I remember standing at the foot of the long stairway in our new house, too frightened to climb, everything big and unfamiliar, until my sister Uche silently took my hand and we went up together. I was 4; she was 15. It is my earliest memory of my attachment to her. But, according to family lore, the attachment started much earlier. I was a fussy baby whose nightly screaming was soothed only by her. Newly weaned, I would eat okra and liver sauce only if she fed me. “By the way,” she told me recently. “I ate all the liver—that’s why you didn’t grow tall.”
In my teenage years she was the glamorous big sister who was studying pharmacy at university and had a handsome boyfriend in a white car. I looked up to her. Her beautiful face, seamless grape-dark skin, the gap in her teeth inherited from our mother. I was in awe of her original style. She fashioned dangling earrings from parts of an abandoned chandelier and made bows for her shoes from old handbag straps. At the back of her notebooks were delicate sketches: dresses with large sashes, lavishly shaped trousers. Sometimes she went to her tailor’s shop in the market and stood over the sewing machine to make sure the details were right. Many of her clothes were handed down to me. At 12, I wore ruched, fitted dresses when my age-mates were still in little-girl clothes.
I was sometimes afraid of her quick temper, her prickliness. I hated domestic work, while she always cleaned with a sweaty zeal. She often scolded me for not dusting the furniture. She was the tough one in the family—the unconventional girl. When she was in primary school, the neighbor’s son called her a devil, and she climbed over the hedge, beat him up, and climbed back home to continue her game of table tennis. That evening, the neighbors came over to report to my parents. Asked to apologize to the boy, my sister said, “But he called me a devil.”
When she was at home from boarding school, she once sneaked into my mother’s wardrobe and took her high-heeled sandals back to school. They were promptly seized by a prefect. She told my mother about it more than 10 years later, describing the sandals in detail, laughing. She laughs easily and often. She sends funny jokes by e-mail and WhatsApp. She is the second and I am the fifth of my parents’ close-knit six children. Because of the age gap, I came truly to know her as an adult.
I fled the study of medicine to become a writer; she is a successful pharmacist. We have different tastes. She touches my natural hair and says, “What is this rough mop?” And I ask of her long, straight weave, “What’s that plastic horsehair?”
Still, we ask each other’s opinions of outfits and hairstyles. We have long conversations about my book events and her pharmaceutical conferences. We talk and e-mail often. I love to spend weekends with her, her wonderful husband, Udodi, who is like a big brother to me, and her 18-year-old twin daughters.
Now I recognize what I most admire about her: her transparency, the absence of layers, the bright, focused light that is her loyalty. There is an immense solidity to her. To be her little sister is to feel always that a firm cushion exists at my back. When our father was kidnapped for ransom, it was her steady voice that stilled my despair. “You work so hard,” she told me once, simply, matter-of-factly, during an unproductive period, and it made everything seem better.