Where the Grass is Greener by Ibrahim Babátúndé Ibrahim
It was the first week in a new academic session. The faculty of law was a buzzing hive of new and returning students, all dressed in black and white, according to the official faculty dress code. Tawakalitu stood out of the multitude, also dressed in black and white, albeit in native attire—white bùbá and black ìró, with a towering black gèlè—a joke to most of the other students. At first, she thought it was the height of her gèlè, but the laughs hardly subsided even after she replaced it with her hijab. It wasn’t only her first time in the city. In fact, it was her first time away from her small, ancient village in Kwara State.
The other students laughed when she pushed on the knob of the tap instead of twisting it, and when she put aside the cutleries and drove her fingers in her plate of soup at the cafeteria. They laughed when she pressed her ears to the ATM to make out what the person inside was saying, and every time she knocked on car doors at the taxi park, waiting for someone from within to open.
On her fourth day on campus, while she stood in line waiting her turn for a taxi at the park, a mild drama caught her attention. A young man who wore his hair in locks was pushing at a crying lady. Her makeup smudged, she was pleading and clutching at him while he kept jerking his arm, trying to shake her loose from his sleeve.
Tawakalitu had seen this lady before. While marveling at the tall buildings in the school on her first day, she bumped into a scantily dressed lady in a low-necked top and faded denim shorts. She found it weird that the cold harmattan morning had shivers running through her body, but this person had most of her body unclad. She had been quick to apologize, but the lady waved it off like it was nothing.
Here was the same lady again at the park. Her hair was a mess, and tears had her face wet and glistening as she begged the agitated locked-hair man.
Tawakalitu watched the spectacle, just like everybody else. Her pulse raced in a fury, seeing that no one seemed to have a problem with the young man treating a woman with such aggression in public.
“I will slap you o,” the young man warned. “If you come near me, you idiot!”
Everyone watched the show. Some held up their phones, capturing the moment.
“You punched your number into his phone, didn’t you?” he continued. “I saw you! You did! Unbelievable!”
The lady’s wailing grew louder. She pleaded and clutched at his clothes.
“I will slap you o.”
He pushed, and she staggered backwards. She stepped forward and reached for him again, and his waving palm caught her wholly on the cheek.
She stopped and placed her palm to the side of her cheek, her eyes wide in shock. Before she could recover, he grabbed and shoved her to the ground.
The small crowd in the park came alive. A section cheered, saying she got what she deserved. Another disapproved, saying the boy had taken it too far.
In the confusion, Tawakalitu snuck up and planted a light tap on the young man’s shoulder. His locks swayed as he turned to face her. His face ran into a battering, caught by a series of powerful jabs from her lightning fists.
More cameras appeared as she stood over the dazed man like a proud hunter with her dead game. Her white bùbá, black ìró, and velvety hijab became more popular after that.
Nobody ever laughed at her again, and she even became friends with the lady, Aminat—Natty, to her friends.
Natty let Tawakalitu move in with her at no cost and guided the newbie through school. Tawakalitu sunk into Natty’s lush bed whenever she laid on it. It was nothing like the bare floor of the school mosque where she had slept for the first couple of days.
Natty showed Tawakalitu the ways of the city, and she quickly learned how to navigate it like the rest of the locals. Natty’s tutelage excited her, but it never got beneath the cocoon of iman and her strict upbringing guiding her conduct.
When Natty talked about men, an overpowering sense of shyness always crawled over and held her. The two ladies had different mindsets, as far apart as two extremes of a continuum. Tawakalitu’s unbreached virginity contrasted Natty’s body count, so high that the actual number remained lost even to her.
“Small boys are immature,” Natty advised while pulling a brush through her hair.
“The older men are the real deal. They don’t call the enjoyment of your body love like the small boys. They give you good money, take you to beautiful places and spoil you silly. Abeg, which one better pass?”
“Eh ehn?” Tawakalitu said, nodding in amazement.
