Thursday, March 4, 2010
"When I look at you all I see is hands and legs!"
Those are the words with which I often teased Nene.
Nene towers at a whooping 5'10" and since her slim, lanky frame and young body hardly had any flesh on it, anyone seeing her for the first time was bound to notice her hands and legs first. She turned sixteen last October and I have missed her angelic face and innocent demeanour since I moved out of my former neighbourhood two years ago.
Nene is dark skinned and unusually tall for her age but she carries her frame well. She's rather laid back and not quite as talkative as most girls of her peergroup.
Abigail, Nene's aunty is a friend of mine from church. She has lived with Nene's parents since her secondary school days until recently when she had to go away to University. They live in the same neighbourhood as my parents and that was how I came to meet and know Nene. The two of them often took evening strolls together and since our house was in their path, they often stopped by for a chat. Nene would stand at a respectful distance away from the two of us while we chatted but I often drew her into our conversations. She was shy at first but in the course of time she loosened up and became freer with me. Free enough indeed that she often came to visit with me all by herself.
It did not matter that I was older than her by almost 14 years, I quickly found that Nene and I could spend a long time talking about almost anything. Nevermind that I was answering her questions half the time. She had an inquisitive mind that girl and I found it rather refreshing to have a sweet thing like herself ask me questions and listen earnestly while I answered as though I was one of the ancients possessing an inexorable store of wisdom.
The way she carried herself often made people think she was older than she really was but her naivety and innocence often gave away the fact that she was still a child. A child that was in the process of becoming a woman.
Nene became a woman all too quickly. Her innocence has been tainted and I dare say lost, for only a few months ago I got news that Nene was expecting a baby. Yes, Nene who herself had barely left her childhood behind is about to become a mother. Before the end of next month, her baby would have arrived.**
By the time this sad news reached me, Nene was already six months pregnant. I was also told that her mother only found out when she was five months gone.
What kind of a mother is that? I am sure you would wonder. But after hearing from Abigail, who is Nene's mother's sister, my questions fell silent on my lips.
Nene had passed her JAMB exams and there was just one more hurdle to cross before she could gain entrance into the Abia State University. She had done all that was necessary to register for her post-JAMB screening test and now all she had to do was study in preparation for it. She often went to the library at the community school nearby to study but most of the time she stayed at home.
Nene is the first of five children and according to her mother, Nene was the kind of daughter every mother prayed for. She had a strong sense of responsibility and she looked after her younger ones well. She hardly ever put a foot wrong but even if she did, it didn't take much to place her on the right path again.
Mama Nene has a shop where she sells staple food items at the community market a few streets from the house so it was easy for her to quickly come home to cook the meals and receive the kids as they returned home from school. Since Nene left secondary school however, this became unnecessary because Nene always had food ready for her siblings when they came home and she generally had the home front under control.
She hardly kept any friends so when Nene informed her mother that she would like to join the youth fellowship of their church she readily agreed. Her parents felt that it was healthy for her to mix up with young people of the same age in a morally sound atmosphere as would be expected from a church.
It was in church that Nene met Pascal. They became good friends and since he was also getting ready to take JAMB, they often studied together. Mama Nene had seen them together twice and on both occassions, Pascal was seeing Nene home from church. Nothing seemed to be amiss so no questions were asked.
The date for her post-JAMB screening exam came and Nene went to write the exam. Her parents suggested that she should go to the village to stay for a while with her grandma who needed some company. Nene stayed with grandma for three and a half months before returning to Lagos.
The Nene that returned from Abia state seemed visibly changed. Her face shone unusually and she had added a considerable amount of weight. She laughed whenever anyone pointed out this obvious fact saying that her grandma pumped her with too much food.
Mama Nene was rather pleased that her daughter had put on some flesh something she had been trying to do for her for a long time. The slight bulge of Nene's abdomen went unnoticed.
Upon her return, Nene threw herself into church activities more than ever before. She often left the house early in the morning and returned when it was quite dark. Mama Nene began to complain because Nene began to leave undone her house chores and her siblings without a proper meal.
Abigail failed to tell me exactly how it all went down but at five months surely it was becoming increasingly difficult for Nene to hide her bump.Her parents found out and cries of woe could be heard from their apartment that morning.Nene confirmed that Pascal was responsible and immediately Papa Nene, his fury very evident, dashed out of the house with a matchete, he was headed straight for Pascal's parents house, Nene and Mama Nene in tow.
Pascal denied ever having anything to do with Nene but Nene insisted that he was responsible. Nene and her parents returned to their apartment determined to hide their shame. That same night, Pascal and his parents came to see Papa Nene full of apologies. Their son had confessed saying he denied Nene out of fear. Pascal had also just turned sixteen. They were both evidently children and Papa Pascal wanted to know what Papa Nene wanted them to do.
It was that same night that Nene opened up to her mother. Her father didn't even want to look at her face let alone hear her voice.
Pascal had often come to the house so that they could both study. Nene swore that it was only once that they had sex. When Abigail said this, I told her that I believed Nene. She said her mother did too.
It happened two weeks before she left for Abia for her exam.
She started suspecting that she was pregnant when it seemed that her period was taking too long in coming. She usually did not take note of the dates but when she was half way through the second month, she was sure that she was pregnant. She often violently threw up most of what she ate and her grandma took her to a nearby chemist to procure malaria drugs.
She called Pascal to inform him of her status and after blubbering at first that they were in trouble he promised to send her some money so she could terminate it. How he came by the money, Nene did not know but in less than five days, Pascal had sent her fifteen thousand naira.
Scared and alone, Nene went into the city to look for clinics where she could have an abortion. All three of them said the same thing. "It is too late. If you abort the baby now, you might die."
She cried and cried her heart out and was scared to return to Lagos. But she did and used church as a cover to hide the pregnancy.She had neither spoken to or seen Pascal until that morning when he denied her before both their families. Nene had told Pascal that morning that she never wanted to see him again.
By the time her narrative was over, Nene and her mother were in tears.
Mama Nene looked at her baby and felt so sorry that she had gone through all that alone. She felt ashamed that she hadn't been more observant.She saw as if for the first time how her daughter had changed. Not physically, even though that was obvious but she saw that Nene had somehow grown up in the space of a few months. There was a maturity about her, an invisble halo of strength, the kind that could only have come from carrying such a heavy burden alone. From private suffering.
Mama Nene also felt sorry for herself. That at barely forty years of age, she would be a grandmother. If the circumstances had been different, she might have even felt some pride. How was she going to tell her neighbours and her fellow market women when the baby arrived, that the baby she was caring for belonged to her young unwed daughter?
The crying was over and both women began to make plans for the baby. Nene had gone too long without ante-natal care and that was a good place to start. The doctor said that mother and child were fine but Nene did not understand why her mother suddenly burst out in tears in the middle of one of the classes. The head nurse had to politely ask her to leave. She did the same thing for three consecutive classes and Nene had to ask her mother not to bother accompanying her anymore.
Mama Nene became a shadow of herself and Papa Nene grew increasingly furious everytime he laid his eyes on his daughter. He slapped her once when she served his food. He said the plates were not properly aligned in the food tray. Nene had never taken notice of the plate alignment all her years of serving her father until then.
Soon arrangements were made and Nene was to go stay with her dad's sister, Pamela on the other side of town. They could not risk the entire neighbourhood finding out about their secret. Tongues had already started wagging but they were mere rumours. No need giving them any more substantiating evidence.
As Mama Nene turned to say her good-byes after dropping Nene off at Auntie Pamela's place, Nene held her mother's hands and with tears brimming in her eyes, she said...
"Mummy, I know I have disappointed you and daddy. I am ashamed of myself. I see the way you have become so sad and depressed because of me. Mummy please do not worry yourself sick, if you died of stress or hypertension, what will I do?
Even though I am paying the price for my mistake now, I promise you ma that I will still be the woman I was born to be. If you will just help me in taking care of this child, I will go to school and pick up the thread of my life from where I left it. I will still make you and daddy proud. God has forgiven me. Mummy please forgive me too and give me your blessings".
They held each other and cried while Nene's auntie looked on with sympathy. Mama Nene told Abigail later that night while she narrated the story that she was touched by her daughter's speech.So touched indeed that for the first time she felt that the situation was not that hopeless. That there was a huge possibility thats something good could come out of all of this.
My vision was blurred with the tears that filled my eyes as Abigail concluded her narrative. I was touched with the feeling of Nene's heavy burden. I cried also because I wondered if there was nothing I could have said to her during all those hours we spent talking that would have turned her away from the path she eventually took. I felt I had not been emphatic enough to warn her about little games young people play that could change their lives for ever. It angered me that the boy in question could conveniently stand apart from it all while Nene took the entire brunt of their mistake. My pillow was wet with my tears that night. Sleep eluded me.
My Nene, my little Nene has been forced to grow up in this manner because of a few minutes of indiscretion.Somehow, I too felt that all hope was not lost for her.If I had had the chance to see her before she was shipped off,I would have told her the very same words she said to her mother. That the story of her life need not end here but out of all this shame, she could rise again and become the woman she was born to be.
I guess I would just wait and see how it all plays out. Please join me in saying a prayer for Nene.
** -- I started working on this post last month.
PS: I just confirmed that Nene had her beautiful baby girl a few days ago.
Pascal's family took care of all the hospital bills and they're paying a stipend monthly for the upkeep of the baby.
Mama Nene has insisted on caring for the child herself.