I looked out through the narrow window of our thatched mud house, the rain was heavy, cascading onto the sandy ground in a heavy downpour. It seeped into the soil, forming puddles of wet brown clay that flowed in no particular direction on our bare compound.
Across the streaks of rain that clouded my vision lay another thatched hut that held Habibah. I could barely hear her cries now, the rain that begun swallowed her wails in pregnant drops and thunder growls, but Sumayyah was with her, and so was the village midwife.
I fell back onto the bamboo bed. My slender arms wrapped my legs to my chest and I pinned my chin down to my knees; ashy and bruised from climbing the village trees.
My father was anxious. He tried to hide his worry by continuously dipping masa into the yaji set before him on his mat but his nervousness glared, even as he chewed. We sat there in silence, waiting, with unspoken fear between us.
I looked away from my father back to the lean window, the rain outside was dying down to weak showers. As I stared outside, my eyes caught the oil lamp in the distance, half-buried in the ground, next to our maize farm. Plump drops of rainwater were still tapping onto it, father would be so upset! I thought.
I wondered who left the precious oil lamp out in the rain and what our father would do when he finds out. As these thoughts temporarily occupied my mind, my mother’s high-pitched scream rang through into my ears.
I jumped to the window and held onto its wooden frame. The door to the hut was still shut and all I could see from my window was the clay walls of her hut and the rainwater around its base. I was still holding onto the window’s frame when the cry of a baby; sharp and piercing rang through into the compound. My father jolted to his feet and lifted his hands into the air, instantly praising the name of Allah.
Just then, Sumayyah stepped out of my mother’s hut. With her Jilbaab securely protecting her from the drizzles emptying themselves from the sky, she dropped her head and ran towards us. I jumped down from the bed to hold the rickety door open for her, and my father followed behind me.
“Mai gida,” she regarded my father when she approached us, “It’s a boy!” she announced.
My father beamed with joy and nodded in acknowledgment.
I was smiling up at both adults and they continued to converse over me. He inquired about my mother’s health and when Sumayyah responded in the affirmative, he began to make his way after her, towards the hut to see my mother and I hopped, giggly beside him.
We stepped into the hut. The village midwife on seeing us congratulated father and handed the newborn to him. My delighted father lowered his head down to the baby’s right ear and in a voice only audible to the baby, he called the Adhan.
Father picked a dry date and following the Tahneek, he softened it with his teeth, patted it onto his finger then rubbed it on the palate of the newborn, starting from the left side of his mouth to the right.
My tired mother Habibah, who was actually my father’s third wife watched all these from her bed with a weak smile.
The news of my brother’s birth spread quickly through the village and as soon as the sun came out; casting slanted beams of light across the meadow, family relatives trooped in to greet Habibah.
On the seventh day after the birth of the baby, our father named him Gowon Ibrahim – because he was born on a rainy day.
The men that came in the morning witnessed as our father perform the Aqeeqah for the newborn; two rams were slaughtered, thereafter his hair was shaved and he was circumcised.
Later that evening, the women came in large numbers, adorned in colorful Abayas and Hijabs, carrying gifts of wrappers and varying personal items for Habibah. Her family came too with tubers of yam, cassava, jewelry, and household items packed in large baskets.
Everyone was happy, everyone but Habibah.
My father married Habibah shortly after the passing of my mother – his second wife. As the third and last child of my mother, Habibah took a peculiar liking to me. She grew fond of me and groomed me like I was born of her.
Everywhere she went, she took me with her. I was always by her side so it was hard to tell that I was not actually her son. Our father regarded all his wives and children with love and insisted upon unity, while the first wife – Sumayyah, and the rest of my siblings lived cordially, I particularly enjoyed preferential treatment from Habibah.
She was eighteen when our father married her and I was going on thirteen and the youngest of all eight children so perhaps it was only natural that she and I bonded so evenly.
Habibah was a lively woman; easy to please, quick to smile and ever-ready to apologize. Her most often used word was ‘ba damuwa’ meaning, no problem. She would avoid trouble with everyone, was pleasant and indeed loved by my father so when her lively nature swayed and stayed withdrawn after the birth of Gowon, I was quick to sense it.
At first, I thought she was merely tired from the vigorous process of childbirth especially as it was her first, but even as the days went by; sunrise after sunrise, market day after market day, she remained distant. Sumayyah took charge over Gowon as was natural in her position as the first and most experienced wife to do: she bathed him, clothed him, pacified him, and usually returned him to Habibah only when it was time for him to feed.
Yet in all these, Habibah would lie on the mat in her hut, completely wrapped in her Jilbaab. She refused to play with the family, most times she refused to eat, not even if it were her favorite meal; Tuwo Shinkafa. Sumayyah noticed this new change in her behavior too and she soon reported it to our father.
