Our Sunday morning began with Papa Ubong chasing little Ubong out of their little hut with a machete. He threatened to cut the little girl to pieces if she ever stepped foot into his hut or compound ever again. Mama Ubong stood helplessly watching her husband whom she honoured and respected chase her daughter Ubong whom she loved so much around their compound. She was her only daughter, the only girl among seven boys and her husband’s favourite at one time. She had waited many years to conceive this child and when her husband had first held her in his hands, he had said she reminded him of his mother who had died when he was very young. He had even called her “Mama” as a pet name. Today her husband stood brandishing a machete threatening to use it on her, all because the local priest popularly known as Pastor had claimed the child was a witch and had eaten some of his family members and caused all the misfortune in their family and that of the neigbours!
It was true little Ubong had lost an uncle some weeks back, even though Pastor had been praying, binding and casting out all the demons for the man to get well, he had still been called to the great beyond after a very painful battle with Malaria in his Mosquito infested compound. Papa Ubong’s farm had also not been doing very well and he couldn’t frequent his favourite Palm Wine bar the way he used to in the past because he had no money to pay for the liquor he loved so much. He was also a very proud man and would never buy any thing on credit nor borrow money from any one for his indulgence. He hated owing money and worst of all, hated the thought that he couldn’t afford to indulge in his favourite past time which was drinking.
This morning Pastor had rushed to their hut and calling Papa Ubong to the back yard had whispered to him that God Almighty had sent him, to tell him that little Ubong was a witch and the cause of the ruin of his business and all the deaths in the family this past year, more misfortune and deaths were to come if the child wasn’t brought to his church for cleansing and delivarance. Seeing he had the older man’s attention, he went on. Little Ubong he claimed, flew at night and ate human flesh in the spirit world and had to be brought to his church for deliverance from this evil activity and this would cost alot of money as many things needed to be purchased for the success of the spiritual battle. Papa Ubong did not bother with the money he didn’t have and rather than borrow money, he prefered to either kill the girl himself or send her away as other families had done to their possessed children. His wife stood helplessly watching the drama unfold before her eyes. Neigbours also watched the whole scenario from the windows of their huts and their backyards and marvelled at the trend of the so called child witches fast becoming a nuisance in their village . Witches existed quite alright but no one had ever really seen any one in his/her witch state and no one could give a clear description of what a witch looked like nor were there pictures to show what they looked like , were they tall, short fat or slim ? What colour or race were they? All they knew was what they were told which is that they did evil things and the images they had were pure imagination on what evil looked like,which was long teeth for sucking human blood , claws for harming and wings for flying ! little Ubong didn’t have any of these traits.
When Effiok and her little brother were accused of witchcraft, the Spiritualist had ordered their hands burned as punishment for their evil deeds. It was the best way to drive Satan away, the woman Spiritualist had claimed. When the news people had come, she had boldly admitted to them beating her large chest in arrogance, that she had ordered the burning and personally supervised it! The camera had then moved its focus to the children who sat on the floor with their damaged hands held out in pain, they had marks all over their body as they had been badly beaten. One couldn’t help but ponder at the wickedness of people towards these helpless children. A week later , the Police and the News people had paid the Spiritualist a visit and arrested her. After slapping her around a bit, her story changed, she started to weep and deny her earlier bragging claiming she knew nothing about the burning. But cameras did not lie. It was her everyone had seen boasting on the Network news that night. She was taken away and the children taken to the hospital for treatment and different stories about what had possibly happened to her kept filtering back to the village as she never returned.Some said she had died in prison and others said she had bribed the Police and been adviced to relocate.In the cases of other children who were not so lucky to have the Law come to their aid, they were less fortunate,some were beaten by their families or driven away from home out of fear and exposed to the harsh elements where they were left to either die of hunger or fall prey to ritualists or child traffickers. In the worst cases, reports had reached them about some children being killed in some villages another child was said to have had a nail driven into her head by her father! The list of horrors was endless.
