HELL BECOMES HER
By Kenechukwu Obi
Saturday/Sunday, June 13-14, 2009.
Footsteps rattled in the building very close to ours, and seemed to be headed for the room in which I was just about to take my pound of flesh. Then I stopped to wonder if anyone had discovered my plot, and was rushing in to stop me. Sudden rush of adrenalin compelled me to trot quietly into the empty wardrobe that was beside the bed on which my target lay, sleeping. The whole attention I could muster was heaped at the only door that ushered entrance into the room, as I waited to hear someone open it. And when that did not happen in ten minutes, I concluded that apart from my target, I was all alone in the room.
I left the wardrobe in a most gentle way. Not even the faintest of sounds could escape to betray my ominous presence in the room. One would hear a pin drop but not my prowl towards my target. I don’t know how I came to be so good at this, but hatred certainly brought me this far.
Her appearance beamed so much innocence. So did sleep make her. I was not going to allow that dilute my resolve to accomplish my mission. Her breathing was gentle and exuded so much inner peace. She was just a perfect epitome of a sleeping child savouring a peaceful atmosphere, but very unaware of the unpalatable so close to ripping her apart. I thought the scenery was one any artist would be dying to capture on canvass. The pillow in my hands was by now about to be held on her face and held in place with every chunk of my strength, till the deed was done. I would have been dead through suicide by the time you would finish reading this and get to know why I had to act the way I did. I guess I would be very glad in death, knowing that you would use your position as the editor of the largest circulating daily newspaper to get this published.
Brutality that our people have long called tradition had so much stolen their sense of decency, hygiene and humanity. I can tell you precisely when I made up my mind to do what I had to do as my protest against it. I had reasoned that if every girl that got caught in it would do as I did, that womanhood would come to earn some respect from those who always use tradition to brutalise it.
My mother who was widowed after I had lived only for two months on earth, returned home from our village, which was near Calabar in Southern Nigeria. That afternoon was full of scorching heat from the sun. And my mother told me my grandmother wanted to see me in the village.
“You have to prepare and leave next week. Your grandmother is so fond of you.” She hinted again. I was excited, it being the second time I would have a chance to travel to my village since I was born. The excitement in me was so big that I forgot to ask a question I should have asked. Can you guess the question correctly? I’m sure you won’t want to do that because by now, even though I can’t see you, but I want to believe you are already too hungry for this bomb-of-a-story that is just commencing to unfold. Relax your nerves for it. It is my pleasure to release this ‘bomb’ as long as it won’t blast you out of existence.
I forgot to ask what exactly my grandmother wanted to see me for. Excitement carried me away. My mother gave me some money for my journey as well as some advice on how to conduct myself properly on getting to the village.
“Please be obedient to everybody there. Be a respectful girl,” she said to me.
“You are saying that I should do whatever I’m asked to do there?” I responded.
“Yes, Angelina. I know you can be very stubborn atimes but be very obedient to people there.”
“Even if I’m being asked to lie down to be killed?” My mother laughed.
“Nobody is going to kill you,” she enthused afterwards.
Please don’t even for a second think that my mother lacked some kind of description. Her height can very well be described as tall, while her flat nose and hairy skinny bow-legs lend unprecedented credence to the scientific claim that man evolved from apes.
It was welcomed severally when I arrived at my village. My grandmother gave me something to eat and some water to drink. I was relaxed and beamed gladness that I had made the journey.
My grandmother was so excited to have me around. She was full of smiles and laughter that exposed the fact that the total number of teeth in her mouth was no longer thirty-two. Excitement also drove her to keep telling her contemporaries that her granddaughter had come in from Lagos. They all came to see me, each giving me a hug amidst laughter and joy that enabled me to notice that they too had a problem keeping their thirty-two teeth. Old age must have a way of knocking-off women’s teeth, turning them to hags that could cause one instant convulsions, I thought. I was like a young queen in the midst of the local people. They savoured all my stories about Lagos.
“If you get to live in Lagos, you will like it,” I concluded.
My stories left a lot of girls that came to my grandmother’s place to listen, wishing they were resident in Lagos.
“Oh! My daughter! You have grown to this big size. That is great. We shall soon be expecting you to get married. Is this how Lagos makes children grow so fast?” My grandmother kept saying as she took me around the next day, introducing me to more people. I had by now got tired of being shown around. I was angry a bit but I pretended to be pleased all along.
