Morning met Maseso awake. There were nights when she couldn’t sleep, after spending hours in her lab fertilising ova, and nurturing her stars carefully… carefully. This was what she did for a living that had paved her way from the drab corridors and rooms of the National Hospital in the business district to the cushy section in upscale Maitama where she now ran her own private practice, nestled between grand embassy buildings and 5-star hotels. Maseso usually enjoyed her job but recently, anxiety prevented her from sleeping. She was a woman who stubbornly maintained her routines, and so she laid on her bed fully awake. From time to time, she would sit up and shift the curtains aside to stare at the neighbouring duplex that housed her lab. When she wasn’t doing that, she checked the lab camera feeds on her tablet, slowly counting the hours until 5:45am when she would be back in the room where she kept her stars.
At the hospital it was mandatory to refer to the unborn beings growing in the globular outer shells as ‘babies’. Most other labs simply used ‘foetus’ but at Maseso’s the preferred term was ‘star’.
Her hands trembled as she keyed in the code to unlock the front door and disabled the security system. As she entered trepidation filled her, an intuitive warning that something was wrong. Stepping into the calabash room, Maseso instantly knew her fears were realized. It had already happened. She knew it, but she took her time, hoping she was wrong.
Stretched out in front of her were two rows of twenty calabashes — artificial wombs labelled as such due to their gourd-like shape — sixteen of them containing one star each. Maseso approached the first one, Koso, taking note of its vitals, growth progress and the nutrient levels of the amniotic solution. There was a running joke at the National Hospital where they would add to check for extra arms or a tail growing where it wasn’t supposed to. Smiling wryly at the memory, Maseso progressed as she normally would. Up next was Po Tolo , she looked at its vitals and checked nutrition levels, everything was fine.
Inhaling deeply Maseso continued her routine, moving from one gourd-like womb to another, and as she went further down the room, her breaths grew shorter. She just knew. Even before she got to the back of the room where Xamidimura should be and she saw it almost fully formed lying on the tiled floor. It was still and breathless, skin grey, lips purple, open eyes a strange, consuming black. The sound of Maseso’s heart pounding loudly in her chest joined the hum of the machines and the bubbling of solutions. Her hands lifted to cover her mouth as she retreated backward and quietly closed the door behind her. Falling to her knees in the hallway, she struggled to breathe. She was frightened not just by what she had seen but by its implications.
The service that Maseso offered was a convenience for those who could afford it. Decades after increased infertility across the globe due to endocrine-disruptors, the solution came in the form of full ectogenesis, often with artificial gametes from stem cells. Nigeria took a different approach buying as much ova as possible from the dwindling numbers of fertile women. The culture demanded procreation enough to welcome ectogenesis but still held on to ideas of what was “natural” and accepted. The National Hospital was initially the only place couples with the means could turn to for a child but there was a waiting list that stretched through years. They quickly grew overwhelmed and soon private outfits started popping up. Maseso spent fifteen years saving, moving certain names up the waiting lists and collecting tokens of appreciation in her private bank account before quitting to set up her own lab. Heavenly Babies and Mothers was registered and licensed to store gametes, grow endometrium cells, implant embryos in lab tissue and a host of other reproductive industry services.
It was with a sense of pride that Maseso created every new life but Xamidimura, the one that now lay on her lab floor with cold and unstaring eyes, had given her problems from the get-go. This was supposed to be the child of a wealthy family, the kind with billions in several currencies tucked in offshore accounts. Maseso was doubly frustrated that this particular star had failed for a second time, carrying implications for the future of her business. The last time Senator Idris and Hajia Maimuna had come to her office, there had been an outburst. It was mostly the Senator doing the screaming.
“You told us that there was a 99.9% chance of our baby being born safe and healthy. We have seen other babies who were born in your lab so why… why is it our own that keeps on facing these problems? Are you deliberately wasting our money? Do I look like a bank?”
