For the last few weeks, I’ve been grappling with a singular question: Has African science fiction influenced African technology and design? The answer is, well: yes and no. Science fiction and science fact have always been linked to each other, and it’s no different in Africa. The problem is that there just isn’t enough home-grown scientific innovation or science fiction in film and literature to say exactly how the two influence each other. And for a lot of the same reasons.
For one thing, neither African science fiction nor African innovation are clearly defined terms.
Speculative storytelling has had a long history on the continent. However, no one has been quite sure what to call these tales. There’s certainly a difference between the kind speculative fiction written by those invested in Africa and her future, and those merely set in Africa – where the continent acts as an exotic prop or backdrop. It’s the difference between H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines about European adventurers in Namibia in 1885 and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard a retelling of a Yoruba folk tale written in the 1930s.
However, as academic Mark Bould notes, the term African science fiction risks homogenising a diverse continent and casting these stories as an exotic subset of a “normalised” Western form of the genre. Even Nigerian-American sci-fi author Nnedi Okorafor is wary of the term.
“How do I define African SF?” she wrote in a 2010 essay. “I don’t. I know it when I see it.”
No one is quite clear on what African scientific innovation is, either. There has been a lot of celebration of the rising numbers of young Africans at the forefront of inventive applications for the web and mobile phones. In an Okayafrica article, African-British activist, Toyin Agbetu praised these innovators saying:
“The young geeks clustered around the iHub in Nairobi and MEST in Accra have started to move the conception of Africa from victim of technology to its masters.”
But this concentration on urban tech hubs, what one article dubbed “Silicon Savannahs”, ignores the quieter forms of innovation that happen when Africans remix and repurpose existing technologies. For instance, the four Nigerian girls who found a way to run a generator on urine or the young Malawian man who built wind turbines out of spare parts are actually at the forefront of a long history African innovation, but are often praised as special cases rising improbably from obscurity.
As Agbetu rightly noted, to the average African mechanisation is not progress. Those who have seen large-scale construction projects such as hydroelectric dams stall and fail because of corruption, poor construction and shoddy maintenance are bound to view mechanisation with suspicion. They fear that it comes with extractive or exploitative processes.
Another problem is that both African science fiction and African technological innovation suffer from a lack of supporting infrastructure. In Nigeria for instance, the publishing industry is only beginning to rise from the ashes of the country’s economic meltdown in the 80s. During the industry’s golden era, books like the Pacesetters series featured stories set in alternative pasts and glittering futures. My favourite remains a high-tech thriller called Mark of the Cobra by Valentine Alily, about a James Bond-style spy working for Nigeria’s secret service and featuring a solar-powered superweapon.
These days, however, low literacy rates and the high cost of books means that the demand for literature is often poor. Though consumers buying cheap imported books and watching Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters has shown that genre fiction is highly popular, many publishers still prefer to concentrate on proven sellers such as religious materials and textbooks.
Scientific innovation has the same problem. According to a Guardian article earlier this year, Africa produces just 1.1 percent of global scientific knowledge. This is because, as commenter Benjamin Geer pointed out, science fiction is less effective in encouraging scientific innovation than simply providing funding for the sciences.
“If you want young people to become scientists, there need[s] to be well-funded degree programs and career opportunities for them,” he wrote in response to a 2010 article about the future of science fiction in Africa. “This means that states need to invest heavily in science education and scientific research.”
Perhaps the biggest problem both scientific innovation and science fiction in Africa share is that they are not often recognised for what they are.
As I said earlier, Africans have been creating their own science fiction for quite some time; only these stories often don’t have the elements we have come to expect from the genre. For instance, two icons of African speculative fiction Ben Okri’s 1991 novel The Famished Road and Wizard of the Crow written by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in 2006 feature magic and spirits, but neither deals directly with technology.
Nigeria’s prolific film industry, Nollywood, is the third-largest in the world and frequently features stories of magic, supernatural encounters and physical transformation. But the matter-of-fact treatment of these themes within these movies means they’re often dismissed and not recognised as legitimate science fiction.
In fact, magic, surrealism and abstract poetics are big features of African sci-fi. This is because, as Ghanaian writer Johnathan Dotse explained in a 2010 essay, Africans have a fundamentally different relationship to technology than those in the West.
“The widely optimistic view of technological progress underlying traditional science fiction simply doesn’t resonate with much of the experience on the continent,” he wrote.
Only recently – in the last decade or so – has there been a true groundswell of science fiction written by Africans for a primarily African audience. Most of this sci-fi doesn’t deal with the mechanics of scientific innovation, though. Stories tend to focus on the social costs of progress. Two recent African science fiction anthologies, AfroSF edited by Zimbabwean author Ivor Hartmann and Lagos 2060 edited by Nigerian Ayodele Arigbabu, have a diverse range of stories that could be considered firmly speculative, however, this is not the place to find the kind of explorations of hard science that Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven wrote.
This has led some to speculate that right now, technology is influencing African science fiction more than the other way around. In a series of social media chats in November, science fiction author and academic Geoffrey Ryman noted that sci-fi writers on the continent tend to have great ideas for science fiction stories, but not necessarily for scientific innovations.
“Technology contributes to SF and not the other way around,” he wrote. “Even Arthur C. Clarke’s geostationary satellite appeared in a science FACT article he wrote. SF can sometimes promote interest in science among the young that bears later fruit. But trying to justify SF on those grounds is dodgy. It’s a literature and an entertainment and THAT is its justification.”
Nigerian writer and engineer Wole Talabi has hope, however, that this currently one-sided relationship will right itself. In an upcoming essay, he presents evidence that shows that the influence of science fiction often takes about 15 to 20 years to show up in scientific innovation.
“You need to be able to imagine the future before you can begin to create it,” he wrote.
Author Biram Mboob believes this influence goes beyond just sparking new ideas. African science fiction can change the very orientation people might have towards the future.
“I would make the argument that SF will either ‘reinforce’ or perhaps challenge our ‘mood’ about the future,” he wrote in a Facebook chat last year.
I have to agree. In my work as a writer and editor of African science fiction over the last five years, I have noticed an emerging optimism. Africans are moving away from their justified suspicion and mistrust of large-scale innovation. More African writers are imagining unique utopias – their countries and cities improved by technology that works with their societies rather than ruined by it.
For instance, in the most recent edition of Omenana, which I co-edit, 10 writers and artists shared their vision of African cities of the future. Almost all of them had themes of hope and possibility. More than anything, inspiring the creators of the future is where I believe the intersection of African science fiction and science is clearest.
“Inspiration, ideas, they flow both ways,” wrote Talabi in a Facebook chat last year. “But for that you need a critical mass of technology, industry, popular science, SF creators and publishers, and organised fandoms before you begin to see and quantify the impact.”
Running a magazine with a deadline means you are always on the lookout for people that can deliver when they say they would. We first met Sunny Efemena when we were preparing for Omenana X.
We had a very tight deadline and, with just days to our publication date, some of the contracted artists failed to turn in their work so Sunny offered to take over their work. We were sceptical, but when he delivered quality material with time to spare, we were sold.
Sunny has gone on to illustrate other editions of Omenana and has become our go to guy when scheduled artists disappoint.
We got him to answer some questions for our artist spotlight segment.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
My name is Sunny Efemena, I hail from Isoko-north LGA, in Delta State, Nigeria. I did my primary/secondary school education in Warri. I attended Federal Polytechnic Auchi, Edo State, graduating with a HND in painting in 2003.
What comics or characters inspired you to be an artist and illustrator when you were growing up and why?
One of the many comics that inspired me was Justice League Europe, with art by Bart Sears and Pablo Marcos. But years before that, when I was younger, I came across a drawing of Red Tornado on a piece of paper. Back then, I didn’t know who the character was, but I kept it and since then I have been trying to create characters and stuff. Comic art is unlimited and gives room for self-expression and it is mad fun!
What is the most challenging aspect of being a graphic artist in Nigeria?
One of the challenges is that people hardly appreciate what we do. Maybe because the comic book industry here is still growing, people hardly notice what the artist does – unlike abroad where there is an established tradition. Also, the graphic artist is seen as an artist when we are ranked side by side with the traditional artist. Thankfully, that trend is changing fast.
You’re involved in a lot of other projects outside your regular job. Can you tell us which ones you’re currently most excited about?
Well, to tell the truth, I am most excited about this magazine [Omenana], because I am given a blank slate to fill in. I am free to express myself with little alteration from the client.
What strategies do you use to carve out time for sketching?
Nothing special, it’s just that drawing is now more of a habit than work. It takes 60 percent of my time, especially when am not working on projects from my employers.
What TV shows would you sneak out to watch right now?
Hmmm… that would be Band of Brothers (a war series on World War II).
What is the most exciting project you’ve worked on?
Well, Omenana tops the list, followed by creating characters and concepts for the comic MADAM WAHALA 2008 for Literamed Publications.
What was the most discouraging time in your career and how did you overcome it?
The most discouraging time of my career was when Comic Hut, an arm of Literamed Publications was shut down and I had to go teach. God! teaching was hell, because I couldn’t really fit in. It was crazy.
Looking back, is there anything in your career that you would do differently? Any major decisions you regret?
Yeah, there are some things I wish I learnt early, like how to market my stuff. I also wish I had learnt 3D design, even though I will eventually do so.
What is it you would most want to be remembered for when you’re gone?
If it’s life in general…I would want to be remembered as the guy who inspired others to be who they need to be.
Welcome. I will be the one taking you around. Don’t stretch out your hand to shake anybody’s again. If you shake hands, or attempt to, it will be noted in your file. My name is Joel. You are to call me “Sir,” like you will call all male people here. All female people are to be referred to as “Madam.” If you want to be specific, you will have to use their tag numbers. My tag number is eleven. You may call me Sir Eleven. It will take you some time to get used to the tag numbers.
You have only one week to learn at least twenty tag numbers. If you need help on that, you may talk to Sir Fifteen. He sits by the window at the far end of the western wing. He has all the faces and their respective tag numbers on his computer. He may offer to print the names and their tag numbers for you; do not accept his offer. If you accept the offer, it will be noted in your file. Printing out the numbers and faces means using paper. If you leave with a piece of paper with names and numbers on it, it can be used against the company. If it is used against the company, you’ll have put us at risk.
You shall be searched every time you come into or leave the company premises. It will not be intrusive. You may not even notice it, but please remember that you will be searched every time. Sometimes, you will leave with papers given to you by the company. Most of them will be delivery notes. If you leave with delivery notes, please have them signed by the client. If they are not signed by the client, please don’t come back again. You shall continue to draw a salary for a period not exceeding six months, after which all contacts with the company shall be terminated. If you ever take this choice, by your own volition or otherwise, please note that it will be noted in your file.
Did I tell you my name? I lied. That is the one printed on the job ID card. You shall be issued with a job ID card. You shall go to Madam Twenty-nine for that. She sits at the corner room just after the reception. She will also issue you with a new national ID card. Those two, your job ID card and the new national ID card, shall be kept in a new wallet. Madam Twenty-nine shall give you the wallet. You shall use these cards only when dealing with clients. For your bank transactions or any other official business, please use your original national ID card. If you use your new national ID card, we shall know, and it will be noted in your file.
The lady at the entrance is Madam Eighteen. You may look into her eyes. If she looks back at you while smiling, do not smile back at her. If you do that, do not say you weren’t warned. You may ask her to open the door for you. She will only do that for your first two weeks here. Within that period, ask Sir Nine to add to you the system. The process is not as painful as you may have heard. What was painful was the old way of doing it. The new one is much better. He will simply insert a small chip into your forehead. That will be your key into the premises.
Please note that it is not a camera. If you look into the lens, it will be reading your forehead chip. If it reads your forehead chip, the door will be opened for you. The door is opened only twice in a day for each person except Madam Eighteen. If you need to come back to the office more than twice in a day, please email Madam Eighteen in advance. If she does not reply to your email, then note that it is okay. If she replies, however, please read the email and take note of what she says. If you do not take note, it shall be noted in your file.
