Ma swore the day sister set foot outside the gates and into her new home in such an odd part of the ghettos where we lived, that she should never be called her mother again, and that the gods should curse anyone who did so with leprosy and after 7 days of torture, or death by lightening. I knew that she was serious. But I also knew that none of that would happen. So whenever I go to visit my sister in Sungela, I try to persuade her that Ma, our mother, wouldn’t hurt her. I still try to tell her that Papi is doing fine. Last week I even smuggled his birthday picture at four from late last year, to assure her that he is alive and well. She just stared at the picture deeply. And for a second I hoped it would juggle her memory. Then she burst into laughter and continued dancing. My heart grew heavy, but I tried not to cry in her presence.
“Ma! Ma! the Nkashi is look at me when I was come back home” Papi hurries to our mother, having barely removed his shoes.
“Eeh…is that my little sunshine?”
Only the sound of Papi make her glow with so much joy.
“Yes ma. Ma! The nkashi is look at me today” His tries to manage his fast drying breathe. “But I run away. I run fast from nkashi”
“Eh! You did!”, she cuddles him in her thick frame.
“Nkashi…?” I whisper loud enough for only Ma to hear. She quietly turns from Papi and looks at me, her eyes squinting with a slight suggestion of anger.
“Ma, I want food. I want moi-moi.”
Then she quickly turns back to answer her son. “Ah! my Papi want’s mummy to make him moi-moi. And mummy will do that. Go take off your clothes eh?” she continues in a jolly voice without glancing back at me.
Dinner was anything but quiet. Papi had a lot of stories to tell, as usual. Today, his teacher brought him out and presented him as the pupil of the week for the 3rd time this term.
“Ah! My Papi is a very brilliant boy”, ma said as she leaned over and blessed him with a peck on the forehead. She smiles so much so that it is as though her lips would tear through the sides and reach up to her ear lobes. At least Papi always has a way of making her feel a sense of achievement on the subject of motherhood, and of restoring youth and joy to her pseudo-morphed self. At only 39, she looks way past the years of a grand-parent. I often pity her. But I pity myself the most because I am often led to think I am the only normal person from this family. Pa is a run-away father, nomadic in matters of marital fidelity. Ma has faded in beauty and character due to a dead marriage and its consequences. Papi is under-aged and ignorant. And sister Nene is now an outcast. It is one thing to undergo a terrible fate, and another to be a spectator, unable to salvage anyone or anything from the mess. The latter being more terrible, was my portion in the sharing of roles. I feel I am normal because I have managed to suffer this incapacity and still remain psychologically sound.
While I try to focus on doing my assignment, I subconsciously recall my visit to Sungela today. I brighten up as the images of my cheerful sister flood my mind. How excited she was when she saw the wraps of ogi and bread that I bought for her. I knew she would like them, so I used my transport fare to get her the food. I couldn’t have been more satisfied, irrespective of the fact that I had to walk the whole way home.
Sister looked happier today compared to most other days. I tried talking her into coming back home, but she only stared back with a twist in her face, like I was spitting jargons. Then she jumped up and started to sing. She sings a lot. And she does it with fervor that is sourced from the depths of her heart, jumping suddenly and making gestures. I try not to be rude so I smile back and rock along to the chaotic melody, sometimes clapping just to encourage her. Whenever she notices my enthusiasm, on other days like this, she usually gathers more gusto into her performance. And since it is her only means of entertaining guests- of which I remain the only physical, and human one at the same time -she does it with such a rush of passion and excitement. Unlike most other nkashis, she doesn’t assault or scare people. She just minds her own business, singing and dancing and frisking around. I still don’t know how she sources for food. But I try to dismiss the idea of it being from the most ridiculous places.
The only thing I re-echoed back to myself as I walked back home were the words, “Papi is not dead. He didn’t die that day, He didn’t. Papi is not dead sister Nene, Papi is not dead….”
It was 4 years ago, on one cool Sunday evening when Pa came home late, drunk as usual, and Ma was in her usual attack mode waiting for him in the sitting room. Apparently, the only thing that hushed her was the fact that she was nursing her 7 month old Papi. Sister Nene was making dinner, and sang quietly to herself to drown off all of the tension in our little two-bedroom bungalow. I just sat on a stool close to the door and closed my eyes and drank in the melodies she produced while she worked. She was the most beautiful person I ever knew, and the wisest. She knew that I knew our home was not peaceful, but she always comforted me with stories of how Ma and Pa were in their younger days. Two love birds in their teenage years and into their early twenties. She often said that they were only acting. That they pretended to be at war with each other, when in fact, their love was bigger than our solar system. Although I wasn’t sure of this, I gulped down the tales anyway. I knew Ma loved Pa, but I wondered if Pa loved anybody. On too many occasions he had called us all by other different female names, possibly the names of his different concubines. Sister Nene was usually quiet most times, or she secluded herself and just sang with a deep soft sorrowful voice.
