I cannot remember her name any longer but I remember her face. She was tall and slim and unarguably one of the prettiest girls in my class. I had a crush on her and I never forgot how I often stole glances in her direction. She looked best when her head was braided. I bore the image of her smile on one of the pages of my mind and I easily flip back to it when I wanted. Thinking about her simply gave me pleasure.
She was not one of the brightest in my class but the teachers in my school always chose her to present welcome songs with other girls during occasions. She was the one that gave flowers to the bishop when he visited our school. And when my school staged a beauty parade showcasing traditional wears of Nigerian tribes, she was chosen to dress like the Fulanis.
I knew she liked me because of my grades but I never knew if she realized that I liked her. I felt uneasy whenever I saw her on the school walkway. Several times I turned to take another way whenever I sighted her, I was shy.
Then came our school’s graduation ceremony for the year. She was one of those promoted from Primary two to Primary three class. After, I was called upon to receive a prize, she came to me full of smiles, “Congrats, Okey!” she said. She held my hands and shook it. I felt like a prince. If there was anything I looked forward to doing in the next term- it was to tell her she was my princess. I decided I was not going to feel shy any longer when I see her. I would stand shoulder to shoulder with this damsel.
My first day in Primary three class was not as exciting as I had thought it would be. She was not present in class. And then, there was this rumour making rounds in class that she was an ‘ogbanje.’ I challenged the chief rumour monger and he said, “her family stays around mine. She has been sick and when the doctors could not cure her, she was taken to a native doctor and he said she is an ogbanje.”
“Yess!!” others echoed in class. Then Juliet, the naughtiest girl whom I detested so much screamed, “Your wife is an ogbanje!”
I could hear others giggle.
My friends protested. And they asked me, “Okey na true?” “Okey is it true?”
In anger I blurted out, “it’s not true.”
“You think we don’t know? We dey see you.”
And the girls in my class started singing, “Your wife is an Ogbanje!” “Your wife is an Ogbanje!” They all fixed their gaze on me as they sang.
I felt like kicking Juliet. I had fought with her before. But I was not going to do so anymore. The last time it happened, my class teacher flogged me. My father heard about it and hit me several times on my bum with his slippers. Even my neighbour, Uncle Akubuiro pulled my ears and warned me. The next day the school headmistress called Juliet and I, out at the Assembly ground and we were booed by the teachers and other pupils before she gave us six strokes of cane each.
Suddenly, my friends started laughing; some of them joined the girls screaming. Akay stood beside me. He did not join in the rant but he was laughing. I felt like punching him but that would have only made matters worse. I left them all and ran to the lobby of the school toilet. I was all alone. I was sad. The word “Ogbanje” kept re-echoing in my head.
I first heard the word from a TV drama. My elder siblings, parents and neighbours loved the drama and talked so much about it. It was the NTA Ibadan drama that won the 1988 edition of TELEFEST competition. They talked about the girl that played ‘abiku’ and how good she interpreted her role. When I asked them what abiku was, they told me it meant- a child that had powers, who communed with spirits and brought calamity to the family. Such a child does not live to adulthood and it meant ‘Ogbanje’ in Igbo.
I could remember how scared I was on the night of the drama. I was afraid, wondering if I was an Ogbaje too. In the middle of the night I looked at the glass windows and doors afraid, thinking that the father spirit would come.
And hearing that the girl I admired so much was an Ogbanje drove me crazy. I was lost in my thoughts until Edwin tapped me on the shoulders reminding me that it was time to play football.
When she came to school the next day, the girls gathered at a corner of the class discussing about her in hushed tones. She was alone on her seat and the seats beside her were empty. No one wanted to come near her.
The boy who said she was her neighbour pointed at the tribal mark on her forehead. It was new. I had never seen it before.
Juliet rushed to where the boys were staying and whispered, “She has more scars on her stomach, the native doctor gave it to her.”
Then she walked towards where the girls were staying but they dispersed before she got to them.
One of the girls screamed, “Dem say you be Ogbanje, no touch me o!”
But she smiled and pursued them. She got to where the boys were and they moved away. She ran back to the girls but they moved away from her too . Now everyone was giggling. It had turned into a game. I hid myself in the crowd because I was not enjoying it.
She smiled when she saw me. When she moved her slender frame running to where I was, the other boys ran away. I stood still. As she approached me, fear suddenly engulfed me. I could hear “husband and wife!” chants. She placed her arms over my shoulders. I closed my eyes and felt shivers.
“Okey ! Okey! This is ‘touch and follow.’ You have become Ogbanje too,” the other kids shouted.
I was devastated. But I looked at her face and she still bore a smile.
The screams continued until my class teacher came and chased everyone of us back to the classroom.
I took my bath several times at home later that day to wash away whatever spell she must have cast on me. I did not have the guts to tell my parents or siblings about it. That night, I knelt down before a crucifix and prayed for my life. I cannot remember if I prayed for her.
The next day, I was sober and ignored all the haggling from my classmates. But something stunned me, she was not in school. The following day too and the rest of the time we spent in primary school, she never showed up again. I do not know what became of her. Could it be she died like other ogbanjes or she was thrown into an evil forest or she just wanted to save me from embarrassment and decided not to come to school anymore?
I wondered about it all, during my remaining years in Primary School and I still wonder today.