The door in front of you leads to the washrooms. The door right after this one leads to the kitchen. You may take a cup of tea from the kitchen. There is also a microwave in there. You can heat up your food, if you’ve carried any. You shall not carry smelly food into the premises. If you do, Madam Eighteen shall let us know.
The door to your right is the Madams’ washrooms. You shall not use the Madams’ washrooms for reasons we know best. The one to your left is the Sirs’ washrooms. You may use the Sirs’ washrooms. If you do, please ensure that you clean up your mess.
Now, back to this corridor. The seats by that table are for general use. You may take your cup of tea over there. You may also make notes and read from that table. You may also watch TV as you relax, but only for a period not exceeding fifteen minutes. You may surpass this time only during the lunch hour when you have a one hour break. You’re however encouraged to get back to your station immediately after. If you watch TV all through the lunch hour, it shall be noted in your file.
On the right part of this corridor is the directors’ office. You shall call them Sir One and Sir One A. You have some latitude here. If you call Sir One Sir A, he will understand that it is an honest mistake. Madam Eighty should however not catch you mixing up the names of Sir One and Sir One A. If she does, it shall definitely be noted in your file. She sits on the other side of the premises. She is the head of operations. You shall report to her at all times. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask her. She will also give you all the details with regards to your responsibilities.
The place on your left is occupied by four people. Two of them are the company designers. You don’t need to know their tag numbers. If you need to talk to them, you shall have to ask Madam Eighty to do that for you. If she authorises you to go ahead, she will also give you their tag numbers. You will not be required to remember them. If you forget them, it will be totally understandable.
On the other side here are Madam Twenty Nine and Madam Twenty. Madam Twenty-nine will give you your new national ID cards and job ID cards. Madam Twenty is the legal officer. If you think you may have done anything that is against the law, please feel free to speak to her. If you break a law while working for the company, please ensure that you inform her as soon as you can. If you fail to do this, you’ll have put the company at risk.
That room on your right is the training room. It is also where you shall have your forehead chip implanted. Sir Nine sits there. He will tell you what rooms you are allowed to access and what rooms you aren’t allowed into. The implant process? That is a good question. Sir Nine uses a device that looks like a gun. The bullet is the chip that goes into your forehead. He will point it at your head and pull the trigger. You should not close your eyes when he does this. If you, however, close them, it will be totally understandable. You will not have been the first one to feel terrified. Madam Twenty-nine passed out when her chip was being implanted. If you pass out, you shall be quickly rushed to hospital.
You shall be issued with a hospital insurance card by Madam Twenty. Please note that you’re the only one in your family covered by the company scheme. The company shall not be responsible for any of your family members. Should you pass away during working hours, your family shall be fully compensated. Your next of kin will receive all the money, as stipulated in the agreement which you will sign and return to Madam Twenty. Should you get injured and become disabled, you shall continue to receive full salary up to the period of your death. Do not worry about dying or getting disabled during working hours. Only one person has done that in the entire history of the company. He was epileptic. He had not notified the company that he was epileptic. Please do notify Madam Twenty about any health complications that you might have. If you don’t, it will be difficult for us to help you. Your cover will not be dependent on this disclosure. If you however get a health complication during work, please note that it will be noted in your file.
Sir Nine also works as the company trainer. He will teach you some of the things you’ll need to do the job. Feel free to ask him any questions, as long as it is not private. His colleague, Sir Eight, also does the same job. You may not, however, speak to Sir Eight unless he first speaks to you. There is no reason for this. It is just company tradition.
This is where all the technicians sit. As a technician, you will spend very few hours in the office. You do not, as a result, hold a permanent office desk. You may share desks with other technicians. If you arrive first, you may have that seat until it is time to leave.
This is the company workshop. There are two people in charge of the workshop. You are not allowed to stay in the workshop if the madam is around. You are not required to remember her tag number. If the Sir is around, you may stick around for casual conversation as long as you are out of the way.
The last office there is the marketing department. You are not required to interact with the marketing department. You may, however, go ahead and do so. You have to be aware that the company will not be held responsible for any of the consequences from these interactions.
That door just after the marketing department is the fire exit. In case of fire, please press the handle on that door and go down using the stairs. Walk quickly but avoid running during fire evacuation. There has not been a fire since the beginning of the company. There are smoke and fire detectors on the ceiling of this building. Note that they may fail, as all man made things do. If you notice a fire, please attack it using a fire extinguisher. Take this step only when you’re sure it is safe.
This here is the balcony. You may come here for a breath of fresh air. You are not allowed to smoke on this balcony. If you smoke anywhere in the premises, it will be noted in your file and you may get a warning letter. If you get two warning letters, you will have to be let go.
You are also not allowed to jump over the balustrade on this balcony. There have been numerous attempts at suicide by way of jumping over the balustrade here. If you commit suicide, your family will not be compensated for your death. Now, let’s go to the other side. Or maybe better, can we continue after you’ve had your cup of tea? Karibu. And remember, if you attempt to shake hands with anyone, it shall be noted in your file.
Frank nearly fell over in his chair when the brown mug moved. He was certain he was hallucinating. He was about to try it again when Liz opened the door and dumped another heap of papers onto his desk.
“Mr. Gesa wants these before lunch,” she said without as much as a glance at him.
Well good morning to you too, he thought, irritably.
She walked out and shut the door behind her. Frank pushed the stack of papers to the edge of the table and reverted his attention to the brown clay mug full of steaming tea in front of him. He stared at it again and willed.
This time the movement was unmistakable. The mug moved towards him, dragging itself on the wooden table with a loud grating sound. Frank stared at it in awe before it came to an abrupt halt again.
There was no one in the records room with him but he still looked about him to make sure. He even turned in his chair to look at the metre-high stack of old records and work orders piled behind him just in case someone was standing there. Satisfied that the room was indeed vacant, he stared again at the clay mug, harder this time, and beckoned it towards himself. It tottered slightly, spilling a little tea onto the table, before charging towards him like mini, tea-filled alien spacecraft and this time he was so gobsmacked that he noticed too late the mug running out of table and flying over the edge, mouth first – tea, teabag and all – plummeting to the floor where it shattered on impact, leaving a mess of clay shards and tea at his feet.
The door swung open suddenly as he stared at the pool of ruin beneath him, and Luswata popped his head in.
“Is everything okay in here? I heard a crash,” he said.
“Y…yes,” Frank stuttered, “Everything’s okay. I fumbled with the mug and dropped it by accident.”
“Oh. Okay then. Lunch’s been brought closer today because Gesa wants the canteen painted before tomorrow morning. The South Africans are coming to inspect us. Be in the canteen by half past twelve, okay?”
“Sure thing,” Frank said tensely.
Luswata took one more cursory glance around the room, as if he suspected something else was amiss, before stepping back out and closing the door behind him. Frank looked at the time on the clock on the wall opposite where he sat: 11:48, it read. He got up and went to one of the corners of the room where a mop and broom were kept. He got the mop ,returned to his seat and cleaned up the mess under his desk.
Frank’s mind was in a daze as he lined up for lunch. Liz and Halima were in front of him in the queue, talking about something that made them giggle endlessly. He could hear their words but his mind could not process them; the image of the mug dragging itself towards him – or perhaps being dragged by him, somehow – was causing all sorts of fantastic thoughts to take root in his head. He could suddenly see himself ordering massive boulders to fly about in the hills back in the village, hoisting entire houses off their foundations in case their tenants had ticked him off, or even suspending the insufferable Liz up in the high clouds just to teach her some courtesy.
And the Lord said, “If you had faith like to a grain of mustard seed, you might say to this mulberry tree: Be thou rooted up, and be thou transplanted into the sea. And it would obey you.” The Bible verse came to him, timely and telling, but he smirked at it and quickly discarded the thought. He was, and always would be, nonchalantly agnostic. Well, agnostic now that he was suddenly telekinetic. He had been purely atheist only two hours ago.
He carried his plate of matooke, rice, a sweet potato, beef and sukumawiki greens in one hand and a plastic cup of water in the other and made his way through the buzz and chatter of eating men and women in the canteen to the extreme end, by the half-wall with a view of the parking lot through the gap above it, where Musa, James and Musoke were seated, already halfway through their meals.
“Aah, Frank!” Musoke began as Frank sat down next to him, “I’m glad you’ve come. First tell Musa here how the country has been in decline since Obote II. He doesn’t seem to see anything wrong with Members of Parliament being exempted from paying tax, when children in the North are still dying from hunger!”
“I didn’t say there was nothing wrong with that,” Musa rebutted as Frank split the sweet potato with his fork. “I merely said that I would rather live in a country where the government is corrupt than in one where the government is blood-thirsty!”
“In the end what difference does it make?” Musoke said. “People are still dying. You just can’t see it because there are no bullets being fired.”
Frank was moving a fork-full of soupy rice and potato to his mouth when Richard arrived at the table, his plate stacked high with food. He fumbled as he set his plate and cup down, and the cup, sitting unsteadily on the edge of the table with half of its base over the precipice tilted over.
It happened so fast and suddenly that Frank didn’t have time to think about what he was doing. His reaction was instinctive. He looked at the cup and willed. The cup froze, completely suspended in mid-air, with the head of the water halfway poured out of its mouth, hanging like an amorphous, crystalline gel frozen in time, with a few stray drops and droplets static next to it, as though caught in some invisible web, and a few sun rays from the open gap above the wall striking the shapeless, liquid prism and being dispersed in brilliant little rainbows.
Realizing what he had done, as though he were awakening from a surreal dream, Frank looked away and the cup, released from its place in space and time, assented to the pull of gravity and clattered to the ground by Richard’s feet. The whole scene couldn’t have lasted more than a second, but Frank was sure everyone at the table had noticed it. As indeed they had.
Richard stood transfixed on his spot, staring down at the toppled cup and the water that was streaming away from him, while the other three men all gazed at up at him, as though they thought he was responsible for the trick of the eye that had been played on them. After what seemed like an eon of awed silence it was James who broke their trance.
“You are such a clumsy fool!” he said. “That’s like the third cup you have dropped this week. I have never seen a bigger klutz in my life.”
That seemed to break their spell, and Richard chuckled apologetically, although there was still a bemused look on his face. Musoke and Musa laughed, and Frank joined them to avoid any suspicion being drawn to himself. Before long the event had been forgotten, as though it had never happened, and Frank was grateful that the skeptical side of modern people was so strong it erased any superstitious notions almost instantly. They probably assumed they had not really seen what they had seen and went on with their lives. Frank chided himself for not being more cautious with his newly-found ability, and for the rest of the meal he participated actively in their talk, if only to help bring normalcy back to the table.
He walked pensively on his way home later that evening. Now that he was truly alone he had time to mull over the bizarre events of the day without Gesa calling him every thirty seconds. Everything seemed suddenly strange around him; he felt unreal, like a character in a movie script apt for Hollywood. A poor records clerk at Cresco Bottling Company suddenly finds himself a god among mortals, he thought to himself, beaming widely. For the first time all month he did not brood about the strife in his household. Images of his wife, Oliver, screaming at him at the top of her voice, and the sickly child crying incessantly, coughing up phlegm and blood, were replaced by images of himself floating over mountain peaks and frothing, azure seas, summoning entire land masses to himself and shifting tectonic plates. He felt alive, a new potency coursing through his arteries. He felt a new bounce in his step, a confident, swaggering gait that had been alien to him before.
A little distance from home he passed by the football field where the grass had long been eroded by the exuberant boots, sneakers and bare feet of the children who played there every evening. The ground was now mostly dirt and dust, with two net-less, rectangular frames of metal pipe at either end of the pitch acting as goals.
