Cheta, a teacher at a Nigerian secondary school, is furious with the principal, Mr. Aziza, for withholding her salary because she took a few days off to tend to her sick child at hospital. Cheta is a widow with rent to pay and two young children and a mother-in-law to feed, and Mr. Aziza has now willfully held back her pay for 5 months. Matters are desperate, but Cheta has no legal or institutional recourse.
At this point, kill that voice telling you to skip a sad third-world tale of exploited women. Cheta is smart (bordering on smart-ass); when she remembers her mother’s advice to stay calm and do nothing in anger, she remarks, “Only an angel or an idiot would remain calm in my situation.” Obviously, Cheta isn’t going to take Mr. Aziza’s bullshit for long, and her response is magnificent, all more powerful for its spontaneity and primal nature.
Cheta begs Mr. Aziza for the better part of a month, imploring him for money for rent and food, but when he proves obdurate, she’s reduced to following him home after work one evening. Mr. Aziza ignores her, leaving her while his help sets dinner–and returns to find Cheta eating his rice and meat. Oh, what audacity! What courage! What a masterstroke! A hungry Aziza, deprived of his dinner, finally realizes the position he’s placed Cheta in. Aziza is undone by Cheta’s actions, and faced with her unshakeable desperation, agrees to pay her salary, and asks her to get out. Which Cheta does, still chowing down.
Okay, let me count the ways I love this story. First: this is the story of a bully defeated, so it gets a thousand points. Second: gosh, it’s funny–I laughed out loud often, and my mental image of Mr. Aziza’s chagrin on seeing Cheta eating his dinner makes me smile weeks after reading. Third: Cheta is magnificent–she is brave and no-nonsense and resourceful, and I’d marry her in a flash if I could. Fourth: Okoye says so many things about Nigeria without ever spelling it out. That common people are often denied their rights–and can do nothing about it. That the bureaucracy has undue power, which they abuse without accountability. That professional women have it particularly hard in a patriarchal society where men can openly voice their reluctance to employ women–even when those women are the bread-winners in their families. That traditions and customs can cripple as much as they can provide succour. And I was struck at each turn by how familiar this narrative is to anyone who’s ever lived in South Asia. And Fifth: the story is crisply written, with a chatty, no-nonsense tone that is a perfect fit for Cheta.
So: get hold of this story, which I found in Opening Spaces, a collection of contemporary African women’s writing edited by Yvonne Vera (you may find it elsewhere too). I reviewed this short story for Amy’s Nigerian Literature Challenge; if you are interested in going beyond Adichie and learning more about Nigerian literature, do check out the other entries in the challenge.