Bruised by Chiaka Obasi

Friday, November 2, 2012
Nine-year-old Nkem is subject to relentless violence and abuse from his family who are convinced he is possessed by evil spirits

The morning my uncle's daughter did not wake up from her bed was the day I lost two of my teeth. It was also the day my left eye lost its strength. Now it cannot clearly see any object and it always itches if the object has bright colours. My uncle's wife, Aunty Jessie, punched the eye and at once my other eye saw sparkling stars moving around my head. I felt water dripping from the punched eye down my cheek, though I had not cried. Perhaps I would have lost my life if Uncle's neighbours and a stranger had not taken me away. I was certain Uncle's neighbours only came to my rescue because they did not want Uncle to be called a murderer. And they would not want to be called accomplices. At that time I was grateful to the stranger for saving my life. But I would later learn what he did when I was a baby. I disliked him then, and wished he had allowed them to harm me. I know that if he and Uncle's neighbours had not taken me away, perhaps Prophet Okoro would have done horrible things to me. But I still disliked him when I learnt what he did. Prophet Okoro was the man Uncle and Aunty Jessie usually invited to pray for me. They said his prayers would make me become a normal child. They said I was different from the other children. Many neighbours agreed with Uncle and Aunty Jessie.

But my class teacher, Miss Odiale, whom we called 'Miss' had a different opinion.

"Why don't you be positive?" she told Aunty Jessie. "Wait and see, that boy is a child of promise. He will put smiles on your face and your husband's."

Aunty Jessie clicked her tongue and opened her eyes wide.

Just wait and see, her eyes seemed to mimic Miss' words.

She always came to school to snitch on me to Miss. Her complaints were mostly about my chores in her family. She would tell Miss the dishes were not properly washed. She checked the plates and saw particles of garri and okazi. The back of the pots remained black even after I finished whatever remained of her detergent. Uncle's sandals were not properly polished. The front of his residence was not swept. I did not clean his Volvo car, and even the cleaning of his Toyota car was not satisfactory.

"Watch this boy for me, Miss, watch him," she would say. "He brings bad luck. Ever since my husband brought him to our house, we have not known peace."

Miss Odiale had two small marks on both cheeks. The marks looked like dimples. They made her face look like she was smiling when she was not. But whenever she was anxious about something, she actually looked like she was angry. This was how she looked when she told Aunty Jessie one day that at my age, she was expecting so much from me. Aunty Jessie disagreed.

"Why, the boy is only nine," Miss Odiale said.

Aunty Jessie looked shocked. But Miss Odiale did not wait for her reply before adding that even at my age, I ought to be in a class higher than Primary Two. That, she said, was the area Aunty Jessie and Uncle should be expecting much from me. She told Aunty Jessie that most of the pupils in my class were six or seven years. Aunty Jessie shut her eyes for a moment. She seemed to have forgotten whatever she had wanted to say. When she opened her eyes, she hung her head to one side and studied Miss Odiale. Then she finally said, in a voice that did not sound like hers,

"He is a dunce." I looked at my brown shirt and green shorts. The first time I actually heard the word 'dunce,' and another word, 'dullard,' was a week after Uncle brought me from the village. He had come back one evening with my school uniform. His son, Dili, had sniffed at the sight of the fabrics.

"Pah! School uniform for the dunce and dullard, that otakara school."

The two words sounded like deaf and dumb. They had been frequently used in Uncle's house from that day, especially when I put on the uniform. It was not like my uniform in the village, which had been white and blue.

I was in Primary Four before Uncle brought me to his house. He and Aunty Jessie decided I was not bright enough to continue from Primary Four. They got me enrolled into Primary Two instead.

"He is nothing but a dunce," Aunty Jessie repeated.

"No, he is not," Miss Odiale said, and her marks dimpled more. "As a matter of fact, he is an average pupil. He has been my pupil for some months now. Do you look at his notebooks, his class works? I know you don't."

I was surprised. Though Miss had asked me questions about how I lived with my Uncle's family, she never asked me about the inspection of my books. I never told her that Aunty Jessie did not look at my books, though she would examine her children's take-home assignments and guide them on what to do.

Aunty Jessie, obviously not expecting this from Miss, frowned and stood still, gazing at her. She later opened her handbag and began to look for something inside it. I was sure she was not really looking for anything. I was within earshot, and was certain none of them thought I would hear them. I hated Aunty Jessie for coming to the school to talk to Miss about me. I felt like hurting her as I watched the entire scene like a cat patiently waiting for its prey. Perhaps that was what I actually looked like, for the next moment Aunty Jessie's eyes shifted and met mine, she dropped her handbag and clamped her hand on her mouth. Her scream was muffled. When Miss turned and looked at me, she could not understand it. But Aunty Jessie insisted that my eyes were deadly.

"Eyes of a cat, evil spirit eyes," she said. "This boy is bad, Miss. Keep an eye on him."

Miss Odiale's anxious face was turning into an angry one. A deep frown was forming at her forehead. Her lips were pushed up, and the sides of her mouth coiled down as if she had perceived an offensive smell. She did not talk about cat eyes when she finally spoke. She rather demanded to know why Aunty Jessie and Uncle thought it was proper to send me to this very wretched school that did not have any facilities, instead of the model school in the GRA where Aunty Jessie and Uncle sent their children. Again, I wondered how Miss knew. Aunty Jessie stepped back and observed her. Then she told Miss it was not her business.

"And by the way, what are you doing here, if indeed this school is wretched?" Aunty Jessie said.

