The first time was experimental, you could say,” said The Plug. “The prototype formula was underdeveloped, yes, but you must understand it was an emergency. Its deployment didn’t go too well, I’ll grant you that—but the misinformation wasn’t Kinjikitile’s fault. Trust me, this time, we’re going to avoid getting people unnecessarily executed.”
Judging from the facial expressions of the twelve women who had spent the last half hour being attentive members of The Plug’s audience, her implored trust would not be so easily won. Although the women had all made informed and semi-convicted choices to attend this meeting, there was still far too much new information to assimilate. Out of the twelve, only one woman was even vaguely aware of modern-day Tanzania’s historical Maji Maji rebellions. Certainly, none of them had heard the name Kinjikitile before. Everything about this evening’s affairs was foreign to them, not least The Plug herself.
The Plug was a petite Kenyan woman who commanded attention with her mere presence. Her lips were painted with matte lipstick, a deep purple shade that seemed to trap and conceal all light that dared fall on it. Her monochrome, robe-like attire, which draped over her from shoulders to ankles, matched her lips. The darkness of these was offset by a vivid, predominantly-magenta kitenge headwrap, made of the same fabric as her hoop earrings. She looked like she had stepped right out of an indie magazine whose issue theme for the month was Afrocentricity. Similarly, the quirky little café-like shop in which the women were congregated looked like the perfect potential backdrop for The Plug’s feature portrait on the magazine’s cover page.
The Nümajique was only in its second month of business, and in the eyes of many—especially the men—business wasn’t going splendidly. The residents of Cape Coast accused it of being uninventively modelled after the multitude of bougie hipster shops that were cramping the already-narrow streets of Accra’s hotspots. They complained it was for rich people, or tourists, and asked why they would bother ordering queer Swahili-named cocktails when there was Guinness at the bar on the next street. Besides, they argued, the place looked like a bona fide witches’ den.
Sitting on the Nümajique’s wooden stools, with the only lighting in the room being the dim flames from the sparse candles, the women didn’t have a hard time understanding the critics’ last point. On the shop’s walls, masks from different regions of West Africa, both malicious and intriguing, were almost haphazardly hung from nails. They were interspersed with vibrant Afrofuturistic photographs, including portraits of a man The Plug told them was called Cyrus Kabiru. The shelves were lined with miscellaneous books, sculptures, bowls and vases. The floors were carpeted, and nearly all the furniture was made of the same type of rustic log that was intentionally designed to look like it wasn’t so intentionally designed. The room smelled like a combination of furniture polisher, citronella, and a few more eccentric scents from the candles. The shop had the ethereal charm of a place you might visit when neither counsel nor cleric could help you.
But the women hadn’t come for magic; they had been drawn here by the allure of freedom.
On the table before each woman was a uniquely-decorated calabash, full to the brim with liquid that both looked and smelled like palm wine, and which nobody had yet drunk from.
“Who are the bold ones that dare to take the first sips?” The Plug lilted.
Nobody moved for a drink.
“What happens if it doesn’t work?” a woman suddenly asked, the challenge in her tone considerably diminished by a tremor on the last word.
The Plug unfolded her arms and rested them on the table from elbows to her fingertips. Her many cowrie shell rings gleamed against her deep skin. “There are only two options,” she said. “One is to keep living the way we live, constantly fearful, always apprehensive, never able to walk five steps without looking over our shoulders. The other is to drink the new maji and at least test the potential for true liberation. If nothing, happens—as you Ghanaians like to say—nothing spoil, right?”
Maji. A Swahili word that meant “water.” A word also closely associated with the conflicts in the Tanganyika region at the dawn of German colonization, a little over a century ago. Back then, a mysterious maji was rumored to be a “medicine” with the power to incite the spirit of protest—especially within Africans, to resist their would-be European colonizers. The oppositional reaction to the maji was characterized by disorganized crackdowns on “witchcraft,” preemptive executions of suspected “sorcerers,” several small and large wars, and ultimately successful German colonization. The maji had been as incentivizing as promised and yet had not accomplished its real ends, at least according to The Plug’s interpretations of history.
But now maji had been redesigned, repurposed, and was currently being redistributed across Africa by women like The Plug—idiosyncratic evangelists armed with both the gospel and the holy water of liberation.
The two women in their early twenties who had come in together exchanged weighted glances, deliberating between themselves entirely non-verbally. They did not know if The Plug had presented a convincing argument, but they agreed that they hadn’t left their residences on a Saturday evening for this witches’ den, just to return home without at least validation or nullification of their doubt. If there truly was a way out of the trials of life as they knew it, it would be unacceptably sinful to simply let it go. Besides, why pass up a good drink?
After a few seconds, with steeled resolve, they lifted their respective calabashes to their lips and did not lower them again until they were empty.
“Ah, just look at that!” said The Plug, clapping triumphantly. “Our two brave women who understand that their freedom is better than fear. My sisters, the revolution is upon us!”
Having taken inspiration from the two women, some of the others now tentatively approached their drinks and began to drain their calabashes.
Keli and Aba walked out of the Nümajique close to midnight, the last to leave aside The Plug herself, whose home lay mere steps behind her shop. Outside the Nümajique’s sequestering walls, the residential area of Cape Coast was eerily quiet.
“Are you sure this is a wise testing method?” asked Keli.
“Babe. I’m not known for doing wise things,” Aba responded. “Anyway, I have pepper spray a second out of reach. We’ll be fine.”
