a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
You frowned at yourself, rolling your eyes in multiple cycles as your mother blathered to your face. You looked down at your swelled toes, so your eyes neither met hers nor glanced around the beige walls. That way, you suppressed the anger and shunned her at the same time.
“Urenna! So you’re not listening to me abi?” You could hear the anger in her tone, but you didn’t care. She’d said these times without number, yet she wasn’t fatigued. It was your fault for travelling to Umuahia to see her, it was your fault for telling her ten months ago that you found out you were pregnant again.
“I am listening.”
“So have you made up your mind to follow me to see that pastor? You see, it is only a foolish dog that is told where his bone would be found but chooses to go the other way where there is famine and emptiness.” When she spoke all of these her parables in Igbo, you grew deaf. “Let us see that pastor, so we’ll know what is really wrong, and we’ll loosen all these nuts and burn those chaffs that the evil ones have planted in your stomach.”
Your hair was plaited in large bands all to the back, so the braided wig over your head sat gently. You didn’t want to make a fuss. You didn’t want to get angry, or pack your belongings hurriedly, storming out the door. You grinned at your mother, then your rotund belly, then your swelled toes. You shrugged before you gave her the answer she wanted to hear. Then, she rubbed your belly and prophesied that you would give birth to a girl. In fact, it was more of a scold than a positive declaration. She said, “It is high time you gave your husband a girl.”
You didn’t know that anyone called your mother deaconess until you arrived at the pastor’s church and met with his white-garmented aides the next day.
“Deaconess welcome, Deaconess sit down here.” Your ears almost bled that day, you had to feign an undying nausea, so the white-garmented aides will stop talking, and you wouldn’t faint of irritation before the pastor arrived to pray for you and your baby that was adamant to be born. You should have seen the joy in your eyes when he appeared. It was like you’d just seen Goodluck Jonathan in Jeff Bezos’ suit. You were a little surprised when your mother sprang to her feet, running towards the pastor who was catwalking to the both of you from the gate. But this was your deaconess mother after all, who called God “Sir,” refused to wear earrings and forbade you from following her with any forms of jewelry. You may be in the world, but you are not of the world, she always said, and you always grinned, because you were too tired to reply her, and you knew she was too stubborn, maybe even more than this your unborn baby. And you also agreed, so you could stop hearing her pitched voice.
“…the devil can not have his way. I have brought my daughter, so she can be delivered from the hands of the principalities and powers that are gripping her stomach.”
“I see, I see.”
The stability in your mother’s voice almost betrayed the fact that she was in tears. “Ten months now. She said she has not heard the baby in her womb kick, not even once. Maybe it is air that they have put in my daughter’s womb oh!” Then her expression changed, suddenly, and it frightened you, because you’d seen a Nollywood movie that played out as such. “Maybe it’s a tuber of yam! Chineke ekwekwala ihe ojo!” She snapped her fingers till the dins in her head deadened out. But her expression didn’t change.
“I see, I see.” The pastor’s nodding confused you, but most of all, it infuriated you. You know your husband wouldn’t have agreed to this, so you would never tell him of your encounter with the suited pastor with white-garmented helpers. But he will find out, that is the irony of secrets.
The pastor couldn’t control the saliva that jetted out of his mouth. You would find yourself binding and casting when your first son, Mbagwu, begins to showcase this personality trait at thirteen. “Urenna, you and your baby shall be baptised and all the machinations of the devil and his cohorts shall catch fire!”
You didn’t say a thing, so your mother tapped your shoulder, and whispered in Igbo, “Is that how you were raised? Will you say Amen?”
Then you said, in the greatest disbelief ever, “Amen.”
Before you knew it, you were surrounded. As a matter of fact, you were surrounded long before that, but you never knew. You would liken this to an ambush, because of how everything that happened next happened without warning.
The supposed church building, a bungalow, built like it was someone’s Boy’s Quarters, was erected in the midst of litters of sands, so there wasn’t even any ground for you to step on, it was just sand. Sand stuck to your slippers and a flood of it gushing out as you raised your slippers to the air before you sat down with your mother. Sand glued to the heels of your Vaselined feet. Sand irritating your flesh as they cajoled you to kneel before they proceeded the cleansing. You would not ask them what they were cleansing you of, because your mother would rebuke you loudly and you would give them the conviction that you were indeed possessed. So, you knelt, and allowed them to strike you. The first pale of water was thrown at your flesh, and it was a sharp pain to your back. Then the next. Then the next. You soon stopped fidgeting, raising your hands to shield your face. Thank God you hadn’t worn your braided wig! You shrieked, and shrieked, and finally stopped shrieking. Then you just kept your eyes closed and endured the pales of water.