“Yes o. How do you think I get the money to live like this and look this pretty, Babe? Sebi I told you I’m also from a village. How do you think I’m funding my trip to Dubai next week? You think it’s from my school fees?”
She indeed was from a village, not too far from Tawakalitu’s. She came to the city, an innocent, undiluted, naïve, little Muslim girl too. She told tales of her first year and how she too had struggled to get in tune with this place before eventually becoming a pro at it.
Tawakalitu re-lived her own experience in her mind. Coming to the city to attend university was only a wishful dream until that evening when the Imam’s lips parted to sound off her name, announcing her as the winner of the mosque’s fully funded scholarship. This was great news, though her parents had been nursing other plans.
Who wastes such a huge amount of money on someone who would eventually become the master of another man’s kitchen, suckling, and backing his babies, when instead they could just continue to groom her and wait for a suitor to someday walk in and pay a handsome price on her head? At eighteen, she was just the right age.
Getting to and trying to adapt to the city was a different story.
From strange hairstyles; long, curved, and multi-colored nails; long, bushy eyelashes; smooth and shiny made-up faces; and painted lips on the ladies; to plaited, locked and dyed hair, and sometimes earrings on the men, it was all very different from the village. She couldn’t understand why the ladies cared little about covering up or why the men drove their motos past with the volume of the music turned so loud, seizing the atmosphere, and forcing everyone to listen with them to their gbu gbu gbu songs.
The place was more interesting than the village, yes, but the strangeness of the people was unsettling. They stared, stared, and stared—eyes boring into her from everywhere when she walked past. Nobody was trying to show her the right way when she goofed. Rather, they laughed out loud and infected other people with their mockery.
They laughed at everything, from the steps in her stride to her accented English. She was the butt of many jokes, until that fateful afternoon at the car park and the friendship with Natty that birthed from it.
“You look nothing like a fillage geh sha,” Tawakalitu said to Natty.
“That’s the idea, Babe. We all come from different small villages, but once we are here, we drop our local names like this Tawakalitu you’re clinging to and adopt nicer ones like the Tatyana I’ve been asking you to adopt.”
The idea sounded interesting, but the core of Tawakalitu’s inner person reminded her that she could never truly forge out of her true form. She knew these strange leanings really were her father’s fear, but she could never abandon the good examples of the virtuous women in the Quran. If only he trusted her.
Natty was going to sit in an airplane in a week, and this also was a wish very close to Tawakalitu’s heart. If she agreed to call a man Natty spoke to her about, she could sit in an airplane too, but no, she wouldn’t. God willing, one day, she too would fly in one of those big, noisy birds, even if it’s just for Hajj.
“Haff you efer thought of marrying; settling down?” Tawakalitu asked with animated curiosity.
Natty gave a sarcastic laugh and walked away. Tawakalitu tried to ask again, but she dodged the question each time and was soon off to Dubai.
When she returned, there were boxes and boxes of goodies. Tawakalitu chewed on different types of sokolate as Natty chatted away about her memorable trip.
Jealousy had Tawakalitu green all over. She replayed it all in her mind just as narrated; only she replaced Natty with herself in her version.
“Where’d you get this?” Natty’s question pulled her out of her daydream to see Natty holding up a shiny white flute with a red ribbon around its neck.
“It was by the door yestaday when I arrife from school, with a sealed note. I think an admirer levt it for you.”
Natty picked up the note and after examining it, sighed. “It is Bariu, my first toaster. We were friends in my first year when I was a village girl like you. I loved him, but he is just too boring and has no money.”
“If you loff ‘im, these other things shouldn’t matter, you know.”
“Going back to him now would be hard,” she replied in a resigned tone.
“Hao is that?”
“Do you remember that idiot you saved me from at the park?”
Tilting her head to one side, she nodded and continued to listen.