"It is Government's public school," Miss said, "I was posted here to teach because I work for Government."

"And you are not ashamed teaching here, are you?"

"Not at all," Miss Odiale shook her head at her, her long earrings swinging as she did so. "It is those who work in the Education Board that should be ashamed."

I felt my heart jump and begin to pound so fast within my chest. I never told Miss that Uncle worked with the Education Board. How could she have known?

"They should be ashamed indeed," Miss continued, "we are not paid on time. There are no facilities. No teaching materials. Every time we are told there is no money. Yet they have the money to send their children to the best model and private schools in the city."

Aunty Jessie made a low noise with her throat as if she wanted to cough and clear the phlegm. She looked straight into Miss Odiale's face and said,

"You are indeed jealous. But let me say this: You had better not talk about his cousins again."

"So they are his cousins," Miss Odiale shook her head at Aunty Jessy once more, her earrings swinging. "His cousins indeed! Oh my... The way you talk about him, one would think he was a complete stranger in your family."

"Who said he is a stranger?" Aunty Jessie eyed me. I quickly looked away. "Who said he is a stranger? You are an ordinary teacher and should not pry into my family affairs."

"Oh my goodness!" Miss slapped her table with her right palm. I guessed the two women did not care now whether I heard, whether any of the pupils around heard what they said. "Did you hear yourself?" Miss asked Aunty Jessie, "You keep coming here to tell me that your husband's nephew is evil. Then you turn around to put the blame on me."

At this, Aunty Jessie turned to me. "Amusu, Ogbanje. You have been telling stories, okwia. Very good! Just get ready to finish up the stories when you come home."

She picked her bag and left. I chewed my thumb and drew a map with the tip of my right toe. I felt everyone's eyes on me. But I focused my attention on the unseen map, which I was drawing on the cemented floor. Of course, thereafter, my fellow pupils stopped calling me Nkem. If they did not call me ogbanje, the spirit-child, they called me amusu, the wizard. It was Ify, the dark slim girl who usually sat next to me that made many pupils pick interest in the two new names. As soon as Aunty Jessie left, Ify looked at me with what appeared like a mixture of fear and fascination in her large eyes.

"Ogbanje, Amusu," she repeated slowly, "so you are a wizard?" she whispered. "Like Harry Porter, that boy in the book Miss talked about last term." I gazed at her and remained silent. She looked at me for a couple of minutes.

"You must be dangerous," she finally said.

When I returned home that day, Aunty Jessie whipped me with the koboko Uncle bought specifically for 'correcting' me. She whipped me until the rubber band that held the handle of the koboko loosened. Then she used her bare hands. But I did not cry. It seemed she got angrier because she hit me more. I wished I could hurt her. I hated her for hurting me. She suddenly looked at my face and shrank back. She had just raised her hand to hit me. Now she was trying to get away from me. As she turned to run, her face hit the door frame. She collapsed on the floor. A deep cut on her forehead and a dislocated hip kept her in the hospital for one week.

Every evening, Uncle took food in a pack to her. At times, he slept over and returned the next morning to get ready for work. He did not hit me for what happened. But I could see he believed I should be blamed. I would catch him watching me as if I were an unwanted creature that should not exist.

Uncle had changed from the kind man I knew in the past. I recalled the day he came to my village, Eziala, to see us. That day, he saved me from my mother. He had come to give us several tubers of yam and a bag of rice. He always brought us foodstuff whenever he visited home. Our village was next to his and he would drive to our house to give us whatever he bought.

"You are the only sister I have," he would smile as my mother praised him, calling him agalaba ji isi ulom - the strong pillar that holds my house. "If I don't bring foodstuff to my widowed sister and her only child, who do I take it to?"

"You have done well, my father's first son. I am proud of you," my mother would tell him.

"But you don't send for me whenever you have any problems," Uncle would tell her, "you keep it all to yourself. I visit you and find out that you or Nkem or both of you are looking ill. Now you are so skinny. What is the matter, Egonne?"

My mother smiled and told him it was hunger. He should not worry anymore, since he had brought a solution by bringing us food. Uncle always gave us a large sum of money. The notes were always new. His rich perfume would linger even days after he had left and after the last note had been spent. I always liked his white brocade, his sparkling wristwatch, his round face and moustache. He was fair in complexion like my mother.

Most of the time, my mother spent much of the money on the purchase of various materials for sacrifices, libations and appeasements to Arusi, the deity of my village, Eziala. She gave the money to dibia, the medicine man, who usually made the purchase by himself. My mother would accompany him to the shrine with a small wrap of my shaved hair and a small bottle containing my blood. She would also carry some of the items dibia purchased: a basket full of small chickens, a toad, a tortoise and two cocks that have not fathered chickens. I always wondered how dibia could tell a cock that had not fathered chickens. He would take a white ram, a young she-goat, a big gallon of palm wine, a big wrap of kola nut and a bead which I had worn for one month. The sacrifice took place every month and my mother usually bought me a new bead to replace the old one that would be taken to Arusi. They performed the sacrifices on my behalf to ask Arusi to let me live. My mother said I was a strange child that did strange things while asleep. I did not believe this. Dibia said she was right - that I was an ogbanje and may leave my mother any moment. But Arusi would accept monthly sacrifices and ensure that the spirit world allowed me to live.

"It will cost you a fortune, woman," dibia told my mother, "but one day they will get tired and leave your son alone. And there will be no more sacrifices."

It did cost my mother a fortune. She did not tell Uncle I was the reason why we looked sick. She sold everything - her hollandis, ankara, Nigerian wax and even her cheap trinkets. She always sold the bag of rice and tubers of yam as soon as Uncle had gone.

My mother suddenly stopped visiting Arusi. She informed me that she had realized that I was a threat to people's lives. I told her it was not true. She snapped her fingers and said that I had been hurting her in her dreams.

"You are the cause of my scanty harvest in the farm," she said. She said that in the past, people had complained about me and she had ignored them. A boy who fought me in school went home and had a stroke. An expectant mother who scolded me for not greeting her lost her five-month old pregnancy. I told my mother I was not the cause of these misfortunes.

"It is your fault," she said, "and that shows you are evil."

She lost interest in the dibia and invited another one. When he came, the new dibia said that apart from being an ogbanje, I was also an amusu, a wizard. He also performed his sacrifices monthly. But he never went to Arusi shrine. He paid more attention to me. He hurt me. He whipped me and put pepper into my eyes and anus. At times my mother assisted in the whipping. When he had gone, she would sit on the floor and count her losses. She would weep and curse the first dibia.

"Indeed, the praise showered on the dibia is bigger than what he does," she wailed.

The dibia was not the only one she blamed for her woes. She blamed my late father and one man she called the doctor. She watched me and heaved her shoulder up and exclaimed,

"Ugbunkwa! This was not the child I had at Eziala Hospital." She called my late father's name - Emeka - and cursed him.

"Emeka you have killed me, you and that wicked doctor. Chei! Chei! Is it because I always had baby girls and that most died prematurely? Chei! Emeka. Because you wanted a male child? Chei! Efukwanu moo! Emeka may you never have peace wherever you are."

She partly blamed herself for her fate. She asked herself questions which she did not answer. Why did she not scream and tell everybody when she was convinced that the baby brought to her after she put to bed was not her own? Why did she decide to breastfeed the baby instead of strangling it? Now it had grown up to become a wizard that would not let her rest. Why did she not look for her daughter - her real child? Yes she was convinced it was a girl. If she was not, why did they swap it for this dark amusu? She was sure I was not the baby she had. She saw the guilt all over the doctor's face when she had asked. The doctor must suffer for this deception. He would never have a child of his own. Not while she, Egonne, lived. I was so different, so unlike her former babies. That was why she named me Nkemdiche which means mine is different. But her husband had disagreed and called me Nkemdirim which means, may my own be mine. They had argued over it. They finally settled for just Nkem which means mine.

My mother stopped calling me Nkem that day. She decided I was an amusu. She changed it to Nkegi, meaning yours. Two days before she disowned me, the dibia came and performed what he called the first stage of the last sacrifice. He used a sharp razor and gave me several cuts on the face, chest, back and limbs. As I bled, my mother assisted him by pinning me down. He chewed alligator pepper and applied the chewed particles unto the bleeding cuts. He used sharp knife heated in the fire and drew the beak and claw of an eagle on my arms and chest. While the cuts were hurting me, my mother rubbed black indigo onto the new marks. Even my throat hurt from my screams. I lay exhausted on the floor. The dibia informed my mother that beak and claws of eagle were the weapons of my fellow wizards in the spirit world.

"But these skin marks will scare them away and protect your son," he said.

He would return for the very last rite the following day. The last stage would take place at midnight, when the moon would appear. He would invoke my fellow wizards in the spirit world. They were ten-year old and nine-year old wizards like me, he said.

They would perform a witches' dance. But I would not join them. He would invoke a force that would resist them. We would adorn our wrists and ankles with tender palm fronds. He would lead me to perform the ritual dance of mortals. The wizards would see the old dibia dancing with me and the eagle marks on my skin and get scared of me and let me be. They would stop using me to hurt my fellow mortals.

I pondered over this. Was I indeed a member of this cult?

As he gathered his materials, he spoke to my mother, "He should not bath till tomorrow midnight when I will return."

But this last sacrifice never took place. I was afraid of looking at the wizards, afraid of facing them.

"If they truly existed," I said in my mother's hearing, "why should the ritual take place at midnight under the full moon? I don't believe I am one of them. Why should I dance before them?"

She threatened to put more pepper into my eyes if I repeated my words. But I was determined not to face this sacrifice.

As night approached the following day, I slunk into the bush. I climbed a tree and watched the moon until dawn. It was broad daylight when I came down and returned home. The dibia had gone and my mother sat alone on the floor, in tears. As soon as she set her eyes on me, she screamed.

"Leave me alone! Ogbanje! Amusu! Leave my house!"

"No mother," I said, "It is not true."

"It is true," she said, "that's why you sneaked away. You want to remain in that cult. Now, leave."

"Mother please," I felt a sudden hotness on my forehead.

"Who is your mother? Me?"

"Yes, please." I felt an aching in my throat, and I broke down.

"Go, ask Emeka, my late husband." She pointed towards my father's grave. "Go and ask him. Emeka and that wicked doctor know your real mother." She too broke down and hid her face in her wrapper.

Then suddenly she sprang like a cat, grabbed me and began to hit me, asking me to leave. It was when I slumped onto the floor and she began to drag me out that Uncle drove in from the road. That was the day she told him everything. But Uncle was shocked at her outburst and at how horrible I looked.

"How could you treat your own son this way?"

"He is not my son," she told him, "he is rather a big temptation."

"Don't talk like this Egonne," Uncle pleaded. "A temptation that is bigger than a man cannot come to him. No matter how short a man is, his beard or manhood can never be long enough to touch the earth while he is standing up."

