By Mujahid Ameen Lilo
We called our stepmom a witch. She looked like one. Her little eyes that looked like a cat’s with their foreboding stares, her prominent cheekbones and large lips set in a dark pimpled face. In the mornings, she looked angry and uglier, her eyes filled with dark clouds. She always looked that way after waking as though she had fought and lost a war in her sleep. She liked to spend days in her room, eating peppery food that made her nose run and her eyes red, coughing. And when she laughed, it was a laugh like that of Ayyana, the old woman all Dadin Kowa people called a witch. An ugly laughter coming from a place full of a love for malice.
But when she cried, everyone ran. It was so otherworldly, that cry. The long wail that announced that her jinns were aroused. She would slump and start speaking Chinese. We had heard of jinns that made their hosts speak Arabic. In fact, there was a young lady in the outskirts of Dadin Kowa whose jinns spoke Hindu, which was understandable owing to the lady’s extreme obsession with Indian films. But not Chinese. Young sheikhs fled. Only Mallam Musa was able to stand the jinns. Everyone knew he was such a liar, though. So, when he claimed to have understood the Chinese of the jinn and explained that the jinn was a polygamist and so wasn’t opposed to her marriage with dad, only jealous, we just nodded and later laughed.
That was how Hassana and I began to call her a witch.
We thought it was funny, calling her a witch. It was a break from our grief. Until her witchery started manifesting in the way she maltreated our younger siblings. Subtly, she began to slip off her sheep’s clothing.
There were whispers in Dadin Kowa about us. How they also suspected she was a witch. How she had bewitched dad to marry her soon after mom’s death. How she was with him because of his wealth. How she was maltreating us. Hassana and I whispered in the house, too. How she was breaking us. How we were afraid of her, not really her, but her Chinese jinn. How fearful we were of a future with her.
Also, I had voices in my head which I believed were Satan’s and never listened to. I said salat to chase the devil away. He was so persistent in his whispers, urging me to suicide, that I began to really ponder on them, what with the ever unfolding of events getting out of hands. It would only give the witch gratification that she had succeeded in pushing us to our graves. She had to pay for her evil.
I returned home in haste after Asr prayer to get dressed for the football match we were having. The house was empty because everyone had gone to Islamiyya. I, too, would have gone, if not for the important match. I heard voices, loud and feminine, from the parlour. It was the witch and her friends. I hissed and entered.
She sat on the floor, legs spread. And in between her legs were nylons of the ‘kayan mata’ she ordered from Zamfara and sold to Dadin Kowa women. Medicines that I once heard her saying, tightened and sweetened a woman’s parts.
She was surrounded by a company of women who had yellow faces betrayed by their bleaching creams. They wore wigs and chewed gums. I recognised Madinah, the dark-lipped, notorious Dadin Kowa whore. They talked vulgar and loud.
“This one is called make-my-husband-scream and this is make-my-husband-faint.”
“Don’t you have the one that’ll make me a virgin again?” asked one of the women. “I want the one that will make him thrust until he gets tired and run away.”
I hissed once more and left. I shook my head. Here was our house that mom had some sheikhs read the whole Qur’an in before we moved in.
Dressed in my jersey, I sat in the compound wearing my sports shoes. I noticed a shadow and looked up. It was one of the women, her hijab removed to reveal her uncovered save for a bra she was touching. Her stomach had wrinkled skin, her breast small.
“Young man,” she said, sticking out her tongue, “help me strap this,” She cupped her breast in her hands.
I stood up, picked my other shoe, and fled out of the house, cursing under my breath.
Standing outside the gate, I clicked my tongue, angry that I’d been aroused.
We came back from computer school to find the house silent. We started having computer classes in the months we spent at home, waiting for admission. That day, after closing, we had visited a friend of mom who always complained that we had forsaken her since mom died.
Tired and famished, we settled in the settee. It was 3pm. I yawned and called out my brother, Abdul.
The kids emerged from their room. Salima who had too much temper for a child of ten started throwing tantrums.
“You all left us without food since breakfast.”
She opened the show and the others joined her.
“We had to eat this, this!” they said, showing us the packs of raw, spiced Indomie they had been eating.
“Yusra has been crying since. I’m tired. I need mom,” Hanif said, bursting into tears.
A great sadness descended on me. I started boiling inside.
Hassana shouted, “What the fuck! This woman didn’t cook for you before leaving?”
She took her phone and dialled dad’s number. There was no hello, no daddy, she just broke into a speech. “I can’t believe this woman left these kids without food since morning. How inconsiderate! What’s her use in this house?”
“But, daddy, if it were her kids, would she have done so?”
After the call, she looked at me.
“What did he say?”
“His usual preaching of honesty. He said he had transferred money to your account. Go to a POS and cash out so we can cook.”
“Honestly, I am tired. Is that all he would do? Won’t he speak to her?