Pastor stood watching Papa Ubong rave and rant at the confused and frightened child. The child was about five years old, with unkept hair reddish from dirt, a torn dirty dress and bare feet caked with dirt. So maybe she could pass for a little witch in her unkept state which was no fault of hers, what proof did anyone have that she had killed and eaten people? Or that she took on a different form at night and flew in a groundnut shell to witch meetings in tall iroko trees or plantian trees? People told stories of how children were initiated into the occult through food and little snacks like puff puff and sweets . The so called people, also claimed that when children were initiated at such a young age they were most active as they were eager to please in the coven so they could rise fast through the ranks of witchcraft !
Someone had already gone to call Mr Leslie, the English man who worked at the Children’s home that housed some of the so called witch children. It was a thankless service, as some thought his organisation was encouraging witch craft by protecting these children. Just the other day a group of men had tried to break through the large gates to attack the children and the staff that worked there, a vigilante group was brought to help with the security. When they made attempts to climb over the fence into the compound, the fence had been reinforced and made higher and electric barbed wires carefully attached to the top of the fence to keep these undesirables out. Again another attempt had been made to set the building ablaze, fortunately the arsornists had been caught by the vigilante group and handed over to the Police.
Ubong ran to him when she saw him enter their compound. She hid behind his legs holding on tightly to them, she was shaking from fear. The neigbours watched as Mr Leslie tried to explain to her father and Pastor in pidgin English.
“This pickin no be witch Oga.”
Papa Ubong glared at the man, “Oyibo wetin you sabi? You no know anything, Pastor don pray and E see am say she be witch! I go kill am if she enter my house again!”
Pastor, seeing no money was coming forth from the man turned to the helpless wife and began to explain to the woman. It was essential for the child to be brought to his church for deliverance . He had the power to cast out the demons that had possesed her to commit all the evil deeds he had accused her of. It would help if she could give him some money to purchase some of the requirements. The woman starred at him hopefully, she was willing to do anything to free her only daughter from this bondage. Mr Leslie faced Pastor and asked him why he hadn’t decided to cast out all the demons in the possessd children in the village at once , since God spoke to him directly. Why did alot of money have to be brought to his church before any deliverance session commenced? There was no place in the Bible where anyone charged money for any prayers ! Feeling challenged and at the same time insulted, the so called man of God had walked away.
Seeing Mr Leslie’s pleas were falling on deaf ears, Mama Ubong and other mothers gathered around her husband pleading in tears. His wife held on to the machete in his right hand while the other women held on to his worn shirt. The angry man growled at her, he would not carry out his threat on the condition that his wife took her child for deliverance , how she sourced the money for payement was her business as he had no money. He wasn’t a bad man and would never hurt his child but he didnt want any more calamity in his household. Even if he decided to let her be, bad people in the community might take the law into their hands and do to the child what they thought best and this wasn’t ever good.
After running around to gather money , Mama Ubong went with her daughter to the church. Wincing as she walked in, she cringed at the sight of about twenty other children on the cold floor and the smell. Some were sitting, some were lying on the floor dazed, some were crying and others were throwing up. They ranged from the ages of four to twelve and they were all terribly emaciated and the new arrivals looked terrified. Most children were scared of the dark. One of the church staff explained to her that this was where the children were brought to be purged of evil and confessed their sins. Depending on the degree of posession. Sometimes, they were beaten and locked up for days to undergo a compulsory fast after which they were released and given holy water to drink. After several prayer and deliverance sessions, some of the children either fainted or were made to confess their evil deeds others were said to vomit all satan had planted in him. Some they claimed vomitted birds, frogs, padlocks , keys and other diabolic material which they used in ruining other people’s destinies. Some were given marks with razor blades and bleeding, were forced to confess.Wouldn’t a frightened child say anything to stop torture on his or her young body or to be kept away from the dark ?