"Yes, my father's first son, but this one is ogbanje, an amusu and he must leave me alone." She clapped her hands in my face. "Please get out. A baby tied to the back will never know the journey is so long." She began to weep again.

Uncle could not make my mother change her mind. So he decided to take me to the city. My mother then said to him, "Good luck, but don't ever bring him to me when he begins to bewitch your family."

At Uncle's house, Aunty Jessie became suspicious immediately he told her my story. She watched every move I made, like a cat watching out for a rat. She looked at my skin marks and remarked that they were disgusting.

"Why did you bring him?" she asked Uncle. "You should have at least let me know." As her suspicion grew, her piercing eyes with which she watched me became my phobia. They haunted me. Whenever she was at home, I felt she was watching me, even when my back was turned to her.

She kept telling my Uncle, "They say one should be careful when killing a tsetse fly that is perched on the scrotum. This one is really perching on a vital area. It is you that invited it. Please look for a way to kill it."

She continued to whine like a caged dog until Uncle's kindness began to wane.

The entire family addressed me by my name until Aunty Jessie called me Isiakpukpa - head full of ringworms. It was Nma, their daughter who ensured that I became known by that name throughout the neighbourhood. While in the village, my mother always shaved my hair with a sharp razor before her monthly visit to Arusi. She scraped my ringworm-infected spots and applied udeaku - palm kernel oil - on them. She said the spots were maps drawn by unseen ghosts. They usually hurt and at times bled when she scraped them. She would nudge me or hit me and ask me to stay still when I complained. The ringworm infection was almost gone when I came over to stay with Uncle's family. But then it returned, perhaps because the usual shaving and applying of udeaku had stopped. Aunty Jessie never shaved my hair. She rather gave me hard knocks. When my hair grew, Uncle used scissors and cut it. After this, Aunty Jessie put the scissors away. She bought a raffia mat which she usually spread on the floor for me every night.

"Don't go near my children's beds," she warned me, "I don't want you to spread isiakpukpa in this house."

When Nma finally settled for Isiakpukpa as my name, neither Uncle nor Aunty Jessie raised any objection. Dili, their son, and the younger daughters joined Nma, and not long afterwards, all the kids in the neighbourhood had forgotten that my name was Nkem.

In those days that Aunty Jessie was away in the hospital, Nma replaced her. She talked like her and ordered me about like her.

"Isiakpukpa, have you washed the dishes?" she asked, a scowl on her face, "ngwa, sweep the rooms quickly or you will have to stay at home and miss your classes in that otakara school."

Dili always laughed his heart out when Nma called my school otakara - a kindergarten school for kids who eat fried akara balls

"The pupils are dunce," Dili said. "My school beat them silly both in the football match and quiz competition last year."

Dili was my age and already in Primary Five. Nma was in Junior Secondary Three. She was fourteen years old. I knew because I overheard her the day she tearfully told her classmate on her mother's cell phone that her birthday party had been called off by Uncle. I knew she would slap me if I refused to do what she asked me to do. I wished I could beat her. Even after Aunty Jessie's return, Nma remained bossy. She insisted I should start washing her sisters' clothes. It was something Aunty Jessie never asked me to do. But she did not object to this when she learnt that her daughter was ordering me around. My hatred for Nma grew day after day.

Two weeks after Aunty Jessie's accident, Miss Odiale was suddenly transferred. I would not have known what happened if I had not overheard Dili back home, telling Nma about it.

"That otakara teacher at Isiakpukpa's class has been sent to an interior village. Daddy's friend at the Education Board has finally done it."

My new teacher, Madam Binta took notice of me immediately. She was a fat woman of average height with a round face but curious eyes. Her nose was like a full stop. Her lips were full and seemed to be sneering. Her koboko was similar to the new one Uncle bought. I had the feeling the two were bought together from the same seller. Most of Madam Binta's questions, especially during Mathematics class, were directed at me. When she wrote L.C.M. on the board, she asked me to tell the class its full meaning. When she pronounced DECIMAL, she asked me to spell it. She handed me her chalk and asked me to write it on the blackboard. I was afraid of Madam Binta and her koboko. Fear kept me from getting the easy questions right. She whipped me all over - my back, buttocks and palm. But I was not afraid of the 'twin' of the koboko back home. No matter how hard I was whipped, I did not cry.

I suspected that if Uncle influenced the transfer of Miss Odiale, he must have a hand in the posting of Madam Binta. My suspicion increased as Aunty Jessie's hip healed and she continued to give me a knowing look each time I returned home, and Nma smacked her lips and asked me what I know about the Lowest Common Multiple. She even began to demand that I show her my notebook - something she did not do in the past.

One day Madam Binta called me Isiakpukpa and I just knew. I told her it was not my name. As I said this I felt anger and hate surge through me. Madam Binta saw my face and gasped and quickly stepped back. I stood still staring at her. She kept moving back until her white blouse brushed the blackboard and collected dirt. I went to my seat and sat down, wondering what I actually did that got Madam Binta frightened. She watched me in silence until the school was over.

I was not surprised to receive Aunty Jessie's warning about the incident that day.

"Your new teacher is not Miss Odiale who gossiped with you. If you insult Madam Binta again like you have done today, you will ever live to regret coming to this house."

My heart burned with hate for Aunty Jessie and Madam Binta. I wished I could hurt Madam Binta the way she hurt me with the koboko.

As our exam approached, she introduced a practical test on personal cleanliness. It was the only exam I took in the school. I did not even complete it. I was the third pupil Madam Binta examined. She checked my teeth, fingers and feet. Then she checked my hair. She poked the ringworms with her koboko. I was certain she knew she was hurting me. I sensed fire in my eyes. Then I heard Madam Binta scream and drop the koboko. I saw the terror on her face before she turned it away. Her heel hit the leg of the table and she toppled over the chair, hitting her head on the floor. The fire still burned in my eyes. The dark slim girl Ify also screamed.

"Look at his eyes! Ogbanje!" she said.

My hand went to her cheek immediately as if I was compelled by a force. I felt I wanted to kill. I felt my fingers were very long nails and should be used to choke an enemy to death. It must have been a slap or two. But the sound was so loud. I heard the pupils gasping. The next moment, Ify lay unconscious on the floor. The pupils' screams drew the headmaster, the other teachers and pupils to our classroom immediately. The words, ogbanje and amusu were on the lips of many pupils. Anger still burned within me. I shut my eyes tight and willed the anger to go. I felt all eyes on me.

"I don't believe this story," the headmaster said as I sat on a chair facing him in his small office. "The boy looks normal."

The small office had the smell of cockroaches. I actually saw one crawl into a fissure on the wall. I was surprised that he and the teachers asked me to sit down while the teachers stood. He dismissed the two pupils he had brought from my class to narrate what happened. But it appeared he did not know how to handle this. The pupils' report had taken the form of a fairy tale, he said. How can they say that a small boy cast a spell on his teacher and tried to do the same to his classmate?

"So what happened to Madam Binta and the pupil?" one of the teachers asked. He stood behind the door as if he were the headmaster's security guard.

"What about them?" the headmaster slowly turned his head to the man.

"Sir, before now, this boy's aunt had come to his former teacher with complaints similar to what happened today," the teacher said.

"Indeed? But I was not told. Well, don't worry. This is my headache. Binta and the girl are not dead, are they? When they recover, I will ask them questions." The headmaster raised his hands in a way that seemed to suggest that what he just said was the final. However, he looked at my face and then my fingers and remarked that though my nails were okay, there were big welts on Ify's cheek.

The teachers who stood in the small office were four, and it was becoming stuffy inside the room. The headmaster fanned himself with an old booklet. I noticed he was watching me. I tried not to look into his dark face. I rather fixed my gaze on the stack of dusty files and papers on his shelf. I had a feeling that cockroaches must have lived and died within the stacks. I shifted my eyes from the shelf to the table before me. An old register with a blue cover lay on it. It was an old weak table - the type I did not need to be told that no one should lean on. A small spider was crawling down one of the four legs of the table. I had kept my right leg near the table before I noticed the small creature crawling towards me. I quickly moved away my leg.

"Now, why would you be afraid of a small spider?" I heard the headmaster say. I looked up and met his gaze. "But you were not afraid of Binta," he said.

"Sir," I said, "she always scared me."


I nodded.

"How?" He leaned forward, but he did not touch the table.

"She uses a special koboko on me, and..." I stopped immediately I realized that I wanted to say that the koboko came from my Uncle.

"And what?" the headmaster asked.

"Nothing sir." I said.

The teachers were certainly aware of how Madam Binta came to the school. Two of them who stood close to me kept whispering that it was good that this had happened to her.

"She always feels she's more important than the rest of us because she has connections with the board," one of the two said. She was a close friend of Miss Odiale and had looked so sad the week Miss Odiale was transferred from our school.

"At least, a small pupil has taught her a big lesson today," the other said.

They suggested to the headmaster that I be allowed to go home to my uncle.

"Just like that?" the teacher who stood by the door said. "We all know that the uncle's family knows Binta quite well," Miss Odiale's friend said, "let the boy go and tell them the offence he committed and why we sent him away from school."

The headmaster gave me eight lashes before he let me go. I did not hear about Madam Binta or Ify until I went home.

It was my last day in school. It was also the day they brought Prophet Okoro to start praying for me. Uncle was at home when I returned. I did not know how he knew. As soon as I dropped my school bag, he picked up the koboko and began to whip me. He whipped me until I pissed inside my shorts. He whipped me until I lost the voice to shout. He seemed to enjoy it. This time, I did not wear the usual scowl on my face and refused to cry. Just like my head that was a map of ringworms, my body had become a map of koboko bruises. Some bruises were fresh and purple-red. Some others were scars that had become part of my skin. There were also some scars made by the dibias in my village. As my uncle whipped me, the koboko added new marks to the old ones. He had a particular way of whipping and talking at the same time. He raised the koboko and when he was bringing it down to hit me, he talked. When he raised it again, he would not talk until he brought it down with a great force on me.

"I thought my sister... was just a heartless woman... she wanted you... out of her house... But I said no... let me take you... I did not know she was right... You are an ogbanje... an amusu... evil child! My sister's late husband... was a good man... so how did you... a demonic child... enter my sister's womb? My sister herself... is a good woman... so where did you come from? Evil child... Evil child. Does it really mean... you are not her son?"

When Prophet Okoro came, he asked me to confess my atrocities to him.

"There is nothing to confess. I did not commit any crime," I told him.

"Liar!" he pointed his left finger at me. "You will be forced to do it."

He opened a small white gallon which he had brought with him and sprinkled some water from it on me. I tried to dodge it. He opened his bag, brought out a white chaplet and hung it around my neck. I pulled it off and the little beads scattered on the floor. He closed his eyes for some seconds, mumbling some words to himself. When he opened his eyes, he said:

"Your evil mission in this family has failed."

He brought out a huge cross from his bag and raised it towards me.

"He that is in me is greater than you," he said. He bound my wrists and ankles with chains.

Almost all the kids in the neighbourhood came to my uncle's residence and stood outside while Prophet Okoro screamed his prayers. I could hear two or three voices talking about me.

"So Isiakpukpa is a demonic child!"

"Yes, he is an ogbanje."

"And also an amusu."

The humiliation made me cry. I hated Uncle and his family.

Prophet Okoro came every week with a motorbike. Whenever he came, he bound me with chains. The chains cut into my wrists and ankles. Before he left, he unchained me. Uncle usually gave him a fat envelope each time he came. He assured Uncle that I will surely change.

The evening Nma went to bed and did not wake up, I had complained of headache. Prophet Okoro had just finished his 'ministration' as he usually called it. He had hit me on the forehead with his cross, rang his big bell over my head and had given me seven strokes with his koboko to, "Drive away the ogbanje and amusu spirits." He left, promising Uncle that he would return after two weeks to observe me. I did not eat my dinner. I lay on my mat exhausted. It was then that Nma came and kicked me.

"Who do you think will wash those plates in the sink?" she asked me.

I felt the burning of my anger in my eyes and heart. I wished I could do anything to make Nma stop and never do this to me. I was washing the plates when the headache suddenly stopped. But the anger remained. Moments later, I heard Nma complaining of headache. She went to bed with a towel soaked in cold water placed on her forehead. I slept well. But late in the night, I suddenly woke up to Aunty Jessie roughly shaking me. She demanded to know what I had done to Nma that made her thrash about in her bed and continually scream my name in her dream.

"I didn't do anything," I said.

I wanted to go back to sleep, but she pulled me up and dragged me to the side of Nma's bed. Uncle sat at the edge beside his daughter. She was drenched in sweat. Her breathing seemed to be coming in gasps. Uncle was on the phone. I thought he was calling the police. But when I heard his words, I realized he was talking with his family doctor. Aunty Jessie picked up a Let's Pray Together magazine that lay on the floor and began to fan Nma. It was then I observed that there had been a power outage. The source of light in the room was Uncle's rechargeable lantern which he usually kept in his room. When he was through with the phone, Uncle brought the first aid box and opened it. The room was filled with the nauseating odor of drugs as the first aid box lay open on the floor. I felt like throwing up. Uncle picked out a small white envelope, brought out two white tablets from it and handed them over to Nma. She sat up as Uncle brought a glass of water. She handed him back the glass after she was done. I watched, expecting her to look in my direction. But she did not. She quietly lay down. I remembered how she had kicked me while I lay on my mat. This was my uncle's daughter. Why should she take delight in bullying me? Soon she slept. I retired to my mat while Uncle and Aunty Jessie stayed awake beside her bed.

It must have been someone's feet stepping on my hand that woke me up the next morning. I heard Aunty Jessie screaming, "Nma! Nma!"

I got up quickly. Nma still lay on her bed. But her chest no longer heaved. Aunty Jessie was pulling her by one arm and calling Uncle to come and help her. Her other arm and legs were splayed out. When Uncle came, he grabbed the arm and checked her pulse. Aunty Jessie rushed to the sitting room. Moments later, I heard her calling Prophet Okoro on her cell phone. Then she came back and grabbed me, screaming.

"What did you do to my daughter? Amusu! Tell me. What did you do to her?"

I told her to get off me. Uncle looked at me in astonishment. He demanded that I explain why Aunty Jessie should get off me.

"You have the courage to tell her to get off you after you have killed my daughter?"

I was shocked at his accusation. How could he accuse me of murder?

"I did not kill anyone!" I was defiant.

"Shut that mouth!" Uncle said, hitting me across the face. I fell back and went limp in Aunty Jessie's grasp. Even before she let go of me, I knew the blow from Uncle had caused damage to my nose and mouth. As I lay on the floor, it seemed the room was spinning round. Strangely I was conscious. I felt blood spurting from my mouth and nose. My upper lip felt heavy. I ran my tongue across my teeth and felt the hollow where my two front teeth had been. But I did not feel the pain. It was so strange. All I thought about was Uncle and Aunty Jessie. Just why should they do this to me and go free? I could hear him calling the doctor on his phone. I could hear Aunty Jessie screaming that the Ogbanje boy had killed her daughter. I could hear Dili and his younger sisters crying. But it was the banging on the door that made me try to stand up. Someone should come in before I loose all my blood. As I was getting to my feet, I noticed blood trickling down my nose and mouth. Then I saw Aunty Jessie staring at me. Her face was full of terror and rage.

"Ogbanje!" she screamed. "I must pierce those cat eyes today."

I felt a wave of power surging through me. I did not understand what it meant. I was almost on my feet when Aunty Jessie's blows sent me down. She came after me, screaming, "Ogbanje! Amusu!"

She began to punch my eyes. I lay there on the floor, my eyes receiving the blows and the back of my head hitting the hard floor. The banging on the door increased. Then the wave I had felt rising within me suddenly ceased. I felt the pains at once - in my mouth, in my eyes and my head. Aunty Jessie continued to punch my eyes. I let out a scream that tore through my throat like a he-goat about to be slaughtered. At the same time, the door gave way. I felt Aunty Jessie being dragged away - perhaps lifted off me. She kept screaming. Through half-open eyes, I saw several feet and legs. Someone came up and began to pull me up, drawing me to himself. But another hand held me roughly and tried to pull me away. Then two, three, four and five people - I could not really tell how many - joined in pulling me away from the rough hand. It was the neighbours and Uncle. He wept and asked them to allow him to kill me with his bare hands for killing his daughter. It seemed they doubted him, yet they did not argue with him. But a strange voice that was close to me replied him. It said that I was just a kid that could not hurt a fly.

