Maame’s three daughters were healers. They could tell which leaf cured poison and how to deal with a snake bite. And because death is life’s concubine, they also knew how to take life – swiftly, with a lot of kindness; or slowly, painfully, the death in death. The three sisters, Thambe, Rumi and Osaza, straddled the boundaries between life and death under the watchful eyes of the matriarch, Maame. But when Maame died, it was her granddaughter, Kumi, to whom she bequeathed the gift: Kumi could see ghosts.
The first time she did, she was eight and had been playing tempe with girls her age. It had been a lazy Saturday evening, one of those days when the sun was in no hurry to get home. The sound of the children playing mixed with the clang of pots as mothers made dinner, and the voices of the choristers from the church across the street. It formed such a harmonious melody that you could almost hear the earth sigh in satisfaction. At some point Kumi paused, and with a quizzical look on her face shouted across to her mother,
“Mummy, where is Maame going to, barefoot?”
The compound went quiet. Everyone turned towards the open gate: no one was there. The adults threw each other knowing looks; Maame had died the night before.
One of the women in the compound then cried,
“Nnemdio, ugwudio, our mother is returned.”
The cacophony was picked up by the other women. They formed a circle around Kumi and danced, singing in unison. They moved gracefully, even the younger ones who have never had to welcome an nmuo before. It was the first rite to welcome the nmuo, the bridge between death and life. Many others would follow.
For two years Kumi studied under the three sisters. The sisters found it hard getting someone that young to understand the enormous responsibilities the nmuo carried. It was in fact the first time an nmuo was reincarnating as a child. However, with Kumi, there was the perfect blending of the old and the young. She had a level of intuition that was beyond her age, and with it a trust so pure only a child could possess. The sisters molded her innocence into a weapon – where there was supposed to be ignorance, there was instead an unwavering commitment to learning; where she was supposed to be naive, she had a stable trust in the infinite goodness in man. The sisters taught her stability, for she who would be a bridge needs balance in order to be able to carry her weight, and the weight of others.
Kumi used to like building mud houses. Days after it rained, especially, she would put her foot on the moist soil and pile sand on it. Then when it caked, she would slide her foot out and the space would be the room. She would build the compound by making fences with her palm. She took so much care building her house that on some days the other children would be done with theirs and run home and the darkness and silence would creep closer and keep her company. Her mother would sometimes have to drag her in, and she would be shaking, a little from the cold and a lot from excitement.
But when she got the gift, Kumi aged, in a way that had nothing to do with numbers. Some days she tried to capture her innocence, to be young again, to play in the sand, but then she realized she was too far gone. Slowly, her body forgot how to be a child.
At the end of the two years when she cut all of her hair and gave away all of her worldly possession, there was no trace of childhood left. She had become the nmuo.
Thambe, Kumi’s mother, was a believer. She was the kind of child who is born in a family every other hundred years. The kind who throws herself unquestionably into the family craft. Thambe’s love for her craft was one that was pure, and her devotion so true it teetered on the edge of fanaticism.
When Maame was alive, Thambe used to disagree with her over how things ought to be done. Thambe believed the nmuo was first a political office before a spiritual one. Maame disagreed. She only ministered to people when she felt the need to. As she declined in years, she grew steadily wary of the entire process and hardly ever ministered to anyone.
Thambe had not been wrong – the times, indeed, were changing. Formerly, where people revered the nmuo, there was now skepticism. There were even open acts of defiance, first, with the erection of the city hospital, where the young doctor who had studied abroad declared that he had come to replace all the ‘quacks’ in the village. He left no one in doubt as to who the quacks were. Then a church had been built directly opposite their compound. The priest had insisted that that had been the choicest piece of land available, but everyone knew he had been spoiling for a fight.
When Kumi manifested her gift, Thambe was first insulted as to how her mother skipped a generation: everyone had expected her to be the next nmuo. But then, she had been satisfied that the gift rested in her house. After the two years of initiation, she swung into action. She created special days where a few elders sat in with Kumi. Kumi cut a figure, her lithe body swaddled in white, sitting on the floor, her bald head close to the grey ones of the elders. The elders loved Kumi. She handled her gift in a way that it didn’t look like a threat, like she didn’t realize how much power she wielded.
Other days Thambe would arrange for politicians to come in, and on those evenings no one else was allowed. The men left the biggest donations.
People travelled long distances to see her. Thambe regulated who came to see her and when. Sometimes, long lines would stretch from their street to the next one, and on such days it would seem like a festival was going on, a pilgrimage of some sorts. Vendors opened shops along that road selling food and drinks.