On the curb, Aba shrugged off her jean jacket, exposing her shoulders and a significant portion of her ample bust through her black, spaghetti-strap top. Rather than tying the jacket around her waist, she rolled it up and stuffed it into her large purse, leaving the view of her buttocks unobstructed. Her mini shorts were tight, designed so that the blue denim faded gradually to white at the focal points dead center of each butt-cheek. From her upper thighs down to her sandal-strapped feet was a long stretch of bare brown flesh. Beneath the light of a nearby street lamp, her silver hoop earrings sparkled.
“Heish,” Keli exhaled.
“Yes, that’s the intended reaction.”
Aba grabbed Keli’s hand and they began the fifteen-minute walk to their residence. Everything from the emptiness of the streets to the brazenness of their actions felt unsafe. Keli’s fingers were tense against her companion’s deliberately steady grip. Her mind swam with terrifying statistics and horror stories from recent weeks. Ripped flesh. Knife scars. Congealed blood. Dead bodies left to rot in gutters. What the hell did they think they were doing?
“Do you feel any different?” asked Keli.
“Nah,” said Aba. “But I don’t think you’re supposed to feel different with the new maji. It’s supposed to, like, kick in on its own, activated by specific chemicals in your brain, if I understood The Plug correctly.”
They walked for a few minutes in silence before they reached a better-lit area, populated with late night bars, kiosks, and significantly more people. Music from different pubs melded with each so that no song or genre was uniquely identifiable.
They reached the end of the lively street and turned at a junction onto a road where the music from behind them faded until it was barely audible. They were now in the notorious spot between the Nümajique and their own street, landmarked by a Presbyterian church whose brick walls rose formidably into the sky, casting a shadow that might either embolden or petrify whomever it immersed, depending on one’s intentions.
Aba’s heartbeat began to quicken without her permission. Before she could act on her own fear, Keli squeezed her hand tightly and stepped closer to her so that their upper arms rubbed against each other’s.
Suddenly, out of the darkness came an uncomfortably common, local catcall. “Sss! Mmwh, mwwh, mwwh!” An ugly sound, like obscenely kissing the air.
Keli inhaled sharply.
“Don’t turn around,” Aba warned under her breath.
The catcalling man emerged from a shadow at the side of the road. The women located his form in their peripheral visions, heard his footsteps quickening behind them.
“Sss!” he repeated. “Hey, fine girls, can’t you see I’m calling you?”
“Don’t react,” whispered Aba fiercely.
Together, they forced themselves not to increase their paces, not to turn around, to feign deafness.
From yet another shadow, a second pair of footsteps joined the first. The women flinched slightly but refused to break their strides.
“HEY!” came a savage bark from almost directly in front of them, and this time, they couldn’t help but jump. There were now two men behind them and one blocking their path forward. Surrounded. They halted.
With their lean bodies, tank tops, tattered jeans and snapbacks, the three men looked like terrible imitations of Americans who’d just emerged from a 2009 jerk video.
“Ahoɔfε one and ahoɔfε two,” said one of the men from behind, even as the man in front continued to close in. “Small talking that we’re trying to talk to you and you are doing like you’ve not heard? Twεn na yεndi nkɔmmɔ kakraa.”
“We’re not interested,” said Aba in a voice that shook more than she’d have liked.
The third man—the one who’d barked—launched into an aggressive rant. “Mtchew!” he scoffed. “You no dey want attention, but you dey waka with this your ashawo dressing at this time of night? With a too-known attitude on top, and you expect to go scott-free?”
“You better not touch her!” Keli cried shrilly.
He sneered. “Kwasia, what can you do?”
He approached Aba faster than either woman could have anticipated, but just when his palm was inches from the flesh of her upper arm, an apparent collision caused golden sparks to fly and he jerked his hand back as though burned. His expression was one of pure astonishment. Keli and Aba glanced at each other, equally in disbelief about what they had just witnessed.
Aba recovered quicker. “Let’s go,” she urged Keli.
The men behind them must not have seen or understood what had befallen their companion. One of them called, “Where do you think you’re going?” and charged at them.
Alarmed by the increasing closeness of his steps, Aba whirled around, ready to block him with her hands. Her rotation produced a precipitous gust, and the approaching man froze in place, in the middle of a leap, feet splayed apart, both an inch above the air. After a second, the air released him, and he crumpled.
This time, the look the women shared was of amazed delight. The maji is working! The Plug had told the truth! Newly encouraged and grinning, they released each other’s hands, turned around and continued in the direction of their residence. Two of the three men tried to follow, but their pursuit was fruitless, for they were forcefully repelled each time they got too close.
“Next time, if you see girls walking and minding their business, you’ll leave them alone!” Aba mocked loudly, from several feet away.
All three men began screaming abuse at them, but their voices faded as the distance between them and the women increased.
When the women turned the junction to their street, Aba stopped and grasped Keli by the shoulders, unable to constrain herself any longer. “Keli! This medicine thing—the new maji—it works! It actually works! Do you know what this means?!”
“It means we’re inviting every woman we know to the Nümajique tomorrow?” Keli ventured.
“Do you understand how important this is?” Aba exclaimed, wide-eyed and beaming. “The game has officially changed! Like, forever.”
Ivana Akotowaa Ofori (@_Akotowaa ) is a Ghanaian storyteller. Self-styled as “The Spider Kid”, she is a weaver of words in many forms, including fiction, non-fiction and spoken-word poetry. She has been longlisted twice for the Writivism Prize, first for nonfiction and second for fiction. Some of her work appears in the Flash Fiction Ghana anthology, Kenkey for Ewes and Other Very Short Stories. When she is not reading or writing, she is likely to be raving online and in person about frustrations with school and life, or about her great love for the color purple.
Related country: Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya