The bus smells of stock fish so much that even the air freshener can’t overshadow it. As the music from the radio station blares out of the bus speaker, the passengers become louder in their chats. Almost everyone has something to say, no matter how nonsensical it is, and this they called, “gisting”.
All these adds to the nausea and headache Chenemi has been feeling all day, from the break of dawn up until now. As she sits still in the middle row, she yearns desperately for fresh air, an overwhelming peace, and silence to stop the stream of excessive assimilations. But those are the last things anyone gets in a public vehicle where unruliness seem to be a watchword. An ardent desire for ventilation urges her to stick her face out of the window but as she does that, the black smoke from the exhaust of another bus almost gets her choked. With dismay, wondering how much air pollution these buses produce daily at the expense of one’s health, she puts her face back inside the bus.
She peers around the bus, observing how some people are laughing too loud, while some spark conversations from even a passing fly and the girl beside her keeps chewing and blowing bubbles with her chewing gum, lousily. Amidst the noisy strangers, she finds a woman’s baby staring at her. Its bright eyes and smile gives her a soothing effect making her, for the moment, forget the overwhelming anguish that is slowly consuming her.
Chenemi shuts her eyes as Darey’s “Pray for me” plays from the radio. The rhythm and lyrics of the song, for her, always comes with a nostalgic feeling accompanied by a mood of reminiscence, taking her down memory lane.
Life after university, for her, has been one filled with uncertainties. She still wonders if leaving home was the best decision. The decision which was birthed from the quest for fulfillment and success had clouded her sense of reasoning. She had felt there was more to life than the norm most young people around her settled for. “There just has to be more than this”, she usually told herself and her close friends.
Her father had warned her against it. Being a quiet man with few words, he had simply said, “Ojochenemi, you can make it here at home. You don’t have to travel to a particular place to succeed. Success is not in places but in determined people”.
Her mother however, had a different opinion. She had said, “Chenemi, onobule uwe che, ech’ukpe ch’ukolo d’abokelen (you’re a woman, you don’t need to work like a man). All you need is to find a man that is successful to marry you. You have no time to waste o!”
It took several months of convincing, reassurances, and promises before they relinquished. The day of her departure, with sternness of everyone’s embrace, was filled with anxiety which aroused many fears. But she left, without looking back.
She had moved in with Ogechi, her childhood friend, who had a comfortable apartment and a well-paid job in Port Harcourt. Two years after, she still couldn’t find a job and so she lived dependent on Ogechi. Chenemi had applied to several companies and firms; some called her for a test while others never responded to her application. Few firms had called after the test asking her to come over for an interview.
On five different occasions, she had been interviewed by managers who asked for sex in exchange for the job, seeing the desperation in her eyes. She had turned down their offers, though tempted at some point, but simply walked away. Things were not playing out as she had envisioned and planned they would, and her mother’s calls only made matters worse.
Her mother called often, and every conversation was a repetition of the previous. She would always ask if she had finally gotten a job, and when she informed her of none, her mother would say “Chenemi, ukawe ojole k’etene okolobia achukolo ki n’oko ki n’uwe (I have told you before to get a rich man to marry you)”.
Chenemi would reply flatly, “mummy, I’ve heard you”.
What followed next was her mother’s nagging words, “Ojochenemi, it’s not by hearing me o! Start searching for him so he can financially support your siblings, me and your father. We need money in this family. Most of your mates over here are getting married, please don’t bring shame on me”.
After every phone conversation she had with her mother, she was left with a dampened spirit, like one drenched in a heavy rain with drooping clothes that no longer serve as coverings leaving one exposed to the cold. It always took away the little courage she had within and for this; she dreaded her mother’s calls.
Ogechi herself had begun to change slowly. Her once homely and accommodating attitude got replaced by an irritable one and daily she turned to a stranger masked with pretense, unable to recognize.
“Chenemi, maybe you should just sleep with one of those men and get the job” said Ogechi an evening Chenemi returned from one of such interviews.
“What? Oge, I can’t believe you’re suggesting this”, Chenemi replied in disbelief.
“Yes, I am. It will probably be a one night stand and it’ll be over”, Ogechi said as she joined Chenemi on the sofa.
“What if it’s not? Oge, for the records, I’m a Christian, I don’t do such”, Chenemi said with raised brows.
“Biko hapu that your Christian thing, you’ll find a way to get around it”, Ogechi assured her.
“Get around it, Oge? Get around sleeping with men who could pass for my father! ” Chenemi replied, a bit perplexed.
“Yes na! There are so many girls who do it, you will neither be the first nor last. See, Chenemi there are no jobs again in this country. So you have to grab the few you find. But with the way you’re going, you will never find a job,” Ogechi replied sternly as she stood up to turn on the television. “Maybe you should just marry Fejiro”, she added.
As Ogechi surfed through the channels, she turned and saw Chenemi glaring at her.
“Chenemi, stop looking at me like that, I just want you to face reality. There are only two ways to survive in this town as a woman. One is to get a job by any means possible and the other is to get married to a rich man”, she said as she settled for the fashion channel.
The bus conductor’s shout brings Chenemi’s mind back to the bus, as he asks for his money. She quickly gives him a thousand naira note.
“Sisi, wetin be this nah? I tell everybody to hold change, now you dey give me 1k? No change o!” He yells at her and at the same time informs other passengers.
He gives her back the money grudgingly and turns to another passenger. She searches her purse for a two hundred naira note and hands it over to him. He collects the money this time with a mocking smile, and a sense of victory which makes Chenemi feel a bit annoyed.
