In Ugwuma, a small village in Imo State, lived 13-year old Obianuju, popularly called Uju by everyone, her parents, and her 11-year-old cousin, Chinenye. Chinenye was Uju’s father’s brother’s daughter, who had come to live them four years earlier after both her parents died in a boating accident in the Njaba river.
Uju was happy when Chinenye came to live with them. Being an only child with a very strict mother, she was often times lonely and always longed for someone to play with. Chinenye, also an only child, missed her parents and spent many days crying after their deaths, but was happy when she was brought to live with her father’s brother and his family.
Both girls loved playing together, jumping on each other and skipping and dancing around the fields of the peaceful and serene village. Uju, the older of the cousins, was determined to teach her cousin how to take care of herself by bathing herself and keeping herself clean. She was constantly telling Chinenye to wash her hands the way she was taught by the sanitary inspectors who came from the city once every school term to teach the schoolchildren how to practice proper hygiene.
Chinenye was born and raised in a very small hamlet located very close to a riverbank, where they depended on water from the river. There were no basic toilets or ways to separate human waste from contact with people. The people practiced open defecation, sometimes along the riverbanks.
In Ugwuma, when they run out of water and their well had dried up, both girls would run to the village center to fetch water from the borehole for home use. They would giggle and shriek when clean water gushed out of the borehole tap.
They were also responsible for sweeping the surroundings of their home to keep it clean.
“Chinenye, you need to learn how to hold the broom in the right way if you want that place you are sweeping to be neat,” Uju told her.
“I never did any sweeping back at home. There were a lot of bushes and nobody bothered as long as we could see where to walk. Maybe that was why we had a lot of mosquitoes and ants. Since I came here, I have not seen a single mosquito,” Chinenye responded.
“That’s why we need to learn to keep everywhere very clean,” her cousin said.
The people of Ugwuma were peace loving and friendly, and there were rarely conflicts amongst them. Anyone who had a problem with another person would go to the village head to report it, who would then call both parties together for a resolution. The people were predominantly farmers and hunters, and most of the women had small tables in the marketplace where they sell their wares every market day.
Papa Uju and Mama Uju, as Uju’s parents were popularly called in the village, loved their only child and were happy to take Chinenye as their own when her parents died. Mama Uju was feared in the village for her no nonsense strict attitude and her caustic and sharp tongue. She was strict and very protective of her only child, Uju, and was ready to cut anyone to size when provoked or her path was crossed.
She stayed at home to clean, cook, and attend to her small stall in front of the house where schoolchildren bought sweets and biscuits on their way to school. They were always afraid of the stern-looking woman who never smiled or had a kind word for anyone. She always seemed to be in a bad mood.
“Good morning, Ma,” they would chorus when they wanted to buy sweets from her stall, but Mama Uju would always respond with a slight twist of her mouth, which made her look intimidating. Everyone in the village always wondered why Mama Uju was so proud and arrogant, and never receptive to anyone.
Papa Uju, a hunter, was always up and out of the house at dawn,, coming back late in the evening with whatever animal he had killed that day. He was a quiet and friendly man, who had a kind word for anyone who crossed his path. He was very different from his wife and people loved and respected him. Villagers brought their problems to him when he would sits on a cane chair outside his house every evening after dinner. He had a good listening ear, always ready to give advice and share in their burden.
He would ask his daughter Uju and his niece Chinenye every evening how school was, nodding at the girls as they talked, though he did not understand much about their schoolwork. He was happy that he took in his brother’s child when her parents died. It was a sad period for him and he promised himself that Chinenye, his brother’s only child, would not suffer as long as he was alive. Seeing her with his Uju always gave him joy.
Uju’s parents did not have any formal education, so they wanted their only child to be better than them. Mama Uju silently hoped that Uju would be a nurse like Nurse Charity at the village dispensary. She admired the woman’s bleached white uniform and starched nurse’s cap always sitting at an angle on her head, with her white heeled shoes that made her sway her big hips right and left as she strolled proudly through the village to work every morning. Mama Uju made a habit of hiding behind her bedroom window looking out for the nurse, wishing she had listened to her parents and gone to school. She made up her mind that her only child would do better than she had, even if she had to force her.
Mama Uju was starting to get worried about her daughter, who was growing to be very big for her age. She had had Uju after over fifteen years of marriage, at the point where she had almost given up on ever having a child. Those were sad times for her. Some of the village women had called her barren behind her back and many whispered when they saw her coming, pinching each other and smirking when they felt she wasn’t looking. Their treatment of her had turned her into a difficult and quarrelsome woman.
It came as a surprise when she gave birth to a very beautiful daughter who looked nothing like her. She worried the village boys would start to notice Uju. People were starting to make remarks about her beautiful looks, which she had inherited from her handsome father.
“Uju… Uju…. come here,” Mama Uju shouted one morning after Papa Uju had gone hunting and both girls were running around getting ready for school.
Uju came running. From her mother’s tone she knew something was wrong. Her mother had always been very strict and unapproachable, and hearing her shout sent shivers down the girl’s spine.
“I am here, Ma,” she said as she got to her mother’s side, who was fetching water from the well at the back of the house and at the same time cooking in an over-scrubbed coal pot.
”Did you not hear me calling you?” her mother shouted at her. “Must I call you several times before you answer me?” Mama Uju raged at her child who stood before her shivering, wondering what she had done wrong. When Uju saw the frown on her mother’s face and the manner in which she twisted her lips, she knew there was trouble.
“UJU, Uju, Uju, how many times did I call you?” Mama Uju asked, blinking her eyes the way she always did when she was upset and daring anyone to cross her.
Uju kept quiet, looking down at the rubber shoes she wore on her feet and wondering what she had done to make her mother so upset.
“Will you answer me?” Her mother stared at her.
“Three times, Ma,” she responded.
“You are growing up very fast. I want you to be careful of the boys that will be giving you attention. If you allow any one of them to touch even your hand you will be pregnant, and don’t think you will bring any child to my house. I will not allow it. If you talk to them alone let me tell you, the very next day you will become pregnant. Don’t play with boys o.
“We sent you to school to learn and become a nurse like Nurse Charity. Read your books o. Hmmm, I am warning you now. That is what your father and I want from you. If you make that mistake, I hope you know what I will do to you.” She wanted to instill maximum fear in her child. “Hope you are hearing me,” she said, pulling at her own ears to emphasis her point. She was indifferent to her daughter’s feelings.
Uju stared down at her fingers, scared of looking up. She wanted to tell her mother so many things, but she didn’t want to be shouted at. Uju had seen blood on her underwear a few days before and she had been too scared to confide in anyone. She had cut off a piece of her dress, rolled it up, and used it to stop the blood from flowing down her legs. She locked herself up in the detached bathroom made of wood and old Zinc at the side of the house, cleaning and scrubbing at herself any time she saw blood. She was relieved when the blood stopped as suddenly as it started, and bundled up the stained rags and threw them in the bush to avoid anyone seeing them. She wondered and worried if she was sick and about to die.
Uju left for school with her cousin Chinenye, confused and silent, Chinenye noticed she was not her chatty self.
“Are you ok, Ujunwa?” Chinenye, as she fondly called Uju, asked. “What is wrong? I heard Mama shouting at you but I didn’t understand what she was saying,” Chinenye said.
Uju could not tell her what she was going through. Chinenye was younger than her and telling her would not solve the problem. She wondered why her mother was always angry, never smiling or playful like other mothers she saw around.
Uju had always been very good in school, always ahead in her class. She was liked by the teachers, and some of her schoolmates came to her for explanations on subjects they didn’t understand. Out of fear of what her mother said about getting pregnant, she started keeping to herself, always sad. She stopped playing with the other children, especially the boys. She didn’t want to talk or even look at them for fear of getting pregnant like her mother said. She moved her desk to the back of the class to avoid any form of physical contact with any of the boys, who would not stop following her around because of her beautiful looks.
She had seen Ogonna, the farmer’s daughter who had to stop school because she was pregnant, how the villagers made mockery of her and her big belly and she was determined not to allow a boy to touch her hand so that she wouldn’t be like her and cause shame to her mother.
Over the weeks, Uju became a shadow of herself, both at home and in school. Her schoolwork suffered and she stopped asking questions and interacting with her classmates.
“Uju, stop daydreaming,” Mr. Nwaeke, her teacher, snapped at her. “I have asked you the same question three times and you have been staring out the window. Are you ok? Stand up on your feet. What is wrong, are you sick?” the teacher asked. “I noticed you have been very quiet lately,” he said, walking towards her desk.
“Nothing sir,” Uju responded. “I am ok, Sir.” She slouched into her chair, not wanting him to come close enough to touch her. “If he touches me I will get pregnant like Mama said,” she thought, looking at her teacher with fear in her eyes.
The teacher took a step back and made up his mind to investigate what was wrong.
