Does it still hurt? Does it still hurt? Did it feel like fire ants settling on your skin or was it an emptiness slowly spreading? Tell me, does it still hurt where he touched you?
They say you are God’s little angels. Perhaps, this is why the devil comes to prey on your innocence, to rend your wings. This is why you will suffer.
You live in Ibadan, Calabar, Oshogbo, Kaduna, Benin City, Port Harcourt, Kwami, Enugu, Aba and all of Lagos. The places you call home are cramped brown-roofed sprawls and hidden villages that know only the sun’s fire. You inhabit spaces bloated by excess: too many people, too many things; or neglected by lack – barren.
But, you survive. And you learn, even though you are just three years old, seven years old, eleven-and-a-half. You learn how to balance buckets of water perfectly on your head so that they don’t spill too many drops. You learn the joy of laughter in lives hedged by suffering. You learn from people: those who stray in and out of your life like blurred apparitions and those who leave branded memories. You learn from your mothers, who gave you life. You know their harsh voices sometimes, the bite of their fury wrapped in sharp discipline.
You also learn what love is, in its purest form. Love is care. Love is clothes and toys on random days or special occasions like Christmas. Love is the smell and taste of the meals you look forward to. Your mothers always call you to come and eat tuwo shinkafa, jollof rice, efo riro, abacha with ugba, afang soup and garri. Love is a bowl of steaming food, so delicious and filling. You always ask for more.
Sometimes, you are not in school because you have to go out on the streets and hawk trays of groundnuts and garden eggs with your siblings. You sell plantain chips and Gala sausage rolls and sachet water under scorching sun and drizzle. Your brothers and cousins wash cars in traffic. They squirt soapy water from plastic bottles on dusty windshields, scrub hastily and rinse for little money. In school, your teachers always ask, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
You want to be lawyers.
You want to be medical doctors.
You want to be engineers.
You want to be bankers.
You want to be governors and presidents.
You want to drive cars flashier than the ones you see every day. Or you want to fly high and glide through fuzzy clouds, cocooned in the aeroplanes you always squint to see. You want to roar over the earth, to deafen the perpetual rumble in your tummy. Because. You think the sky is big enough for all your dreams. You think you were made for better things than you are used to.
The world does not know your names yet. You are Esther, Nneka, Joy, Ibinabo, Idara, Anu, Tari, Rukkyat, Ekemini, Ifunaya.
He does not have horns curving out of his forehead. Or a prehensile forked tail. Or the reek of sin and sulphur hanging off coal-black skin. His eyes are not serpentine, neither do they glow bright red with malevolence. They are dark brown and round, same as yours, but condensed with the knowledge of things that are beyond you. They are human.
The devil knows you; you know him too. Your parents took you to him, in Lagos. Beforehand, your parents had said of the devil, “This man enh, He is one of our own. He is family. As long as you are obedient to him, you will enjoy. As long as you are a good girl, he will take care of you, you hear?”
The devil knows you; you know him too. He’s your mother’s favorite customer in her restaurant, the one who always eats like a goat, so that lines of soup dribble onto his clothes. You don’t like him. You don’t like the way he calls you “my wife.” You don’t like his hurtful pinches. Your mother always laughs indulgently at his whims and crows, “My customer, my customer!”
The devil speaks with a slight stutter. He is bald. His balloony stomach strains against large-sized T-shirts, fit to burst. The devil teaches you in school, and whenever he punishes you, he uses his bare hands on your buttocks. The devil is your favorite cousin, the one who buys you biscuits, tickles you to fits and gives you his phone to watch videos. The devil stands behind the pulpit of your church every Sunday morning – suited and sweaty – speaking for God. His children are your friends in school. Sometimes, he smears his gaze over your small body, his dark eyes glinting in a way you don’t understand. You are not afraid of the devil. You have no reason to be, yet.
The devil is Segun, Papa Akin, Gabriel, Uncle JJ, Ibrahim, Pastor Hezekiah, Baba Emma, Ighodaro, Okon, Sir Victor.
When the devil unfurls, he chooses to lie first, to clothe his true purpose in the camouflage of harmlessness. “Come and collect the money for the food,” he says.
“Fine girl, please, I need your help.”
“Let me show you something you will like.”
“Is your mother around? No?”
“Do you want me to buy biscuits for you?”
