My bedroom door creaked open.
I knew it was my mother again.
She had been checking on me every ten minutes since I retired for the night, and she had opened the door right on cue.
“O no na ula.” She whispered as she closed the door. She was likely talking to my father.
I was not asleep of course but I lay perfectly still. I knew it was the only way she would let herself sleep.
I closed my eyes as I thought back to the events from earlier in the day.
It was an evening like any other. I was tired from sitting at my work desk for nearly the whole day. I was grateful that I no longer had to spend half my day stuck in the popular Lagos gridlock, but the downside to working from home was that I worked longer, with limited movement. Today, I decided that my weary limbs needed a bath and not a shower.
I usually did not take baths but when I did, the ritual was the same: soak in the warm water till my muscles relaxed, submerge my head under water until I ran out of air, come back up then begin the lathering process. This time though when I lowered my head to the bottom of the tub, I felt this urge to stay down – even when I ran out of air. Even when the water started going into my nose and I instinctively opened my mouth to breathe but got water instead of air, I stayed down.
I did not hear the bathroom door open. All I heard was a faint scream that became louder as my mother yanked me from the water, and bent my head over the side of the bathtub.
At twenty eight years old with long limbs and heavy bones like my father, I was not light by any means; but my petite, dainty mother managed to haul my upper torso out of the tub.
My chest tightened at the thought. I did not even know she had that kind of strength.
My door creaked open again.
I held in the sigh.
This time it was my father that whispered. “If you are not tired, I am. How many times are we going to check? The girl is sleeping. Besides, Kene said she will be gone by dawn.”
My mother said nothing, but I knew she was still there, watching me.
I was angry at her for worrying. I agree it was stupid of me to have remained submerged in the water but I was not suicidal, and had said as much once I was through with my coughing fit.
My mother did not believe me of course, and who could blame her? Even I could not make any sense of it. Why wouldn’t I just lift my head up out of the water when I ran out of air?
I heard my door shut.
I glanced at my clock. 2:00AM
“She will be gone by dawn indeed.” I scoffed.
For as long as I can remember, I have always been strong-willed. My mum, the perfect picture of what society believed a woman should act like, never liked it. She attributed it to the stubbornness I inherited from my father and his kin, which I proudly accepted.
It meant we did not always see eye to eye, but we still had a solid relationship.
Recently, that had changed.
After years of bad governance and police oppression, the youth of my country were finally standing up to fight for the right to be treated as citizens should. It was an awakening that was long overdue and I was glad for it. Protests had started all over the country and in the diaspora. It was the most glorious thing I had ever seen.
The first time I argued with my mother about it, she said that the corruption ran too deep and the protesters were wasting their time; nothing was going to change. I understood why she felt that way and focused my end of the argument explaining why giving up was not an option. It was when she said “everyone looks out for themselves; if you are smart, you will do the same” that I lost it. It was the first time I had ever raised my voice at her.
Subsequent arguments after that were downright screaming matches, some getting so bad that my father had to step in. I had hoped that our constant arguing would make her reassess her thought process. Instead, she convinced herself that something was wrong with me as I never used to talk to her in that manner.
She was worried enough that she talked to her brother about my recent change in behaviour, and he decided to go “inquire.”
I shook my head where I lay in bed, amused.
It was truly comical to see a woman who prided herself in the many leadership roles she played in her church, beg her brother to seek counsel with a traditional seer.
I was listening from where I hid by the kitchen door when uncle Kene called this evening to tell her of his findings. In typical fashion, she had answered the phone and put it on speaker immediately. She spent the first ten minutes of the call recounting the events from earlier, complete with dramatic embellishments and concluding with the fact that I was determined to send her to an early grave.
My aunt Chidinma, who had rushed over after my mother called to tell her about the incident, added that what she was most grateful for was that my siblings were away at University.
I had to hold back the chuckle that was working its way up my throat. I wasn’t sure what was more ludicrous: that she thought suicide was contagious, or that she lacked the emotional intelligence to realize that it was a poor choice of words considering her sister’s current state of mind.
