THE ESCAPE
By Adetokunbo Abiola
Osariemen could have run, disappeared into the nondescript buildings at Adesuwa Street, but she did not run. She was indecisive, as a
feeling of trepidation had overwhelmed her. During that brief moment of indecision, her pursuers grabbed her by the shoulders, pulled
her back, and held her in a tight grip. There were three of them. One was a young man of about twenty, with a big head and a ribbon
tied around his head. He was one of Osariemen's husband's drivers. Assisting him to grab her was a short bitter-looking man with a
scar slashed across his face. Osariemen had not seen him before, but she suspected he was one of her husband's thugs. The third, a tall
thin man who wore eyeglasses, continued to swear at her as he held her by the hand.
While she struggled to free herself from the tight grips of the thugs, they lifted and carried her, barking at her. When they got to the
side of the road, they dragged her forcefully towards a Datsun bus that had been parked down the street. But Osariemen wanted to
shout, so they slapped her across her thin face, and she felt a ringing sound that blocked out all noise from her ears.
Osariemen struggled some more, trying to drive her elbow into the man who held her leg, but something rammed into her stomach
just above her ribs, and she stopped struggling. How could a woman with one bad leg fight against a multitude of fit and able men? she
thought. The men shoved her into the bus, but she scrambled over the leather seats, shouting at the men, women and children in front
of the buildings by the street to rescue her from the men who wanted to kidnap her. Before anyone could get near, the bus with its
tires squelching headed fast down Adesuwa Street, turning into Joromi Street. The swerve of the bus threw Osariemen against the
window and forced her to look out to the street.
A light breeze blew over Benin City, coming from the nearby Ikpoba River. Above the hills that towered over the river, the cloud hung
low, blanketing the July sun. Scattered at numerous places on the carpet of the cloud, dark grey patches of matter, rimmed at the
edges by thin streams of light, presaged the coming of bad weather.
Osariemen stared from the sky and focused on her left leg, shorter by three inches than her right leg. She stamped the foot several
times on the floor of the vehicle, pausing to feel the blood flow in it. She frowned as she felt the signs that she was going to have
problems with the foot: the single muscle twitching above her knees and the tightening of her thighs. As her eyes lingered on the leg,
the bus wobbled through the street, blew its horn, and at last came to a stop by a gated bungalow.
Edward Idubor, Osariemen's husband, stood in front of the bungalow. Standing beside him on both sides were his mother and younger
brother, Thompson; while his girl friend, Agnes, stood behind him. His mother was a slim grey haired woman. A frown, as deep as that
carved on the face of a statue, contorted her face. Thompson was a short and stout man.. His dark complexioned face was squeezed
in anger. Agnes was an averagely tall girl. Her hair was gathered in a ponytail that reached her back. Edward's mother had vowed to
make her the new wife of her eldest son.
As soon as the door of the bus was opened, Edward's mother glared at Osariemen.
"So you want to run away," she said. "You want your husband to die. You want the gods to punish all of us."
"If the gods punish all of us, it's caused by your son," Osariemen replied.
Her mother-in-law stared at Edward.
"Are you going to stand there while this prostitute talks like this?" she asked.
Edward hesitated. He didn't want to do anything. But after a thoughtful period, he walked towards Osariemen, slapped her across her
face, and kicked at her left leg. Osariemen fell, got up from the ground, and lunged at her husband, but she was pulled away. She
struggled with those who held her. She wanted to pay Edward back for the slap.
Osariemen was taken to her room and shoved so hard that she crashed on the floor. The door was slammed shut against her, and she
heard footsteps marching away down the corridor. As the sound died, Osariemen stared at the louvers on the window of the room.