Kumi’s gift was spectacular. She could speak with anyone, as long as they were dead. With just one touch she could trace family histories, send a reprimand or an assurance from a loved one.
But for all her practicality, Thambe also knew to protect her daughter from skeptics, because, although the nmuo had been around for as long as they could remember, there were those who still doubted. They made up fake histories and tried to get in. Thambe went through the list with a fine tooth comb; she allowed only those whom she could get from.
One day a journalist managed to slip by her. As soon as he was seated, he flipped out his camera and started yelling at Kumi. The room was soon filled with spectators. Kumi watched him, a smile playing on her lips. When he got his camera rolling, he barked his first question,
“If you claim to see ghosts, tell me, what do they look like? Do they have two heads? A tail? Do they walk through walls?”
He looked around, making sure he had the audience he wanted.
“Stand a little to your right please.”
“Huh?” The journalist asked.
“Move. A little to your right.”
The smile did not leave Kumi’s face. The man moved awkwardly to his right.
“There,” She pointed at the man’s shadow on the cement floor. “That’s what a ghost looks like. They are extensions of ourselves. The journeys we were not able to finish. They are here and there, in between, hanging in the balance. They are not as clear as we are, but they are us, nonetheless.”
There was a chill in the room. There was no doubt about the presence of the ethereal. Kumi let the silence breath for a few minutes, when she spoke, everyone leaned in to listen.
“I cannot describe any more than that. I would have to draw you into that place, and, I don’t know if that is possible, or if you can stand it.”
“What do they want? Retribution?” The journalist asked.
“What do you seek for yourself? Why do you hang that rope round your neck all day?”
“The truth?” He phrased the statement like a question.
“There, you have it!” There was indulgence in her smile. “The dead seek the truth too, to tell the truth, that is.”
“You are not afraid of it?” His camera was down by his side.
She gave a small laugh, “Who is afraid of their own shadow, or anyone else’s?”
Thambe smiled from where she watched. This had gone more beautifully than she had anticipated. When the journalist ran the story, he gave a glowing account of his experience, calling Kumi the modern day Nostradamus. The number of people who visited doubled.
But like most accounts, what was left out was greater than what was written. No one mentioned what toll the experience had on Kumi. That sometimes she saw things she could not say, things that made her so scared that she would often wake in the middle of the night, shaking.
Whenever the nightmares started, Thambe would stand at the door with her head pressed on it, riding the waves with Kumi – their breath synchronized, their fears mirrored. In that way she offered comfort. She would wait till Kumi got calm, then tiptoe away. Kumi never complained. She would always appear the next day immaculately dressed, her head shaved, awaiting the first visitor.
One night however, Kumi’s strangled cries were so piercing that it tore through Thambe. She could not bear it. She crashed through the door and scooped Kumi into her arms. She held her while she shook, her shoulders quivered and she thrashed around like she was possessed by a demon. It was if the secrets she held sheltered in her bosom threatened to burst out. Kumi’s eyes flew open and she stared incomprehensibly at her mother,
“Make it go away. Make them go away, Maami.”
“Ssh, it will be all right my child. Sleep,” Thambe whispered.
But even she shivered too. There was something evil lurking in that room. It peeked from the dark corners of the room and settled itself on the girl’s tiny shoulders. Thambe increased the brightness of the lantern and pulled her daughter to herself.
The next morning when Thambe would ask her how she felt, she would reply fine in a way that said, “What else can I be?” They never discussed the events of the night before and Kumi started locking her door before sleeping.
The headaches began mildly. It was after Kumi ministered to the mother of a little boy whose father had strangled him.
Initially Thambe turned the woman away, but she kept coming. Thambe found the woman unsettling. It was in the way she held herself delicately, walking with her spine straight, her steps measured, as if a wrong step would crack her open. It was in the way she repeated everything she heard, Oh she is sleeping, okay, I’ll wait. You mean it is not my turn yet? Okay. She did not doubt – either she didn’t know how to, or she couldn’t.
Eventually, Thambe allowed Kumi see her. The woman came in earnest, her wrapper tied hastily. She sat across from Kumi, folded her hands on her laps and stared vacantly ahead. Kumi smiled to encourage her, but she did not utter a word. For several minutes they were that way and Kumi was about to leave, thinking that maybe the woman didn’t have anything to say.
“Can I see him?”
Kumi was startled. Then, picking her words carefully, she replied,
“I’m not sure. That’s not how it works.”
“Please, I would do anything to see him one more time. Anything.”
Kumi stared into her eyes and saw something infinitely broken in her. She would never be whole again. The love for a dead child would keep her tethered, never fully free.
