ỌGBANJE

by Kasmma kan

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You did not expect the turn of events after the copycat deaths of your children. Your first child went to bed a healthy child nine days after her birth. By morning, she was as stiff and strong as frozen meat. Your second child copied her. But after you buried your third child, your father sent for you. Your wife was still snoring like a locomotive that morning when you left with the teenager who brought your father’s message. You got there and found your parents seated on white plastic chairs, arms folded, lips turned downwards, eyes distanced. You sensed that there was Fire on the mountain. On the ground beside your father’s outstretched legs was a gourd of palm wine. The mouth of the gourd was stuffed with omu nkwu leaves. Your father’s walking stick was between his legs. His raffia palm hand fan lay on his lap. Three tumblers and a green thick-glass plate with two kola nuts in it lay on the stool before your mother. You sighed in relief.

“Ah ah, this one your faces are like rain-battered faeces. Ọgịnị?”

“Sit down, my son,” your father said.

You dusted the spare chair and sat. “So why are you two looking moody?”

Your father proceeded with the kola nut ritual. He was in no hurry to thank his gods and ancestors for a new day and everything. You could not take your eyes off your chain wristwatch. You declined the kola nut and palm wine.

“Agụnna, kedụ?” your father said.

“I am fine, Nnam,” you responded.

“You will have to stop looking at that clock of yours. A man whose house is on fire does not pursue rats.”

You rubbed your beardless jaw. “Nnam, you know that I am the only doctor in the hospital. I have to be there on time.”

Your father bit his kola nut. “I have called you this morning for two reasons. First,” he raised his forefinger, “you must get interested in this family’s arọbịnagụ and learn the yearly ritual in its honour. I am an old man with limited time in this space. Our arọbịnagụ have faithfully provided us with riches from which you have benefited. Do not let the spirits scrape your mouth on the ground before you start sacrificing to them.”

“Nnam, at the risk of repeating myself, I am a Christian and cannot participate in anything fetish.”

Your father turned to your mother.

“It is our tradition,” she said, “what is fetish about offering the oracle a white fowl and three kola nuts yearly? It does not stop you from going to church.”

You shook your head and looked at your watch. You had been through that argument several times and had no patience that morning for it. The loud sound of your father’s gulps made you turn in his direction. For a brief moment, you felt pity. Your father used to be a huge agile man. Now he was all skin and bone. Your mother who was once a feared teacher was not spared from the fearless aging process.

“Secondly, Agụ,” he raised two fingers, “it is about your childlessness. This issue chases sleep away from my eyes. How can I join my ancestors knowing that my only child is childless? Agụ, agw n n’akrka.”

“There is no snake anywhere, Nnam. We have had all these discussions before. My wife and I are just going through…”

“Through what?” your mother snapped. “We have had this discussion before,” she mimicked you. “Have you not seen that whatever is eating your children is above western medicine?”

You sighed. At a distance, a cock crowed and the sun rose at a snail’s pace. Your father’s unkempt black toes became slightly visible.

“It is not above western medicine, Nnem. My first son died of pneumonia. My first daughter died of diarrhea. My second daughter…”

“Died of gonorrhea or is it syphilis…”

“Nnem, my children did not die of gonorrhea and…”

“I guess that their gonorrhea and syphilis killed them on their ninth nights on earth.”

You snorted in disgust, falling back on your seat and breathing heavily. Your mother clanked her tongue to deride you. You ignored her. It had become bright. The bleating of hungry goats and sheep and sounds of sweeping replaced the howling of dogs. Human voices gradually rose to full-blown sounds of praying, singing and even quarreling. You heard a feminine voice scream at a child to go get ready for school. You looked at your watch and gasped.

“Nnam…”

“I have told you to stop looking at that clock.”

You sighed in resignation. “Nnam, don’t worry. I will have a child. My wife will give birth to the one that will stay. We are taking adequate medical precautions now.”

Your father smiled lopsidedly. Old age did not hide his dimples.

“It is beyond the white man medicine, nwam,” he shook his crossed legs. “A man pressed with watery feces does not walk. I have taken the pains to go and consult a diviner. He confirmed my fears,” he cleared his throat and spat out the thick yellow sputum. “Agụ, you are having ọgbanje children.”

You jumped up. “Dear Jesus! God forbid!”

You circled your hand around your head and snapped your fingers. Your mother shifted her legs as if to dodge the ill you snapped away.

You sat again. “Nnam, please, I am a Christian. I do not believe in all these things. What business have I got with ọgbanje children, for goodness sake?”

“Those wicked and mysterious spirits choose whomever they want.”

“But I have had a boy and two girls…”

“…who all died under the same circumstances, and, I am certain, at the same hour. You do not even need a diviner to tell you that you are dealing with ọgbanje spirits here.”

Your mother hissed. “When we warned you not to marry that thing, you refused. It must have come from her.”

Two deep lines appeared on her forehead. But you were not prepared to go down that road with her. No, not today!

“My son, a man who removes a woman’s clothes does not just stand and stare. You must join me to go and see the abiankata. He can put an end to this.”

“Me!” you struck your chest, “in a shrine? Are you joking?”

Your mother drew her ears. “Use your tongue to count your teeth, gị bụ nwa!”

“Nnam,” you ignored your mother, “please I have to go. Thank you for your concern, but I cannot do as you have asked. This is the year 1994, not 1915. I am an England trained medical doctor, and I am telling you that my children’s problems are purely medical. Our next child will stay. Watch and see.”

*

You knew everybody in the village watched and listened as soon as your wife’s pregnancy became news. You took every medical precaution. Your wife, Amalachi, did not miss a day of her routine pregnancy drugs. She ate fruits and fed well. You insisted on that. Even your pastor did not bat an eye when you told him you were going to his rival church to seek a miracle. The rival pastor prayed over a white handkerchief and gave it to you. His instructions were clear. At midnight, spread the handkerchief on Amalachi’s stomach and read Psalms 91 and 23. The handkerchief would become the spiritual ultrasound machine. Place your lips very close to Amalachi’s belly and speak life to the child. After this, drop the handkerchief in a white basin—he emphasized on the white colour—and pour hot water on it. Then hold hands with your wife and pray until the water is warm enough to drink. Drink it. You did this until the baby was born.

You also visited a priest who gave you a rosary after making the sign of the cross above it. He asked you to recite it every day, and by 3 a.m., you should say the chaplet of the divine mercy. You had to buy Catholic books to teach you how to say all these prayers. You even went the extra mile to place the rosary on Amalachi’s stomach while she slept.

You were always falling asleep in the office. Your body moved from chubby to gaunt. Though your wife gained weight, the strain was not lost in her eyes.

The baby arrived. Her skin was as smooth as ice cream. She was so fat that she tore Amalachi’s vagina to make more room for herself to pass. Her eyes were the brightest brown eyes you’ve ever seen. She had your full nose and heart-shaped lips. She looked nothing like your wife.

You were as sure as yam is yam that this child will stay. She sucked breasts more than her predecessors. She laughed often, gave no troubles, and grew fatter each day. These were good signs but you did not let your guard down. You prayed and recited your rosary every morning and night.

