28 Sep The Cat-eyed English Witch: Excerpt from Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “The Whispering Trees”
The tiny corpse lay in a multicoloured bundle, cradled in the mother’s arm. She held out the bundle to me, showing me the innocent face that could have been sleeping but was now very dead. The mother’s brown eyes gleamed, not with grief but with a fiery hostility.
“You killed him, you wicked witch,” she hissed angrily.
The words stung me, like a vicious blow, like the heat had struck me when we first arrived Abuja. It was not particularly strange that she called me a witch; they all did anyway. They found my blonde hair attractive but my grey eyes unsettling. I don’t think they have seen many white women here. They call me The Cat-eyed English Witch and then I’d thought it was kind of…I don’t know, amusing perhaps. But with Manasa standing in front of me, a dead child in her hand; a child I‘d adored, and accusing me of having killed him, it was…shocking, to say the least.
It had begun in London one fine Saturday morning in Trafalgar square, six years ago, when I first met Bawa. I was sitting by a fountain, watching the pigeons strolling, pecking at the bread crumbs, pairing up and cooing, doing what pigeons do on a fine summer day. Behind me, I could hear the fountain, sighing sweetly like a lover’s voice. Then the pigeons fluttered their wings noisily, cooing wildly and scattered into the air from a threat I hadn’t noticed. Their soft under feathers seesawed gently down to the ground and then, there he was, standing.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said.
I looked at him. He was young and handsome, and very dark. I guessed he was Nigerian but couldn’t be sure.
I’d thought he wanted to eat them but felt embarrassed immediately.
“Oh, never mind,” I said instead and giggled at my thought. When I drew out a cigarette from my purse, he lit up a lighter.
“Care for a smoke?” I asked.
He shrugged, sat down next to me and took the cigarette I offered.
We got talking. He’d been a student on international scholarship. He was studying law, he said. He was thirty then and didn’t mind that I was two years older. I told him I was a financial consultant and he wanted to know exactly what that meant. We actually hit it off, sort of. He too loved parties and Dan Rhodes but found English theatres “lame”. He said they lack the “African vibrancy”.
A year later, after he’d graduated, we got married. He too didn’t want anything elaborate so we had a private ceremony at a small chapel overlooking the Thames. His family in Nigeria called. Half the time, I didn’t figure out what they were saying. Bawa told me they were so excited but his parents weren’t too pleased.
“We have to go and get their blessings,” he said.
“Someday, darling,” I said. “Right now, I don’t think I can get away from the office after this honeymoon business.”
“Neither can I,” he said.
I crushed the cigarette in my hand in the ashtray and said, “Come to bed, Hon, we’ll figure that out later.”
One night, he’d come home and told me that his father had died and he needed to go back to Nigeria, where he hadn’t been in seven years. He asked me to come along and I agreed. We landed in Abuja and made the 130 kilometre trip to his village, Akwanga, by car.
I didn’t have a clear idea what to expect but had half-expected to see semi-nude children, barely able to raise their skeletal hands, their wide, hungry eyes imploring, begging to be saved from…well, whatever. That was the image of Africa I had always seen on the BBC. But these people were vibrant, running about their businesses, displaying their colourful wares everywhere, their sweating faces smiling.
We were lodged in a single room – it used to be Bawa’s room. His grieving mother would not look me in the eyes as most of the others. We didn’t seem to have got off on the right footing. I hadn’t knelt to greet her, as my husband did. When I offered her a handshake she just put her head down. I later understood I’d been disrespectful. You waited until she offered you a handshake or a hug first. The family was large, the house was small but no one seemed to be complaining. I felt cramped by their communality but yet envied it. The way they did things together, like fetching water from the wells, preparing meals and just about everything else impressed me. Though, most of them spoke a kind of English; mostly pidgin actually, some of them were well schooled but still, they had problems understanding me.
“You speak English English,” one of Bawa’s cousins said, “you talk through your nose.”
Bawa was hardly ever around. He had to take care of the funeral and sort out his father’s assets, mostly with his uncles and aunties and just about everyone else in the extended family.