You go because you like the promise of biscuits crumbling on your tongue in mushy sweetness. You go to the devil because you have been taught to never disobey anyone older than you are. You follow his voice because it is familiar.
First, he banishes light. He closes the curtains and doors and windows and lets the shadows fade into a pitch-black gloom. He calls forth darkness and tells you not to fear it.
What do you even know?
“Lie down,” he whispers. “Kneel.” “Open your legs.” “Open your mouth.” He makes you watch a video on his phone where a woman with lurid lipstick and skin the colour of fried groundnuts is sucking something big and brown, making strange sounds. He tells you to “do like that.” His voice is calm, steeled with cold intent. His words ring strange in your ears, garbed in odd tones. He spreads your legs apart. Then he clamps his large palm over your mouth. The smell of ogogoro and sweat and cheap perfume and your mother’s okro soup hangs heavy on him.
“If you make any noise…”
You are silent. He is silent. The world is silent.
The devil brings out his ‘thing’. Before, you would always look away whenever someone is peeing in the bush or by the roadside. How people ease themselves has never concerned your small eyes. Now, you are confused. The ‘thing’ hangs in your face like an engorged accusatory finger.
In your mouth, it is rubbery. In the place between your legs, it is pain. Your scream is muffled under the devil’s crushing palm. You shut your eyes and trash your limbs. You want to escape the pain. You don’t want to gag on the devil’s tumescence. At this point, you know that this is as wrong as the moon in midday or tears the colour of blood. Or you don’t; this has never happened before. You can feel warm tears trickle out and down the side of your face. The devil heaves and thrusts with ragged breath, his body crushing yours.
When he’s done, he wipes between your legs with a piece of cloth. You wince and sniffle and sob. You don’t know what has just happened; you don’t know how or what to feel. As the devil stuffs crumpled naira notes into your hands, he avoids your eyes.
The devil reaches for you, and you scramble away, edging out of his touch. You’d rather have cockroaches swarm over your body. But he still grips you. His voice is a serrated cold blade, it chills you to the bone. The words he speaks hit you like icy gusts.
“If you tell anyone… look. If you tell anybody about this enh – I will kill you, you hear? Look at me! I said I will kill everyone in your family!”
“Do you want to die?”
“No.” You whimper, eyes cast down.
“Do you want your parents and brothers to die?”
“No.” You shake your head.
Later, you are crying. You are four years old, six, eight, twelve-and-a-half. You are nameless. You are no longer God’s little angels, not now. Not when the devil has ripped off your wings. You have fallen.
It takes five minutes. An hour. A couple of months. The stretch of three years. But when the time comes, you will no longer fear death. You can’t hide the signs or stifle the stench. The truth burns and spills light all over the devil’s deeds. It unshackles you from his voice, his hands, his sin. It saves you.
The truth makes your mother scream after she asks why blood is trickling down your legs. Jesus! The truth flies out of your mouth and leads a mob to the devil’s house. The mob thirsts for the devil’s blood. They want to whip him with chains and set him on fire like the thieves caught in markets. The truth becomes a towering giant – it turns your life upside down and shakes it till everything begins to feel hollow and unreal. It breaks you.
The devil fights your truth. He says you are lying. And you wonder if he would still deliver on his threats, if he would come later in the night to stick a knife in your chest. Fear cradles you for a long time.
“How can you accuse me of that? I’ve been a pastor for thirty years! 30 years!”
“I’ve never seen this girl before o!”
“She came to me and begged for it! Ask her!”
“She’s making this up because I flogged her. That’s the only time I’ve ever touched her, I swear on my mother’s life! I swear to God!”
In time, you will come to remember this period in bits and pieces, in flashes and whiffs, with difficulty. You will remember all of this in black-and-white, like those old movies made before your parents were even born, as a time devoid of all that is bright and colourful. You will remember the questions: What did he do with your wee-wee? Have you seen this man before? You will remember the sterile tang of hospitals and the nurses that smiled at you and spread your legs to find the truth in the devil’s lies. You will remember policemen and people with cameras and microphones. You will remember the sadness your mothers wore for days. You will remember the pain squirming in your stomach, the rot of the devil between your thighs, the absolute agony. You will remember the devil disappearing in a haze of noise and light. Just like that.
On the internet – blogs, social media, news sites – people you will never know will stumble upon your truth. They will bristle and question and spit and sigh and shiver.
Maureen Chinweizu – What is happening to our society, oh God?
