They Say I Must Marry
(A short story)
Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
They say I must marry. My parents, particularly my mother. My younger and only
brother who has already lined up a doe-eyed girlfriend is impatient to formalize
his union with her. My friends, Olayinka, Chidi and Andre, who are either married
or in steady relationships. My neighbours in the compound where I live, including
the bevy of single belles who flaunt their beauty with a curious combination of
boldness and subtlety. It is enough to send the minds of run-of-the-mill guys into
a whirlwind. There is the tall, chocolate–complexioned Shola with peach-ripe
buttocks. There is small, smart Ogechukwu who is the top student among second-
year undergraduate law students at the local university. Why she keeps making
cow’s eyes at me is beyond me. Her boy friend, a sharp-looking, always sharply
dressed merchant banker, drives a Porsche and smiles like the Macleans man.
Let me not even remember Finola Iberesemi, the corpulent mass of love, sex
appeal and mascara. Maybe she sees me as the well that will quench her age-old
thirst; after all she is almost forty and unattached. We became bitter foes nine
months back after I declined the passionate invitation to her bed. But I am kind
about it, yet she goes over the bar with disappointment. She cannot understand
that I am already married to the word.
That is my albatross. What all these people who think they know what I want
better than I do do not understand is that I am one of the unusual few. I am one
of the privileged ones, a member of the inner circle. I am a samurai, a warrior of
the word. In my part of the world that is one of the craziest marriages you can
I started writing at the age of ten. Twenty-one years later, I am still writing. Writing
kept me sane all through the darkest night of my life, the five years of
unemployment and underemployment. Two-and-a-half years ago I was signed on
by The Door magazine as a staff writer. The salary is no great shakes but it oils
the machine of my marriage. Though I am yet to publish a work of fiction I am well
known over the internet. My stories and poems are published in many
anthologies, and I even carted off the second prize in a local short story
competition. So there is no way I can stop loving my first love.
My parents cannot accept the possessiveness of my paramour. Endless family
meetings, private conversations, tears and unceasing emotional blackmail. Dad’s
recent relapse in his lifelong battle with diabetes does not help matters. “If this
man dies without seeing his grandchildren his spirit will haunt you from ani
mmuo,” Mother had yelled during a family meeting. That bothers me. I love my
father and I do not want his spirit to grieve. But how can I avoid the embrace of a
virgin sheet? The crystal, sea-clean, sweet hug of a paper’s bosom?
I try to talk to my brother, Ejide. Both of us are university graduates. He majored
in microbiology, I in modern languages. “Eji, it is not that I hate women or
“Then what is it, Ekwemuka?” Whenever Ejide calls my full name all is not well.
“Why do your relationships end in failure? We attended the same university. Four
full years and four girls. Not counting the youth service year. So what’s wrong?
Or” - he winks - “has the power between your legs gone on permanent exile?”
We chortle. Ejide’s sense of humour is wicked, absolutely wicked. When I wipe
the tears from my eyes I speak.
“You know I am a writer. I love writing, and I can’t abide babes who’ll not share my
love for literature.”
Ejide looks at me as if I am a baby defecating in the centre of the sitting room.
“Old boy, dis na Naija. Such factors do not count here in a man’s search for a
“But they matter to me. Do you want me to be trapped in a loveless marriage?”
“Grow up, Ekwe. You’ve been writing for years. Where has it taken you?”
I smile. The guy is as philistine as they come. But he has a good heart, and can
see through the deeds of men. “Let’s not open that argument now.”
“But we must. Our family should grow. God has been good to us by blessing us
with jobs. Why shouldn’t our parents see their grandkids while they are still alive?”
This song and dance about grandchildren for our parents is getting on my
nerves. “I’m not a baby-producing factory,” I snapped. With an effort I control my
voice. “It is not that I dislike marriage. I want a woman who’ll take my writing along
Ejide shrugs. “It’s your life, Ekwe, but I am getting tired of waiting for you. Ifeoma
is becoming restless.” He and Ifeoma had become lovers at the university. He
had given me due regard as an older brother, waiting for me to get a job even as
he landed a cozy appointment with a major national brewery six months after
youth service. He had helped me out till The Door opened its doors to me. So
overwhelming is Ejide’s kindness that I never had, and still do not have, the heart
to envy his relatively rapid success.
I sigh. “I can’t stop you. Only our godforsaken society and customs say I should
marry before you.”
“So let us obey it. Anyi abughi ndi ocha.”
I pace the room. Ejide observes my worried demeanour. “Relax, pal. Don’t
pressurize your big head. Search for who you want.”
They say she must marry.
Her name is Bertha Njideka Oguejiofor. She was the controversial winner of the
Caine and the Commonwealth Fiction awarda four years ago. Her first novel
became a blockbuster in Hollywood shortly after its publication. But her
newspaper and magazine articles about religion and women had brought the roof
down on her head; nearly wiping off the earlier popularity her literary success
had earned her in Nigeria. But Bertha is the archetypal nonconformist, what with
her smouldering eyes, passionate lips and flying braids. “I don’t write to seek
approbation. I write what my heart tells me,” she had thundered in an interview
over the BBC.