“Bariu caught me in bed with him. He was pained but was willing to take me back if I would marry him. I stupidly picked the idiot over him. He has hated me since then. I’m not sure why he sent this, but I’m sure he won’t be sending anymore gifts if I tell him I’ve graduated to older men now.”
Tawakalitu breathed a sigh and nodded again.
“You can have the flute if you want. I have no use for it,” the words trailed Natty as she walked out of the room.
“Hao about the note?” Tawakalitu asked after her.
“You can have that too.”
Here Tawakalitu was, still waiting patiently to have someone, anyone, tell her hi, while Natty turned down even the one she claimed to love.
Curiosity seized her. She tore open the note and its content crept a daze over her face.
I’m so sorry to disturb you, but the thought would continue to disturb me if I do not bare my mind to you.
It’s my fourth year in this school, and I’ve seen many like you—young, pretty, undiluted Yoruba beauties. But soon after they arrive here, they change their names and start to become more city than the city itself.
It is mid-semester and you’re still donning your white and black bùbá and ìró to class, and your hijab is still shielding your hair. Your nails are still unpainted, and your lashes are as free as a feathered hand-fan.
You whistled a nice tune to yourself in class the other night. It was low, but I was close enough to hear it was prayers for the Prophet (S.A.W.).
I whistle too, and I’ve since grown into playing the flute. I hope you might be interested in that too. If you need someone to teach you, I’ll gladly be available.
The bottom line is I’d love to be your friend.
If you bring the flute to reading class tomorrow, I’ll take it as a yes. If you don’t, I’ll respect your refusal and stay away.
I’m patiently at the mercy of your decision.
She stood rooted to the ground with the note loosely atop her shaky fingers; a hoard of butterflies rumbling in her belly and her head floating in the clouds.
She told Natty about it later, but first, that night, she left for night reading class with nothing but the flute in her hand. She sat proudly at her usual spot, waiting for her ‘Prince Bariu’ to emerge on a glorious white horse and whisk her away to happily ever after. There was no horse when he came eventually. She did not even hear him arrive. He slipped into the seat next to her from the shadows surrounding the dim light of the class, his shiny black flute clutched in his grip, and a childish grin fluttering on his handsome face.
His lips parted, starting to say something. She held his gaze and waited for the words, but nothing came out. He blinked and looked down at his flute, still grinning. She could see light trembles running through his fingers.
He looked nothing like the city boys in his ànkàrá bùbá and ṣó̩ró̩, and a fìlà abetí-ajá to match, but very much like the familiar ones she left behind in the village. She was sure she had seen him before.
She turned in her seat, so her whole body was facing him, and said, “Salam alaykum.”
“Wa alaykum salam,” he said shyly, still looking down. “I’m sorry; I honestly didn’t think you’d come. I’m still short of words.”
“Well, you can sayf the words vor later. Let’s leafe the class, because me, I’m hia to learn hao to play the vlute.”
Natty hadn’t exactly taken the news of Tawakalitu’s relationship with Bariu well when it started. At first, she said it was fine, but then one of her sugar daddies dumped her the next morning after Tawakalitu broke the news. She changed her tune after that, accusing Tawakalitu of betraying their friendship.
Tawakalitu decided to tell Bariu that it couldn’t work between them, and then, Natty was singing a different tune again, saying she was only acting out the frustration of her breakup and didn’t mean what she said. She gave the relationship her blessing and even appointed herself as a relationship guide for Tawakalitu at times.
About a year later, after Bariu had graduated, he and Tawakalitu had a beautiful Nikkah. She was in her second year of five.
She had to deal with occasional accusations of betrayal whenever one of Natty’s relationships hit a rock. She became used to it. She had experienced Bariu, gotten to love him deeply, and so she learned not to allow Natty’s fluctuations get to her or affect what she shared with her husband.
Despite this, school was many more years of overseas travel for Natty, and many more years of jealousy for Tawakalitu. Benefactors struggled to outdo themselves for Natty. The world kissed the tips of her toes. Tawakalitu had the best man in Bariu, but the grass always seemed greener on Natty’s side.