“You will accompany me to the next village called Kana,” my grandmother said to me two days later. “I want to buy things there.” She did not mention what she wanted to buy and I did not bother to ask her. To me, Kana provided a chance to savour some more rustic views that Lagos had never offered me.
I noticed before my grandmother and I left for Kana that some local people around starred at me. Stares that said, ‘if only she knows what is coming to her’. I didn’t give a deep thought to what exactly their stares could mean, as I believed they were just admiring the fine dress I wore. Grandmother bought nothing when we got to Kana. She took me into a big compound instead, where we were received by a very fat dark complexioned woman. Though the woman was beautiful, her size was not to my liking. Her legs and hands could almost be said to be the same in size with that of a matured cow. She was just irritatingly full of body fat. She exuded a strange air of authority that made me uncomfortable. I sensed danger in my surrounding as my gaze fell on the fat woman who could well pass for a bull. My grandmother greeted her. She turned to look at me.
“Is this the girl?” She asked my grandmother. My grandmother’s nod was in the affirmative. Fear dawned on me. I began to believe that I was brought to Kana for rituals. And I saw that finding an escape route in the compound wasn’t going to be easy. Five hefty young men were by now blocking the only gate into the compound whose surrounding walls were quite high.
“Are you a virgin?” The fat woman asked me.
I had to throw an enquiring glance at my grandmother. My glance sought to know what warranted the question.
“Can’t you answer?” My grandmother thundered. I told them I was a virgin.
“Better say the truth so that we shall know how to proceed,” grunted the fat woman. I told them again that I was a virgin, not really knowing exactly what to do. Do you know what I did next? I’m sure you have not started feeling sorry for me yet. If you have, then it is premature. I did nothing else but look on, not knowing what my fate was at that time. Like a sacrificial lamb waiting for the appointed moment, you may suggest.
My grandmother took me a bit away from the fat woman and aggressively demanded the truth, asking again if I had slept with any man before. And once again, my answer was no.
“Why the question and what are we doing here?” I queried my grandmother. Her reply sounded most ridiculous. But what kept me going was that I gave my mother my word not to be disobedient.
“We have only come for this woman to make you beautiful by seeing your body,” my grandmother answered. Then I was later taken into a room where I was asked to undress completely. This I did very reluctantly anyway. Please, don’t ever ask me what they saw when I was out of clothes. Just use your imagination. The fat woman questioned why I undressed reluctantly before her, if I had not slept with a man before. I was shy, and also because I didn’t understand what my stripping naked was going to be for. Then I started to cry. The fat woman went ahead to invite a man that could easily pass for a baboon. The hairs on his hands alone put so much fear into me and got me more reluctant to comply with further directives.
‘We are all here to make you look beautiful enough for a man to desire you for marriage,” said the fat woman. I suddenly looked for my grandmother out of fear, but she was no where to be seen in the room. She just disappeared, leaving me at the mercy of a group of people who were not making sense at all.
I was directed to lie on my back and part my legs. This I did because I was not told that a sharp object was coming. ‘The baboon’ pounced on me and held my legs apart. A scream escaped from my mouth when I saw the fat woman approaching my parted legs with a new sharp razor blade.
‘Shut up!” She screamed. I kept screaming and trying hard to escape, but the ‘baboon’ would not let me. The fat woman began to massage my clitoris, so hard that it hurt. She then asked me never to mention death during or immediately after the proceeding. She also explained why.
“If you do say that, then you will die because ghosts of some girls who died doing this are around to take away any girl that mentions death here.”
The fat woman sliced off a bit of my clitoris with the razor blade. What do you think I did? Come on, think. I ran away? Is that what you guess I did? That would be a very wrong guess. What was the ‘baboon’ there for? It was of course to forestall such. I could only scream, wail and wriggle in excruciating pain. The blood that gushed out and coated my pubic region was cleaned with cotton wool dipped in what I suspected to be local gin. It really hurt.
“Congratulations!” Everyone in the room started saying to me after all the cleaning was done.
Those who had brought savagery to my private part now became full of smiles and pouring encomiums on me while I still cried. They congratulated me especially for being a virgin and for becoming from then on, a real woman. I uttered no word, but hated them all, as the congratulatory messages kept pouring out. What a tradition! I know you won’t agree with it for the sake of your sisters alone. Please I am not trying in any way to suggest that you are a self-centred person. Protect them as much as possible from this demonic tradition that has permeated the fabric of our society. Please protect them from this unhygienic, barbaric and inhumane female genital mutilation.
