Onojo was born on a market day.
It had rained cats and dogs for two straight days that there was no means of obtaining transport to the maternity centre in town. Noka’s neighbour, Alime, had no choice but to take her to the traditional birth attendant who lived five minutes down their street.
“This one is special,” was the first thing the birth attendant said when she touched Noka’s stomach. She was chewing on dry leaves as she talked and shot green spittle, at intervals, into a corner of the room.
“Your baby will not come now; she will come out when she’s ready.”
Indeed that was so, for after a while the labor pains ceased and Noka returned home.
That night she recounted the incident to her husband.
He was a farmer who planted yams and cassava on the family land some twenty kilometers from their house.
He was a hardworking man and his harvest would have been enough except that they had eight children to feed, including elderly dependents who had wards of their own. And so his produce barely lasted half the year.
“Special?” he snorted and his impressive sized nose expanded further like a flat tyre being pumped. “The only thing that is special about these children of ours is the amount of food that they are able to consume. I can’t believe that we have run out of omu abacha already.” He scratched his thigh noisily and yawned, clearly uninterested in what she had to say. “Bring me my dinner, kocho.”
Noka set his dinner of roasted yam and peppered oil before him; she did not refer to the matter again.
The labor pains resumed the following day which was an Afo market morning. Noka’s husband Ujah, had gone to the farm despite the rain. He had to bike for over thirty minutes to get to his farm, so he preferred to leave at the crack of dawn. That way he got most of the work done before the sun began to smile too brightly on his back.
The labor pain did not last long. As soon as Noka arrived at the traditional birthing place, she informed an apprentice that she was sure it was time and was thus ushered into the birthing room.
There, the apprentice began to mutter incantations and apply some concoction on Noka’s stomach; she was still doing that when Noka pushed out her baby into the apprentice’s bag of herbs.
Onojo did not cry at first.
The apprentice smacked the baby on its buttocks; she did that so firmly that her finger prints stood out clearly on the baby’s behind but that still did not make the baby cry.
The apprentice raised an alarm then and her boss came running in. She sprayed some powder into the air that teased the nostrils like yellow pepper; and Onojo sneezed immediately and then, again. Finally she began to cry.
She really was a small baby, almost as small as the plastic dolls that Igbo Paul sold in his shop across the road from Noka’s house. Noka knew that was the reason the nurses at the maternity centre refused to believe her when she went to report that her pregnancy was over nine months and she was yet to birth her child.
“This is not my first, second, third, fourth or even fifth pregnancy,” she’d said, counting on her fingers as she spoke while trying to convince the nurse. ‘I am not a child to these things. This pregnancy is almost ten months.’
‘That’s not possible,’ replied the health assistant who posed as a nurse. She had a look in her eye that exasperated Noka. It was the kind of look that one would find on the faces of villagers as they beheld Mero those times that her madness sparked like an ignited match and she danced naked in the middle of the highway.
Another thing Noka noticed as her baby grew was that, from time to time Onojo’s hands and feet would swell. None of her other children had anything like that; neither she nor her husband.
She took Onojo to the local chemist owned by Igbo Paul’s brother one day when the swelling was really bad but all he gave them was blood tonic and Multivitamin syrup.
‘All your children cannot be the same,’ he’d teased, and throwing back his head cackled like a mother hen.
‘Women and worrying… Hiaaa! Just take her home and feed her well, the swelling will disappear.’
So when one morning Onojo’s hands grew to thrice their normal size and she would not stop crying, Noka strapped her on the back and boarded a commercial motorcycle to Emere village to see the Prophet.
Prophet Godspower was renowned for his supernatural powers.
He’d been an auxiliary nurse at the state hospital until he’d received the calling to be a Prophet. He could see far into the future and back into the past. It was strongly believed that his prayers could cure any illness and over the years he’d helped many people solve their problems.
Noka had heard a lot about him since he started his ministry some years ago; she’d even on a few occasions attended his Monday nights ‘Scatter by Fire’ prayer meetings.
She was convinced that he could help Onojo.
The prophet lived in a large rectangular house at the back of the village.
His house was surrounded by mango trees which served as shade to his teeming followers where they waited in line to be attended to by him.
Immediately Noka got off the motorcycle that brought her, the prophet, wearing his customary white gown, appeared from his prayer room and told her he had been expecting her.
He asked her to follow him and ushered her into an immaculately kept and well-furnished room that had various pictures of the prophet taken at one important occasion or the other.
Propping the double windows open was a small framed picture of Jesus Christ.
Without any preamble, Prophet asked Noka to go on her knees and when she did, he began to pray aloud in many languages.
His prayers were punctuated with deep sighing and vigorous head nodding as if he was agreeing strongly to an invisible person’s point of view.
Noka’s neck began to ache from the pressure of his hands, and worse, enunciating the words of his alien language caused fine showers of spittle to bathe her and her baby. Unable to stand it any longer she jumped to her feet.
‘Why did you get up?’ asked the man, looking like he just saw a dead man rise.
Noka did not answer.
