Jologho came alive with a start, gasping for air. His rheumy eyes popped open from the images of horror that had been clouding his head. The arteries on his neck thumped as if they were worms participating in a freedom march.
He saw himself scuttle across violent cities, shatter walls, twist irons, maul cavernous mountains, circle predators, and then he saw himself stop to heave a breath of dread when he got to Dadin Kowa. The air that rushed into his nostrils reeked of smoke, blood and gunpowder.
“Can you hear me?”
Then, he plunged to his knees when he got close to that very house at Dadin Kowa.
“If you can hear me, kindly raise a finger.”
He saw blood-stained feminine mannequins sprawled around the grassy front yard.
“Raise a finger.”
Jologho shook his head with idiotic fury and allowed the words within the confines of the hospital draw him back into the stream of consciousness.
“If you can hear me, raise a finger.” The nurse repeated in her fragile voice.Jologho raised a finger and balled his fingers to kindle the fire.
His breath became wild and his chest trembled.
“Relax. You are probably experiencing a bout of delirium.” The nurse said, placing a comforting hand on his chest, “You were found in a marshland with bullet wounds. Good morning, you survived.”
Jologho’s lips quivered for some time as he stared at her, and then with a muffled fervour he managed to say, “With those girls, it’s never good morning.” His voice sounded gruffy and dusty from being locked up for three days. He dropped his eyes on the bandaged section of his lower abdomen, looked at the vital sign monitor, and his eyes closed.
His mind opened up again. He saw himself get up from the ground. He saw his slow legs switch to a running pace and run into the compound, his hand flailing in the air. Then, he saw himself lift the mannequins and fix their broken hands and legs.
Then, he shuddered with an ugly shriek.
You cannot miss the house by the side of the big pear tree. It is the nerve of Dadin Kowa. In its front, seven women garbed in colourful blouses and wrappers stand over seven other women who are sitting on low stools and getting their stubborn hair braided. The compound should have been quiet but for the cheerful chattering of children, the sound of a sifting machine breaking the chaff from a heap of melon, bleating goats, and cackling poultry. At the back of the house, a deaf man wearing only trousers and rubber shoes hammers forever on logs of wood with an enormous axe. His pounding scrunches his face and gives an adventurous rhythm to the air: doo goom, doo goom. His sweaty back glimmers in the sun like a ripe boil.
Mama Maimuna steps out of the house in a deep brown gown. Her greying hair is long, wet, and tangled like spider webs. Her figure casts a long shadow that freezes every sound. Everyone greets her, but she just issues curt nods to their “Ina kwana”. Her watchful eyes shoot at the sun and she begins to program something into it with her soft chants. After that, she chuckles and intones to herself, “It’s going to be a good day.” Then, she calls at the axe man, “Open up the well and let the children draw out of it.”
She plays with the children and asks them to come back later to have breakfast with her. All of them.
“Mama, what food?”
“Koko and kose.” She replies the bulbous-eyed girl with curly hair.
The girls jump.
“Mama, what of goro-goro?” a boy who escaped polio asks.
“Yes, we want goro-goro.” The boys chime aloud.
“Okay, there will be goro-goro for the boys.”
The boys jump like the girls, and drum on their pails. The older ones somersault. Their noise resurrects the other sounds and activities. First, it is the sound of the fourteen women giggling under the tree, then the axe, and then the sound of a roped iron pail falling into the well and smacking the surface of the water with the echoing sounds:keplunk, kplonkom, keplunk.
Malik, a boy with crescent moon eyes, comes out from the house with a large pair of sequined sandals and drops them at Mama Maimuna’s feet. She puts them on, goes to the gateway of the low burnt-brick fence, and then she begins to program it with her chants too.
Mama Maimuna makes a lot of profit from selling jewellery and clothes at Kano. She met a rangy bus driver in the early days when she was setting up her business there. This bus driver is whom she now calls husband.
“Ina kwana, Baba!” She greets him as she returns to the house, but he mutters something to himself and bends his vexed lips towards his nose.
His name is Bako, stranger. He is called so because of his skin, which makes him look like a white man. Bako now weaves cane chairs, since an accident claimed his left leg and broke one of his ribs. Today, he will sit all day playing draught and smoking taba with his friends. If they do not come, he will play with himself because he will not suffer himself to be seen playing such a manly game with his wife. Now, he props himself with his crutches and wipes dust off the chairs he wove a long time ago.
Soon, the children go away with pails of water balanced on their heads. And soon, they return with their plates and their story-telling stomachs, waiting to be fed. They go and come together like the grains attached to a corncob.