The woman held on to her daughter tightly as she was ushered into the Pastor’s consultation room. It was a simple room with two wooden benches and a mat. Pastor sat drinking water from a clay pot in the corner, on seeing them, he gestured to her to sit on the bench close to the door and Ubong to sit on the mat. Placing the now empty cup carefully on the floor, he cleared his throat and asked her if she had the money for the deliverance. He didn’t mind her paying in small instalments as the money was needed for the things he needed to buy for the deliverance. She sat uncomfortably with her hands protectively around her child. Pastor placed his out stretched hands on the child’s forehead and quickly withdrew it as if he had just been burnt.
“ This child has a very serious case of possesion but the devil is a liar, we will cast Satan out of her !” he shut his eyes tightly and went on speaking, “it would cost you alot of money as first we need to put her on one week dry fast. I hope you have some money with you?” he inquired again his eyes quickly checking to see if she had any money in her purse or tied at the edge of her wrapper.
She shivered at the thought of her child locked up in that smelly dark room and starved with those other children. The thought of the possible beatings and trauma. She shook her head to clear the scary images from her head. When he asked her again if she had any money on her, she shook her head again. He looked disappointed, “ You must deposit some money before your child’s delivarance begins,” he insisted, letting go of the child and picking up his Bible and turning his attention away from her.
She nodded respectfully and left with her child held firmly on her back as she hurried home guided by the moonlight. What authority did any human being have to accuse another of withcraft , not to mention innocent children?There an then she made up her mind never to return there, she would go to Mr Leslie. She hurried down the lonely bush path towards her house. All she could hear were night cries of the mating calls of croaking toads, crickets and hooting owls. Wasn’t the hooting of owls a bad sign? Her worn slippers got caught in a creeping shrub, as she struggled to free her foot from the shrub’s unfriendly grasp, she thought she heard footsteps. Turning to confirm, it was too dark to see, as the canopy of the tree she stood under spread far and wide. She quickened her steps and then broke into a run as the footsteps quickened. Someone was chasing her !
As she neared her hut , she felt the footsteps behind her and strong arms grabbed her child. She screamed as she struggled with the mysterious figure. Even though she couldn’t see a face, she could tell it was a man, from his smell, large frame ,hairy arms and strong grip. She screamed again as little Ubong began to cry and beat at the man with her little hands.
“Shut up you foolish woman,” came his rough voice . “How can you let your evil child continue to cause havoc amongst us?”
“My child is innocent,” she cried holding firmly onto her. “She is just a child.”
“You liar! Our crops are drying up and business is bad all because of your evil child” he fought the frigtened woman, surprised at her strength for such a small woman.
“Your crops are dry because there are no rains! Leave my child alone!”
“What is going on there?”, it was her husband. He had a tourch light in one hand and his machete reflected against the moonlight. She could see some of her sons behind him holding sticks. The stranger disappeared into the darkness. She ran towards them releived. Her husband stepped back when he saw her holding on to their daughter.
“Your child..” he began.
His wife interrupted him, “ We are just from the Pastor’s place,” she explained.
He went back to his hut quietly. She went back into her hut where she slept with her daughter. Putting on her bush lamp, she put the frightened child to sleep but stayed awake after bolting her zinc door and pushing one of her iron boxes against it. She packed the child’s clothes and at the same time kept a sharp eye on the child, she wasn’t taking anymore chances, someone could jump in through the small window.
At the first crow of the cock the next morning , she walked through the gates of the Children’s home. Mr Leslie was surprised to see her, as mothers didn’t voluntarily bring their possessed children here themselves. The children being housed here had been rescued from the streets. The woman explained to him that her daughter’s life would be safer here until she got word from her sister in Lagos. Her sister would take the child away to the far city where she could be safe. As she walked away from the reluctant child, she heaved a sigh of releif. She didn’t care what people said or thought, all that mattered to her this very moment was the fact that her daughter was safe. Before she got home, she would make sure she returned all the money she had borrowed this past week. Pastor and his prophesies were of no importance to her anymore. She prayed Mr Leslie and the organisation he worked for would put an end to the flourishing market of Pastor and his friends busy causing confusion in people’s homes by instilling in them the fear of the unknown.