“Koko, are you listening to me?” asked Atim as she realized that her cousin had not responded to anything she had said to her in the last few minutes. Looking up she noticed the faraway look in Koko’s eyes and panicked “Koko, is it the baby? Are you in pain?” she questioned as she grabbed her cousin’s hand and shook it. “Say something, anything. Oh! Abasi mbok“* she cried in Efik as she threw up her hands towards the sky.
Nothing could have prepared Koko for this moment even though some of the older women in her family had told her what to expect. No-one could have accurately described the way her heart would leap for joy or how overwhelmingly protective she would become when she felt the butterfly-like flutter of movement in her womb for the very first time.
“Really? Can I feel it too?” Atim asked as she reached for Koko’s tummy.
“I don’t think so. It’s early days yet but I promise as soon as the movements become stronger, I will let you feel it” Koko consoled her disappointed cousin.
As they carried on with their washing in the slow-moving shallow stream, Koko’s mind wandered. She thought about her unborn baby. Would it be a boy or a girl? She prayed her first born would be a boy. Girls were of little or no value to the Efiks and as a third wife, having a boy first would give her a firmer footing in her husband’s family. However she would love her child fiercely whichever sex it turned out to be.
“I overheard my father and the elders talking about the missionaries that have come to Calabar. The white men are bringing a new religion and say there is only one God. They say that our customs and traditions are barbaric. The elders say that the missionaries are trying to ruin our way of life and there was talk of going to war with them. Koko, I’m scared.”
“Which customs do the white men say are barbaric?” quizzed Koko.
“The human sacrifices offered on the death of chiefs, they call us ‘cannibals’ for eating human flesh and say the ritual killing of twins is wrong. They also challenge the way we women are treated as less than human as their God says that man and woman are equal. Can you believe that?”
“Hmm! I noticed the unrest amongst our men folk but did not understand the reason behind it. My husband and his friends have been sitting around drinking for the last few days and the wives and children have been keeping out of the way as we sensed something was amiss. Oh Abasi! I pray the gods deliver us from war with the white men.” Koko clutched her tummy protectively as she spoke but kept her real thoughts to herself. What if she was carrying two babies in her womb? She would be stripped naked, beaten, cast out of the village with her ‘evil babies’ and driven to the evil forest where they would be left to be eaten by wild beasts or starve to death.
Fear tightened its vice-like grip on her heart. It would be better to give birth to a girl than to have twins. Her people believed that having two babies at once was an aberration of nature, an abomination. Countless sets of twins and their mothers had been exiled as the Efiks believed they would bring a curse on the entire community. She had secretly mourned these women and their babies but never dared reveal her grief to anyone as any sympathisers stood the risk of excommunication.
“Atim, let us return to the village, it is getting late and it is my turn to cook my husband dinner.” Koko said as she balanced her basin of washed clothes on her head and waded to the shore. The wives took it in turns to cook meals for their husband as well as perform nightly conjugal duties. There hadn’t been much of the latter recently due to her pregnancy but she still had to prepare his food when her turn came round.
As they approached the village, there appeared to be some sort of commotion as they heard the sound of drums, gongs and people chanting and shouting loudly.
Hurrying toward the village square where the noise was coming from, Koko feared for her life as she suspected this might be dreaded arrival of the white men which could only spell disaster and unrest in the village. Efik men were extremely proud and would not take kindly to being told to change the ways of their forefathers.
The village square was full; it seemed everyone had gathered there. She joined the crowd, carefully shielding her bump with one hand while holding on to the basin on her head with the other.
As she peered through the throng, she was able to make out the Obong* and some of the elders talking to someone she couldn’t quite see. One of the elders moved and she gasped as she realized the person they were talking to was a woman! A white woman! She had heard of the white missionaries who had come to Calabar but she, like the rest of the people, thought they were all men.
A sudden silence fell on the group as someone shouted out that the foreigner was addressing them in Efik! They had heard that the white men always spoke through interpreters so this was completely new.
“Good people of Old Town, I bring you greetings. My name is Mary and I have come to tell you about a Saviour who loves you and will save you from death. I bring the white man’s medicine for your sicknesses. I have come to teach your wives to keep the home and children clean and to prevent disease.”
The Obong would not speak to her directly but ordered the elders to bring Mary to his palace for further discussion.
The crowd started to disperse but people still clustered together in front of huts as they like Koko wondered what the village head would do with Mary. Would he kill her or simply ask her to leave their village?
“Koko, don’t insult me oh! I will not stand for your impudence.”
Koko attempted to reply, stepping back at the same time to keep the older lady from poking her wagging finger in her eye.”But, Mama Okon, all I said was…”
“I know exactly what you said, Koko”. Mama Okon cut in angrily. “You think you are smarter than everyone else just because Ma Mary is teaching you from the white man’s book. You forget I am older than you and was married into this home long before you. If not for the child you carry in your womb, ma Abasi*”, she swore while slapping her chest, “I would have taught you a lesson or two”.
Koko gripped her tummy and moaned. She had been having pains in her tummy all day but since they were quite irregular she had put it down to false labour. However this appeared to be the real thing.
“Mama Okon, please help me,” she pleaded as she doubled over in pain, reaching out to the wall to steady herself.
“My dear, that’s an age-old trick. I already said I wasn’t going to hit you so there’s no need to pretend,” sneered Mama Okon, kissing her teeth in disgust as she walked away when Koko’s scream brought her to a halt.
“Oh, my God! You’re serious! Okon,” she yelled “Get the midwife”
“Please call Ma Mary,” Koko managed to call out in between taking deep breaths and yelling out in pain. She was desperate for Ma Mary to attend her birth as she had done for several other women in the village for not only had she promised to be there but there was just something about her that put the women at ease.
Koko counted herself privileged to be one of the women the Obong had permitted Ma Mary to teach the ways of the white man. She had learned so much from this humble woman who had managed to bring the Obong to her way of thinking regarding some of their ancient and barbaric customs without resorting to violence. There was still the issue of the killing of twins and their mothers but Ma Mary was confident that the Obong and elders would come round eventually.
Several hours after Ma Mary and the midwife arrived Koko gave birth to a healthy boy. Koko gazed down in wonder as the child suckled, enjoying the close bond when she suddenly felt a sharp pain in her abdomen. She cried out as it was followed by another and even more in quick succession.
“Oh Abasi, save us!” cried the midwife. Koko was giving birth to a second baby!
*Abasi, mbok – Please God
*Ma Abasi – by God!