‘Do you know that I was in deep discussion with spirits about your child? Do you know what they are planning to do?’
‘Please prophet,’ begged Noka. ‘Forgive me, my neck was hurting and my knees also.’
‘What kind of useless excuse is that?’ he asked when he’d recovered from the shock of her answer. Anger, like foundation on an ugly woman, defined his coarse features. ‘Are you so lazy that you cannot withstand a little prayer?’
‘I’m sorry sir, Prophet.’
‘Be sorry for yourself,’ he shouted. ‘If you cannot bear this small prayer how will you withstand my two hour prayer special? This child,’ he said, pointing a stubby finger at Onojo, ‘is a child from the sea, a water child. She is out to frustrate your lives with problems and sickness and then she will depart to where she came from.’
Noka’s knees weakened at his words and she dropped on all fours. ‘I’m really and truly sorry sir,’ she said, her voice breaking under the weight of unshed tears. ‘Please continue with the prayers, even if it lasts five hours I promise that I will not move again.’
Prophet Godspower glared down at her, after a while he glanced at his shiny new Breitling watch.
‘Drop your offering in the basket and go.’ He instructed. ‘Come back in two weeks’ time.’ He went over to his table and rang a bell for his assistant.
Noka dropped 20 Naira into the offering basket that was hanging by the door and Prophet Godspower shouted that the offering was small. She dropped the other 20 Naira in her left palm and marveled at how he knew how much money she had dropped even though she had her back to him.
The man must be a true man of God she thought as she walked some distance to the motorcycle park.
Even Onojo who had been crying uncontrollably had gone completely quiet when they arrived Prophet’s house. She even managed to sleep through the loud prayers. It was confirmation of the supernatural powers of Prophet.
Noka told her husband about her visit to the prophet that evening when he was back from the farm.
He was dozing off on the sofa, tired as usual, with his faded singlet bunched up under him as pillow.
‘But why are you so bothered with her hands,’ he asked, his voice scratchy with fatigue. ‘Is that not how Agefu’s hands are? Is she not alive and well?’
‘Agefu’s own do not swell intermittently,’ replied a sullen Noka.
‘Just forget all these talk woman, because the next thing is that you will ask me for money. I don’t have money to pay for anything.’
He turned his face to the couch and was soon snoring.
Noka was concerned that Onojo looked like Agefu, who was her husband’s aunt.
Agefu was twice divorced because she could not bear children for her husbands; they sent her packing each time. Now she lived in the family house where wives young enough to be her daughters quarreled with her and called her painful names at the slightest provocation.
Noka feared for her daughter. It was a terrible thing for a woman to not be able to bear children for her husband.
She was back with Prophet after two weeks.
This time she came prepared for his prayers, she brought an old wrapper to kneel on and a veil to shade her from his salivary showers.
Unfortunately, he did not utter a word of prayer that day.
All he said was that Onojo’s water family wanted her back.
He could try and negotiate with them for more years on earth for her if only Noka would bring 20,000 Naira.
‘Eleeeee,’ cried Noka and clutched at her breasts as if she was having a heart attack.
‘Where will I get 20,000 Naira from?’
‘Look madam,’ Prophet replied. ‘I’m a busy person. Didn’t you see the crowd waiting outside to see me? Let me know when you’ll bring the money so that I can begin prayer arrangements.’
‘Please sir,’ cried Noka. ‘Please don’t be offended but is there nothing else I can bring, like yams or beans for instance?’
Prophet Godspower permitted himself a small smile that did not reach his eyes.
‘Tell me madam,’ he said. ‘What will spirits do with beans and yam? Will they use it to make Olele and Ekpeto for their dinner? In fact where are you from? Jupiter?’
He gave her a slow look, his eyes narrowed as if he was actually considering the possibility of her alien citizenship.
‘You don’t have much time madam,’ he said finally, and turned away.
‘The rainy season is coming. As a water child, rainy season is the time that the spirits will pressurize her to return home. A word is enough for the wise.’
He picked up his bell and shook it vigorously. An assistant ran in immediately, as if he had been waiting at the door.
‘Let the next customer in,’ he said, dismissing her.
Noka did not have the amount Prophet requested and since she had no means of raising it, decided to leave the matter for the moment.
It was harvesting season anyway and the whole family was busy in farm work that left little time for much else.
Onojo was also quite well during that time. The swellings in her hands and feet disappeared and she did not really have any more episodes of uncontrollable crying. That was until the day that Noka and her family were caught in a heavy downpour on their way back from the farm.
She was fine that evening until about 1 o clock in the morning when she woke up crying. Her hands and feet were swollen, her face also.
It was obvious that Onojo was in agony that night. She screamed piercingly many times and her cries reverberated in the quiet night. She was also vomiting frequently. By 3 am she was so weak that Ujah had to cycle them twelve kilometres to the clinic in Ankpa town.
They were in the hospital for four days before Onojo was well enough to go home.
The day they returned home there was a gentle shower and Noka swaddled Onojo in borrowed hospital blankets but even before they reached their home Onojo was feverish and screaming again.