She looks ahead and sees the traffic jam, which looks more like a standstill, with some drivers switching off their engines and remain calm while others get agitated by the slightest movement in the queue. This has made the forty-five minutes drive take longer than usual. Even people on foot appear to be moving faster than the vehicles; while hawkers who would usually run across the road to sell their goods, now stroll from one end to the other to attend to their customers.
The exhausting sight makes her feel drowsy and so she closes her eyes again and once more drifts into her thoughts. Fejiro comes to her mind this time.
She had been dating him for a year now. He was the most understanding person in her life, always willing to listen and quick to reassure, not until two nights ago during a dinner date when she had complained about her mother’s bugging calls and Ogechi’s outrageous suggestion.
He quietly asked, “Don’t you think it’s time we tied the knots?”
She went mute for some seconds before replying, “You know I’m not ready yet”.
Her reply seemed to have sparked a rage she never knew he possessed, which left her startled and speechless. Amongst all he said, the only words that stuck in her mind were “I think we should call it a quit, because you are still confused about what you really want. When will you ever be ready?” then he walked away, leaving her behind. Too shocked and embarrassed to move, she sat there for close to thirty minutes.
Later that night, on her bed, uncontrollable tears rolled down her cheeks and for some seconds, she felt the air around her had ceased and her heart felt as though it would stop beating. Chenemi’s sleep was tormented by fears darker than the ones she had been battling with since the day she left home, the day she decided to journey alone through life.
She began to wonder and doubt her decisions whether or not they were right or wrong. She wondered if all her decisions were grievous or maybe she was as confused as Fejiro had said. In the dark aura of the night, her father’s words echoed continuously, “success is not in places but in determined people”.
“People wey dey go Rumola, drop here,” says the conductor, alerting passengers of their destination.
Chenemi alights from the bus, grateful to have survived its stuffiness, but now the blazing sun welcomes her, embracing her with its warmth. Suddenly, she feels dehydrated and drenched in sweat as she walks from street to street. She rampages her handbag for her cell phone then opens the text Mrs. Ola had sent, containing her home address. Still unable to find her way, she walks towards two persons asking for more directions.
As she wanders around the unfamiliar neighborhood, she wonders why Mrs. Ola, whom she had met in a women empowerment conference few months ago, has invited her over. Chenemi fears that Ogechi must have informed Mrs. Ola about her suicide attempt.
At Mrs. Ola’s house, a duplex surrounded by sunflowers with beautiful interiors designs that indicates elegance and class, the maid offers Chenemi a plate of jollof rice and some apple juice. These, she devours without noticing the cook’s pitiful stare as she can not remember the last time she has had so much to eat.
Mrs. Ola proceeds, “Chenemi, my dear, what made you think of suicide yesterday?” Mrs. Ola asks calmly.
Chenemi, feeling embarrassed, remains silent for a while before replying, “I felt like my world was falling apart, everyone and everything was against me.”
Mrs. Ola watches her as she struggles to push back tears but fails. “Dear, don’t talk that way, God has your world in His hand, so it definitely can’t fall apart”.
“Ma, you don’t understand! Nothing has been working right and I’m under so much pressure from my mother, to my friend, Oge, and now my man, Fejiro”, Chenemi says with a shaky voice. “Can’t a lady have a dream aside just being married?” She queries.
“Chenemi, this is Africa for you. You should know by now that a woman is seen as incomplete without a husband even if she has everything in the world, let alone when she has nothing”, Mrs. Ola says as she stretches her hand to hold Chenemi’s.
They pause for a moment.
“Now, I know the pressure on you can lead you into making rash decisions, but attempting to take your life is just too irrational. Nothing should make you think of such”, Mrs. Ola counsels as she hands Chenemi a tissue paper to wipe her tears. “The question you should ask yourself is, what do you really want?” Mrs. Ola continues.
Chenemi listens with rapt attention as Mrs. Ola speaks; her voice as soothing and reassuring as always. Mrs. Ola’s words, seem to sink deeper into Chenemi, she can imagine and even touch them. They were real. They were like lifeguard pulling her out of a river, breathing strength and hope in to her being.
“After you’ve clearly discovered what you want and decide to run with it, then your life would take a different shape. No job and, unfortunately, marriage in the world can give you the fulfillment you seek for, you’ve got to search for it within,” Mrs. Ola advises stiffly.
As Mrs. Ola ends the almost three hours discussion, she takes Chenemi to her library which smells of a sweet lemon fragrance and a soft classical music continually plays in the background. As they walk through the rows of books, Chenemi wonders how Mrs Ola was able to read all the books in the room. They come to a halt in front of a row labelled ‘self-improvement’. Mrs Ola then recommends four books from it for Chenemi: Building your Spirit, Self-Discovery, Entrepreneurship, and Relationship. She emphasizes that change only comes through knowledge. She tells Chenemi of her early days and how she had to read to know most of what she knows now. “My hunger for knowledge brought me this far, my dear,” she says pointing towards her awards.
Chenemi sizes the weighty books with her eyes and becomes ashamed because she has never taken such books seriously. She therefore, sees this as a new challenge with willingness to surmount it.
Chenemi leaves Mrs. Ola’s house with a fierce determination to really experience all she had imagined during the talk. Her father’s words, “success is not in places but in determined people”, now makes more sense than it ever has, as she realizes that everything she deeply seeks for can only be found in her. In that moment, while inhaling the cool evening’s air, she is convinced that her quest is over and that home calls.
PS: As humans, self-discovery is the greatest quest we can ever embark on. It is never an outward journey but rather an inward one that gives birth to growth. One filled with no other obstacles but us.
Written by: Jennifer Chioma Amadi
” IT CAN ONLY GET BETTER”