IT WAS A warm, humid night in the lakeside city of Kisumu. Under a starless sky, the women, seated on an assortment of plastic chairs, sang hymns. Between them and what had two days ago been a grass-thatched mud hut stood a decade-old mango tree. The hut had undergone a hurried transmutation overnight, and in its place was a single-roomed corrugated concrete structure. You could still trace the strokes of the mason’s palms in the damp plastering.
The women’s voices filtered into the house where Jackie and her late husband’s last living maternal relative, an aunt, held vigil over his body. This, she had been instructed, was what chik dictated. A small paraffin lamp illuminated the room and a thin whorl of black smoke broke off the tip of its tremulous flame, rising and vanishing into the partial darkness. The fumes of paraffin mingled with the morbid, cloying smell of formalin, which somehow continued to slip past the proverbial “last nail in the coffin.” Jackie let out a sardonic chuckle.
Her husband Okwiri’s death had not been unexpected, but it was jarring nonetheless. The cancer had resurfaced after 10 years in remission, with vengeance. They tried everything. Well-meaning Pentecostal friends had spoken fire over the tumour, calling upon the Spirit to incinerate it. Loudly and with startling fervour.
In January, her sister recommended a herbalist. He was a stout, turbaned man who with indifference gave Okwiri a bleak prognosis: no more than 6 months. Still, hope burned. A purple-robed Legion Maria duo had exorcised Okwiri of demons presumably wrapped in the fist-sized polythene package which they claimed to have extracted from his disease-ravaged stomach while he sat on the edge of the coffee table, heaving in agony.
His best-friend, Dr. Otieno, a lecturer at the Engineering faculty, had suggested that Okwiri make an offering and accompany him to Holy Ghost Fire Evangelical Centre, in the heart of Nairobi’s business district. Jackie had watched the weekly broadcast from home. Okwiri was never called to the dais.
Hours before he breathed his last, when Okwiri’s own father had resigned himself to his son’s fate and boarded the next bus to Kisumu to await the inevitable, Jackie was finalising plans to fly him to a cancer centre in Kampala. He died at 6:00 am on the 2nd of July. After the funeral that Saturday, mourners-turned-revellers danced into the night. Benga blared from loud speakers. This, Okwiri once shared with her, was the highlight of Luo funerals. The festivities. The food. The “fun” in “funeral,” her 17-year-old daughter Hawi had remarked wryly.
Her nieces were sprawled on the living room floor, asleep. Jackie sat upright on the living room couch, the harsh glare of the roaring pressure lamp barely registering. The music outside sounded muffled, as though she were submerged. All her senses were dulled, and her eyes were glazed over as she contemplated her life.
On Sunday afternoon, Jackie’s father-in-law had summoned her to his hut. Rounding the arc in his bougainvillea fence, she sighed heavily, steadying herself.
“Nyar Loka, bed piny,” he said, eschewing pleasantries. She sat as requested.
“To ang’o m’omiyo nyoro udok nindo eii ot?“ asked the balding, bespectacled man. Her eyes traced, for a few seconds, the dense network of veins and wrinkles crisscrossing his forearms as though she would find the answer at their intersections.
Presuming ignorance from her silence, Jaduong proceeded to inform her that, as a widow in mourning, chik dictated that she and her two children spend two consecutive nights beside Okwiri’s grave. When she informed the children, Hawi, the elder of the two, jaded and weary, asked if she could at least bring her mattress.
“No,” she said quietly, her eyes unfocused.
She and her sisters spread two large mats on the muddy ground in front of the concrete house, and with Hawi and Gueth, her 13-year-old, they lay in a single file, wide awake. If she propped herself on her right elbow and looked straight ahead, she could see Okwiri’s grave, the garland of white roses on it just beginning to wither. She drifted into a frantic sleep, but at 3:00 a.m. she was woken by a frenzied shaking at her shoulder. “Lie low,” Apar, her elder sister, warned. Footsteps. A door slammed shut.
“Mum, she was walking backwards, facing the grave, into her house,” Hawi whispered.
“Who?” Jackie asked.
“Nyar Gem,” Apar said.
They lay awake till dawn.
