I never learnt that I could share things with people without announcing the real owner. One day it was adorable and my mum was laughing that I screamed, “Give me back my mummy’s wrapper!” to an aunt while we were out visiting my uncle and my grandmother. Then one day I was shamed for being a loudmouth when I said the same thing to a different aunt. The lesson was not that it was okay to share without making an announcement, the lesson was just to be quiet. Quiet about everything. It was one of my mother’s first lessons to me.

As I grew up, I realised parents play the “Who has the Wittiest Child?” competition every now and then. They take turns sharing times their child did something amusing. Sometimes parents allow their children to speak to strangers hoping they say something smart to earn them wit-points. Things the children might never remember, or things the parents will reprimand them for doing in another few years. Everyone knows this except the child, who is just being a child, and just as they were not aware they were part of a game for adults, they don’t know when they must stop being children too. 

This is what I’m thinking about, observing this young mother and daughter duo. The daughter, whose eyes gleam with the mischief of children, is hidden under a cluster of steel reception seats at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja. Little-miss Mischief, whose age I put at four years, is wearing a dress from the leftover of her mother’s fabric, a purple fabric with a pattern of fruits generously spread on it. She’s stayed longer under the seats opposite me because Callum is indulging her antics. She tugs at the helm of his jeans and he tries to find the origin of the disturbance by looking everywhere except under the seat which makes her squeal too loudly for someone trying to hide. Callum has always been good with children.

The waiting room is filled with people anxiously looking from their phones to the runway. There are loud hisses and shuffling in seats, strangers trying to start conversations and bring company to the misery that is waiting. The airport reception is filled with tell-tale signs that Christmas is in the air: every stall is crowded with red and green coloured ornaments. Some Christmas trees are even covered in false snow dust and hanging on restaurant doors are mistletoes that would never compel a kiss, not in Nigerian airports anyway. Little-miss mischief’s mum who sits on my left is clutching a tiny Christmas hat by her side. I suppose it belongs to her daughter. I imagine that the girl was hysterical until her mother caved in and bought her the hat, her own evidence of the Christmas spirit. By now, my grandmother’s caller tune would have been a poorly dubbed version of “Feliz-navidad.” I wish I could catch wisps of her Christmas spirit by making a phone call to her right now, but I would only be met with the voice of an operator telling me the line is switched off. I am left to conjure Christmas in a hat clutched by a woman. She is scratching at a light patch on her ring finger. I wonder why the ring is missing and where they are headed.

As if feeling my eyes trained on her, she turns, making eye contact with me then looks towards her daughter. “Zara,” she calls to her in warning, a very weak warning that comes out as if she is pleading with the child. “Zara.” She breathes. Zara looks up only momentarily, and goes back to tugging at Callum’s jeans. Callum smiles at the woman apologetically. I smile at Callum’s smile.

There’s suddenly a loud hissing and I turn my head to learn the cause of the agitation. Lost in my thoughts, I hadn’t heard the latest announcement of a flight being delayed. This announcement does not bother me as I got an email about the delay on the way to the airport. A 3-hour delay. The harmattan in Maiduguri has messed up with visibility. Hopefully, it clears in 3 hours and our 9 a.m. flight will board by noon. The announcement seems to affect a majority of the travellers, their murmurs of displeasure swallowing the sound of Christmas songs.

I wonder if the delay affects Little-miss Mischief and her mum. The mum has now sunk lower in the chair and her head hangs awkwardly on her neck. She plays with her ring finger, pulling and twisting. I stare at her for a few more minutes before coming back to the group I am hurdled between.


What is the percentage of success in getting a date using pickup lines? 30%.

They say if you want to hear nice things, ask why.

We were out with my friends, someone was leaving the country for school and would probably not be coming back. I excused myself to sit in the parking lot for a bit. Callum followed me outside. “Why me?” I asked. I felt tortured by the farewell dinner. I felt like I was becoming small, like the stump of a tree fading in the distance as the car drives on to more exciting destinations. “Excuse me?”

I was desperate to hear nice things so I asked Callum again, “Why?”