“We are very lucky.” Uncle Kene said with a sombre tone.
“Kene, I just thank God. I thank God that she left the bathroom door unlocked. I don’t know what I would have-” My mother began.
“That’s not what I mean.” Uncle Kene cut in.
Both women fell silent, waiting for him to continue.
“Ada is a reincarnation of someone else.” He let out.
Thankfully the “eh?” that erupted from my mother and aunt, drowned out my amused “what?”
My mother let her phone fall from her hand as she put both hands on her head and repeated the Igbo word for “reincarnation” over and over again.
Aunt Chidinma picked up the phone with one hand, the other hand on my mother’s back stroking in a bid to comfort. “Okay, it’s not the end of the world. Don’t reincarnated people usually live and die normally? How does that explain her behaviour?” She spoke into the phone.
“According to the seer, the ancestor that is sharing her body wants to depart from this world, and that is why Ada has been behaving erratically lately. If she has tried to kill herself, then that means the ancestor is desperate.” Came Uncle Kene’s response.
My mother began to wail.
My heart lurched. I hated seeing her cry.
To her credit, aunt Chidinma remained calm. “Okay, so what do we do?” She asked.
“There is nothing to do. Everything has been done. The ritual that needs to happen so that the ancestor will separate itself from Ada has been done.” Uncle Kene replied.
My mother started, turning her attention towards the phone. “Eh? O eziokwu? Is it true?”
“Yes sister. He said that by dawn tomorrow, the ancestor will be gone.”
I rolled my eyes, straightened and walked back into the kitchen as I heard my aunt say “so we just need to make sure that she stays alive till dawn.”
I glanced at the clock once more and sighed.
“They are in for a rude awakening.” I thought to myself, chuckling.
I fluffed my pillow and adjusted myself where I lay, the pull of sleep finally beckoning.
I heard my name but it sounded faint. In the haze of sleep, I was sure I imagined it.
My eyes flew open, my head throbbing from the force of waking abruptly.
I rubbed my forehead as I lifted my head to look around my room, my eyes adjusting to the darkness.
There was nobody there.
I heard my name as clear as if the person was standing beside my bed.
I was lowering my head back to my pillow when I heard the voice again.
I sat up straight, all traces of sleep departing.
“Who is that?” I asked, feeling both scared and ridiculous as I whispered the question into the darkness of my room.
“Atuna egwu.” The voice said, firmly.
I reached for my bedside lamp slowly and flicked it on.
There was nobody there.
I rubbed my eyes.
I must be hearing things. The events of the day, and the fact that I was extremely tired must have culminated in some sort of hallucination.
“Atuna egwu.” The voice repeated firmly.
I tensed, my head whipping back and forth.
There was a phantom voice speaking to me and even though I was half sure I was imagining it, it was utterly ridiculous that the voice was telling me not to be scared. How could I not be?
I was so terrified that I could not move.
“Who are you?” I croaked, praying fervently that there would be no response.
“I am the reincarnation of one of your ancestors, resident within you.” The voice responded in Igbo.
A chill ran through my spine as I realized the voice was in my head.
This could not be happening. This was unreal. I forced myself to relax as I realized that I must definitely be dreaming. There have been many times where things that I thought of during the day ended up showing up in my dreams. That was exactly what was happening.
I steadied my breathing as I slowly lowered myself back to the bed, praying to wake up; or at the very least, for my dream to change scenes as this particular scene was freaking me out.
“You are not dreaming Adaeze. This is real. I am real.” The voice said.
I stilled. This had to be a figment of my imagination; but how could I explain the voice that wasn’t mine, and the proficiency in Igbo that was not mine as well. I understood the language, but I definitely could not speak it that well.
No, this could not be happening. I pinched myself once, twice. Closed my eyes and opened it again.
“Are you done?” The voice asked, mocking.
I sat up straight again, this time utterly petrified as my logical mind ran out of excuses for why this was not real.
“What do you want?” I asked, my voice shaky.
