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When Daberechi offered to wet nurse Isinachi, his father Obiajulu, flatly refused. Others, clearly not his friends – he was aware, urged him to give it a try.
“Over my dead body! Let the child struggle or even die. But I will not let it suckle the very teat Ogbanje1 is feeding on. That demon will not take hold of my son.”
Daberechi’s move, motherly instincts aside, was more of a cultural necessity than an offer; to always ensure a baby suffers not for lack of its own mother’s milk. However, Obiajulu was concerned by Ogbanje’s suspected capture of Daberechi’s womb resulting in her tragic streak of dead babies.
Daberechi’s current four-month-old, Abeo, for now, appears to have outlived the horrific short life of others before it. It is believed that the spirit of Ogbanje – red in the tooth with malevolent intent – is in Daberechi; that’s why her children kept dying before they turned a year old. This one, too, will, they say.
The narrative has it that the dead child would recycle itself as a new-born. Daberechi had lost four now, even though the elders had performed a cleansing ritual when the third one died. They had mutilated the corpse into pieces before casting it away with no proper burial, to annihilate Ogbanje, prevent it from coming again.
…this particular Ogbanje was an aggressive breed…
When the fourth child was born, with a conspicuous scar on its chest and another ominous one on the forehead, the elders agreed, the oracle too consented, this particular Ogbanje was an aggressive breed, a very stubborn one. It bore the scars to remind them it was aware of their last time’s effort to rid it by mutilation.
The baby was yellow from birth. It scared all, including the midwives and the mother. The elders called it ‘Ogbanje’s retaliating wrath.’ It died peacefully in its sleep, four days after birth.
“Ogbanje is irked,” they said.
Before, it allowed the babies to live a few weeks, catch a glimpse of the bright sunlight, and give room for distant relatives to arrive with baby gifts. This one went down on the very week it was to be named.
The priest held on to the paraphernalia for the ill-fated ceremony, confused over what to do with it. What was to be a baby dedication affair was now a sombre funeral.
The elders didn’t argue with the priest over how to get rid of the corpse; if what they did last time brought this, let the man perform a different ritual, his way. The elders did not want to imagine were they to repeat another mutilation, what a further infuriated Ogbanje might consider doing next time to the already broken Daberechi or to the elders’ womenfolk.
Abeo is always a subject of malicious gossips in the village. And they, the villagers, often study Abeo suspiciously, many opting not to hold him while Daberechi is busy in need of a hand. They are even scared of offering to bathe him.
Each time a wail is heard of a dead child, they almost unanimously scamper to Daberechi’s home, hoping for Abeo’s ultimate end.
“It’s not him,” they would say, in a somewhat disappointed tone.
“Maybe it was not Ogbanje after all. Or it finally got tired and left for another home,” women discussed, returning from one such false alarm.
“Ogbanje does not tire,” an old man donning a red fez with a missing tassel muttered, drawing his toes with white chalk.
“Exactly, the very thing I wanted to tell them, Maduka. Ogbanje does not leave that easily. At least not without a fight, not without a clear plan of the next family to haunt,” another quipped, adding more anxiety into an already troubling mystery.
“Its favourite path is to be recycled in one family until the woman dies of bitterness or her usefulness in giving life wanes.”
“The other route,” resumed Maduka, now smoking a pipe, “Involves transferring it to another family expecting new-borns or nursing new-borns.”
“These people urging me to accept Daberechi’s offer are Ogbanje’s hired means of transport.”
It is this alternative theory that worries Obiajulu the most. And for that, he swears to keep the wet nurse away. These people urging me to accept Daberechi’s offer are Ogbanje’s hired means of transport, Obiajulu, a widower, tells himself.
He watches Isinachi, two-months-old, and hopes he will survive. After all, whatever does not kill you strengthens you; this too, he hopes, Isinachi understands.
This, the repeatedly instilled fear of the unknown, supersedes any present urge for common sense; not even Daberechi’s pleas can sway Obiajulu. Helplessly watching a suffering Isinachi, Daberechi pulls the edges of her long, slightly tattered boubou together, tucking them between her legs; she is drowning in sobs.
The pangs that hit her the morning she was wheeled into the white man’s clinic, for the first time, having developed childbirth complications, came back. That morning, when Ekemma, the midwife, rubbed Daberechi’s tummy for the third time, Ekemma concluded she was not ready. Daberechi, however, was writhing in pain. Frightened and though against her usual practice, Ekemma asked Daberechi to be taken to the new clinic nearby. Perhaps Ekemma, too, was now convinced the present abnormal labour was a still incensed Ogbanje’s making; she did not want to stand on the evil spirit’s path.
“It’s clear she has rhesus issue,” the white doctor spoke to his interpreter, a native nurse who, in turn, passed the information to Daberechi the best way she could. The nurse handed over the smiling Abeo, covered in a soft, woollen wrapper to Daberechi.
“But, with these tablets and the injection, your baby will survive. Next time you are heavy again, come for another dose.” The nurse did her translation part unequivocally. Daberechi’s husband did not believe her, the doctor’s words, when she later told him the baby would survive. He chose the saner path; dismissed her.
A leaf does not resist the flow of a river; it is carried downstream. However, Obiajulu, now a tiny leaf against this stream of sense, clings on a floating log of myths. Will the centre hold?
Daberechi – for now – is the only suckling mother in this clan, or somewhat whose milk is affluent enough to be amicably shared between two hungry babes.
But will the secret, the truth rather, Daberechi holds be believed were she to open up? Will she be permitted to challenge this tree of a belief that has its roots watered by successive generations of strong-willed men? Will the toxic maleness sweeping over the land give room for this little voice that owns the cure for the present fear of this unknown, dreaded but non-existent Ogbanje?
Will, for once, mothers, the true partakers of childbirth pains, hush their supportive voices (or is it reverence) of this male blindness and lend a listening ear to one of their own?
- Ogbanje – a term among the Igbo of Nigeria used to describe an evil spirit that would intentionally plague a family with misfortune. Typically, before the affected child, Ogbanje, gets to puberty, it was believed it would deliberately die then get reborn into the same family, repeating the cycle as many times as it wished, causing the family grief.