My ordeal did not see its end with the evil mutilation completed. It was from one practice to another.
“You will have to go to your fattening room,” said my grand mother who appeared after my private part had been abused by most unwanted persons. I didn’t care to respond to her comment. My stabbing glare just nailed her as she pretended not to be partly behind my ordeal. “It is important that you put on some flesh so that prospective suitors will really appreciate you better,” she went on to say again. I just kept mute and tried to endure excruciating pain. My pubic region was just aching. It seemed as if fire so hot and as wild as those of California was burning right there.
The fattening room I was taken to had no bed. I wondered where I would be sleeping on. There were bamboo sticks on the left side of the floor. It was later that I was informed that the bamboo sticks would be my bed for the period that I would occupy the fattening room. I was told the sticks were meant to relax my bones and help in getting me fat. This did not make sense to me again. A number of women worked in the fattening house made up of lots of rooms. And one of them always came to rub my body with palm oil each morning, after I had had my bath. What then followed was food. I had problems finishing large quantities of starchy food always given to me especially boiled plantain. This was meant to fatten me. I found them nauseating, and this incurred me the wrath of the law that reigned supreme in the fattening house. No left-over food, no matter what.
“I will beat you! I will hit your head with a stick if you don’t finish your food!” These were threats from women who worked in the fattening house. Women so fat that one would believe their weights can push down mountains. I had to eat more than I would normally do. It got to a point that I thought my stomach was going to burst one night. The only difference the copious feeding made in me was that the size of my faeces gradually began to grow in stature, and was growing to make the size of a hill. I was not getting fat, contrary to expectations. The frustration of the women whose duty it was to see that I got fat then began to grow. My case presented a tough challenge them. It called their proven expertise to question. They all eventually had no other choice than to become very angry with me, when I even seemed to be getting thinner with more food. It was not just working. It got to a point when I had to be expelled from the fattening house. And this was after the frustrated women had finished raining all sorts of abuses on me.
‘Leave! Hurry and leave this place! What is this? Are you sure you are human? You can’t be normal! Leave so that we can attend to other women that will respond to treatment. You must be a ghost that took human form and came to put our efforts to ridicule. Please leave and never come back. Where is that old woman that brought this thing here? This evil creature! Please come and take your daughter! She is bad for our business.”
There were ten of us that resided in the fattening rooms for two weeks. All got fat but me. I was glad the women failed, but had one more problem to contend with. A very horrible stench was beginning to ooze out of my pubic region. I feared the risk of getting seriously infected. And I wondered if it were any crime to be a woman in the first place. A woman born to bear the brunt of horrendous customs. Tears coursed down my cheeks. That meant nothing else but that I cried out my tortured heart.
I did not say a word to my grandmother on our way back from Kana, being full of hatred for her. I had to sit with my buttocks inclined to an angle. You should know why now. And I don’t wish to be asked what angle because I was not there with a protractor to measure it. Well, maybe twenty degrees or thirty. I had a big shawl that had a combination of blue, red and white colours tied to my head in such a way that my ears were covered too. The fat woman had recommended that, saying it was to prevent air from entering through my ears and down to my private part, contaminating what had been done there. Women in the bus noticed from my swollen eyes and the way I sat, that I was returning from a circumcision centre. They did not waste time in showering congratulatory words on my grandmother and I.
“You are a real woman now,” said one of them to me.
“Now prospective suitors will be rushing in to seek your hand in marriage,” said another to me, full of smiles as she recounted her own day. All her stories did not impress me one bit. I was so much in a hurry to return to Lagos and let my mother get a piece of my mind for conniving with my grandmother to butcher me.
“It is our tradition,” my mother uttered to justify her act. “I went through it too,” she further said. But she did not know that as far as I was concerned, she had given up her right to life. I was just then waiting for the gruelling pain inflicted on me to subside sufficiently. My mind was already made up.
Humanity could not stop me from strapping the pillow so hard at her face. I kept telling myself that she couldn’t be the woman that carried me for nine months in her tummy and bore all the pangs of labour that proceeded full gestation period of the pregnancy that yielded me.
“Go to hell!” I dismissed voices of my conscience that were bold enough to dare to stop me. She struggled to breath, but could find no air, as I watched life she once had slip away. Arthur, I had to do it. No regrets at all.
Kenechukwu Obi is a Nigerian writer and poet. He is the author of the novel A Bond That Crumbled Tradition.
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