Mama used to make sure we prayed every morning before she came down with the nameless disease. She would beat and bang on our locked door with a frenzy such that it was impossible for even a log to sleep through it. I don’t know why we kept locking it day after day because we stood up ourselves to open it though amidst grumbles and sometimes tears especially when we had stayed up till very late, peeping through the spaces in the walls at the prostitute next door grunting and sweating as man after man graced her bed.
When she had succeeded in rousing us, she made us brush our teeth, saying only over her dead body would we talk to our heavenly father with morning halitosis. She made sure we brushed twice always, the first round underwent inspection which none of the six of us ever passed. She said it was to wake us properly, and that she wanted to hear retching noises in the second. No retching, no coming out of the small badly lit bathroom crowded with all six of us making varying disgusting retching sounds, spitting phlegm and toothpaste foam at each other’s feet. Not a single one of us ever had bad breath, God forbid, where would such a terrible thing come from when we peeled our gums and tongues twice every single day? Not even when Kelechi at fifteen was dying with AIDS did his breath stink. He picked up his bones from the bed in the free clinic down the road where mama worked as a cleaner at five o’ clock every single day and retched till the nurses came running and the other patients cursed him in their morphine-induced sleep.
The prayers every morning those days were plagued with nods and mumbles except for mama and the unlucky person leading the praise and worship songs. Mama’s voice would shake the very foundation of our wooden shack and we would jerk out of sleep and bob our heads like fish out of water, slipping in and out of consciousness according to the tempo of the songs. Then we would cast demons and principalities and familiar spirits by speaking in tongues. Mama monitored our mouths as hers moved at alarming speed, so we spoke. Biola uttered Igbo gibberish mixing it with Yoruba while Yusuf spoke heavily adulterated Hausa which always earned him a pat on the head. The rest of us relied on consonants punctuated with vowels and she wouldn’t notice. Not because she didn’t want to but because she was too busy sweating and thrashing all around as she hit our sparse furniture atop where we perched to give her more room. The furniture with their sharp splint ends where they had broken and the nails that held them in place jutting out and tearing her ebony skin, the scars now numerous and interlocked like a badly drawn map. We only stopped praying when she stopped moving. That was when we knew that she had overcome, when we knew the demons had left and the principalities and powers had taken their leave. The knot of her wrapper always came undone no matter how well she tied it before the sessions and Ochuko and Emmanuel would cover her with their tattered shirts till she woke up from sleep filled with visions which she would explain in full details to remind us that the Lord was kinder and more powerful than evil spirits. Those evil spirits that made mama’s husband chase her out of the house because his mother had died soon after she and mama had a quarrel concerning the lack of salt in mama’s efo riro soup. They had both screamed at each other, mama’s husband’s mother accusing her of serving tasteless food to her son which she didn’t blame her for anyways because she came from a forsaken tribe where their women were just men with breasts who bewitched men into marrying them and mama retorted that anybody who wanted her to induce hypertension in her husband would die first. It happened the very next morning that mama’s husband’s mother did not rise. Witch, her husband had screamed, his kind eyes now hard as he tossed her belongings to the streets. Mama couldn’t go back to her parents. They had told her she had ostracized herself and become an outcast by marrying a man whose eyes watered when he spoke, a lazy man who didn’t have a farm but had the shameless job of making and mending clothes, who laughed and clapped his hands too much, why didn’t she just marry a woman instead? Those same evil spirits that caused a drunken taxi driver to hit her on the night she was chased out with her box of clothes on her head as she walked aimlessly on the streets. She had woken up in the hospital down the road where the matron had taken pity upon her after hearing her story and offered her the cleaning job. Three weeks and a cast after, she still couldn’t walk and that was when mama made the vow for her legs, the vow that brought us into her life. From Kelechi whose mother ran away and left him pink and screaming in the hospital after she discovered they both had the incurable disease to Yusuf who was part of a gang of hungry adolescent thieves that came to raid the hospital pantry late one night when mama had stayed behind to help with a worrisome patient. The very same evil spirits that caused the government to demolish the hospital during the construction of drainage on the street, the same drainage we had devoted a morning prayer session for to be attended to as the last rainy season had left us with guinea worms crawling out of all our orifices. Mama said the demons and spirits followed her because they knew she was a threat to them. They wanted to kill her with problems but she would stand strong, raise us to become warriors and show the Lord that she was worthy of a gold crown when she got to heaven.
All these happened years ago, and I am now married with my own children. I do not know where my four siblings live, we never ask for each other’s addresses or phone numbers when we go back home once every year just like now. We never bring our families because it is our alone time with mama and even the full-time help leaves. Kelechi’s tombstone is in the bedroom where we all sleep and for a whole week we are teenagers again though this time, mama is too old to rouse us for devotion. She doesn’t even know who we are half the time. She asks everyday when we go to greet her in her room, my doctor friend had said it was inevitable when I told him of our prayer sessions years ago. Your children, we always tell her. My womb is with the Lord, she would retort in our language, presented as a holy sacrifice, I never pushed or experienced birth pangs, who are you liars? And I, the eldest always give the final argument, we are the children of your kind heart and compassion.
We have awoken today and mama is dead. Rock solid and cold on her bed with her slackened breasts spread over her abdomen. There are no tears, what for? She has finally defeated the evil spirits, principalities and familiar spirits as we all intercede for others in places of prayer and we have all declined requests and pleas to lead congregations. One after the other we get our toothbrushes and file into the bathroom, now covered in tiles and fitted with a sink.
It’s time to talk to our heavenly father.
God bless Nigeria and will help bring back our girls.