While Amalachi slept on the ninth night of the baby’s birth, you kept watch. You had to eat kola nut, something you find very bitter, just to stay awake. A part of you was afraid that your father was right. The second part of you continued to wallow in denial. You never took your eyes off that baby for even one second. You prayed your chaplet of divine mercy with your eyes on your daughter. Not too long after that prayer, everywhere became cold. You refused to rush to your room and get a cover. Even when an eddy of cold air swirled through the windows making the curtains wave, woooh-woooh sang the wind, you did not blink. The only time you felt slightly scared was when you sensed a chill on your skin that made all your body hair stand up. The truth is, there was a presence in that room. The spirit stood close to you, looking at you as if trying to divert your attention from the baby. It had a neck as long as a giraffe. Its body, covered with white hair, was as muscular as a chimpanzee. Its legs were as pink and as soft as a tongue, and its hands weaved together as a batwing. Then, it started shrinking, turning to a human form. His spider-face turned to that of a very handsome “person” with bright red eyes and black pupils. Its hair looked like long strands of algae. It had strong muscles and torso as a man but it had no private part. It walked away from you and stood close to the bed. It carried your daughter’s spirit, and rocked it tenderly, back and forth. Then it jumped out of the window with the baby and turned into a bat. When you could no longer hear the baby’s soft snores, you placed your index finger under her nose: no breath. You raised her hand but it surrendered to the force of gravity. You pulled down her lower eyelid. Her fixated brown pupils stared right back. You stumbled back to your chair. Your head spun like a sewing machine’s wheel. When you got a hold of yourself, you looked at the time, 4:00 a.m., about the time your other baby died. Everywhere became still. The curtains stopped waving, the wind stopped howling, and the chill vanished. You stared at your baby’s corpse, squeezing the handle of the chair as if to crush it. Taking it in your stride as a man should, one deep breath at a time, you returned to your room. You lay on your bed and put your pillow on your head but sleep eluded you. Even when your wife started screaming at dawn, you stayed the same.

*

Five months later, you came back from work one night to find your wife crying in the sitting room. You went to the kitchen to look for food, but you met the pots so sparkling, they almost blinded your eyes. You settled for bread and groundnuts.

“Nonye, what is it?” you asked your wife, sitting across from her.

You are the only one who refused to call her by her nickname, Amalachi. A name she got due to her love for the food, amala.

“Your mother came here today.”

You sighed. You knew what next.

“It was worse than her former visits. She called me Mamiwater. She said I came to use you to produce children for my spirit husband. She cursed me. She said I will die during my next childbirth.”

“What!” you accidentally knocked down the plate of groundnuts. They were happy to roll far-far away from you. “My mother said that to you?”

Amalachi blew her nose. “Nobody sells to me in the market any longer. Nobody speaks to me. They squeeze their faces and hide their children’s faces when I pass by. They call me names, spit on me, and even remind me that I am ugly.”

You went to her and hugged her. She buried her face in your chest and bawled. Tears dropped from your eyes.

“You are not ugly. Don’t mind them.”

But you know you were lying. She’s ugly. Let’s not go into her orange complexion. Not chocolate, not fair, not bleached, orange! Her ugliness is as bitter as a mixture of chloroquine and bitter leaf juice. Imagine someone drinking this mixture? What would the person do to their face? Squeeze the hell out of it, is that not so? And even spit? Good. Now, do you understand why sometimes when she walked past, people spat?

“I cannot continue like this, Agụ.”

“Don’t worry. The next baby will stay.”

She raised her head from her chest, shaking her head. “Go and see abiankata.”

“What!” you pushed her away. “Have you joined them? Have you forgotten that I am an assistant pastor?”

“There are many ways of serving God,” she cleaned her face with the flat of her hands. “Christianity is not the only religion. Look at me,” she jumped up. “I am a skeleton. Look at my breasts,” she raised her shirt and dangled both breasts to your face. Each breast looked like half a slice of bread and dangled like a hanged man. “They are flat but no child to show for it. I almost died during the last labour. You know how much blood I lost…”

“Don’t be melodramatic. I will never turn my back on God.” You dismissed her with the wave of the hand.

Deep lines appeared on her forehead. Her orangeness shone. “Melodrama, isn’t it? Melo… Okay. You have three options. If you will not consult abiankata, you either take me back to my parents or I will kill myself.” She stormed out.

You took it as a flippant statement. But when a bottle of rat poison surfaced in your rat-free house, two weeks later, you affirmed to her that you will consult the abiankata.

