had had. Prosperous laughs when she recounts – as she often does to her friends- how in the early days, she and Agu, armed with their resumes toured the city’s job centres, certain that they would get the jobs they were qualified for. Agu never talks of those days. It is as if the weight of remembering is too much for him to bear but Prosperous doesn’t want to forget. Remembering keeps her on her toes. “If I forget, if I cannot talk about it, I’ll think that this is all there has ever been, that I never imagined the possibility of something better,” she told Agu when he scolded her for telling the story to a group of new friends.
“Why don’t you call all our friends in Nigeria and tell them then? Or your family? My family?”
Agu was just being facetious. She knew that. They could never tell the truth to their friends back in Nigeria, or to their families. For them, Prosperous and Agu have to maintain a show of living a life close to what they had in Jos. The humiliation would kill Prosperous if her former colleagues saw her now. It would kill her parents to see what she has been reduced to. “I thought they’d take a look at our degrees, offer us jobs on the spot. Company cars, a company house with a massive lawn, a butler and a chef.” She exaggerates of course when she tells the story, mocking their expectations to remove the sting of their reality. “We weren’t even offered a pot to piss in!” Not once did their resumes make it out of the envelopes housing them. At one of the job centres, the young man they saw asked them, “Do you speak any Nederlands? No? French? No?” They could not hope to get the kind of jobs they were after, working in a bank or teaching, if they spoke neither Dutch nor French. Ideally, he said, they would need both. Some German and some English would be useful too. Whenever she retells the story, Prosperous always ends with the same line: “Imagine! All those languages and a teaching degree to be able to teach Mathematics to a bunch of kids!” She had also told the young man that to which he had replied that to get a job even as a train conductor, she had to be fluent in all those languages. Imagine being in a country where they were not even qualified to be train conductors, she told Agu as they walked home. They had been overwhelmed by that, so humbled by it that they gave up any hope of doing any job here that their university degrees might qualify them for.
There are times, mostly at the end of the day, when Prosperous thinks that she should have challenged herself. Today, since the phone call with her parents, that thought has not left her head, so that even as she is washing the spinach to go in the egusi soup, she is having a conversation with herself. Look at Oge! I should have taken language lessons, gone for that teaching degree, refused to settle for this. But Agu would never have agreed. I could have convinced him to do the same too. In those early days, before this became normal, I would have been able to persuade him. If you had gone to school fulltime, you wouldn’t have been able to work. We would have used up our savings but it would have been a good investment. She brings the spinach out of the sink and begins to chop. Instead, we let ourselves be defeated by the thought of going back to school, sitting through lessons to learn not one but at least two new languages. Which is perfectly understandable. No. It’s not. In fact, why can’t I do it now? She unwraps two bouillon cubes, throws them in a cup of hot water and begins to stir. Maybe not the teaching degree but…Ii could take language lessons at the night school. She stops stirring and a small smile begins to spread on her face. The way out has been there all along, why has it taken her this long to figure it out? Of course, the language lessons at the Athenaeum. She sees the reklame for them all the time. Affordable lessons at convenient hours. Why has it taken the news about Ifeatu to make her see that this could be her way out? After all, she knows other success stories: the cousin who moved to Canada in the 90’s with nothing but a BA degree in English and no work experience, for one. Now, that cousin is a professor in one of Canada’s top universities. Maybe they should have gone to Canada too. Once she told Agu this and he reminded her that they had had no choice in where to migrate to. Belgium had been foisted on them. And yet they- like many of their friends who visit every weekend- cannot return until they have made enough money, acquired enough material possessions to be seen as successful. “What would be the point of going back to Nigeria with nothing but the clothes on your back?” Anwuli, her friend asked her once when Prosperous admitted to her how very tempted she was to buy a one way ticket back to Nigeria. To return with nothing would be an admission of failure. It would be saying that she had wasted all the years in which she had been gone. It would have been better never to have left at all. She would not be able to look anyone in the eye. Better to remain here and keep working and hoping and sounding happy on the phone. Prosperous cannot remember now if it was John or another friend of theirs who told the story of some relatives who returned from somewhere in Europe, she no longer remembers where, after many years abroad with not even a car to their name. “They could not even afford to build a house! They were booed each time they showed their face at any family gathering, so they stayed away!” John (or whomever had told the story slapped their thighs and laughed) but Prosperous felt sorry for this couple she did not know. “It won’t be our portion,” someone said and everyone else shouted Amen as if it had been a prayer. Their “portion” would be success. They console themselves with those who – despite everything- have made it . They are few but it is enough to keep them dreaming that one day, they too can corner their dreams and clobber them into submission. The councilwoman in Brussels from Burkina Faso. The Liberian in Geel who owns his own café. They feed off the stories of such people because it is a reminder of what is possible “Do you remember,” Agu asked Prosperous once, “the Ghanaian man we saw on CNN once who was the mayor of some city in Sweden?” It was not Sweden, Prosperous said. She could not recall the country, but yes, she remembered. “And he spoke the language like a native even though he grew up in Ghana!” And she remembered too, the Ijaw woman whose cousin they knew in Jos, and who was said to own a chain of hotels in restaurants in Lille. “She started off with nothing!” The woman’s cousin often said. “Not even a degree.” And in their immediate circle is Oge who speaks Flemish so effortlessly and who has always held administrative jobs. Oge, and Ndi, who works at Janssens Pharmaceuticals in Beerse, the only other one anyone of them knows who has managed to work with her degree hold the status of celebrities. Everyone else holds down jobs picking strawberries and harvesting chicken gizzards. The men will do anything but clean. That’s a woman’s job, Agu said once when they saw a vacancy for a cleaner. It would kill him to do that and how could she have thought that he would? “Abi you want to turn me into a woman?” He asked. When Prosperous repeated the story to her friends, she said, “The thing is that I doubt that he has the strength to be a woman.”
The men are arguing. The one who makes the comment about Muslims being cremated for their sins is insisting that he is right but gets shouted down. Why do you want to spoil a good joke? a voice asks. She recognizes this voice. It is his. Her husband’s. Agu’s. Perhaps he sounds distinct because she has known him the longest. He has a beautiful voice. No. He had a beautiful voice. Deep. Like Barry White’s. Meant for serenading (and indeed he had done a bit of singing before all this) but having weathered everything they have, his smooth, deep voice has become gravelly and jagged. it has developed a roughness that jars. It is, Prosperous thinks, like sandpaper rubbing against her ears. These days, he always sounds angry. But she has suffered too. He must not forget that. She has suffered as much as he has. They all have. Every single one of them in that overcrowded sitting room with mismatched chairs and the wooden crates that serve as side tables, every single one of them drinking out of old jam jars has suffered. No one can claim the monopoly on suffering. Certainly not Agu.
But suffering is not without its lessons. Here, she has learned thrift. Not the thriftiness of her mother back home in Nigeria who bargains for palm oil until she gets a good price, and boasts of it, or who recycles paper bags until they disintegrate, and laughs about that. It is not the thriftiness of the rich, like Joke for whom she cleans, who buys second hand clothes “because they are environmentally friendly. Why buy new and add to the waste when you can recycle?” Eco-thriftiness, Prosperous calls it. The sort of thriftiness that stems from a social conscience. No, what she practises here is the thriftiness of the marginalized, the dispossessed. The sort of thriftiness that is impossible to laugh about, to boast of. The thriftiness of those who stick to their sort, those who laugh so that they do not have to cry and pretend it is the most normal thing in the world to drink beer out of washed out jam jars, those who shop for clothes in Wibra and Kruidvat, where ten euros can get you three dresses or more.