“Well, first of all, is it a fruit-bearing tree?” He asked.

I couldn’t help myself. I laughed.

Every relationship has a defining moment. No, every encounter has a defining moment, when it morphs into something earmarked as a significant memory. My best friend Jummai, sitting beside me, is aimlessly scrolling through her phone. I test the weight of the words “best friend” now as I consider her presence in this airport. Fifteen years of knowing each other and it was only three years ago we became best friends over a cup of tea, poring over family expectations and pain. We became best friends when we united in grief to mourn the death of our childhood, the innocence of it. Today, as my best friend, she joins the family pilgrimage as we travel to Maiduguri to bury my family’s glue—my grandmother. My best friend in grief.

For Callum, it was hearing my laughter from across the bar when the DJ had a glitch in his connections. The music had been blaring loudly, everyone having to speak at the top of their voice to be heard. When the music suddenly stopped, everything was quiet before my fit of laughter shattered the air of silence. He said he had felt compelled to find the origin of that sound. If a declaration of love on the first day of meeting a person is a pickup line, I am now a part of the 30%. 

“There’s the laugh that made me fall in love with you” he said that first night, after calling me a fruit tree.

We have exhausted two hours of our delay time and the ambulance carrying my grandmother will be here any moment. Zara’s mum, my Aunt and I let out almost identical sighs.


My right hand is cupped on my belly and I have been rubbing my thumb just around my belly button. Callum and I steal glances at each other, and smile our knowing smile. My eyes catch Callum’s mum’s glare and I smile at her too.

His mother doesn’t understand why he made her come. I do. My grandmother is the family’s glue—the only constant figure where we had more than three cousin families in congregation. My grandmother took pride in being able to command our presence on a whim. She dictated where family holidays were spent by simply deciding where she wanted to spend the holiday. We flocked to my grandmother, and, under her wings, we were all the same birds. 

Callum’s mother is not disapproving of our relationship, she is disapproving of me. Of my emotions.

“You’ve never seen her angry?”

“No,” Callum had said, narrating the conversation to me.

“Hmm. Be careful,” his mother had warned him.

As the youngest in the congregation of family making the trip, I am the target of the joke, the buffer to this grief. Somehow, I douse the pain of the loss. She was, after all, my Kishiya—rival wife, as I fondly called my grandmother, and she was their mother. Kishiya is derived from Kishi, the Hausa word for jealousy. Jealousy directs the relationship between the wives of one man, my grandfather, whose grief I cannot fathom in this moment.

“Kishiya,” my aunt calls Callum’s mum behind her back. My aunt is convinced the woman is jealous of how happy I always seem. 

“I hope you didn’t kill your Kishiya because of your jealousy?” My darling uncle is talking now, his voice rising above the din of the airport. He was the winner of the “wittiest child contest” in his time, now he is the family’s delinquent.

“Ahap. Maybe it is her own jealousy that killed her,” I reply. As a child, I also participated in the wit contest. 

My aunt leans from where she is seated adjacent to my row of seats and jabs me affectionately, laughing as she sits back. My uncle laughs too, crosses and uncrosses his legs while shaking his head. We are the embodiment of happiness.

Callum has always been amused by this family affair. That I call my grandmother Kishiya and my granddad my husband, that the family keys into this role play even in my adulthood. The childishness and the significance it holds endears my family to him. A family that preserves childhood all their lives. He thinks it is interesting how even marrying into a family makes you a rival. He will be my granddad’s Kishiya too, someday.

A loud siren cuts through the chatter in the departure waiting area. Heads begin to turn, curious to find the group of mourners. My bunch is still adjusting to the reality of my grandmother’s death which necessitated an early trip to Maiduguri this festive season. We look around too, wondering if there are others like us, wondering who the incoming corpse belongs to. A loud shriek breaks from my side. Zara’s mum’s arms are flailing, her veil batting in the air. She calls out the name of a man in a guttural voice and falls to the floor still clutching the Christmas hat,  shouting tearful accusations at the ceiling. A man in an all-black ensemble appears by her side but his attempts to quieten her are futile.

