By Chikanma Charity
They kept looking at her with disdain and irritation as they whispered to each other. Suddenly, one of them shouted and threw herself on the hard ground as though a venomous snake was biting her, ‘Ochayi o! Why did you die like a fowl? Why Ochayi? Why my brother? She wept bitterly and started rolling on the dirt ground. Some of her companions quickly ran to console her; they tried desperately to cover her body as her wrapper was loose from her waist. ‘Leave me! I want to die with my brother. Let me suffer the painful and humiliating death that happened to my brother so that this wicked woman can sit and watch it happen.’ At this, she pointed her finger at a dishevelled-looking woman sitting alone at the far corner of the hut. The other women turned their gaze to where the unkempt-looking woman was seated and gave her a piercing angry look as though wishing their eyes could actually kill her.
Onyema wished the earth would open and swallow her. Swallow her not to bury her alive or even kill her; she loves life too much to die at her age but to swallow and teleport her to her beautiful home in the city. Sitting on the cold, hard ground in the dirty old hurt reminded her of scenes she had watched in Nigerian horror movies, where such huts were found in the evil forest and occupied by witch doctors who killed humans for rituals. The thought of it sent a shiver down her spine, and she might have visibly reacted because the hut became quiet for a few seconds as all eyes turned on her again, waiting to manifest whatever nefarious thoughts they had in mind towards her.
Onyema had been sitting in the corner of the hut for the last four days. She hadn’t had a bath or brushed her teeth in the last four days, and the stench from her body made her feel sick. She was grateful she had her monthly flow two days before she arrived in the village. The small hut smelled of urine, saliva, and her unwashed body, coupled with the smell of dirty clothes the other women wore. The tradition of the barbaric law of the land instructs that only women who have stopped menstruating can see an accused inside the hut, and they must wear dirty clothing from head to toe, their headtie to their underwear. She doubted if any of them wore underwear at all, judging by the looks of their saggy breasts and how their buttocks wiggled while they walked about the hut. The dirty clothes worn by the women when they enter the hut can never be worn anywhere else and should never be washed. It is also forbidden to keep this clothing near their houses, and the women must immediately head to the river to take a bath after leaving the hut, a cleansing rite. Most of the women store their clothing in trees close to the river; it allows them to change back to their normal clothes quickly and saves them the stress of going far to wear their ‘eloyibibi’ (abomination clothes).
The windowless hut made the room dark; the only source of light was the small curved doorway. Most of the time, the room was so dark she could hardly make out the faces of the women present at the time because the women crowded themselves inside the room, thereby blocking the illumination from the door with their bodies. The hut is supposed to comfortably contain an average of five women, but the least visitors she received per day were nine women at a time. The hut had two bamboo sticks knotted together to form a bench. The older women were the only ones allowed to sit on the bamboo sticks, while the younger ones sat on the ground at the far end of the hut opposite her. She wished she could scream at the women to wait for their turns outside so as to decongest the hut of their smelly clothes, but she had enough sense to keep her mouth shut.
Those four days had been hell for her; she barely slept or ate properly. The only water and food she was allowed to drink and eat until after the cleansing ritual was performed on her was the dirty river water and the traditional mourning garri meal; the garri is made from fried cassava flour. She was sure she had typhoid fever from the river water she had been drinking those days and wished everything would pass quickly so she could visit the hospital for proper care. On the first day in the hut, she refused to drink the brownish river water, and the mere thoughts of the old women taking their baths from the same river made her resolve never to taste the water. But at midnight, she became really thirsty and decided she would rather die from a water-borne disease than thirst.
‘Onyema, confess and be free.’ A woman who sat on the bamboo stick spoke to her. She recognised the voice even when she couldn’t see the face properly; it was her husband’s godmother. For those days, all they did was come into the room, spit close to her, and whisper to each other while staring at her like a sacred serpent; they wished deep down they could kill her.