A group of fifteen, maybe twenty children, all shirtless and covered in dirt, were kicking a ball around, gleeful and oblivious of the dimming twilight. Frank felt a youthful playfulness swell up in him as he watched the wanton children. One of them lashed at the ball with all his might, sending it cannoning towards the left goal frame, and Frank locked his sight onto the flying crude sphere of polythene and rubber, catching it mid-flight. The ball hung stationary and suspended about five metres above the earth, before falling onto the ground about halfway to the goal and rolling eagerly towards Frank, with the children watching it in rapt, frozen bewilderment.
The younger boys seemed to see some elusive funny side to this bizarre phenomenon and chased after the ball, screaming with naïve delight. The older boys stood back for a while before reluctantly following the lead of their younger counterparts. Whenever the younger boys got close to the ball Frank caused it to roll faster, and this seemed to energize them, and they shouted louder and more excitedly, chasing after it with increased intent, as though stop-that-ball was their new game.
It was when they saw Frank, standing pitch-side in his old brown coat and matching brown trousers, and the ball steadily heading in his direction, that the boys became doubtful, reducing their speed cautiously, finally suspecting that something was not quite right. About ten metres from where Frank stood the boys gave up chasing altogether and stood off, watching Frank with suspicion. The ball gradually reduced its speed before rolling to a halt at Frank’s shoes. The boys stared at him with a mixture of curiosity and fear. Frank stared at them for a while, and then looked down at the ball and willed again. The ball lifted itself off the ground, levitating seamlessly towards Frank’s outstretched hand and nestling in the groove of his downturned palm – like a spherical spacecraft module attaching itself to a mother ship’s appendage. He turned and looked at the children again, and this time he could not help the grin that broke out on his face.
The children looked at him with vacant stares that soon gave way to wide-eyed, terrified looks and the younger ones screamed, one after the other, with the older, taller ones, though muted, being the first ones to turn and take to their heels. Soon the whole gaggle was fleeing from him, all shouting hysterically, with a few turning their heads back as they ran to make sure he was not pursuing them.
“You forgot your ball!” Frank called after them, his body tingling with a juvenile mischief he had rarely felt before. He dropped the ball onto the ground as the last of the children disappeared from sight and proceeded on his way home.
Oliver was sweeping the five or six square-metres of space that they considered “their” compound when he got home. She did not look up when he got to their door, and kept her eyes fixed on the broom and the dirt it was flinging away from their house. She stood up briefly to tighten the knot of her lesu above her bosom and then bent down again to continue with the sweeping.
“How are you?” Frank greeted. She remained silent, hurling some pebbles away from her with one sweep of the broom. Frank took off his shoes and set them neatly behind the door.
“How is the child?” he asked.
“Why don’t you go and check on him yourself?” she answered coldly, without lifting her eyes from the ground.
Frank entered the small house and made his way to their bedroom. The child was lying asleep on their bed, as he often did when they were not in need of it. Frank walked over to him and observed him. He had two rows of dried, crusty mucus above his mouth and he was wheezing slightly in his sleep. Frank gently placed his hand on his belly and the child suddenly began to cough, becoming awake in the process.
“Shhhh…shhhh…” Frank tried to lull him back to sleep but the coughs looked wrenching and painful and eventually the child started to cry. Frank lifted him off the bed and tried to soothe him, gently patting him on his back. The child coughed harder, now wailing loudly in between his bouts.
“What have you done to him?” Oliver’s voice came from the bedroom door. Frank turned to find her glaring at him.
“Nothing. I had barely touched him when he began to cough.”
“I told you we have to take him to the hospital but you never listen.”
“We have no money for a hospital. Have you been putting Panadol in his milk like Nurse Nampiima said?”
Oliver shot him a look that would have killed him on the spot if it could, and she moved quickly to where he was standing and ripped the child from his arms, causing him to wail louder. She patted the boy on the back and whispered soft words into his ear and he calmed down. She then turned and walked towards the door.
“I don’t know why I was cursed with a man who is poor, can’t even buy meat for his family, can’t keep his wife warm in the bed, and watches as his child dies from stupid, poor people’s diseases!” she cursed loudly as she hurried out of the room and the child, riled by the loud, harsh tone in her voice, began to cough and cry again.
“The South Africans are coming to the office!” Luswata said in a panic through the door.
Frank quickly swallowed the tea that was left in his new claymug and placed it under the desk right between his feet. He quickly organized the paper that was scattered on his table and sat leaning forward, trying to appear as dignified as he possibly could.
The door swung open and Gesa walked in, followed by a big, potbellied, moustachioed Indian man in a black suit and red tie. The man was trailed by a smaller, pale-looking white man with an ID collar, and a light-skinned fat woman with a round face and small eyes.
“This is our records office,” Gesa said to the Indian man. “And this is our senior records clerk, Mr. Frank Aguma.”
Frank stood up immediately and extended his hand to Gesa who shook it uninterestedly. Frank then offered his hand to the big man, but this time his gesture was completely ignored.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Patel,” he said, somewhat timidly.
“Derrick, why don’t you get drawers or cupboards for all this paperwork?” the man said to Gesa, as though he had not even perceived Frank’s presence in the room. “This place is a mess, just look at it! I keep telling you all our offices have to be exemplary. Do you know this could be a finding when the external auditors come here next month?”
“Yes, yes, Mr. Patel,” Gesa stuttered, “We will certainly get all this sorted out as soon as possible.”
“All this paper could easily constitute a fire hazard,” the big man continued, “When I return four months from now I want to find all this properly arranged in drawers and appropriately labelled, understood? Cresco doesn’t just excel at making soft drinks, we excel at everything, even simple tidiness!”
“Yes, Mr. Patel,” Gesa said, “I will have it sorted very soon.”
The big man scanned around with one last disapproving look at the stacks of papers that lined the walls before turning back towards the door where his two counterparts parted to give him way as he exited the office. They followed after him with Gesa humbly bringing up the rear and shutting the door behind them without another glance at Frank. Luswata opened the door as Frank was settling back down.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Better than expected,” Frank replied.
“You’re lucky. They are giving out bonuses today, by the way. Four p.m.”
Frank ate in silence throughout the lunch hour. His customary seat at the back with Musa and the boys had been taken so he had sat next to Liz and Halima about five tables ahead. Oliver’s words from the previous evening were still cutting through him, reaching deep, tugging and ripping like a barbed stick.
A man who can’t keep his wife warm in the bed, the words echoed in his mind. He ate fork after fork of matooke, rice and beans but tasted nothing. It was the first time in their two and a half years of marriage that she had lashed out at his impotence.
“I heard he can’t even get it up.” Halima’s words snapped him into consciousness and he spun his head towards her like an invisible hand had slapped him across the cheek. She was looking away from him, towards Liz, who was listening eagerly.
Liz gasped. “No! You’re lying!” she said incredulously.
“I’m serious,” Halima said.
Frank swallowed. A chunk of matooke fell off his fork and back onto the plate. He did not notice the tiny splash it made in the bean stew, or the little brown speckles of soup that splattered onto his shirt.
“How do you know?” Liz said.
“Diana went home with him after the employees’ dinner. She said he kept mumbling apologies all night,” Halima said and giggled.
“But Gesa, that gu man,” Liz said, “And the way he likes hitting on me, you’d think he has a fully-loaded one down there!”
They both laughed heartily over their food, looking around briefly to make sure they were not laughing too loudly to attract attention. Frank turned quickly back to his food just before they caught him staring at them. His heart released rapid thuds of relief and his hand shook with gratitude as he raised the fork to his mouth. His secret – his curse – was safe with him for now.
The thirty thousand shillings in bonuses that was given to the employees that day was frowned upon by most of the other workers but Frank was thankful for it. As a clerk he earned the least among all the permanent workers in Cresco, so any add-ons were as important to him as butter to a dry crust of bread.
He passed by the butcher’s on his way home to buy some meat for Oliver and the child. His father’s voice came to him as the butcher chopped up the pieces and weighed them on the scales: Frank, the best way to quiet down a nagging wife is to bring home some meat! Followed by the loud, snorting laughter that was his old man’s trademark.
Oliver carefully set the child down on the mat beside their bed. She cushioned him with a folded blanket and covered him with a bedsheet as Frank watched from his vantage on the bed. When she was done she took a can of Vaseline from her purse and began to smear some on her legs and thighs, massaging herself slowly and purposefully.
Frank felt his heart dip. He knew what was coming next. Whenever Oliver oiled herself before bed it always meant she wanted intimacy. Frank wanted to turn and face the wall but he didn’t want to give her any cold vibes. So he shut his eyes and prayed for sleep.
Oliver placed the Vaseline back into her purse and got under the bedsheet next to him. She placed her head on his chest and wrapped her arm around his belly.
“I’m sorry I was harsh to you yesterday,” she said.
“You had every right to be. But I see he isn’t coughing as much today,” he replied.
“Nurse Nampiima came over and gave him some funny herbs, they seem to have worked.”
“I’m glad. I’m so tired, work was endless today!” Frank yawned. Oliver’s arm held him tighter across the belly, and she pushed her face up to his neck so that his nostrils were filled with the scent of Vaseline. She rubbed his torso suggestively and pecked him slightly on his nipple. When he remained still, she moved her hand down to his groin and tenderly held his manhood, finding it as soft as a sock. She tugged at it as gently as she could, and then with a bit more urgency when she felt no response to her advances.
Frank closed his eyes and willed with all his might. He commanded it to rise. He beckoned, entreated and then threatened it. There was not the slightest movement in his loins. Not even the subtlest of twitches. With his eyes still shut, unable to look at Oliver, he heard her sigh with exasperation and detach herself from him, leaving the bed altogether and setting herself on the mat next to the sleeping child. In that moment Frank could not care less whether he had the power to control aeroplanes or shift the moon in its orbit.
“Something is wrong with me,” Frank said.
“What do you mean?” his mother asked. He sat his bony, seventeen-year-old frame opposite her and looked down at his hands.
“I’m not normal,” he said.
“Why do you say that, Frankie?”
“I was with Connie yesterday. In her bedroom.”
“What were you doing in a girl’s bedroom, Frankie?” she asked with a hint of anger.
“Listen mummy!” he snapped. “Connie kissed me. And then she…she touched me. She touched me there.” His mother cleared her throat and shifted uneasily in her chair.
“And?” she asked.
“And…nothing happened. I know what’s supposed to happen, mummy. I’m not a child anymore! What’s wrong with me?”
“Have you always known?”
“Frankie…listen to me.”
“You knew all along. I knew you did!”
“Frank!” she shouted at him. He became mute and stared at her.
“Listen,” she said, “when you were born you had a lump under your manhood. The doctor removed it in a surgical procedure but he said there might be some nerve damage. Some permanent nerve damage. He said we could only be sure after a few years. Yes, I knew. Of course I knew. Every morning I checked to see if there was something, anything. Boys are supposed to get hard in the mornings sometimes. You never did. Not once. Yes, I knew. I just couldn’t bring myself to tell you. How could I? I’m sorry that this had to happen to you. God’s plans are never similar to our own.”
Twelve years later, when his father arranged for him to marry Oliver, he was struck by a terrible fright. Oliver would find out, like Connie had. And then she would spend her entire life despising him for being half a man. No, not half a man. A midget was half a man. A midget was small but he could still keep a woman warm. No, not half a man. Something less, something worse, something more base than the lowest form of man. To him could not be ascribed any form of masculinity. Not in the eyes of a fellow man, at least. And certainly never in the eyes of a woman.
When Oliver got pregnant, he was more relieved than upset. More glad than surprised. He had known for a long time about her clandestine rapports with their neighbour, Kizito. He had once found Kizito and Oliver playfully scuffling in the compound in a way that a man should not scuffle with a married woman. She was giggling, trying to dislodge his veiny, powerful-looking arms from around her waist when Frank appeared, and Kizito had quickly released her and mumbled an embarrassed greeting to Frank.