"How then did he kill your daughter?" the voice asked.

Uncle reacted immediately. He asked everyone to leave his house with "that ogbanje boy." He swore I would never step into his house or else he would kill me.

"But if this is indeed a murder case, why don't you invite the police?" the strange voice said again.

A motorbike zoomed into Uncle's residence from the street. It was Prophet Okoro. Quickly the neighbours hid me and bore me away from Uncle's premises. As they took me away, I passed out...

The bed on which I lay when I woke up had satin sheets. The pillow and the entire room had a sweet fragrance that reminded me of the talcum powder which my mother used in the village, and Miss Odiale's perfume which the pupils said must be happiness cream. The coolness in the room was soothing. I had not lain in a bed in months. It was like a dream. I suddenly realized I could only see with my right eye. I tried to touch my left eye but felt a cotton wool and plaster over it. The room had dim lights. But the curtains were bright. There was an entrance by my left. I sat up, feeling a little numbness around my ankles and pains around my arms. I noticed I was wearing pajamas. Then the events that had taken place came flooding my mind. I had actually lost my two front teeth. I tried to feel my whole face with my hand. But I took it away immediately because there were pains all over my face. My lips, nose and forehead were swollen. The curtain at the entrance shifted. A young slim lady came in and expressed joy at seeing me awake. She had the voice of a child and seemed to be choosing her words. Her presence brought in more of the sweet fragrance in the room.

"Let me call my uncle," she said and left.

Alone again, I studied the room. A large photograph hung on the wall opposite me. It looked like a university graduation photograph of the lady who just left. Another large photograph of the same lady and a couple who I presumed to be her parents, leaned on the wall by a reading table, at the foot of the bed. She stood between the couple with the poise of a happy bride. This must be her room, I thought. She returned with a middle aged man who looked like the man in the group photograph but now appeared a few years older.

"Oh! A million thanks to God almighty," he said. I recognized his voice at once. It was that strange voice that had spoken at Uncle's residence.

"Now here we are." He sat on the bed beside me and patted my shoulder. "Young man you are strong. Your body received a lot of blows - deadly blows. Yet your condition did not take long to stabilize. It was like a miracle. The healing was so fast. The wound in your eye, in your mouth..." he shook his head.

"And the loss of blood," the lady said as she also sat down beside me.

"Yes," the man said, nodding and looking at the lady. "You know, Ebele, I am happy we did not have to look for blood because now that I think of it, I wonder how we would have handled it, since we could not risk taking him to my hospital due to his uncle's accusations."

"And we did not have to look for the consultants in dentistry and ophthalmology," the lady said, her voice sounding excited and like a child's.

"Yes, just a few bags of drip and some injections and, my young man, your condition stabilized," the man said. "It was like magic."

"So strange," the lady said.

"Very strange," the man agreed.

They stared at me in wonder. The man opened his palms as if he wanted to beg me to answer him. "Your uncle's neighbours all agreed that you are a strange boy. I have also seen strange marks all over your body. And indeed, there is something strange about your healing. This is your fourth day here. We moved you from my room into Ebele's room this morning. You have been slipping into and out of unconsciousness. Then we gave you a sedative."

"And you had strange nightmares every night," the lady said, shaking her head, "strange words, strange speeches in your dreams."

"Indeed, like what he said throughout last night," the man said to the lady. And to me, he said, "This brings us to the issue at hand - knowing who you really are. I know you might not be too strong, but you are now fully awake. What is your name?"

Suddenly it occurred to me that it had been a long time since someone called me Nkem, my real name. If it was not Isiakpukpa, it was Ogbanje or Amusu. I did not know what to say. And tears started coming from my eye.

"No, don't do that now, you have to be strong. Just tell us what it is. I want to help you."

He gave his name as Doctor Dozie, an obstetrician by profession, while his niece, Ebele, was a final year medical student at the City Teaching Hospital. As he said this I looked at the large photograph that hung on the wall.

"My matriculation photograph," Ebele said.

Doctor Dozie went on to tell me that his wife, Dora, was away on a week's visit to her sister's family.

"So what is your name?" he asked me again.

"Nkem," I said

"A nice name," he murmured, "a nice name."

I sat between him and his niece and told them my story. It was a bit awkward, talking to them. With two front teeth missing, I spoke with a lisp. At the end, they sat still for sometime before Doctor Dozie slowly asked me some questions.

"You said you are from Eziala village, right?"

"Yes sir."

"And your father's name was?"

"Emeka," I replied.

He stared at me thoughtfully.

"And your mother?"


He sat still and did not talk again. The silence became awkward. I felt uneasy. I sensed Ebele felt the same. She finally broke the silence by asking,

"What is the matter, Uncle?"

Doctor Dozie sighed, stood up and left the two of us. His niece looked at him, stood up and sat down again. When she turned to me, she explained that her uncle had been disturbed by my nightmares and perhaps was looking for the best way to assist me. I could not make out what this meant. I did not even know what I said or what happened in the nightmares. However, I nodded and asked for water to drink.

"That should be warm water for your gums," she said, "and food of course." She smiled. "Sorry you must be hungry. Come, let me help you to the dining space. I will get the food ready."

