The year Mama fell sick was the year Njideka confessed to me that she was a runs girl. I should have known. She walked around campus with shiny silk blouses hanging low on her shoulders, her stilettos making tiny dents in the earth. That year, the runs girls began to circulate the University of Port Harcourt campus. Or, maybe they’d always been around. Maybe I only noticed them that year, with their expensive outfits and accessories – money written all over their bodies – because Mama was falling apart, and there was almost nothing I could do.
A bird had flown over our compound with a mouse in its mouth. A black bird, maybe a crow. From the parlour window, we watched it fly. It was lovely and surreal, like a painting. Beautiful blue skies in the backdrop of blackness and death.
The bird dropped the mouse on the ground within a few steps of our front door. We found it that evening, just before sunset. Its tail was twisted around its body and its pelt had already stiffened by the time we saw it.
That evening, Mama snapped a branch off the guava tree in our backyard. She used the branch to pick up the mouse and to stick it in a plastic bag. I took the bag with me across the street, across the unpaved road, to the garbage dump there. I tossed the bag into the sea of trash.
Hours after I returned home, Mama began to feel sick. If Papa had still been alive, he would have chanted his usual saying: ‘The witch cried yesterday; the child died today. Who does not know the cause of the child’s death?’
But the doctors did not know. And even if they had known, chances are their diagnosis would have had nothing to do with the bird and the mouse. There were scientists, after all – not superstitious, like the rest of us.
It began with pain on the shoulder. Mama decided that for dinner we would have some goat meat in pepper soup, with more than the normal amount of utazi leaves. The leaves made the soup bitter. Mama said that the bitterness, in combination with the pepper, would chase the pain away.
But the next day she could barely move her left hand. We should have gone to the hospital straight away, but Mama said to hold off. They would charge us 2,000 naira just to see the doctor. That was the amount they charged the last time we went, when Mama was having all those sweats, followed immediately by chills. That time, the doctors ran their tests and told her she was fine. 2,000 naira wasted and nothing fixed.
There was no telling that the doctors would solve the problem this time. Besides, Mama was certain that it was the curse of the black bird. It was nothing a little praying and Bible reading couldn’t fix, she said. So, that second evening we read the Bible together, more fervently than ever.
NEPA had once again taken light away, but there was still a little glow from the sun, coming in through the windows of our parlour, which was where we prayed every evening, kneeling on the tile floor, our bodies resting on the seat of the couch. Happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty: For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole. He shall deliver thee in six troubles: yea, in seven there shall no evil touch thee. Her voice shook as she read. And the mosquitoes flew about the room, making soft whistling sounds near our ears. Mama must have found the sounds more irritating than usual, because suddenly she was no longer reading, and I was looking up to find her swatting the area around her head. And then she let out a piercing shriek: a sound I hope I never hear again for as long as I live.
When night finally arrived, Mama’s moaning had still not stopped. Hours passed but there was no sleep for her, and no sleep for me. The pain was somewhere on her back, she said, also inside of it, on the left side between the upper shoulder and the lower back. She could feel it also in her front. Just like what she would expect a heart attack to be, except there was no indication that her heart was the part in which the crumbling was taking place. It seemed the heart would be just fine, she said. Yet I observed the signs; all of them were far from promising.
In the end it was I who forced her to go to the hospital. We walked out the door early the next morning, taking small steps, my hands fastened securely around her waist.
‘Slower, Ada,’ Mama said.
I tightened my grip on her. ‘Ndo,’ I said. Sorry.
We took a taxi to the teaching hospital, one of those three-wheeled keke napeps that looked like something in between a minivan and a motorcycle. The roads were riddled with potholes, and in the keke napep, small as it was, we felt every one of those holes. Each time the vehicle bounced, Mama let out a yelp. And then she’d look at me, her eyes repentant, as if she’d somehow misbehaved.
I should have told her I loved her. But how? Aside from prayers and practical exchanges, we rarely even talked those days just before she fell ill. I was busy with my studies, and she was busy with the market. And so there were silences, as if we no longer valued spoken words, as if spoken words were gaudy finishes on a delicate piece of art, unnecessary distractions from the masterpiece, whose substance was more meaningfully experienced if left unornamented.
There was no longer the Mama who used to tie her scarves on my head, making bows or floral designs out of the tailpieces. No longer the Mama who used to take me on long strolls around the neighbourhood, buying me corn and native pear or roasted bole. Those days, she’d tell me jokes and we’d laugh out loud as if we were the only people in the world. Some nights, she’d even rub a little lipstick on my lips, and she’d take me to Papa and say, ‘Look how beautiful our daughter is!’ And Papa would say, ‘She’s beautiful even without all that lipstick.’ Mama would nod. ‘Of course,’ she’d say. ‘But every girl needs to learn how to put on lipstick.’ And we’d laugh, and I’d dance around and pucker my lips at Papa. He’d smile and humour me, until I grew tired of the show.