“At least daddy can now have a grandchild,” he had told his mother after breaking the news to her. “Maybe now he can finally see me as a human being. As a man. And not as some freak of nature.” His mother had been too distraught to answer back. She had just nodded in agreement and then hugged him fiercely, whispering “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry” over and over again.
Oliver’s screams woke him up with a start. He turned to see her kneeling on the mat and cradling the child. Her face was wet and her eyes were white and wild.
“What’s the matter?” he asked in a panic.
“He’s not breathing!” she shouted.
Frank leapt out of the bed and took the child from her. The child’s mouth was making gaping, gasping motions. Frank turned the child onto his face and hit him hard on the back. Once…twice…and then the child made a feeble, coughing sound.
“Put something on,” he said urgently, “We have to get to the hospital now!”
Oliver wrapped her lesu over her nightgown and followed Frank hastily out of the room. It was just becoming light outside, and they hurried past a sleepy-looking Kizito washing his face on his veranda. He gazed worriedly at them as they rushed through the gate.
At the hospital the doctors said the child had a bad case of whooping cough, and though they had brought him in just in time, he was not in good shape at all and had to be immediately admitted into the ICU. They sat Frank and Oliver down by the reception and told them to wait.
About two hours had passed when Frank got up off the seat and decided to walk around, leaving a tired Oliver on the seat, her head resting in her lap – asleep. He walked through the corridor past rows of women with crying infants and men escorting their pregnant spouses, some holding them by the hands, others holding their luggage.
He got to a closed room on his left and looked through the glass visor below the letters “3C”. He saw the child lying on a bed, asleep, surrounded by all sorts of machinery. He opened the door and entered. He walked over to the child’s side and looked down at him. As though sensing his presence, the child opened his eyes and stared up at him. He smiled at the child and waved his hand at the tube running into his arm from the drip.
“Let daddy make you laugh,” he whispered.
The drip line wriggled and twisted over itself like a thin, plastic snake and the child smiled behind his oxygen mask.
“You like that?” he said to the child. “Watch this.”
He looked at the large machine by the child’s bed and the machine moved right, then left, then right again, in dancing, groovy movements and the child’s smile grew wider. Encouraged, Frank looked at the beeping screen above the child’s bed and the beeping sound became more rhythmic, making polyphonic music that Frank nodded his head to. And then he felt himself unleashed, and as the child cooed and giggled he had the bed shifting up and down, dancing to the music of the heart monitor, and the catheter doing waves like a stage prop, and the machines coming alive and dancing with mechanical precision, like an impromptu robot dance crew assembled just for the boy.
Frank was in a frenzy when the door opened and the doctor and nurses rushed in, gazing around them in astonishment. He found himself unable to stop as one nurse shouted at him to get out. The blanket floated off the child’s bed, followed by his oxygen mask, and the needle from the drip slid out from his arm and made for the ceiling, where it turned left and right like a pin-sized dancer. Every object in the room was dancing for the child, and Frank was the conductor, too attentive to get any movement wrong – so attentive that even when the child’s eyes closed shut for all eternity he was still moving the blanket in waves like a small, floating, grey ocean.
We were standing in an empty space, but a force pinned us from floating and sinking, fixing us stable in midair. A white light surrounded us. What I saw was not what I had believed I would find in the place of the newly dead. I had always assumed it would have a foul stench, people with tattered clothes who were hobbling with outspread arms, their mouths dripping blood and speaking sluggishly. So when Padjonsin had instructed me to wear a black gown and high heels, I had thought he was crazy but here they were: the smell of nothing, black suits, black gowns, and black shoes. I could say I blended in, but there was that blank expression they all wore that I could hardly mimic. A quick facial sweep would immediately reveal I wasn’t one of them. But I wasn’t to worry about that. Focus on your goal, Padjonsin had said.
They all stared ahead, waiting. No side talk. No catching up on old times. The silence was brittle, anything would have shattered it. A pin drop would have been thunder. Padjonsin had told me not to be surprised by this. Even people who lived all their years together would be unable to recognise each other after life. Their memories were no longer theirs; it had been taken for examination. After 90 days, their results would be ready, determining their final fate: Rest or Torment.
Who did I know that had died in the past 90 days – apart from Kemi? Maybe seeing a familiar face would give me hope that I would find her, but I quickly killed that thought. All I wanted was to save her, and by my timepiece—handmade by Padjonsin in sync with the life of the red moon—I had 15 minutes left. Fifteen minutes before the rain stopped falling and the redness of the moon faded. Fifteen minutes to leave here with her or else I would become one of them.
Lightning flashed, adding a brief blinding brightness to the warm glow of the red moon. Rain kept falling, like pellets shot from the sky, chasing everything with legs indoors. Aluminium rooftops became drums. Potholes pooled with rainwater. Drainages threw up forgotten refuse. The streets were slippery traps, streaming with nylon wrappers, plastic bottles, and cans. Deafening thunder ripped the air.
Inside one of the aluminium roof-toped houses, Alade rolled on his bed, his rumbling thoughts preventing him from settling into sleep. The glow of the moon sifted through his window pane, dousing the darkness in a shade of red. That was when he saw the figure standing by his doorframe. He squinted at the figure; all the while rubbing the left side of his chest like it would slow down the beating of his heart. Could it be her? he thought. Her name hung in his throat. He pushed it out. “Ke-Kemi. Is that you?”
Then the lightning flashed, and his room—green carpet, peach walls—lit up for a brief moment. The figure was slim with a shaved head, in contrast with Kemi’s pudgy frame and plaited hair.
Alade took deep breaths, disappointment calming his nerves. “Yomi, what are you doing there?” He said, suddenly feeling guilty at his disappointment in seeing the expected.
“Daddy, it is the rain. I am afraid. Can I sleep in your room?”
“Come here son.” He adjusted himself on the bed, creating space.
Yomi peeled his frame from the door, shuffled into bed and pulled the blanket to his shoulders. “Where is Mummy?”
“She will join us before the rain stops.”
“Where did she go to?”
“She went out.”
Before Yomi could speak further, thunder blasted from above like an explosion from the sky. Father and son froze, slowly thawing to the music of rainfall drumming and splattering.
“Daddy, please tell me a story.”
Alade fell silent for a while, searching his thoughts, and then he spoke. “Once upon a time, a woman loved her children…”
I was the only one moving, looking at faces to pick out Kemi. It was difficult to describe the state of the people here. There was something alive about their dead faces, like if you tap them they would look back and ask you, “what?” It was like being stuck in both worlds, neither here nor there.
Since Kemi had been dead for almost 90 days, I had to keep moving forward. Padjosin had said they arranged themselves according to their time of death, the older ones at the front, and the more recent ones at the back. A new being popped in every few minutes, never filling this empty space. The last one I had seen had suddenly appeared, dripping wet. Fresh scratches were on his skin and he had been missing a head. Then his head emerged from his neck, a flawless brown skin replaced the scratches, and his drenched shirt transformed to a black suit. After that, his expression became blank, and he stared ahead like the others.
I imagined how Kemi would have been on arrival. Did she discover the ease of standing that had evaded her all her life? What about the ease of communicating with words, instead of groans and cries? Did she discover why she got here early or the blankness took over before she could process her memory? Shivers crept down my spine.
I pushed through the cluster of staring beings. I was tempted to shout her name; maybe she would turn and recognise me. But who was I kidding? Without memories, how would she even know what her name was? How I wished there was a faster way to pick her out, but there wasn’t, I had to rely on facial recognition. She was twelve, big eyes, full lips, and about five feet tall. I’d have to take my eyes off the tall ones and target the short ones.
I stood between two women, who happened to be tall and muscular, probably bodyguards or soldiers in their lifetimes. I stood on my toes, braced my hands on their shoulders for support, and lifted myself up so that I had a better view of those at the front. Although, it was still difficult to catch those at the uttermost front, I could see an assembly of heads: grey, black, brown, red— none of them with plaited hair. And that was when I saw her—between a taller man and a child—hair in a puffy afro, with a black gown clinging to her chubby frame. My heart flipped with joy.
I jumped down and began running, stopping myself from screaming her name. Kemi! Kemi! I kept shouting in my mind. Wild with excitement, I pushed through beings, only for them to take their previous position after I passed. I got behind her, and turned her to face me and whispered her name. But the face that met mine had tiny eyes, like she was falling asleep, and thin lips that looked like straight lines.
“No, no, no,” I whispered, trying to catch my breath. The strain of running slammed me and everything around me started spinning. I felt dizzy, like I would throw up or faint, or both. My timepiece said five minutes more. I remembered Padjonsin’s words: Once you have five minutes left, save yourself. But this was no time to succumb. I didn’t get this far to give up. I could still save her, I could still save her. Tears began gathering in my eyes.
Before Alade got halfway through the story, he heard his son’s snoring, like a soft brass solo to the melody of rain in the background. Apart from these sounds, his house was quiet. Usually, this was the time he and his wife would eat of the fruits of their privacy, partly freed from the constant monitoring Kemi demanded. It would be just the both of them planning for tomorrows and rediscovering their sensuality, until few months ago when Kemi died.
After her death, his wife hardly got out of bed. He spoke to her but she would only stare at him with indifference, like he was a brick wall. It was the same way she treated all those who came to mourn with her. It was like her sense of recognition had vanished. During those days, she would only speak in inaudible mumblings, then she’d utter a shrill cry for Kemi and begin a frantic search all over the house, looking under the couches, in cupboards, under pillows, inside wardrobes. All he could do was force feed her and ensure she did not step out of the house. He thought with time she would become her old self.
But she never did.
One day during one of her frenzied searches, he took a chance to bring her back.
“Darling, can’t you see?” He hesitated, considering the weight of his next statement, and then he said it.
She turned to look at him. Her hair had locked into rebellious dreads. Bags had settled underneath her eyes, and trails of dried tears traced her cheeks. “What did you just say?”
“Can’t you see you’re free?” he asked. At her silence, he pushed further: “You are free from all the carrying, cleaning, and monitoring. Now we can focus on Yomi.”
He didn’t know what she would do or say, but he hadn’t expected her to get up quietly and leave the house. “Don’t follow me,” was all she said.
Yomi had appeared from the bedroom then and took his hand, leaning into him. Alade had put his hand around Yomi shoulders as they watched her shut the door.
After she had left, he began regretting all he had said. Maybe he had been harsh. Maybe he sounded like he didn’t love his child. Yes, it was true that he was relieved of the shame he felt when she would shit herself, even in the presence of visitors. How those visitors would view them with pity, like they were asking what offence he had committed to be afflicted with such a burden. But he had loved his daughter.
He missed the way she smiled when she was full, how she laughed at the sound of her own farts, and then would begin crying once she caught wind of the smell. He even missed her constant calls for attention that made him feel like a father even though her cries would demand attention when sleep was at its sweetest, leading to scuffles between him and his wife about who should attend to her next.
He had loved his daughter but he could not let his wife continue to hurt herself in mourning, starving their surviving child of the care he deserved.
After two days, his wife came back. He wrapped her in an embrace, apologised for his words and promised to always be by her side. She also apologised for leaving. He didn’t ask where she had been, he feared it would push her back to insanity. But he had always suspected there was a catch to her sudden change, because after she came back, she would whistle happy songs and would always have a smile ready, like a woman who had not just lost a child. She proved him right a week later.
“Remember when we were children and our parents told us not to do bad things or else Padjonsin will carry us away?” She asked one morning.
Alade smiled and nodded. “Which child wasn’t afraid of him? Back then, I would see him walking, mumbling to himself, and I would hide behind my mother.”
“That man has been around for a long time,” she agreed. “Anyway, he told me I can bring Kemi back, not only that, he said I can bring her back whole.” Then she told him everything, rushing out the words like if she paused, her courage would flee.
