By Akwi Nji
My family is a family of women. Men were there; biology tells us they must have been. And they weren’t lazy. They were farmers and college professors, business owners. But, in the snapshots of my memory, they are all sitting on sofas while the women flutter through kitchens, sift through backpacks to check for homework and slice through congested traffic in Oldsmobiles to get the children to school on time. Those women juggle laundry and lawn mowing with one hand and pull weeds from the strawberry patch with the other. They stir up four course dinners in farmhouse kitchens, or small-town apartments, and bathe the children by 8:00. They are a flurry of red and gray hair and shades of creamy white skin with pink undertones. They are freckled from the sun.
My grandmother from the sun of her Iowa farm; my mother from that and the blazing sun of Africa. My mom and dad met in Ames, where they were both going to school, and my father earned his PhD at the University of Iowa. Shortly after I was born and he’d completed his doctorate, my mother and father hightailed it out of Iowa with me, to settle in Dschang, Cameroon. In pictures of those years in my mother’s life when she met, married and moved away with my father, my mother’s slight frame drowns in long skirts. Her face is hidden behind large glasses. Her hair is long, thin, straight: It was the 1970s — you can imagine.
You can imagine, too, the heat of Africa — we lived right at the equator — and the shock a farm girl from Iowa might have experienced upon arrival. But my mother is fierce. She would’ve survived there just fine, because she knew how to fend for herself and didn’t give in too much to the rules of that new country — the patriarchy. For instance, at dinner, the most desirable portions of meat — like the chicken brains and gizzards — were reserved for the men. Well, my mother would wait for my father to leave on one of his many trips for work and then she’d have all the women in the town over and they’d feast — they’d feast on all the foods that they weren’t allowed to have, suck their fingers clean and laugh and indulge in each other’s company.
And this was my mother in those years — bold, brave, good at taking matters into her own hands, so that, when my sister was six and I was eight, she decided she’d had enough of Africa. It wasn’t the place for her children. In the avocado-colored living room of our home in Dschang, my mother packed a small yellow suitcase. My sister and I were giddy for what we thought was a vacation. My father thought, too, that my mother, sister and I would be visiting our family in Iowa for a few weeks — otherwise, he’d not have granted permission for us to leave. As tradition dictated, we needed his permission, as the patriarch in the family, to leave the country. This is why, even now, I’ve not returned home.
I don’t remember leaving. I don’t remember how we said goodbye. We must have hugged my father. Somewhere buried in the deep pockets of my memory, folded beneath bike rides and dusty roads, there is a goodbye. I wonder now if my father suspected, even once, that my mother was finished with my constant and life-threatening bouts with malaria, the fear of her daughters’ pending introduction to the country’s broken and abusive public school system, the stifling patriarchy. I imagine how, on the return flight, our three vacant seats in the mouth of the aircraft resembled the empty pockets of extracted teeth. I wonder when my mother told him we would not be returning — if she told him — and, if not, how long he stood at the gates, in the emptying airport, waiting to welcome us home.
But these are the decisions a mother makes for her children.
It was the spring of 1988 when my sister, mother and I moved into my grandparents’ farmhouse in Springville, Iowa, from Dschang. My grandmother picked us up from the airport in a burgundy Buick Skylark, and we sailed along the interstate to her home.
We drove up the gravel driveway which looped around the white farmhouse and were met by a garage ornamented, as ours had been in Dschang, with a basketball hoop. Our home in Africa was large, with a vegetable garden, an expansive backyard and a wrought iron fence that lined its perimeter like frozen lace, but Grandma’s farm, with its gurgling creek and crisp green hills, felt infinitely ours.
My sister and I scrambled up the stairs to the bedroom all three of us would share until we found something more permanent. Believing this to be the beginning of a vacation, we fluttered with an excitement our mother didn’t share. Our mother followed with the suitcase, tossed it on the bed and clacked it open. Nestled into the yellow suitcase were stacks of clothing: neatly folded T-shirts, shorts, pajamas, undergarments with unreliable waistbands. Underneath it all — hidden beneath the lining — was a hand-traced copy (including its page numbers) of my favorite book, Are You My Mother? My mother had stayed up late working on it for several nights, planning to leave the original behind, imagining — she would later tell me — that packing anything beyond the essentials would have raised suspicion. “We left everything behind,” she whispered, as the three of us stood in the small bedroom of my grandmother’s house.
Even that sentiment whispered in the air to reach her children, to an eight-year-old, carried no weight of finality. It would be years before I understood this was no vacation. And years after that that I would see the suitcase through my mother’s eyes, how it had rested on the bed as an open casket — holding what remained of Africa, its spirit gone.
Akwi Nji is a writer, performance poet, and storyteller. She is founder and executive director of The Hook, and is a 2016 recipient of an Iowa Arts Council Artist Fellowship. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 206.