We called dad Prophet of Patience. I often prayed to not be as patient as dad, to be cheated on and be silent. To take shit in the name of patience. This was not the first time something of this sort had happened and he responded with silence, giving her the nod to continue stinging us.
It was in moments like this, when all six of us sat together, that grief gripped me once more. The mere thought of what they were all feeling intensified my grief as though I was also grieving for them somewhere in my subconscious. I would wonder why God had taken our mom away and then afflicted us with a witch.
The next day, I had Omar open the gates for me and drove dad’s car out. Khairat had sneaked out the car keys to me from his bedroom. When they got ready, I dropped them in their school. I had mastered driving but dad never let me take his car. After dropping off my siblings at school, I wandered around town for a while before finally going back home. I parked the car across the road and started washing it. I rolled up my trousers close to my knees and stripped to my singlet. Soon the car was shining in the morning sun.
Dad sauntered outside, clutching his briefcase. He was followed by Hassana who wore a short hijab that only covered her chest. I quickly went back to the house and got dressed. We got in the car, with me in the front seat. Dad would drop us at the computer school.
From the car radio, a sheikh delivered a sermon. Hassana looked angry. She had every right to be. At seventeen, she had become the mother of four children, the youngest, three. She got them ready for school and cooked for them. She had been cheated out of her youth, shoulders already dropping from the weight of motherhood. Gone was the bright teenager always watching K-Drama and crushing on the boys, arguing with mom.
We were silent until dad eased the car onto the main road. Then, Hassana said, “Dad, is this how are we going to let this woman be?”
He slowed the car and tuned down the radio volume.
“Patience, kids,” he said. “Our people say that he who’s patient would cook a rock and even drink its broth. And verily, Allah is with the patient. You are just kids. You are just growing, just getting to know the world.”
I listened as dad talked and talked, without much understanding. I wondered how someone saw his loved ones in danger and not protect them, and not for the lack of love, seeing as all of us were being broken, but for patience.
We began suspecting she was having an affair, cheating on dad. We would glance at each other, suspicious of the way she wore girly makeup and leave the house at dusk and return late.
One late Friday evening, my friends Uwais and Umar, who were aspiring hip-hop artists, invited me to a party they were performing at. I got dressed and went out. I met Salim who was standing outside their gate in denim shorts and sweatshirt, basking in the harmattan wind. He held his phone from which Naira Marley blared.
“Abusite,” he chanted as we shook hands. He had been calling me Abusite since I got admission.
I smiled shyly, feeling sad for him. We had travelled together to Zaria to write Post UTME. He didn’t get admission.
“Where are you up to?”
I told him and asked him to please accompany me. He hesitated, then asked me to wait as he changed. We set out in a keke. We arrived at the hotel as night was falling. At the parking lot, I sighted a couple. The woman looked like my stepmom, with the familiar navy hijab. Her face was covered in a niqab. I kept staring at her, at them, till they got in the car.
I saw her face as she raised the niqab and flashed a lustful smile at her partner before the window was wound up.
The arrival of Abbas sped up things. He was our mother’s houseboy in the late 90s, when my parents, newly married, had come to work in Kano. They had come in a public bus. He was ten then, amongst other young kids like him led by an adult to be taken to the Qur’anic school. She treated him like a son. She liked him more because he was from her state, from a neighbouring village. In her first lonely years in Kano, when our father left for work, and when Abbas didn’t have classes, they worked together and chatted with nostalgia about their state, the Caliphate. He ran errands for her and they cooked together. Because of mom, he wasn’t like an almajirai at all. He didn’t have to go from house to house or at the Friday mosques begging for leftovers. When mom went home for Sallah which she celebrated in her village, they went together. When Hassana and I were born, he played the role of an older brother, dropping us off at school and bringing us back, saving us from wicked peers.
Our relationship soured however, when he began to develop feelings for Hassana, which he didn’t hide. Of course, Hassana turned him down. What would she do with a beggar? She was afraid at that time. He was an adult then and a seer. He was the favourite apprentice of his mallam so he had taught him the art of duba. Ladies and gentlemen used to come to him for different charms like the one which would get their love reciprocated. So, Hassana was really afraid he would make her go crazy over him. But I told her to say no. There were other seers in town, I told her, more powerful than Abbas. They could break whatever spell he might cast on her. He didn’t do anything, of course. Heartbroken, he left Kano. We heard he went back to Zamfara where his parents arranged a marriage for him and later, he went to Lagos to work.
But now here he was, carrying a bag. He had just arrived in Kano. He came straight to our house not because he heard mom was dead but because he always did that. Lagos must have treated him well. He looked better.
“Where is Umma?” he asked.
My twin and I looked at each other. A lull fell. I hated saying it with my own mouth. It sounded more real. A year after and it still felt untrue that mom was no more. With strangers, I pretended I was not a half-orphan. I hated to be pitied.