She began to think about how foolish she had been to allow her mother, over the protests of her father, to persuade her to marry
Edward two years ago. Her mother wanted the marriage because Edward had a fleet of taxis and buses that plied the Benin/Warri and
Benin/Port Harcourt routes. He had enough money to take care of Osariemen as well as her family. But Edward was an incurable
womanizer.. Every night, he brought in different women to share his bed, not caring about Osariemen's feelings, or the fact that he
was married. His mother and brother supported him, both of them arguing that it was a manly thing to do.. Shut up in her room night
after night, Osariemen was filled with loneliness and in time grew angry with this arrangement. Six months ago, she started to give a
male teacher who taught in the school where she worked rides home in her car. Though Osariemen tried to prevent it from happening,
they grew fond of each other, and one thing led to another, and they became lovers for one day. Two days ago, her mother-in-law,
who was returning from the home of the latest traditional doctor she had recruited to concoct the charms to make Osariemen to get
pregnant, found out through one of her friends. When Osariemen got home, she met Edward, her mother-in-law, Thompson, and
Janet, Edward's sister, at a conference at the porch of the bungalow. At first, Osariemen shifted her legs restlessly, trying to beg for
forgiveness. But her mother-in-law shouted at her: "You've put all of us in trouble! Rituals must be done to cleanse this house of your
adultery. Or my son will die. The gods will punish me for not doing the right thing."
In vain did Osariemen plead that Edward had not invited her to his bed in one and half years and had driven her into another man's
hands. In vain did Janet support Osariemen. "The law of the land must be obeyed!" roared Thompson. Osariemen shouted that he
was not her husband and shouldn't talk to her that way. Her mother-in-law asked Edward in an angry voice whether he wasn't going to
do something to his wife for insulting Thompson. Edward hadn't wanted to take any action; he had long realized that it was his action
that had pushed Osariemen to do what she did, but he couldn't disobey the tradition that said a man should discipline his wife when
she insulted his brothers and sisters. He brought out a cattle whip. Before Osariemen could dodge, he started to strike her with the
whip. She fell heavily on the floor, passing out. When she regained consciousness, she felt pains and bruises all over her body. A native
doctor was throwing cowries at the centre of the room. "She must walk naked on the streets for a week," he pronounced. Edward
tried to argue with him, but his mother and brother said if Osariemen didn't perform the ritual the gods would strike at Edward and he
would die. The gods would also strike at members of the family for not insisting on the ritual. Edward hadn't wanted to die, so he
agreed. Naming the other rituals to be carried out, the native doctor took his materials and left. Nasty man, Osariemen had thought.
She had walked naked through the streets the next day. The May sun had beat down on the raw wounds on her head and arms. As she
trekked on the road, flies had perched on the sores, and the street dogs had barked at her. Her mother-in-law and Thompson, who
had joined the throng of people who followed on her heels because it was decreed by the ritual, shouted repeatedly: "Prostitute! Dirty,
shameless harlot!" Drummers had been beating their drums after her. Osariemen had been forced to dance to their beats. The women
in the neighborhood had hooted at her, while children had pelted her with stones and banana peels. On getting to the bungalow,
Osariemen had collapsed in her room with shame, pains and burns. Sweat had ran all over body, and tears flowed from her eyes. She
realized that if she repeated the exercise she could suffer a nervous breakdown. She had decided there and then to resist another
naked walk on the street. With a sense of trepidation, she had also decided to walk out of the marriage.
Still staring at the louvered window, Osariemen noted that the grey clouds had darkened and had started to race across the sky.
Accompanying this, a swift breeze began to blow outside, rustling the leaves of a tree that stood in the frontage of the bungalow. Along
with the swift breeze and the racing clouds, the air grew cold.
Reacting to the cold air, Osariemen crossed her chest with her shivering hands and moved from side to side to generate the warmth
needed to cope with the situation. She then tried to stamp her left foot on the floor, but squirmed with pain as the cold air had made a
cramp to seize her leg. She clutched at it and rolled on the bed, moaning. The pain caused by the cramps was excruciating, and she
clenched her free palm. She struggled with this condition for several minutes, then the sufferings eased.
The door to the room was pushed open, and Janet stood in the doorway. She was a small, discreet looking woman, and she wore a
plain yellow blouse and a black skirt that reached her knees. Her face was lined with apprehension, but the trace of resolve and
determination to make Osariemen to escape her travail shone in her eyes. The only sane person in this house of madness, Osariemen
thought.
Janet was her only friend in the house. She had moved into one of the rooms when her husband threw her out of her home for
adultery. Janet had told Osariemen that her in-laws had insisted that she swore at the banks of the Ikpoba River at twelve midnight to
prove her innocence of the charge. Janet had also been told that she must drink a liquid concocted with the urine of a pig while she
swore. Janet had refused to do both, reasoning that this was a ploy by her mother-in-law to do away with her and install a more
compliant woman as the husband of her son. Janet had ran away when her husband, instigated by her brothers and sisters, threatened
her with a cutlass, asking her to leave their home. Remembering her story now, Osariemen looked at her with hope.
"Let's go," Janet said. "My mother and Edward have gone out." She was the one who had facilitated Osariemen's botched first attempt
at escape. She was the only one in Edward's family who didn't believe the gods could do anything over the adultery.
"Thanks," Osariemen said, climbing to her feet.
She followed Janet out of the room. When she didn't see anybody on the corridor, she breathed a sigh of relief, quickening her
footsteps. As she limped to the living room, her eyes popped out of their sockets, darting at the doorway to Edward's room to see
whether he was coming towards her with a whip. When she didn't find him, she glanced at the guest room to see whether her
mother-in-law would pull the curtain aside and make an appearance. There was no sign of her. She then stared at the high chairs by the
bar to see whether Thompson was drinking his customary afternoon Star beer. But he, as well, was not around. As Osariemen moved,
she continued to stagger, and she used her left hand to rub her left leg so she could lessen the pain that came with the cramps that had
taken hold of it. When she got outside, it started to drizzle.
"What's going on there?" The voice sounded loud and belligerent.
It was James, one of the drivers of the fleet of buses owned by Edward. He edged away from the corner of the bungalow and came to
block their path with his big frame.
Bad Luck! Osariemen thought
"My husband said Janet should accompany me for a medical check-up," she told him.
"Lies," James said. "He said you're a harlot. He said I should never allow you to leave the house."
The mention of the word harlot crashed into Osariemen's consciousness like the sound of a bomb. It drowned the sound of the drizzle
falling on the compound and on the roof of the bungalow. Osariemen felt that her anger could make her ears to burst and to make
her brain to explode. She was about to lose control and be nudged to the kind of violence that could consume both herself and the
driver. But with great effort, she controlled herself.
"I'm a human being," she said. "I deserve to be touched too."
"My master didn't say that I should allow you to go out," James said.
"Please,'" Janet pleaded.
"Take her back to her room," James told her. "Or master will hear about this." And he disappeared around a corner.
Osariemen cursed him as he disappeared. The time wasted by his interference had proved to be costly. The drizzle had increased, and
then a heavy rain started to fall. As the rain poured down on the city, a thunderclap followed it, then a flash of lightning and a roll of
thunder. Had James not come around, Osariemen thought, she might have been able to take refuge outside the compound, and steal
away when the rain stopped.. Watching the rain, she knew she couldn't wade through the ponds created, especially with her bad leg.
She was back in the room Edward had kept her since the crisis began. "The gods forbid that my son shares a bed with an adulterous
wife," his mother had shouted, instructing Edward to confine her to the insect-infested apartment. Adulterous wife! Osariemen
thought. Was it her fault? Did she bring the loneliness in her life upon herself by her actions? She had tried to bear her loneliness, but
she was also flesh and blood. It was difficult to stomach not being touched by her husband for one and a half years, especially when
her mother-in-law demanded that she must give birth to a boy. And all those girls that Edward brought to the house to share his bed
while she was around. Did her in-laws expect that she should act as if she didn't see them? Did they expect her not to have any
feelings? Did they think she was a log of wood? The anger induced by this train of thought forced her to get to her feet.