One time, in Natty’s final year, she was beaten up badly, and Tawakalitu thought she had it coming. The children of her Dubai sugar daddy came to town, waylaid her and taught her a lesson: if their mother was too busy battling cancer to care, they would take it upon themselves to help her battle the rest of her problems.
Natty had to live in a hospital bed for over a week, her head swollen and laced in stitches.
She laughed so hard some months after when she called with the news that the sugar daddy had proposed. Cancer finally claimed his wife, and he was going to make her his new wife. She moved away from the small city into his mansion in the much bigger city of Lagos. Lucky baskad, Tawakalitu thought.
Jealousy’s green coat stayed stuck on her back because even though she was happy and at peace with Bariu, things were really tough. Bariu’s job closed after a robbery occurred there and claimed three lives.
Tawakalitu had a son already, born in her third year, and this made things tougher. Natty didn’t want kids yet. They would ruin the fun, she said.
To make matters worse, while Tawakalitu struggled to prepare for her final exam prior to graduation, she started to throw up and swallow back much saliva—another pregnancy.
Pregnant and broke, she sat on one end of the phone, asking Natty for help on the other. Natty would let her have some money but not without berating her for the pregnancy first. “It is stupid o, to get pregnant again before you’ve even finished saving enough to care for the first one.”
Tawakalitu coated her dry tongue with saliva, rolled it around in her mouth before swallowing with the lump of pride wedged in her throat.
“After this one, come let me give you the medication I’m using. It seals up the place, so you can have all the fun you want until you’re ready…”
All through the phone-call, Tawakalitu pushed back the lava building up in her. She kept it festering in her nauseous gut until she could spew it all over poor Bariu. It was Thursday, so he was fasting as usual. He made nothing of her anger and reassured her that Allah would answer both their prayers soon.
The research for Tawakalitu’s final project meant she spent a lot of time on the internet, and there she discovered a world of possibilities. She had signed Bariu up to a recruitment website, and already, they found him an opening. It was just one week after when he received a call up to a job interview in Lagos.
The job came with a big house, a car, a driver, a fat salary and a lot more. Maybe they both could even afford to pay for Hajj and sit in an airplane together. The only problem was how to get to Lagos. So, again she looked up Natty’s number on her phone and pressed on the green button. Only this time, it went unanswered.
Bariu made ablution and climbed onto his mat to ask God for help.
After Jumat service the next day, Tawakalitu rushed from the women’s section to find Bariu, her face bubbling with excitement. The Imam had announced a bus would be leaving for the Lekki Central Mosque in Lagos, and there were empty spaces for interested members of the congregation.
“This is Allah’s answer to our prayers,” Bariu said.
When the bus left Lagos on Sunday morning, it carried members who had fulfilled their reasons for going to Lagos. Tawakalitu hadn’t, so she and her family stayed back at the Lekki Central Mosque.
Monday morning seemed a little too distant, but it crawled in eventually, and just when Bariu planted a goodbye kiss on Tawakalitu’s forehead before heading to his interview, her phone dinged.
It was a message from Natty: My husbnd is dead! Am finishd!
The words morphed into a mountain of shock for both her and him, but he had to leave for the interview.
Tawakalitu was soon out with her boy strapped to her back, tracing the address Natty sent after she called to console her.
She walked from street to street, checking her phone for the address.
Although she carried the sorrow of her friend’s loss in her heart, she drooled at how much the place made her small city look like an upscale slum, with the sizes and remarkable architecture of the houses here.
Several seconds after she paused to take in the most beautiful home she’d seen, the number pasted on the wall snapped her out of her drool when she suddenly realized it was the same one on Natty’s address.
The compound was opulent, decorated with all kinds of exotic cars sitting idly on the lawn, a large speedboat wedged between them. It had trees shooting very high into the sky, and a lush carpet of green interrupted in places by tiled pavements cascading the ground.