“No, please understand.” Maseso had objected. She kept her voice calm and steely, used to dealing with irate clients from her years at the hospital. “Everything was perfect, as it should be. I can assure you that we at Heavenly Babies and Mothers—”
“Rubbish! This is the second time, this son that I am supposed to have hasn’t come.”
At that point, Maimuna began shedding silent tears so Maseso turned her attention to her.
“Hajia please understand, sometimes cases like this come up.”
“You must do something!” Idris boomed. “It’s your lab, it’s your machine. My wife is infertile! How are we going to continue our family line?”
Maseso was rendered speechless. The Senator went on, raining down more curses with each sentence he spewed until his words turned threatening.
“If we don’t leave here without a child, I swear,” he touched his tongue and pointed to the sky, “your business will be destroyed.”
The hairs on Maseso’s arms rose when she recalled those words. As they left her office that day, Maseso knew that if her next attempt failed, she was done for. If Xamidimura was no more, so was her business. She would lose everything, even her life maybe. Her legacy, her work, her other stars… everything she had struggled to build would vanish before her eyes. Maseso shuddered to imagine life outside the protected zones where violence and poverty were rampant as the government and businesses focused their attention on locations with children.
Maseso retreated to her office at the front of the building, sat down and made herself a cup of coffee. The hour that passed felt like a minute when Ego bounced into the office, her beaded braids swinging and clicking with every step. She didn’t appreciate her assistant’s flamboyant style, but Ego came highly recommended when the assistant she had poached from the hospital had to leave Abuja. While she was capable, Ego’s behaviour often irritated Maseso. She entered the office and her bubbly, colorful appearance contrasted starkly against the pristine monochrome of the office.
“Good morning doctor, how are you?” Ego didn’t wait for a response before continuing. “You won’t believe what happened yesterday; me and my friends went to this party and can you imagine one of those kids selling drugs, the ones they claim can get you pregnant right, he came up to me and he was trying to chat me up.”
Ego chattered on, not caring that Maseso was staring blankly down at her still full cup. Ego had made herself comfortable on her desk before she noticed.
“Dr. M are you okay?”
Maseso couldn’t say a word, she just pointed in the direction of the lab. Ego had a slight frown on her face as she left for the calabash room. Barely a minute later, she rushed back into the office.
“It’s the Senator’s child isn’t it?”
Maseso nodded. “I don’t know what to do.”
Ego scoffed. “Ha! I knew it! It’s that his juju. It’s reached this lab; we should’ve never taken him. I told you my Aunt warned me when we saw the forums online.”
“Don’t even start that,” Maseso said, flicking her hand in dismissal. She found it odd the way Ego could retain superstition in her mind while working in the field of reproductive sciences. She was always talking about dark magic, even at the oddest moments. She’d told Maseso during a routine fertilization that online gossip was that the Senator had made an evil pact with a water spirit, exchanging his firstborn child for wealth and status.
“I’m telling you!” Ego insisted.
At that Maseso rolled her eyes. “I should have listened to you I guess but it’s too late.”
“No, it’s not too late,” Ego laughed. “Come help me, let’s put that baby in the incubator.”
“That will be pointless,” Maseso said, shuddering. She had no intention of touching it.
But she followed Ego into the calabash room. Both women looked down at the unmoving form that could have been a doll. Xamidimura was a star that didn’t get the chance to be fully born into this world. Maseso had been so close and now, all her efforts had gone to dust. Her stomach heaved, causing Maseso to cover her mouth with both hands. Ego efficiently tossed a scarf over the dead star, the colourful piece of fabric jarring against the still greys and chromes of the room. She wrapped Xamidimura and went upstairs to the incubation room. When she returned, Maseso was back in the front office.
“Contact the Senator,” Maseso directed. “The sooner we get this over with, the better.”
“No,” Ego said. “My Aunt will be able to help us.”
Maseso frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Juju for juju.” Ego replied. “We’ll get her to come and do something, my Aunt is powerful in that.”
“Seriously?” Maseso clicked her tongue.
“You really want your business to end, eh? I guess you’re not that desperate then!” Ego took her seat.
“I have told you never to—” Maseso was interrupted by a low thrumming that sounded through the entire building. A call was coming in.
Ego accepted the call with a flick of her wrist and greeted. “Good morning, ma.”
“Good morning,” the young Maimuna’s voice surrounded them. “How are you? Is business going well? How about doctor?”
The usual greetings felt torturous as she trailed towards the issue at hand.
“I’m calling to confirm my bonding time.”
“Bonding time,” Maseso was surprised at the hoarseness in her own voice. It was pointless to do so but she found herself reaching for her table to check the cameras positioned around the outside of the building, as though Hajia Maimuna would be there already.
“Yes,” the woman sounded unsure. “It is supposed to be tomorrow. Is everything fine?”
As Maseso struggled for words to say, she was struck with the absurd feeling that Maimuna knew something. Even in an external womb, bonds could be formed, there were even reports of women’s abdomens swelling in time with the growth of their foetuses. Two years ago, Hajia’s tears had irked Maseso as they consulted with her. It was their first failure, still marginally possible but not unique. Maimuna had shouted things about not wanting to try again, lamenting the stress of getting her hopes up only to have them dashed and Maseso wanted to grab her by her slender shoulders and shake her. Outside there were women begging for even a chance to have their own baby. In the past weeks, Maimuna grudgingly sang and read to Xamidimura during bond times.
“Everything is fine,” Ego chimed in. The frown on Maseso’s face deepened, her assistant was so insolent.
“Hajia, there’s something I would like to discuss with you tomorrow,” Maseso said firmly.
“Okay,” there was a lilt in Maimuna’s voice that made the word sound like a question.
“See you tomorrow,” Maseso clicked her fingers, putting an end to the call before Maimuna asked for details or Ego said something unexpected again.
Her assistant pouted. “What will you tell her?”
“The truth!” Maseso stood up and walked to the window, looking up at the blue, cloudless sky.
“Ah! But I thought you said senator juju threatened to shut this place down last time.”
“Yes, he did. And if that’s what he chooses to do, then so be it,” Maseso gritted her teeth.
She didn’t really mean it of course. Barely an hour later, Maseso asked the younger woman to mind the lab while she went out. Her destination was Jabi where one of her former colleagues from the National Hospital had set up a private lab like hers. It required leaving Maitama which meant wasting time at various police and army checkpoints. The government considered it dangerous for people from within the child-present zones to visit other areas and between Guzape and Maitama were areas considered unsafe. There were frequent reports of people being kidnapped and for ransom, their child. On the outside, there was an assumption that everyone in the zones had children and even if they didn’t, they had the money or ability to have one created. The transition from the area that had kids and didn’t was depressing. The atmosphere seemed gloomier, there were no colourful buildings representing schools and labs, often no electricity or water. It was just a stream of older faces counting down their days to death. The last of the naturally born people were slightly younger than Maseso.
Maseso sat in the back row of the armoured coach that ferried her from Maitama to Jabi. It was a relatively short ride and the presence of two armed officers provided additional security. She hopped off at the Jabi transit station and noted that she had an hour before the return coach arrived. Doctor Ubong was not expecting Maseso but welcomed her, nonetheless. Having been in the business for longer, Ubong’s lab was larger with multiple calabash rooms and lab technicians weaving in between them. They sat on a balcony that offered a superb view of the lake and its surrounding greenery.
“It’s been happening elsewhere,” Ubong said after hearing Maseso out.
This was a surprise to Maseso, though it brought with it some relief. “Is it a contaminated batch of nutrients?”
Ubong shook her head. “It doesn’t seem to be. Several reported cases used multiple vendors.”