But she had risen too quickly. She felt a muscle shift in her bad leg, and she came crashing to the ground, holding onto the bed to
prevent her head from cracking against the floor. As she fell, the sores from the long trek of the previous day scratched against the
floor and were reopened. Staring at some of them after she sat down, she noted that the skin around her knee had been peeled by the
fall, and blood was seeping out of it. While thinking about how to handle the new situation, she was alerted by a hated sound.
The beats of the drummers hired by her mother-in-law had started outside. The beats reminded Osariemen that she must walk naked
through the streets the next day. Gazing in the direction of the drums, she raised herself to her feet, and placed her arms akimbo. .She
felt an inner desperation to hate Benin City and the entire world, and now that both had cast off their husks to reveal their meanness,
she wanted to get away.
There was a small path by the side of the fence of the bungalow. It was fringed to its left by a forest, which sloped down to the Ikpoba
River four hundred meters away. The Ikpoba valley also contained swamps and rivulets. To the right of the path was a small bush of
thorns, banana trees, and tall grasses. The path opened to a compound which sat on a muddy plain and a stretch of space which
contained ponds on which floated a debris of castaway paper, old slippers, torn beer cartons, broken bottles, nylon bags, and other
indecipherable materials thrown away by the tenants living in the house in the compound. Osariemen decided to escape through the
route.
When she succeeded, with Janet's help, in slipping out of the house, she found that the rain had slackened into a drizzle, but flies and
flying insects from forests surrounding Ikpoba River filled the air. They had been chased out of their holes by the rain. The flying
insects crawled all over her, swamping her with their fluttering wings. They distracted her by biting her, making their proboscis to prick
her head, her arms, her face, and her chest. She beat at them, cursing and hissing. But they were too many and too insistent, so she
continued to swing her hands at them and to swear, until she felt too weary to lift her hands, and she stopped, gasping. After a few
seconds of respite, she was swinging her arms at them again, slapping and brushing them from her clothes. She was bending her waist
and thrusting her head forward as she pushed her way to the edge of the forest.
"You want to run away again," said a voice, which Osariemen recognized very well. Her scheming, wasteful mother-in-hell.
She lifted up her head. Her mother-in-law, tall and looking formidable, stood in front of her, holding a basket filled with leaves meant
for the next day's ritual. Beside her, Thompson stood, frowning at her.
"Go back to the house at once," he ordered.
"I'm going for a stroll," Osariemen told him.
"A stroll in this rain?" said her mother-in-law in a jeering voice. "Lies. You want to run away."
"If you don't move at once, I'll drag you back to the house," Thompson said. "I'll break your bad leg once and for all."
Go to blazes! Osariemen thought, and stared at the path that led to the next compound. It was filled with ponds, thickets that extended
from the bush fringing it, and mounds which were wet with the rain and appeared to be too slippery and too treacherous to be walked
upon. Above the bush, Osariemen saw that the drizzle was coming to a stop and that the sun was peeping through the clouds; but a
thunderstorm, briefly, growled over the sky, indicating that the rain could still fall. While she was thinking about making a dash for the
bush and navigating through its thickets, the pain from her earlier fall and her feeling of trepidation emerged, paralyzing her. In this
state, Thompson closed in on her, grabbed her , and started to push her. She struggled against him, but he continued to hustle her
towards the bungalow. As Osariemen stumbled towards the bungalow, he told her: "I wouldn't allow you to put our lives in danger."
Two hours later, Janet came to Osariemen's room. "No one is around," she said. "This is the time to move." Osariemen followed her.
