The Rule of Salt by Uche Osita James



A young Nigerian girl while growing is forced into the submission to many home made rules. She however manages to break one that her mother, ironically always spoke about, though in a manner so vague she never truly grasped the import of this rule . This leads to fatal consequences she will regret.

I am not a writer by profession, nor a seasoned one at that; I am merely normal, just like you. But then, like everyone else, there are times when things get to us so strongly that we tend to feel a compulsion: an urge to share and as such I write. Forgive me, I beseech you, if you see my expressions unpalatable or even archaic, like I said earlier, I am normal.

I begin the way most writers about to engineer a bore often say, but then still, I guess it’s too early to tell.


Mama always leaves the pot half open when she boils rice on Sundays, for it is the only day we actually have the delight all through the week, because as Papa would put it, we deserve to be treated like other normal human beings once in a while. Mama would always retort when I asked her why; that it is the rule of salt. This seemingly awkward rule states that;

 When the rice pot is salted and closed, it always makes the salt taste more plentiful than is pleasant, when the rice is done.

 I highly doubted this rule, as many other things Mama said, like that a woman who spread her legs before it was time would usually have children in the future who would torment her as punishment. At this, I often wondered considering how Mama disapproved of all we did, whether she herself was innocent of this sin.

 Papa also had his own rules, as did everyone in our house. His being the most humorous would appeal to me to mention first.

“Whenever’’, he would begin, when Junior had again forgotten to flush the toilet, the only one we had, “a person makes himself out as uncultured; he tends to pass the wrong impression to people, no matter how cultured he might in reality be”.

Now, Papa was not educated, the initial statement above was merely my own understanding of what he often said. However, roughly translated, the rule he often blotted in Igbo would be:

 “A baboon that comes in the midst of cultured people cannot be hidden”.

 I recall that I was once a culprit on such an occasion and Papa had not known and when Junior took the blame, it made me doubt whether he really was as uncultured as Papa often posited.

There were indeed many things I came to doubt as I grew and the whiffs of knowledge and discovery had began slowly to sift in from all corners -school, friends and society.

Papa’s second rule concerned something I have come to regard as his utaba rituals. He demanded absolute silence whenever he returned from work and had asked Junior to bring his snuff box. On one occasion, Junior had asked him a question when he had brought the snuff box. He had said nothing, while continuing his ritual in silence. The next morning Junior had a slight limp when it was time for school and I made a mental note then never to disturb the ritual.

Papa had many rules and so did Mama. They seemed to think that if they made enough rules for us while we were growing, that we would somehow amount to more in life than they did. This I knew because, unlike most African men, Papa cared too much. He was quick to rebuke the Avari masquerade on occasions I and Junior were apprehended for the customary caning and never once let a mischief seeking daredevil have his way with junior in the glory of infantine brawls with sand warriors stuffing the vanquished person’s tummy with sands of victory. He also cared for his belly. I think he cared more for it than many things but it is very hard to tell with papa.

 Mama on her part was thoroughly strict with us, although over the years I came to perceive that it was perhaps as a result of some inadequacy, one that she often carried in her eyes, when Junior returned home to tell a proud Papa he had taken the first position again and Papa’s face would glow with the bright orange of a massaged ego, that was never there when Mama presented before him his best meals.

Whenever these occasions came I hated myself, because more often than not my results never attracted such accolades. It made me feel insufficient. I practically did all the house chores and kept Papa satisfied with his meals which by the way, he was extremely particular about and his health condition was not helping matters. As Mama would put it , whenever I gave her a cold silent look when sent on an errand, when I was about to study. “A woman must be all she can be, for the men studying might at this stage appear paramount but for us it is managing the home that comes first”.

Mama had never been within the four walls of a school, and for this I forgave her many years later. This as well incredulously as well crystallized into one of her rules; a woman is the home maker.

 And so, for many years I endured being sidelined, being taken for granted most of the time and being praised only when I served one of Papa’s many pot bellied friends and they gave an approving look at my backside. At a point, I wondered whether being a woman was becoming fulfilled in the holistic sense or whether it was about the physical changes that attracted the accolades of men. I admit that at a point, I revelled in it, it was the only thing I always had at the time that made me feel loved , desired and at a point made me feel… like a woman. Now, I detest it.

 The guava tree at the back of the compound which we shared with three other families, for Papa’s hardworking father had left him a major source of income – the house – had its own rules as well. It could not be plucked after dawn. The reason, I gathered was to dispel ill omens, for the last time it was plucked after dawn, the Lord of the harvest met an unceremonious death when the strongest branch suddenly snapped, giving way for gravity’s curse.

And of all the rules I was taught to adhere to, there was one Mama purposely, I think did not instruct me on. The rule of love.

At a point, we had to move out, because Junior impregnated Chidinma, the dark bowlegged girl with huge bust that I often saw him with before Papa returned from his utaba rituals.

“He had not been careful” Obi, my father’s nephew (I only call cousins I know well by the title) chipped in when asked. Junior on the other hand was unperturbed when Papa declared to the hearing of all that cared to listen; he was going to marry her. I knew that Papa could not under any stretch of imagination have liked the girl, considering the circumstances under which she became daughter-in-law, her parents were wealthy.

And so to foot the marriage costs – because Papa big ego would not let him accept assistance from chidinma’s parents — we moved out and put in new tenants. Naturally, the wedding fund crystallized, though I recall not eating because Chidinma’s father invited all his friends and in the end they had left no plate untouched. And it was in this new place we called home that I think, if am not mistaken, I found love. His name was Desmond and had grey hair unlike most of the boys I knew, and had this sweet voice that seemed to sing many songs when he spoke. And then to add it all, he was tall, the kind that made many, if not all women feel secure. I fell head over heels immediately. It still never occurred to me to ask Mama what the rule of love was.

 The swinging gale I observed as a child , silent , soothing and subtle, ceased and the world shrunk to half its size when I aborted the first baby, then I sat down and wept bitterly, but not for the guilt of killing an innocent,  but for the bare bitterness of the violation of Mama’s rule of salt, for then I realized it had more meaning than I had understood at the time, if only I had listened…

 The heart is the most glaring weakness of humans; it allows room for change and heals with time. So when I aborted the second baby, the feeling was different. I was a different person, seeing life from my small glass world that at night always seemed shrouded with a crimson haze. I often woke crying but Mama never asked me why. It was perhaps the reason I never told her, for I felt she was thoroughly enmeshed in societal role-playing that she would not be liberal enough to give me the answers I sought. Within me a change had taken control. When I left home for the first time after secondary school for the university, the feelings converged into confusion until, one distinctive dominant one emerged — hope.

 Junior had by then three (3) kids and his formerly hour glassy Chidinma was now overweight. He had dropped out of school to face his fatherly duties, though now I admit he was too infatuated with Chidinma at the time. Now he called her Mama Juliet. She had bore him no sons. Time changes everything after all. When I finished first year, Papa became seriously ill. He had been ill all his life with diabetes, but this was different. They called it a malignant tumour that had metastasized. Mama hysterically was putting in all we had in saving him. I felt it unwise, being the educated one and hearing the doctor’s opinion and his chances, though I never voiced out this opinion and I doubt if I would have done any differently in her shoes. We kept our hopes high, when some weeks into treatment, he started responding. At a point, more out of joy than the wisdom in the act, we pressed for a discharge and brought him home. I even suspended schooling at the time to keep him company and make his special meal whenever he requested. One morning he called me and sat me down. It was the first time in many years; the last time had been when he told me that Obinna, our neighbour’s son was greeting him more fervently than usual and whether we were friends.

“Adaora, it is good that you are here, you have grown into a beautiful young woman, perhaps better than we expected”. He paused for some time, cleared his throat and continued. “There are however many things in this world we may probably never understand, never know (at this I suspected briefly he knew of the abortions) and even never tell if we know them. But know this, our happiness is not bound to anything or anyone, though we may choose otherwise but let us learn not to regret our choices.”

At this he paused and never continued. It was his routine, especially when espousing one of many rules. He died later that night in the veranda staring directly at the Guava tree just after Mama had taken away his medication and came back to join him. And two years later just before my graduation Mama followed suit in a ghastly car accident that claimed twenty-one (21) lives.

 Every day for the past 12 years, I have wondered whether it would have changed anything had I told them. Whether it would have made me feel less worried than I am now, for I still have no children of my own.

I grew with rules all my life and now, I subconsciously still obey them. I never close the rice pot completely when I boil it, although it has acquired a deeper meaning to me. I know that I will tell my daughters the same thing if I ever have any in the future. Now, whenever I recall Mama these days, the rule comes to mind.


And so, in the tentative tentacles of time when my mind wanders across the recesses of the foaming black ocean of reason, I find that the rule is visible like an unblemished white garment and in anticipation I reach for it with tapering hands. When my hands enclose around its smooth edges, I find that it is not at all as flat as I contemplated. There is I think, something wrapped beneath and I unwrap the garment gently, expectant, with all intent and focus. Inside I find the saltiness in full revealed in the foetus that screams guilt through esoteric voice and dramatically points to my surprise, you...

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