Abbas must have sensed something. He stared at us, fear in his eyes. He might have seen the tears in our eyes. He repeated his question, this time slowly, in the way people pose questions whose answers they were afraid to hear.
We sighed, Hassana and I. I mustered the courage to answer him, I was the boy, the man.
“Innalillahi wa inna ilaihi rajiun,” he said. And soon there was tears all over his face. He cried like a child.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he cried.
The irritating question. People asked us that when they weren’t informed. It piqued me. I had to suppress the urge to shout, “What difference would it have made? Would they have resurrected her upon being informed early?”
Soon, the three of us were crying, silently in the parlour. The house was empty. It was late afternoon so our other siblings were in Islamiyya. Our stepmom had gone to God-knows-where along with little Yusra.
Abbas stood up.
“Where was she buried?” he asked, and without waiting for an answer, added, “Hassan, accompany me.”
I stood up and went into the toilet. I urinated and washed my face.
We walked silently through the narrow streets, passed Karamin Layi where children played football; their ball kept falling into the gutter. We passed the thugs that resided in the uncompleted building at Bayan Layi, getting high on weed, passed the almajirai reading their slates in Laying Tsangaya, then finally took the corner that led into Layin Makabarta. The silence of the graveyard welcomed us.
We knelt before mom’s grave. Abbas led the prayer. He prayed, full of faith. We spat prayers on the grave. Our tears fell to the earth. In my heart, I updated mom on the family. I’ve gotten admission, mom. To ABU. I know you wouldn’t like me to be far from you, but you are always in my heart. As for Hassana, well, her JAMB score was a little below average. But there’s a lot of follow up from Baba and his friends, a lot of bribes given. So insha Allah, she will get admission to the state university. I wish you are here to see us, your twins in university. And mom, I swear by your grave that I’ll do everything in my power to protect your little children. Everything.
I swear, Umma. For your peace. For our peace.
We returned home and Abbas asked what happened afterwards.
“Dad married another woman,” Hassana answered him.
The first time we saw her was a month before mom’s death. She was from mother’s hometown. Mom introduced her as a cousin, but we had never seen her. Before she left, after a week as intended, mom fell sick. She was admitted and only two days later transferred to the ICU of the Teaching Hospital. She died a week later.
A few people suggested her as a suitable candidate to marry dad and take care of his kids. And that was that.
Abbas exclaimed after hearing the town she came from. “That village of witches! Their people are bad. Very bad.”
After a long silence, Hassana asked Abbas to please do something. He was quiet until she said “please” again in a teary voice.
He said “okay.” He still loved her. That, I saw in his eyes, heard in his voice.
Abbas returned the next morning. He must have seen terrible things in his divination sand. So horrible that his smile couldn’t mask it. He couldn’t say anything though because of the witch’s presence. When he greeted her, which he did a bit disdainfully, she answered in a disdainful manner. She sang loudly as she cooked lunch. After she was done, she hung a slim veil on her shoulder and dashed out, leaving a whiff of her strong perfume. We, the three of us, shook our heads and hissed.
Abbas brought out a nylon wrap from his backpack. He emptied the contents: ground bark of some scared trees. He explained how to take them. Sprinkle some in pap or cow’s milk. He gave Hassana and she observed them as though it were some chemical in a lab.
“What for?” she asked.
“Just for . . . Just to . . . ward off evil,” he stammered.
Hassana and I glanced at each other.
“But what’s the result of your search?”
“Nothing serious. Just that you guys have to arm yourselves with so much prayer. I shall also help you, insha’allah . . . and . . .”
“And what?” we asked in unison.
“Just be careful.”
There was a brief moment of silence. Hassana studied the medicine again.
“But these are what one takes to protect oneself from a witch,” she said, her voice so accusing.
Abbas was quiet. He wiped his eyes.
We stared at each other. We are right! She’s a witch after all!
Hassana broke into a spasm of tears. “She killed mom, didn’t she?” I was scared myself. I didn’t know where the voice came from. A bruised, bleeding place it must be. An echo from a landscape of hatred. “Answer me. The witch killed our mother.”
Abbas was only crying. As we all were. I left the house.
I walked down to the dangerous part of town. I spotted Habu smoking. I collected the cigar and for the first time, smoked. I choked and coughed. I was restless. I threw the remains of the cigarette and left. I knew exactly what I had to do.
Months had passed and I was finally in university. Some days when I take a walk, I wonder if I did the right thing.
I was walking alone on an empty road that led to the university’s museum after I had just spoken to Hassana on the phone. I asked her how the family was doing. She sounded low-spirited and I knew it was the same thing that hunted us. She knew it was me who took our stepmom’s bottle of kayan mata and poisoned it. I finished her off by strangling her as she writhed on the floor and it was this image of her face in her final minutes of existence that hunted me the most—she looked nothing like a witch. E
Mujahid Ameen Lilo writes in English and Hausa. He won The Wole Soyinka Essay Competition in 2019.