But when they came to the porch of the building, they saw the short and bitter-looking man just beginning to wash the bus he had
parked on the front yard. Why was he around? Osariemen thought. Why was he always in the way? The man moved his hands swiftly;
his entire body - his shoulders, his chest, and his head - moved in synchrony as he labored to clean the patch of fresh mud on the tires
of the bus. But he still sensed their presence as they stood in the porch, and he stopped cleaning the bus. He dropped the rag on the
ground, and gave them a long look. No word came out of his mouth, but there was a menacing look in his eyes. This man would turn
nasty if she and Janet tried to leave the bungalow, Osariemen thought.
"Let's try the backyard," she whispered to Janet. "Perhaps we can trick the drummers there so I can go out through the back gate."
Passing through the living room, they came to a dark corridor and reached the door that led to the side of the bungalow. As they
pushed it open and got out, Osariemen saw a ladder that lay on the ground by the fence that shielded the bungalow from the forest at
the other side. For a long moment, she stared at the ladder, looking thoughtful, but Janet grabbed her hand and impatiently dragged
her away.
At the backyard, the drummers stopped beating their drums as soon as they saw Osariemen and Janet. Their leader, a tall, rough
looking man in jeans trousers, got up, walked, and stood in front of the small path that passed by the boys' quarters on its way to the
gate at the back of the bungalow. Another of the drummers got up from the bench he was sitting on, stepped behind his leader,
weaving a determined air by the way he swung his powerful shoulders.
"We want to check at something at the back of the compound," Osariemen said
"The master said we shouldn't allow anyone to go there," said the leader of the drummers.
"I'm not anybody!" Osariemen shouted at him. "I'm his wife!"
"The master said no one should pass," the leader said.
"I'll report you to my husband," Osariemen told him furiously. "You should expect trouble when he hears." Turning, she stumbled
back to the bungalow. There's no way out, she thought. Everywhere was blocked.
Back in the insect-infested room, she fell into a fitful sleep. It lasted for several hours. In the evening, she was allowed to come out to
the porch, where Edward, his mother, and Thompson were discussing about the next stage of her ritual the next day. Edward was
arguing with them, saying that the ritual business had gone too far, arguing that they were not being fair to Osariemen. But his
mother-in-law said tradition must be obeyed or the gods would kill Edward for allowing his wife to commit adultery. Unwillingly,
Edward acceded to the ritual. But Osariemen was not interested in their talk. She was observing the environment.
Though the air teemed with mosquitoes, the flies and the flying insects, as if obeying a command only they could decode, were
retreating to the forest at the other side of Ikpoba River. The evening breeze was less cold when compared to that of the afternoon,
warming up with the retreat of the rain. The sound of the drums was ebbing, while the horns of passing cars drifted to the bungalow,
but they were faraway, as if they were coming from the end of the world. The drizzle had stopped, and Osariemen felt the soil around
the bungalow would have less mud and ponds. Fit for someone with one bad leg to run on, she thought.
She stamped her bad leg on the floor. It felt strong, but there was still a little pain. Just by the area of her thigh. The fitful sleep and
the warm atmosphere had somehow improved the situation. She reflected that though she would not able to run at a fast pace, she
could at least limp along. She directed her attention to the world around her.
As she observed her surrounding, mind drifted to the ritual to be carried out the next morning, and she squirmed with fear and horror.