“Why, Rex? Why?”

Callum’s mum runs and squats on the floor beside her and begins to rub her back. Whispering assurances that everything will be okay, like she has known her for years. Like she is the one carrying her grandchild, not me.

This show of grief startles me, and I sink further into my chair.

“Attention Passengers. This is the boarding announcement for Arik Air Flight AK4 to Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos. All passengers should please proceed to Gate 3 for boarding.” 

I allow my eyes to focus on Gate 3, counting the passengers absentmindedly as they filter through the gate, blurring the show of emotions that now envelop my part of the waiting area in the airport.


If there ever was a visual representation of “life goes on” this would be it. While Zara’s mum tearfully laments on how Rex has ended her life, the airport takes on new life with the Lagos passengers as they move purposefully towards Gate 3. Everyone with their unique reasons for travelling and the unique company that awaits their arrival at the other end of their destination. A few moments pass and soon the passengers trickling through Gate 3 disperse completely.

The final boarding announcement to Lagos is called and the man in the black ensemble stands to leave. He apologises to no one in particular, reaches for his briefcase and strolls to the gate with a defeated look on his face. I could have sworn he was part of the entourage to escort the mourning woman from how he ran to her side and gingerly lifted her to her seat. He even donated a clean handkerchief which she soiled with a single blow of her nose. He seems sorry that he has to move on with his life.

The sudden traffic at the stalls closest to us irritates me. These are just people trying to give a face to the cry they heard earlier, to add some substance to their story about the wait at the airport.

“She was such a pretty woman,” some will say.

“She didn’t look a day over 25 years.”

“They married young,” they will add without having ever seen Rex before,without knowing if they were ever married.

“He left her with a child.” Or “At least they had a child.” As if childbearing is a buffer for loss.

Their story ends at the point where the woman sobs uncontrollably at the airport while being held by her mother. I want to tell them she is not her mother. I want to tell them how their story will never carry the weight of this loss. I want to tell them how this loss will continue to live for as long as her life goes on. The loss will be in the next family picture they take and the first time she explains to her daughter what happened to Rex. For the rest of her life, she will have to split herself into two parents and complete conversations with his ghost, telling her daughter how he would have been proud of her.

She may struggle with a lot of self-doubt. “Am I doing enough?” “What would Rex do?”

Their narratives will never be able to process the extent to which she will want to immortalise Rex.

“Your father was just like that.”

It is like looking into a mirror of what had been my father’s loss.

“Your mother would have been so proud.” He always says.

That is how he immortalises her, doing an impression of her for every milestone I hit.

“She would have been the best grandmother.”

Hand Me Downs.

I come from a long line of hand-me-downs. The best clothes my mother saved for me to wear on Sundays when I was seven years old, were the Christmas clothes my sister wore when she was seven years old. My wardrobe was a collection of things I would grow into, a testament of my mother’s seamstress skills.

At age ten, she taught me how to turn eba the way her mother did before her, and her mother’s mother before her mother. She taught me how to be myself with the way she tied her wrapper. She said things were difficult when she was growing up and the Ankara had to be joined with plain China fabric so all three daughters of her father had wrappers to tie. So that when they tied the wrapper, the China was the inner flap, hidden beneath the patterned Ankara. She said the ugly things about me, like the China must be kept hidden with the edge slightly raised so it doesn’t peek from underneath.

“What ugly things?”

“Your anger, baby. You must not let people know when you are angry. Nor when you are sad because these emotions make you vulnerable. There is dignity in being private with these things. It shows self-control,” she had said.

She taught me more ways to be quiet, and about the importance of not sharing.

The other members of my family have been triggered by the cries of Zara’s mum and are now sobbing silently. Jummai has moved to sit with my Kishiya’s first daughter and is sobbing in solidarity.

My mother’s manual was a mask for emotions and so I do not express my grief in public.

Callum had disappeared with Zara in tow when he thought she had seen enough. I will tell him when he returns that daughters must learn to grieve like their mothers.

My mother’s mask was also prescribed to her by a doctor, small vials that remained in her bedside drawer. For the pain in her chest. For the insomnia. For the anxiety.

