Silence is What You Owe The World
In 2008, I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s, Half of A Yellow Sun. By the reading of that novel, many things were revealed to me chief of which was a recognition of how my world saw me: a woman. I would not claim that I gained profound knowledge or insight to life from this novel, but a window was opened into my own life. In the probing intensity of a courageous young voice through the pages of this novel, I turned on the light into my past. I summoned the liver to look boldly into the shadows and chose to see what I had turned my gaze from, far too often and for too many times.
The first person I saw was Eka. I was ten years old, four years younger than Eka. She was a servant to my friend Sarah’s family. Sarah and I were neighbors and lived across the street from each other. Sarah was closer to Eka’s age, so we all played games together, shared our chores sometimes although Eka always had to do more than was required of us because she was the servant. Eka’s parents were poor and could not afford to take care of all their children, so they sent Eka’ their oldest daughter off to the city when she was just ten years old to work as a live in servant for Sarah’s family. Eka was expected to cook, clean and care for younger children in Sarah’s home. In exchange, Sarah’s family was expected to house, feed and pay a monthly salary directly to Eka’s family.
A good education was not part of the bargain for Eka. While at ten years old, I was already away at a private secondary school, Eka had been forced to drop out of the public elementary school; her formal education took too time away from her work and Sarah’s family could not accommodate this inconvenience. During my first holiday from school, Sarah, Eka and I hung out together, but things were different this time. Eka had many questions about what I was learning in school, I taught her a few things, but it became frustrating when she could not keep up. It was always a great relief when the clock turned to 4pm and we could turn on the TV to watch Sesame Street which was always the first program to kick off the evening on our local TV station.
One day, Eka became sick, her body became extremely hot. All the adults had gone to work and there was no one to help us. Then she started throwing up and holding her stomach and moaning. Sweat fell from her forehead. I soaked a towel in water and sponged her body the way I had seen my mother, a nurse, sponge down her patients. Luckily for everyone, Sarah’s father came home unexpectedly from work and drove Eka and I to the hospital.
In our community at that time, patients were admitted to the hospital only with a family member or friend coming in tow to take care of the sick. The clinical staff would provide clinical care but the family care giver will be responsible for taking care of other needs including basics like bed change to more serious interventions like buying medications from the pharmacy to be administered to the sick.I am not sure why I was the person designated to go to the hospital with Eka, but I ended up being with her in the hospital.
At the hospital, we went through registration and Eka was admitted. Sarah’s father waited a few minutes and spoke to the nurses at Eka’s bedside then left to get back to work and promised to come back to check on her progress as soon as possible. When he left, the nurses abandoned us. Eka kept vomiting and crying. She writhed in pain and begged the nurses and I to help her. Eventually, a doctor came over and examined her. He touched her stomach and she cried out in pan, he then lifted her dress and checked her private parts and she screamed. He dropped her dress and shook his head; then he said:
“Tell us the truth so we can help you”.
And Eka replied “Please sir, I am telling the truth. Help me sir”.
Dr: “If you do not tell us the truth, we will not be able to help you. You know what you have done. I have no time to waste. Tell us the truth”
Eka kept crying and begging the doctor to help her and she insisted that she was telling the truth. I also cried and begged him to help her. I had no idea what truth was to be told. All I knew was that my friend was sick and in pain. She needed help. The doctor walked away.
Twenty years later; I read “Half of A Yellow Sun”.
I had approached the book as a regular nonfiction writing, just a novel for my reading entertainment. I had selected it because it was a best seller. I had paid no attention to the reviews. So, I lunged at the book as one would gulp down a Coca-Cola to down a nice lunch of burger and fries. Unthinking, unnoticed, just focused on the satisfaction of the fizz. The first chapter showed me that I was not dealing with carbonized sugar water but a hard-punching bullet proof bottle of vodka. I slowed down. Made it to half the book and then stopped reading.