Those for koko and kose clap and sing at one side, while those for goro-goro drum and dance. Their music is an ode to the slimy beast of hunger.
The food is brought in bowls and spread across. They see the bowls as weapons for striking the head of the beast, so they raise their voices in a spirited rendition.
We will silence your growls
And shackle your feet
We will kill you with these bowls
And even eat your meat
They yodel with a manic vibrancy, as if possessed.
“No struggling, there is enough.” Mama Maimuna calls the children who are cavorting from crate to crate like drunk monkeys. Malik blows his whistle and they listen up.
“If you struggle I will not give you meat.”
She raises the basin of meat high like a trophy, and then they reply, “Toh! Mama.”
But their assent is as useless as pushing green flies from rotten rubbish. They were wired to struggle and be rumbustious. To them, enough is not just enough. Their umbilical cords were buried in the abyss of want.
A small fight breaks out between two girls. Mama Maimuna tears them from each other like two naked wires at a clash. And then, she spanks their bumbums.
“She has not washed her mouth. It smells like kashi.” One of them says in a slight nasal drawl. The other girls laugh.
“How dare you say your sister’s mouth smells like shit?”
Before she gets any reply, the boys follow. They smell each other’s mouth and point out those among them whose mouths smell like kashi. Malik blows the whistle again.
“Who has not washed his or her mouth here?” Mama Maimuna asks, still holding the two girls who are making faces at each other. They raise their hands, almost all of them. And then, Malik gets a tube from inside the house and presses pea sizes of toothpaste on their fingers. After that, they gargle in amusement at the side of the brick fence, and spit like gargoyles before they dip their hands in the bowls when Malik blows again.
After Bako lost his leg, and when his money began to dry up, he brought a baby home from nowhere and said to Mama Maimuna, “Take!” as if the wincing baby in his hands were anything other than a product of his going outside, but Mama Maimuna took the child without asking any question and without being told anything; and then, with a valiant smile she raised the baby high like a flag and named him Malik, King.
When Mama Maimuna is around the children, she is in her feel-good moments. They make her forget that her womb has never had a pulse. Instead of making her pot the smallest and allowing herself to be deeply sorrowed, she makes it the biggest, and flings her crimson-coloured gate wide open for the children to come in droves, as if for an Olympic.
A different crop of children come too, all girls with tampered childhood. Some of them are battered and broken; all are holding nothing but the dream of kidnapping the spirit of peace they hear Mama Maimuna can evoke. Sometimes, as they wobble past her like lost beauties — these baby mothers and child brides — she would shake her head and say something like, “Look at that stick-thin one, can she even wash herself or dress a bed?” or “Look at that poor child who has not even grown a hip. Why would a man desire her for marriage at her shinkiliage?”
This set of girls are kept inside her house. They do not jump in the air or dance with the other children. They do not even talk children talks because they do not know if they are still children. Because of their confusion, they come out only at night, nights without the moon. At such nights, they would gyrate and carol in the voices of polluted rivers and dispossessed queens, their laughter mixing together and their dresses billowing like birds caged to the breeze. They would gyrate until they get lightheaded. Then, they would laugh and spit at the dangers gurgling at them before packing up sand from the ground and allowing the grains trickle down their hands.
Hajara, one of the night girls, tiptoes into the front yard to meet Mama Maimuna. She shades her eyes with her hands from the blinding glare of daylight. The pensiveness in her face twists into fascination when she sees the other children around the pear tree slurping as real children slurp and playing as real children play. She hisses at the jealousy that is denting her insides and turns away from the happy scene of their gummy giggles.
“Mama!” She calls out.
Mama Maimuna looks at her like one would look at a rare fish dancing on a shore.
“Hajara,” she whispers, looking around, “What are you doing out here?”
“Jeba is restless. Please, come.” Hajara says, her voice soft like a hum.
Hajara’s father had been smoking afat taba when a proposal came knocking on Hajara’s juvenile door, two years after she started to see her monthly blood. She is supposed to be married to a man called Baba Nonsense by the children of Dadin Kowa.
Baba Nonsense is a troublesome loose-limbed man with warm threads of saliva dangling from his ever-open mouth. He was fond of grappling the breasts of girls. His nonsense met no punitive action from the gate keepers of the community but threw a rag of shame over his family, so they arranged for a wife for Baba Nonsense.
The honeymoon turned sour when Hajara hit Baba Nonsense on his head with a stick and left him unconscious. Then, she ran to Mama Maimuna’s compound. When she was asked why she had done what she did, she said Baba Nonsense had tried to touch her between her legs and that his mouth frothed like sour melon soup in the process.
Bako sent her back to Baba Nonsense, but Hajara returned some days after, with three of her teeth missing. It was then that Mama Maimuna lit the fire with a resolve to confront darkness.
Mama Maimuna stoops to enter the room where the girls take asylum. They are loosely dressed because of the heat wetting their small bodies. She looks at Jeba who is lying on a bed like a giant foetus, her face purple and swollen.
Jeba was forcefully married to the blind Baba Waziri at the age of twelve. People started to suspect that there was a problem between her and her husband because of the noise that escaped Baba Waziri’s house during the first few nights after Jeba’s arrival. At day, Jeba would sleep all through, under the pear tree in Mama Maimuna’s compound before going home. When she walked, she held her head as if it wanted to float off. Mama Maimuna called and questioned her; then, Jeba said that her nights were bereft of sleep because at night she plays hide-and-seek with Baba Waziri who gropes around looking for the knot of her wrapper. One day, tired of her game, the blind man poisoned her food. And so, Jeba crawled to Mama Maimuna’s compound in the dark, vomiting blackish things.
Hajara whispers something to the other girls when Mama Maimuna bends her back over Jeba. The rest of them start a song. Mama Maimuna lets out a long sigh and then, she begins to dance even though the song is strident and nothing like the happy songs the daylight children sing.
“She will get well,” she says to them, placing her palms on her bosom, “So will all of you. The happiness you share together will cure you.”
From a chest, she takes out a white contraption, which she bought for the love of it after one was used to check her temperature at the big city, and then she holds it like a gun to Jeba’s forehead. It makes some clicking sounds. The girls have never seen a thing like this before and so they express their astonishment in a burst of cheers that, still, is nothing like those of the daylight children. Mama Maimuna smiles at them and says, “Wait until I get a dane gun.”
“What for?” One of them asks.
“To face the rustlers until they leave my cattle.”
After fumbling with the contraption, she shakes her head and returns it to the chest and then she brings out some bottles containing herbal concoctions and ministers them to Jeba.
“Someday you all will find peace.” She says as she leaves the room, “I will bring in the doctor again. Insha’ Allah.”
The so-called gate keepers of Dadin Kowa summon Bako whom they call Mijin Hajiya — man married to a Hajiya. The name has an abusive carpeting because Mijis are ordinary men while Hajiyas are golden women who in status tower above their husbands — Mijis.
In the form of a joke, Bako is told, “Fools are told proverbs.”
He knows what the gate keepers are casing, but he hunches his back and says, “Brothers, I don’t understand this wisdom.”
The demented laughter of the lot crash like thunder in his ears, and then their faces turn metallic. Their leader, a man with a fierce jaw, grunts so hard and spits out a gob from his mouth, aimed at Bako. It falls on Bako’s surviving leg with a plop.
“There is something you should have told your wife, Bako,” their leader says in a stentorian voice, “That she has too many things on her table, which don’t concern her.”
Bako pins his eyes to the sticky nuisance sitting on his leg like a raw yolk and the fly buzzing around it.
“There is no greater gift than what you have on that leg.” He hears someone say.
Then, he smiles his gratitude to them.
Bako comes home bellicose. He bawls daunting orders at Mama Maimuna with a tremor, which builds a volcano in his voice and shakes his crutches.
“Get rid of those people you are hiding or else I will chew you!”
“Bako,” she rails in a broken voice, “They are not just people. They are people’s children.”
“What difference does it make?”
“Put them in the proper light and you will understand.”
She emits a light sound as her teeth bite into her cheeks; then, she fights her tears with her thumbs and places her hands on her bosom.
“Bako, they could have been my children,” She says in a damp voice, her words escaping between sobs, “In fact, they are. Bako, they are my children.”
Bako twitches stormy eyes at her face greased with self-pity for not having a child of her own. He thinks. It is the first time he is seeing her like this, and it is like seeing a lioness yelp before an antelope. He hops away with a frustrated droop to his shoulder, muttering gibberish.
Mama Maimuna would have allowed herself to be a bit circumspect, at least to make Bako feel comfortable with being her Miji, but when Jologho appeared at her door with a Nikon slung on his neck, she knew the cause of the girls was one worth losing everything for.
She has archived that day in the depths of her mind when Jologho came looking for a room to rent — her peeping through a hole in her gate and raising a lamp to see his fighting face, her watching him remove his hat to bow to her in that charming way. Jologho had been dressed in a starched khaki and had the mien of a comrade waiting for an honourable death. It was only moments before she started asking him questions about his journey and his people that he began telling her about Dadin Kowa where he was posted to carry out his one-year National Youth service.
“You have come well. You will stay in that room without a fee,” she had said to him, pointing to a room near the outside kitchen, “But for now you must eat ground maize and mashed beans prepared with cow milk. Jologho, you must eat.”
The next day, Mama Maimuna had led Jologho into the girls’ room.
“I am thirteen.” Bilkisu had told him with laboured precision when he asked of her age. He could not lift his eyes from the heavy belly jutting out of her small body.
“What do you think you will give birth to?” He said to her.
She made a little motion with her hands on her belly and said, “I don’t know, maybe it will be a brother or maybe a small sister.”
He flashed her a puzzled smile that locked his chest and kept him from breathing well.
“And this is Farida.” Mama Maimuna’s voice had floated to him. She was standing beside a girl embracingh her folded legs with her henna-adorned hands. “Farida is fifteen and Farida is already a widow. Now, her late husband’s brother is after her.”
Jologho gasped. He did not know what to say to Farida whose eyes blazed with the muscularity of her in-depth sadness when she spared him her ghost of a smile.
He ventured in a gentle quick stutter, “How- How are you, Fa- Farida?” and wished she did not hear him.
But Farida heard him loud and clear like she had always heard people ask how she was, even when they already knew how crushing the weight of her horrible life was on her body, expecting the noble irony “I am fine!” accompanied with that hackneyed phrase, “Thank you”.
She replied with a lethargic swing to her shoulder, “I can’t remember,” and gave a fractional pause that put Jologho on tenterhooks. Then she towed on, “When last my mind was totally healthy. I just can’t remember.” Her words squeezed his heart until it became tomato purée and his blood prickled beneath his skin. Then, he cursed himself for asking her such a headless question. He bowed his head and looked away, hiding the tears that were gliding down his face.
Bako levered about noisily with a glower when Jologho and Mama Maimuna were having a fire conversation in the front yard, later on. Mama Maimuna knew he was smouldering from the heat of their words but it was too late, the fire could not be put out.
She waited with the fire for the women’s meeting to come and when it did come, she put it in her tongue and said to the women, “Our men deny us our daughters! They snatch them from us even before they are able to crawl out of their cots; then, they marry them off. The act is like looking at heirlooms and saying, ‘Gather them and burn them.’”
The women stared at her with hooded eyes.
“What do you have to say about this nonsense?” She thundered, “How many more shall we allow to slip away from us during their childbearing?”
They all heaved loud breaths of sadness but most of them felt she had been smoking her husband’s taba because they could not believe a woman could speak in that fiery way without been intoxicated. Others felt she was bewitched. Mama Maimuna was after their voices not what they thought of her, so she pressed her palms together and in a plaintive voice she cried, “Women, please answer me!”
Jologho took pictures of the girls and brought the tip of his quill to touch the inks of their contorted lives. Then, he made little notes about their disturbing experiences and dispersed them like seeds. He also sent emails with pictures showing the girls in their bunker to children oriented organisations.
In one, he wrote:
These are not plans or thoughts. These are urgent and dense words written with the ashes of children hacked by cultural distress here in Dadin Kowa and wherever this hideousness is practiced. They scream for action, not empathy or bemoaning eyes…
He went on, imploring the recipients to help cut the hard veins of the abuse because it was an apocalypse ravaging the girls.
We must not be barren like Mama Maimuna or be a visionary like her to feel for such girls. We should only have blood flowing in us to give a quick response to their consternation, wherever they are.
His camera clicked some more and he wrote some more, and like a flu, the fire engulfed many hearts. The Community Development Group he was part of gave the visionary thrust applause and made it their hump. Many editorials fed into his narratives and they spread the fire across the country. More than a thousand demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital and other cities carrying flaming placards and shouting words like:
“Say NO to Baby-Mamas!”
“Underage Marriage Is Infanticide!”
“Seventeen-Year Old Divorcée? HELL NO!”
A shaggy haired pundit wearing a T-shirt reading “Crush Corruption in Africa, Not Children Vulvas!”was interviewed on BBC, and she said it was not a matter of faulty religious or cultural ethics; that it was a strain of paedophilia that had hit the crotch area of many African men and made them have a vile affection for children. Her statement ensured a dialogue engaging the mouths of Africa and the outside world. That, too, was the fire.
The women in Dadin Kowa did their part by closing their stalls for a week after they watched Jeba’s body as it was covered in a minute grave. They had also heard that Mama Maimuna had narrowly escaped the edge of a cutlass wielded by an infuriated man whose bride-to-be, a girl of fourteen, had jumped in front of an incoming vehicle some days before she was to be joined to him.
All the while, Mama Maimuna shrank in the darkest part of her house, tearing her hair, escaping food, rebuking the eerie dream she had, thinking of all the girls, wondering how they were able to wear flowery smiles in the pictures despite the agony that shredded their skins, and blessing and praying for them in her parched voice before it was too late. She was also thinking of Jologho who had run into the dusk when bullets whizzed at him while he was taking his kind of pictures somewhere else.
Malik and the daylight children would chirrup at her closed door:
“Mama, hooray! At school we were told that a car with two sirens is coming from the UN and that NGOs are coming too. Is it true?”
“Mama, hooray! They said you are helping womankind and girlkind because of the girls you are protecting. What of mankind and boykind?”
“Mama, hooray! They say you may be collecting the Nobel Prize. What’s that?”
When she would not answer except with a bitter sigh, they would forsake their jubilant hoorays, and in toned-down voices they would say, “Mama, please! Open,” or “Mama, so you won’t eat even today?”
Now, the day fades away. The skies have become a murky ash expanse. Bats long lost appear tonight. Malik sees them floating around while arranging the crates used as chairs by the children who came to eat that evening. He runs in, lit with fear, and pounds on Mama Maimuna’s door.
“Mama, the bats. The bats!”
Malik’s words make her remember the dream again.
Mama Maimuna had seen herself fall and drown in choppy water that was gushing from Jeba’s grave while trying to disinter her. When she woke up, her body was wet as if it she had just come out of a river. She never stopped praying and making daily sacrifices afterwards.
She opens up with hasty hands and steps out like a ghost learning human steps.
“How many are they?” Malik asks.
She looks up with her sunken eyes. The bats are like black leaves rioting in the sky.
“Infinite. You should not think of counting them,” she says, rubbing his head, “They are like worries.”
After the boy trudges into the house, she spreads her prayer mat in the open, and says the A’uzu billahi again and again, seeking protection from Allah against dark forces, which she has always told Malik turn to bats when something really evil was to happen.
Few hours go by before she hears cold knocks on her gate. They are hardly of human hands. Each knock shakes her bones and stiffens her tongue. She gets up with her intimidated A’uzu Billahi.
“Kuzo chiki.” She says in a crumpled voice, asking the night callers in after she pushes back the latch of the gate.
“Salaam Aleikum! Salaam Aleikum!” They say to her with mouths stinking of taba as they stomp into her compound.
The most hateful thing about them is their salaam. It sends a sickening report down her bowel. Mama Maimuna knows they have come for her but she has no regret.
“Why bring peace with a cudgel?” She says to their leader in a confused monotone. He ignores her words and circles her with the unhurried stately rhythm of a cat, smiling and twiddling a twig between his teeth. Then, he looks at the well near the fence with an uncanny interest. He prances towards it and orders that the lock on the lid be broken.
Mama Maimuna’s breath bites their ears as they huddle around her, some of them passing stones like hot loaves to waiting hands. This whole time, the leader keeps donning his feral smile, his hands running over his chin.
Inside, in their haven, the girls breathe in the harshness of the night and they cringe. The blows on the well and the rattling of its lid freeze their hearts for some seconds. Then, they whisper to themselves in the entombing darkness, “We are finished, the end has come,” but they don’t cry because even if they do, it will not be like that of the daylight children. It will not move the night a single bit. Rather, it will sound like a silly joke cracked in a funeral parlour. They just wish the tentacles of their fear can choke them to death because they do not want to be taken away.
Mama Maimuna goes back to her prayer mat, adjusts the scarf around the sides of her face, and clutches her prayer bead so tight as if she wants to strangulate it. She is not able to frame the words of the A’uzu Billahi because by now her tongue has turned to a red concrete at the thought of the dream that has been haunting her. And so, she snaps the bead, baring her teeth in a growl.
Soon, fists are held up in the air. Hypnotic chants follow. Then sticks and stones begin to drum on Mama Maimuna’s huge body from everywhere. All she can hear above the bashing is not the cracking of her bones or the squelching of her flesh. It is her husband’s crutches thumping outside the compound.
She imagines Bako’s face dripping with sweat and shame— sweat and shame from not being able to stop them or wish the circumstance away.
After some time, the night quakes to the tune of a horrendous splashing sound from her good old well: keplunk!
Tega Oghenechovwen’s work plumbs the depths of innocence, experience, and psychic trauma. He has published works in Litro, Black Sun Lit. Kalahari
Review, Afreada, African Writer, Pencillite, and other venues. He currently
lives in Jos, Nigeria.
©Featured image is a girl with her friends courtesy USAID in Africa.