It was in the way she tied her headscarf, no hair ever out of place or peeking out. A time came when she had no hair to hide beneath her scarf and it did not raise any suspicion. Callum’s mum continues to play doting mother, caressing Zara’s mum’s hair and asking her questions about where she is headed. No one has come to her side since the ordeal and if there is anything worse than a loss, it is suffering it alone.

“Mai-du-gu-ri,” I hear her say in between sobs. I am relieved that we are headed in the same direction and she will still have the comfort of a mother for what must be a dreadful trip.

Would I have found a mother in Callum’s mum if I had shown her I am truly grieving?

“Would you like anything?” Callum asks, startling me. 

“Anything,” I answer.

He hands over Zara, who is now drunk with sleep, to me and strolls to a nearby stall in search of “anything”. I cradle her and she nestles closer to me. Something beneath my belly button stirs. I breathe in her smell and try to reconcile the differences between my loss and her loss. I try to recollect memories from when I was four years old to see if there is a chance she will remember anything about Rex in the future.

But sorrow is a magnet, and this is the memory it attracts.

I was thirteen years old dressed in one of my sister’s previous Christmas clothes. My mother was left alone at home that Sunday because she had coughed throughout the night and she needed to rest. We returned from church and found her stripped of her masks: the recently restocked vials were lying empty, the contents spilled over her bedside. Her headscarf was tangled with the bed cover and her wrapper was loosened like she had been in a fight.

Did Rex put up a fight?


The truth, they say, shall set you free.

For our third date, Callum and I decided to go to the restaurant where we first met. While waiting for our order, we decided to play a game of truth or dare.

“Truth or dare?”


“What is the most unforgivable thing anyone has done to you?”

“My mother dying.”

“I’m sorry. You never told me.”

“It never came up. Your turn: truth or dare?”

Callum clenched and unclenched his jaw muscles. I later learnt that it is his way of fighting back tears. Since then, asking “truth or dare?” became our way of unravelling ourselves to one another.

“Here,” Callum says, handing me my order of “anything”—water, room temperature and a club sandwich. He drops into the seat that Jummai has evacuated and collects Zara from me, anchoring her to the crook of his right hand. I offer him a bite of my sandwich which he rejects, clenching and unclenching his jaw while he rubs my right knee absentmindedly. He looks at me looking at him for a brief moment, enough for him to wink and look away again. I follow his line of vision and it stops where Zara’s mum is anchored to his mother.

Times like this, I wish I could delve into his mind and unhinge him from these thoughts that take him away from me.

My mother didn’t teach me that masks begin to flake off when you love someone. That the action is not complete if you are not vulnerable with your partner. They must know the things that trigger emotions, you must show them the China so they know how to cover it. You clip off the masks and turn them into wings and prepare for flight. I want to know the truth about his thoughts at this moment.

I prepare to ask but he beats me to it.

“Truth or dare?” he asks, finally making eye contact since he sat beside me.

“Truth,” I answer, just as our boarding announcement is called through the speakers.

With every truth I tell him, I believe our relationship gathers the momentum it needs to take flight, and to soar and to stay afloat against the test of time.

“Will you marry me?”

I can’t help but laugh.


*Photo by Ginabell Andujar on Unsplash

Blessing Tarfa

Blessing Tarfa is an educationist and a writer. She is a Shaper with the Abuja Global Shapers Community of the World Economic Forum, a Kashim Ibrahim Fellow and a fellow from the Legislative Mentorship Initiative. As an education research consultant, Blessing develops tools to support policy implementation and education continuity in conflict situations. Blessing has judged writing competitions including the Corona Management Systems Writing Prize for International Women’s Day 2023, the Hamza El-Rufai Short Story and the Professor Andrew Nok Poetry Prizes in 2023. She is the winner of the Hafsat Abdulwaheed Short Story Prize 2022 and the Wakini Kuria Children’s Literature Prize for 2020. Her non-fiction piece “Mutu: Something Strange in Adamawa” also featured in the maiden edition of Za! Magazine. Blessing enjoys reading and teaching.