I’ve never seen one before, except in the movies. So, yesterday evening, when my best friend, Martha, confessed to being a witch, I was confused because she really doesn’t look as scary as the ones that fly across the flat screen T.V aunty Uduak sent us from Uyo, last month. I tried to point this out to my mother but she wouldn’t listen, “you’re only seven years old, Idara; you’ll understand when you get older,” she had told me.
Perhaps this was all my fault. I should have listened to Martha yesterday afternoon,
during long break, when we were acting home scenes on the playground, along with two other boys from our class. Martha and Jonah played mummy and daddy; Bassey and I were siblings. While Bassey and daddy were in the sitting room watching television (which was made of clay except for the broomstick antennas and the square glass pasted on the surface of the moulded clay, which served as the screen), my mother and I were in the kitchen preparing mud and fresh grass in used tomato tins, for lunch. When it was ready, Bassey came into the kitchen to get his share, and then I offered to serve my father his.
“Don’t worry, I’ll do it,” Martha replied.
“You do it all the time let me help you today,” I suggested.
“It is the duty of the wife to always serve her husband.”
“But aunty Uduak serves my daddy sometimes when she’s around…”
“I said no!” she yelled and yanked the tin out of my hand.
I let out a whistled scream when the jagged edge of the tin sliced my little finger. This made my playground family freeze and stare silently at me in confusion.
I ended up in the dispensary; my parents and sibling, in the principal’s office. I suspect while I was being bandaged, they were being disciplined because afterwards, Martha packed her books and belongings from under the desk we shared and moved to another one, far away from me as possible, like she was ashamed of me. But after the closing bell rang, I approached her and said I was sorry. She said she was sorry too, and all was fine again. Until later that evening when my real mum noticed the bandage. My dad tried to convince her that I was fine and that children, when they play, got minor injuries like that all the time. But as soon as he was out to meet with his friends, my mum clasped my hand in hers and started to tow me in the general direction of Martha’s house.
This was, usually, a bad omen. Whenever my mother towed me, against all odds, to anybody’s house demanding explanation, someone ends up with a beating. More often than not, that person is me, regardless of whoever was at fault.
Perhaps they weren’t completely sure and needed some kind of confirmation, because as soon as they heard my mother’s testimony on how I got my finger slit, followed by my nod of approval, one of the uncles yelled, “You see? Who would do such a thing to a little girl, because of a boy?” Soon after, the assault on Martha began.
Apparently, Mr. Effiong, Martha’s dad, had been involved in a terrible motor accident, two days earlier, on his way to Uyo from Ikot Abasi. His wife, on hearing the news from the doctor handling her husband’s case, jumped on the next bus to Uyo and suffered a similar fate on the same day. They both died subsequently. A couple of uncles and kinsmen thought this odd and visited a “very strong, spiritualist” who confirmed their suspicion and revealed that Martha was the witch behind the ghastly developments.
Martha was adamant about her innocence despite the many insults, slaps and whips that were raining down on her. I had never seen anything like that before. I began to cry; I was scared. My mother, I suppose, was too shocked to join in the torturing or notice my tears because she just simply stood and watched.
Although Martha had began to bleed from the nose with a swollen face and bright red eyes, the association of uncles, other relatives present and well wishers craved a confession. That was when one of her uncles, Mr James, obviously skilled at getting answers, surfaced with a six-inched nail and a hammer. After the two young men subdued Martha, he placed the pointed edge of the nail on her head and with two heavy and accurate hits, got a simple confession of “I am a witch! I am a witch! Uncle I’m sorry.” And so the beating stopped.
Nothing was the same in the weeks that followed – I was no longer allowed to play outside the house, sleep at night was limited (due to regular night vigils), we watched more child witch movies, at home, than necessary; even the teachers at school cautioned us, repeatedly, not to accept food or snack from other children. The whole thing was exhausting, but worse than that, it was frightening.
The issue of child witches, before now, were only heard in stories about remote villages. After Martha was banished by the council of elders in our village, it did little to ease the tension in the atmosphere because Apostle Akpan, the overseer of the biggest church in our community, saw in a revelation that there were dozens of other child witches living amongst us and that we needed to be prayerful and even more alert. And so I prayed to God everyday to forgive Martha and help her repent so I could see her again. I also prayed for the protection of my parents, siblings and aunty Uduak and every one on earth because we all needed protection.
Although my father never opposed the recent overflow of prayers in the house, he was reluctant in the area of participation. So that Friday when he did not return from the farm, my mother feared the worst. He usually got back around 3pm, just about the time Mmenyene, my eldest brother, returned from after-school lessons. My mother would later wail and blame herself for leaving her husband to himself in the farm to go prepare lunch at home, when Mmenyene returned with news that father was not in the farm and his whereabouts were unknown by his counterparts.
Two days later, there was still no sign of him. Word spread quickly. A search was being carried out by local vigilante. Our house was soon overflowing with family members and well wishers. The elderly men kept insisting and admonishing everyone that it was still too early to assume the worst. Their counsel fell on deaf ears; the women appeared to be in the mood to grief.
At a point, I couldn’t cry anymore although I wanted to. It was as if I had run out of tears. The women, on the other hand, seemed to have the ability to start and stop and start shedding tears again, at will, all through the night.
The next morning, a sharp scream from a familiar voice, shook me out of sleep. It was my mum. A few seconds later, I was able to gather myself and head towards the commotion. It was a quarter to nine, according to the clock in the living room. That was about the time I met my new dad.
Three members of our local vigilante were taking turns to narrate when and where they had seen him.
Father looked fine and no different from the last time I saw him, only that he acted like he was in the wrong place. He was uncomfortable and seemed uninterested in the conversation between my mother and the vigilante men, he appeared not to recognise his wife or children and refused to utter a word. Mother would later observe, while father was eating his favourite meal, that he still had his tongue.
When they were ready to go, mother thanked the vigilante men for their help; they thanked her for the food. Relatives and well wishers, perhaps sensing that their job was complete, filed out one after the other, promising to visit again. Mother, in return, had a hug or an appreciative remark, accompanied by a fond smile for every one of them.
Contrary to my expectations, prayers, fasting and vigils remained characteristic of our daily activities in the house. Still, father’s body appeared to be with us but his spirit, elsewhere. Aunty Uduak sent us money regularly for hospital check-ups but visited just once. I didn’t understand this because, besides his step brothers and sisters, aunty Uduak was the only sibling father had. My mother’s explanation was, “that is the life of a banker oh.”
The tiresome routine of running from pillar to post and back again, lasted for a month and then my father’s step brothers decided they had had enough.
“Are you a witch?” one of them asked, that unforgettable day. He looked to be the one in charge because it was him who ordered my siblings to leave the parlour and lock themselves in their rooms and instructed the young men with whips to wait for his signal.
I shook my head. “No sir.”
“Idara, tell me the truth and help yourself,” he continued. “You see those people to your left with koboko? They are waiting to cane you seriously if you do not tell me the truth.”
My mother was now weeping. Father was watching but seemed not to care about the danger I was in.
“Tell us, did you do this to your father?” a new speaker broke the silence in the room. I must have missed the signal or perhaps the young men lost their patience because they began to whip me before I could answer. When they finally stopped, I felt as though someone had ground fresh pepper and applied it, generously, to numerous open wounds all over my body. They ordered me shut up. It took some effort but I was eventually able to reduce my screams to sobs.
“Were you initiated by Martha?” the one in charge asked.
“I don’t know sir,” I said, determined to never delay my replies again.
“Has she given you anything to eat before?”
“Yes sir,” I whimpered. “We eat each other’s food during lunch break in school.”
They shrugged repeatedly and maintained eye contact with my mother as if to say, see? we’ve been vindicated.
Life in the Corner Stone Children’s Home was very orderly – regularly queuing, organised routines and religious time management, except when the men and women with cameras and microphones showed up. Ms. Sharon Biel, the founder of the Home, would let them stay as long as they wanted. They would chat and laugh in her office for a while, then they would come out to ask me and the other children questions about when and how we ended up in the Home. I would often narrate my two days nightmare experience in the forest before I was found by my rescuers and they would listen keenly and write in their jotters. Countless times they tried to get Martha’s story from the horse’s mouth, not once had they succeeded. She would often look them in the eye and fiddle, aimlessly, with the hem of her dress. I overhead Ms. Biel, once, tell the press people “ever since the nail was removed from Martha’s head, she seemed to have lost her wits.” I remember searching my dictionary all day.
“Please, call me Sharon,” Ms. Biel would always insist, smiling adorably, whenever any of the children called her “aunty”. But aunty Emem, our cook and matron, would threaten to wring our ears if we dared, because aunty Biel was not our mate.
Aunty Emem never approved of any of Ms. Biel “Americanness” – she would grumble whenever her employer came out to smoke in the yard, frown, conspicuously, whenever Ms. Biel kissed her boyfriend in front of the children and fumed whenever any of the children escaped discipline or got a “pointless” gift. Once I had pointed at a page in a fashion magazine and asked “aunty, is that a big doll?”
“No honey,” she said, laughing. “It’s a mannequin. You’ve never seen one before?” I shook my head and the next day she got one and stationed it in the reception.
During the day, when we were not having regular classes, we were bombarded with a lot of fun stuff – art class, music class, poetry and sports; poetry was my favourite. At night, however, we were afforded a lot of time to rest and have quality sleep. Those were the moments I dreaded the most because it was during times like that, that I would often remember family and friends and miss how normal things used to be, not so long ago.
Four years drifted by, like steam from a tea cup and children continued to be admitted into the Home on a regular basis. The child witches trend seemed far from coming to an end. It was, in fact, flourishing. The kids that were not killed during torture almost always ended up in Corner Stone. And so the day a female youth corps member stepped into the building and volunteered, Ms. Biel looked a little relieved.
She introduced herself, later in class, as Ms. Hyelhirra Godfrey. “I’ll be teaching you social studies,” she said, beaming. She was as beautiful as an angel and would not just stop smiling for anything. That did little to lift anyone’s spirit. She let us know she would be available on Thursdays and maybe Sundays too, to handle Sunday school. We would, later, come to adore her and fondly call her aunty Hirra. We had teachers who often told us fun stories but nobody’s story made us giggle and laugh the way aunty Hirra’s did and nobody gave us hope the way that she did. The days she was available were great; others were not so great. Some days were as gloomy as watching my best friend, Martha, sit and stare seriously at nothing. A fly would perch on her nose and she wouldn’t blink an eye. She reminded me of my father and they both reminded me of the mannequin in the reception. Two of my favourite people in the world – one of them out of reach and the other as good as a mannequin. I wonder if Martha will ever get better; I wonder if I’ll ever see my father again. The thought of this, made me cry, so I prayed and asked God for help.
Amazingly, the weeks that followed, saw a mass reclaiming of children from the Home by their parents and or guardians. We heard stories of a new prophet in town who was offering to deliver child witches at hundred thousand naira per child. Before now, Apostle Akpan had been charging four hundred thousand. Apparently, most parents could now afford the new rate, hence the reclaiming party. God had answered my prayers.
The trend did not go down well with Ms. Biel. “Just yesterday, these children were tortured and left for dead by their parents and kinsmen, today the same people are clamouring for the children’s wellbeing,” she said, fuming. She was standing face to face with aunty Hirra in the hallway that Thursday.
“The funny thing is, there are actually child right acts in the Nigerian constitution that prohibit the kind of treatment they’ve subjected these kids to, but with all my contacts, I’ve managed to get zero persons prosecuted in court; no one has, heck, some of these dastardly acts unfold right under the noses of police officers.”
Ms. Biel paused for a minute and that was when aunty Hirra spoke. “Sometimes, the best form of redress is forgiving those who transgress against you.”
Ms. Biel opened her mouth and eyes at aunty Hirra. It took a moment before the words came out. “What are you saying? They are just kids. What choice do they have? They don’t have too many options here, do they? Are you serious right now?” When it was obvious she wasn’t going to get any answers to her questions, she stormed into her office, probably in search of a lighter and cigarette.
That night, I dreamt that Martha was recounting, to me, the playground incident in school where she, accidently, slit my finger. She kept laughing at how silly we had been; I laughed too. Later, aunty Emem surfaced and announced that we had visitors. It was aunty Uduak and my mother. There was something relieving about the way they smiled and wept at the same time.