Duhirwe Rushemeza, Untitled, 2014. Thin-set, acrylic, wood, and metal detritus, 21 × 21 × 5 in.

One sunny afternoon, a van drove into Lokpanta and a stranger peeped out of the driver’s side and asked for directions to Mama Paulina’s house. A stern-looking, bulky man in a soldier’s uniform sat in the front passenger seat. Villagers gave them directions, and, curious as to the nature of a visit from men not from those parts, walked, ran, trotted to Mama Paulina’s house to see whatever would unfold. If it was good news, they would rejoice with her. If it was bad news, she would not be alone. They said Mama Paulina was cooking in her outside kitchen when she heard the voices call her. She came out, dusting soot from her hands, her knees covered in ash from the floor of the kitchen. She smelled of wood smoke. Her scarf covered one eye. She pushed it back and tied it firmly. The driver told her that he had her son Ebele in the trunk of his van. He worked for the same boss as Ebele, and said her son had died of dysentery. He dumped the corpse in the front yard and drove off. His passenger never uttered a word. He just stared at everyone with hard, threatening eyes. They said that Mama Paulina let out a long wail and then collapsed.

It was a cruel way to deliver the news of a death, but the rich (and their emissaries) can deliver news however they wish. It was later said that some of the young men of the village were upset that they had not been called to “beat some sense” into that messenger of doom. “How dare he bring one of our own home like this? As if he were a log of wood!”

Some of these angered young men might have been the sons of those who, years before, had told Mama Paulina that her husband, Ebele’s father, was dead. The fathers of some of these angered young men might have sent their wives to sit with Mama Paulina while someone gently, cautiously, respectfully broke the news like an egg. The women would have known to sit with her, they would have reminded her that as tragic as it was to lose her husband, the breadwinner of the family, at least she had a son. “Imagine if you had no son! Take heart,” they would have told her. “It could have been worse.”

When Mama Paulina came to, she understood the magnitude of her loss and what the consequences of Ebele’s death would be. Knowing what I do of her, I imagine how she would have shoved grief aside for pragmatism, as she did when her husband died. She knew what she had to do.

Mama Paulina is no relation of mine, but always felt like a surrogate grandmother to my younger sister and me. She came often to visit us in Enugu from the village, Lokpanta. On Sunday mornings, she walked us to the Catholic church near our house and prayed with the same intense concentration as our grandmother, Mama Nnukwu. But where Mama Nnukwu—in my recollections, at least—was always happy, her laughter bouncing off the walls of our house, Mama Paulina could never seem to relax. She seemed to carry a certain sadness about her; not a sadness related to something that had happened already, but one that foreshadowed a future catastrophe. Even when she laughed that sadness was folded into the edges of her mirth. It looked like she was in constant mourning. No matter what she was doing, what story she was telling, how hard she was smiling, grief never left her face.

The last time I saw her was when her daughter, Paulina, lived with us, over twenty years ago, but I see her now in my mind’s eye: tall, thin, straight. She has a patterned satin scarf loosely covering her head. She is wearing a shapeless short-sleeved polyester dress that comes almost to her ankles. She has a slim belt tied under her breasts. On her feet are flip-flops. Her toes are calloused, and her nails are clipped too short and unpolished. It is dry season, and her face and lips gleam from the Vaseline. There is a familiar oldness to her face, as if it has bypassed wrinkles and settled comfortably into eternal senescence.

This husband, this devoted husband and responsible father, had died, and in dying left his family at the mercy of a culture that antagonizes widows.

Mama Paulina’s story came to me in increments as I grew older, more curious and more aware of the traditions that bound her. Traditions that ultimately freed her, in a way. She had married young and been widowed young, soon after her second child was born. She was uneducated. I remember that, for me, the highlight of her visits was setting up a “classroom” in the parlor and playing school with her. I was the teacher, she was my pupil. She indulged me, repeated the alphabet after me, and diligently completed whatever homework I gave her, copying out the sentences I had written for her on the blackboard, painstakingly and with stoic perseverance. I had not thought it possible that a grown-up could be unable to write a simple English sentence, but even the alphabet was a challenge to her. Once, when I asked her why she did not know her letters, she laughed and told me, “I have never seen the inside of a classroom. Agbajighi m slate.” I have never broken a slate. She had not needed an education, she said, to get married and fulfill the role of dutiful wife for a man who was capable of looking after her.

Her husband had doted on her. When she spoke of him, it was with a moving tenderness. He had been the earner and had dispatched his duties well. He had taken the part of his wife in disputes with his brothers—which did very little to endear her to them, but which was proof to Mama Paulina of how magnanimous life had been to her, to make her the wife of a man who was not embarrassed to side with her against his own relatives. She had a powerful ally so long as he was alive. But this husband, this devoted husband and responsible father, had died, and in dying left his family at the mercy of a culture that antagonizes widows.

In Lokpanta, for the duration of the yearlong mourning period, a widow must eat while seated on the bare floor. In the olden days, she had to eat with two pieces of stick, and whatever food fell was said to have been demanded by her dead husband, and so could not be eaten. In many Igbo cultures, of which the culture of Lokpanta is one, widows are seen as defenseless, at the mercy of their husbands’ relatives. In Mama Paulina’s case, her husband’s family was not willing or not able (it has never been clear to me which) to look after her and her two children. Children too young to help her on the farm. Children she could not afford to send to school. Children for whom she had high hopes, despite the obvious obstacles. She could not remarry, because if she did she would lose her son; tradition forbade her from bringing her dead husband’s son into another man’s house. Her husband’s relatives also did not hide the fact that they wanted the plot of farmland their brother had owned and which Mama Paulina continued to till.

Mama Paulina did not have the luxury of being consumed by the sadness of losing her spouse so early in life. She let it be known that she was looking for a good home where she could send her daughter. That was how she was put in touch with my mother. The result was that her daughter, Paulina, still a child, was sent to live with us as a maid, sixty miles from where she lived. She could not help on the farm, but she could help around a city house where the work was lighter, more bearable. In this way, Paulina would be able to go to school, and she would have the opportunities and privileges that my parents gave to us children. There was nothing strange in this sort of arrangement. Even now poor families in Nigeria send their children to live with people who can offer them a better life in exchange for their help in the home.

Ebele, the younger child and male heir, was Mama Paulina’s insurance against homelessness. Ebele was the sole reason her husband’s family could not dislodge her from her home or farm. He stayed back with his mother and would accompany her when she visited our house. He was a silent child, not much older than I, though I don’t remember him ever playing with me or my sister. Later, I would attribute his distance not to shyness but to his awareness of the burden he shouldered as the only son, the one good eye of a half-blind man.

By the dictates of Igbo culture, women do not inherit property. Where there are no sons to inherit from the father’s estate, inheritance passes to the father’s brothers or other close male relative.

There are stories of women who, on the heels of their husbands’ deaths, are forced out of their homes and pushed into penury because they have no sons to inherit the property. There are stories of women who—safe in the knowledge that they live in a “modern” world—are not bothered by their sonlessness, until they discover when their husbands die that there is a son somewhere to whom everything has been willed. My mother still shudders with rage when she tells the story of a very enterprising businesswoman she knew who had amassed great wealth and invested in property—in her husband’s name, because she was a “good” wife. When he died, she discovered he had made a will and disinherited their three girls in favor of a son she’d had no knowledge of.

In precolonial Igboland, there were ways for women with no sons to ensure that male heirs were “acquired” on their behalf, ways of safeguarding their position and ensuring the continuation of the family name. It was one such precolonial custom, which has survived until today, that liberated Mama Paulina, to the anger of her husband’s eldest brother, who according to hearsay had hoped to finally inherit her plot of farmland.

Mama Paulina promptly buried her son and, when a suitable period of time had elapsed, announced to her family that she had decided to marry again. This time around, she would marry a woman. She was not looking for a sexual relationship with a woman—same-sex relations are a taboo in Igbo culture—but for a wife who would provide her with sons to preserve her husband’s name—and preserve Mama Paulina herself. She also, I imagine, wanted a companion, someone who would fill the silence in her home with chatter and laughter.

Lokpanta is a small village where everyone knows everyone else. Once her mind was made up, Mama Paulina did not have to look long to find a suitable wife. She heard whispers that a certain Eunice might make a good candidate. Eunice had been married before to a man from a neighboring village, but the marriage had ended abruptly and she had returned home to her parents. Details are scant but the rumors held that her husband had sent her packing for cheating on him, and that she was still sleeping with her married lover. They said her parents were weighed down by the shame of her alleged wantonness.