That Mama disappeared soon after Papa died. Year after year, she had grown less gregarious. Her mind was always on the market; how we would make money from the crops she sold to pay for this and for that. Of course, I understood her worry. Papa had gone and left us to fend for ourselves in a world where it was hard for a woman to do so honestly.
If I had tried to tell her I loved her on our taxi ride that day, it would not have made things any better. I would not have even known how to say it. Mama, I have something to say? Or, Mama, I’m not just saying this because you’re sick. I really feel it. Do you feel it for me, too? Or, simply, Mama, I love you. No matter how I said it, it would have felt contrived, because we no longer said such tender things. And so, I remained silent, only patting her lap gently each time the pain caused her to moan.
I sat on a chair in the corner of the examination room. The fan buzzed on the ceiling, and the fluorescent lights above were shining bright.
A bald-headed doctor entered the room. He took her blood pressure, which he reported was just fine. Then he unbuttoned her shirt, just enough that he could take a look at her chest. Her skin was a light shade of brown, and it was easy to see that there was redness and swelling in the area around and below her left shoulder. And in the corner where her sternum met the clavicle, just beneath her neck, there was a bulge.
He tapped around those areas. Every time he tapped, she yelped.
‘We’ll have to run some tests,’ the doctor said.
We walked down two sets of crowded hallways, descended two flights of concrete stairs, with flies buzzing, children crying and Mama moaning.
First they attached thin wires to her chest and arms with tape. Then the machine beeped and reported the results on a strip of pink graph paper: horizontal markings of lines that peaked and dipped at regular intervals. Perhaps it was her heart after all, I thought. But the electrocardiogram results were normal. Her heart appeared fine.
Next were the X-rays. I waited outside while the nurse took Mama into the room. It was afternoon by the time the results came back. The fluorescent lights had flickered off sometime during our wait, and the fan had slowed to a stop; NEPA had taken away the light.
‘The generator will come on soon,’ the doctor said as he entered the room. In the dim light, he introduced himself. He was charming, tall and young, with a full head of hair. His loafers were black and shone even in the dim light. He was a rheumatologist, he said.
According to the X-ray, there were no fractures in the bone but there were patchy lucencies in the head of the clavicle and destructive changes in it.
Because of the destructive changes, he said, an abscess – a localized fluid collection – had formed in Mama’s shoulder, a sign of infection in the area. He would insert a needle into the area where he was sure the abscess was located and drain it out. Then he would give Mama antibiotics through an IV to help ensure that the infection did not spread. She would have to be admitted to the hospital for all this to be done.
‘You’ll be just fine,’ he said.
‘It’ll be fine,’ I said to Mama, agreeing with the doctor. ‘It’ll be fine.’
I stayed at home with her the weeks after she was discharged, only leaving to run small errands: filling her prescription and stopping by the market to buy the ingredients for pepper soup.
My first day back at UniPort was about a month into Mama’s illness. I spent most of that day in a daze, not really hearing the lecturers, not taking notes in class. Outside of the lecture halls, I gazed at the other students, the wealthy ones who wore shiny shoes on their feet and, on their ears, tiny Bluetooth headsets – those wireless square buds, barely noticeable from a distance. I watched, transfixed by the way they displayed their wealth, the men swaggering, limping slightly on one leg, as if that leg were weak and dragged – in imitation of the way the American rap stars walked.
The girls had their own kind of swagger. They swayed their hips as they walked, hands dangling limply at their sides, as if they had no care in the world. Their patent leather handbags glistened, only a little less sparkly than the sequins on their stilettos. They drove Hondas and Jeeps. Their cellphones were always ringing, and they’d walk around saying, ‘Darling’ or ‘Sweetheart’, their voices turning more and more saccharine as they spoke. Such good humour must have been the soothing effect of having so much money, I thought, the effect of having so little to worry about. After all, there were only a few problems in life that money could not fix.
I was sitting on the cement steps of our classroom building when Njideka came to me.
‘Na wetin dey trouble you?’ she asked.
We were in the same government policy class. There were only two of us girls in the class. We would probably not have become friends if not for that. There could have been no two girls as different from each other. For one thing, her weave was always pristine. Sometimes I liked to imagine her head under all that artificial hair: I envisioned bald patches and a thinning hairline, and it was comforting to think that deep down, under all that perfection was a version of her that was just as imperfect as me.