The curtain in the dining space was as bright as that in Ebele's room. The numbness in my ankle had eased off. I sipped the warm water Ebele gave me, waiting for her to bring the food. Then I noticed a male figure through the curtain. The figure hovered near the window. My eye could not be deceiving me. I was sure it was Doctor Dozie. His voice confirmed my guess. He was on phone. I heard him clearly.

"Dora, Dora. Where are you? Alright. Listen Dora, my past is haunting me. That boy I told you about... Do you know Dora... Can you believe that... Dora, he is the very boy handed over to that Emeka years ago, when I was a resident at Eziala hospital..."

I was no longer listening. Doctor Dozie kept talking, but everything else he said was like an echo from an empty hall. My thoughts wandered back to the woman I had regarded as my mother from childhood. So she had been right all this while. Up till this moment, I never really believed her words that I was not her child. But here I was, in the custody of the man who she had always cursed for swapping me with her real child. But who took her real child? Where are they? And who is my mother? This doctor should know.

Ebele's approach brought my mind back to the present. The aroma of the stew arrived at the table before she did. As she set down the dish, the spoons clattered. Doctor Dozie stopped talking immediately. I guessed he noticed our presence at the dining space. I saw his figure move away from the window. Ebele was busy, dishing out white rice from the large stainless bowl. She did not notice her uncle. I looked at the food she set before me and thought of what I just heard, and my stomach churned. I just stared at the food. When I saw Ebele watching me, I lisped, "Apethithe," and shook my head slowly.

I did not see Doctor Dozie again until late in the night. I was awake in Ebele's bed when he came in and sat at the edge. I had thought of confronting him with what I heard him say on phone. I wanted to know who my real mother was. But I just could not bring myself to do that. I could tell he was nervous, though he sounded casual when he talked. He informed me that they waited for me to get better so that I could return to my uncle.

I said, "No, I will never do that."

He said he did not intend to keep me. He was a colleague of my uncle's family doctor. It was the family doctor who had asked him to come to my uncle's residence and check on his unconscious daughter. It was just assistance for a colleague who was indisposed, he explained. But what he saw when he came shocked him. He joined others to save me from my uncle.

"None of your uncle's neighbours wanted to keep you," he said, "they told me you are an ogbanje and an amusu. You can bring bad luck and harm to those who are kind to you."

He paused and looked into my eye. I could tell he was pretty nervous.

"Is it true?" he finally asked.

"No," I said.

"You must return to your uncle and ask for forgiveness," he said.

"Forgiveness? For what?" I quickly sat up as if there was an unseen force that had pushed me to do so. He looked scared.

"You just have to do that. I know he is wrong, from what you told us."

I wanted to say, I know what you did when I was a baby, you wicked, heartless doctor. But I could not say it. I only looked at him.

"Your uncle has told his neighbours and everyone else that you are a murderer," he continued when I said nothing, "he intends to inform the police that I, Doctor Dozie kidnapped his nephew."

This, he said, had caused disaffection between him and his colleague, my uncle's family doctor. His colleague was of the opinion that Doctor Dozie had gone to my uncle's house on a different mission, instead of saving the life of his patient.

"So my friend, you see, you have to return to him. He plans to deal with me after his daughter's burial."

I felt anger and hate welling up within me. I felt like harming this man, this Doctor Dozie. I felt it was disgusting being under the same room with the man who changed me right from babyhood. Yes, he caused a big change in my life. Who was my mother? This question was in my head and my heart. But my lips said, "Sir, since my uncle is threatening to kill me, how can I return to him?"

"No, he won't harm you," he said.

"But you heard all he said that day. You told me you couldn't risk taking me to the hospital because of his threats."

"Yes, I did. But can an uncle really do that to his nephew? He felt so bad at the time he threatened you. But a blood relative is not a stranger and time heals wounds..."

I saw who Doctor Dozie was - a man trying to run away from his past. He said he would give me some money because I still needed a proper medical checkup. I would take my drugs and eye drops with me and return to my uncle...

I shut him out. I did not want to hear any more. Did I ask him to save me? He should have left me to die. He killed me when I was a baby by swapping me with another baby. Who was my mother? And even my father? Why did he...? I quickly checked myself. Hatred and anger burned within me. Perhaps something terrible would happen if I allowed my anger to control me. I wondered whether I actually killed Nma. Did I really set my mind to hurt all those who claimed I hurt them? Did I hurt my - the woman who was my mother? I was sure I did not do it. I did not mean to do it.

I alighted from Doctor Dozie's Black Prado Jeep the following morning, feeling a bit dizzy. It was at a junction which was close to my former school. Further from that school would be the street to Uncle's residence. Before I left Doctor Dozie's house, Ebele had removed the plaster over my hurt eye and a stinging sensation persistently throbbed within it. I had told Doctor Dozie not to bother about offering me his money or taking me to Uncle's residence, but he insisted.

"I don't want him to threaten you," I said. "I will go straight to him and promise to be a good nephew."

He was pleased to hear all this. But I knew what I wanted. Comfort. Peace. Peace from whatever it was that tortured me. Any gifts from Doctor Dozie would remind me of him. I did not want that. He reversed and drove off after promising to call and ask after me. I waved and waited until the Prado was gone. Then I let go of the bag that contained all he gave me. It lay there, near the road. I turned, heading westward toward Federal Highway, away from my former school, away from the man who was my uncle, away from all who christened me Isiakpukpa, Amusu and Ogbanje. I am facing the future alone. All I want is peace, even if it comes through destitution!

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