His first response was to reprove her for having anything to do with Padjonsin, but the thought of bringing back Kemi, free from the pity and disgust she evoked from onlookers made him smile, then the smile faded immediately. What if it failed and his wife relapsed into madness or, worse still, he lost his wife in the process? So he carefully pushed her away from that thought.
But she had seen his smile, and it was this she used as an entry point, moving and prodding, until he finally succumbed.
Yomi’s snores suddenly became louder, lifting him out of his thoughts. Had the snores become louder or was the rain receding? He peeped through the window. The red moon was slowly draining of its colour, merging back to silver. Quietly, he slipped out of his room and stepped out of the house.
I threw away all concern and began shouting her name. The only response I got was silence. But still, I ran past these statues of flesh, blindly pushing forward.
My husband would never understand this need to save our daughter, saying I should let her go. He would never understand that the umbilical cord linking a mother to her child doesn’t get cut off at birth; it still remained, even after death. That was why Kemi, dressed in glowing white, had appeared to me after her death. When she disappeared, I would search for her everywhere. Now I was here, still searching. But coming here to bring back Kemi was beyond the umbilical link, it was much more than that.
After discovering Kemi’s shortcomings, I had to close down my market stall to give her the full care she needed. There were selected foods she had to eat, a particular way we had to position her after eating, the periodic adjustment of her body while she slept, and many others. My husband assisted at night, while I bore the daytime duties alone. Even naming our next child Oluwayomi: “The Lord has saved me,” did not save us from the hardship of catering for Kemi.
The care drained my youth, or rather what was left of it, faster than time could. The sides of my hair sprouted grey. Wrinkles marked my face. My cheek bones popped out. My steps slowed to the dragging of feet, worsened by back pain that visited as frequently as the rising sun. It was during this period that my husband started going on business trips. If it wasn’t trips, then work would suddenly become so hectic that he had to stay the night in the office. I was bearing the hardship all alone. Any time Kemi laughed, it seemed like mockery; any time she cried, I blocked my ears. Sometimes, I cursed myself for pushing someone like that out of me. When she became too troublesome, I calmed her with sleeping pills. Then one day I fell sick and needed rest, and so she wouldn’t disturb me, I made her sleep – perhaps for too long.
The guilt and grief almost killed me, till I met Padjonsin. It was after I left the house, wanting to be as far from it as possible. Walking down a narrow path, he loomed over me, blocking sunlight; his gaze like a knife piercing my skin. I wanted to run, but fear held me to the ground as tears dripped to my feet. He lifted my chin and asked what was wrong, his voice like a slow massage calming my nerves. I told him of Kemi’s death. He asked of the date of death. I told him. He said there was a way out, that I should follow him. My head kept telling me to run away, but my legs refused and found their way to his home.
He told me that when rain fell on a night of a red moon, it opened a rift between the place of the newly dead and the world of the living. And it was then that a living being could go in to bring back the dead. He said the next occurrence would be in two weeks time, but to prepare me for the journey, I would first need the blood of the one who fathered the child. When I got home, I convinced my husband to give in. What I didn’t tell him was if I failed to bring back Kemi, all the years I have lived on earth would belong to Padjonsin.
With this in mind, I turned their heads forcefully not caring if their necks snapped, but no match. Two more minutes. Maybe I should save myself and get out? No, let me give myself a minute more—
Alade was out on the deserted street. He stumbled, fell, and rose, screaming his wife’s name. Confusion directed him to different paths until he finally succumbed to helplessness, kneeling down in the middle of the street. The rain water soaked his trousers, cold on his knees, and calves. He hardly felt the droplets on his skin. He looked up; the moon was mostly silver with only a faint red crescent.
Then he fell flat to the ground, his tears merging with the wetness of rain.
She suddenly remembered her husband, the joy they had felt at the birth of Kemi, one of theirs in this world, a proof they would live beyond their death. Kemi, her name meant “care for me,” and they tried to. She pitied Yomi, who had always been eclipsed by Kemi, his wholeness an excuse used to ignore him. She hoped her husband would do a better job alone than they had together. She held on to these memories and thoughts till they became too heavy and painful, like a migraine. Then the migraine faded, and all she felt was relief.
If you play at Hoplus’ trench, the chance you’d find yourself breaking a sacred rule on some occasion is high. Higher than if you play at Arjin or Kowi, for instance. The girls here are wild and mother warns me every time to be wary of their company, though she knows she cannot stop me from coming here – Hoplus is the closest play-area for teenagers around our home – so she constantly reminds me of why the rules are in place. For safety and balance. I nod every time, saying I understand, but it does not stop her from repeating herself the next day.
I know the Sacred Seven like the end of my own caudal fin. Never shed a tear. Never perform dishonesty. Never travel to any of the other tribes without the chief’s blessing. Never swim to shore or contact a surfacer. Never wield your gift for destruction. Never take the life of a fellow sea creature. Beware the halls of Tada; never venture there.
Mother does not know, but my closest friends – Kaumi, Jauni and Pkeni – and I have broken one, or is it two of the Sacred Seven? Thanks to Pkeni’s temper. It was she who got angry after she’d lost a race to Jauni and picked up a rock and smashed the head of a crab with it. We watched the poor crab twitch till it stopped moving. Perhaps we considered the crab’s life of little importance because it is crustacean; if it had been a fish and had bled blood, I’m sure we would have acted differently. So we performed dishonesty and did not report the incident to an elder. Instead we focused on cheering Pkeni up and told her that she was faster than all of us and that it was only because she had had a heavy breakfast that she had been slowed down this time.
* * *
Right now, Kaumi is speaking of adventure as we twirl about Hoplus. She is the oldest of the four of us, the leader of our little clique, if you will. Most times, she decides what games we play.
She is saying her cousin, Sorai, has given her information about something we should all go see. She is claiming that far away at the beach, a shoal of young surfacers are having a jubilation. I do not see how this is our business. I do not see why we should all go see it.
‘Are you afraid?’ Jauni asks me when they all realise I am not showing any signs of enthusiasm at this unnecessary escapade.
‘I’m not. But it’s dangerous. And we will be breaking a Sacred,’ I say.
‘Since when do we care about the rules?’ Pkeni says, frowning.
Only she can say this. The rules mean nothing to her. Or maybe they do, but her constant anger never lets her think straight.
Everything within me is telling me to stand my ground, but you see I was not here at the trench yesterday; I was busy with Mother. Kaumi, Jauni and Pkeni teased a shark. They say it chased them for about half a mile. I missed all of that action.
‘Okay, but we won’t stay long. We’ll come back soon, yes?’ I say.
‘Of course we will.’ Kaumi says.
‘Sure,’ Jauni says.
Pkeni does not say anything. She just smiles and licks her lower lip. I know in her heart she is thinking me a coward.
* * *
As we swim toward the beach, I notice the current of the water lessen and I feel myself move faster.
‘Stop. We’re here,’ Kaumi says.
We bob our heads against expiring waves to survey the beach and behold, there they are: a school of young surfacers, drinking from red things resembling shells. Behind them are tall trees and funny-looking structures. They are moving their bodies in an awkward fashion and hollering like demented souls. This all seems so disorganised, and their music is loud and nonsensical.
‘We should leave,’ I say to Kaumi.
‘Leave? We just got here,’ Jauni says.
I see the glint of excitement in her eyes. She is clearly fascinated by these odd beings.
‘We’ve seen them,’ I argue. ‘Now, let’s go before someone notices our absence back home.’
‘Sssh,’ Pkeni says.
Only she can shush a person when they are making sense.
‘Don’t tell me to be quiet,’ I say and Pkeni quickly places a finger over my mouth, pointing to my left.
A few yards away from us, a surfacer-man and a surfacer-woman are entering into the water. Surfacers look so weird. They don’t have gills on their necks. They don’t have scales over their bodies. How do they even stay warm? They have arms in the lower parts of their bodies and they move with it. Four arms? What is a person doing with four arms? Ugh.
The surfacer-man and surfacer-woman are swimming toward us now. They seem to be performing some kind of play. The male has his forearms all over the female. And the female seems to be enjoying it for she is smiling a soft smile.
She is the first to see us.
‘Jesus! Jesus!! Jesus!!! Aaahhhh!!!!’ The surfacer-woman screams.
Jesus must be the name of all the other surfacers, because as she screams this, the jubilant company on the beach begins to run in our direction.
‘What’s that?’ I hear them say as they approach.
‘Mammy-water,’ the surfacer-man says, pulling the screaming female out of the water.
A surfacer throws a handful of sand at our heads. Another throws a stone. This is our cue. We turn around and make for home. Some pursue, diving into the water. Others throw things at us. Something hits my left shoulder. Another hits my waist. I dive into the water. I swim for dear life. Into the deep, I go. When I am certain I am away from their reach, I turn. Pkeni is before me, Jauni beside me. I do not see Kaumi.
‘Where is Kaumi?’ I ask.
Jauni looks this way and that. Pkeni stares at me. I swim upward, break the surface and look at the beach. The surfacers have Kaumi. They are beating her with clubs. She is trying to break free but the surfacers are way too many. One stamps his feet into her face. Others imitate him. I scream.
Jauni is beside me now. She is shaking uncontrollably. In the distance Kaumi looks lifeless. She isn’t struggling anymore. More surfacers are appearing on the beach and pointing towards the ocean. I cannot even tell when it started, but I am crying and wailing now.
Nnamdi Anyaduwrites short fiction and poetry. His works has appeared on the Nwokike Literary Journal, Brittlepaper and several blogs. He is currently working on a novel.
“There are demons living amongst us,” The Prophetess informed her audience, her voice was low but filled with so much strength that it carried through the room even without a microphone. “These demons are walking in our midst. They wear human skins to deceive the foolish, but those of us who are blessed can see through their falsehood.”
The assembly seated on white plastic chairs before her shuddered as one. All who came here knew of the Prophetess’ campaign to make Nigeria free of all demons. She was a survivor of many supernatural battles and they itched to hear her stories. The Prophetess knew how to hold a crowd even in a place of worship that was nothing more than a rented canopy, open on all four sides.
“My recent encounter…” the Prophetess’s voice caught as she recalled the events of the previous week. She swayed as she shared her combat with the people. She was a master orator and as she wove the tale, those who followed her every word could picture it clearly. They saw her spotting a woman who for all appearances was a mother of three, and were with her as she followed this woman through the crowded open-air market. The audience saw The Prophetess engage in a spiritual battle with the woman, they witnessed every psychic blow and counterblow until finally the Prophetess emerged victorious while the demons burst through the woman’s human disguise revealing her true form.
The Prophetess had only really started sensing the evil that existed in the world around her after most of her immediate family had died and the blame had been pinned on her. She had emerged victorious in that first battle and learned to more effectively track down that evil, to eliminate it and create a safer world. The Prophetess never knew their true forms. She only sensed them and could track them down. At first she would catch them by surprise but more and more they seemed to be on the lookout for her. Of course they rarely expected that the person who was responsible for sending them back to the darkness they had crawled from was a heavyset woman in her early forties who walked with a limp.
“It was a mere puddle of water that had been spiritually fortified through rituals and other evil acts of human sacrifice,” the Prophetess explained to her congregation. Actually, she had almost drowned in that diabolical lake.
Afterwards, she led them in a prayer that would cleanse their souls and act as a shield around them when they returned to their homes. As the audience petered out into the night, the Prophetess made her way out of the canopy. A few people came up to her wanting more details of her spiritual adventures, others offered her gifts of cash stuffed in bulging envelopes, but the Prophetess always declined them. She had no interest in worldly things and only accepted their spoken gratitude.
The Prophetess took an okada back home to her two-storey house. It was a relic of decades past which she had inherited from her grandmother. Everything about her home was faded, the roof was rusted and the walls were dull and brown, having long ago lost their colour.. The Prophetess earned a bit of money renting out some of the rooms, but kept the rooms upstairs free for those who came to her in need of shelter.