She thought of the people who would watch her as she walked on the streets naked for the second time; the children who would stone
her with banana peels, pineapple peels, avocado peels, and the vulgar laughter that would roll from the throats of unsympathetic
women of the neighborhood. Thinking about this, she knew she had to run, bad leg or no bad leg. She was human. She had a heart
and a soul. She didn't understand why she must undergo this ritual when she was forced into her predicament by the negligence of
Edward. She felt that if she stayed, other rituals - some more unimaginable than walking naked on the streets - could come. She could
never really be happy in this world. She decided to face the source of her trepidation: the threat to her job and the life after running
away. If she ran, her teaching job would be gone. Even if Edward hated to do it, his mother would force him to put pressure on the
school authorities to sack her. The school authorities had no choice, no matter how dedicated she was as a teacher. The school was
owned by Edward's friend, and she was hired based on her husband's recommendation. One word from Edward and his friend would
remember this fact and sack her; after all, birds of the same feather listened to each other. Labeled an adulterous by all, she might also
have to leave Benin City altogether. She would have to start from the scratch again. Perhaps set up an organization in Lagos to fight
for innocent women being persecuted for adultery. It was going to be a tough struggle, but she could do it, having worked in an NGO
before taking the teaching job. She would have to go through hell in order to get some funding, especially at these times when money
was in short supply. And even if she got some funds to run her project, it might not be enough. Thousands of women in Lagos were
suffering from what she was going through. Shrugging her shoulders, she decided that, still, starting from the scratch was preferable to
being forced to walk naked on the streets and being pushed to the point of suffering from a nervous breakdown. The future was
bleak, but it was better than being forced to live with a husband who believed that to prove his manliness he had the right to share his
marital bed with prostitutes.
As she thought, the native doctor, an old man who wore an impressive regalia and held a leather bag filled with materials such as
cowries, shells, and skulls, came to the porch.
To begin the ritual the next morning, Osariemen surmised. She had very little time left to escape.
That night, after his husband and in-laws had gone to sleep, she opened the louvered windows in her room and peered out.
The city was as still as a graveyard, and the flying insects had completely retreated to the forest at the other side of the river. They
would wait for another day when the rains would fall from morning to night. The light of the full moon shone down, caressing in a
blaze that bathed the bungalow in a white glow. The night divulged a breeze that blew occasionally, slightly rustling the curtains on the
window, leaving in its wake a peace and calmness, which had never been present that day. Silence, as solid as a metal, had settled on a
compound that was devoid of the sound of drums from the boys' quarter. The horns of motorcars and the quarrels of the drunken
men usually found at the bars up the street every night was absent.
Also absent were the pains on her leg. The cramps seem to be a thing of a distant past, an occurrence of a thousand years ago. Though
the wounds from the trek of the previous day had not turned to scars, she knew she could walk about the place without feeling them.
As Osariemen stared from her leg, she nodded her head. Time to go. She started to remove the louvers from the window of her
room. She worked slowly, not wanting to make the noise to wake up the light-sleeping Edward in the next apartment. She didn't want
him to inquire about the source of the sound and come looking for the person that made it. After about twenty minutes of work, she
succeeded in removing three of the louvers on the window, leaving a gap big enough for her small frame to slip through and get out.
She then pushed one leg through the gap created and allowed it to step on the ground outside her window, while lifting up her second
leg. She was soon standing outside.
She started to tiptoe towards the ladder that lay alongside the fence. On getting to it, she lifted it up and placed it against the fence,
testing it to determine whether it could support her weight if she climbed on it. Deciding that it could, she started to climb. When she
got to the top of it, she looked down into the darkness in front of her.
"Osariemen!"
It was Edward's voice. Harsh and belligerent, it paralyzed her senses, filling her with an unreasonable wave of fear. She looked over
her shoulder with apprehension. He shouted again, this time from the backyard. His voice sounded insistent and worried. Osariemen
decided that the voice was too near for her comfort. She sat on top of the fence, stretching out her legs. She tensed herself against the
impact of the jump on the ground, biting down on her lower lip. A few seconds passed, and Edward shouted again.
Now! Osariemen thought.
She jumped into the darkness, landing on the ground, rolling on the soil to reduce the impact of the fall on her legs. The force from
the jump jarred her entire body, and she lay crumpled and still for several seconds. She breathed quickly in the night air. Edward
shouted again, and she stirred. She struggled to her feet, pushing out one hand against the wall to steady herself. She tried not to cry
from the pain that wracked her body. As Edward's voice came from the other side of the fence, she pushed herself from the wall and
began to run. This time, she ran. Osariemen ran.