‘Confess to what?’ she asked the woman quietly, ‘confess to killing my brother!’ Ebowo shouted from the ground she had previously thrown herself on.
Ebowo is her sister-in-law, and no love is lost between them. Ebowo hated her from the very first day she saw her simply because she wanted her brother to marry a girl from their village and not a foreigner, as she calls her. ‘I did not kill my husband and have nothing to confess. Ochayi died a natural death, and you know it. Aunty Ebowo, you know I loved my husband, and I will never try to hurt him in any way; she pleaded with the women, ‘Please let me go home.’ ‘Never Onyema! Not until you confess you will never leave this hut. You have two options, confess now and leave or don’t confess and watch the ancestors destroy your whore body slowly, just as you allowed my brother to die slowly, Akuna,’ Ebowo looked at her with pure hatred as she stomped out of the hut. Akuna means prostitute, and the thought of her sister-in-law calling her a prostitute made her afraid. It is better for a married woman to be called a thief than a prostitute; then, she clearly understood the implications of the accusation.
Moreover, that was the fourth day. According to tradition, she was expected to stay inside the hut for seven days, giving her ample time to confess to murdering her husband. Three more days were left for the old women to compel her to confess to her supposed crime. If she didn’t confess after the seventh day, the elders of the land would invoke the Oracle of the ancestors to strike her down. If she were found guilty, just like her husband, a slow and painful death would be her fate, but if innocent, nothing would happen to her, and she would be allowed to go home with a pleading tribute by her accusers. Four days down, three more days to go. She knew the wait would be long, but if the waiting would prove her innocence, then the waiting was worth it despite her travail.
‘Why are you sleeping, Ewo!’ Ebowo's voice woke her up. ‘Ebowo, stop calling her a dog,’ one of the women chided her, ‘until the gods curse her, she is still innocent,’ another of the older women sitting on the bamboo stick cautioned her. ‘Ene, she is an Akuna, and her infidelity cost my brother his life,’ she insisted. ‘Onyema, please confess and save yourself and us the stress of coming here every day,’ the older woman told. ‘I didn’t kill my husband! How many times will I say it!’ she shouted in frustration. ‘Eloyibibi! Eloyibibi!’ the women shouted abomination as they quickly ran out of the room.
A few moments later, three of the women came back into the hut; each had a clay pot in her hand. They walked straight to me, laid the clay pots close to her feet, and dipped their hands into the pot. It was almost evening, and the hut was almost dark. She couldn’t see what they brought out from inside the pot, and before she could question them, she felt the sting in her eyes, then the hurt on her chin. ‘Uwayi, uwayi, uwayi,’ the woman chanted the word ‘shame’ as they threw sand and ash on her. She screamed as she tried to dodge the sand and ash from hitting her body. One of them hit her hard across the face, and for a few seconds, she was shocked, so shocked she couldn’t move.
As she tried to stand up, two of them forcefully held her down to the ground and rendered her immobile. She was amazed by the strength of the women. She was sure one of them was twice her age. She didn’t have the power to fight back, had barely eaten well for five days, and her energy level was down. She now understood why only garri meal and water were fed to her. She never realised her vulnerability until that moment, and the thought of the humiliation caused her to shed hot tears that ran down her cheeks.
After the three women finished hitting her with sand and ash, they went outside to announce to others that her abomination had been cured, and the rest of the women walked into the hut in a file, each going back to her former sitting position. Ebowo walked to her and ordered her to sit up, ‘Ewo, kuheyi npiyola.’ She felt so weak she couldn’t move her body. ‘So you do not know, the only person allowed to get angry or shout inside this hut is the family of the dead? Our people say, the people the gods want to disgrace they allow them to run mad first. I know you are a killer, and your death is at hand, Akuna’. Ebowo spat at her and used her leg to hit her ribs. ‘Ebowo, let her be,’ the older woman who pleaded with her to confess earlier told her, ‘Let me talk to her and see if I can make her talk,’ she continued. ‘Ene, let her not confess. I want to watch her die,’ Ebowo told her as she angrily left the hut once again.