Okwiri, by way of revelation, had fearfully mumbled the name of his father’s first wife, Nyar Gem, confiding in Jackie the suspicion and secrecy that had coloured his childhood in the village. Rumour had it that she used yath and juogi, that she roamed the night on the back of a hyena. Okwiri’s younger brother, Asego, had lost his three-month-old son whom he said had died cradled in Nyar Gem’s arms, her vacant glare never leaving his lifeless eyes. Her sisters, too, had told her that Okwiri must have fallen victim to her nefarious actions, as it was simply absurd for a healthy and robust 45-year-old man to fall sick and die in his prime. Where she came from, they dealt with the menace of witches and warlocks by burning them alive in their huts at night, a practice long outlawed but very much alive. Here, however, they maintained a trepid tolerance.
When Jackie, boldly and with a slight tremor in her voice, made the declaration that they needed to talk about the fact that they lived with jojuogi at the family meeting she called at daybreak, all of Okwiri’s relatives had feigned surprise and outrage at her utterances. Jaduong, usually reclusive in his hut, reclined in a rickety collapsible wooden chair. Nyar Gem stood, barefooted, between her twin sons, Opiyo and Odongo, her beady eyes darting about the austere room, never meeting the eyes of its other occupants.
The mere mention of her name often made Okwiri prickly and jittery. In person, however, her stature was less than imposing. She was rail thin, and stood, or slightly hunched, at what appeared to be a mere 5’4. Her red headwrap did little to hide the gray hair at her temples. Tension filled the room like a thick cloud of smoke, static and stifling. Aluoch, one of Okwiri’s half-sisters, had already begun to wring her hands and cry.
Nyar Gem’s eyes rose to meet Jackie’s, an unspoken challenge, the skin on the back of her right hand taut as she strained against her cane. The meeting descended into chaos after Opiyo and Odongo began to goad Jackie, and Jaduong silently slunk off to his hut. It had been naïve and foolhardy to expect the meeting to be productive.
“We will have to do something about this eventually,” Jackie said defiantly.
NIGHTS IN KISUMU were pitch-dark. When Jackie woke up at 2:00 a.m. that night, she panicked for a few seconds, thinking, in her half-lucid daze, that she might have lost her sight. There was no trace of moonlight, she couldn’t see her own limbs. She groped for her handbag on top of the dresser and found her green flashlight inside it. A feeble glow spread over the windowless room. She walked to the living room, where a derelict emptiness filled the spaces in which, only a few days before, her nieces and other relatives had lain, and she opened the windows. Propping her feet up on the stark, squat brown table, she threw her head back, closing her eyes as the breeze washed over her face.
Jackie had begun to doze off when she was woken by the distant tapping of wood on concrete. It grew louder, more insistent, but no faster. She could also hear a hollow rattle. She shot up and moved stealthily toward the hallway as a thin dark silhouette emerged. Jackie stood frozen, her heart pounding like a heavy fist against her chest.
“Nyar Loka,”said the still, frail voice of Nyar Gem as she became visible in the waning, yellow light of the rattling paraffin lamp dangling from her left hand. She stood poised in the hallway, leaning against her cane, her eyes trained on Jackie who was too stunned to exhale.
“You wanted to talk about something?” Nyar Gem asked quietly.
HAWI AWOKE AT first light, scratching the matted coils on her head as she walked into the bedroom corridor.
“Mum!” she called out.
Light flushed through the gaping door and spilt into the hallway. Hawi walked away from the jarring glare, her left palm a visor over her sleepy eyes. She turned around and spotted her mother, slouched on the couch, her limbs limp at her sides. Her left hand grazed the jagged concrete floor. Her eyes were glazed over and unfocused, vacantly boring into the beige wall as though she could see through it. Her chest rose and fell with each breath, even and measured.
“Mum!” cried Hawi, rushing to her side and gently cupping her cheeks. She gently turned her mother’s head to establish eye contact, but she lay dazed and unresponsive.
“What is it?” she bawled, the words erupting against her gritted teeth. Silence.
Hawi ran outside, screaming wildly for help.
On the stark, squat brown table lay the green flashlight, its beam subsumed in the daylight.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adhiambo Adongo is a lawyer and writer living in Nairobi.