After unlocking the door and retreating to her room, the Prophetess sat on her sturdy bed. Midnight was fast approaching and she was ready to sleep. She was also ready for another spiritual battle; it had been over a week since her last one. Reaching under the bed, she grasped a plastic bottle and brought it to the light. Studying the bottle and the murky brown liquid it contained, the Prophetess surmised that there was enough holy water for her to track and destroy just one more demon. After that, she would have to visit to the woman she hated to get more; it was not something the Prophetess particularly looked forward to.
Closing her eyes and holding her breath, she took two long swallows of the water. As the liquid went down her throat she shut her eyes against its bitterness. Then the Prophetess lay on the bed and waited for the special brew to do its work. The answers always came to her in dreams, and this time what she saw as she slept was as bizarre as they came.
The Prophetess saw a skimpily-dressed young girl who ought to be facing her school books. Instead, the girl held a microphone and lip-synched to a song blaring loudly in the background. The Prophetess knew that the song was this girl’s property. She owned each rhythm in her stance and pride gleamed in her soulless eyes. A throng of people swayed before her, hanging on her every move. They screamed in approval as she turned and bent over, shaking her buttocks in an obscene manner.
The Prophetess’s eyes popped open to a dark room. She clicked her fingers over her head to ward off evil then rolled off the bed and fell on her knees where she launched into a lengthy prayer. Already her feet and palms itched, a compass in her pointing north. It couldn’t be too far because the Prophetess knew she could reach the place where the girl was within a few hours. As the day broke, she poured the last of her holy water into a smaller plastic bottle that was easier to transport and prepared to head to the scene of her next spiritual battle. By tonight there would be one less demon consuming the souls of Nigerians.
Oyin dashed through the thick darkness of the woodland. Even as she jumped over shrubs, Oyin knew there was no escape. They should have given her more time.
Still, the least she could do was make it difficult for whoever was now after her. As she came to a stop, crouching below a tree that was very similar to the one that had borne her, Oyin fervently wished she had been blessed with the power to teleport. She could be in another city or state, country even, far away from this current mess. Instead she sought respite in her element, surrounded by thick foliage.
Whoever tracked her had followed her into the bush and was now close enough for Oyin to sense. This person was like her in a way, yet very different. Spirits confined in human skin, those like Oyin, had a certain smell – often saccharine – only noticed by others like them. This scent was all over her hunter but it overlaid another odour. Oyin chewed her lip trying to figure out who it was. It struck Oyin that the disparity might be because whoever they had sent after her was wholly human just as Aunty Taiye appeared in the clearing.
Oyin groaned as the petite woman crossed her arms under her breasts, left foot tapping, and eyed her gravely. It was pitch dark in the forest but Oyin had never needed light or eyes to see, and it seemed neither did Aunty Taiye. Oyin wondered if anyone could remain totally human after cavorting with her kind for as long as Aunty Taiye had.
“I am not going back.” Oyin announced resolutely.
She had imagined someone lower on the food chain would come after her, not number one-and-a-half. The scent of Leader Bitch-Witch, the person who was actively trying to ruin her life, was all over Aunty Taiye.
“My Zanottis are ruined thanks to you.” Aunty Taiye said looking down at her mud-splattered shoes. Oyin counted that victory in her favour.
“You can buy new ones when you return to Abuja,” Oyin said. Then added, “Without me.”
Aunty Taiye frowned pinching her features close.
“You know what? I don’t understand why we have to beg you to stay alive.”
Oyin rose to her feet, she did not like that Aunty Taiye was looking down at her when she was the taller one.
“You are human so I do not expect you to understand.” Oyin smoothed the sides of her skinny jeans.
At this Aunty Taiye kissed her teeth in a long drawn out hiss. “The land and water divide? Seriously? Is that the reason you don’t want to stay with Lila in Abuja?”
Oyin’s face grew heated instantly. “You really don’t understand, do you?”
“Explain it to me then,” Aunty Taiye’s tone was mocking. “I am listening.”
“From the start of time we land spirits have never gotten along with the water spirits. Do you know how many of my sisters lost homes because of the wily nature of one water spirit?” with each word Oyin’s voice rose. “And to top it off, even before we took human skins, those from the water have been pompous. Whether it is due to their popularity among humans, I don’t know. It is always Mammy Wata this, mermaids that…”
At that point Aunty Taiye interrupted, “No one is talking about the nymphs and tree spirits, right? So this is a popularity contest?”
Oyin pursed her lips and refused to dignify that question with a response.
“I just wonder why the other land spirits in Abuja aren’t objecting to Lila’s offer.”
“I am not like the rest of them,” Oyin spat. “They are boring and do not have anything going on in their lives. Aunty Lila cost me a feature with Burna Boy.”
It still pained Oyin; she had been charming her way through the music industry when Lila and her cohorts had invited her to come to live in Abuja. It was an offer for protection in the face of increased attacks on their kind, spirits in human disguise, but had cost Oyin a lot, especially after Lila frightened off her manager. That was the final straw for Oyin, it was all nice being kept safe from shadowy villains, but she had a life to live too. Oh, but Aunty Taiye knew how to launch her ammunition.
“Didn’t you hear about the mysterious lake that appeared overnight in Enugu, and dried up the next day? Do you want to be reduced to nothing but seeds?” Aunty Taiye asked.
Oyin’s anger evaporated. Ever since leaving the protection Abuja offered, Oyin had been following news sites with a fervour that was nothing less than religious. She understood that there was danger, that was why she opted to lay low here instead of returning to Lagos, and she needed to be informed. The sort of news stories that mattered to her and her kind could not be found within the pages of The Guardian. Instead, they were in gossip papers tucked between headlines like: Woman gives birth to tuft of hair and How I was kept in a bottle by my wife – Husband tells all.
Oyin had seen the story: Mystery lake appears in community – locals claim waters are blessed. The article had quoted an elder in the village who held that decades ago a huge body of water existed in the exact same spot where the lake reappeared. The elder explained that the original lake had dried up a few years ago. Even though she had never been to that part of the country, or known the lake intimately, Oyin recognised that the lake had been like her: A spirit that had found refuge in disguising itself as human. Now, due to The Search, the lake had reverted to its original state and was ultimately destroyed. Oyin felt nauseous at the memory.
Aunty Taiye’s tone softened, but only slightly. “Whoever is hunting your kind is merciless, and Lila only wants to make sure you are not eliminated.”
She moved closer and made to place both hands on Oyin’s quivering shoulders, but then she let her hands drop. “There is safety in numbers.”
It was just as well that Aunty Taiye had not touched her because Oyin would have shrugged her hands off. Before she had allowed herself to be breathed into this human form, some emotions had been completely foreign to Oyin. One of them was fear. Now, her heart tap-danced in her chest and her stomach felt as hard as diamond. Sometimes she hated how much emotions affected her physically. Her attempts at calming breaths did nothing to stop the shaking in her hands. Oyin thought she had evaded oblivion when she had been successfully transferred to this human body. Now she had to worry about the mysterious group intent on riding the world of her kind one by one. At least an elder had remembered the lake; no one would care about the pawpaw tree she had been.
“I can’t be away from my fans,” she mumbled, she clenched her hands at her sides and turned away from the woman in front of her.
Aunty Taiye scoffed, “You have fans here?”
That stung Oyin deeply. It was true that few people in this quite commune a few kilometres north of Lagos knew her personality as Miz Honey. They had probably never heard her hit single, even though it was still being played at parties and in clubs in Lagos and Abuja. Still, Oyin needed to eat and the thought of her honeypot gave some strength.
Every one of their kind needed to feed on their allotted poison and, as Oyin feed on veneration, the larger the crowd the better. They were what she called her honeypot. When she initially arrived here, she was nervous that someone would be sent from Abuja to look for her. As days passed and she built her honeypot, she grew comfortable.
The reverence from fans who loved her music always drove Oyin to euphoria, but in the absence of that she settled on the few who gathered around her in this place. It was a different flavour, but food was food, Aunty Taiye had no right to judge.
“I would rather be here than stuck in Abuja where no one cares about me.”
“You sound like a spoiled child.” Aunty Taiye snapped.
Oyin wanted to remind Aunty Taiye that she had spent many more years on this earth as a tree-nymph than she had. The only thing young about Oyin were the years of inexperience that came with trying to be human. All she really wanted was the freedom to explore this new reality but what Aunty Taiye offered was strict regulation.
“It is interesting that you say no one cares about you,” Aunty Taiye said. “You do realise that with your celeb status you are the key to your kind being accepted by humans? Even Lila believes it.”
“If she thinks it’s a great idea to reveal our existence to NigeriaShe must be very smart indeed,” Oyin said sarcastically.
“I don’t think you understand, Oyin,” Aunty Taiye said. “People already know you exist and they have labelled all of you as evil. Why else do you think your kind are being attacked?”
As most of her honeypot were corpers teaching in the only government secondary school in the area, Oyin headed to the school. It was past midday when Oyin got to the school’s administrative block and found the schoolyard was empty. She called out to her honeypot, sending a message to the Whatsapp conversation group she had created for them shortly after she arrived here. Choosing to wait for them outside, Oyin sought shade under a flowering tree near the football field. She played games on her mobile phone to while away time. It was not exactly exciting but Oyin was glad to be out of the house.
She did not have to wait long. Soon her honeypots flocked towards her, settling themselves around her. Someone brought benches so they sat enjoying the shade of the tree and the soft breeze that blew through the field. They complained to her about the long day they’d had at school and the ridiculous bureaucracy of the system. Oyin pretended to listen while she gulped up their attention. It was not long before she grew dizzy with satisfaction. She made them sing along with her and was so taken with the scene that she did not see the old woman dressed in a faded ankara iro and buba until she spoke.
“Leave this place,” she said in Yoruba. Then she repeated herself in Pidgin English, “Make una comot.”
The old woman wore a brown veil wrapped around her shoulders and a small black purse poked out from under her left armpit. She had a set of tribal marks deeply engraved on each cheek.
“I said leave this place,” she ordered impatiently. “Can you not see you’re seduced by a demon?”
Even though some of them turned to look at the woman, regarding her as if she was sick in the head, no one in Oyin’s honeypot moved an inch. The situation was almost comical to Oyin.
She waved a dismissive hand in the direction of the old woman. “As you were saying Chinedu…”
The old woman stepped closer to Oyin. The movement brought a whiff of something foul to Oyin’s nostrils. Everything about the old woman was off, even when she had been a tree spirit Oyin had never felt such aversion towards her. Humans either loved her or were indifferent to her, and with indifference all Oyin had to do was show them her spirit and they eventually turned to adoration. Even Aunty Taiye, who always adopted a brusque manner towards her, did not hold such negative feelings for her. This woman hated her strongly and to Oyin, who was used to adoration, it felt it like something rotten in her mouth.
“Don’t let her come any closer,” she called out to the most physically fit of her honeypots. “Hassan, stop her.”
The words had barely left her mouth before Hassan leapt to his feet. He grabbed the old woman’s arm firmly.
“Mama what is your own now?” he demanded.
“You don’t understand,” The old woman said looking up at Hassan. “This girl isn’t what she seems…”
“Hassan, take her out of here,” Oyin commanded, her heartbeat increasing by the second. “Drag her on the ground if you have to.”
Hassan made to pull the woman away, but she resisted. Oyin watched in amazement as the old woman easily pushed Hassan off her. For the second time in her long life, Oyin felt fear. She needed to remain calm, to keep her hold on her honeypot, yet she started yelling at them.
“Why are you people sitting down? Is this old woman stronger than you? Get her out of my sight!”
The others rose and gathered round the old woman. Eleven young people formed a wall between Oyin and the stranger but the old woman was fighting back, pushing and shoving as her honeypot closed in. The struggle was useless as they eventually lifted her up, carrying her away as if she was a crowd-surfing rockstar.
But as far as powerful speech went, the Prophetess had a few in her arsenal as well. She stopped resisting and let the crowd carry her while under her breath she recited a verse and with it a commanding word.
“Oju asa kii ribi. Oju awodi kii roran…”
As if waking from a dream, the crowd stopped moving. They lowered the Prophetess till she was on her feet.
“I see you are awake now.” The Prophetess smiled at their stunned faces. “Go home my children, leave this place.”
Oyin squealed at the incredulous scene playing out before her. The crowd she had had firm control over was running away in several directions, leaving her alone. Had her hold on them been so weak? Were all the things Leader Bitch-Witch said about her inexperience true? Who exactly was this old woman who was now moving towards her with such determination? Shakily, Oyin rose to her feet and scurried backwards until she hit the tree behind her. Oyin trembled but made no move to run away like her honeypot had, in fact her feet remained rooted to the dusty earth. As the Prophetess placed an unyielding hand on Oyin’s shoulder, it dawned on her that she had been caught.
Oyin fell to her knees with a painful thud. She had been so careless. The Prophetess murmured something under her breath, so low that Oyin could not pick out any distinct words. With one hand holding Oyin down, the Prophetess somehow manoeuvred her other hand into her purse and brought out a small bottle. When the Prophetess flipped open the cap, a strong acidic smell permeated the air. Oyin’s essence immediately recognised it as dangerous and she recoiled shrieking, yet her human shell was paralysed.
As though her core had separated from her body, Oyin saw the Prophetess tip the contents of the bottle down, directing it to a spot on her forehead. She squeezed her eyes shut and when the impact took too long to reach, Oyin reluctantly opened one eye. The first thing she noticed were a pair of hands hovering above her face, cupped to save her from the burning liquid. Then the light scent of Jimmy Choo perfume wafted to Oyin’s nostrils. Oyin had never been so relieved to see Aunty Taiye.
The Prophetess was confused. A second demoness had appeared out of the blue and this one seemed to be immune to her holy water. Manipulating a crowd of mentally chained humans was one thing but facing down two demons was another. It was a law in the spirit world that when one encountered a higher power, one had to submit.
The Prophetess flung the bottle at the two hellish creatures and ran as fast as her age and frame could carry her. She had reached the main road when it struck her that she was not being chased. She paused by a sign warning residents against dumping waste in the area and struggled to catch her breath. The Prophetess was angry and scared at the same time. That the holy water had not worked on them meant that the demons were evolving. Demonic spirits were independent and moved alone, the thought of them forming alliances raised bile to the Prophetess’ throat. The game had changed entirely.
As her breath stabilised, she felt tormented. The thing that pinched at the Prophetess the most was that she would have no new story to tell next week.
A few acidic drops had landed on Oyin’s face, despite Aunty Taiye’s shield. The liquid ate through her skin and Oyin screamed as she felt part of her human shell eroding. It was like she was being cracked open. With one cupped hand holding the foul liquid, Aunty Taiye fetched the bottle the Prophetess had discarded. Carefully, Aunty Taiye transferred the liquid in her cupped palm into the bottle. What remained was insignificant, but it would be enough to examine.
Meanwhile Oyin was writhing in pain.
Aunty Taiye disappeared and when she reappeared she held a plastic bag of pure water in her hand. She ripped open the bag with her teeth and rinsed her hands with the water. She then rinsed the plastic bottle, holding it with the tips of her manicured nails. Next, she pointed the plastic bag at Oyin and squirted the water that remained in it directly on Oyin’s face. Oyin flinched at the contact, and closed her eyes. The coolness was a relief that she accepted grudgingly. The relief was fleeting; it was quickly followed by the horror of knowing that she was now forever indebted to Aunty Taiye. Oyin felt something crawl upwards and lodge in her throat. She heaved and choked till she vomited a stream of pawpaw seeds. The pain receded after that.
“Now that you’ve stopped screaming your head off,” Aunty Taiye tossed the empty bag away. She observed Oyin from the corners of her eyes, extended by the dark wings of her eyeliner, and managed to look offended. “Are you ready to come to Abuja?”
Oyin remained seated on the ground. She stared at her hands, which were stained orange, studying the stringy bits of pawpaw fruit under her nails. She was scared to imagine the kind of damage that had been done to her face. Yet, Oyin’s borrowed heart would not still its painful throbbing. This was fear, and as much as she longed to be around adoring humans whom she could control, Oyin had to be reasonable. She gave Aunty Taiye a curt nod.
This edition of Omenana is late, over a month late.
It is our intention to publish a high-quality quarterly magazine, however, everything that could delay the production, did. It’s been a crazy four months, but we are happy that Omenana 7 is here now.
In the time between the last edition of Omenana and this one, we were reminded why it is of great importance to continue producing this magazine. Through it, we encourage more writers to look to the extensive materials we have on the continent called Africa for speculative fiction.
This month, we are happy to introduce stories from new voices and established writers of the speculative on the continent. We hope their stories speak to you as they did us.Also, we are spotlighting Sunny Efemena, who illustrated this edition and has worked on other editions in the past.This edition of Omenana closes with an essay on African sci-fi and literature and its impact on technological advancement on the continent by my co-editor, Chinelo Onwualu.
Meanwhile, we are very happy to announce the start of a partnership with Okadabooks.com, an online publishing portal. All editions of Omenana will now be available on Okadabooks.com, where you can access and download various formats of the magazine. No fear, Omenana remains free, and will remain that way for as long as we can manage.
I’ve never been one of those bright-eyed and bushy tailed people early in the morning, but there’s something about coming round to a completely white room that will wake you the heck up. It’s difficult to describe the place I found myself in, room is the best I can do… If a room could be kilometers long and completely featureless.
I was standing in the middle of the white expanse – not lying down or seated – nothing to show that I had previously been asleep. Yet, I was still in the same thick and unconventional clothes I normally wear to bed, and I remember going to sleep in my messy bedroom – turning off the lights and fading away as images of that hunky new guy at work played about in my head. Coming to in such a manner gave me the unsettling feeling that I might have been wandering around aimlessly, without even realizing it, for what could have been hours. My eyes kept trying to fixate on something, anything; a door perhaps, or a clear distinction between the firm white ground I was walking on and the white horizon before me, but there was nothing.
What if I was dead? If I was dead, good Lord, they’d find my body in my messy room, wearing those old makeshift pajamas and no knickers! What about the pile of dirty dishes in the sink? They’d know, know that I was not tidy and proper. Would Mr. HunkyWorkGuy find out what a sloth I’d been while I was alive? What about the debts I’d never paid off? Would my parents inherit them? But if I was already dead and that’s how I ended up in the expanse, then there was no reason why I would be worried about death. Perhaps I was waiting to be ushered into heaven.
I was a mess and the ridiculous thoughts racing through my mind were not helping. However, I recalled an article about lucid dreaming and how the dreamscape can sometimes be completely featureless unless the dreamer makes it otherwise. The “otherwise” part would need prolonged training, they’d said, and so I didn’t strain myself trying to imagine trees and hills around me.
Perhaps I was going mad and my brain was stuck on the last moment I remembered as a sane person? If I were trapped in a white cell somewhere in a psychiatric unit, it would make sense that I would dream of white, featureless expanses. Besides, it was much more comforting fixating on the idea that I was dreaming rather than that I might be trapped in some experimentation lab with my brain hooked up to some machines.
Yeah, when I panic, I really go to town.
With that, I set off… er… “exploring.” At first, I was running, and then walking after I got tired, and finally trudging along. I found no walls, no doors, not even a raised bit of ground that I could stumble on. It was hard to tell how much time had passed; as I trudged along I felt a weariness start to seep into my very being, like what I imagine my soul being sucked out slowly would feel. I was too frustrated and preoccupied with my thoughts to notice anything changing around me. When a voice sounded behind me, I promptly screamed in fear…to my endless shame.
I whipped around as fast as I could and found myself looking at a petite woman wearing a yellow sundress and sunhat, her face rather impassive except for one raised eyebrow that gave her dark eyes a rather irritated glint. The yellow stood out brilliantly against the bland background and I found that I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her form.
“Did you hear what I said?”
Her voice was warm as honey, even though her eyes were narrowed slightly in exasperation with me, and I realized that she’d asked a question that I was yet to answer. I felt embarrassment flood my system and I opened my mouth to respond but my tongue suddenly felt like I was made from lead.
“Y-yeah. Um, s-sorry, what did you say?” I hadn’t stuttered since I was a child.
This was all quite bizarre; I mean, how do you respond to a stranger walking up behind you in a featureless, white room? Had she even walked up to me; I couldn’t tell. She might as well have just materialized out of thin air.
Her eyes locked onto mine as she sighed and I knew, I just knew that she had seen my thoughts. I didn’t think the situation could get any freakier.
“Look, I mean you no harm but considering how paranoid you can sometimes become, Justine, I’ll leave the decision-making to you. You can either co-operate and find out why you’re here, or I could just leave you to go back to your ridiculous panicking: your choice.”
Her warm voice did not match the irritation that was clear in her words and I opened my mouth to speak, only to be startled silent as another figure appeared before us. I staggered back in surprise as my heart started pounding in my chest.
No poofs, or smoke, or dramatic sounds; one second there was the white endless horizon and the next, a man stood before my eyes. He wasn’t what you’d call a looker – but not ugly either – with dark skin, brown eyes, flat nose, and an unremarkable physique. He was wearing black slacks and a blue button-down shirt that hung loose on his frame, with regular-issue black shoes. Average in all aspects except for the fact that, much like the woman who had appeared earlier, the colors of his clothes stood out richly and brilliantly against the bland white I’d grown used to and his eyes held a knowing look that made me shift uncomfortably.
“Oh good, you’re finally here,” the woman spoke, her eyes still locked on my face.
She hadn’t even flinched or looked away from me for a second; it’s like she knew he was going to appear exactly when he did.
“Okay, what’s going on?”
My voice didn’t come out in the strong tone I wanted it to and instead I sounded breathy and scared. They glanced at each other before turning to look back at me.
“I guess we better start with it then,” the man said with a sigh and a wave of his hand.
There was a flicker and suddenly I was standing in a boardroom, just like that, complete with a long imposing table and a bunch of chairs. Large windows at one end let in sunlight and a rather impressive view of Kampala city. The change was sudden and I felt nausea begin to build up in my system; I looked down, trying to take in deep, steadying breaths.
“Always so formal, Jonathan. Try something a little more calming,” I heard the woman say in her honeyed voice.
Another flicker and I found myself looking at a field of grass as a cool breeze wafted around me and the sounds of birds chirping and trees swaying drifted to me. My body’s response was almost immediate: the nausea began to subside as I breathed in the fresh air. I hadn’t realized it before, but there had been no currents of air, or natural sounds, in the white expanse; perhaps that’s why I’d felt so trapped.
“See? Sometimes a woman knows,” the honeyed tone came again.
“You’re as much a woman as I am a man, Doreen,” the man…er, Jonathan said before I felt a hand on my shoulder. “Come, Justine, sit down.”
With the change in scenery, I felt almost euphoric and so I let Jonathan lead me to some garden chairs arranged around a marble table, with a jug of juice and some glasses on it. A giggle escaped me at the absurdity of the situation and I saw Jonathan look at the woman, exchanging a knowing look with her. Ignoring them, I sat down and took a deep steadying breath before I began my barrage of questions.
Jonathan, however, beat me to it.
“I’m sorry about this, Justine,” he began, eyes locked with mine, his expression sympathetic as he pulled a chair for himself opposite me. “I know you must be feeling overwhelmed.”
He paused, as if uncertain of how to continue.
“Perhaps before we begin, we should introduce ourselves. I am Jonathan,” he said with a small smile.
“I’m Doreen,” the woman said as she settled in a chair next to him. “We’ve been watching you for a while, my dear.”
“OK, that’s creepy,” I spoke, finally. My mind has a way of being inappropriate whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable. “Who are you and what do you want with me?”
They stared at me for a few seconds before exchanging another look. This was really beginning to irk me.
“We’re… celestial entities put in place to enforce specific, predetermined sequences,” Doreen said, smiling as if that was explanation enough.
“So, like aliens then,” I said, my voice surprisingly steady and flat.
I knew it!
“Goodness no,” she responded with a tinkling laugh, her teeth white and perfect. “Nothing like that; though I know that’s what you’ve been imagining since you got here.”
“We exist outside your universe and its laws,” Jonathan started before pausing. He looked around with a small frown on his face as if searching for inspiration before he continued. “We simply are, Justine. Birth and death don’t apply to us. Those are experiences tied to your reality, which is what we monitor. When I say ‘your’, I don’t mean you specifically, mind you, just the world… er… universe… reality which you come from.”
“So… not aliens, but like higher dimensional beings?” I suggested.
“Yes!” Jonathan said in excitement, clapping and grinning before he caught himself, and forced his face back to being impassive. “Not quite like that, but you’re getting the idea.”
“Well, if it’s not like that, then what is it like?” I asked irritably.
“Look, let’s not get hung up on the specifics otherwise we’ll be here for a while,” Doreen spoke up. “Like last time,” she added with a glance at Jonathan.
“Last time?” I asked, perking up.
“Right, we’ll get to that in a bit,” Jonathan said. “Let’s just say that we’re here to help you get your life back on track, Justine.”
“Excuse me? There’s nothing wrong with my life!” I couldn’t help the indignation in my tone.
The very nerve! I am a physiotherapist at a private hospital in Kampala and a damn good one at that. My work is often fulfilling and I enjoy it so where does this-
“He didn’t mean it like that, Justine,” Doreen spoke up, her warm voice interrupting my thoughts. “It’s just that you’ve been through a lot in the past few years and it has changed your outlook on life… changed what should have been and many people are going to suffer for that.”
Her words felt like a spear going through my chest. This was quickly turning into the kind of talk I didn’t want to be a part of.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My voice was back to betraying me again, coming out weakly.
“You’ve become more nihilistic and uncaring… Cold,” Jonathan spoke up.
“That’s… That’s ridiculous. Where do you come off saying something like that?” I asked in indignation. “Even if that were the case – which it isn’t – my attitude affects only me. No one else suffers from it.”
“Except that’s not the case at all,” he responded, voice resolute and irking me further. “It has never been the case with anyone. Who you choose to be and what you do affects everyone around you and this is doubly the case with you.”
The discomfort within me was rising to a crescendo.
“I don’t think so.”
Yes, well, you’re wrong,” Jonathan said, not giving me a chance to utter anything else. “And you know that you are wrong. People look up to you, your fellow workmates value you highly, and your friends are always eager for your opinion. You’re a leader amongst your peers, Justine. Surely you know that.”
The rising discomfort coupled with the tone Jonathan was using, as if he was speaking with a petulant child, made me want to throw out a few curse words at him in anger. He hadn’t said anything antagonizing, not really anyway, yet there I was, wanting to punch him in his sympathetic face. Doreen took my right hand in both of hers, refusing to let it go when I tried to yank it back.
“We know this isn’t easy for you, Justine, but please, hear us out,” she cooed with an encouraging smile. “Your outlook on life has far-reaching consequences and that’s what we’d like to show you today.”
I forcefully extricated my hand from hers and glared at both of them.
“Fine, say what you want to say. It’s not like I have a choice anyway.”
They exchanged another look and I tried my best to not let it incense me further. I failed.
“You’ve grown up smart and talented… logical. That’s why you chose physiotherapy instead of going into math, because of the stability and versatility it granted you in Kampala, right?” Jonathan asked, looking at me with raised eyebrows like he expected an answer even though I could tell that he knew what I was going to say.
“Yeah. I didn’t want to become a teacher and I wanted time to work on my music,” I grumbled.
“Exactly, and that’s fine but I think that’s where the problem started – if I’m not wrong.” He hesitated. “Help me out here, Doreen.”
“Yes, you’re right, Jonathan. That’s where the problem began: With the idea that you couldn’t get all you wanted in life, that you had to compromise your deepest desires so that you could be happy.”
“That’s ridiculous!” I sputtered in shock. “It was the logical choice to make and look where I am, I like my work and I’m good at it. I’ve also had enough time to compose some songs I really like. There’s no problem with that!”
“The problem isn’t that you chose the medical route but rather, why you chose it, Justine,” Doreen continued, her voice as warm and honeyed as ever. “It was a simple idea at the time but you fed it and it grew into this ugly notion you have that you can’t have anything nice unless you sacrifice something important to you.”
“But that’s the way life works. There’s no guarantee that-”
“There are guarantees, sweetie, we make sure of that. Just like we’re here today trying to make sure that thousands of people don’t suffer simply because you don’t believe in yourself!” Doreen interrupted her tone sharper than it had been before. Her words burned a hole in my heart.
“You’re selling yourself piece by piece and allowing the hopeful, helpful, and human part of yourself to freeze into stone,” Jonathan said, his voice quiet.
“Look at the fiasco of a relationship you had with Bernard,” Doreen continued.
That got my attention.
“What do you mean ‘fiasco’? He is a nice guy and I pushed him away. Of course he had no choice but to break up with me and-”
“That relationship was never meant to happen,” Doreen said; her voice sharp again. “You had several unserious relationships and by the time Bernard came around, you just wanted to be loved. But there was something off. You could feel it and yet you ignored it – believing that you could never deserve more than him. Now look – look at how that relationship damaged you.”
Her words were tearing into me. All my secret thoughts spoken out loud and thrown back at me until I felt like my heart was bursting with the pain.
“You realize it now, don’t you? That he never really loved you? That he couldn’t love you the way you deserved to be, even if he tried. But he didn’t try, did he? Did he?!”
She was yelling at that point and my body responded the way it always did when these thoughts confronted me. I burst into tears.
“He did; HE DID!” I screamed; wanting to block her voice out. “He tried but I just wasn’t good enough… I just didn’t love him back enough! I’m just not good enough…”
I broke off sobbing. All the memories I’d tried to bury in the past eight months coming back fresh, tearing their way out of the boxes I’d packaged them in.
“He beat you!”
Flashes of him kicking me until I got a bruised spleen.
He was just frustrated with work and I had no right to deny him that night, no matter how tired I was. Also, he apologized for months after that and never hit me again.
“He stole from you!”
Flashes of the ATM telling me my funds aren’t sufficient.
He apologized and said he wanted the investment to be a surprise; that made sense.
“He manipulated you, Justine, for how long are you going to deny the truth?!”
At that point and I could barely see through the tears blurring my vision, but I heard Jonathan speak.
“Doreen, you’re taking it too far,” he admonished.
“Not far enough, Jonathan!” she snapped. “How many times do you want to steal her away at night as we try to convince her of the same thing over and over again? It’s time to try a new tactic!”
I saw Doreen’s form getting up and Jonathan yelled in warning, startling me for a second before I felt a hand close around my eyes as a sharp pain pierced into my head. I was sure I screamed in agony but I heard no sound and the pain disappeared as suddenly as it came. That’s when the images started flashing.
Hundreds of thousands of people with connections to each other and all of them leading back to me. People suffering because of actions I assumed were innocuous, all of which had their roots planted in my low self-esteem, or my inability to hope for the best. Life after life, flashing by me; some cut short before their time and others yanked from the paths they would have otherwise taken because I ignited some sort of self-destructive chain reaction.
Me refusing to apply for the promotion I knew was meant for me and someone without the right experience was promoted instead. Several clients suffered and the hospital got sued twice, as a result. Sheila, the nursing assistant in the surgical OPD. I’d had lunch with her almost every day, but didn’t think it was my place to comment on her depression until she attempted suicide but miscalculated the wrong dosage, and after having to live with severe kidney damage for a few months, died anyway. Natasha. She had been dealing with years worth of molestation as a child and alcohol had been her go-to pain relief. All the sexual jokes she kept making weren’t jokes at all but an attempt to depersonalize her fears. Oh God, and I’d practically yelled at her over her standoffish and unprofessional attitude at work. We’d even exchanged some unsavory words.
It was too much and it didn’t let up for a long while. I was not surprised that when the hand was finally lifted from my face, my cheeks were wet with tears and snot was freely running from my nose.
Jonathan cleared his throat and produced a handkerchief out of nowhere, handing it to me as he glared at Doreen. She, in turn, just walked back to her seat as if she hadn’t just completely devastated me. I worked at gulping in large breaths of air while Jonathan handed me a glass of juice which I took gratefully. They looked at me as I drank the juice, watching as tears occasionally slid down my face, and refusing to glance away. By the time the glass was empty, my nerves were frayed.
“What do I need to do?” I asked, my voice low and shaky.
“For starters, patch things over with Natasha. It’s important,” Doreen said, her tone back to being warm.
“She won’t resist, trust us,” Jonathan added with a small smile.
I nodded silently as another tear slid down my cheek.
“And be open to George.”
“Who?” I asked, frowning slightly at Doreen.
“You know who I’m talking about. You’ve seen him.” The image of hunky work guy entered my head.
“We just want you to be happy,” Jonathan said.
“I… I don’t think I can do that,” I began, my voice gaining some strength. “I understand what you’re saying but… I can be happy without a man, and you suggesting otherwise seems like the very opposite of everything you’ve just said to me.”
“He didn’t mean it like that. It’s just that there are certain paths that you ought to take, and well, George is one of them.”
It was hard to believe that the warm woman before me was the very same one who’d just devastated my world.
“No, thank you. What’s the worst that could possibly happen if I refuse him?”
I could feel irritation starting to rise again and Jonathan’s quiet chuckles weren’t helping at all.
“I’d really like to see you try and reject him. He was made for you and you were made for him,” he said.
“Actually, it’s not,” Doreen said, looking at me thoughtfully. “Situations like that are few but it’s true, you two were made for each other. He’s got massive game where you’re concerned.”
They were both grinning at that point and I felt a little unsettled. They couldn’t possibly be right.
“This is the most agreeable you’ve been all month,” Jonathan remarked after a short silence.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“We’ve been at this for almost a month now, trying to convince you that you needed to change certain aspects of your life and now… Well… Thanks to Doreen’s unconventional methods, you seem more agreeable.”
“But I don’t recall any of that,” I spoke up in confusion.
“Yes, well, our aim is to affect the convictions you have deep within, not change your mind for you. So we never really leave you with the memories of these discussions,” he responded.
“Then I won’t remember this when I wake up?”
“No…but if we’ve succeeded, you’ll instinctively know what to do,” Doreen said. “I’m feeling good about our chances this time though…”
She faded off and I frowned, wondering if I was going deaf. Perhaps I am passing out, I thought, as my vision began to darken and I felt like I was falling into an abyss.
I jerked awake at the sound of my alarm clock and quickly turned it off. Oh God, it was 6 a.m. already? Damn! I scrambled out of bed; I had about 40 minutes before the city’s traffic jammed up and made me late for work. I’d had another one of those strange dreams that I couldn’t remember. But where I would normally wrack my brain trying to remember even a single scene from the dreams, I now found that it didn’t bother me much anymore. Plus, I really wanted to talk to Natasha, and I wanted to send her a text before I chickened out again.
Moving quickly, I grabbed my phone from the nightstand and found the email icon flashing. I looked at my notifications and opened the one from work, quickly reading the body about the meeting we were having that day. There would be a short discussion about the new patient registration system the hospital had just installed, led by its creator, George…
My heart started pounding. The email barely registered as apprehension took a hold of me and I started feeling uneasy. Perhaps… perhaps I could call in sick for the day.