That night Noka could not sleep. At 2 am she woke her husband up.
‘Baba Idoko,’ she said, ‘let us look for the 20,000 Naira and give Prophet. It’s clear that what the man said is true.’
She bit the nail off her middle finger absentmindedly.
‘It is since the heavy rains started that this girl has been very sick, she was never this sick before.’
Ujah cleared his throat noisily. For as long as Noka remembered he’d always had phlegm in his throat in the early hours of the morning.
‘Perhaps it’s just a coincidence,’ he replied. ‘Let us not be too hasty.’
‘No one is being hasty here. Are you not seeing what Onojo is going through? See.’
Noka raised Onojo’s dress to expose her stomach; it was rising and falling abnormally as if a small tortoise was crawling under it. ‘This sickness is different Ujah, believe me. It is bad, please see reasons with me.’
‘I can see,’ he replied, scratching at his scraggly beard. ‘But where will we get 20,000 Naira from especially at this time of the year? We are yet to pay Arome’s common entrance fees. Idoko’s WAEC fees are still outstanding. Look, even if you turn me upside down and shake out my entrails, you will not find 2000 Naira not to talk of 20,000.’
‘Is that all you have to say?’ asked Noka, in tears, ‘Won’t you even try to raise the money?’
‘How?’ shouted an agitated Ujah.
‘How will I raise it? Even if I decide to borrow, who will give me 20,000 Naira in this village?’ He jumped to his feet and wagged a finger at Noka. ‘Look woman, I’m telling you the truth. I don’t have any money as you know. And I do not intend to go and steal because we want to pay a prophet.’
He climbed back into his bed and pulled his old blanket over his head leaving Noka sobbing into her night wear.
The next morning Noka did not go to the farm with the family. Immediately they left she took a commercial motorcycle to see Prophet again.
The prophet was seeing a couple off when Noka arrived.
He made straight for her when he saw her.
Some of his able followers, excited to see Prophet outside his sanctuary ran towards him. They jostled against each other and raised a hurricane of dust in the process. Those who reached him first dropped to their knees around his feet and bowed their heads; they waited for him to bless them with his touch.
Prophet walked through the commotion with his head held high like the best of royalty and ignored them.
‘Have you brought the money?’ He asked when he got to Noka. ‘Is that why you are here?’
‘Please sir,’ she said. ‘We have tried but we cannot afford the amount right now. Can we please pay you 5000 Naira now and bring the balance later?’
She’d spoken to Igbo Paul that morning and had asked him if he was interested in buying off her wedding box. It was her only valuable item but she was ready to lose it if Prophet would accept payment in piecemeal. Igbo Paul had replied in the affirmative.
‘Madam, I can see that you are not serious about your child’s life. I hope you do not regret this.’
He turned and strode back to his sanctuary, his white gown billowed in the wind as he walked and slapped the heads of a few of his followers. They fell on their faces in ecstasy.
By the time Noka got home Onojo’s breathing was rapid, her chest sucked in with each breath. Her husband was still at the farm with the children so she asked a neighbour to give her a ride to the hospital.
There were over fifty people in the dingy hall waiting to see the doctor when Noka arrived.
It was about six in the evening when it was finally her turn to see the doctor.
The doctor placed his blue stethoscope on various points on Onojo’s chest, on her back as well as her sides and paused, frowning. The frown deepened when he noticed her swollen hands.
‘Mrs Omachi,’ he said finally. Your child has severe pneumonia and some dysmorphism. She will have to be admitted.’
‘Nemo? Is that not the name of the toy fish that the NGO women gave my children at Christmas?’ asked Noka. ‘What has the fish got to do with my child?’
‘Madam, pneumonia is not a fish,’ replied the doctor. Deep grooves appeared between his brows.
‘It means simply that your child has an infection in her chest and that is interfering with her breathing.’
‘Infection? What does that mean?’
‘It means that germs are in your baby’s chest and fluid has-‘
‘Water?’ asked Noka leaning forward suddenly. ‘Do you mean that there’s water in her chest?’
‘I guess you could say so,’ replied the doctor curtly. He did not like talkative people who interrupted him in the middle of a serious talk.
Whatever else the doctor said after that was lost on Noka.
In her mind she was back in Prophet Godspower’s sanctuary. He’d said that Onojo was a child from the sea, and all he’d said about her condition were already manifesting.
Even this doctor who was not spiritually discerning had just confirmed that there was water in Onojo’s chest.
Noka was now totally convinced that only Prophet could help her child. She vowed to raise the money that Prophet asked in any way that was possible.
The only thing now was how to sneak her child out of the hospital to Prophet Godspower who knew a lot more than this balding doctor speaking big words.
Big words did not cure, supernatural powers did.
Post image by Markus Reinhardt via Flickr.
About the Author:
Ayibu Makolo writes stories that are human and personal. Her stories have been published/will be published in the Scottish PEN, Bare Fiction magazine and Jungle Jim. She was long listed in the 2013 Golden Baobab Prize in 2 categories. She lives in Scotland with her family where she works as a medical doctor.