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Author: Sherrie Cronin

Chapter 2
A BEGINNING: FEBRUARY 1993

72

The noises were the worst part for five-year-old Somadina (So ma DEE nah) only because she knew who was making them.

As the women came and went from her mother's tiny house amid her very own mama's cries and moans, Somadina could sense their worry in the way she could sense so many things that the grown-ups thought she could not, and she knew in her vague child's way that something was terribly wrong.

"This time next month you will have a little brother," her father Ikenna (Ee KEN nah) had proudly told her a few weeks ago.

"Yes papa." She knew that her father loved her dearly, as she loved him, but she also knew that for some reason this second child, this son, meant the world to him.

"Remember what your name means, Somadina."

"I know papa. May I never be alone. And starting soon I will not be. I will have a little brother to help mama take care of always."

He smiled at her sharp mind. This little girl was bright and would be a source of great pride to him. And it was only an extra blessing that she was pretty already. With her mother's very large eyes and direct clear gaze, she sometimes seemed like a little carbon copy of his dear Amaka (Ah MA kah).  With all of her gifts, Somadina would do well in life, possibly a run a little business or be a leader in the women's community, and she would likely bring a high bride price as well. For all the great hardship in his childhood and youth, Ikenna recognized that today he was, beyond a doubt, a very lucky man.

But that had been fourteen days ago and Ikenna knew that during just this short amount of time his luck had changed. True, the depth of his love for Amaka was unusual. Wives with his people were often taken as more of a matter of practical arrangement, and Ikenna had defied convention by passing on taking a second wife even though there was adequate money to support one, and it was of course an expected thing to do when Amaka produced a girl child for him as his first born and then failed to get pregnant again for such a long while. But no, he had ignored his own father's vehement wishes and instead further professed his love for only Amaka, cherishing and embracing their fine daughter, and assuring all that a fine son would be produced as well in due time.

And then the second pregnancy had begun and gone so nicely. Amaka had glowed with a health and joy which had fortified his belief that not only was a son on the way, as it should be to reward him for his love and loyalty, but that it was also a son who would be strong and smart and capable, to make up for the sad loss of Ikenna's only two brothers those many years ago. And then Ikenna's father, the great and proud man that he was, would no longer have to watch his lineage wither on the vine. He would no longer be frustrated with his only surviving son, this immature younger child who had been too slow to grow and marry for the aging old man's impatient nature and who had then compounded the situation by falling so deeply in love with one woman that he would not even try to make sons with others.

But now his son was having a problem being born. In his haste to come into the world and greet his father and grandfather, the midwife had said, the son had entered the birth canal wrong and now beautiful Amaka had been in labor much too long. Ikenna spit in disgust. It was hard for him to ignore completely the old Igbo discomfort with any unusual problems involved in giving birth. He told himself that it was not Amaka's fault. The midwife in this village was not as good as in many others, it was plain to see. It was a skill to bring life into this world, and she had little modern training. He should have taken Amaka back to her own hometown, where her village had lifted itself up by building an up-to-date maternity center and where the women who handled such things were Amaka's own relations and were well known for their abilities.

Amaka had asked this of him, just fourteen days ago. But no, he had to listen to his own stupid pride, his own stupid desire to have his son born here on his father's compound, to see his father's face himself when the old man was given the news. He had put his wife and unborn son at risk for a personal moment of satisfaction. He no longer deserved his good fortune. Ikenna sat on the ground in despair.

Meanwhile, the women attending to Amaka were beside themselves. They also knew that the midwife was relatively untrained and inexperienced, having taken the business over from her own recently and prematurely deceased mother. She had struggled with every difficult birth she had attended to since she had been on her own, and this baby was butt first, once considered an abomination by the older and more superstitious. The problem was worsened by the fact that this baby's knees were bent, with one foot stuck alongside the butt. Amaka was fully dilated and had been pushing now for hours without success. Gentle attempts to move the baby or even the baby's one stuck foot by hand had yielded nothing but more intense screams, and the midwife knew that eventually neither mother nor child would survive. What to do? What to do?

One of her youngest assistants came back with more hot water. "You know the Hausa woman nobody likes?" she whispered. The midwife nodded. Everyone knew the Hausa woman, who kept to her home and almost never came out. "She actually left her house to call to me because she feels sorry for Amaka. She has heard the screaming. She guessed what is happening. Her sister is a midwife! With the Hausa. And she says that they have remedy for a case like this and she wants to talk to you."

"Will she come here?"

"I do not think so. But go to her quick and I will watch Amaka." And so the midwife ran.

 

Ikenna looked up from his grief. The stupid inexperienced midwife was standing in front of him and she looked happy. Ikenna jumped up. “My son?!"

"Not yet," she said. “But I may have a solution. It is something the Hausa do, called a gishiri cut.  If we do it the boy should be born just fine. But there is some risk to Amaka, and to her ability to bear more children later."

Ikenna said nothing.

"We will certainly lose them both if we do not try this," she added. "With your permission?"

Ikenna sighed. Really, what choice did he have?

 

Any well-trained midwife the world over would understand that cutting the vaginal wall cannot solve a problem caused by a baby stuck inside pelvic bones. But this midwife was not particularly well-taught, inexperienced, and was desperately open to suggestion. To make matters worse, in her fear and ignorance, she made the cuts large and deep. As a result, Amaka's shock and trauma stopped the contractions long enough for the desperate midwife to force the baby's body upward to dislodge the foot, and for a rapid breech birth to then occur. In that sense the midwife was very lucky. The baby lived. But the exhausted and nearly unconscious Amaka bled out before the midwife was even aware of how serious the situation was.

 

Ikenna watched the midwife come toward him with fear in her eyes. She held a bundled crying child. This was most unusual.

"Amaka?" he asked.

She only stared at him, dazed, and Ikenna knew. He stood motionless for a few seconds. Though he was a modern man who made every effort to put superstitions aside, it was hard for him to suppress the sense of dishonor and shame which the Igbo had long associated with death in childbirth. He swallowed with a very dry mouth and focused on his affection for Amaka. That is what mattered. How would she want him to greet his son?

Softly he turned to the baby and said the best he could come up with. "You must be a very special son," he whispered, "to have cost me so much." Then he saw the look in the midwife's eyes and he knew the rest of the story.

As deep disappointment sank in, the pity in the woman's eyes began to offend him in a way he could not explain. His anger towards her started as only small ripples of irritation, but before he could stop them the little undulations had grown into into larger and larger waves of rage.  He yelled to the midwife.

"Get. Out. Of. Here."

The young woman stood horrified.

"Do you understand me?"

The midwife opened her mouth to speak but Ikenna cut her short.

"No, you do not speak to me. Not now. Not at any time in the future. Do not ever even look at me. Do not even breathe in my presence."

The woman froze. Ikenna knew that his fury was reaching unreasonable proportions but he was unable to stop it. If he were not careful he knew that he would hurt the midwife and he also knew that that would accomplish nothing. He took a few ragged breaths and turned away so he could think. His breathing became more normal. His mouth once again had saliva.

Indeed, the midwife was only stupid. She couldn't be blamed for that. He must try to be rationale. His first problem was that he now had this tiny baby girl who had taken from him what he had loved most. He could ask that this child go live with her mother's kin, which was tempting and would be acceptable under the circumstances. But, wait. There was little Somadina, pulling on his shirt.

"Papa?" Her wide eyes were full of questions.

And Ikenna thought to himself that she was the only piece of joy he had left in life.  If the baby girl went, then Somadina too might go to live with her maternal aunts in another town, and then he would see her only on occasion. But if he insisted on keeping both girls close, Somadina would still bring him comfort. Meanwhile he'd just have to find someone to watch the infant and to see to it that she brought him a minimum of trouble.

That meant, of course, that now he would need a new wife. Make that two. And quickly. Any fertile women would do. He knew his father well enough to know that neither condolences nor congratulations would be forthcoming from the old man for today's events, and if he set something matrimonial in motion quickly, he could share that news with his father the next time they spoke. It would make the encounter so much easier.