After school that day, Mr. Nwaeke decided to visit Uju’s home to check if all was well with the once-vibrant girl. The visit was very ill-timed. Uju’s mother had misplaced some money and was in a very bad mood.
“Good afternoon, Mama Uju,” he greeted the stern-looking woman sitting on a small stool at her stall. She simply ignored him, counting the money she had just taken out of the small bag tied around her waist, still wondering where the balance was.
Feeling frustrated at her attitude, Mr. Nwaeke said “I have come to see you about your daughter. I am worried something is bothering her. She is no longer the cheerful girl I know. I came to ask if there was a problem at home or if she is sick. She is not taking part in class activities and she is avoiding her schoolmates.”
“You must have too much spare time for you to come to my house just because my daughter is not answering questions in your class. Who told you there is anything wrong with her? Please o I did not ask you to take care of her,” she snapped, turning her back on him and banging the door behind her, her mind still on her misplaced money. Mr. Nwaeke was very flustered. She knew Mana Uju was a difficult woman. But her attitude today was especially difficult. He wondered what could have upset her so.
Mr. Nwaeke decided to leave, murmuring to himself, “Anyway, she is not my child. I was only trying to help her.”
A few days later, Uju woke up with severe stomach cramps. She rolled around the bed reluctant to stand up since it was a Saturday and there was no school. Chinenye was already up and sweeping the compound and attending to all the chores the girls do together. Mama Uju had left very early in the morning for the weekly town hall meeting and Papa Uju had gone hunting as usual, so there was no one to scold Uju or force her out of bed without asking if she was okay or not.
“Ujunwa are you ok?” Chinenye asked, calling her cousin by her nickname while touching her forehead. “You are a little warm. What is wrong? Are you feeling sick?
“My tummy is paining me. When I take my bath I will feel better,” Uju responded.
While taking her bath, she noticed that the blood had started again. She was scared, so she cut off pieces of her old dress and used it to stop the flow of blood down her legs. Feeling uncomfortable, she sat in one place to avoid walking around the house.
She had dozed off when she heard her mother shouting, “Why are you still sleeping at this time of the day? When did you become so lazy? All the clothes I left for you, have you washed them? Tell me, what have you been doing since I left?”
Uju jumped up, startled from her sleep. Confused and feeling weak, she just wanted to sleep and not be disturbed.
“Nothing, Ma. I just wanted to rest a little bit. I will wash the clothes, I…..” she responded.
“Tell me, are you pregnant?” her mother interrupted. “Only pregnant women sleep all through the day. What is wrong with you?” her mother shouted on the top of her voice. “The other day your teacher came to disturb me about you. Is he the one that is touching you? You better tell me the truth!? her mother continued, clapping her hands in her frightened child’s face like a market woman. Mama Uju had no empathy for her only child.
Chinenye stood in the corner of the room confused and wondering why her uncle’s wife was always looking for a way to make everyone around her sad. She looked at her cousin’s face and knew that whatever was wrong made Uju feel sick, and her mother was not helping the situation.
Uju got up crying and struggled to wash the clothes. The pain in her tummy was not as bad as it had been in the morning. As she worked behind the house, her father arrived home and saw her still crying.
“What is wrong?” he asked.
“Welcome, Papa,” she responded.
“I just asked you a question. Uju, why are you crying?”
Tears continued down her face and she didn’t say anything.
“Is it your mother? Don’t worry, I know the kind of person she is. I always tell her to take things easy. This life is not so difficult. I don’t know why she sees things differently. She always sees problems where there are none. Stop crying, my child. Wipe your tears,” he said, pulling her close and patting her on the back.
Papa Uju knew the kind of wife he had, so there was no need to ask her why their child was crying. She will make a big deal out of nothing, and besides, he was tired. He had spent the day chasing after a wounded antelope that was caught in his trap but was able to get away. He wanted to take his bath, eat, and just relax in his favorite chair in front of the house. Seeing his only child crying made him sad.
Papa Uju did not want trouble from his wife that night. She had a habit of shouting and clapping her hands in his face no matter how small their quarrel was. She enjoyed attracting the villagers with her noise making. The last time they had had a fight, the villagers gathered around the house. Some were even peeping through the window to catch a proper glimpse of what was going on. After that particular fight, he had promised he would never engage her in any heated discussion again.
She had kept going on and on about him having an affair with Mama Emeka, a widow living down the road whose husband fell from an Iroko tree and died on the spot about eight months earlier. The woman kept to herself after her husband’s demise and avoided the villagers as much as she could. She did not like the way they gossiped about her. Some of them even said she killed her husband. Mama Uju had seen her husband helping the woman put firewood on her head, so she concluded they were having an affair.
Papa Uju comforted his daughter as much as he could. He hated to see her cry and since she wouldn’t tell him what was wrong, he went inside the house feeling helpless.
The next morning Uju felt better, but she noticed the blood was more than before and had stained the dress she wore to bed. She quickly took her bath and applied more pieces of cloth while getting dressed for school.
Chinenye was happy to see that her cousin was in a better mood than the previous day. Uju was in a good mood all through the day until it was almost time to go home and she noticed her uniform was wet at the back when she touched it. She pulled her dress slightly to the front to see what was wrong and realized it was covered with blood at the back. Out of fear and shame and not knowing how to explain it, she sat still when the closing bell went off.
She sat in her chair pretending to copy notes while her classmates were trooping out of the classroom and her teacher Mr. Nwaeke was still seated, marking their schoolwork. Looking up, he noticed she was still there.
“What are you writing? Won’t you go home?” he asked on his way out.
“I want to read a little,” Uju said. “I won’t be able to do that at home.”
She had always been a hardworking girl, so Mr. Nwaeke did not see anything wrong with her explanation.“Close the door when you are done,” he said, walking out the door.
Uju felt temporarily relieved, but wondered how she would walk home with her stained dress. ”Mama will have another reason to shout today,” she thought. “How do I explain the blood on my uniform?”
Chinenye waited impatiently for Uju, wondering what was keeping her. They always met on the path leading to the village. She had seen Uju’s classmates but didn’t see Uju. Looking up, she saw Mr. Nwaeke coming.
“Good afternoon Sir” she called out, “Please have you seen Uju? I have been waiting for her for a while now.”
“She is in the class reading,” he said.
Chinenye was upset and wondered why Uju would stay back to read without telling her. She ran back in the direction of Uju’s classroom, looking for her and shouting her name.
“Uju, what are you still doing here? Won’t you go home? You know mama will start shouting if we don’t get back on time.”
“Chinenye, come. I don’t know what is wrong with me. I think I am sick. Look,” she said, turning to show her cousin the back of her dress. “Even my chair is stained. I don’t know what to do, and I didn’t want anyone to see it, so I sat down pretending to read while everyone was going home. The blood keeps increasing.”
Chinenye opened her eyes wide, scared at what she was seeing. “We have to tell someone! Maybe you are dying,” she said with tears streaming down her face. She had lost her parents and now her favorite person in the world was going to die. “Let me run and call the head teacher. I saw her just now.”
Before Uju could respond, Chinenye ran off to look for the head teacher. Bursting into the woman’s office crying, she said, “Good afternoon Ma. Please come quickly, Uju is dying. There is blood… plenty of blood on her dress.”
”Where is the blood,” the teacher asked, running out of the door. “Where is she? What happened? Did she fall down? Did she cut herself? The head teacher had so many questions as they ran to Uju’s classroom.
Running through the door, the head teacher came to a sudden stop when she noticed Uju sitting down behind her desk looking very ok. “But there is nothing wrong with her,” she said, ready to scold Chinenye. “Are you trying to play a prank?”
“No, Ma,” Chinenye said. “Uju, stand up and turn around.”
Uju stood up, glad that Chinenye had found the friendly head teacher whom all the pupils love for her bubbly nature. When the teacher saw the back of Uju’s dress, she let out a sigh of relief, realizing what was wrong.
“Oh, I see,” she said, smiling. “It’s not that serious. Come, let me look at you.” She stretched out a hand at the girl standing before her. “Is this the first time?” she asked.
“No,” Uju said. “It comes out very slowly, but this one is plenty. I thought it would not come again after the last time. My tummy was paining me yesterday when it started. Am I going to die?? she asked, looking scared.
“No, you will not die,” the head teacher said, smiling. “This means you are becoming a big girl. Did you tell your mother when you started seeing the blood? she asked.
“No Ma, I did not. I didn’t want to tell her because she is always shouting at any small thing I do.”
Chinenye stood looking at the exchange between the head teacher and Uju, relieved that the head teacher knew what was wrong.
“Let’s go to my office. Don’t worry, everyone has gone home. No one will see you. We will get you cleaned up. I have an extra old uniform and I will explain to you what is happening to your body. Everything will be alright,” she said, noticing that Uju was reluctant to leave the class. “It is my time of the month, too, so I have what you need to stop the blood.”
