Dapo should have seen it coming. He should have known, the moment she walked into a church for a wedding ceremony 10 years ago, that a time like this would come. He had gone to attend the wedding of the daughter of one of his older friends. Just before the sermon was about to begin, a tall, very well-dressed lady walked by, with two young girls behind her. Kate, his wife, caught him staring at the woman as she took her seat and asked him who the woman was. Dapo did not respond. After the wedding service, Dapo was standing outside with Kate when she walked up to where they were standing. “Good afternoon Gbemi,” he said. “Good afternoon Dapo,” she responded politely. The two girls with her stared at him as if to ask, ‘Who is this’? Dapo turned to the two girls and said hello to them, and they curtsied in response. Dapo’s wife waited for an introduction. It did not happen. Gbemi greeted Dapo’s wife and moved away with the girls. Dapo stood transfixed for a minute, staring at them as they made their way through the crowd. When they got into the car, Dapo’s wife asked again, “Who was that woman?” “Why do you want to know?” he countered. “You seemed rather nervous when she entered the church, and you obviously know each other.” After a pause, Dapo said, “That was Gbemi. My ex-wife.” “Oh! And the two girls, are they your daughters?” Again, Dapo was silent. He did not know how to respond. If he had seen the two girls alone on the street, he would have had no idea who they were.
Gbemi got into the car with Teni and Tope. She appeared normal and composed, but she felt like she was about to have a panic attack. She had known that there was a possibility that one day she would run into Dapo, but had hoped it would not be for a very long time. She had not seen him in 13 years. Teni was three and Tope was one year old. She felt like kicking herself for insisting that the girls accompany her from London for the summer break to visit their maternal grandmother who was ailing. Gbemi wanted Mama to see the girls one last time, just in case. It was thanks to Mama that she did not go crazy when her marriage fell apart. She and Dapo got married because she was pregnant at 19 and in her second year in university. Dapo did not want to get married, and neither did his mother want him to. Gbemi’s parents insisted that their daughter was not to be disgraced. The families moved in the same social circles, so Dapo’s parents reluctantly agreed to a shotgun wedding. Their story was so cliched. Married too young. Feelings of entrapment. Money problems. Cheating. Physical and emotional abuse. When Gbemi rolled down the stairs of their duplex trying to avoid Dapo’s blows, ending up with broken ribs and a concussion, even their parents agreed that enough was enough. She took her little girls and left. On one of the many occasions when their parents tried to resolve their problems and they were asked to consider the children, Dapo’s mother would day, “Please don’t threaten us with that. When the children are old enough, they will ask for their father.”
“Who was that?” Tope asked her mother. Gbemi was silent. “It was our father, wasn’t it?” said Teni. All of a sudden, Gbemi felt so weary. “Do you want to see him before you go back?” she asked. “Why?” asked Tope, wrinkling her face in confusion. “Mum, have you not taught us never to talk to strangers?” All three of them burst into laughter.
As Gbemi got dressed, she thought of Mama. How she wished Mama was here. Mama had passed away 10 years ago, a few months after she and the girls had been home to visit her. She missed Papa not being there too but Mama’s absence hurt more. She could hear Mama’s voice, “Work hard my dear. Do not be distracted. The world is a cruel place for women who have nothing of their own.” Those were the words that pulled her out of despair and strengthened her resolve to fight for the future of her daughters. She hummed the popular Yoruba song to herself, “Eni lojo ayo re (This is your day of joy)”. It was indeed her day of joy. Teni was getting married and today was the traditional engagement. During the wedding preparations, the sensitive topic of “Father” had come up. Gbemi told Teni and Bode her fiancée to go and seek Dapo out. The meeting took place but it was quite unsatisfactory. Dapo told the two of them to go away and come back with Gbemi who needed to explain to him why she had kept his children away from him for so many years. Teni felt a fury she never knew she was capable of feeling. Years of repressed anger, insecurity and disappointment bubbled to the surface. Dapo needed to explain to his children why he had abandoned them since they were toddlers and had not provided one cent towards their upbringing. Teni and Tope had grown up seeing their mother work her fingers to the bone, denying herself so many things just to see them through school. She never complained, never badmouthed whoever their father was. Gbemi was willing to compromise but the girls were having none of it. They had been waiting for a time like this, when their ‘Father’ would eventually show up. With no remorse or humility, he had walked right into a trap by pushing his luck. He was a stranger, and no tradition or culture was going to change that. Gbemi’s older brother was going to be the father of the day. Left to Teni, she wanted only her mother to walk her down the aisle, she had earned the right, but Uncle Paul was a good compromise. Bode and his family had no choice but to stay out of the drama. Bode just wanted to get the wedding done and return to the United States where he and Teni both worked as doctors.
It was around 4pm. Dapo got a text from a guest at the traditional engagement, which read, ‘Where are you? The Alaga (traditional engagement facilitator) just asked us to stand and observe a minute’s silence in your memory. People had to quickly speak up that you are still alive. Where are you?” Gbemi and her daughters were caught off guard by the Alaga’s gaffe. However, they could also hear the murmurs from the crowd, “Okay, he is not dead, but where is he?”
The following morning, Dapo watched Uncle Paul walk Teni down the aisle. He could not see her face from where he was sitting at the back of the church. He felt terribly hot under the heavy Agbada he was wearing. His older sister’s words from long ago rang in his ears, “Ti o ko ba sora, enieleni ma gbe ise e se (If you are not careful, someone else will take over your responsibilities).” During the thanksgiving, the choir sang the popular song, “This is your day of joy.”
Dapo bent his head and wept.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social entrepreneur and writer. She is the founder of
Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]