@nonsovick – They should cut off the man’s penis, feed it to him and hang him from the balls! Anu ofia!
_NwaIkpe1 – Wetin dis men dey see for small pikin body sef? Wen beta pussy full evriwhere? Even ashawo 4 my side dey collect #500! Tueh!
@DatEbonyN**ga – Konji na bastard!
John Omokri Thomas – I find it very hard to believe this story. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t support child abuse or anything like that. I just want to hear the man’s side of the issue first, before jumping to conclusions. #donttrustanybody
Mhiz Bunnycute – Ehyaa, I pity the poor girl and her family. Xho sad.
Everything changes. People look at you in strange ways now, and turn away quickly when your eyes meet theirs. Your mothers do not let you go out like before. Your back faces the mutterings of people, their shaking heads and heaving shoulders. They drape pity over you like the glittering saris of the beautiful women on Indian soap operas.
The world knows your names now, even though it does not want to. Or your names are withheld, denied relevance in what will remain an ugly history. This is because your names are reminders of known evils, syllables of shame to spit out in disgust. Your names are society’s paracetamol, bitter in remembrance. You are Olajumoke, Cherechi, Blessing, Zainab, Tamara, Ekaette, Abigail, Folashade, Ginika and Ese.
This thing takes a lot of time. Like a seed buried in loam. It sprouts slow and tender, stretching itself out within you in cancerous occupation – limbs first, then heart and finally, mind. Parasite. You barely know what it is because you are too young to fight it. Your hands are tiny things still, too soft and nimble to reach within and feel the places that hurt.
You are broken and you don’t know. But in time, you will. You will come to know it in the way you find the devil in the eyes of strangers. In the way you finally name the pain long after your body housed it. In the way your body holds traces of the devil that defy soap and water or heated prayers. In the way you lean on trees and watch their leaves swirl down in quiet demise. In the way you weep for things beyond your grasp. In the way you dream of night shadows bending over you, whispering, seeking pilgrimage beneath your skin. You will know that something is wrong with you in the way you seek to let go, to leave in quiet. To die.
But, so many things will happen between now and a long time ahead. You will find your soul’s balm. You will heal. You will let loose cherubic melodies from the mouth that once held the devil’s fullness. You will surrender your body to a love that purges you of your loath for it. You will soar to humble these skies that have always looked down on you. You will set your name in starry heights, and the world will know you for something wonderful, something good. They will know Dabota, Treasure, Adunni, Hajara, Ima, Peace, Morayo, Somto, Zahra and Uyai. They will speak of you in awe.
But, you aren’t thinking of those things now. As you are, the future is limited to the things you know will happen. You are thinking of school and food and play and homework and your mothers’ voices, tethering you to paths you dare not stray from. In the places you call home, you are just five years old, nine, ten and on the cusp of thirteen. You are little kids still, sinking into sweet sleep, waiting for the sun to rise anew, while the moon rules the sky and gives life to old shadows.
In the dream, you are running. Fast. Your heart quivers when you look back at the dust trails, at the shadows pursuing you. You don’t want to die. There is a chasm ahead, a cliff edge dropping into nothing. You don’t think. You don’t wait to think. The shadows behind you growl and shriek and pant, lusting after your body, raring to rip you apart. You scream as you jump into the void, and your voice is lost in your throat. You are falling and screaming and falling and screaming as the wind roars in your head and darkness rushes to meet you.
This is where you usually wake up, reality’s hook pulling at your navel and tugging you back to your sweat-soaked mattress.
But you don’t wake. You don’t fall. Something else happens.
You are flying. Your hands are stretched out like wings, your body floating, held of its own accord. The wind tickles you to laughter, billowing your clothes and rippling through your hair. Joy and awe pulsates through you. You feel like a bird, like Superman. Like you are born flight. Formless clouds hang like pillowy puffs around you, and you burst through them whooping. The sun is a huge ball in your eyes, mild and golden on your skin. You look down, but you are too far up to really see anything.
This is crazy, you think. You have forgotten the thrum of fear; what you now feel is the pure joy of rainbows. Because where you are is where you should be. Here, the air is pristine, as in the aftermath of rain. Here, you are alone and safe. Here, the sky is big enough for you. Here, you don’t need wings to fly. Here, you are free.
For you, Ochanya Ogbanje. Because your name will not be lost in time.