Her journey starts in the east but salvation lies in the north. Branches slap and claw at her face as she fights through the dense forest. Insects ravage her exposed limbs with ferocious bites, and the moon shines brightly, dispelling the darkness, but creating frightful shadows in its stead. The crickets click their uncoordinated symphony, and small creatures scamper through the underbrush. A light drizzle commences, compounding her discomfort and pain. She seeks shelter under a pane of plantain leaf, shivering and gasping. As if to remind her of its presence, the foetus in her womb stretches and roils, bringing her to her knees in seeming submission. She stuffs a fist in her mouth through swollen, gnawed lips to prevent her from shouting out in pain. A few seconds later, the wave breaks, and she sighs at the release from pain. Her time is drawing near, she can tell, but she has to escape this forsaken jungle before it happens.
Lightning bolts whip across the now dark skies and ominous sounding rumbles follow thereafter. She sighs again, rubbing her arms vigorously to keep warm and send the insects scurrying. This promised downpour is good and bad; good because darkness like a huge blanket has fallen and overpowered all sight, bad because she is exposed to the elements in a very delicate state and clothed in a weathered, loose Ankara gown which barely reaches to her knees. It is a hand-me-down from the house – a one-size-fits-all piece of tailoring. Unfortunately, she is rake-thin and tall, despite her elongated stomach, so it keeps threatening to fall off her gaunt shoulders. Her only piece of clothing other than her underwear and this pitiful gown is the scrap material she employs as a headscarf.
They were not big on grooming at the house, so you either kept your hair very short or found a way to braid it yourself. She had clung to the last vestiges of civility and insisted on keeping her hair braided. Nkoyo had plaited her hair and vice-versa, but then, Nkoyo had died.
The bucketing mingles with her tears as she recalls Nkoyo’s torment in the delivery room, which is little more than a 1.5 by 3 meter cubicle with a rough pallet on the floor. Nkoyo’s screams had torn through her soul as all the girls sat, huddled in the kitchen, waiting. If it was a boy, Nkoyo would be taken into the recovery room, and one of the girls would be summoned to help her wash up and rest. The child would be prepped and bottle fed by the ugly, cruel witch who called herself a midwife. The girls were never allowed to breastfeed their babies, never. No bond could be allowed to form between mother and child which was best for the girl-mothers for early on the morrow, a luxury car would arrive and they would be herded like sheep and locked up in the large backroom which doubled as a dining room, conference room and sometimes, raping room. There would be a hush-hush chat and the baby would be carted away by its new parents. Monies would exchange hands and promises to keep secrets would be made. The girl-mother would be sent for and given a token sum to ‘save’. “One more, just one more,” the Madam would lie. “One more and you can go.” Lies, all lies.
If it was a girl…the huge grinding stone beside the pallet took care of it. Madam’s clients were not interested in girls, only boys.
It had been Nkoyo’s fourth baby in four years. Wombs were not allowed to lie fallow in the house. She had borne equal parts boys and girls, and she was tired and sick.
Nkoyo had begged Madam, the Midwife and the guards, who doubled as sperm donors to let her go, to no avail. The baby was breech, and the Midwife in her taciturn way, had assured Nkoyo that it would turn, but it didn’t. So Nkoyo had struggled on the rough pallet, torn and tortured, and they let her die because they were sure the distressed baby was equally dead. The girl-mothers never saw her corpse either. It was quickly and covertly disposed of, where they knew not.
The rain has lost it vim and tapers down to a trickle yet again. She shivers and clutches herself. She has no sense of time, only that the sun has risen and set. She is lost in this jungle and she is afraid; if she does not find help and get out of here, her whole escape plan will be futile because Madam will let her live only as long as she carries this child. Of that, she is sure.
No one escaped the house, partly because they were guarded around the clock and partly due to fear of the repercussions, mystical and otherwise. Madam made the girl-mothers swear a blood oath upon arrival at the house; an oath of fidelity and obedience. She, however, reasoned that if Madam could lie and cheat, so could she. She had hatched her escape plan the night Nkoyo died although it was another long 3 weeks before she implemented it. Too long because she was now 38 weeks along. She flew solo for she trusted no one. She had melded into a group of girl-mothers heading to the outhouse after the rambunctious guards settled in with the ‘no-belle’ girls as the non-pregnant girls were referred to. In this regard, it was a blessing to be pregnant and get ticked off that roster.
As the girls did their business at the outhouse, she went through the motions as lanterns were dimmed and bowels emptied. She had slowly and quietly made her way to the edge of the clearing, and after a backward glance to ensure that no one had observed her, she plunged into the dense, dark forest. Her absence would not be noted until it was time for communal prayers in the morning. Her initial escape had gone as planned, but with no map, and no ability to gauge her bearing she was soon running in circles and had almost handed herself over to her pursuers inadvertently.