When they got to her office, she asked Chinenye to fetch a bucket of water from the school borehole and made Uju remove her stained uniform and underwear in the toilet.
“Tie them up in the nylon bag. When you get home, soak and wash with plenty of detergent to get the stain off,” she instructed. “Wash yourself properly, then come and meet us in my office. Dry yourself with this face towel and put on this skirt.”
Uju did as she was told and went back to the office where the head teacher and Chinenye were waiting in silence. The head teacher saw her coming and stood up.
“Do you feel better? she asked.
“Yes Ma. Thank you, Ma,” Uju responded.
The teacher looked at the girl standing before her with a kind smile on her face. “What is happening to you is not a sickness and you are not dying,” she started. “Instead, you are becoming a woman. You are growing up. It’s called menstruation. You will soon be taught about it in your next class.”
She lifted up her hand and showed Uju a flat thin parcel wrapped in blue paper. “What I am holding in my hand is called a sanitary towel. Instead of the rag you used to stop the blood, this is what you will use. You will place it in your panties or shorts. Since there are no panties here I will demonstrate with PE shorts. You will wear them home under your skirt.”
The head teacher demonstrated how to place the sanitary towel in the middle and fold the two sides with flaps behind. “It is sticky so that it does not fall off. You will change it at least four times a day, or as often as you need to, depending on how much blood you are seeing. Make sure you have your bath at least two times a day during this period and wash your hands every time you change the sanitary towels. Maintain very good hygiene. Dispose of the sanitary towels properly, either by burning or throwing them into the latrine pit you have at home. Don’t leave them lying around the house,” she lectured the confused girl.
“Don’t worry, you will understand it. I will give you two packs to help you, but your mother will have to buy them for you every month, since this will happen for four to six days every month,” the teacher finished.
At the mention of her mother, Uju squeezed her face. Chinenye also frowned. They were already late going home.
“It will be serious trouble today,” Chinenye thought.
Seeing the look on their faces the head teacher said, “I will take you girls home and explain to your mother. I know she is hot-tempered, but don’t worry.”
Mama Uju was sitting on a stool in front of the house tapping her feet on the ground when she saw the girls approaching accompanied by the head teacher. Even though she secretly admired the head teacher of her daughters’ school, her difficult nature still showed forth.
“Where are you coming from?” she asked sternly. “Go back to where you are coming from. You won’t enter this house today! Your mates arrived more than two hours ago. The both of you are just coming. Shame, shame on you. You are becoming wayward,” she fumed.
The head teacher stood with Uju and Chinenye, silently watching the drama unfold, until she had had enough.
“Mama Uju!” the head teacher shouted in her no-nonsense voice, which she usually reserved for naughty pupils, “will you stop making noise and listen! I expected you to show concern for these children, not talk to them as if they were your enemies. You should have been worried and come to the school to check if they were ok, but no, as usual, you always want to quarrel.
“Your daughter Uju started her menstruation and was thinking she was dying for weeks, but because of your quarrelsome nature the poor girl could not tell you. She thought she was dying and that you would yell at her. Apparently she was too afraid to tell you what she was going through. Today her dress got stained because she did not use the appropriate sanitary towel; she used pieces of her dress which she tore off. Apart from the fact that we all know that it’s not hygienic and can cause infection, it doesn’t help with the blood flow. You should be ashamed of yourself when your own child cannot confide in you out of fear.”
Mama Uju opened her mouth in disbelief, suddenly realizing the consequences of her incessant scolding of her daughters. “My Uju is afraid to talk to me?” she said, placing her hands on her head, “Chai, I have failed as a mother. Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked, becoming instantly very sober.
“Mama, I am scared of you and you don’t listen to me,” Uju said crying.
“Come my daughter,” Mama Uju said, “you know I only want what is best for you.”
But Uju pulled back, moving closer to the head teacher. Seeing what was happening, the teacher urged Uju to go to her mother.
”You owe your daughter an apology, Mama Uju. You need to take care of her. She is a girl, she needs your attention. I hope you have learned your lesson.”
“Head Teacher, thank you o. God will bless you. I will change,” Mama Uju said, crying. “My own child, whom I waited for so long to conceive, is scared of me? Chai, I am done,” she said, hugging Uju for the first time in a long time. “I am sorry my child, please forgive me.”
She stretched her hand out to Chinenye, who stood beside the head teacher. “I promise to take care of both girls and I will not be found wanting. Head Teacher, thank you o, I am grateful,” she said.
“Thank you head teacher,” Uju said, smiling. “I am grateful.”