Kumi took the woman’s hands and placed it on both sides of her head. She closed her eyes. There was an inward gasp as a wail escaped her. When Kumi opened her eyes the woman’s face was awash with tears. She was huddled up to one side. She was crying and smiling and laughing all at once. In between spurts, she said,
“Did you see him? He is so happy, so full of light.”
Kumi could only nod. She was crying too. That was when the headaches began.
Thambe boiled pots of herbs for her, but none worked. After sometime, Kumi began to cut down on her sessions in order to rest. Then one day she slumped. She was taken to the community hospital. The doctor gave Thambe a once over and asked her if her herbs had lost their healing touch or whether it was that the physician, truly, could not heal herself. Thambe did not respond. The doctor’s laughter rang out all over the hospital, but he began to carry out tests. With each one, he emerged more confused, the smug expression on his face soon gave way to a frown. He slaved day and night running tests, getting false starts and beginning again. Kumi bore each new prodding with barely a sigh. She still made sure each morning her head was freshly shaved and refused to wear anything else but her white dress.
Finally, one afternoon, the doctor burst into the room waving a sheet of paper, “It’s a tumor!” He kept shouting.
He came to a stop by the foot of Kumi’s bed, panting. Thambe took the sheet of paper from him and studied it for a while. The doctor kept silent, waiting for her to ask the question. After a while Thambe cleared her throat and asked,
“So, what does it show?”
The doctor ceremoniously took back the paper from her. Whipped out his glasses, and after studying it like he was just seeing it for the first time, said,
“It’s a tumor. It is embedded in her subdural cortex. That’s why we had not seen it earlier.”
“Oh.” Thambe sounded like it made perfect sense to her.
Unable to mask his excitement, the young doctor started reeling off charts and experiments. When he finished Thambe asked,
“So, what now?”
“A surgery, of course. But that won’t be performed by me. We will have to move her to the city. There are specialists there.”
“Thank you,” Thambe said. There was a new light in Thambe’s eyes. It was a mixture of admiration, and respect.
“One last thing,” the doctor added from the door, “the tumor has been there for a long time…” He paused.
“Okay?” Thambe inquired.
He turned to look at Kumi’s tired face.
“I think it may have been the reason for her… erm… hallucinations.”
“I see,” Thambe said, the iciness had returned to her tone. The doctor stood there for a while but Thambe did not look at him again. He turned and left.
When they were alone Kumi asked Thambe,
“What does this mean? Will I die? Will the visions stop?”
“I don’t know. Do you want them to?”
Kumi sighed in response.
“There are so many of them here. So many. It would be such a relief.”
Thambe did not need to ask who they were.
“I’m sure you will be fine,” She said instead.
Kumi gave a wan smile,
“No, I will not. I’ve not been fine for a long time now, Maami. Did you notice? Do you know that I lose a little of myself when I peer into the past. That it is like walking backwards through a life that isn’t yours. Do you even care?”
“Don’t be like that, Kumi, life isn’t that simple.”
Kumi was silent.
“This is how the world is, some people have to suffer pain more than others my child.”
“I know, Maami. I know about pain, I know about life and I definitely know about death. I understand.”
In the coming weeks, various other tests were carried out. The specialists agreed to come from the city to perform the surgery in the village clinic, much to the delight of the young doctor. Hospitals donated their equipment and offered assistance in a bid to take part in the surgery: someone had let it slip that the tumor may have been the source of Kumi’s gift. Doctors came in from the nearby towns. Each day, they offered ideas on the best way the tumor could be removed. The doctors were made to pitch their ideas to Thambe and the young doctor, although it was the doctor who made the final selection. Thambe only had one request; the doctor had to be a believer.
The morning of the surgery, Kumi’s hands were steady as she shaved her head one more time. As the anaesthetic was put on her, she was smiling as she felt, for perhaps in a long time, the slowing of the thud in her head.
An hour into the surgery, the lead surgeon realized something was terribly wrong. He was staring at the place where the tumor was supposed to be, nothing was there. It was as if it disappeared. The different images from the scans were compared, still, nothing. They closed her off and attempted to resuscitate her. Perhaps it was the amount of time they left her under. Or it was that the poking around messed up something in her brain, but when they closed her up, Kumi did not wake up.
The next morning, a young girl followed her mother around as she mopped the hospital floors. It was the woman’s first day on the job, and unfortunately, her daughter had had a fever so she had been forced to take her along. She kept tugging her mother to look at a particular direction where a young girl wearing white was walking out of the hospital, barefoot.
About the Author
Chizoma Emeka Joshua loves the Lord, fried plantains, and his sisters; exactly in that order. He believes we can change the world, one written piece at a time. His work has been published on Expound magazine and africanwriter.com. He currently studies Law at a university in Nigeria.