In the silence that followed, Maseso also realized that if any of the tools they used were expired, contaminated or otherwise faulty, it would affect all the other foetuses. The problems would appear in batches, not isolated cases. She still had no answers but at least, Maseso now had something with which begin an explanation to the Senator. Perhaps get his support to fund an investigation and study.
“Let me show you something from the Ministry,” Ubong said, excusing herself.
From the open balcony, Maseso watched her rummage through her desk. Ubong returned with her tablet, she sat down and looked over her shoulder and around before handing it to Maseso. What Maseso saw there couldn’t be real. A star with brownish-grey skin and darkened eyes. Maseso squinted, then zoomed into the picture. On the side of its neck were three slits that resembled gills.
“Is it alive?” she gasped.
“Yes,” Ubong said as she reached for the tablet and switched it off quickly. “Keep your voice down.”
“Is this a mutation?” she whispered.
“Possibly,” Ubong said, unaffected. “I have sent some samples for cytogenetic karyotyping and should get the results soon.”
“How did the parents react?”
Ubong leaned closer. “They don’t know. See, what I’m about to tell you isn’t conventional, but there’s this scibalawo.”
“Ah! Not you too,” Maseso’s expression fell. This was the kind of talk that Ego lived for. Always going on about the Aunt, that everyone called a scibalawo. The Aunt that specialised in cases where the supernatural influenced the technological or scientific. Any problem could be healed. Whether it was a haunted smart home system, An AI companion turned abusive lover or online games possessing young children and teenagers. All stories that were unreal to Maseso so it was shocking to hear an accomplished colleague like Ubong speak of them.
“Listen, I can’t explain it either,” Ubong shrugged. “But what works works. And I have just shown you evidence that it works. If these clients are difficult, you have a way out.”
Scratching at her chin, Maseso asked. “Is the hospital also working with her?”
“I can’t say for certain that the higher-ups are aware, but she’s slowly becoming an open secret in this business.”
“If this gets out, the country will be in ruins.”
“So far it’s still just a few unborn here and there but rumours are going around that the numbers are rising and more unborn will be affected.”
Ubong continued, “If numbers increase and this reaches the public, at least the government will do something about it. We can conduct a formal study. In the meantime though, we need to deal with difficult couples ourselves.”
Maseso sunk deeply into the chair longing to be awakened from this nightmare. She declined when Ubong offered to add her to a group of their colleagues dealing with the same issue. Maseso thanked her before making her way back to Heavenly Babies and Mothers. She went through the motions, guiding her clients through their bonding times while ignoring the still unmoving ball in the incubator upstairs. Maseso moved with a sense of finality, knowing that if the Senator made good on his threat, her days of being in business were numbered. He could easily have her license withdrawn overnight. As night fell, Maseso climbed up to the stairs. She wiped her sweaty palms on her coat as she approached the room where incubators were kept. Oddly enough, the first thought that crossed her mind in the room was how much money she had spent on each unit. Then, she noticed that Xamidimura wasn’t where Ego had placed it that morning. The colourful wax print scarf was also gone.
Bewildered, Maseso rushed to the office, questioning her mind. Ego wasn’t there so she looked at the camera feeds, verbally commanding the AI to replay the days recording. When she saw the confirmation she was searching for, Maseso groaned and leaned against her desk. The urgent sounds of people talking reached her from outside. Maseso dragged her feet to the back entrance where a paved path cut through a small garden leading to her living quarters. She saw Ego huddled next to an older woman, they both stood at a spot by the eastern wall.
“Like this?” Ego said.
That low voice drew goosebumps across Maseso’s flesh, her shock turned to anger as she marched towards them. The strange woman appeared older than Ego but younger than Maseso. She was dressed reasonably enough in a pair of jeans and a flowing top but even before Ego made the introductions, Maseso knew.
“Ah, there’s my madam,” Ego started.