“Nothing. I suspected you might have questions, and I figured I owed it to you to answer them before I depart.” The voice said tightly.
I closed my eyes, quietly muttering “this isn’t real, this isn’t real” as my body froze up.
The voice groaned in annoyance, and suddenly, I felt the tightness in my chest ease.
I opened my eyes.
It was strange; I still felt terrified, but my body was relaxed and my heartbeat steadied. It made no sense. How was I scared and relaxed at the same time?
“Je na enyo.” The voice commanded.
I should have been too terrified to move, but I found myself walking to my mirror as instructed.
I stood in front of the full-length mirror and saw my reflection in the dim light that my bedside lamp provided. I had some new folds around my midsection thanks to the pandemic-induced lock down that had me sitting for long periods of time. Other than that, it was the same me staring back.
I rolled my eyes and sat on the floor in front of the mirror, legs crossed. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
This was ridiculous. Whatever I heard must have been a side effect of staying too long under water or something. There was no way this was real.
I opened my eyes and locked eyes with a pair of eyes that were not mine.
A fresh wave of panic came over me as I stared at the woman in the mirror that was not me.
She sat like me, with her legs crossed. Her eyes were the same dark brown as mine, but that was where our similarities ended. Her nose was flat to my slightly pointy, she had high cheekbones where I had full cheeks. Her face was oval-shaped and mine was round. Unlike my dull milk chocolate skin, her caramel skin shone beautifully. I had cotton pajamas on with my braids pulled up into a bun. She wore two matching wrappers: one to cover her upper torso, and the other was wrapped like a skirt on her waist. She had her beautifully thick natural hair in plaits, adorned with cowries. She had brass bands on her right arm, and an array of bangles on both wrists.
She looked like an apparition of a woman from a time long since forgotten.
“Kedu?” She said by way of greeting.
The suddenness of the greeting released my body from the fear-induced stillness that had taken over the minute I beheld her. I crawled backwards on my hands, and noticed with trepidation that she did not do the same.
Since I was not staring at my own reflection, this should not have surprised me but…how was this even happening? And did she say “Kedu”? Was she serious? I was still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that she was actually real, and she was bloody greeting me?
“I told you not to be afraid.” She said, fixing me with a stare that did not hide her irritation.
I tried to speak but the words would not come.
She groaned, still with that look of annoyance on her face.
A moment later, my body relaxed. I met her eyes and realized she had done it. She was able to force my body to relax even when my very pores were swelling in fear. She must have done it the first time as well.
“Easier said than done.” I muttered, regaining the ability to speak.
“I don’t blame you really. I blame the people with skin like nzu that came upon our shores many years ago and convinced our people that our gods and practices were either evil or nonsensical. It’s the only reason you gave no merit to your uncle’s words.” She said.
There was an edge to her voice that told me that she had likely been alive when the Europeans first came, or right after. That was the fifteenth century though, was it even possible for an ancestor born way back then to reincarnate in the twenty first century?
I returned my attention to her, willing the terror I felt to match the heartbeat that had dropped to a steady rhythm.
“Is this your first reincarnation?” I blurted out, not knowing what else to say.
“No. Of course not. I have reincarnated several times.” She answered in a manner that seemed to imply that it was ridiculous for me to think it would be her first time.
What was her problem?
I am not knowledgeable in these matters. Hell, I did not even think reincarnation was possible and a piece of me still wanted to believe this was an extremely vivid dream but…
“So were you really trying to kill me?” I said suddenly, realizing that if all of this was real and my uncle’s words were true, then there was a possibility that she was the reason I did not come up for air in the bath tub.
“Not exactly.” She said flippantly.
“What?” The word was barely a whisper. The fear eased from my chest, giving room for shock.
“I distracted you so that you would not lock the bathroom door in the hopes that somebody would find you. Likely your mother – who has a knack for calling for you at the most inopportune moments. I needed to do something drastic; drastic enough that your parents would seek answers elsewhere.” She said, emphasizing the last word.
I just gaped at her. Was my life that inconsequential to her that she was willing to take that risk?
She must have assumed I wanted her to elaborate because she continued, her tempo increasing.
“It’s not enough that they made us believe that our beautiful skin was ugly, and the hair that we were blessed with naturally was unsightly. They made us believe we were uncivilised savages even though we had thriving economies and a system of government. They saw it, but they would not admit it. How could they tell their kings and queens that the people they sought to conquer were actually intelligent beings? That simply was not going to serve their selfish interests. So they attacked us, divided us, created enmity where none existed, and mashed up kingdoms and empires that were thriving independently. They raped our women, stole our children and turned them into copies of themselves who sought to renounce their heritage and culture. They pillaged our lands and till this day have refused to both atone for this and return our treasures. They stole from us, stole us, and then turned around and handed back our own land with caveats meant to keep them prospering from it and-” she stopped abruptly, her eyes going shut.
She appeared to be reining in her anger.
I was glad for it because her Igbo dialect was different from mine and when she spoke really quickly, I struggled to keep up.
When she opened her eyes again, there was still rage in them but they were more like the aftermath of a storm, as opposed to the storm itself.
“They desecrated our shrines and temples, forced their religion down our throats and told us that ours was sacrilegious. Many of our people embraced this, and raised their children with this foreign religion for generations and have even become more religious than the owners of the religion. Yet, many don’t really believe in the religion. They are the loudest voices in the church, and the sort to punctuate every sentence with “by his grace” but the minute they need answers, they look elsewhere. Whether it is from a person who claims to get messages directly from the lord himself, or from a person who practices our traditional religion. They always look elsewhere.” She finished.
She had a point. My parents and Uncle Kene held leadership positions in our church and aunt Chidinma prayed louder than anybody I have ever met, but all four had sought out a traditional remedy to my “problem.”
Even outside of my family, I knew people for whom her words rang true.
Many people actually.
Nonetheless, none of it justified her willingness to gamble with my life.
“So you risked my life to prove a point?” I asked, keeping my tone measured.
“No, I risked your life because I wanted to leave. I am in you; I was in you from your birth so the only way I can leave is if you die, or if someone performs traditional rites to separate me from you.” She said with the tone of one who had to explain a simple notion to a daft person.
I had hoped that asking her bluntly about risking my life would result in an answer that showed there was some humanity in her. I could not believe that she was giving me a lesson on how reincarnation worked.
“Are you serious right now?” I asked, letting my voice carry the weight of my anger.
She blinked, confused.
“What if it hadn’t worked? What if my mother hadn’t come? What if I had died?” I nearly shouted.
“Then…you would have died, and I would be free.” She said simply, her face expressionless.
I stared at her, unable to control how my jaw hung loose.
Her expression remained the same, her eyes showing no emotion. No remorse.
I felt the back of my eyes tingle as I realised how close I had come to dying because a selfish ancestor wanted to rid herself of my body.
Who the hell did she think she was? She chose to return to the world in my body. I never invited her in. What made her think she had the right to kill me whenever she saw fit?
“What did I ever do to you?” I asked, my voice retaining its bite even as the tears fell. “Why is my life so unimportant to you? You got to live a full life- actually, you got to live several lives, and you wanted to cut mine short? What kind of wicked person are you? I cannot believe that I am descended from such cruelty-”
“And I cannot believe that such a coward descended from me!” She spat.
“W-what?” I stammered, not believing what I heard.
“Do I have water in my mouth? You heard me. You are a coward. Your people are being oppressed and you choose to do nothing!” She bellowed.
At first I was confused, but as I held her gaze and the anger it held, it slowly came to me.
The recent rebellion, the End SARS movement that had taken over the country and stretched beyond its borders. The awakening of a people that have lived through decades of oppression and bad governance. The humanitarian crisis that had finally come to a head and made Nigerians across different socio-economic classes speak with one voice.
What was she talking about? It is all I had been discussing for the last few weeks, it is the reason I had been fighting with my mother. How could she imply I was indifferent?