‘Onyema, Jegicho, I want to ask you some questions,’ the older woman Ebowo called Ene told her. ‘Onyema, it is an abomination for me to touch you, so try to sit upright and raise your head. If you don’t, the women will throw more sand and ash at you. It is also an abomination for you to lie down inside this room,’ she advised her. She knew she would not survive another humiliation of the sand and ash bathing, so she struggled to sit upright with the wall of the room supporting her back. ‘Onyema, you know your husband died by Alekwu, right?’ Ene asked her. ‘No, he died of a kidney and liver problem,’ she told her quietly, not having the energy to argue. ‘Were his legs swollen before his death?’ she nodded in affirmation, ‘how about his stomach?’ she nodded again. ‘What did the doctors diagnose when you took him to the hospital?’, ‘I took him to the best specialist hospital, Ene; honestly, I did,’ she sobbed bitterly as she remembered how much her husband suffered for three weeks before he finally died.
For those three weeks, he couldn’t sleep, eat or talk; he was practically bedridden, and she watched him helplessly as his tummy and legs became swollen. He excreted fluid from his anus as he couldn’t urinate through the normal channel. ‘What did the doctor say was wrong with your husband before his death?’ Ene asked her again, ‘nothing. I mean, he said, he couldn’t find anything medically wrong with him, but he..’, Ene rudely interrupted, ‘Onyema, confess and be cleansed.’ She felt the anger rising once again within her, but she knew she would be a fool to let it show. Ene was the only woman in the dark, smelly room who seemed to want to help her. She didn’t know for sure if her concerns were genuine or just a charade to get her to confess to a crime she didn’t commit. She does not have plenty of time to decide if her intentions are real or not, but she has enough sense not to antagonize the only woman willing to speak to her with presumed kindness. ‘Ene, to God, the doctor said he couldn’t find anything medically or clinically wrong with him. I cannot really remember the exact terms he used. He told me he didn’t have the adequate medical facilitates to give me a proper diagnosis, so he advised me to take my husband abroad or overseas where there are adequate medical facilitates that will help give us the right diagnosis for his problems,’ she tearfully explained to the older woman. ‘Onyema, wait, you told us your husband died from a kidney and liver problem, right?’ Ene asked her with a bit of sarcasm in her voice. She nodded to show affirmation of the question. ‘How now are you telling us the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong with him? Because if the doctor said he couldn’t find anything wrong with him, how about the kidney and liver problem?’ she queried her.
At this time, all the other women’s attention was on her. Some of them were murmuring hateful curses at her, while others silently cried for the painful loss of their son.
She knew and understood the consequences of Alekwu, and she would never have allowed it to take away her beloved husband. Alekwu is the ancestor’s spirit of death that the forefathers of the Idoma people invoked in ancient times to defend and protect her children against household evils. The spirit strikes down the husband of an unfaithful wife with a medically incurable sickness or disease. After a while, if the unfaithful wife doesn’t confess and a cleansing ritual is performed for both of them, death is inevitable for the man. Unfaithfulness, in this case, isn’t limited to sexual infidelity of the woman alone but also when a wife commits an abortion, strikes her husband, wears the clothes of any promiscuous woman, including her siblings, or even crosses the food her husband intends to eat. She could have sworn she never did or committed any of these things before her husband fell ill. Yes, the doctor couldn’t find anything medically wrong with her husband, but with his swollen stomach and feet coupled with his history of alcohol intake, he suggested it could be a rare case of kidney or liver disease.
