We liked boys, but we acted as if we didn’t. The girls who liked boys were the bad girls, the popular babes, the pubescent monsters who climbed over the school fence and went to wild parties in town, whose skirts were shapely or short, who showed off the latest dance steps during social nights.
Ours was a life of rhythm. We slept and woke and bathed in similar dorms at similar hours. How could we not have learned to live with one another? We were storytellers, dreamers even. A girl said she travelled to Aba by air, another girl said a robot served her food at home, yet another girl said every member of her family had a swimming pool of their own.
But there we were, in a Federal Government Girls’ College in Calabar, a small, sluggish town in South-southern Nigeria. In that rolling land where we tottered on the cusp of adulthood, to have no story was to be seen as average.
The school itself was the Emperor of narratives. One, the Legend of Lady Koi-Koi, grasped our imaginations the most. According to what we heard, many years ago, as all legends go, a beautiful woman came to teach in our school. With her ferocious love for red high heels, she took her destined place as the glamorous one, the one students wanted to be. They aspired to her slender calves and good heart, the former a little too ambitious, what with our sloping roads that ruined calves and sullied dreams. A group of them envied her. How they killed her, no one knew for sure, but kill her they did. After burying her body on the school grounds, they carried on with their business.
And then began the happenings. The absurd clicking of high heels in the corridor at midnight. The unseen hand that gave students swift knocks on the head. The murderers felled by madness during exams, proving a good heart does not a good ghost make.
Some of us sneered at the whole tale: how precious, how foolish. Then one night in the middle of the term, the power went out during prep. We headed back to our dorms to drum and dance. On our way down the path, someone screamed. We moaned about attention seekers and kept walking. At the sound of the next scream a girl ran, then more girls followed, and then we were all running as if we knew why. We banded together in our room. The first screamer joined us, trembling and panting, her bathroom slippers gone.
She said by a curve in the path, a mass of floating figures appeared before her, all draped in white. She would have taken instant flight; only that body and mind refused to align. The floating figures vanished, and in her head sprung a revelation: They are coming. The story did not move us. We knew too well our school was a World War II graveyard. Now and then, a ghost sighting occurred. From the headless man to the two-headed beast, we’d heard it all. But those words—they are coming—terrified us. So we bound up the floating figures and cast them in the ocean. We sang worship songs and clapped till our palms throbbed. We chanted, “The blood of Jesus, the blood of Jesus.”
Besides, barely a year before, Lady Koi-Koi had tried to break open our room door. The wooden frame still carried the scars, a groove of fingernail marks. Perhaps we were really under an intense spiritual attack. Still, some of us were immersed in doubt. Why, we asked, had only one person seen this recent vision? However we agreed, in the end, it was the work of God.
Early on a Sunday, we learned that if we stayed awake while others slept, we would also see and hear the unfamiliar. The spirit we called Bush Baby, as much a shrill crier as a silent creeper, was wailing in the thick bush outside our dorm. Afterward, it made to crawl inside through the gutter. A brave girl chased it away with a mop stick, her roommates huddled around a window watching. They said it had the voice of a newborn and the nose of a bush rat. We gathered in the quadrangle, praising the lord, palms raised and eyes closed. We held hands and prayed. Later, we would wonder why we didn’t question our actions in the face of another watery legend. Yet if we had, we might have lacked the courage to admit our fear made no sense.
The trouble began in a time before ours. A girl, pregnant and at risk of expulsion, hid her condition for weeks. On an ordinary afternoon, at last, she feigned a migraine to avoid prep. Alone in her room, she plunged a stiff metal hanger in between her legs, pulled out the foetus, and flung it into a nearby bush. No one suspected anything, even after the smell swallowed the air whole, even though the smell was dark and different, nothing like that of the open buckets where they tossed their sodden sanitary pads, the lidless toilets that wouldn’t flush till they pounded their faeces to a warm brown pulp.
One night, another girl in that room woke to a baby’s cries. She sat up in bed and listened. Sure enough, a baby was crying in the bush! She tied her wrapper over her breast and went off to save it from the evil world. When someone found her torn-open body in the morning, a season of terror arose. Night after night, the crying went on and haunted lives. Parents moved their daughters to federal colleges in other states. Except, the daughters wrote to friends saying Bush Baby had moved along with them. The principal gave an order for that room to be emptied. It changed nothing. Years later, there we stood in a quadrangle, praying away Bush Baby.
But we learned new things about praying. No matter how well we studied, our grades would be determined not by our hard work, but by the gravity of our faith. It startled those of us who grew up in liberal homes. Our parents would have scoffed at this logic. We learned, too, that the only ‘normal’ religious identities were Christian or Muslim. Anything else was ‘demonic’, a word we hurled at all we didn’t understand.
It was not an unusual phenomenon. In the 1980s, a wave of Pentecostalism surged through Nigeria and watered the parched sands of Orthodox Christianity. Girls from conservative Anglican and Catholic homes arrived in our school and became born again. They walked together and prayed together, cornrows woven straight from the temple, uniforms the right shades of green. They did not need our approval. If a cheery roommate started singing a pop song, they would start humming a gospel song. If an anxious classmate asked them a question midway into an exam, they would urge her to pray. Their destinies were written in the school handbook: the prefectship and power, the golden lives for girls who thought gold worldly.
