Our mother breathed fire. Everybody knew that. She had the sharpest of tongues—like a razor blade sharpened on both sides, and the cleverest of wits, a biting sarcasm in her speech which usually made her assailants lose quick battles. Many times, after she had mercilessly and effortlessly dealt with one, one would reply bitterly; already conceding to defeat:
“It’s rather unfortunate that you cannot put your tongue to good use, useless woman”
Unfortunate. That was the word with which Mama was first described. The witch doctor who had read her fate few days after she was born had shaken his head sadly and had muttered: “Very unfortunate. Very unfortunate”
Mama’s parents had been confused, glancing at each other with furrowed brows and tight lips. None of their older children ever had bad fates. Mama was their fifth child.
The witch doctor had told Mama’s parents that she was Tuaha’s spirit daughter. She was the daughter of nemesis, the god of wahala. She was a cursed and unfortunate child who was destined to suffer all the days of her life.
Mama’s parents never took the prophecy seriously. There was never a reason to. Mama seldom had any problems the first few years of her life. She was a happy child; a happy and smart child. And for some time, everyone forgot about the witch doctor and his disturbing prophesies. Mama got married, had Jemi, Gohe, Didi and Huiwa. Jemi was our oldest brother. He was born on a rainy day. The wide cocoyam leaves he was placed in at birth had been soaked with rainwater. Jemi caught a cold shortly after. While Mama made him some herbal medicine in the medicine house, the newborn died in his sleep. Mama had brought in the bitter medicine only to discover her child rigid as stone and extremely pale. Without touching him, she dropped the medicine at the side of the bed and went out to weep in front of the house.
Mama got pregnant some months later. She had named the child Gohe while in the womb, saying ‘this one would take away my sorrow’. Gohe had not lived a minute outside the womb. He had been stillborn. Dead on arrival.
Mama gave birth to Didi barely a year after Gohe, after she returned from the day’s work in the farm. Didi was a healthy child; a bouncing baby boy, and for a while, Didi brought Mama Happiness. As playful and as loving-of-freedom as any other child, he was bursting with life. Until the then seven-year old boy went out to the village square with his friends to play and did not return.
Mama’s husband organised search parties to search for the infant and for days he was nowhere to be found. Mama stopped eating altogether. She stopped talking and stopped sleeping. And then, everyone thought she was trying to stop breathing as well. Her older sister was finally called to see her when it was getting out of hand. The night Fuyeye, Mama’s sister arrived, Didi was finally found. He was dead. His remains had been floating atop River Sanran and one eyeball had been missing.
Those who found out first did not want to relate such sad information to Mama but she already knew. She knew when a large vulture had swept over her head so that she could feel the breeze made by his fluttering wings. She knew when the search party arrived that day, some men missing, having already retired to their houses. She just knew. So, when her husband came up to meet her in the wide courtyard, she had stood up and spoke for the first time in days.
“Did you bury him already?”
He was too shocked to answer.
Leaving him dumbfounded, she silently went inside the house, had the bath she had not thought of having for some days and ate all of the porridge Fuyeye had been trying futilely to feed her since she came.
Her behaviour shocked the villagers who expected her to mourn openly, rub charcoal and ash on her head, wear black, and roll endlessly on the floor of her compound. Before long, news about her unbecoming attitude spread like wide fire to the villages around, even to her parent’s village.
Mama’s mother had rushed down to Mama and had scolded her for how she behaved when Didi died. Mama refused to mourn her precious child. She continued her hard work in the farm and sold her yams at the village market.
That year there was a terrible drought in the village. All her crops dried up. The ground became hard and extremely difficult to till. River Sanran became dry. All the farmers and fishermen were having a hard time. It was at this unfavourable period that Huiwa was conceived.
Mama’s morning sickness during pregnancy for Huiwa was so severe that for days she could not go out of the house, even to the farm near the compound. Most times, her husband would go to the farm alone. On one of those days, after Mama had slept for a while, she managed to come out of the house, went to the backyard and plucked some Otapiapia leaves. Then, she took out the Olo and Odo, the mortar and pestle she inherited from her mother and which our second sister inherited when she got married, and started to mash the leaves.
Mama’s husband came back from the farm that day and met her making the poison. She did not even stop pounding on the mortar on seeing him. He had to throw the medicine away and scream at her before she could stop. Then, she started muttering:
“It’s for the baby. It’s for the baby. It’s for my Jemi. It’s his medicine. Gohe and Didi too”
Mama’s husband was furious. “You want to kill your child?! You want to drink Otapiapia and kill your child? Ehn!”
Mama’s mother had been alarmed at what her daughter had almost done. She suspected greatly that the witch doctor’s words were finally coming to pass. She suspected that wahala was slowly claiming her daughter so she took Mama to see the witch doctor again. The old man told them that they would need to perform some sacrifices to ward of the spirit of wahala. He told them to bring some items—a head of plantain, a head of oil-palm, seven snail shells, a dry twig with split ends, pure white cowries and some of Mama’s hair.
Mama’s mother convinced Mama to shave off her hair for the sacrifice and she did. From Mama’s farm, the plantain, snails and dry twigs were produced. Then, Mama’s mother brought some cowries. And the sacrifice was performed.
Things became quite difficult for Mama’s little family after. The drought affected the farm produce they were supposed to sell and other food items became very expensive. The situation slowly deteriorated until they could no longer afford a three-square meal. The entire village was in so much suffering and turmoil that it was decided that some men would go and ask the neighbouring villages for some food items and in exchange, they would be given rolls of rich silk. Mama’s husband was selected as one of the men to go.
The day he prepared to leave on the journey, Mama was sitting in the courtyard of the house, humming a melancholic song; little Huiwa at her breast. Mama’s husband was brushing his sandals and telling her what to do while he was gone.
“There is little yam in the barn near the river. And I saved up some vegetables for use. It will not last for a long time. You must cook it latest tomorrow. We should be back by Friday. You hear?”
And he was gone.
It did not seem to surprise Mama that by Friday, when all the other men who were sent on the journey arrived, her husband was nowhere to be found. It did not surprise her when she was told that he had left where they slept in the middle of the night and never returned. It did not seem to surprise her when she discovered that her husband was gone for good.
Uriyo, Mama’s husband’s friend told her later that the night her husband disappeared, he had told him secretly that he was thinking of running away. That he did not think Mama’s hands were clean. He did not think she was a pure woman. He found it suspicious that all her previous children perished in highly mysterious ways. He found her wanting.
So, Mama had to fend for herself and little Huiwa alone. Uriyo and other men who came back from the neighbouring villages assisted her with some yam seedlings which she planted immediately the terrible drought ended at the New Year. Her yams did well that year and she was able to harvest healthy yams for sale at the market. She worked tirelessly on her farm. She could be in the midst of yam climbers and corn ears all day; sometimes with her child strapped to her back and other times alone, when Huiwa goes to spend some time with her grandmother in the next village.
Very soon, the villages began to gossip about Mama and her sad fate. She noticed the mocking glances the women passed at her whenever she appeared at any social gathering; the sneers, hisses and laughter they all shared to spite her. Sometimes they would hurl hurtful words with ominous whispers, very aware she was within earshot.
“Look at her,” One would start. “‘Child-killer’ I wonder what she had done in the coven so that none of her children ever survived infancy”
“Who knows? Maybe she has eaten them all. Did you not see that even when there was drought she was still looking fat and fresh? Did you not see how she was after her child drowned that day?” Another would add.
“Oh! I heard that as well. I heard she started eating and enjoying herself after the news of her child’s death came. I heard she wasn’t bothered at all. That woman…she is a witch! Azen okhin!”
It was one of the first times Mama made use of her razor-sharp tongue.
“Ibije,” She started, referring to the woman who had called her an Azen. A witch.
“You have the mouth to come here and gossip, when your husband is probably at home with another woman. Was he not the one I saw yesterday inside Lobina’s hut, when I went to collect some pumpkin leaves for dinner?” She asked rhetorically, as she was sure Ibije knew the answer. “Don’t hurry home and deal with your own marital affairs. Be discussing about another woman”
Ibije’s smug face suddenly turned into a frown. She turned to another woman and whispered; “Is it true? Could Dezi be with another woman now? When I am at the market struggling for what we will eat?”
Everyone knew that her husband, Dezi, was very promiscuous, so no woman was willing to defend him to Ibije when they were ninety percent sure Mama was right.
“And you, Vesire,” She faced the woman who had termed her ‘child-killer’.
“I heard you have gone to perform the third sacrifice to cure your barrenness. You have not even gotten pregnant since you got married the first time, and you call someone else ‘child-killer’? I wonder, Vesire, what you have done to your own children that you cannot even bring them into the world. I heard that your husband is planning to marry a second wife, and you are here in the market, running another woman down. Are you not shameless?”
Ibije had already started to cry before Mama finished speaking. The women in the marketplace had stopped what they were doing to watch Mama and her opponents.
Mama turned to the last woman; the women who brought the story of Didi up. Beads of sweat were already on the other woman’s head and her hands were shaking visibly as she expected Mama’s tongue lashing.
“Jowe, do you want me to talk or will you mind your business from now on?” Mama asked.
Jowe immediately turned back to her stall. “Don’t start with your wahala, Sebi. Please, leave me alone”
And that was how Mama would defeat them all. Her biting replies to insults thrown at her travelled wide and many busy-body women feared her. She let no one succeed in dampening her spirits and would not listen to anyone who told her what she did not want to do. She was headstrong and resolute. Perhaps, this quality was what made Mama’s second husband and our father to ask for her hand in marriage years after. Mama’s mother was still skeptical about the marriage and what would happen thereafter so she tried to make Mama agree to another sacrifice to ward off Tuaha, but Mama refused.
“I will take my chances, Mama” She said. “I will continue to take my chances”
Mama had the rest of us soon afterwards. Cabi. Awi. Zumi. And I.
She still had her razor-sharp tongue and her clever wit; the subtly sarcastic tone in which she addressed her customers in the market and the lazy men who came to ask for our sisters’ hands in marriage, but she had no need to use it for the women who once called her unfortunate, because she no longer was.