Before dawn, the next day, you went to see your father and narrated your ordeal.

Your father smiled. “I have been trying to tell you this long ago, Agụ. A child dances to the sweet melody of Surugede without knowing that Surugede is the dance of the spirits. I named you Tiger, not Rat. You are ready to be my son.”

That same morning, your father and you strolled to the house of Dikeọgụ, the abiankata. Your father must have fanned himself a thousand times before you two arrived in the modest bungalow of the diviner. The sandy compound was decorated with marks from a traditional broom. A teenage girl carrying a pail of water on her head curtsied as she greeted you two.

“Thank you, my daughter,” your father responded, smiling from molar to molar. “Nwa aga alụ alụ! Please tell your father that I am here with my son.”

You felt embarrassed for the little girl when your father called her “marriageable.”

Your father pulled you closer. “That is the girl you will take for a second wife if this option does not work.”

“God forbid, Nnam,” you whispered back. “I am not a pedophile.”

Your father hissed.

“Nweze!” a very deep voice rang out from inside the house. “Welcome. The door is open.”

Your father raised his raffia hand fan. “Dikeọgụ! Ekenem g.”

You gave your father a hand as he climbed the steep steps. You parted the old curtain for him and waited for him to enter first.

The deep voice rang again. “Welcome. There is seat o!”

You looked around you. There was a wooden altar lighted by a tiny bulb. It shocked and well as relaxed you to see the crucifix between the portraits of Jesus and Mary. A huge rosary hung on a nail at the left of the altar.

You nudged your father, your mouth almost entering his ears. “Had you told me that this man is a prophet, I should have come with you the last time.”

Your father chuckled and whispered back. “He is Christian in front and a native diviner behind.”

You did not believe him. You looked at the brown sofas and wooden center table. The floor was covered in a sparkling blue carpet. Nothing suggested that this man was a local diviner. Three curtains at different parts of the house suggested that there were three rooms. Along came a woman with a big stomach, whom you assume was his wife, carrying a tray. She was all smiles as she asked after your mother and your wife. She dropped her tray bearing a saucer of garden eggs and groundnut and two cans of soft drinks and left. A tall man, who should not be more than forty-four, dressed in a neat police uniform emerged from one of the curtains. He wore eyeglasses and maintained a neat moustache. Even when you heard his deep voice, you still did not affirm to yourself that he was Dikeọgụ. He shook your hand firmly as your father introduced you to each other.

“Ah, ah, you have not touched your kola?” Dikeọgụ said.

“Kola is in the hand of the king,” your father said.

The man laughed. “Go ahead. It belongs to you.”

You were still quiet. Both of them discussed as if you were absent. You heard him tell your father that he had had kola already and… your mind faced its business. You did not understand what was happening. Are you yet to go to the diviner’s place or what? You heard them laughing about something you must have missed.

“Why is your daughter at home?”

“That one,” Dikeọgụ waved his hand, “she got suspended for fighting in school.”

Ewoo.”

“And let me warn you, my daughter will go to the university and become a doctor like your son. She is not to get married yet.”

Hot urine pushed down your bladder but you held your fort. You were very certain that your father whispered to you when you were outside. How then did this man repeat what you two discussed?

Your father laughed. “Of what use is a woman if not marriage?”

“Anyway,” he hit the back of his palms on his thighs, “my own daughter will be the best woman she can be.”

Your “independent” head nodded in agreement.

“So let us get into what brought you people here. I am about to go to work.”

“Work?” you blurted out.

He laughed, pointing at himself. “Can you not see that I am a police officer?”

You could no longer hold back your questions. “You are not the dibia, are you?”

He shook his head. “I am not the dibia.”

You held your chest and sighed in relief. A dog barked some distance away.

“I am Abiankata,” he said.

Your eyes flung open. “Are they not the same thing?”