At thirty she is armed with a doctorate and lives in Canada. Naturally she is a big
source of concern to her parents. Her marital status is a speculative goldmine for
the press. Her rather scathing views on the Nigerian, especially her native Igbo,
perception of marriage, especially among the female folk, does not make her
marriage material for most Nigerian men. Not a few of us – home-based writers, I
mean - feel she will eventually shack up with an oyibo man. But, man, Bertha can
write! Words dance with queenly grace on the pages of her works.
My editor sent me off to the last conference of the International Writers’
Association in Dakar. It is fun. I am in my element, covering the various sessions
and interviewing some of the best of the best on the African and non-African
literary map. Bertha shows up on the second day, looking like a combination of
mermaid and Hollywood star in her leopard-patterned shirt neatly tucked into well-
cut jeans and stilettos. I have never seen her in the flesh though I am well
informed about her career. My eyes pop. Bundle of fire, I think.
She is to chair the session on, “Racism in 20th century African Literature.’’ Once
she takes the stage she apologizes for not showing up on the first day. She has
arrived straight from her base. The session is sizzling, but I am a journalist, at
least for today. I do not deserve my tape-recorder if I can’t get an exclusive from
her, and ever since the last fiery barrage by the Nigerian press following her
series of scathing pieces; she has forsworn any interaction with them.
Unable to get close for a one-to-one I hit upon an unorthodox idea. I keep track
of her movements within the conference grounds, and clearly overhear her telling
the conveners she is leaving at once for the airport. There is only one thing to
do. I board a taxi. My university course comes in handy as I relay instructions to
the driver in flawless French.
Bertha looks like a lovely Texas Ranger as she awaits her plane in the lounge.
She looks up from the novel she is reading as I sit beside her.
“Hi, paparazzi,” she coos.
I manage a wan smile. “What do you mean?”
“You were too obvious at the conference hall. The hungry determination in your
eyes. At a time I felt I was a sheep in a wolf’s lair. The Door, abi?”
“Yes,” I reply, hoping to muster enough grace to depart with some dignity as soon
as she tells me to get lost.
Bertha’s smile is the sun dispelling clouds. “I read your magazine, even in
Toronto. Even when the entire press took me to the cleaners The Door did their
share with grace.” She fixes me with those piercing beams. “So what can I do for
you, Ekwemuka Okeke?” How she knew my name is a mystery.
“An interview, please.”
“So that you can maul me again?”
I smile my most winning smile. “No. We’ll stick to safe ground.”
Bertha pauses reflectively. “My flight is delayed. Let’s catch a couple of beers.”
As I follow her to the bar, admiring the roll of her hips, I think I am on the wings of
Both of us are sorry when her flight is called one hour later. The conversation is
a free-flowing one, and Bertha is clearly impressed by my literary pedigree. She
does not retract her previous views on women and religion, but she is much more
moderate in enunciating them, and ready to recognize the peculiarities of her
indigenous setting. Towards the end of the session, as we exchange e-mail
addresses, she abruptly asks me:
“Ekwe, what is your love life like?”
I am taken aback. “Has it anything to do with this… conversation?”
“Just curious. If you can ask me about mine vis-à-vis my perception of the African
men folk, it’s no sin if I ask you if you have a woman, eh?”
“That department is unoccupied.”
“May I ask why?”
This is getting more interesting. “Haven’t found the right person.”
“And who’s the right person?”
Looking straight at her, and ignoring the overwhelming feeling of silliness, I reply,
“Someone who appreciates literary warriors. I fancy myself one.”
“Yes, you are.” The caress in her eyes is bright. She holds my hand a bit longer
as her flight is announced for the last time. Abruptly, as if I have suddenly
developed leprosy, she snatches her hand and walks away without a backward
What a woman! I gasp as I watch the neat, Levi-covered behind disappear in the
The e-mail romance begins almost immediately. Over the internet we tell each
other the truth. As the weeks speed by it is clear that Bertha is in love with me,
and I know she is the one for me. But whether our lifestyles will dovetail bothers
me. For all my claims to sophistication there are fundamental Naija attributes in
me which the besotted Nigerian–Canadian might not like. Her literary success
does not bother me. But will she accept my folks?
I confide in no one, knowing the world – at least the one I know -will call me some
unpleasant things for wanting such an oku elu. But then it is my life.
So I write her and tell her I love her. Will she be my girl? She flies home twenty-
four hours after getting my invitation. I meet her at the airport and give her a
resounding kiss, much to the astonishment of a journalist who has spotted us. I
am not even aware a reporter is around, and do not give a damn that he has
caught us with a flash.
Never judge a person by what he or she says to the press. Bertha is a first class
combination of beautiful oyibo sophistication and Igbo homeliness. Her bedroom
capabilities are only rivalled by her delicious isi ewu. Above all, she is a literary
warrior. Need I say more?
They say we must marry. Now we are married, and Bertha is heavy with my baby,
and we are working together on a novel. END.
About the author:
Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema was born in 1975 and attended Imo State
University and Lagos State University. Henry' s stories, poems and articles have
been published on websites such as author-me.com, kwenu.com, redroom.com
and. soulfulchemistry.com. He is a columnist for the Netherlands-based monthly
newspaper ''The African Bulletin'' (see mediablackberry.com). His stories have
been anthologized in ''Author Africa''(2007 edition) and ''Amazing
Anecdotes''(2004). He has also written for ''The Sun'' newspaper, Nigeria. Henry
recently completed a manuscript of short stories and is seeking a literature-loving
publisher. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
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