The pastor cried out, “Ah! The demon is finally coming out. See, we are seeing its adamancy!”
His helpers agreed with him, but none of them was louder than your fair, Jesus-loving mother.
“Yes! Yes! Yes! Hallelujah! You are delivering your daughter.” He shook and jumped like he was convulsing, you opened your eyes here, because the momentary shift in his tone made you very, very uneasy. “Get more water! Lord, give her anointing!” Now, you wondered which one it was— cleansing or anointing. The helpers sha came and they parted ways with their pales and just bathed you straight from the bucket and you even felt an enormity of a gush hit your belly. It was the force of a hose. That moment, you believed in Jesus, you became your mother, because you felt your baby kick.
So, you were in labour for a really long time. Nineteen hours, your husband said. He had travelled for his mother’s burial in Obinze— his village— leaving you in the hospital, then as the second son he was, he had stayed for some time, with his heart split in two places, before going back to Lagos on a plane. You still had your child in your belly. Perhaps, that’s where things got so wrong. You would blame the nurses that chattered away in your ward, not knowing what they were supposed to do; most especially that short, dark one with red eyes of one that smoked igbo like it were Nutri C. Your mother would blame the bounteous medication the hospital placed you on when they’d figured out you had surpassed your trimesters. Your husband, Arinze, will have no one or nothing to blame, but himself, until he figures out five years later that you’d sought help from a somewhat minister of God God Himself didn’t know of.
Like the ten months and half your daughter spent in your belly was not enough, she clung to your ankles, clenched her fists round your breasts, sucking even when she wasn’t famished, and wouldn’t sleep until she heard your tranquil snores from a centimeter or two above her. Hence, you couldn’t take a job outside the home, and like the handbag which most women can’t do without, you took Asagwara wherever you went.
You and your husband first suspected something unideal when your daughter’s neck was too frail, even at nine months old. You looked up at charts and scoured through gynaecology materials and discovered that her neck should have been firm three months before then. At worst, two. So, alongside fasts and prayers which knew no ends (you had already become your mother), you worked towards improving your daughter’s physical health. Getting Asagwarauka to her small feet beside erect structures, and just as she grasped them, standing bowlegged but unmoving, you gradually swiped the erect structure away. Every single time, she fell. And you kept on trying, just because you knew this was a risk you had to take. Then the day your chi smiled on you and your husband finally arrived. Your daughter didn’t learn to stand on her own then, but her neck got firm. But things got even more complicated afterward.
Eleven months. It was at this age Asagwara acquired the ability to crawl. She would shuffle her knees on the floor, working them all day long till they picked up all the sand granules in the first floor of the family’s duplex. And at this moment, she decided it was time to descend to the sands on the ground floor. Asagwara didn’t know what she was doing as long as she kept tabs on your whereabouts. It didn’t matter that you, her mother, were on two limbs and she was on four. She would follow you to the ends of the earth if she could. But why weren’t you paying much attention to your daughter? Was sweeping the sitting room downstairs so important? Your fiber bound domestic utensil created a series of loud swooshes. So loud you didn’t hear when your daughter tumbled down the stairs. Leaving out the first two steps, there were fourteen stairs in number, and Asagwara, like a bowling ball, rolled till she finally came to rest. Her clothed belly smooching the glazed tile, her left cheek, squished like a sandwich flattened by a spatula. Her cries and screams were what captured her your attention, dear mother, and thanks to the God you’d began to pray to, the God of your mother, the God of that minister, Asagwara neither bled nor sustained a scratch. And it happened that Asagwarauka didn’t walk till she was a year and ten months old. Almost a year after she learned to crawl.
Asagwarauka had three older siblings; all boys. Mbagwu, Nwachukwu, and Ekwueme. Brothers who would never let any harm befall their beloved. And that was the genuine, but ominous love. It would be called that, because something horrifying, like the tumbling down the stairs, always happened anytime they were not around.