That day, I shook my head and I told her that nothing was the matter.
‘Na your Mama?’ she asked.
I did not answer.
She patted me on the shoulder, gently, then began to rub my back. She wore her weave in loose curls that day. They tumbled around her shoulders. A soft wind was blowing and carried in it the scent of her hair conditioner, something floral and welcoming, like the scent of bergamot.
And so, I told her. That Mama was in pain, and the doctors did not know the cause.
‘You need good doctors,’ Njideka said. ‘Private doctors, not those underpaid teaching hospital doctors who are always going on strike.’
I shook my head bitterly and rolled my eyes at her. We could not even afford the teaching hospital doctors. How would we afford the private doctors?
‘At the private practices, they’ll have state-of-the-art technology, not that old, broken-down equipment that you find in the teaching hospital. There’ll be electricity, too,’ Njideka said. ‘Generators. No reliance on NEPA, which comes and goes like the wind.’
‘Mama says it’s the curse of the black bird,’ I said. ‘We’ll just stick to praying for now.’
‘Go to the private doctors,’ Njideka said. A command. ‘I know a good one I can refer you to.’
I shook my head. The sun was shining. The wind was stirring up the dust, and not too far from where we sat a light-coloured bird was perching on a branch. If this one would carry a mouse in its mouth and drop the mouse in front of our house, would it also be a curse? Or, would its near-whiteness reverse the curse of the black bird?
‘Do you hear me?’ Njideka asked.
I nodded. And I told her honestly, that we had no money.
Her phone began to vibrate. She picked it up. ‘Darling,’ she said. Then she cupped the speaker of the phone and whispered to me, in proper English, words impressively articulated, the way I knew she would speak to whomever it was on the phone: ‘I’ll help you out,’ she said. ‘Stop by my place this afternoon. I’ll be home.’
And with that she was gone.
I went to her flat after my final class of the day. Mama would not worry. She expected that I’d be late, with having to catch up with so much missed schoolwork.
‘I don’t dash money,’ Njideka said to me. ‘It’s not my style.’
I nodded. Not that I had come expecting that she would dash me the money for Mama’s doctor visit. All the same, in case I ever felt the urge to ask, I now knew better.
Her voice was more vibrant than ever that afternoon. And I latched on to each and every one of her words, her intonations, because there was freedom in them, the way they rang out confidently, without restraint, without worry. Nothing like words between Mama and me.
Her primary patrons were the Yahoo Boys, she told me. They were the ones who rolled into town in sleek cars and with pockets full of cash, even American dollars. I had seen many fancy-looking young men around campus, but I had just assumed that they came from wealth. It had not crossed my mind until that visit with Njideka that many of them built their wealth off internet fraud.
She also told me about the mugus, the older men, oil executives – often foreigners – overflowing with petro-naira. The mugus didn’t hang around campus but in fancy restaurants and hotels. They bought her jewellery and paid for her recharge cards, sometimes paying as much as 20,000 naira per month, because, of course, she had more than one phone.
‘It’s not hard work at all,’ she said. ‘Sometimes they just want you to have private dinners with them. Sometimes, they just want to look at and have an intelligent conversation with a pretty woman,’ she said.
Her television was on, and from the corner of my eye I could see the images fluttering across the screen. The room was cool, owing to the air conditioner. It was not something Mama or I had ever even contemplated buying – an air conditioner, let alone a television which took up nearly half the surface of one wall. I had not even thought that such a television existed until I saw it in Njideka’s flat.
‘You could pay for your Mama’s bills with the money,’ she said.
‘Abeg, comot from here!’ I said, glaring at her with my eyes wide open, shocked that she would even suggest such a thing for me. She could do as she pleased. But to go so far as to involve me in her sinful ways, that was another thing. ‘Tufiakwa!’ I said, snapping my fingers. ‘God forbid!’
‘You’re a pretty girl,’ Njideka said. ‘Or at least you can be. And I know of a man who would love a girl like you.’
She tugged the scarf that I was wearing around my head. Thin braids fell loose around my shoulders. She stood up and disappeared into one of the rooms of the flat. She came back holding a wide mirror, and a bag of beauty products: nail polish, lipstick, eye pencil, lip liner, small boxes of blush and eye shadow. ‘Ten minutes’, she said, ‘and I’ll show you what you can look like.’
She brushed the hair at the base of my scalp, straightening out the tight curls. She rubbed powder on my face, smoothing it on with soft cotton balls. The movement of her fingertips was hypnotic. Slowly I surrendered myself to her hands. She rubbed her blusher on to my cheeks. She finished with my lips. It was my same pale skin, my same bushy brows. But certain features had become magnified, and others had been changed, moulded to arrive at something more striking.
She took out a handful of plastic-wrapped packets from a small box which she had brought from the room. She stuck them in my purse. ‘Condoms,’ she said. ‘Just in case.’
‘I didn’t say I’d do it,’ I said.
‘Your mama is sick, and there’s a good chance you won’t even have to sleep with the man.’
‘My mama is waiting for me at home,’ I said, tossing the condoms from my purse. I picked up my headscarf and stuck my purse on my shoulder. ‘It’s sinful,’ I said, and walked out the door.
Back at home, there was no light, and I used a kerosene lantern to prepare Mama’s pepper soup. She’d still not grown tired of the soup, or perhaps she was still clinging to the hope that it alone could cure her of the curse.
I’d grown tired of it. I roasted a plantain and ate that with some tomato stew.
That night, Mama asked that I helped her to bathe. For a week, she had only been able to give herself sponge baths, because it was a painful chore for her to climb into and out of the bath.
I boiled a kettle of water on the kitchen stove. We waited till the sun had gone completely down, and then I poured the hot water into a bucket, took it to the tap outside and filled it with cool water, so that the mixture was just the right temperature for bathing.
There was a cement slab in the backyard on which we washed our clothes. Above the slab were wire lines on which we hung the clothes to dry. Mama stood on the cement slab. She crouched a bit, as if shielding herself from peering eyes. But our fence ran the whole way around the house. And the houses nearby were flats like ours, not high enough to allow the possibility of second-storey Peeping Toms.
It was the pain that made her crouch. And though it was mostly dark outside, the moon and stars shined brightly enough that I could make out the redness all around her shoulder and chest, starting just above her neck and down just above her breast.
With a small bowl, I poured the water down her shoulders, down her back. I lathered up a washcloth with a bar of soap and rubbed her skin gently with the cloth.
I poured the water down her breasts, lifted them one at a time and washed underneath. They were heavy and sagged, nothing like mine, though I knew that mine would surely one day become weighed down with age, too.
She squeezed her eyes shut each time the cloth touched her skin. It didn’t matter how gentle I was. The fear had been implanted in her, and so she’d squeeze so hard that wrinkles formed on her forehead and crow’s feet around her eyes. That night, it was hard to tell what the droplets on her face were: tears from so much pain and suffering, or merely splashes of bath water.
Even with the aroma of the soap, there was still something yeasty, almost stale, and a little honey-like about her scent. It was a smell that resembled that of the powdered milk which we used to drink our morning tea. And I thought, so this is what it smells like to be old and weak.
I imagined rubbing powder on her face, all over her body, smoothing her out, the way Njideka had smoothed me out. I imagined erasing the age from her face, imagined putting life into her cheeks. If only it could be as easy as rubbing some of Njideka’s blush onto them. But of course, that was not an option.
We prayed again that night and Mama read again from Job. Despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty: For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole.
‘You must speak good English,’ Njideka told me the next time we met. It was a Friday, after classes had wrapped up. I had told Mama that I’d run some errands, university business, pick up groceries at the market. Those types of things. She had nodded and told me she’d be waiting, whenever it was that I arrived. ‘None of this pidgin that we use when we are by ourselves,’ Njideka said. ‘These men are looking for intelligent women who can hold conversations with them.’ Of course, I could do just that. I could discuss budget and political issues comfortably. It was what I studied at the university. If I did well, I could bring in 500 dollars or more. American dollars.
I would do it just that one night. To get the money for Mama. To get the money so that I could take her to a specialist, one of the ones that Njideka would recommend. I’d tell Mama that I’d taken up a short-term job. It would be the truth. I knew she’d ask more questions. What kind of job? How did you find it? I’d figure out answers for those questions later, I thought.
Njideka did my make-up like she had that first afternoon. Then she lent me a red wrap-around dress, a little too tight on her, she said, but just my size. It formed a V-neck around my neck. I’d never before given any thought to my collarbone, but in the mirror that evening, I thought what a beautiful thing the collarbone was. And I thought how terrible that Mama’s was so damaged.
The man arrived in a BMW, a Be My Wife, Njideka teased. He was tall and dark, his simple linen buba and sokoto crisply ironed, and his shoes shone even in the dim evening light. He reached out his hand and took mine. He drew my hand upwards, and tipped his head just a bit as he placed a kiss on the back of my hand. He wore gold rings on three of his five fingers. They were not massive rings, but small diamonds circled each of them and sparkled so that the rings appeared much larger than they actually were.
It was supposed to be a simple dinner, at one of those fancy restaurants in G.R.A., Blue Elephant or G’s Barracuda, those expensive hangout spots for the wealthy. And it seemed that this would be the case, as we headed down Abacha Road, past the G.R.A. Everyday Emporium, that upscale grocery store with the escalators and security guards. But then he continued to drive, taking some turns and winding up in a place that, in the dark, I did not recognize. He stopped the car there and asked me to untie my dress. I shook my head, smiling just a bit, like a mother gently scolding a misbehaving child.
‘Come on,’ he said, his voice soft and pleading. ‘Don’t be afraid of me, beautiful Ada.’
My name on his tongue sounded vile. Like an insult. Or, perhaps I imagined it so.
‘What about dinner?’ I asked, trying to sound calm. ‘Let’s go eat first, and then we’ll go from there.’
‘Come on,’ he said again, his voice more gravely, more urgent. He lifted his buba, lifted it so high that I could see the drawstring of his sokoto and the dark coils of hair just above, on his belly.
I shook my head again. ‘Dinner first,’ I said, my voice shaking. Njideka had said that most of the men wanted nothing beyond dinner and maybe a kiss. How could I have been so unlucky as to wind up with this man? I began to cry, begging him to take me back home.
He patted me on the back, then opened his door and stepped out. He came around to my side, pulled me out of the car and into the backseat, all the while telling me not to worry, that he would not hurt me. Then all his weight was on me and he was pinning open my thighs with his, only pausing to tear open the condom from its plastic wrap. I screamed, but it was dark all around, empty space like in an open field. Who could have heard?
He dropped me off several blocks away from Njideka’s flat. It was just as well, I first thought. But as soon as I got off the car, I decided that I could not bear to see her. It would be like staring my sin straight in the face. It would have been too difficult a thing to do.
And so I walked home, many kilometres on bare feet, holding the sequined heels that Njideka had lent me. I found the stash of bills in my purse as I walked. One thousand dollars. All that money, because he must have known that I had never been with a man. Perhaps Njideka had told him. It was more than enough to pay for Mama’s visits to a specialist.
Mama was kneeling by the sofa, her arms and chest resting on its cushion, as if she’d been in the middle of praying. She was wearing her grey wrapper tied around her chest. She turned slowly, her eyes probing. She must have seen the streaks of mascara coming down my face, the blotched lipstick around my mouth, the dried bits of blood that had dripped down my thighs, a darker shade of red than the dress I was wearing. I went to her, kneeled before her. But she only shook her head. ‘Mama, ndo,’ I said. Sorry.
She shook her head again. Her eyes appeared sunken, and her shoulders appeared lower than ever before. She only shook her head, and then she walked away.
Days went by, and then weeks. Every day I made her pepper soup and brought it to her. But each time I went back for the bowl, the soup was just as I had left it, only cold. She did not speak to me.
Then one Saturday, I brought her pepper soup again in a tray, and for the first time since my night as a runs girl, she looked at me, her eyes dull. ‘It’s been a long time since we went to church,’ she said.
‘Tomorrow we should go to church.’
‘Yes, Mama.’ I wondered how she could possibly make it through the bus ride.
That evening I came back to collect her bowl of soup, and again, it was cold and untouched. She was leaning on the sofa again, as if about to pray.
I left her where she was and went off to wash the plates, to sweep the floors, to bathe. When I returned to her, she was still leaning on the couch. I called out to her. ‘Mama! Do you hear me? Mama!’ She did not respond. And then suddenly I was turning her around, checking for breath. And there was none.
Papa’s brothers and sisters came, and some of Mama’s cousins, too, distant relatives, many of whom I did not recognize. She did not have any siblings. Together, we buried her in the cemetery not too far from our flat, the same place where we buried Papa.
‘Ekwensu,’ some of the funeral guests called it, when I explained to them how the pain began. The work of the devil.
Sometimes I go to the cemetery to visit Mama and Papa. On days when I’m overwhelmed by shame, I go in the evening or at night, as if the darkness will somehow mask the shame. And I remember the days before Papa died, and if I listen carefully, sometimes I can hear Mama’s laughter ringing out, somewhere far away from the cemetery.
And sometimes I think that if I were to be placed in a valley full of bones, I would create a new Eve, create her from a new set of bones. And I would lay sinews upon her dry bones, and flesh upon the sinews. And I would cause there to be a noise, a clicking noise, and everything would fall in place. And I would cause breath to enter in, and this new Eve would live.
And this new Eve would walk amongst the trees of the garden. And she would drink from the waters of the river of the garden. And again, she would eat the forbidden fruit. But she would not be cast away from the garden, because she would be given the opportunity, just once, to ask for forgiveness. And she would be forgiven.
Photograph by Sergei Wolle