“Do you have to do everything?” I asked. “Your brother could handle it, couldn’t he? He seems responsible to me. He’s got three children, after all.”
“Lala may have three children but that doesn’t make him the first son. I am.” He didn’t need to add that the family’s been unhappy with him because he hadn’t visited home for quite a while. I think they hold me responsible for that too; apart from the fact that I hadn’t given the first son a child after six years of marriage. I’m a career woman, for Christ’s sake, I don’t want a baby!
Well after the funeral, Bawa was still kept busy with inheritance issues. I spend most of the day trying to read a book in the sun or watching the women work, pounding grains in mortars or blowing their breath into the embers in the tripods in order to cook faster. I could work on my tan that way. But Mama asked Lala to tell me that I am a married woman and ought not to be indecently exposing myself and smoking like that. Lala was very diplomatic in doing so but still, I felt trapped. I waited for Bawa to return that night.
“I’m going back to London.”
“I’ve got a great job with a nice corner office at Canary Wharf to think about.”
“But you took time off.”
“I’m mostly alone here in the middle of people who don’t understand me and you are not here most of the time!”
That got him angry and because I was wound up already, we had a row. He slammed the door on his way out. I needed a drink, so, I went out looking for a pub. I found a beer parlour instead; at least they had beer. I drank a little more than was good for me and someone had to call Lala to rescue his sister-in-law before she embarrassed the family any further. He made coffee for me and tucked me in.
The next morning, Lala came back carrying his baby.
“Thanks for everything,” I said, embarrassed.
“You are welcome.”
“Made a mess of myself, didn’t I?”
“Well, I have done worse.”
“Is that your child?”
“Yes, a boy.”
The boy, just five months old, was cute. He made me think of having one of my own. I held him while Lala talked to me. He told me why most of them would not look me in the eyes because they thought them cat like. Only witches have such eyes, they believed. He told me a lot of things about his family and culture that made me understand them better, made me think of having a go at making things work. We became friends. It was so easy being friends with Lala. He was a teacher at a local secondary school and it surprised me how well read he was. Only he’d never heard of Dan Rhodes before. I lent him “Anthropology and A Hundred Other Stories.” He was so thrilled when he brought it back.
I curtsied when greeting Mama and though we needed an interpreter, her smile said more. Though I could hardly manage any of the chores, they appreciated me for offering to help. Mostly they declined, saying the guest should rest. They seemed less afraid of me and less scary to me as well; most of them anyway, apart from Manasa, Lala’s wife. She was not well educated and had grown less friendly since Lala and I became close. She seemed to have developed this notion that we were equals of sorts because we were both married into the family. I had, at a point, thought that Lala didn’t spend hours talking with her as he did with me; I couldn’t imagine them doing that because he seemed a notch or two above her, well, a lot more notches actually.
I have come to appreciate this people perhaps as much as they appreciate me and I have learnt that we tend to be afraid because we build fences instead of bridges. Their situation is not ideal; not to me at least. Power supply is epileptic, they have problems getting clean water and I waste a lot just to shower. I simply can’t imagine life without a steady power supply or clean water but yet, here are people, living in the midst of these challenges and are able to smile and laugh, even under the scorching heat, the corruption, the institutional brutality and everything else. I realised I lived in a luxury I hardly appreciate.
I had carried Lala’s boy, strapped to my back, as children are carried in these parts. I found it tiring but enjoyable. And the next morning, his mother, Manasa, had come to me with a dead boy, demanding that I bring him back to life with the witchcraft I used in taking him the first instance. She made such a racket and woke the whole house. I cried.
Everyone came out and spoke to Manasa but she wouldn’t budge until Mama came out of her room and slapped her across the face. Then she broke down and cried. Mama hugged me and I wept on her shoulder.
How can I tell Manasa that I could never hurt her child because I adore him so much that it made me want to have one of my own; that I actually have one growing in me?
It’s just that I can’t say precisely whose it is.