“What do you mean by that? Haven’t you been present all those times when I got into arguments with my mother over this? How-”
“What did arguments with your mother accomplish?” She snapped, cutting me off. “Besides, that was not you, it was me!”
“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
She rolled her eyes.
“All you have ever done is talk, but you have never done anything tangible. Didn’t it surprise you that your most recent arguments with your mother were more vicious? That is not your way. You always want to come across as the sensible, good person. Always sitting on the fence but never fighting for anything.”
“Hey-” I began.
“You sang the praises of those protesting, but you never went. I cleared your calendar and pushed you to type the e-mail to your boss requesting the day off so you could join the protest, but you erased it and chose not to go. I showed you videos and pictures of the protests on the internet, you did not re-post a single one because it was not in line with the brand you were trying to build on social media. I guided you to the coalition that was supporting the fight so that you could at least donate, you read through their page and did nothing. There were even electronic petitions sent around, even though I don’t know how effective they are, and you still didn’t sign a single one!” She seethed.
This was unfair. I had never been more proud to be Nigerian than when the protests began. Sure, I was not able to join any of the protests but it was not for lack of trying. I may not have posted or re-posted any protest-related content on social media but that did not mean I was indifferent to the cause. The cause was for all of us, and there were certainly other ways to show support than electronically.
She was definitely wrong about me, and I opened my mouth to tell her so but she was not done.
“I cannot say I was surprised because you do not usually respond to things if they don’t affect you directly. You have no sense of community, you are just all about yourself and your immediate environment. It shows even in how you react to the pain of others. Like the day you saw your neighbour slap a delivery man, and you looked away.” She said, disgust evident in her tone.
I remembered that day. I had been watching them arguing from the balcony and did not expect things to escalate so quickly, but I had actually spoken up.
“That’s not true. I yelled at the neighbour.” I said abruptly, hating how defensive I sounded.
“No, I did. I nudged you to call out her name. When she yelled at you to mind your business, you turned away and left.” She fired back.
“There was another day while you were in traffic when you saw the owner of an expensive car drag a man in a smaller car out of his car by the collar of his shirt. He dragged him out through the window of his car, beat him till he was near unconscious and left him on the hood of his vehicle. That voice you were arguing with in your head about whether to intervene or not was me. You still left.”
“You had the opportunity to make an impact in your village by helping the poor children with fairly used clothes that your aunt was giving away, but you turned down her offer because you did not want to carry excess luggage during your Christmas trip. I nudged you to call her the night before so you could meet up to pick up the bag, you ignored me and called her the morning you were travelling to tell her you could not make it to her place in time.”
“Your friend, Onyinye was trying to raise money for her mother’s surgery. You knew this because she confided in you. Yet when she sold you her gold necklace, you priced her down because you knew she was desperate. You could have lent her that money, you know she would have paid back in good time; but you not only chose to make her sell her most valuable belonging, you took advantage of her as well. That headache you were getting while you haggled with her was me screaming at you to give the poor girl the money!” She finished, panting.
I opened my mouth to speak but no words came out.
She was right. I wanted to argue and tell her she was wrong about me but if she was the reason for my hesitation in all of the scenarios she listed then…she was right.
Even if she was wrong and the hesitation was my own, she was right about my actions…and inactions.
I looked down at my chest, at the twenty-carat gold crescent-shaped pendant that hung from a chain of the same value. The necklace Onyinye’s mother had given to her on her eighteenth birthday. A necklace that would have served as a memento for Onyinye who eventually lost her mother.
Every time I ran into Onyinye after the sale, I would notice a longing in her eyes as she would glance at my neck but I told myself that I had helped her raise money for her mother’s medical bills.
Oh my goodness.
What sort of friend was I? What sort of person was I?
“When the army opened fire on peaceful protesters that day at Lekki tollgate,” She began, her voice an octave quieter than before. “I expected something to ignite within you. I expected you to be outraged, angry; to feel the raw sorrow that many felt. And it was there, for a moment. For a moment you and I were one. When you cried, it was both of us crying. When you screamed, it was both of us screaming. When you discussed it with others, it was both of us talking. Then when someone said ‘we cannot let them win, we cannot give up now’, we parted ways again. I remained angry and determined, but your anger fizzled to sadness, and then a quiet resolve that nothing was going to change.” She finished.