Natty only traifed wea the grass is greener than the rest, she reminded herself.
At the entrance to the main building was a large portrait of the dead man, a huge gold chain beaming from his neck and a big smile stretching the corners of his face to reveal a set of big, bright teeth. He looked every inch more alive than everyone else standing around.
After finding a space to scribble a note among the sea of messages in the register, Tawakalitu rushed in to find her friend nestled on the biggest chair in the room, wearing a black, flowing, satin gown, a black veil wrapped around her head, partially concealing her swollen face. There were a few other people seated. Just like Tawakalitu, they had come to offer their condolences.
As they hugged, she pressed Natty close to her. She could feel her friend’s sobs shaking her entire body. They both lowered themselves onto the big chair. Tawakalitu’s little boy settled next to her.
“My vriend, I can’t beliff this.”
“Chief’s heart failed, Tawa,” Natty’s quivering voice managed to say.
“I’m so sorry. He’s Kristen, right? What are the arrangements and hao can I be of ‘epp?”
Her wet eyes brightened a little. Talking just a little above a whisper, she said, “Nothing scares me more than the arrangements.”
“Because I’m dead meat as I’m sitting here. You told me to get pregnant o, I refused.”
“Oh... Does that avect anything?”
“Of course, it does, you idiot! If I don’t have a child from him, how do I get to inherit any of these? I sealed up my place, remember?”
“Remember his kids that came to beat me up in school?” she continued. “They live in America, and they are on their way back to Nigeria as we speak. Do you imagine they won’t throw me out when they arrive?”
“Don’t be like that, Natty. At leas’ you guys wea legally married.”
“Yes, we were, and all I have to back it up is a ring,” she sobbed, fingering the dazzling stone on the ring adorning her left hand. “If only I had listened to you, I would have a little him right now, like your boy,” she paused and looked at Tawakalitu’s son for the first time since he had been there. “He looks so much like Bariu.”
Then she chuckled, hiding her face away from the other sympathizers. “That could have been me, you know. With a fine son for Bariu, but I threw it all away.” She started to sob again.
Tawakalitu was beginning to feel a little irritated, but she tried not to show it.
“I could have stayed in school and made a better grade. I can’t even practice as a lawyer. I didn’t pass the bar because I was never there.”
Natty cried and cried and wallowed in regrets as Tawakalitu spent all afternoon trying her best to calm her friend down. Natty eventually called her an Uber for the short distance and stuffed a thick wad of naira notes into her palms.
One thing was clear to her as she left that day, Natty’s days in that house were numbered and fast racing down like the flipping digits on a stopwatch. She played back some of Natty’s numerous escapades. She remembered how they always made her jealous. Now, she realized how much her life with Bariu had been green in its own way.
He always gave without taking and did everything for her like a duty. He was more patient than her father was with her mother, gentler too. They both still played their flutes together, and while other people thought that was weird, it made their little boy laugh every time.
Her mind broke into a flurry of Audhubillahs, Astagfirullahs and Alhamdulillahs. She pulled her boy close and made a silent pledge to water and nourish her grass dutifully from that moment. Her open palm ran tenderly over her tummy, an apology of sorts, laced into a pledge to be better for her unborn baby.
She pictured her happy family and couldn’t wait to graduate, deliver her baby and sign herself up to the online agency so she could find a job too. More than anything, she couldn’t wait to be able to support her husband.
She had always hated the fact that her father thought all a girl child was good for was bearing and rearing children like that wasn’t already much more than any of his sons could manage. She would put her education to good use and make herself a shining example of how wrong he and other fathers in her village were.
The Uber pulled to a stop at the main gate of the Lekki Central Mosque. Her heart missed a beat and began to race as she saw Bariu’s lonesome figure standing by the gate. Her tears would rain seconds after when he showed her the white envelope resting in his grateful hands. A new beginning where the grass was greenest awaited the young family on the other side of tomorrow.