‘Onyema, whether you choose to admit it or not, your husband died from the curse of Alekwu,’ Ene told her flatly and continued, ‘Ebowo wants you to die, but your death will profit me nothing if you are innocent. So, I want you to tell me the truth so we can help you.’ She doubts if Ene really wants to help. She was sure they just needed her to confess so they could use her story to deter other women from falling into their trap. She also knew for certain Ebowo wanted her confession so she could boldly say, ‘I told you so,’ and mock her to her grave. Ebowo cannot physically hurt her, nor can anybody kill her. Her staying or dying is dependent on the decisions of the gods.
The evening of the seventh day in the hut, her husband’s corpse was rinsed, and the water was given to her to drink; nobody was allowed into the hut that night until the next morning. She slept alone that night, and the following day, the women came to check on her to see if the gods had passed their judgment on her. They were ready to throw her corpse into the evil forest because it was an abomination and a curse to the land, unlike her husband’s, that would be given a decent burial.
If she confessed to infidelity, a cleansing rite would be done on her, and she would be made to walk naked around the village for three days, and sand and ash would be constantly thrown at her as she walked. Every person she came across on her walk of shame, be it a man, woman, or a child, must shout ‘uwayi’ and throw anything filthy at her; spitting or urinating on her is allowed. After the three days of the walk of shame, she will be kept back inside the hut for more than seven days until her husband is properly buried. A black goat will be killed to appease the gods, and at midnight of the eighth day of releasing her from the hut, a white goat will be killed as a sign of peace. That night, she will be banished from the village and banned from ever returning to her husband’s village and seeing her children.
The thought of never seeing her two beautiful children brought hot tears to her eyes. A curse will be placed on her, and if she ever comes close to any of her children, gives or receives anything from them, her death sentence and theirs will automatically be sealed. They can never be together again, and her family must return her bride price and dowry to her husband’s family as a sign of disconnect.
Just as she couldn’t imagine herself drinking the water used to rinse her husband’s corpse, she also couldn’t stand the fact that she would never see her children again. She had to choose between two evils and knew she would choose the lesser evil. She will allow the gods to decide her fate. Her children needed her, and she needed them, too. She knew the gods could sometimes be unreasonable in their actions, but she was willing to gamble her fate with them rather than be humiliated for a crime she was sure she didn’t commit.
‘Did you?’ she was lost in her own thoughts and didn’t hear what Ene said to her, ‘did what?’ she asked the older woman. ‘Did you sleep with another man?’ Ene repeated the question, ‘No,’ she replied calmly. She was determined not to allow her anger to show. ‘Did any man ask you out?’, ‘No,’ she answered again. ‘Think carefully, Onyema, before you answer,’ Ene advised her, ‘I said no,’ she replied ever so calmly, ‘Onyema, you are a beautiful career woman working and living in the big city, I’m sure countless men would have sought your attention,’ Ene queried her. ‘Does Alekwu also fall upon a woman who gets admired by men?’ she asked sarcastically, hoping to mock her at her ridiculousness. Her sarcasm caused the entire hut to be silent, and the women turned their full gaze on. ‘Onyema, did any man admire you before your husband became sick,’ Ene asked her pointedly, ‘please try and remember,’ another woman spoke from the doorway. At this point, an unexplainable fear descended on her. She wasn’t certain why she became afraid all of a sudden, but she was afraid. She could feel her palm getting cold, and she started perspiring profusely. For the first time in her stay inside the hut, she was glad the room wasn’t well-lit.
Men had always admired her beauty; she knew she was above average in her looks, and as a corporate banker, she met different men every day in her line of work. The shy ones admire her with their eyes, while the bold ones tell her outrightly how beautiful she looks. Few expressed their desire to have her, and she always showed them her wedding ring and politely explained that she was happily married.
‘Onyema?’ Ene called her softly, ‘yes, men admired me, but I swear I always rejected them, and I never slept with any of them,’ she pleaded with her. ‘Did you tell your husband about these men?’ another woman asked her, ‘no, it wasn’t serious, and not like these men bothered me or anything,’ she answered them. ‘Had any of them ever given you money?’ Ene asked. ‘No,’ she answered with a bit of irritation. She wasn’t wealthy but comfortable and would never ask any man for money. She earned a good salary, and her husband owned a very profitable business. For them to assume she will be unfaithful to her husband because of money made her feel sick.