I was crying now. I couldn’t help the tears.
I kept my head bowed. I could not meet her eyes.
She was right about all of it.
Even now, my chest tightened at the memory from that October evening. It was not something I thought was possible in this day and age, and it made me realize that our government was much more tyrannical than I thought.
The entire nation came to that realization that day.
But how do you fight an entire government?
“They have money, power, guns, armed forces.” I began, my voice a croak in the quiet night. “We don’t stand a chance. What are we supposed to do?”
“YOU RESTRATEGIZE!” She screamed. “No revolution ever came easy and in most cases, the oppressor had the might of brute force but if rebellions never rise, change never comes.”
“They are not suddenly going to wake up and realize the error of their ways and give the people what they deserve, you have to TAKE IT! So what you need to ask yourself is if you are willing to do what it takes for the good of all.”
“You have the benefit of allies, use it. You have something previous generations never had – a platform that amplifies your voices, that exposes the corrupt leaders for what they are. You have the ability to make them uneasy, and that is the key. Corrupt governments, dictatorial regimes, oppressive leadership of any sort that have been conquered or toppled over always began with unease. Use what you have available to you, do SOMETHING! Anything but be silent. Silence is for cowards!” She shouted.
I still could not meet her eyes as I sobbed quietly.
“Silence makes you worse than the oppressors.” She added in a tone so preternatural that it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand.
My head snapped up at that. I was not proud of my “silence,” but I certainly was not worse than the oppressors. She had made her point, and I heard it; she did not need to veer off into the outrageous.
I glared at her.
She held my stare, glaring back.
What was the use of her lengthy speech anyway? If she had decided she was going to leave this world, wasn’t she a bigger coward than I was? How was she supposed to impact change if she was leaving?
“So what? You are just going to give up?” I asked, unable to conjure up the disgust to match the words.
“No. Never.” She replied without missing a beat. “I am just giving up on you.”
Fresh tears welled in my eyes as my stomach hollowed out, her words piercing my very soul.
I wanted to lash out at her. I wanted to tell her that she had resided without invitation in my mind for all of my life and that I was more than happy to see her go, but all I felt was shame. Shame, and an overwhelming need to prove to her that I was not beyond redemption.
“Listen,” I began.
“It is dawn.” She said quietly, cutting me off as she looked towards my window.
I followed her gaze to see the first lights of day peeking in.
I felt a slight tremor and my body shuddered in response. I shook my hands to relieve myself of the sensation, and turned back to the mirror to finish what I was saying but she was gone.
I saw my own reflection staring back at me. I crawled closer to the mirror, waving my hands this way and that, got up and sat back down but it was me.
She was gone.
I called out to her, first in my head then out loud as panic gripped me. I could feel the gaping void in my soul where she had once been. I could see myself for what I was, for what she had described me as: a coward.
The fire that had burnt bright in me, burnt like an unquenchable flame all my life, my fire; it was actually her. All along.
I called to her again and again, each time louder than the last as the hole in my soul widened.
I knelt before my mirror, sobbing as I continued to plead for her to return.
I said it in English, then in Igbo. I asked for her forgiveness, I promised to do better, I swore to mend my ways.
There was only silence in response.
I felt strong arms wrap around me where I was sprawled on the floor crying. I did not hear my parents come in.
“Ada nke’m.” My father cooed in my ears, holding me to his chest as I cried. “Are you okay?”
I turned towards him, and noticed my mother crouched beside him, tears in her own eyes.
“She is gone.” I whispered, before letting loose the wail that had been lodged in my chest.
I knew my father thought it was relief that had me crumpling into his arms, but in that moment I knew I would never be the same.
To all the victims of police brutality in Nigeria both before and after the movement, may you rest on.
Your deaths will not be in vain.
We will not forget.
#EndSARS #EndPoliceBrutality #EndBadGovernance