At three years old when the element of fear of losing Asagwara was gradually being eroded, she started school. And within the space of two months, she was summarised as ‘the liability that erupted tantrums'. Few seconds later, she went home and never returned to a school setting. This was five days after she had said her first word, “A-pool”. Her knees were on the floor and her gaze refused to leave her hands. She had her hair plaited singly— every string on their own, falling over her fair, weary face. The beads at the ends of each string, clashing to her cheeks and back. Her hands, just as pillars, keeping her entire physical structure erect, like the lion ready to pounce on the antelope. Suddenly, she looked up. “A-pool...” she whispered, naming what Nwachukwu held before her. Ekwueme, kneeling beside her screamed. And Mbagwu couldn’t have turned a deaf ear to that even if he tried. A-pool! She didn’t say it again, but it replayed in their heads all the way home. And the thrill of that day would be accredited to her brothers; Mbagwu, her defender. Nwachukwu, her guide. Ekwueme, her dearest friend. The tale of the day flew out of their lips all too jumbled and swift, yet emotional and worthy of a celebration. It was one of the good days you would never forget. If only you’d known that everything became good just before they got bad.
Not attending school hadn’t turned out to be so nocuous, for you and your husband applied a new method. But as you think of all of these now, you wish, you wonder, you sob. She got better, but the principalities after her got more adamant.
Aunty Gloria was Asagwara’s speech therapist. Just like the sun, she could be so kind to Asagwara, and harsh when the need arose. And that’s what Asagwara had called her on her first day, “N-so-n!” as she was the fairest being she had set her eyes on. Only Aunty Gloria knew what she had meant, so only her laughed, and that’s how she became fond of Asagwara from that day. And how the little girl living with autism began to love and fear her speech therapist. Now, it was one rainy Monday evening when Aunty Gloria had just finished the day’s session. She was in the kitchen with you, discussing your little girl’s progress and statistics derived from the classes they’d had so far. About how Asagwara’s tongue was a little too short, yet heavy and how lazy she was to pick it up and put it to use. Aunty Gloria assured something would be done about the laziness aspect, and the conversation ended there. But Aunty Gloria was so bent on leaving despite the heavens' blessings of cats and dogs bestowed on the roofing sheets. She had an umbrella, she said, and that was enough. You insisted on driving her, at least, to her bus stop and after words of persuasions, Aunty Gloria agreed. But remembering this now, should you have? Asagwarauka still hadn’t learned to leave you be, and so she fussed anytime you went out the door without her. Everyday she fussed, but this evening’s occurrence was in the worst way possible. Aunty Gloria had successfully used the fear she instilled in Asagwara to keep her from following the both of you to the door, so all Asagwara could do was cry. Her nostrils got filled quick and her catarrh bubbled. She screamed and banged the metal door with her fists, not stopping to see if her palms were hurt or her knuckles were blistered. “Nm-o! Nm-o!” She called out to you, Nnem, her mother in a guttural, glass-shattering voice.
Ekwueme and Nwachukwu were in the sitting room watching a cartoon, and Mbagwu had raced alongside you and Aunty Gloria to attend to the gates. And he was the one who shouted.
Asagwara wept bitterly as she saw the gates open from the verandah. She could see you through the windshield, shining your teeth to whatever Aunty Gloria was talking to you about. And that only made the urge to be beside you, the ever cheerful being, more impelling, puncturing it’s way to the bitter mush of her flesh. She grasped the rails tightly, her fingernails bending to the extent of breaking with that awkward urge. The tyres screeched then began to roll, and she knew every second she spent watching was a second wasted. The clouds, grey and ugly, were frowning at what Asagwara was about to do. She was only five years old, yet her tenacity was at the brink of an overflow. She readied her feet to the higher step of the rail above the tiles, and wasn’t sighted. She passed her right leg over and neither of her feet could feel the chill of the tiles. Apart from the platinum rail on which her gown hung, she was flying without wings. And that was the perfect way to describe that, as her bones didn’t portray an atom of fear, even with her left leg joining her right, descending on the tile fourteen feet from the paved earth. Her eyes shone, but her heart wasn’t beating as fast as it should have. Was she thinking of the folklore of the flying tortoise, where each bird of the air lent him a feather, so as to accompany them to a meeting in the skies? That is why the tortoise’s shell is rough. Things didn’t end well. So you know what? She was not thinking at all. And therefore, when her journey from the air was over, she landed on those same knees that learned to crawl late. It was then Mbagwu shouted, and Ekwueme and Nwachukwu rushed to the verandah, just to see their little sister running to your Hyundai, like she was some programmed, life-sized doll. Her knees skinned, her flesh exposed, and her very own scarlet spilled all over the paved earth, but she ran, as though nothing had happened at all.
This was one of the melancholic days for your family, and this incident made you wonder if your beloved was actually getting better or not. Was it just her speech or did the whole prolonged labour have an effect on her brain too? If they had taken this into consideration, they most definitely forgot about it, and that was what led to the happening they would never lose remembrance of. Even if they could weep their brains out, the memory would find another site to reside. Some days before this day, Asagwara had done some pretty crazy things you overlooked. From drinking half a bottle of antiseptic to putting her own faeces in her mouth. And that’s what makes what happened so dark; it was rather unexpected.
It was on Asagwara’s best day. Sunday. The best thing about every Sunday morning to Asagwara was dressing up. Nothing pleased her more than wearing fancy dresses of different colours and putting on sandals fit for royalty. Like the princesses she viewed on the television, in the end of it all, she was Asagwara, the one and only. Still and all, that favourable regard wasn’t lasting, because Sunday school was the same as regular school. Children, who convinced themselves they were better than Asagwara tormented her with their words. Excluding her from fun and games and refusing to sit on the seat next to her. And because of this, the little princess was all alone. Her gloomy face positioned downwards on her little brown fingers, which fiddled with the hem of her dress, till they, her brothers, came to take her to see you, so they could go home. When they reached you, you were having an after-church meeting with the other women. You told them it was a YWCF meeting. So, the four children, on one pew in the middle of the church, sat and waited for your meeting to be over. But it seemed like forever, and Ekwueme, your last boy, being long-suffering’s greatest fiend needed a game to play . First, his fingers played a game of knock knock with Asagwara and her ears.
“Knock Knock Knock. Can I come in? Can I sit down?” He would pretend his fingers were legs and they would carry out all these actions, like they were actually legs. They’d go, come and sit. “May I go and use the toilet?” Asagwara nodded. “Can I flush?” Asagwara nodded again. But as Ekwueme flushed the toilet, twisting her right ear, pretending that was the toilet handle, she squealed with this sort of weird excitement. But it sounded like she was pained. Mbagwu, already boiling with why he had to wait with his younger siblings when he could do so much more at home, took that seriously and slapped the back of his restless brother’s head.
“Why can’t you stay in one place?” he scolded.
And at once, Ekwueme gave such a brilliant display of annoyance. “Leave me alone!” he said. A nark, if only he’d known better, should have been bottled and capped.
Ekwueme, rubbing his struck occiput, marched over to his mum to report the slap Mbagwu had given him. “Who does he think he is?” he questioned himself. “What did I do that made him slap me like that?”
Meanwhile, Mbagwu exhibited no concern for what went on in the depths of Ekwueme's thick skull. He was the kettle of water that had been boiling for close to thirty minutes without anyone running to put out the fire. His lid danced and danced until it finally came off. Nwachukwu noticed this as Mbagwu stood up, so he tried to calm his brother down before he, the kettle, toppled over, unleashing all varieties of hot content on he and Asagwara, the innocent. Another name that was given to Mbagwu was Onye ishi ke meaning, the headstrong child, and he lived up to that name very well. From that statement you’d know that Nwachukwu eased his temper not. Mbagwu toughened himself for what he would call action, walking to gates of the church, more than prepared to cross the roads and set off home, alone. Nwachukwu had raced after him, holding Asagwara by her arms, telling her to sit back and wait for Ekwueme.
Anyways, with the wave of mere eyeballs, their mother ordered Ekwueme to get back with his siblings. And when he viewed the pew they sat on from a distance, he saw Asagwara sitting on her own, tapping her black rubber shoes to a rhythm only she heard. He didn’t go to her, instead he chose to look for the brothers he’d deserted. That was where they claimed the mistake emanated. If only Ekwueme had gone to meet Asagwara and sat with her, the unexpected wouldn’t have occurred. Their father partially blamed their mother for what happened because of the meeting he titled unnecessary, and she countered it, accusing him for never being available. And that’s how censure would be passed round, like the fresh loaf of Mr. Sunday’s bread, until everyone had had a perfect slice, or two. Asagwara peeped her friendly brother, whom she was placed in the care of by the one who guided her steps, and she followed him. Quietly.