Somadina gently let go of her father's sleeve and waited. She knew from everything she picked up that her mother was gone, even if she had no idea of where. Though Somadina was both saddened and scared by that knowledge, at the moment she was focused on her father, who was right there but seemed in a very real sense to be gone as well. She could not think of words to describe his lack of presence, even to herself. But she knew that in her mind she usually saw a door when she approached her papa and that the door was usually open wide. And when that happened, she knew that he would be happy to see her and play with her. Every once in awhile when she approached him she would instead see that the door was only open a crack, and then she would know that he was busy or bothered, and she should leave him alone. She had heard him say often how she was such a wonderful child because she never asked for his attention when he had other matters to attend to. That comment baffled her. She wasn't doing anything unusual, she just checked his door before she spoke to him. But now she saw his door, and it was shut tight like she had never seen it before, with locks and bolts and huge scary vines with giant thorns growing over it at a frightening speed. Baffled, she backed away carefully.

 

In spite of the most unfortunate circumstances of Amaka's death, Amaka's family was not happy to leave the girls in the father's village. But others intervened to explain that given how very much the father loved Somadina, her presence might help him heal in his grief. It was a reasonable hope, and so Amaka's family acquiesced. However, the family had concerns.

To begin with, Ikenna showed no interest in selecting a name for the new daughter and there was a good bit of consternation in both families as the naming ceremony approached. Finally, one of his sisters suggested Nwanyibuife. Ikenna snorted a mirthless laugh, and agreed. For although the name translates literally as "a female is worth something too", it was often used in an ironic sense by a disappointed father.

Causing even more consternation was Ikenna's total lack of involvement in the well-being of the child. He showed no desire to play with or display any affection to the little girl.  His youngest sister was making milk for both her own infant and her one-year-old, and she was willing to suckle Nwanyi (Nuh WAN yee) while she was at it. Although Nwanyi received quick feedings from her tired and busy aunt, and was given cursory care by Ikenna's two new wives, the fact was that she received remarkably little genuine affection during her first months of life.

Except for her time with Somadina. For when Somadina listened to her little sister's cries, she cried herself. She understood that little Nwanyi was supposed to be a brother and was now in trouble because she had not been one. And she understood that the coming of the baby had made her mother very sick and that was why her mother was gone. But Nwanyi was cute in a scrawny way and so helpless and sometimes so very unhappy. Somadina, who felt the baby's hunger and loneliness every day in ways she could not explain, just wanted to hold and comfort her little sister and make it all better for her. So Somadina did what she could.

 As for her father, she mostly avoided him after Nwanyi's birth. Ikenna, when he was not engulfed in his grief, was generally preoccupied with his new wives, neither of whom seemed to have all that much use for Somadina. And then after the almost simultaneous arrival of not one but two baby half-brothers a little over a year after Nwanyi was born, Somadina barely saw her father at all, losing touch with the one living person with whom she once had the closest of emotional ties.

So Somadina changed too. She began to withdraw, and the ability to sense what others were thinking that she had simply taken for granted, began to fade. Others noticed that she seemed to have lost much of her almost eerie perceptiveness. By her seventh birthday, she was an unusually independent little girl, willingly doing the chores assigned to her and excelling in the local grade school to which Ikenna had decided to send her for at least a few years, but otherwise most content to just be alone.

One day when seven-year-old Somadina was watching Nwanyi while she was napping, her sister began whimpering in her sleep. She brushed her cheek gently to wake her from the bad dream, but Nwanyi just curled up tighter and whimpered more. So Somadina made a solemn promise to her two-year-old sister that when she, Somadina, was bigger and had more power, she would look out for Nwanyi and would keep her safe. In fact, Somadina swore to become as powerful and influential as a woman could become, just so she could do a good job of keeping her promise.

And after the "promise ceremony," as she thought of it in her own head, Somadina felt much better, even if the sleeping Nwanyi had not understood just how serious Somadina had been.

 

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