So here she is. Cold wind slices through her like a knife. Junior must feel it too for he rears again and again, and then slowly, thankfully, settles. Junior is the name she calls her unborn foetus; he is her second child at the house, the first was a girl. She listens intently once again, and hearing nothing man-made, stands on shaky, torn legs, bruised feet thrust into rubber slippers. “North,” Nkoyo had once whispered in her ear, “if you ever leave here, go north, find a junction with an iroko tree and go north. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Let it guide you.”
Easier said than done she thinks now as pain courses through her. She holds on to her resolve only because she knows death is the only reckoning available to her if her daring escape is thwarted. The rain has given way to a hazy mist, which hangs like a diaphanous scarf over the tree tops. The moon peeks out shyly as the amassed clouds disperse slowly. At least the forest floor is a sodden mess and she can move faster without fear of crackling branches beneath her rubber soles. The moon vacillates, playing a game of hide and seek in its heavenly realms, casting but a little light on earth’s ground. She can move, but she doesn’t. An entire day without fleshly sustenance and contractions that are becoming frighteningly frequent hold her prisoner. Every other step and she has to pause in a semi-crouch to bear the brunt of her contractions. Her time is nearer than she has calculated or perhaps she has aggravated Junior. One step, then another; a contraction here, gasping and breathing there, then another step. So preoccupied is she with managing her pain that she does not notice the creature that stands in her path until she is almost upon it; the sparse moonlight has distorted its proportions, making it even more fearsome. The baboon stares at her with solemn eyes and then cackles wildly as she lets out a scream of damning proportions. Quickly, she casts her eyes about for a weapon, her heart thudding madly in her chest. A branch, a stone, anything. Slowly, she stoops, groping in the foliage for any object capable of causing mortal damage to the creature that swings above her in excited circles.
She finds a sturdy branch, and wraps her numb, weak fingers around it. As she struggles to her feet, the baboon swings its pungent mass in her direction. She shrieks and strikes out wildly but her efforts send her back to the ground and she lands heavily on her behind with a wet ‘squish’. The baboon cackles and chatters on as it observes her. As it comes in low, bold and excited, she tenses and grips the branch with both hands, ready to strike, two brawlers in battle, unaware that a third has slinked in to change the odds.
“Kpowa!!!” the sound of a gunshot rents the air. The baboon takes off, screeching into the trees and disappears over the treeline. She sits immobile, shock turning her to marble as fear makes her blood run cold. There stands the Midwife, the ugly cruel witch, and in her hands she carries an aged rifle, the barrel covered in a ruptured plastic bottle, its effect to mute the reverberation. The acrid smell of gunpowder permeates all other odors and elicits a coughing fit from the runaway girl-mother, who rouses herself from her shocked stupor and attempts to get back on her feet. She falls back again. Junior is the newest opponent she must contend with. Contraction after contraction hits her, tearing her insides, blurring her mind. Junior wants out, and he wants out now. She is prone on her side, clutching her protruding belly and sobbing, wondering how the Midwife found her. Perhaps the rumors are true then, she actually is a witch. Perhaps the baboon is the Midwife’s minion, sent ahead to stall her. She fervently hopes that the Midwife will pull the trigger a second time and end her wet, miserable, tortured existence. The Midwife, however has other plans.
She carefully lays her rifle against a tree, and from a bulging raffia bag slung over a shoulder, retrieves a tarpaulin sheet. The Midwife darts about with an agility of limbs that belies her wrinkled skin. She sets the sheet under a canopy provided by a cluster of plantain plants, pulls a wrapper out of the bag and lays it by the side. The girl-mother, still gasping in pain, follows the actions of the Midwife in horrified amazement. The old witch is all set for the birth. Birthing rags are piled up in a heap, the receiving wrapper and olive oil has been placed within reach. The Midwife is calmly and wordlessly running a lit match over the length of a wicked looking pair of scissors. She sets it carefully in a metal bowl, of the type used in hospitals. A bush lantern is lit, its glow carefully and expertly shielded.
Only then does she glance at the girl-mother. Without any warning, she stomps up to her, grabs her by the armpits and pulls her bodily to the make-shift delivery pallet. The girl-mother whimpers, her cries reaching a crescendo as another contraction racks her. The Midwife dumps her unceremoniously on the sheet, reaches into her raffia bag and produces a packet of Lucozade Boost. She takes no notice of the straw attached to it, and tears the top flap with browning canines. The Midwife tilts the girl-mother’s head and pours the energy drink into the dry mouth that greedily accepts it. She repeats the process with another packet, and then, relinquishes her grip. The Midwife positions herself between her ward’s legs and rips her sopping, soiled panties away. She briskly rinses her hands in a battered aluminium bowl and without any warning, inserts her forefingers into the girl’s vagina. She probes around for a minute, confirming what she already knows. She retracts her fingers and slaps the girl’s thigh sharply. The girl glances at her wearily, and the Midwife raises a fist in the air; her signal for “wait, don’t push.”