In Lokpanta, a widow who has no sons can marry a woman, like Mama Paulina did.

Eunice was a young, healthy-looking woman, with hips wide enough to attest to her fecundity; her family had a history of fertility. Mama Paulina sent emissaries to Eunice’s home the way men do when they find a woman they want to marry, and Eunice agreed to the marriage. Eunice would be able to maintain her relationship with her lover (without being judged) and regain her status in a society that values marriage above all else.

Mama Paulina paid her bride price, threw a small wedding party at her new wife’s parents’ house, and took Eunice home. Now, Mama Paulina is also referred to as the husband of Eunice, Di Eunice.

In Lokpanta and certain other Igbo communities, gender, particularly female gender, is not fixed. It is a cultural construct that can be transcended. In Osumenyi, where I come from, a woman who is menopausal can apply for privileges only accorded to men. She can be initiated into certain groups meant for men only, and when she dies, she can be given male funeral rites. A man who has no sons can elect to keep a daughter at home to bear sons for him in a practice known as Ighachi nwanyi, by which she cannot marry but is encouraged to keep lovers and have children, who will then belong to her father. Such a daughter becomes male and is granted all the privileges of a man. In Lokpanta, a widow who has no sons can marry a woman, like Mama Paulina did. As the “husband,” she must pay the bride price, look after the wife in every traditionally sanctioned way, and perform all the pecuniary obligations. The “wife” keeps a lover or lovers—very often married men, who in some cases have been selected by the “husband”—and bears children who belong to her “husband.”

I have often, in thinking of Mama Paulina, remembered my mother’s wealthy friend whose husband, at his death, willed everything to the son she knew nothing about, forcing her out of the home she had paid for. I have wondered if access to a culture like the one Mama Paulina belongs to might have made him more honest. According to my grandfather, nothing scares the Igbo man so much as the thought of not having a son to preserve his name. One of the most popular Igbo names, after all, is Afamefuna, “May my name never be lost.” If a man was assured of the continuity of his name even after death, perhaps he would be less likely to seek ways of perpetuating that name that would also disenfranchise his wife.

Even in villages like Lokpanta and Osumenyi, these practices are no longer as common as they once were. As more women become educated and pursue careers, the loss of a husband has come to carry fewer financial ramifications than it did. But for women like Mama Paulina, unskilled and illiterate, who live in rural communities, who are not employed outside of the home, the loss of a husband still has grave consequences. These women lose their main source of income. They are thrown at the mercy of male relatives who can choose whether or not to look after them, and if the widows have no sons, their brothers-in-law can decide whether they continue to have roofs over their heads or not. Traditions that allow these women to transcend their gender provide a convenient way out of the constraints of femaleness and into the freedom of maleness.

Mama Paulina sought this freedom, and she got this freedom when Eunice gave birth to the first of her three sons. Each son strengthened Mama Paulina’s status as a bona-fide male. Her survival is assured in a way it never was when she was a widow. For as long as she lives, Mama Paulina will never be homeless. And Eunice can maintain sexual relationships with whomever she chooses without such relationships being seen as extramarital affairs. The fact that the men who biologically father the children of women like Eunice have no claim on them makes the wives of these men more willing to turn a blind eye. Eunice has also regained her place in society. The taint on her family name has been blotted out, order restored.

I have not kept in touch with Mama Paulina since I left the country in 1995, but I imagine her in her new role. I imagine her face has lost its perpetual tautness. When her children hug her, when she tells them stories, when she is sitting on the verandah with her wife, chatting about whatever, her smile is open, her laughter carefree. The worst has happened, after all, and she has survived it. She is tackling life as a male with the same diligence and perseverance she brought to her lessons. As long as her sons live, regardless of what happens between her and Eunice, Mama Paulina has her home and her land. Her male standing means that her freedom will never again be under threat, that her claim to the property she owned with her husband will never again be questioned. As the Igbo say, ọ ga-añu mmiri togbo iko: she can now finally drink water and put the cup down.


Chika Unigwe

Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Nigeria. She is the author of On Black Sisters Street (2011, Random House, NY ) and Night Dancer (2012, Jonathan Cape, UK). She won the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature. She lives in Marietta, Georgia, and is working on a collection of short stories.

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