Dikeọgụ laughed. “They are not the same thing. The agwudibia is a physician. I am a diviner. So if you are sick, this is not the best place to be. Go to Okafor’s house. Though,” he raised his hands in surrender, “let me clear your doubts. Both agwudibia and abiankata get our gifts from the goddess, Nneagwu.”

You pointed at the altar. “You are a Christian, are you not?”

He shrugged. “I cannot boldly go by that title, but my wife and children are Christians. It is the same God but different methods of worship. I go to church occasionally though.”

As if he could still read the confused look on your face, he added, “stop by another day and I shall clear all your doubts. For now,” he glanced at his watch, “let us get to business. I am running late.”

You rubbed your beardless jaw and shrugged. Your father relaxed on the sofa, shaking his legs and chewing his teeth noiselessly.

Dikeọgụ drew closer to the edge of his chair. “Agụ, I have consulted the goddess on your behalf. They told me that you are having ọgbanje children.”

You shuddered. Your body felt cold. You looked at your father who tilted his head slightly as if to say he told you so. You began to think that you were watching a drama unfold. Had your father secretly convinced this educated man to pretend to be a diviner and convince you of the “ọgbanje” thing?

“Your wife is pregnant, is she not?”

The urine pushed harder. You clasped your legs shut. You only found out yesterday after you tested her urine yourself. No one except both of you knew. How then did this man know?

“She will give birth to that baby, a girl. However, I’m afraid, she will die like the rest of your children.”

You covered your mouth with one hand, the second still between your clasped legs as if to push the urine back. Dikeọgụ looked at his watch again. Your father lowered his head and rubbed his forehead.

“It is too late to save this one. We will use her to set an example. After her death, I will give you a charm to bury around your house and give your wife a concoction to drink. But, and listen very carefully,” he drew his ears, “when the baby dies, neither you nor your wife should touch the corpse until I come.”

You could no longer hold back the urine. You rushed outside, went close to the bush, and relieved yourself.

*

When you watched the fifth child die, just like the others, you covered your sleeping wife’s mouth. She jerked out of sleep.

“She’s dead. Don’t shout and don’t touch her.”

She still tried to shout but you pressed your palm to her mouth and clenched your fist. “I said don’t shout. Do you want me to knock off your teeth?”

Her burning tears splashed on your palms. You left her mouth alone and staggered to your chair. Your wife cried until a few minutes later when the Dikeọgụ’s voice and bell-staff tolled in your compound. You unlocked the door and went outside. It was no longer the educated policeman that approached your house. The voice, however, was unmistakably Dikeọgụ’s. He walked gracefully and noiselessly as a tiger. He was wearing a white, cotton, ankle-length skirt and white, sleeveless, baggy shirt. His big goat-skin bag slung on his shoulder and he did not wear eyeglasses. A living turtle crawled in position on his neck, held fastened by a black neck rope. He neither greeted nor responded to your greeting. He entered the house walking backward and straight to the room where the baby lay as if he had been there before. Still reciting his incantations, he scooped the corpse of the baby and walked outside. You held your sobbing wife in your bosom as both of you walked behind him. The harmattan wind threatened to push down the trees; its howling sounds made the aura eerier. Amalachi hugged herself.

Dikeọgụ dropped the corpse on the sand and sat about ten feet away. “Undress her.”

You left Amalachi standing alone and carried Dikeọgụ’s order even if you felt as though you were exposing your “dead” baby to the cold. Her body was still as soft as cotton.

Dikeọgụ brought out a dagger from his bag and pointed it at you.

“Knife her.”

Your legs felt stiff and heavy. You wondered how you could stab your baby even though she is dead. Your wife clutched to your feet, pleading with you to allow the child to die well at least. You kicked your legs free, mistakenly hitting her in the jaw, and collected the dagger from Dikeọgụ. Consumed in the helpless rage from watching your children die, you dug the knife into her chest and dragged it down. Blood sputtered out, splashing on your wife and you. You knifed all parts of the baby’s body except her face. You could not bear touching her cute face. Her organs were visible from her mutilated body. Tears streamed down your eyes. You could not even bear looking at your wife who kneeled beside your baby, wailing.