‘Onyema, did any man that ever admired you get you a gift?’ Ene continued as though she didn’t sense her irritation previously, ‘I get gifts from my clients, some to appreciate me for a job well done or to get a favour from me, and Ochayi knows about these gifts because I always brought them home,’ she explained. ‘Okay, Onyema did anybody that ever admired you give you a gift that wasn’t related to your job, but he pretended or rather he made it look like it was a job-related gift, but deep down inside, you both knew it wasn’t job-related,’ Ene inquired, ‘this gift should have arrived few days before your husband fell ill, please try and remember,’ another woman inside the hut added. She tried to remember if any such gift had come her way, and then it hit her, Richard!
Richard was her client; he liked her and showed his admiration for her by sending her a rose and a wristwatch. Though she told him she was married and would never leave her husband or be unfaithful towards him, he assured her that he understood but only wanted to be her friend. She accepted his gift two days before her husband fell ill. She didn’t tell Ochayi about it because she felt it wasn’t important, and after all, the note that accompanied the gift read, ‘Thank you, Mrs. Onyema, for helping me seal the deal, yours faithfully, Richard.’ These were the type of gifts her clients usually sent to her to appreciate her services. Though, if she had to be honest, she knew Richard’s intentions towards her weren’t altogether right.
She didn’t know she had been lost in her thoughts for quite a long time till she heard someone clear her throat. Even in the dim room, she could see multiple pairs of eyes all staring at her. She knew she had to think fast. She couldn’t possibly tell them that Richard admired her and sent her a gift, they would think the worst of her, and she wasn’t even sure if the act constituted a crime to send the ancestors' head hunters after her. ‘No. nobody gave me any gifts my husband wasn’t aware of, she told the women but looked pointedly at Ene when she asked the next question, ‘But if such happens, does Alekwu hunt the family?’ Ene looked at her intensely for a few seconds before she responded with a ‘yes.’ ‘What if the woman is not aware?’ she asked. ‘Onyema, ignorance isn’t an excuse; the gods do not believe in man’s ignorance, but I can remember vividly when we welcomed you into our village, we spelt out clearly the dos and don’ts of our culture,’ Ene told her with a bit of suspicion in her voice. ‘You people only said I shouldn’t be unfaithful to my husband, that I shouldn’t cross over his food or cutleries, I shouldn’t...’ she wasn’t allowed to finish her statement as Ene interpreted her and shouted at her, ‘so you collected a gift from a lover!’. ‘He wasn’t my lover! And I never agreed to date him!’ she shouted back at her.
It was after the words came out of her mouth that she realised she had just confessed. She knew nobody would allow her to explain herself. It wasn’t really her fault; she did not know that receiving gifts from an admirer without telling her husband would send the Oracle after her poor husband. It wasn’t her fault; she kept repeating this statement to herself as the tears flowed down her lean cheeks. The gods should have understood she didn’t know her actions would have led to the death of their dear son, her husband. She couldn’t imagine the pain and humiliation she would pass through for the next few weeks. She knew it would have been better if she were dead.
When she looked around, she discovered she was alone in the hut. She didn’t realise the other women had left the hut when she raised her voice against Ene. She knows she will be punished for her abominable act of shouting back at Ene, and she readied herself to be humiliated again. The punishments and humiliations ahead are going to be far worse; this is only the beginning. As the two women entered the room with their old, dirty-looking clay pot, she thought, the gods were definitely going to be blamed for everything...
Chikanma Charity is passionate about writing. She loves reading, travelling, and exploring new things and sites. She graduated from the Maritime Academy of Nigeria Oron and hopes to bag a Master's degree in Management someday.