My grandfather was upset that I wanted to find my biological father. That’s why he called a family meeting first thing in the afternoon with two goals in mind: the first, to convince me that my father was a degenerate; the second, to accuse me of betraying the principles of the Fang people. He was seated in a comfortable armchair near the main door to our kitchen, a lean-to made from wood and thatch. He stared at me disappointedly.
“What you have done, my girl, merits the worst punishment according to Fang customs,” he said, pointing an accusatory finger at me. “You know that I’m right. You belong to my tribe. You have nothing to do with the man who” — he stammered, trying to find the right word — “with that scoundrel, if he can be called only that, who did the simplest of things so that you were born. The brother of your mother is your father. That’s what tradition dictates!”
Then he ordered me to cut his toenails. Instead of choosing a new razor blade, I picked out a well-sharpened knife. Over the years, my grandfather’s nails (belonging as they did to a 70-year-old man who almost never wore shoes) had hardened into my personal burden — I was the one who was forced to look after them and even the soles of his feet, which regularly suffered serious wounds. People called him Barefoot Osá because of this disgusting habit of his.
I worked in silence, as people often do. My grandfather only bothered to come all the way to the kitchen when he needed a favour, or if someone within the polygamous family that was the product of generations of Fang tradition disobeyed him. That particular afternoon his anger fell on me, his sheltered granddaughter, the girl who everyone called Okomo, the motherless orphan. My mother got pregnant when she was 19 and died while giving birth, her death brought about by witchcraft. From that moment I was declared a bastarda—a bastard daughter. I had been born before my father paid the dowry in exchange for my mother. That’s why society looked at me with contempt and people called me “the daughter of an unmarried Fang woman” or “the daughter of no man”.
Barefoot Osá ordered me to sit after I’d finished cutting his toenails. He gave me an accusatory look. I knew he was about to start lecturing me. He rid himself of the pipe that yellowed his teeth each day. Just then, his second wife, my grandmother’s rival, 28 years her junior, joined the argument. “I’ll kill her. I’ll make her pay for all the pain she put me through when I was a girl. I don’t understand why Osá put that witch in charge of my education. Well, it shouldn’t surprise me. It’s tradition. Damned tradition! And then he wants me to call her Mother-in-law. Mother-in-law of what? How I hate her!” the younger woman said from her own kitchen, built some months ago right next to our own following a family conflict that had resulted in a pool of blood. My grandfather’s two women had come to blows after a neighbour called me a bastarda. Not that she was the only one. My grandfather Osá’s hoarse voice brought me back to the real purpose of this family meeting. I desperately wanted to know who my father was, but the entire family, including my grandmother Adà, was trying to stop me from finding out. They called him a scoundrel and warned me that they would never let me go to him.
As he continued glaring at me, my grandfather began a boring lecture that I already knew by heart. I was so sick and tired of listening to the adventures of our tribe’s founders, brave men who I was supposed to be proud of. For the millionth time he described the honourable life of Beká, the patriarch of our lineage. His existence had been so fruitful that he brought 30 men and 40 women into the world, in addition to fighting against the mitangan occupation.
As my grandfather recited Beká’s many accomplishments (including his resistance against the Spanish), he grew more and more excited. So excited that he asked for a glass of water to soothe his parched throat. As I served him, he noticed that my grandmother, busy shelling peanuts, wasn’t paying any attention to him. This only worsened his mood. But he continued speaking, moving to sit on the bed in front of the one occupied by his first wife. They stared at each other with mutual disdain across the fire, where I had placed a pot full of roots a few minutes before.
My grandfather propped up his feet near the burning logs to warm them a bit. From that position he warned me to pay no heed to village gossip and to start thinking of normal womanly things. “Why don’t you talk about braids and hairdos, taking care of the house, and other such nonsense? Besides, now that you’re 16 years old and your monthly cycle has begun, some man is sure to notice you. Then I will collect the dowry for you. I don’t want you to make the same mistake as your mother. She never learned a woman’s place in Fang tradition. She lived much too freely.”
My grandmother remained silent, barely looking at me out of the corner of her eye. She was the only source of information I had to guide me when her husband was among us women. I was afraid of him. Very afraid. And it wasn’t just me — she was afraid of him too, as were all the other grandsons and granddaughters assembled in the kitchen at that moment. We were all terrified of the melongo, a wooden stick kept on the roof of the House of the Word that was used to punish anyone who broke with Fang tradition.