“Ahhhhhhhhhnnnnnnnn,” the girl-mother cries. “Mummy moooo, Mummy mooooo.” But she knows Mummy is not coming. Not the mother she scorned because she thought she had found a ticket out of her days as a sales girl in the family food store at Onitsha main market. At 17, she had grown quickly bored with the mindless routine of awaking at 5am every day, bathing away the remaining vestiges of sleep in the pre-dawn cold, and making her way to the bus stop for the crowded trip to the still sleeping market. She had always wondered why it had to be so early, but her mother had been insistent. She had wanted to go to the university, or learn a trade like tailoring or hair-plaiting, not spend her days measuring mounds of garri and rice. “We need the money, or do you want me to hire a sales girl and waste more money?” her mother always replied whenever she complained. Her siblings also lent their voices to their mother’s pleas, all five of them. “Adanne, please help Nne, biko,” they pleaded whenever the same old argument ensued.
So Adanne had persevered until she was made an offer she could not refuse by a man who said he loved her. Dimkpa was his name, and he was a seasoned recruiter for the house. He promised her a job as a housekeeper for an American family in Lagos, who would process her visa so she could travel with them when they left the country. N25, 000 a month until she left the country, plus shelter, clothing and all the food she could ask for. She could send the bulk of her salary home, and be forgiven for running away. Adanne’s reply was immediate and the plans were underway. Two weeks after the proposal and three months from the moment she first laid her beautiful doe-eyes on Dimkpa, she ran away from home under his tutelage. However, the journey that was supposed to culminate in the laps of luxury in Lagos was unforgivably derailed. Adanne woke up bound and drugged in the house and her journey in hell commenced.
Adanne searches the inscrutable face of the Midwife, waiting for the thumbs up signal to bear down.
“Chimoooooooooo, melu’m ebere,” she wails. “This baby is pushing me ooo, I am not pushing, but it is pushing me!!!” She is writhing in anguish, legs are bunched up and then released, fists are clenched and unclenched. Pain, pain, pain, indescribable pain.
The Midwife appears unaffected. She ensures that her ward does not roll of the sheet in the midst of her histrionics. She has a time piece borne of experience in her head, and when it goes off, she unceremoniously parts Adanne’s legs. Her fingers go in again, and the long awaited thumbs-up sign appears.
“Hmmmmmmmmm, hmmmmmmmmm, hmmmmmmmmmm,” Adanne moans as she bears down. Her hands grip her ankles and following the Midwife’s direction she pushes as the contractions become more frenzied. The Midwife kneels, and gently parts the vaginal lips around the crown that is breaking forth. She gesticulates with her hands, “More, more,” she says. A ray of humanity shines through her deadened gaze. Adanne bears down with all the might left in her weakened body. She feels the baby’s head edging forth and she pushes again, past the ring of fire and voila! Junior is out and caught by the Midwife. She snaps the cord with her scissors and rubs the bawling baby down before wrapping him up. As if to herald his birth, dawn breaks; birds chirp harmoniously as the sun rises.
The Midwife places the baby boy in Adanne’s arms and packs up her equipment. She examines the placenta carefully before tossing it away. Some animal would feast on it soon. She rinses her hands again, and turns to the new mother. Adanne is gazing in rapture at the infant in her arms. She is wet, bloody and bruised but she is enthralled by the rosy baby she cradles. His eyes, ears, lips, so minute. What a wonder, what a miracle. She feels the Midwife’s gaze upon her and looks up sharply, a thousand fears beclouding her serenity.
The Midwife is packed. Her rifle is slung over her shoulder. She holds out a dirty N1000 note in her left hand and beckons for the baby with the other.
“Nooooo,” Adanne cries. “Leave my baby for me, biko hapu’m ooo, leave us alone…”
No reply. The Midwife is dumb. Her tongue severed a long time ago by the Madam they both serve. She places the money on the foliage and wrestles the baby from the arms of his frail mother. She points north, and nods twice, vigorously. “Yes, yes, keep going,” it says. She points to the swaddled baby and shakes her head once. “No,” she gestures. The Midwife then turns and starts heading away her steps sure, for she is at home in this forest. She glances back but once at Adanne, panic in her eyes. “Run,” the look in her eyes say. “Run as fast as you can and never come back.” She disappears into the forest.
Other sounds filter through the forest lull, through Adanne’s quiet sobs. Faint, but sure, they are human voices, male voices! The guards have resumed their search with the first light of dawn. Adanne needs no further push. She will mourn the loss of her baby later. Now, now she must survive. She struggles to her feet as blood dribbles down her thighs, but she pays it no mind. She rolls up the tarpaulin sheet and quickly shoves it under a thicket. Adanne ties the wrapper the Midwife wisely left behind, picks up the discarded note and staggers forth, north.