“It can hear. Speak,” said Dikeọgụ.

You looked around as if trying to figure out where the malign spirit stood. “You malign spirit. You better not come back here! When you go back, tell them that I, Agụ, the tiger, said that if I catch you here again, I will bury you part by part. I will gouge out your eyes and chew them raw. I will use your brains for ngwọ-ngwọ.”

Dikeọgụ laughed. He produced three bundled ọmụ leaves from his bag which he gave to you. “Cover her.”

You spread the leaves all over the bloodied corpse.

“Set her on fire.”

You dashed inside, got a box of matches and a cup of kerosene. As you doused her in kerosene, you saw Amalachi holding her chest as though she was preventing it from falling apart. You flung the cup, struck a match and threw it on the corpse. It caught fire. The smell of burnt hair filled the air. You hugged the wailing Amalachi. Suddenly, you heard Dikeọgụ laughing, his oily face made visible by the fire, and pointing at nothing you could see.

“See them running away. Can you not see them over there?”

Hot vicious urine pushed down your bladder, but you had to stand like a man. Amalachi held you tighter as if she should enter your body, making you more determined to feign strength.

*

One year later, after obediently adhering to Dikeọgụ’s instructions, Amalachi gave birth to a son. As soon as Amalachi pushed her baby out from her vagina, the nurse screamed and almost dropped the baby. She rushed to the dressing table and dropped the baby as if he were a plate crawling with maggots.

You went called in. You looked at your baby. You recognized the long scars all over the baby’s body and even on his scrotum. The longest and deepest scar ran from his chest to his stomach. He had pink patches all over his body, hands, and legs like someone with vitiligo. You did not understand any of it. He wailed, kicking his legs, and reaching out to you. You carried him.

About Kasimma Okani

Kasimma Okani was born and raised in Nigeria. She schooled, worked, married, and is raising her family in Nigeria. She self-published her first set of books—three novellas—at the age of sixteen. Since then, fifteen years later, she has been trying to be an excellent writer. Her dream is to write very strong unforgettable stories that stay with the readers long after the book’s been closed. That is why she has made efforts to be a better writer, participating in Chimamanda Adichie’s Creative Writing Workshop, 2019; International Writing Workshop, 2019; SSDA flow workshop, 2019. Kasimma has also been a writer-in-resident at Faber, Spain; Wole Soyinka Foundation, Nigeria; Thread, Senegal; and elsewhere.

2 Replies to “ỌGBANJE”

  1. Good morning Madam. The reason most employers specifically ask for years of experience before hiring someone is because it matters. I have read your stories in the past, as much as I enjoyed your creative ingenuity and intellectual heft, the current story i just read made a huge difference.

    The maturity in the use of language, the organization of the plot, the grammatical prowess and the theme. Everything portrays a writer whose future in this art is bright and blissful.

    I relished every part of the story. Though tragic but didactic. The frustration associated with childlessness which goes in tandem which losing one’s children in strange circumstances like what befell Amalachi is always traumatic.

    It also gives an idea how African parents value grandchildren. It lent credence to Buchi Emechete’s novel “The Joys of Motherhood”. Agu’s mother was in dire need of a grandchild that she didn’t mind calling Amalachi unprintable names, just to register her displeasure.

    The desperation for babies can also make an Assistant Pastor cum Medical Doctor seek for help elsewhere. That is the extent to what people can go to have kids they can call their own.

    The existence of Ogbanje in this part of the world can never be over emphasized. Though people tend to downplay its existence but the story reiterated on the reality of it and the devastating effects that follow. Even the reincarnation at the end buttresses that point.

    Finally, I have to command your narrative ability and the fact that you were able to hold me spellbound leaving nothing to chance until I complete the story.
    I will gladly share so that other people can read and learn.

    Nice one!

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