I had been a housemaid for nearly half my life when I met Urenna.
My first sojourn as a housemaid began when I was ten. That morning, before it was fully day, I went by myself on a big bus, the kind that went to Lagos. I went to live with Papa Emma and his wife. I would do little chores around the house and I would be sent to school. That was what Mama Nkemdilim told me. I was excited to go, a little apprehensive too, but I knew that anywhere would be better than living with Mama Nkemdilim after my father had died. And Lagos was the biggest city in Nigeria — everyone knew that. Mama Nkemdilim said men who had gone from our village either married Yoruba women and never came back, or they came back smelling of money and comfort.
It was no surprise that Mama Nkemdilim would send me away at the first opportunity that knocked on our door.
“Amosu,” she would call me, a witch. “Why do you still hold out your hands for food?” she would ask, squeezing her face in puzzlement when I stood outside the kitchen, waiting for food. “Is all that blood you suck from me and my children not enough? Or does it all go to your big head?” she would wail, referring to my head, which looked huge on my thin body. Other children called me Atinga, giving proper due to my bony slenderness. Mama Nkemdilim did not think that the little food we had in the house should be wasted on putting extra flesh on my bones. Extra flesh would be a drag on the speed needed to run the many errands she sent me on.
Mama Nkemdilim blamed me for all her misfortunes. And misfortunes had visited often since she came to live with us, coming down like rain in July. When she could not conceive after two years of marriage to my father, she pointed fingers at me. A dibia, she said, had told her that I was responsible for her empty womb. Bad luck, she liked to say, followed me around like the mosquito sought the ear at night; like flies followed feces. After my father died, she would point out that he had survived the war where hehad served as a soldier, had withstood poverty, had held on to life after I came along and killed my mother as I forced myself out into the world. My father had weathered all this. But how, she asked, did one survive a wicked child who had killed her mother?
“You will not kill me too,” she would cry, conviction ringing like a soprano alongside the alto of disgust. “Mbanu, you will not. I am not as foolish as your mother, not as soft as your father. I will kill you before you kill me,” Mama Nkemdilim would insist, as if I, a mere child, were a monster with seven heads like those spirits in fairy tales.
“I did not kill my mother and father,” I would say, my head turned away, waiting for her hard knuckles to rap against my almost hairless big head. A loud, painful koi.
Yet all her blows had not yet driven away the remnants of my defiance. If I could kill, the spirit in me said, Mama Nkemdilim would not be living while my father and mother lay in their almostforgotten graves, now covered by grass in front of my father’s house. When she approached with the cane she hastily broke off from the onugbu plant beside the kitchen, I did not stop for her hand togo up and down my body. I ran out to the road, screaming for my dead father, even though I knew my punishment would wait until I came back to my senses and returned home. When she starved me, I woke up in the night to creep to the kitchen and help myself to some of the soup and dry fish she gave only to her children, to prevent kwashiorkor, she would proclaim.
When I turned ten, Papa Emma, a distant relative of Mama Nkemdilim’s, came home to the village at Christmas. He said he needed someone to help his wife around the house. Mama Nkemdilim thought that I would be a good choice: it would get rid of me. But she also worried that it might be too much of an opportunity for me.
“Do you not think that this is too good for her?” she asked her friend, Mama Odinkemma.
I listened intently from outside the kitchen.
“Hmm,” Mama Odinkemma said, “do you want her living here, sucking your blood, sucking Nkemdilim and her sister’s blood every night, while blowing cool air on all of you like a rat?”
“Eh, that is true talk. Eziokwu. But what if she becomes a big person in Lagos?”
Mama Odinkemma laughed. It was a genuine laugh. And it went on for long. She could not imagine Nwabulu, the Atinga, becoming a big person anywhere. Not even in Lagos, I heard her say. For once, I did not disagree with Mama Odinkemma, Mama Nkemdilim’s thick-set friend with the pointed mouth that made you wonder how food made it through to her belly. And yet she could often be counted on to be chewing something like a goat chewing cud. I silently agreed with her that it was laughable that I could become a big person by cleaning, cooking, and doing chores in a house, even if it was in Lagos, the biggest city in Nigeria. Even a ten-year-old child, who had not gone to school for two years, knew that this was like the long tales the tortoise told the other animals he had offended by his greed so that they would not throw him down from the sky.
What sealed my fate was Mama Odinkemma saying, “Mama Nkemdilim, send this child away. That child has her mother’s blood. They are all witches in her mother’s family. You do not want her to initiate your children into the cult, or worse still, kill them?”
After that, Mama Nkemdilim satisfied the necessary obligation of informing my uncle Nnabuzo. I wanted to go to Lagos, climb mountains and swim seas, just to get far away from my stepmother. But I did not want to leave my uncle Nnabuzo.
My uncle did not like the idea of Mama Nkemdilim sending me all the way to Lagos. It should have been his responsibility to determine what happened to me, his brother’s child, but he appeared weak before Mama Nkemdilim’s verbal and emotional onslaughts. Sometimes her barbs were subtle, but more often they were blunt like the stone with which we ground pepper in the small mortar.
“Let me take Nwabulu,” he said to Mama Nkemdilim. “At least we will keep our eyes on her. ” He rested worried eyes on my face, but his tone was gentle, as always.
“Did my husband, your brother, not say that what he would like most was for Nwabulu to go to school?” she asked. Mama Nkemdilim always knew the right thing to say.
“Yes, it is true,” Nnabuzo said.
“The people with whom she will live will send her to school. Emma told me himself. I cannot send her to school,” she moaned. “It is all I can do to feed myself and your brother’s children. ”
Nnabuzo knew when he was defeated. My uncle could barely feed his own family with his palm-wine-tapping trade. His wife, Nnedi, had a baby every year. At last count, there were nine of them. Her thin frame was often to be seen with a protruding tummy as she was going about her duties. I had heard MamaNkemdilim say that her baby-a-year habit was the result of my uncle Nnabuzo’s sickening inability to keep his own penis to himself. Mama Nkemdilim reminded him as often as possible of his neglected duties to his late brother’s family, always implying that, in the face of his failure to do so, she must continue to shoulder a man’s burdens on her frail woman’s shoulders.
On the day I left, a cold harmattan morning in January, Nnabuzo was the only one who came to say goodbye. I dressed in the dark, half listening to my half-sister, Nkemdilim, as she slept on the other side of the bed, sucking her tongue noisily as she was wont to do, the sound going thu thu thu rhythmically.
The Son of the House is a powerful voice-driven novel that draws from fables and Nollywood to create a moving portrait of female friendship, diverted dreams, and heavy grief . .. powerful and nuanced feminist fiction.
The Son of the House is filled with drama and loss and hope, weaving together the lives of these women who help each other navigate the patriarchal society that threatens to smother them. ... Onyemelukwe-Onuobia leaves the readers with no choice but to identify with these women, to understand them and to feel their pain. It’s beautifully written and intimate; an incredible first novel and hopefully the first of many.
Onyemelukwe-Onuobia's book immerses you fully in a Nigerian culture with the words and context faithfully glued to it. .. If you are going to read any new book on Nigeria, this one is it.
Descriptive and thought-provoking, with exquisite storytelling, this is the kind of literature I believe is vital for us to understand the lives of someone other than ourselves.
Onyemelukwe-Onuobia's intimate study of the issues facing contemporary Nigeria resonates, and her masterly storytelling makes this consistently entertaining. The result is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A powerful and intimate narrative of bravery, of overcoming personal injustice, and having the strength to face difficult truths about oneself.
An inspiring story of two indomitable women who find ways to rise above the limitations imposed by a repressive society.
The Son of the House is a compelling novel about two women caught in a constricting web of tradition, class, gender, and motherhood.
The Son of the House draws you in slowly and keeps you wondering . .. a page-turning, eye-opening, full-of-drama read with a surprise ending.