“Can I speak with you?” Maseso tilted her head away with the intent of warning Ego sternly. But then she saw the freshly dug hole in the ground and Xamidimura floating in brown water. The dirt at odds with the sterile environment Maseso maintained. She screamed as she flew towards the hole wanting nothing but to get it out of there, but Ego held her back firmly.
“How dare you!” Maseso shouted, every vein in her bulged.
“I promise, she can help.”
Maseso wasn’t backing down and it seemed Ego wasn’t going to either. They talked over each other with voices getting louder with each passing word.
“You will tell me who is the boss here.”
“I have seen this woman grow a baby.”
“Ehn! But let me save your business first!”
Maseso huffed, she hated being the one to first give in, but she was tired. The emotional turmoil of the day sapped her energy and she crumbled on the grass. It was only then that the Ego let her go. Maseso’s eyes were glued on Xamidimura , speechless.
“You should have told her now,” the woman Ego called Aunt said, amused.
Running a hand over her face, Maseso glared at her, taking in the baubles she wore around her wrists and neck. Maseso clenched her teeth, swallowed the insults that were on the tip of her tongue then looked towards the hole in the ground. The air seemed to stop around her as she paused. Xamidimura had moved. Before she looked away it wasn’t in that position. Her head whipped towards Ego.
“Why are you so stubborn?” Maseso asked. “This is my business, not yours. If any of our clients saw this.”
“I don’t trust Hajia Maimuna,” Ego blurted out. “It’s unfair for this place to go down because of one couple and their juju, what of all the other stars?”
At least they were having a conversation now, Maseso knew she would have to let Ego go on. Just then, she heard a slight clearing of throat.
“That baby is alive,” the scibalawo said. A slight breeze brought the scent of perfume she wore to Maseso’s nose. When she looked at the hole again, this time Maseso saw the star’s chest move, its little chest rising and falling, limbs twitching.
“This is an illusion,” she stuttered.
“No,” the scibalawo replied. “What you have here is a spirit child, they need more than your machines to enter this world.”
There was silence as Maseso stared on in disbelief.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Maseso sprang into action, regaining a bit of her composure. “Enough with all of this, Ego escort this woman out and you go ahead with her.”
She watched them leave and when she looked at Xamidimura again, it was still enough for her to be sure that it was devoid of life…until its mouth opened and shut. She didn’t want to touch it now, even to retrieve it from that hole. As Maseso rushed to ask Ego to return, she was baffled by her own actions. She found both of them at the end of the street waiting for the shuttle bus. Maseso coaxed them back to her property.
At Maseso’s suggestion, Ego brought out an empty calabash from the store. From a pouch she carried, the scibalawo placed clay within it, then water.
“Where is the fluid from?” Maseso couldn’t help asking.
“It is from the river goddess,” the scibalawo replied curtly. She lifted the tiny foetus without flinching and placed it in the calabash.
“You know, when our ancestors had premature babies,” she said as she worked. “They would sometimes put them in the earth. The clay has special properties. Every tool I use is special.”
Maseso watched as Ego and the scibalawo carried the calabash to the hole they’d dug earlier. It felt like someone else had taken her place and she was observing from afar. Maseseo would never have pictured this kind of activity happening in her lab. More clay was slathered over the calabash before the scibalawo began to sing in prayer.
“Ego, would you power up the calabash?” Maseso asked, unwilling to leave the garden just yet.
When Ego returned after powering it up, Maseso found that she could check all Xamidimura’s vitals remotely. She breathed in relief as finally, the scibalawo swirled a shot of gin in her mouth and sprayed it from between her lips onto the submerged calabash.
“It is done.”
Ego clapped in glee. “Thank you, Aunty,!”
Maseso’s thanks came out more subdued. She was still in disbelief, unsure of what she had witnessed.
For months, in the corner of the garden was a mound resembling one meant for burial and within it, Xamidimura. No idea why this one preferred dirt to the sanitised fluid the others did. But in the earth, it breathed and thrived, waiting to be born.