Cooking Laughter in My Stomach by Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim

I had always thought of it as a pretty white dress. But now that I think about it, maybe it wasn’t that pretty. Actually, it wasn’t. It was one of those hideous mary-amaka dresses with puffy sleeves that made 90s babies hate their mothers. The ones that itched behind the neck and made you want to rip it off and throw yourself on the floor crying because wetin be this punishment? But somehow, my memory thinks of it as a pretty dress because it was a perfect day. Everything about that day was pretty. My mother’s excitement rubbed off on me. It was a big deal!

It was my first Holy Communion.

We were one of the first to get to church that morning. I joined the other children. They were all dressed in white. With white lace gloves and socks. The little girls had white veils on. We all looked immaculate, with our candles in our hands. I remember how my mother hugged me, tightly. I could feel the pride seeping out of her touch, enveloping me. She held me so close that when I opened my mouth to tell her the other children were already getting ready to march in, I could taste the saltiness of the sweat on her neck.

We marched in, carefully so as not to break the formation. We had rehearsed this for days, we were ready. We walked to the altar and waited for the priest to get to us. I was ready. The priest dipped half of it into the wine, held it up – body and blood of Christ. I nodded, Amen before I stuck out my tongue to receive it. I closed my mouth and allowed myself to taste the body and blood of Christ. I was disappointed at how underwhelming the entire thing was. To be fair, the blood tasted quite good but that flesh no too make am. Is this it? I thought. I don’t remember now if we were warned not to talk about the taste or not; but there
was something sacred about it. You didn’t talk about it, you didn’t even chew it in a way that other people could see. Anyway, that didn’t matter. I was now one with Christ.

A year later, at the suggestion of my uncle who is a catholic priest, I went off to a catholic all girls school. That was where I first fell in love. I saw her first. She was calling out orders to me and other juniors. She was a prefect and she seemed so powerful. I wanted to sit down and stare at her – she be like magic for my eyes. If dem leave me, I could have stared at her all day but fear no gree me. I saw her a few days later. She was playing basketball. I was with some of my friends as we watched the game together. Someone said something funny and I remember laughing so loudly at it. Later that day, after evening mass, she came to talk to me. She said she heard the sound of my laughter and she wanted to meet the person who laughed like that. Me?! She wanted to meet me? This beautiful, powerful prefect that everyone adored wanted to meet me? I blushed. She knew. She knew I was in love with her. In the weeks to come, I knew she loved me too. She said she always wanted to hear me laugh. She said I laughed as if I had been cooking the laughter in my stomach for weeks before pouring it out. She left me cute notes under my pillow. She found me everyday after evening rosary and would link her hands with mine and talk to me. She told me she loved me and every time she said those words, I thought I would die. I didn’t know what it all meant. Was she my school mother? Were we friends? Could a person in JSS 1 be friends with a person in SSS 3? Lovers? I honestly never did find out. All I know is how she made me feel.

One of the biggest rules in that school was against “lesbianism”. You couldn’t even be caught lying in bed with another student. I didn’t think much of the rule because ewwww, why would anybody be a lesbian? I just loved this girl so much and she loved me too. She graduated that year. I got transferred to another school. And I never saw her again.

I went back home and my family had moved to a small village on the outskirts of Lagos. My mother found a tiny catholic church and she instantly threw herself into the growth and development of the church. Of course this meant that we, her children also threw ourselves into it. I was a lector, drama team member, and cultural dancer. I loved walking up to the pulpit to take one of the readings. I remember how proud my mother used to look every time I was one of the lectors to read that day.

I loved that church. I loved the catholic church. I loved the orderliness of it. The rituals. The celebrations. I loved how the color themes would change with every celebration. Green was the everyday color. Purple was for advent and lent. Celebratory gold and white were used on Christmas day and Easter Sunday. But
my favorite was the red reserved specially for Pentecost Sunday and Palm Sunday. I loved Palm Sunday and I would spend hours making little crosses out of the palm fronds and then help my mother hang them around the house. We would have them there until the next year when we would take it to church to be burnt for Ash Wednesday. And on Ash Wednesday, we would attend the first mass of the day, get the ash on our foreheads and go about our day. I loved the look on my friends faces when I showed up to class with ash on my forehead. I would secretly feel superior because my church was better than theirs.

Not only did I love the church but I was also a good catholic girl. I would tie my scarf and make sure it covered my ears and the hair at the nape of my neck. I attended stations of the cross, knew the litany of the blessed virgin Mary by heart, knew what novenas to pray when I lost something or had a special request. I went for confessions at least twice a month, prayed my rosary, wore a finger rosary and a Holy Scapular around my neck. I also knew all the female oyibo saints to look up to.

Soon, I started kissing boys and would be filled with so much guilt until I was able to go to confession. I kissed girls too. I had sat through many homilies to know exactly what the church thought about girls kissing girls. It didn’t happen too often but when it did, I always knew I had committed the worst sin and would be filled with immense guilt. But no matter how the guilt been wan kill me, I no dey ever mention say I kiss girl sha because that one was a special kind of sin. Apparently, that one was worse than the fact that the parish priest had once tried to rape me. Same man wey I been dey confess my sins to. He kept getting my mother to send me on errands to him so he could try again. When that wasn’t working, he started telling my mother lies about me, to get me in trouble. One day, when the thing don too hook me for neck, I told my mother what had happened. See ehn, my mother was and is still a lioness. I was the child whose mother used to come to school to fight teachers for flogging her child. When I was in primary school, I was standing on the assembly ground and I can’t remember what had happened but I was laughing with my friend. This male teacher saw me and walked up to us. He slapped me hard on my face. It was a loud slap. Everybody heard it and turned. My mother who was a teacher in that school went straight for his neck. It took the collective effort of other teachers to hold her back. Yeah that’s my mother. It was with this confidence that I told her what our parish priest had done. The man who used to come to our house to eat, the one we all loved and respected. I was so certain of my mother’s reaction, so imagine my shock when I saw the look on her face. One that I had never seen before on my mother’s face that it took me years to give that expression a name. It was powerlessness. My mother felt powerless as she placed her right forefinger on her lips, shhh, ku yak owo mfen a kop. Don’t let another person hear this.

I didn’t know it then but that was the beginning of the end of my relationship with the catholic church.

That was 17 years ago.

Now, I openly identify as queer and lesbian.

And I no longer practice any religion.

The day before I came out to my mother, I saw the headlines: Vatican bars gay union blessing, says God ‘can’t bless sin’ and I let out a long hiss because yeye dey smell.

The next day, I sat across from my catholic mother as she stared at me, heartbroken, trying all the ways she could to convince me to go back to living as a heterosexual woman. I refused to give in to what looked to me like emotional blackmail, even after she showed me where to bury her when she dies because this thing that I am was going to kill her. I listened as tears filled my eyes as I heard those words and I let them trickle down my cheeks. I am not an unholy thing, I said. I am not a sin. In spite of how hurt I am that you said that, I won’t accept it. No be me go kill you. She was immediately apologetic and she reminded me of her love. Ah she still loves me, I thought to myself. That’s your window. So I
responded, you say you love me, then love me. I saw her soften up. Then the questions came. One after the other. I explained patiently. I answered her numerous questions because I love her and I want her to know me, to truly know all of me and still love me.

Later that night, I saw her looking at my tattoos and piercings. I was half expecting her to say something about them but instead – why is your own gayness different? I looked up at her wondering what she was talking about. Why is yours different? She repeated. Aren’t there gay people who go to church? In fact, they are even fighting for their right to be wed in church. So, why is yours different? Why don’t you go to church?

I smiled. I smiled as I remembered the first girl I fell in love with. I smiled as I remembered how the Reverend sisters at my secondary school used to spit out the word, lesbianism, like it was a cursed thing. I smiled as I thought about how the catholic church had covered up thousands of cases of paedophilia and rape. I smiled as I remembered the parish priest who almost raped me. I smiled as I remembered how she had silenced me when I told her about it. I smiled as I remembered the headline from the day before.

I should fight to be wed in a church that could not love me back in spite of how much I loved it?

I smiled. I don’t know why. My own is just different, I said.

(Image by Iyesogie Ogieriakhi)

5 thoughts on “Cooking Laughter in My Stomach by Uyaiedu Ikpe-Etim

  1. There no words to describes uyias knowledge and how she puts words together but this is more like my story (it’s a lovely piece)


  2. This made me remember everything I had to go through as a young boy growing up in the Catholic Church,this is so so amazing!!!


  3. This is amazing. I felt so much emotion from it, almost like I was Uyai herself experiencing all these emotions. Absolutely brilliant ❤❤


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