Halima was born in the time when General Ibrahim Babangida was Nigeria’s Head of State. Her father was a military man who thought of children as a measurement of wealth, and wives a man’s asset. So he had married a total of six wives, who went on to bear him twelve sons and nine daughters between them. Halima was child number nine, daughter number one, and the only child of both parents. Her mother was wife number three, an Edo woman who sold oranges in Benin, and was quick to fall for the charming soldier from the North who everyone called Captain Bello, the soldier from Jos. He was tall, very handsome and suave, and she believed him when he said she was his one and only. By the time she found him out, she was 25 years old and pregnant with Halima, and she vowed she wouldn’t live with him, much less bear him another child, and the only reason he called her his wife was because he thought it added to his prestige as a man. Her mother was the only parent Halima knew, Captain Bello was more of a ghost than a father, and she figured if she had made it to adulthood without him, then she would be fine without him for the rest of her life.
When Halima was 3, Captain Bello left Benin back to Jos. He had asked her mother to go with him, but she had refused, and he had left, but not before telling her that he would not be responsible for their welfare if she didn’t come to live with him in Jos. He reminded her quite unkindly that the future was bleak for an orange seller with a three year old daughter, and suggested she better start selling something more attractive that she wouldn’t need to buy. But Grace, Halima’s mother stuck to her resolve. The future terrified her, especially the future of her baby, and she sent a silent prayer to heaven for help. Because she would die before she sold her body to survive, and she wanted to give this child everything her parents didn’t give her, not because they didn’t want to, but because they simply couldn’t afford to. And so Captain Bello left them, and they got by, first from oranges, and later, from Grace’s catering business. She wasn’t educated, cooking was the only skill she had, thanks to her mother. So when the pastor’s wife in church had told her about the opening at the Shell kitchen where her brother worked, she had jumped at it. The offer came with accommodation and the opportunity for Halima to attend the Shell Staff School. And she knew that heaven had heard her silent prayer that day.
Her daughter was bright, all her teachers said so. And she felt very proud, if a little sad that she couldn’t help Halima with homework and things, because she simply didn’t know it herself. But Brother Mike, Halima’s English teacher who also attended their church helped her just fine. He came to the house every evening and helped her with her homework. He even came on Saturday and Sunday, when there was no homework, and had dinner with them, and she always pretended not to see the way he looked at her. Neither did she acknowledge that he always found every excuse to be around her. On Sunday evenings after dinner, he would shyly ask her how her week had been, and her response was always the same, God was good to them, after which she would launch into a recap of the Wednesday sermon because she knew he didn’t attend. She wasn’t interested. She was done with men. They all were the same bunch of liars, and when Halima was old enough she planned to tell her the same. She would teach her to be strong and self-dependent. She would tell her that love was a scam, and men were at the root of it all, and that she should never trust them. She tucked all this away in her heart, waiting for the day Halima would turn eighteen, and then she would tell her. But for now, Brother Mike had better be content with the weekend dinners.
In the years to come, Brother Mike became more than the kind teacher from church. He became the only father figure in Halima’s life, and was her mother Grace’s dearest friend. When Halima was 12, in her first year at Shell Staff Secondary School, Brother Mike got married. After waiting for Grace for five years, four months, and one week, waiting for her to want him only just a fraction of the way he wanted her, he resigned himself. There was a slight woman, almost waiflike in her beauty. Everyone knew she had the hots for Mike, who only had eyes for Grace.
To be continued…