Swirls of dead ashes wafted out from the opposite shop, followed by the pull of something heavy, then the gentle sweep of the floor with a broom. More ashes, swirling and swirling, mingling with the dust from the sweeping and turning everywhere into a whitish gauze. Abu preferred to watch Mama Ghana this way, on most mornings. He would idly stand outside the entrance of his sewing shop, watching as she cleaned hers, yesterday’s ashes expelled from the belly of her charcoal pressing iron and her Butterfly sewing machine put back into place.
Like Mama Ghana, Abu was a tailor, and he was quite popular in the shopping complex, a popularity he had milked when he decided to contest for treasurer in the Tailors’ Union and then won. He had seen it all, tailors falling in love and thrusting their wedding invitations into his hands, apprentices getting pregnant while still under their bosses and coming back a year later with babies swaddled in lush wool, rows of shops with costly goods ravaged by mysterious fires, thieves mobbed for stealing phones and women’s purses.
But what he had not seen was Mama Ghana — she was old, tall and slender, her skin wrinkly and once light, weathered by too much time in the sun. And although she was Ghanaian, she fluently spoke French, Yoruba, and Pidgin. She knew the dynamics of grassroot commerce, knew how to haggle with traders and knew where to get the rarest of commodities.
She wasn’t, and this surprised Abu, one of those kenkey-and-fish-loving Ghanaians who made such a big deal about kenkey and fish. Not that she hated the meal. Afternoons found her seated outside her shop, to escape the heat, eating ofada rice from fresh green leaves. Or often, amala and ewedu and generous rings of crooked dried fish, the amala looking like a robust island in the surrounding sea of the greenish soup.
Though he found it silly at first, there was a lecturing, philosophical side to her that captured him; her words held him in its gentle clasp, words that he secretly held close to his heart until he felt new by them, burnished into a better man. He even liked the abrupt questions she often asked him, strange though they were. Questions like “What if you died tomorrow?” or “Are you happy with your marriage?” and Abu would pause, mid-sewing, and when he was ready to give an answer she would change the subject, carrying on with whatever she was doing.
He was, indeed, not happy with his marriage because of the way he had been treating his wife Helen, holding back on sex, kissing and touching her less. He was conflicted with his sexuality, even before now, feeling vague attractions for men here and there, and he hated it. And that hatred had started to leak into his marriage, scorching their love and wrinkling the atmosphere.
Just the other day he had seen eleven-year-old Ibrahim, his eldest child, swivel into the sitting room where Abu sat, wearing his mother’s heels, his nails a polished red blur. The colour matched the lipstick smeared on his lips. He had come to present himself to Abu, posing for appraisal. He had meant well, young and naïve as he was, but Abu had felt something like a floating threat, barbed and prickly. His son was recognisable and unrecognisable, familiar and unfamiliar, and he saw, in his son’s steady balance in those heels, a poison he mustn’t consume.
“Do you want to kill my son?” From nowhere Helen appeared in the room, her head wrapped in a green gauzy scarf that held the smell of spices; it loosened as she pushed him away from a subdued Ibrahim, whose head had been squashed between two throw pillows on the couch.
“What is wrong with you?” she shouted.
“Something is wrong with me.” Abu said quietly to Mama Ghana. There was no power, as usual, and generator sounds from neighbouring shops choked the air. The heat had drained the morning languor, and so most tailors were forced outside, spreading fabrics on tables and cutting, preparing their charcoal irons for pressing. Mama Ghana was preoccupied with the off-shoulder ankara dress she had made recently. She made bou-bous and bubas, gowns and skirts, all to the delight of her customers who rarely complained about her work.
From the tilt of her head, and now looking over a catalogue featuring bleaching, large-hipped Lagos women in different dress styles and patterns, Abu thought she hadn’t heard him. So he went into his shop and hauled his sewing machine outside. Settling down to work, his stomach grumbled. Helen had been starving him, and even when he had access to the kitchen he was burdened by what to prepare.
“What is the time there?” Mama Ghana stared at him.
Abu glanced at his watch.
“Quarter to eleven.”
Mama Ghana continued to stare.
“Did you sleep well?”
“I slept well.”
“Your face is dull small,” her eyes darted past him, “Ah, look, we have visitors.”
Gina’s voice was the first thing he heard, loud and boisterous. Her big, fleshy body filled out in the leaopard-print jumpsuit she wore, her feet crammed into black kitten heels. She gave Abu the impression that she could handle men, even beat them if they misbehaved. A tailor as well, her shop was a walking distance from Abu’s and six apprentices worked under her, all women, subservient and faithful. Once, when he went to visit Gina as he often did, one of her apprentices had told him that she would never leave Gina. Her name was Yewande and she was new and pretty and tentative, and always wore skirts that were inches too short. Gina’s voice reeled him back to the present. “London tailor!” she hailed Saheed, who was passing by in a cloud of alcohol, drinking cheap gin from a sachet and holding a scissors, which made him appear vaguely dangerous.
“I dey come! I dey come!” Gina was all smiles and bounce, hailing everyone by their nicknames. She was in the company of two white people, a man and a pregnant woman. The woman had corn-blonde hair plaited in long, unfinished cornrows, she wore beetle-eyed sunglasses and had a careless, thrown-on appearance, as though she had just crawled out from bed. White sneakers, jeans, and a manly free-fitting shirt to accommodate the swell of her belly. The man had the same blondness, roguishly handsome with a cleft in his clean-shaven jaw. He looked simple and ordinary, in carton-coloured shorts and a T-shirt that said “Find Me At Salt Lake.”
“How far?” Gina landed a friendly pat on Abu’s back, gave Mama Ghana a mock salute, and introduced the white couple, “This is Lizzy and Andrew. They are from the States.” She said “States” with a full, comical show of her teeth, and turned to Lizzy and Andrew for agreement.
“Hi,” They shook his hand, smiling, meeting his eyes. Abu knew why they were here. From time to time Gina brought jobs to him; her customer base was larger and sometimes she got swamped and was unable to meet demands. Like this one. Lizzy and Andrew were in Nigeria for Ronke Dosunmu’s traditional wedding. They were, based on what Gina had told him, good friends with Ronke Donsumu, granddaughter of the Olowu of Owu.
“This is the aso ebi,” On Mama Ghana’s cutting table Gina placed a paper shopping bag, from which she removed a bundle of cream French lace, “Is it fine?”
“It’s fine,” Abu wasn’t lying. The lace was delicate, exquisitely soft and transparent in some places. “How many yards is this?”
“Nine or ten yards,” Lizzy’s voice was muffled. Abu glanced at her and saw a thick chocolate bar in her hand, her cheeks bloated. He had been avoiding to look at Andrew because his face was distracting, but when Andrew bent over to retie Lizzy’s laces, Abu found his gaze leaping to rest on his behind, then down to his strong calves sprinkled with hair. Then a thought struck him: Lizzy didn’t impregnate herself, it was the doing of Andrew, which meant he was virile and capable, and Abu found, again, that he was aroused by this, this evidence of potent masculinity.
“Yes, yes, the agbada will have embroidery.” Gina was saying.
“Why is it big?” Andrew looked amused.
“You mean the agbada?” Abu caught Mama Ghana staring at Lizzy.
“That’s the way we make the agbada.” Abu smiled.
“Where can I get African beads?” Lizzy put her free hand to her throat, “I’m thinking coral to match the cream.”
“I’ll take you to where you can buy them.” Gina assured her.
“I’d like to speak with you please.” It was Mama Ghana. She moved towards them and held Lizzy’s hand tentatively.
“Oh,” Taking off her sunglasses, Lizzy looked from Gina to Andrew and back to Mama Ghana, “Is there a problem?”
Mama Ghana said nothing.
“Yes?” There was a chocolate stain on Lizzy’s teeth.
“You haven’t chosen a style yet.” Abu intervened. He wanted Mama Ghana to go inside her shop and mind her business, but she hovered and stared, infecting everyone with a mild restlessness.
Gina’s phone rang.
“The baby.” Mama Ghana said at once.
“What baby?” Lizzy indulged her.
“The one you carry.”
“Call me back, call me back,” Gina said hurriedly into her phone.
“Evil.” Mama Ghana slowly pointed at Lizzy’s belly.
Lizzy clung to Andrew.
“You are harassing my wife,” Andrew’s face hardened. He stepped in front of Lizzy, as if to shield her.
“What’s this madness?” Gina relaxed on one leg and gave Mama Ghana a caustic look, “Don’t you have work to do?”
