In May of 1998, she blessed me by touching my head three times. I never saw her again.
I was always drawn to her. We never held serious conversations but we could sit in silence for hours. I remember she smelled of snuff, the brown powdery substance most of the elderly in the village took to clear their nasal passages. We would sit in front of her mud brick bungalow right next to my father’s house listening to crickets chirping, goats bleating or the occasional sound of a mother scolding an errant child. She would tap her snuff pouch, the size of a shoe polish can, several times before opening it. Then she would take a measuring spoon and carefully take the required quantity, putting it in her nostrils, one after the other, inhaling with the expertise of a cocaine addict.
My father always called me “mama mu,” which means “my mother” because of my resemblance to my grandmother. We are similar in looks and personality. She was about five feet five but as I grew older, she seemed to shrink. Her brown eyes were sharp and piercing and her face was oval-shaped. Her complexion was like dark chocolate and years of working in the sun had creased her face. Although she had a small frame like me, she was as strong as an ox, farming her land until a stroke at age 85 left her unable to speak or move. She clung to life for three more years.
She dressed in traditional African garbs, usually wrappers, which are six-yard cotton cloths, wrapped around the lower body and tied at the waist. Her blouses were mostly sleeveless with ruffled shoulder straps worn often with cardigans. The design on the materials were classic African print. She always wore traditional outfits until one day her youngest and favorite son, my uncle, bought her a red, long-sleeved turtleneck sweater for the cold harmattan months. She wore that turtleneck almost every day and everywhere, except to church. The grandchildren could not resist calling her “turtleneck” behind her back.
Her hair was always hidden beneath a silk headscarf or some form of African headgear usually made of cotton or some thicker material. On few occasions when she exposed her hair, the whiteness always shocked me. On her feet, she usually had brown rubber slippers that were sometimes muddy from the red Isuofia soil.
She ruled the household with her sharp tongue and wit. As a serious person, she hardly laughed but when she did, you could hear her cackle echo all over the five-acre compound. She was a comical person though she was not aware of it. She liked to irritate my half brother Shola by calling him “Saccharine. “Shola’s mother, who was from the Yoruba tribe, gave him the name, which my grandmother could never get right because it was not an Igbo name.” Saccharine” became Shola’s nickname.
I am beginning to forget what she looked like. Sometimes when I talk to my father over the phone and he calls me “mama mu,” I go to a mirror and look at my face and I see her again.