“Ma told me when I was about your age, that she and Pa were not ready for marriage when she got pregnant for me. But you see, things were complicated so they had to marry.” Sister told me when I had just turned 13. And of course, by implication, their love grew sour after the burdens of an impromptu family grew overweight. It was no wonder she often felt she was the sole cause of all the wahala that brewed in our little bungalow.
So that evening, a drunk Pa walked into the house. Ma was breastfeeding Papi, and I and sister Nene were in the kitchen. Soon Ma was shouting for help, and sister Nene ran to save the day. On first impulse she grabbed the baby and tried to shield it from the heavy blows that Pa dished out. Sister burst into tears as she held the crying child and watched Ma being battered. She was reaching her limit in watching our home get torn apart by the day, amid dealing with a lifelong self-accusation for being the seed of conflict in it all. I just watched from the kitchen. I had never been brave like my sister. So I remained in the kitchen. Then Pa stopped the beating, walked into the room and stomped out, still high on alcohol.
“Give me that baby!” the enraged woman yelled. “He will go with his father! I will not raise another child on my own again”
“No Ma”, sister pleaded, “Don’t do this. Papi is too young” she said this knowing well enough that Pa was crazy enough to dump the child in a garbage truck.
“Give me the baby!” she screamed, “or I will come and get him myself”
“No! Please ma!” sister’s voice heightened. And soon the two were in a battle for possession of the child. That was when something went wrong. Because somehow, sister slipped and crashed into the ground as mama used her thick arms to push her away from the baby. In the twinkle of an eye, Papi dived head first into the cemented floor with a loud thud. Everywhere grew silent as the dust settled and the previously crying child lay lifeless on the ground.
“Paaaaaapiiiii! Paaaapi!! ” Ma screamed as she picked him from the floor.
She screamed and spat at sister Nene who now froze at the spot looking into thin air. Her face was swollen and covered in tears and mucus.
“You have killed him! Eh! You see what you have done”
My heart pounded faster and I began vibrating where I sat in the kitchen because of how quickly this drama was escalating. Ma yelled louder while sister silently staring into space. Suddenly, she started laughing and running round the sitting room.
“Eh! What is this? Nene!” Ma stepped back to review the situation more rationally. Sister started scratching her head, and doing funny things, laughing and dancing intermittently.
“Sister Nene”, I finally ran out of the kitchen screaming, “Sister Nene stop it. You’re no nkashi. You’re not mad Sister Nene”
But sister wouldn’t stop laughing. She had stopped running now, and started singing. But this time, her voice wasn’t melodious. It was jagged and shrill. Then she started running again, and she ran out of the house. I ran after her, crying “Sister stop it!”
People on the streets had started gathering round to ask what happened.
“What is Nene doing? Why is she acting like this”, Mrs Njoku, our neighbor grabbed me, waiting for answers that I didn’t have. But I tore away from her grip and followed my sister. Then I heard her say from behind, “Your sister don turn to nkashi oh. Better leave her alone”. Another tear drop slipped down my right cheek, and soon I got tired of running. I helplessly watched as people gathered on either side of the street that evening all staring at Sister Nene. Ma didn’t even come out to check what was happening. I was broken.
“Ma, the food is sweet. I like the moi-moi”, Papi compliments the dinner he just devoured.
Ma looks at him deeply, “thank you my son”. She muses at him a little longer. The same way she did that eventful day when I got back home. I returned to a quiet house, having sat outside all evening, overwhelmed by the happenings of the day. Ma was musing at her baby who was now sucking her breast milk passionately. Papi didn’t die. He only passed out for a moment and was back, conscious but unaware of all the drama that had played out. Ignorant little Papi. Ish!
Mother never mentions to Papi that Sister Nene is related to him. And once when I yelled at him not to call her nkashi because she ended up that way on his account, Ma gave me a good spanking that day, locked me up, and deprived me of food. And it infuriates me how she tries to hide him from knowing the truth. I consider her shameless, and a coward for this. Perhaps it is because he is still young. Perhaps she will tell him when he is much older. So for now, all Papi knows is how to run away when he sees sister, if he ever does see her, while he’s playing in the neighborhood.
“Sister Nela, you no eat? You no eat moi-moi?”, little Papi asks me. He has such a charm and his eyes shine with little stars in them. His smile has a striking semblance to that of our sister, the one who he now refers to as nkashi, mad person. But other than this fact, he too, very much like her has a beautiful soul.
“No Papi, not now. I have home work to do. I will eat later ok”, I answer back with a soft voice, smiling as I point at the books in front of me for emphasis.
Sister Nene still remains my best friend nonetheless. I just pretend she is acting, and deep down knows and remembers who I am, and who she is. And though we never speak verbally, I would never miss a visit to Sungela to see her, for anything in the world.