“This is not madness. I’m sure about this. Listen to me when I—” Mama Ghana stopped, blinked a few times and said “I can prove it” as she scooted backwards.
“She is always like this,” Abu was embarrassed, watching Mama Ghana as she disappeared into the dimness of her shop. He felt the need to lie again, to smoothen the air, “She can be unstable sometimes, seeing things that are not there, making up stories and things like that.”
“Yes,” Gina didn’t have to lie with him, but Abu appreciated it.
“Maybe a mental illness,” Andrew’s tone had changed, from defensive to sympathetic, “She could be ill or only God knows what.”
“Or she could be telling the truth,” Lizzy turned to Andrew, “Remember how we lost the others?”
“Don’t bring that up,” Andrew cooed in a silly-soft voice, rubbing Lizzy’s shoulders, his knuckles turning slightly red as he did so.
“Please come to me, my dear,” Mama Ghana beckoned to Lizzy. She stood at the entrance of her shop holding a fat translucent candle, her other hand fisted close, concealing something. Several seconds elapsed and then Lizzy moved, surprising Abu. Don’t bring that up, Abu wondered what Andrew meant. His head was a cauldron of thoughts. He didn’t know what to make of Mama Ghana’s sudden intuition about Lizzy’s baby, and Lizzy’s willingness to participate. Andrew followed her closely. Exchanging glances, Abu and Gina moved behind Andrew.
Once inside Mama Ghana’s shop, Abu adjusted his eyes to the dimness. Much further inside, Lizzy had positioned herself in front of the tall cubicle shelf. Mama Ghana unclenched her hand and starting from behind Lizzy, she sprinkled what looked like salt and moved slowly round until a circle was formed, trapping Lizzy in it. She lit the candle and while a pool of hot wax gathered around the wick, Gina pulled Abu closer to her.
“So she is a witch?” she asked.
Abu realised he couldn’t answer.
“She has to be a witch.”
“Stay still,” Mama Ghana warned Lizzy, moving round with the candle tilted down, so that the wax poured onto the circle of salt. Then, gingerly, she placed the melting candle at an angle from Lizzy, within the circle. Dusting her hand against her wrapper, she stood aside to observe.
“Now what?” Andrew shifted a foot.
“We wait.” Mama Ghana had the cock-sure confidence of someone who had done this before.
“Wait for what?” Abu didn’t understand.
“The flame of the candle will turn black, proving I was right.”
Everyone waited. The candle burned brightly, a steady buttery glow. Lizzy, fair and gravid, drew in a sharp intake of breath. She looked at Andrew, and in that moment something was communicated between then, warm and intimate. It was also in that moment Abu discovered that the door was shut. Not sure if he had closed it or not, a pressure was building in his bladder, the urge to urinate. A movement swept the wall and he swung, out of panic. A hulking shadow, belonging to Mama Ghana, writhing up as the candle flame bobbed, swayed, flickered and then turned black, then extinguished itself in a wisp of smoke. The room was held in a collective breath, frozen in silence. Then without warning Lizzy made a sound, an agonizing cry that splintered the silence like cracked glass. Andrew shuffled towards her. Mama Ghana removed the candle. Gina ran out of the shop and Abu lost control of his bladder: a trail of urine dampened his right leg, unnoticed against the black chinos he wore.
“What do we do?” It was Lizzy’s turn to rub Andrew’s shoulders. Her voice trembled, laced with things unsaid.
“What happened to your last child.” Mama Ghana moved past the cubicle shelf and into a smaller room partitioned off by a curtain. It wasn’t a question. She knew. She somehow knew things about the lives of this white couple, and Abu could only stare.
“He died.” Shaking, Lizzy let her head fall against Andrew’s chest, averting her tear-streaked face, as if her response brought her shame.
“A stillbirth.” Andrew added.
“How about the first one.” Mama Ghana was scattering things, rummaging, shoving and pulling, letting things fall and clatter.
“A girl. We lost her too.” There was a sadness in Andrew’s voice, a memory being dredged up that brought back an echo of pain.
“Your children were stillbirths because they were made to become stillbirths,” Mama Ghana emerged and hastily tied back her wrapper, “Someone did this to you.”
“Like a spell?”
“Are you saying voodoo was done on me?” Lizzy couldn’t believe it.
“I sensed the evil when you came in and I know how it works. It’s called Dngali, a concocted drink using the dried placenta of a stillborn child as one of its ingredients. It’s usually given to pregnant women so they can have the misfortune of having a stillbirth.”