Why do they have to be so loud? she wonders, not for the first time today. Everything about them feels wrong here. Even the laughter, which is too expansive for the narrow flat; it might crack the walls and seep into the other flats and then what trouble they would have. Neighbours complaining of raucous laughter. Disturbing the peace, the policeman had said when he came to their doorstep some months ago. How insulted she had felt. Humiliated. Yet she had to smile at the young man, promise that they would keep the noise down. Grovelling. She does not want to think about it.
And this talk about Muslims and burials. The joke does not amuse her. It feels inappropriate after what they have been through, these jokes about death. Have they not seen enough of it?
The kitchen is hot and she wishes there was a window she could open. She feels like she is being slowly steamed like the moi moi she is cooking on the bigger burner. Moi moi in aluminium foil. The taste won’t be quite right, but there is nowhere here one could get banana leaves to steam the bean cake in.
The men are laughing at another joke, but she has not been paying attention. She is thinking of Ifeatu and of language lessons and muting the voice in her head telling her that it is too late. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks! She heaves out the bag of powdered yam from the cupboard under the sink. At the beginning, she had been unable to eat it, firm in her belief that the powder was not yam, could not possibly be yam, but a combination of chemicals not fit for human consumption. One of the wives, older in the experience of living abroad (and therefore older in the necessary experience of substituting what cannot be found with what is available), had laughed and told her, You’ll get used to a lot of things soon. This pounded yam included. Now she does not even notice that it does not taste like the real pounded yam of back home: sliced fresh, cooked, emptied into a mortar and pounded to a stretchy, firm mound, perfect for rolling into balls and dipping into soup. She can no longer recall at what precise moment she stopped noticing the taste. Or stopped noticing that the bananas lacked the sweet, rich taste of the bananas of her homeland. Or that her clothes are mostly polyester affairs from the Wibra on Gasthuisstraat. The kind of clothes she would have bought for her maid in Nigeria. Her days have become one monotonous cycle of waking, cooking and cleaning (not just her house but other people’s, white people’s, who left sanitary towels exposed in dust bins she had to empty. Her polyester Wibra dresses are just perfect. She laughed. The laughter came out like a dry cackle. A laughter that seemed unsure of itself, sounding somewhat like a cough. It was nothing like the confident , carefree laughter of Agu and the other men.
Her life has come to this. Her years of study have come to this. She has a degree in banking and finance from one of Nigeria’s finest universities and five years of experience working in a bank in Jos, going to work in power suits and climbing steadily up the corporate ladder. Sometimes, in her dreams, she revisits that life, but once awake she cannot recall it in detail. Her new life has superimposed itself on the old so that any clear recollection of the former is impossible. It frustrates her that she cannot even tell with certainty, for instance, the exact colour of her office desk. Was it burgundy or black?
It does no good to think like this, she chides herself, finally garnering enough courage to taste the soup she oversalted. Hm, not bad. She stirs in the spinach and lowers the fire of the burner. Soon, the men will start crying out for their food. They will eat her food, and she will be left to clean up the mess they leave behind alone.
She lifts the pot of moi moi off the burner and almost drops it for the heat. She wipes sweat off her forehead and makes a mental note to start defrosting the fish stew to go with the moi moi for those who might prefer it to the meat stew she has ready. She has also made soup and pounded yam for those of them who, like John, cannot stand moi moi. This is her job: to anticipate the needs of Agu and his friends. How had she allowed her life to boil down to this? The anticipation of the needs of these men?
She remembers a story she and Agu listened to once on the BBC. A man comes home tired and hungry from work. He asks his wife for food, but there is no food at home, there’s a famine (or something, she can no longer remember). Not wanting to see her husband hungry, she cuts off a breast and feeds it to him. The next day the same thing happens. And while she’s clearing the table, the husband asks her why her shirt is all bloody. She tells him what she’s done and he says, Great! Now we have to start on the children! Agu had laughed and said, What a silly tale. Anyway, we do not have any children for me to eat! But she had not laughed. She had wanted to cry, for the woman. For the woman who must have felt like she, Agu’s wife, often does.
In that blurry former life, Agu respected her job, her need to rest after work. She had never felt that she was sacrificing her life for his, slicing off her breasts to feed him. Weekends were spent in bed, talking about colleagues and dreams and whether or not to go Saturday-night dancing, and should they start having babies? They had had maids. She had not needed to do any cooking or any housework. Sometimes, she wonders what Joke would say if she told her that she, Prosperous who now cleaned for her, had lived a life where she had had maids. Sometimes she thought of those maids and felt guilty at how she had taken their hard work for granted. It shames her now to think of how, many evenings, she had come back, exhausted from work and asked the two young girls to massage her feet. She had not asked if they were tired, if they minded it. The girls (how old had they been by the time they left? Surely not older than 14. Cousins, the girls were) had not even been paid. The arrangement with their parents when the girls were brought to Prosperous’ house in Jos was that she would put them through school, lodge them and feed them, and she had. Twice a year, when they drove back to the east for Christmas and the New Yam festival in August, they took the girls along so they could visit their families. She gave them money then for their parents. Now, she catches herself several times when she is working to earn enough money to even send some back home to her parents, why she could not also have paid them. She and Agu could have afforded it. It did not matter that many of their friends did the same thing. That it was normal. But it wasn’t really, was it? It was unfair. And when they left Nigeria, she and Agu had simply sent the two girls back to their families in Osumenyi without a thought as to how they would continue their education. She had always thought of herself as compassionate. She could not pass a beggar without dropping a coin in their bowl, even now, whenever she goes into Antwerp and sees people begging, she always gives something. And yet she had returned her maids as if they were worn stools she no longer had a need of.. But what could they have done? Brought the girls to Belgium with them? she treated them kindly, kinder than most so should she feel guilty? It was a different life and she missed parts of it, including the helps. She and Agu had been equals. Now he tells her he wants babies. He is getting old. They should have children. Maybe four. A sensible, even number. And where would they put the babies? In the one small cupboard they have in the bedroom? She doesn’t ask these questions out loud. Their flat has one bedroom, one small bathroom and an even smaller kitchen, like a toy house. The hallway is narrow and will not hold a pram. Where will all their children play? Where will they run around and learn to walk?
In their small bedroom, Agu holds her tight and empties himself in her. She does not always want to but she does not resist him. Are you on the pill? he asks. Each time she says no. The only response he wants to hear. The room is not big enough, the space is too limited, for any other answer. This place has made her a convincing liar. In that way she has changed, too.
She ladles soup into a huge bowl, careful not to be stingy with the gizzards (special discount from Emmanuel, who works in an abattoir) and stockfish (special discount from John, who helps out at the Oriental Shop). It helps to have friends in useful places, she thinks, dishing out the too-white pounded yam into a wide platter edged in a trellis pattern (bought second hand from the thrift store).
When she was in secondary school, her form mistress had begun the term once by talking to the class about ‘intentional relationships. “Learn to keep friends that can be as useful to you as you are to them,” she had told the class of thirteen year olds. Prosperous thinks of it now, how useful it would be if they were friends with Ali and Abdul who work at the thrift store and could keep choice items aside for her. But even here where it no longer matters, where it should not matter, they still keep away from Ali and Abdul. Nigerians too, but the wrong religion. The Muslims, Agu would say when asked, I keep away from the Muslims. As if the Muslims were a highly contagious disease.
You can’t blame Ali and Abdul for what happened in Jos, she would tell him, trying to convince him to make an effort to return their friendship, the hellos thrown at him, hoping to elicit more than a tart response.
Agu keeps saying he cannot forget. He lost more than a job in the riots. He lost his faith in his country. And that’s a huge loss, he would always say.
Agu had had a supermarket. On a street full of supermarkets, it was a testimony to his business acumen that his supermarket stood out above the rest. He said it was all down to strategic planning. It wasn’t anything he had picked up while studying for his accounting degree (although the degree helped), it was just that he knew how to place his products so that they caught the eye. The male deodorants with the chocolate bars so that a man who came in with his girlfriend for some chocolate was confronted with the deodorant he might need. At Eid el Fitri, he rewarded his Muslim customers with parcels of ram meat dripping blood in clear plastic bags, for which they thanked him effusively. Yet when the riots started, that had not saved him. Had not saved his shop. The name marked him out as Southerner. Agu and Sons (there were no sons yet but surely those would come?) Supermarket was razed and he lost everything in one night. His investment. His will to live. There was no question of his wife continuing her job at the bank. She was marked too.
They had cleared their joint bank account to buy passage out. No choice. The man who said he could help them out had only one country he could get them into. Belgium. They don’t even speak English there, she had complained, but for Agu it was enough that it was far away from Nigeria. I don’t care if they speak cat. I need to get out of here, he had said, eager to seek a new beginning.
She does not want to think of the charred corpses she saw the day after the riot. She does not want to think of the way human bodies sizzled like pork when they burnt. She does not want to think of the trouble it took to get them here. Or of the lies they had to tell, the new identities they had to wear. Their passports say they are from Liberia and it occurs to her that should she die, the authorities would probably contact the Liberian embassy.
She lifts the moi moi from the pot and places them in a round dish, a present from one of her employers. A lonely woman who tells her often, No one gets my toilets as clean as you do. You are a treasure. She knows how to scrub toilet bowls until they gleam. She exerts pressure on the brush and wipes the seat so clean that not a spot of dirt is to be found. She lifts the seat and wipes under it where trails of urine tend to hide. Her boss in Nigeria used to say that she was his most dedicated staff, nothing escaped her attention. And now how easily she has transferred that dedication to toilet bowls and wooden floors. How she has adapted to this life she would never have imagined she would live. Cleaning and cooking and never asking (or anticipating) for help.
She puts the food in a tray and carefully carries it out to the sitting room where the men are now playing a game of WHOT. The sight of the cards make her homesick and for a moment her eyes mist and she has to hurry to place the tray and retreat before they see her like this. The men hardly look up from their game. When she re-enters with plates and spoons, all four drop their cards as if on cue and Emmanuel says, At last. Smells delicious, nwunye anyi. Nwunye anyi, Our wife. That is what she has become. ‘Wife’ to whichever guest her husband invites home: cooking, cleaning. She is tired of it and sometimes when she sleeps, she sees herself back at the counter in the bank discussing the current economic crisis with colleagues. But those days are gone.
Her parents had suggested that they moved in with them while they looked for new jobs. I am a broken man, Agu told her. I cannot begin to pick up my pieces here. She would have liked to stay back, to try to find a job in another bank in the east – she had experience after all – but she imagined Agu, a bag of rattling bones unable to become whole again. Was her love for him not enough to start afresh somewhere else with him? Who was to say she could not make a career in the new country? He would just work long enough to regain everything he lost in the north and then they could move back. It did not have to be permanent. Darling, please, he said. I can’t stay here. I’d die. What was love, after all, if not sacrifice? Prosperous thought and agreed to the move. If anyone asked her now if that sacrifice had been worth it, she would have said no. That love that had brought her here, where was it now? The Agu for whom she had moved to Belgium, where was he now? There were days when she felt as if someone had stuck a knife in her back and any sudden movement might kill her, and so she moved slowly and quietly like a ghost through her own house.
In the three years they have been here, they no longer talk about their work to each other. Agu’s in the bread factory, transferring hot loaves from one machine to the other (at least that is what she thinks he does, she is not entirely sure), not making nearly enough to replace what he had lost. She says nothing about vacuuming floors and wiping windows, in light tones as if it did not matter, as if she found satisfaction in those menial jobs, as she had done at the beginning.