Nwachukwu held Mbagwu's left hand, so as to pull him back, but with his quick reflexes, and almost too strengthened arm, he pushed Nwachukwu to the ground. With a thud he fell, and without looking back at what he had caused, Onye ishi ike crossed the two-way road, landing at the umbrella stand where Madam Kunbi sold her eggrolls in a glass case. She was the one that alerted Mbagwu what he had done, and as he turned around, he saw the brother whom he had tossed to the ground like some nylon, running past moving cars toward him with less perplexed, more furious eyebrows. When Nwachukwu's eyebrows danced, you’d know he was angry. Now, Nwachukwu obstructed Mbagwu’s view, if not, he’d have seen Ekwueme about to cross the road. And a lot shorter, more fragile creature three feet behind him. It was too inauspicious. None of them had seen Asagwarauka coming.
Days after this one, many would ask there were gates to the church, but weren’t there gatemen? The ones who stuffed their mouths with the meals they had struggled to get from generous church persons, or the others that ran errands for the rich and influential, as though they paid their salaries.
In less than ten minutes, your meeting was adjourned, and you were at the west door of the church from where the reverends processed and receded. The door was wide open, and you saw your daughter’s clothing at the gates, just about ready to cross the road. Ekwueme was at that pavement that rose from the earth to demarcate the two sides of the road. The same pavement that housed streetlights and advertisement banners and Eko o ni baje— Lagos shall never be destroyed— dustbins. Mbagwu and Nwachukwu had seen her too, and you all reacted with a yell of her name as she ran into the road to do what her brothers had done before her eyes.
But you were all too late. The white Hilux Justice Kumben drove swept your little girl away. And at that instant, quietness, just for a second, existed, then seized to be.
The time was quarter past one. All the hospital staff were greatly distraught seeing Asagwara’s state, and so in panic, they feigned sympathy in the most authentic ways they could. The head doctor, in a haste, left his station where he was delivering a child to attend to Asagwara. He was in that sort of haste because Asagwara was rushed to the hospital by Justice Kumben, and you obviously know the tingly sensation somewhere between the lungs, virtually everyone gets when their attention is demanded by a very significant person. What propels the most conventional people to go out of their way to do some thing they feel is extraordinary, so they could be acclaimed by someone in power. He rushed, with his stethoscope hung around his neck, to check how Asagwara was doing, but as he got there, her broke the news that she was no longer living. The blood escaping from a cut on her head, almost as thick as latex on the bark of a tree, as it swallowed too much air. You folded your daughters hands in yours, and sobbed into them all too bitterly. You sobbed for a really long time. You leaned over your daughter and would not let the nurses cover her with that white sheet. Somehow, they reminded you of the obnoxious nurses at Asagwara’s delivery.
You pounded the mattress on which your daughter lain and tore the sheet in shreds. With your voice ascending crescendos, you screamed terrifyingly: “Get out! Get out! My girl is still alive!”
You would recall the voice of your mother, coercing you to follow her to the minister of God. You would recall the voice of the minister, his persistent spitting. You would recall the words of your father when Asagwara turned three and you visited Umuahia with her. “Pray for this girl to die,” he had said. “You don’t know what burden you will bring upon yourself by keeping her alive.” Just a year ago you had used a shovel to dig up red earth to conceal his ebony coffin. Now you wonder if it’s his ghost that caused this to happen.
Justice Kumben, with her arms crossed, remained at the door of the hospital room where all this unfolded, and for the first time, the expression on her face did not seem to matter to anyone. Asagwarauka was dead. The defender, the guide and the friend, in that order, stood beside each other shedding tears like it was the end of the world. They’d soon learn to accept the truth that their world actually ended that afternoon. The wine glasses in the kitchen cabinet would remind them of how delicate Asagwara was. The breeze, the one that came with the rains, would bring their memories back to how silent, yet impactful her essence had become.
You would regret giving your daughter the name Asagwarauka, because your little princess didn’t live to what it predestined. She never talked, and now, you’ve stopped talking about her.
Now, you sit grey-haired on a rocking chair, knitting (it’s sad, but that’s what you enjoy now). You have your radio turned on to 96.7 F.M. The On-Air Personality would introduce a poet named Boluwatife Aina in a very invigorating voice, and everything that stings your ears would suddenly become a haze. Your husband is not angry with you anymore, your boys are married and seemingly happy. Then the poet’s voice will propel you back to reality.
“A story’s never been told of those who only see the torches of the skies just so they can see it all blur. Those who are born as wisps of smoke, so before they reach the clouds, traces of their essence are vanquished.” You smile, you cry, you stop knitting. You remember your Asagwarauka.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.