“Oh my God,” she swallowed, “My sister.”
“Nancy?” Andrew asked.
“She is always giving me this drink that tastes funny,” Lizzy rushed her words, “Every now and then she would come by and make me this drink it and say it’s good for my pregnancy,” she looked at Mama Ghana with a spark of realisation in her eyes, “Oh my God, she is been doing this to me this whole time, killing my babies and now she wants to do it again,” she turned to Andrew, “That bitch! Look at what she’s done to me. She is my sister and she did this to me.”
“You sister had a stillbirth too?” Abu found his voice.
“Yes!” Lizzy said angrily, knocking down a pile of old fashion catalogues from a table, her face almost feral, and Abu was mortally afraid she would hurt herself and put her baby in even greater danger.
“Why would your sister do this to you?” he asked.
“Because she is a cold jealous bitch.” Andrew had been stung by his wife’s justified anger, and the blue in his eyes flared, intense.
“Can you help us?” Lizzy pleaded, then she touched her stomach with both hands, a frightening horror freezing her face, “My baby, I can’t feel it kick anymore. I can’t feel anything. Has my baby—”
Mama Ghana skipped over to the door, shut it, and came rushing back, “How many months is the baby?”
“Six months,” Lizzy and Andrew said in unison, their voices raw with panic.
“It might be too late for me to do anything,” Mama Ghana snatched a pen nearby, tore a piece of paper from a thick loosely-binded measurement book on which she scribbled something, and squeezed the paper into Abu’s sweaty palm.
“I couldn’t find what I was looking for,” Mama Ghana carefully approached Lizzy, “but I have to proceed without it.”
“What were you searching for back there?” Abu was tempted to read the paper but he decided against it.
“Protection,” Mama Ghana placed her hands on the round bulk of Lizzy’s stomach, “Protection from the Dngali. I have to fortify myself or the power of the Dngali will kill me if I try to draw it out from the baby.”
A silence reigned.
“Helping me will kill you?” Lizzy choked.
“I have made my decision,” Mama Ghana smiled sadly.
“And there is no other way?” Andrew wanted to be sure.
Mama Ghana ignored him. She focused, eyes closed, her fingers splayed out on Lizzy’s stomach. She moved her lips, a murmuring, an incantation of some sort. Abu drew near, listening hard but what she was saying didn’t make sense to him. She murmured and hummed, then did both at the same time, her voice going up a notch, unwavering in her focus. Abu willed her to succeed. Andrew had his hand meshed with Lizzy’s, and Abu took it as a joining of their faiths in Mama Ghana.
Suddenly, she grimaced, her mouth tightly crinkling as though she had swallowed something bitter. The flesh on the back of her palm, almost diaphanous, showed green veins through which a darkish substance flowed from Lizzy to her, colouring her veins black. Mama Ghana put up a tough face, even though she knew that the Dngali was killing her. More and more, the Dngali polluted her body and Lizzy gasped, partly in guilt because Mama Ghana was doing this to save her child and she, Lizzy, wanted same as well.
Toxic, poisonous, Mama Ghana’s face was webbed with the Dngali and she succumbed, buckling, then pulled herself up but only to buckle again, this time caving under weak legs. Quickly Abu cushioned her fall, and rested her head on his raised knee.
“Is she okay? Lizzy panicked, leaning over Abu.
Mama Ghana was the picture of death. She had shrunk, a withering of her skin, her face blighted by a paleness. A rush of emotion overwhelmed Abu, and a phantom watery sensation blocked his ear, as if he had gone deaf. But he could still hear Lizzy saying “I can’t believe she is dead. I can’t believe she is dead” as she sobbed into Andrew’s chest and the unsettling noise that came from the push of the door heralding Gina’s voice. She laid a proprietorial hand on Abu’s shoulder. Holding the piece of paper Mama Ghana had passed to him, he read her words nervously even as more voices trickled in and a harsh light shafted the room.
“I heard you,” her words said, “Free your heart and be happy.”
Bernard Dayo (@) is a speculative fiction writer and a pop culture writer for The Naked Convos. When he isn’t watching his favourite TV shows, he constructively uses Twitter for anti-oppression work and social justice. His first novel The Year of the Space Mission is forthcoming.
Related country: Nigeria
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