The words they do not say fill the distance they keep from each other, except when there is fault to be found. When the food is not ready on time. When the house is not tidy enough. Or her voice is not wifely enough. Then Agu unleashes his frustrations on her. His hand connects to thump sense into her. In this way, he has also changed. Afterwards he cries and says he is sorry but a man works all night in a bread factory and it changes him. He feels like his life is careening away from him and he has to find a way to regain control. I am sorry, I am sorry he says. She never says anything. She never absolves him.
“Our wife!” Someone shouts. “Our wife! Bring us another glass, please.” Prosperous pretends not to hear although the house is so small, there is no way she could not have heard. The phone call with her parents earlier in the day is playing on a loop in her head. “How is work?” her father asked. “Fine. Doing well.” Her parents have never asked her what she does but she knows that they assume that both she and Agu are doing the sort of jobs where they sit behind desks. “I saw Ifeatu,” her father said. Prosperous could hear the excitement in his voice before he said, “The gubernatorial candidate has picked her as a running mate!” “Your friend could be our deputy governor!” Prosperous’ mother shouted in the background. “Hasn’t she called you yet?” her father asked. Suddenly, the phone had grown so heavy in Prosperous’ hand that she could no longer hold it up. She was happy for Ifeatu , her roommate and friend at the university and with whom she had spent many weekends together at Prosperous’ house. Ifeatu would spend the evenings after dinner discussing politics with Prosperous’ parents with a passion which Prosperous herself lacked. It was not that she, Prosperous was not interested in politics, she thought that Ifeatu was too interested. Back then, ,Ifeatu used to tell anyone who would listen that she would become the president of Nigeria one day and she would make Prosperous the Accountant General of the Federation. “From all indications, her party is going to win!” her father said and the pride in his voice was a stab in Prosperous’ heart. Prosperous is happy for her friend but she knows that if Ifeatu called her now, she would not answer. She would not say that she was jealous but she needed time …to get over how far apart their circumstances have drifted. If Ifeatu could chase her dreams, why could she not? They had both been ambitious as undergraduates. “Prosperous! Another glass, please.” It is Agu this time. Prosperous ignores him. You can walk to the kitchen and get it yourself! You have legs. It’s decided. Tomorrow, she will register for Dutch lessons. She does not care how long it takes, she will master this language. She knows from Joke that the VDAB runs courses at little or no cost for the unemployed. Her niece, Joke said, who dropped out of school at sixteen had got her diploma at 32 through the public employment and vocational training centre and received further training as a computer technician. Once Prosperous has enough proficiency in Dutch, she will register for one of those. Maybe a course in graphic design? Develop that artistic side of hers that she has not yet had a chance to explore. Maybe a course in book keeping? Something closer to her original degree. Maybe try something completely new, do something radical: study to be a mechanic, why not? She has always liked cars. How she used to enjoy it when her father let her tinker with his car engine, how much pride she had taken in being asked at the age of nine, to help change the car oil. All the options ahead of her lighting the very dark tunnel of her present, assuring her when she needs the assurance that this – cleaning for Joke, living with a man she no longer recognized, and being claimed by all his friends as “our wife” – will not last.
Chika Unigwe was born on in Enugu, Nigeria, the sixth of seven children. After completing her secondary school education at Federal Government Girls’ College, Abuja, she went on to earn a BA in English at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1995. In 1996, she obtained an MA in English from the Catholic University of Leuven (KUL), and then earned a PhD from the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, in 2004, for her dissertation entitled “In the Shadow of Ala: Igbo Women Writing as an Act of Righting.” Chika is Creative Director of the Awele Creative Trust, and she was a judge for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. In 2016-2017, was Bonderman Professor of Creative Writing at Brown University, Providence RI, USA.
“Saving Agu’s Wife” by Chika Unigwe, copyright © Chika Unigwe. From a forthcoming collection of stories to be published by Cassava Republic. An earlier version of this story originally appeared in Litro magazine. Used by permission of MacKenzie Wolf on behalf of the author. All rights reserved.
Published on March 1, 2018.