One Friday during Jum’ah, as we all performed the Sajdah, my eyes caught Habibah crying while our heads were still pinned to the mat. I reported this to my father and when he visited her hut after prayers, I was not there to pick up on their conversation but Habibah did not get better, sometimes it was almost as if she hated Gowon.
She was constantly in a foul mood, irritated and restless too, I doubted if she got any sleep at night. There was an obvious disconnection between her and the baby and by the time Gowon clocked three months in age, Habibah had lost a considerable amount of weight.
Father was worried, we all were. Father called the Imam who came to pray for Habibah and encourage her heart. But even soon after that, she did not get better. I who was once a favorite of hers was now treated like a stranger.
I went about with my childish ways; playing in the sand with my brothers and sisters and getting into trouble around the village, but no matter how far off into the village I wandered or how long I was gone, I returned home to meet Habiba in the same sunken state.
The time came for me to return to secondary school which was in a neighboring town so I bade my family goodbye and went off to school.
While in school, news came from home that Habibah had tried to drown herself in the village stream. I was wounded to hear this; images haunted my head and I racked my mind as to what the source of her sorrow could be. Father loved her, Sumayyah was kind to her so where was the problem coming from?
I was so distracted with worry that my Biology teacher; master Ibrahim took notice and invited me into his shared office building.
I sat across from him with his high rustic wooden desk between us. The office which was an open space with arranged desks and attached wooden chairs for each teacher smelled of old books and was full of activity. Teachers came in and went out, chairs dragged across the cemented floor. Three students on their knees with hands up in the air had eyes that pleaded for mercy.
Exhausted voices of teachers rented the air, hearty laughter could be heard above some hushed conversations and my eyes regarded my legs, covered with white knee-high socks that had brown patches with holes at the feet, concealed in my rubber sandals.
“I am worried about my mother,” I finally responded to master Ibrahim. His mellow yet worried voice had convinced me to tell him, why unlike me, I was at a loss during his class, “There is problem at home…”
He folded his hands on the desk and leaned forward, “Tell me, what is the problem?”
With my eyes still fixated on my feet, avoiding his face as a sign of respect, I told him about Habibah’s troubles since the arrival of Gowon.
“Sounds like a PPD,” he commented and my head shot up to behold his gaze.
PPD, I didn’t know what it meant but it sounded like hope to my ears.
“Many people focus on the newborn child without paying adequate attention to the mother’s emotional state after a child’s birth. From all you’ve said it’s likely a postpartum depression,” he concluded.
My eyes blinked in awe – there was a term for it.
“In worst instances, some mothers commit suicide but that is in worst instances,” he emphasized with a shrug. “I suggest she sees a medical doctor, one should be able to help her.”
I was at a loss of what to say yet, excited to hear that there was a solution to Habibah’s problem at all.
“I have a doctor friend in the city, in Lafia, he can counsel her and even prescribe some medications.”
I felt like jumping to embrace master Ibrahim but I didn’t do that, instead, I thanked him and felt a huge relief in my heart.
I sent news home to our father as quickly as I could about what master Ibrahim had said. Our father who although was a local herdsman with no education yet believed in the power of education and insisted that all his sons went to school, listened to master Ibrahim’s counsel, and thereafter arranged for a journey to Lafia with Habibah.
News reached me that father and Habibah met with the doctor in Lafia and that Habibah had started receiving treatment.
Over a month later, when my school called for a break, I traveled home to our village.
The first sight that greeted my eyes as I strode into my father’s compound was Habibah, chuckling in her flowing dress and matching hijab as she chased an energetic Gowon who was crawling away from her in the sand, as fast as he could.
“Barka da Gida!” she said animatedly as she sighted me. I hastened to them, scooped Gowon from the ground, and threw him happily in the air; he had grown so much. My brothers and sisters all ran out to form a circle around me, each embracing me at once.
I looked above them to Habibah’s smiling face, she looked happy, renewed even…
“Yaya kike?” I asked her, above the noise and chatter of my siblings hovering around me.
“Ina lafiya” she chuckled then added, “Ba damuwa.”
Hausa words & English meanings:
Mai Gida – Master.
Jilbaab – A long and loose-fit garment, worn by Muslim women.
Hijab – head covering worn in public by some Muslim women.
Masa, yaji – A traditional delicious Hausa meal.
Adhan – Islamic call to prayer.
Jum’ah – Islamic Friday prayer.
Sajdah – prostration to God.
Barka da Gida – Welcome Home
Yaya Kike – How are you.
Ina lafiya – I am fine.Follow