Block 244 – Flat Two

1995 – Five years before Flat One

On Sundays, Mother, Maami and I gather diligently to watch Checkmate. It was the only show we jointly enjoyed: I liked foreign shows with the American and British accents, Mother loved Yoruba shows like Iwa Eda with the grandstanding moralizing while Maami watched everything but constantly bemoaned the age of quality shows like the Village Headmaster and Basi and Company.

That Sunday, I was in the living room breastfeeding Wale and eating groundnuts from a medium-sized bowl with my father’s faded obituary printed on its the side. The bowl was one of the dozens of (leftover) souvenirs Mother had insisted on branding for Father’s funeral years ago. She printed his face on t-shirts, wrappers, bowls, mugs, trays, and jugs. She printed so many that after the funeral and the blatant souvenir looting, we still had three big Ghana-must-go bags of souvenirs. And so, over the years when trays and mugs go missing in the house as trays and mugs were wrought to, we replaced them with obituary trays and mugs.

Wale stopped suckling and belched, hitting my nose with the smell of milk and baby breath. “Kuse,” I said smiling at him. Unlike me, he smelled deliciously of Pears baby powder and baby detergent.  I leaned down and gently rubbed my nose against his, loving him more than I loved anyone or anything. “Well done sir. It’s only food you know.” He smiled in response, his almond shaped eyes slanting up even more than usual.

I was cooing unintelligibly to him when Maami and Mother entered the living room. Mother picked up the TV remote and reduced the volume. “Ọkọ mí,” she said. “We want to talk to you.” I felt a flair of panic at her tone but quickly tampered it down.

“What happened?” I asked.

“We want to take Wale for prayers.”

“Prayers for what?”

The two women exchanged a look.  “Wale’s…problem is becoming worse. We need to do something before he gets older, and it gets out of hand.”

“Mummy, we have talked about this.”

“I know,” my mother answered. “Still, you don’t want to wait. Now is the best time to go out and start finding solution. Before you know it, people will start noticing and start calling him abirùn.”

“Don’t call him that,” I said sharply.

Mother shook her head, “I am not calling him anything. That is what people will say. Look at his eyes, look at his ears, see his neck.” She pointed a finger at Wale for each feature she listed.  She leaned forward, “he is not normal.”

“I told you I will go to the hospital and…”

“This is not a matter for hospital,” Maami snapped. “We are saying one thing you are saying another thing. Am I not a nurse? Is it not in a hospital you delivered him? What did they tell you?” She shook her head impatiently.

“He is normal!” I said hotly. “If you are talking like this, what do you expect….”

“Exactly! Imagine what outsiders will say. Abi you think you will hide him in this flat forever? From neighbours? You better don’t deceive yourself.”

Mother cut in with a forced but softer tone, “I have spoken to Pastor Jegede, and he wants us to come on Tuesday.” She smiled at me with something close to reassurance. “No harm can come from praying Àmọ̀pé.” Mother liked to wield my oríkì like a calming balm– the way my father used to – and even though it never worked for her the way it did for him, she persisted in trying.

“We will take him for prayers,” I conceded, “but that is it. You will not turn this into any spiritual wahala.” I said the last part looking Maami in the eye until she shifted her eyes away guiltily. The sore spot between us itched.

Years ago, when she moved in with Mother and me after Father died, she convinced Mother that we needed to go for prayers to wade off the spirit of death. The prayers held in a non-descript Pentecostal church on the ground floor of a building that housed a school, another church, and a video club. The competent sounding Pastor launched into a prayer session which quickly morphed into a deliverance session after she got revelation of the emèrès inside me. She insisted they had to be beaten out and when she got permission from Mother and Maami, she began to flog me.

She got increasingly agitated that the demons were refusing to recant and be cast out. It did not seem like she would have stopped and so I confessed to all the things she asked me. I did not speak to anyone for days after that. It wasn’t until after Mother came to me contrite, holding apologies and a bowl of my favorite tapioca that we started on the road to healing. Forgiveness did not fully come until years after.

All these to say that even though there was no harm in the act of prayer itself, it felt like there was some harm in why we thought Wale needed prayers.

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If I were being truthful, if I took a light to the corners of my mind where thoughts no one would ever see and thoughts I would never share lived, there are feelings I was ashamed to name that rose within me when I looked at my son.  Words like the dreaded abirùn floated often in my mind, conjuring images of drooling, jerky limbed children whom I mocked as a child and pitied as an adult. Words that brought up the image of Taibat.

When Father was alive, we lived in Ijegun, in a large, unfenced compound with five or six other families. The owner of the house had three wives and eight daughters. Taibat was the last of the girls.

The first thing I remember about Taibat was her love for books. I spent many evenings in her house reading her large collections of books. She stopped lending her books out to other children in the compound after the books were returned torn, dirtied, or not at all. So, if you wanted to borrow a book, you had to come sit in the parlour of her house where she could keep an eye on you.  She had all the books: Mallory Tower series, Koku Baboni, Chike and the River, Sugar Girl, and the Village Boy. She even had the MacMillan Texts for all the classes (and knew the ones with the best stories) even though she no longer attended school.

The second thing I remember about her was her condition. Her right hand was permanently bent at the elbow and she had a jaw malformation that made her words come out slightly garbled; loud noises agitated her, and it was not unusual for her to get into a fit when NTA came on blaring the national anthem.

She loved to be included in the elaborate dramas and games that I and other children – Kachifo, Ibe and Nusrat – played in the backyard after school. Police and thief. Daddy and mummy. I always chose Ibe to play daddy to my mummy. Sometimes we let her join us but the amount of time it took her to hide during Boju Boju or run during I Call On often tested our patience.

One day Mother came home for work in a bad mood to find me in the backyard playing. She would have been angry at anything and so when she saw me dirtied from play and holding Taibat’s hand, she snapped at me to let go and follow her.  “What are you doing?” She asked, her tone sharp. She pulled me by the ear and dragged me to our flat.  “Don’t let me see you playing with Taibat again you hear me?”

“But mommy…”

“Don’t test me!” She pulled me into the kitchen and slapped the door shut. She looked at the empty kitchen counter, hissed and opened the freezer to bring out the soup – I had forgotten to.

“How many times have I told you not to play with that girl? Do you want to be like her?” She pushed my head with the cold bowl of egusi in her hand. “You never listen! Do you want your hand to bend like her own? Ehn? Is it until you start talking like mumu? Is that what you want?”

“No ma.” I said frightened.

“If I catch you playing with her again you will hear wiun.”

“Yes ma.”  I relayed my mother’s warning to the other children as my own wisdom. “If her saliva should touch us, we will become like her.” They took the warning seriously and made sure to relegate Taibat’s involvement in dramas to non-tactile roles. Sometimes to be safe, we excluded her completely. I stopped going to her house to read and when she asked me why, I told her blithely that my mother said not to play with her again.

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1998

“How old is your son?”

It did not matter where Wale was. Whether in church, in Maami’s pharmacy or even just playing on the pavement outside the flat with other children, people always had questions about him.

The questions start as harmless curiosities – questions every mother got – until they weren’t.  “How old is your son?” “Why does he look like that?” “Why is he outside?” “Should he be playing with other children?” “What is wrong with his face?”

I did not know which questions were worse: the carelessly cruel ones, the ones dripping with pity or the ignorantly intrusive ones. “Were you smoking and drinking during pregnancy?” “This your son will have a difficult life.” I knew Nigerians were audacious, but I was woefully unprepared for just how audacious they could be. How comfortable people felt talking about my son as if his disabilities were all that he was and as if his disabilities made him impervious to or deserving of rudeness.

We took Wale for prayers with Pastor Jegede three years ago. When he did not receive healing, Maami took it upon herself to consult with other pastors, some imams, and traditional specialists. I told her she could go wherever she wanted but she was not to take my son with her or use anything on him. At the height – or bottom – of the madness because it was madness, she went to a popular bonesetter to find out how to massage the disability from his body.

The cure for the madness came from the unlikeliest of sources on the unlikeliest of days.

It was Wale’s second birthday and we bought cake and made rice and chicken. The cake topping was Wale’s favourite character from Voltron. We hung streamers in the living room in the colors of his favourite T-shirt: blue and yellow. The birthday boy was dressed in a heavy-looking cream, white and blue aso-oke and looked regal. He had just started forming words and he delighted us with mantras of “mama”. It was music to my ears to hear him speak.

I invited a few of the families of the younger children in the Block and some from church. Maami and Mother had wanted a quieter affair; we tried often to shield him from the world as a sign of love, but whenever it felt too close to shame or fear, I put my foot down. I was already overly cautious of the world for him but for his birthday, I loosened the knot in my belly.  He had friends and I wanted him to spend his birthday with them.

His best friend – his Sunday School teacher’s daughter- was in attendance in her matching cap, dress and bag combo bossing him around happily. Mummy Taiye’s last born (from Flat five)  was in attendance. The new tenant in flat one – Imisi – was there with her pre-teen daughter and had come with an impractical gift of legos which I would keep far away from Wale’s wandering hands and mouth.

I did not invite Mrs. Otudeme’s last born. One time while playing outside, Wale offered the boy one of his colorful toys and his mother appeared out of thin air as if summoned to snatch her child away. It confused Wale and he began crying loudly. I knew why she did it of course and because I could not dictate that a child play with my child, I tallied the hurt inside me. And so, when I was telling people about Wale’s birthday, I made a show of not inviting her son. Even surrounded by cake and balloons, I made a note of which parents did not honor my invitation.

There was a knock on the door, and I opened it to find someone else I did not invite. It was Wale’s paternal grandmother holding a neatly wrapped present in her hands. It was a shock to see her at my doorstep.

“Good afternoon.”

“Good afternoon.”

Mrs. Adefariti took a deep breath: “I was hoping I could see my grandson… and talk to you.” She sounded humbled and uncertain, unsure what reception to expect. Neither she nor her husband had kept in touch with me or their grandson after their son’s death. They did not come to Wale’s naming ceremony even though I wrote them begging them to give their grandson a name and blessings.

In fact, the last time I saw them was at the hospital where my husband, their son, died. That day their anger at me seemed greater than the pain of their son lying broken in a hospital bed; it seemed greater even than their anger at the unknown drunk driver who rammed into his car.

“This is your fault” his father hissed at me. I was too distraught to respond and there was a part of me that thought it was my fault too. They had been against us getting married. After Jimi took me to meet them, they did some iwadi into my family to check for compatibility. Their findings revealed that I did not have a head for a husband, and it would be dangerous for us to get married. In fact, it would be dangerous for any man to marry me. My grandfather died in his prime, as did my father and whomever I married would die as well.

Jimi and I were both headstrong and in love and we thought the idea of divinations for marriage to be ridiculous. Mother and Maami advised against it: it was unconscionable to get married without the blessings of his family. We would be foolish to try it. It seemed we were foolish because barely a year after we signed marriage papers in a dusty registry, Jimi died.

His family shut me out completely after his death. They buried him without telling me. I went to their family house in Ondo numerous times and was turned back over and over. I went till my belly started showing. One day his younger brother pitied me and took me to the grave where they buried Jimi. His headstone read: “In loving memory of our beloved son and brother Olujimi Adefariti.”

There was nothing to show he had had a wife or would have been a father in a few months. Despite all that, his mother stood before me, holding a gift and an unspoken apology. The euphoria of the birthday party must have cast a forgiving haze over me because I found myself letting her into the flat. She picked out Wale in his celebrant garb and went to him with the gift. My traitor son immediately bestowed a smile on her and just like that, she was charmed.

She surprised us all. I admit I expected there to be questions and/or accusations about his Down Syndrome and how I must have caused it but there was none. She simply loved Wale in a way that only a grandmother could – unabashedly, with adoration and with too many toys . And it was that act of seeing him as a child and loving him as a child that paved way to a redemption between us. She was the one who listened to my woes and took me to a child specialist in Ondo who in turn referred me to the child specialist in Ikeja who – finally – was both competent and empathic to Wale.

It was strange that this woman who believed so much in the divine and the spiritual that she refused my marriage to her son was the one who helped me to support Wale better. After a few months of tentative relationship building, she came with Jimi’s father and other family members to make amends. I could tell from some of the things they said, and the very slight almost undetectable coolness in the way those things were said that they still believed that my marriage to their son cost his life; however, they seemed willing to overlook that if I allowed them to see their grandson.

I was tempted to withhold from them as they withheld from me but Mrs. Adefarati had had the foresight to plead with me one-on-one to forgive all slights that could come up during the meeting. “There’s still a lot of pain over Jimi but I promise you that all of that will not affect Wale. I will make sure of it.”

I took her at her word and allowed them into our lives – with limits – for Wale’s sake. The more love he could get, the better for him.

Comments

  • Joha

    3 years agoReply

    This is a fantastic story. You could feel their struggles, their hopes, and how challenging society can be to navigate. Thanks for sharing!

  • Cynthia

    2 years agoReply

    Society is very harsh, to be honest. Thanks for highlighting this in your story.

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Welcome! I am a recovering writer learning the ropes again. It is a pleasure to have you on this journey with me. I hope you enjoy reading the stories I write, as much as I (hopefully) enjoy writing them.