It was then that I took time to read the reviews on this novel; Half of A Yellow Sun. Apparently, it had been published to great literary acclaim. Every critic had glowing words. The NPR has the review closest to my reaction to the novel: “Adichie is far too young for us to declare that she’s the Tolstoy of West Africa… but she’s as good as any of her contemporaries, who are a talented lot indeed, at keeping our interest in a part of the world that most of us have never visited — until now”.
It is possible that Eka died of a botched abortion.
After the doctor walked away, nobody else came to help Eka. Neither her screams nor my tears could summon help and slowly her screams weakened to moans and my tears dried as I resumed sponging her body with the wet towel. Eventually, she complained of being cold and I stopped sponging and covered her up with a wrapper to help warm her. I was not sure what else to do and it was a relief when my mother came. She brought some food for Eka and took me home. I did not want to leave Eka alone at the hospital, but my mother said that we had done the best as neighbors and it was time for Sarah’s family to step up. I remember in the evening of the next day, Sarah told me that Eka had died in the hospital and her body had been taken to her village for burial.
There is no mention of abortion in Half of a Yellow Sun. It is a story of love bearing all and conquering all during the Nigerian-Biafran war. It is set in a period that ranges from 1967 to 1970. A period when my mother was in her early twenties, a school of nursing student and then a field nurse, first for the Biafrans and later for the Nigerians when they liberated the South eastern State. My father was at that time an Engineering student at the University of Nsukka, he had to end his studies due to the war but returned to get his degree immediately after. My parents lived through the war, they met a few years after the war and started their family. My parents and family members told us stories of the war when we were growing up. The horrors of hunger and killing. Of alliances and saboteurs. Of Ojukwu fleeing and leaving Colonel Effiong alone to surrender to the Nigerians. Of Awolowo employing the food embargo that led to the use of starvation as a weapon of war. Of Kwashiorkor and people eating lizards for protein. Yet in all this telling; the first time I encountered the word “rape” in connection with the war, was in the reading of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Eka died of a botched abortion.
I felt myself drenched and the hot liquid running down my face could have been tears or sweat or both. I saw the horror that I had looked away from, a frightened child, left alone to die by an uncaring world. It is possible that Eka was raped. We might never know by whom, but that person was so powerful and fearsome to Eka that even at death’s door, she never mentioned his name. That person was so selfish that he procured an illegal abortion for this child by whatever unhealthy means; concoction of drugs, beating, insertion of sharp objects into her womb to dislodge the fetus, myriad of methods that have been used over the ages to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy, this powerful person might have procured them for this child or forced this child to try them and through the entire process; he used his power to steal her voice and her life.
There were adults looking on. The hospital just needed a confession of an attempted abortion. There is no reason to believe that they would have made any attempt to save Eka’s life. A confession would have just added gossip to the rumor mill on which powerful person had impregnated a servant. I wonder, why it was so easy for them to walk away from her pain and her life. It is not because she was a sinner? Some sinners are spared. The sin is not the act. It is being caught. My aunties had taught me the significance of my menstrual periods and gave me the name of a reliable doctor who could “restore my regular flow” if for any reason that red spot did not show up after I might cancelled up to 5 days on the calendar from its expected date. It was drilled into me that if I was late by five days, I was to be sure to visit the doctor and never ever wait past 14 days. I received these admonitions and information on my way to college at sixteen. A young girl can live down a lot of scandals, but a child born out of wedlock is a daily reminder of one’s transgressions. A living evidence whose existence was the ultimate sin. A sin that destroys the mother and is a curse on the child. Better one life destroyed than two.
Eka was a girl of no means so her life did not count for much. Her existence was unworthy of note. There was no mourning at her passing. Her name was spoken in whispers for a few days and quickly buried and not ever mentioned thereafter. Her last moments were carefully orchestrated to be one of loneliness and shame. She bore the burden of guilt and the suffering of death; her most important contribution to the world was her silence that protected the name of a powerful man.