We gossiped about them. Surely they would snap under the burdens of born again life. Word had gotten out about a girl two forms above us. A girl who wore her hair natural and who, people said, never smiled at any boy apart from her brother. Every Sunday, she led praise and worship in the chapel, an avatar of virtue. Until she finished school and someone bumped into her in the market, a shock of red gloss on her lips, a silky tumble of weave over her shoulders. And so we knew our girls would come around. In the meantime, when they were fasting, we ate their food in the dining hall and wished the fast would go on forever.
Of all of the born-agains, those with spiritual powers evoked the deepest fascination. We regarded them with shifting emotions, mostly a blend of awe and fear. They spoke in tongues. They were swaddled in mysteries. They knew who presided over the nightly meeting of witches, which junior had been initiated into the coven, who could turn into a black cat at will. A prophecy of theirs—“My people, my people, time is running out”—shook the school. It wasn’t this prophecy, though, that caused the deliverance crusade. A different one did.
Everyone said it started when a junior woke and saw cat scratches on her arms. It had to be the girl who slept in the bunk bed below hers. The little witch. The junior reported said something about the incident to her school mother, a powerful born-again. When the school mother asked the little witch to confess, the little witch merely stared at her. The school mother gave her a few slaps, a confession emerged, and the famous prophecy followed: More of her kind walked among us; all of her kind needed to be stopped.
By the following day, the roles were cast: school as arena and student as performer. Immediately after night prep, we hurried to a dorm and assembled in the quadrangle. Yet again, we’d found a higher, grander use for this simple square where we spread laundry and served punishments. This time, it became a stomping ground for mended souls. Here, the solid rankings of girl power turned liquid. Seniors and juniors became one. So did prefects and non-prefects, born agains and non-born agains.
We stamped our feet in beat with song. Swirls of dust rose and lingered. Heat and sweat fed off each other. In the crush of warm bodies, with the ricochet of feverish voices, a thing as ordinary as a power cut became ominous. Girls suspected of being lesbians, witches and backsliders were led to the front of the crowd by a thick-muscled girl. At first the suspects denied everything. But once the leader of the crusade blew a gust of air into their faces, it was over.
Some fell and writhed on the ground. Others fell and went so still we worried they were no longer breathing. A girl often voted neatest fell into the gutter and revealed her torn panties. Some other girl remained standing, even when the leader of the crusade pressed a firm hand against her stomach. We were told, after many wasted attempts, that hers was a resistant spirit.
In the dark we charged with possibility and did foreign things with our mouths. A soft-spoken girl began to speak in a strange, deep voice. On our far right, someone began to speak a language nobody understood. We were witnessing a wonder. We cheered.
The morning after, we drew out the smallest details in the tuck shop. The newly delivered spoke the loudest, high on salvation. We laughed with a shared sense of rebirth and relief. In the world to come, we would be present. Then a tall, light-skinned girl said some people were pretending to be delivered in fear of being bullied. We called her an agent of the devil. We told her to stop mocking the Holy Spirit. We argued until a teacher sent us back to class.
For weeks, the crusade raged on, until all five houses of the school hosted the healing. We were set for the second phase. A revival of sorts. Then the leader of the crusade called a certain girl a witch. A quiet girl. Seniors remembered her only when they needed someone to run an errand. Her father appeared and demanded to see the person who knew his own daughter better than him. He walked around the admin block, threatening to sue, his black suit seeming to bleed into the air. The principal calmed him, assured him the matter would be settled. Meetings were fixed. People were summoned. We knew the leader of the crusade was one of them. But we didn’t know whether she stuck to her stance or whether she backed down. Either way, it did not matter. The saga had played out long enough.
We were recalling these things in a living room in Lagos. It was Easter Sunday. We lounged on a sofa, bursting with good food and good cheer, every pore on our skin alive with the sting of nostalgia. It might have been the mood. Or the pure and glorious thrill of being together again. But right there, as our old lives came back to us, we were transported to Calabar, to Fegocal Base, to a time when we were less willing to question ourselves.
Now, the illogicalities of those days were clearer. To think we believed in Lady Koi-Koi when every Federal School had a version of her! To think Bush Baby was in fact an animal! How, we wondered, could we have possibly thought our school a World War II graveyard? And if liking boys made us bad, and liking girls made us worse, who were we supposed to like? When we mentioned the crusade, we swung our eyes to random objects—the curtains, the tiles—as if we could project our embarrassment onto them. Then we let ourselves be the way people let themselves be with true friends, and teased in turns about the praying, the singing, the falling on hard bare ground.
We broke into the girls we’d once been, our voices too loud as we strove to be the chief mimic. Only at the most amusing of memories—how quickly the newly delivered had regressed after the crusade—did we cease our silly match and roar together in glee. Someone asked: What if the miracles were real? What if? Something, she sensed, had indeed happened back there. The room hummed. Oh, to have reached the point of discernment, of sifting memory, a final crack at discovering we hadn’t been fooled. But someone else said it complicated things, all this analysis. It was boarding school as boarding school should be: not so much about truth, but experience. We agreed. Still, we told ourselves, with the flawed confidence of retrospect, that we would have done a lot differently had we known what we knew now.
Post image “African Venus” by Lis Bokt via Flickr
About the Author:
Suzanne Ushie grew up in Calabar, Nigeria. Her short stories have appeared in several publications including Fiction Fix, Overtime, Conte Online, The Writing Disorder and Gambit: Newer African Writing. Her essays have been published by Next, Saraba, YNaija and Brittle Paper. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she received the African Bursary for Creative Writing and made a Distinction. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria.