“Did he touch you?”
This has been the prevailing question in my life ever since I wrote the common entrance exam. My parents asked it, over dinner of ‘Lafun and Gbegiri, my mother’s eyes peering into mine as if to will out the answer that would set the course for their future actions. ‘Are you sure he didn’t?’, my sister asked over the phone when she got the news of his lynching. Even Zainab – the girl who sat next to me in class – did when I went to school for my results. It was almost like this singular question would set the tone for my future life and they needed a particular answer to propel me on that path.
I had no right answer for them. Did he touch you? Does that count all the times I jumped into his arms each time he came around and twirled me over his head over and over? Did it count that he had wiped my lips with his thumb whenever I had mango smeared over it?
I had started feeling violated by the question. Each time they said it, they were referring to my private parts and Eedris’ fingers on it. It turned my stomach that my mother imagined Eedris touching me down there. More violated than I imagine I would have felt if he had touched me down there.
“Go have your ablution and wear your white gown. The Alfas are coming soon”, Mama called out from the kitchen.
This was the norm in this household. Whenever anything out of place happened, even if it was a ‘C’ instead of an ‘A’ on a report sheet, the Alfas had to come and sanctify the whole household. The presence of Jinns in our home allowed bad things happen and it is important to chase them out. Chasing them out was a task outsourced to Alfas with flowing white – often turned yellow – gowns and a face full of beards. These righteous men always came drawing on rosaries and mumbling different things. Their lips never rested. Eedris always said they were a fraud, duping people for money in God’s name. He’d said no one could summon God even if they had the power. He said God had too many things to bother with than to show up every time these frauds called upon him. He’d created us, and everything else in the world, and stepped back. Left us to our own devices. Everything else was up to us now, after all, he’d given us intellect and freewill as parting gifts. I had checked out the meaning of fraud in the dictionary and even used it in a sentence in my English paper of the entrance exam. He’d have been so proud, only he wasn’t here to know that.
I washed up quickly, donned my gown and made for the sitting room where the mats were all laid out now. Father had moved the centre table towards the kitchen and spread out the chairs as well. This left a large expanse of space in the middle of the room and the mats were all laid out. Even the mat father brought back from Mecca was spread out. This event must have shaken my parents more than they let on. I wondered how many Alfas were coming to occupy this space.
“As salaam alaykum, Baba.”
“Wa alaykum salaam, Aliyah. Did you sleep well? Do you remember anything now? Did he –”
“No, Baba. Nothing.”
Father still thinks I might remember or dream of something that would lead them to the fact that he touched me. My tummy still aches at the thought. Eedris was the closest person to a friend I ever had, even though he was about twelve years older. He was the elder brother I never had. And he so doted on me. His every visit was a pleasure. He had a way with people in a way I was still learning to emulate. Even Mother called him ‘oko mi’ whenever they conversed.
I proceeded to sit on one of the mats. Father handed me a pamphlet with Arabic inscriptions to read while we awaited the Alfas. I read the letters fluently and wondered if I was a fraud for being so diligent with the readings. I do not believe there’s a higher being waiting upon me to count rosary beads a certain number of times or chant in a strange language before He listened to me. In fact, I don’t believe there is a being waiting to listen. Eedris was right, He’s left us alone and couldn’t be bothered. Hadn’t I called upon him last year for the bike Father promised me, yet I didn’t get any. Same thing last year when senior Tolu forced me into the corner of the classroom after I went back to carry my forgotten lunchbox. He got away with kissing me on the lips and Mr Aminu scolded me for lying against the easy-going head boy. I begged and begged for the news of Eedris’s lynching not be true, but it was even on TV last night. There was no point to anything anymore, and I had watched the news without crying since his death on Thursday.
Mother was still in the kitchen when the Alfas came in. The aroma of fried Akara was all over the house and I could almost swear I saw their eyes lit up at that. They were eight of them, each with a face full of beards of various lengths. One of them held a knapsack which was apparently full of different Arabic books as well as a longboard with Arabic inscription on it. He had the board leaning against Eedris’s favourite chair in the farthest edge of the room.
I had finished my last paper early and was home on Thursday when Toheeb from the next house had knocked on the door frantically, panting “They’re killing him, they are killing him.” Toheeb was a fast talker and troublesome kid who never steered away from trouble. What was he saying? Who was being killed? Why was he breathing down the door in the middle of the afternoon? I looked down on him in confusion. I’d never really liked Toheeb; he’s a very playful boy and was often occupied with kite running and playing with tyres up and down the street. I almost shut the door in his rambling face.
“Uncle Eedris!” he screamed, spit flying from his contorted face and arms flailing.
“Yes, what!” I shouted back, almost spilling the glass of water I held.
“They’re killing him”
“What are you talking about?” I’d moved out of the house now and stood above Toheeb.
He’d grabbed my hands, pulled me off the door and there we went racing towards the junction of Sultan Drive. I could see thick plumes of smoke rising from down the street and was afraid yet curious to discover what it was. I had an inkling, and my heart rose up my throat while my legs ate up the distance rapidly.
I would remember the sight for as long as I live. Boys and girls were chanting ‘bobrisky’ and ‘adofuro’ while older people had their phones up, recording what appeared to be charred remains of two ridiculously shaped burnt humans. Transfixed in disbelief, what struck me most was a man in suits walking on the other side of the road, head bent pressing his phone seemingly oblivious to the scene. Two men had just been lynched and here a man couldn’t spare a glance. Eedris had always said ‘dis life na per head, Aliyah.’ And this seemed like a perfect illustration for that phrase.
The rest of the week, while everyone was talking of his death, the lake of fire and Sodom and Gomorrah, I listened obsessively for all the versions of the story. The neighbours who had always suspected Jide, the other burnt man, was gay. He always wore very short shorts. Always had his nails painted. Always ignored his landlord’s daughter’s advances. I listened to them talk about the caretaker busting into his apartment that afternoon. No, another version said, the door was unlocked, and the caretaker just walked in. Walked in on Eedris and Jide, naked in bed. Their shock. Their pleas. No, they hadn’t begged. Until the tyres were around them. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with fire. The neighbourhood needed cleansing. The mechanic shop supplied petrol and used tyres. No, it was diesel, petrol was scarce, remember? Their screams. Their silence. I could not imagine Eedris that way. Eedris whose laughs were contagious, Eedris who tickled my belly till I cried out in laughter, Eedris who always helped with my assignments.
“You are so brilliant, Aliyah. I could never do these equations when I was your age.”
“You lie. Brilliance is from the mother’s side of the family. You must have inherited it as well”.
“See? You’re right. So brilliant. But since your mum is my Dad’s sister, there’s no way I’d have gotten it from him.”
“Oh-oh. You’ll need your mum to be brilliant”.
He’d burst out laughing, “What are you trying to say, Aliyah?”.
The Alfas had settled in now, and each one of them – all eight of them – were reading aloud from the Quran. At some point, one of them would increase his tempo and voice and then revert to the rhythmic din. The sound they were making seemed like bees buzzing. Mother had come over to join us, and unlike Father she didn’t join in in the reading of the Quran, she kept threading her rosary and saying ‘amin’ intermittently.
In my experience, it takes a while for the Alfas to finish buzzing. Normally they divide the Quran into parts and each will attempt to finish his assigned part so that at the end they’d have finished reading the Quran collectively for the ‘saara.’ With the gravity of what just happened, they might decide to go in two times or more. My buttocks were aching already and as I pretended to read from the pamphlet, I allowed their din lull me into nostalgia.
I wondered where Eedris was now. He didn’t believe in heaven nor hell, yet people insisted he was definitely in hell. I wish I knew where he was, I don’t know what I believed in. This made me even more uneasy and I hoped desperately for a sign. We never had a proper goodbye. The last time he was here, he’d teased about my forthcoming exams.
“You should revise your French again. Language evolves daily, you know”.
He’d carried me up at that point and twirled me again. The ground was spinning below him, I could see his grinning face, his crinkly eyes, his gap tooth and plump lips. I imagined what it’ll be like having his lips on mine the way they did in the movies my sister watched alone in her room whenever she was home. Looking down at the world from his arms, everything was perfect.
“So, can she remember anything? Did anything happen?” the Alfa with the flowing brown jacket asked. He had the biggest beard of them all and seemed to be their leader.
He was asking about the situation months ago that everyone kept referring to. The one time I had spent a weekend with Eedris at his new apartment. Father and Mother had travelled for a wedding that Saturday and was stranded. They could not get back early so they had called Eedris to come to pick me up and take me to his parents’ house till the next day. I was able to persuade him to go to his new apartment instead. Since it was closer, and he had appeared to be tired that day, he had agreed. We only had to call the family to let them know where we were. It was one of the best weekends I have had ever, and it was an ordeal to come back home the next day.
“No, nothing,” Father said.
“Subhanallah. Could be nothing happened. Allahu a’lam.”
“Na’am,” Father returned, pressing his lips into a thin line.
“He came here often?”
“Yes yes. Almost every week, always helped with her homework. Washed my car many times.”
“Na’am na’am,” the Alfa replied, nodding his head.
He proceeded to start reciting what seemed like prayers, and the others joined in, until it seemed like a well-rehearsed number. Mother kept saying ‘amin’. I looked on at the scene from outside of my body. Very detached from all they were saying, I desperately wanted to be in my room. There were white bowls which were mother’s favourite in front of them. Every time they started a new chant, they said a prayer in the native language, and almost like that was a cue, mother and father stepped forward to drop money in the bowls. This went on about four times. They prayed for forgiveness for Eedris, prayed for Allah to cleanse me of whatever jinn might have possessed my body from Eedris’s place. They prayed my virginity was still intact and asked God to protect whatever might be left of it.
“Na’am, Abu Aliyah. Only Allah knows what happened. We have cast and bind any form of jinns in this house. By his grace, your household is safe.”
“Alhamdulillah,” Mother and Father said at the same time.
“You have to be watchful from now on. Tie your camel, and Allah will protect you. Be careful of who you allow around your children. Female children are fragile gifts from God. The prophet said whosoever has three daughters and he accommodates them, shows mercy toward them, and supports them, Paradise is guaranteed for him. Female children are bonuses for you, Abu Aliyah, and you must take extra care. Did you have them circumcised at birth?
“No. No, Alfa. They said there was no need to.”
“Ah, Audhubillah, the western culture of nowadays. You have to o, in fact, the prophet recommended it. How old are they, Aliyah and her elder sister?”
Father looked to Mother at this point. “Aliyah is nine, Aminah is sixteen.” Mother said.
“Ah, you can still do it for Aliyah. Aminah is too old. Alfa Najibullah does circumcision of all ages and people, you should talk to him. He can have it done by tomorrow.” The Alfa continued. “Abu Aminah, Umm Aminah, it’s important you do it. It helps against promiscuity. Especially in this civilised world that you don’t know what’s happening with female children once they go to school.
I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Female circumcision was one of those things Eedris said was barbaric. He’d said it was even worse than getting tribal marks. Tribal marks were the cruellest, ugliest things I could imagine. He promised to tell me more about female circumcision after my exams. He also said it was called FGM. I could not remember the full meaning of that abbreviation.
The other alfas were nodding in agreement, and my parents looked contrite.
“Na’am, Alfa. I will talk to Alfa Najibullah about it.”
“Alhamdulillah. Toor, we are about done here,” he said, gathering his jacket around him. “May Allah accept our prayers and ease our affairs.”
Mother went into the kitchen, and she came out now with two stainless bowls with Akara wrapped in polythene in them. One of the other smaller Alfa moved towards her to collect it while another squatted next to the big Alfa, counting the money in the white bowls and putting it all in a polythene bag he held.
I sat transfixed as everyone moved around me. Even Father had gotten up now and was shaking some of the other alfas in salaam.
Aminah said it was called female genital mutilation and that it involved cutting part of the vagina. She said it was very harmful and that she volunteered with an organisation that did outreaches advising people against it. She had come home from school when Mother informed her about it, and they had both tried convincing Father.
“Umm Aminah, you were there when Alfa said it. I have called Alfa Najibullah and spoken to him about it. It was hard convincing him. He said Aliyah had passed the prime age and the cutting will be difficult. Some people lose so much blood that they do not survive it. It’s a great risk he’s taking to help us uphold Allah’s commandment.”
“But she doesn’t have to do it. Aminah is doing fine without it,” Mother said, wringing her hands.
“It’s Allah’s commandment and it’s for her own good. You should know better. You did it and you’re better for it. Alfa Najibullah will be coming here tomorrow and that is Allah’s decree.
That was one of the ways Father shut down discussions at home. Allah’s decree.
It was Allah’s decree that Eedris went the way he did. Allah’s decree that he took a second wife. Allah’s decree that he had to sell Mother’s land years after he retired. It was always His decree and not his. And that always reeked of irresponsibility to me.
We were eating at the dining table now – Lafun and Gbegiri made by Mother. Father sat at the head of the table and Aminah opposite me. I remember Eedris sitting at the head of the table, laughing, and playing Monopoly with me. Eedris with the hairy arms and deep chuckles. Eedris who understood me perfectly the way no one else ever could. Well, almost perfectly. He had no idea how I felt about him? He had chosen someone else – a man, at that, over me. Look where that got him. Dead. Dead.
I still do not know what to make about it all. He had told me once that some people prevented other people from being with who they love, and it did not make any sense to me why anyone would do that. I had told him that and his exact words were “It’s the oppression of the highest order. The oppressed keep living in a world where everyone else gets that very thing they are denied. The whole basis of oppression is the loser knowing something is snatched from them, even if the oppressor cannot fathom the magnitude of what he steals from them”. In all his sayings, he never once mentioned he’ll be the illustration of oppression for me. He had to have loved the Jide guy, right? Else he would not have been naked with him on the bed. He loved someone else. Look where that got him. And me. Us. I wish he’d touched me, before what they are about to do to me down there.
I watched others gulp down their meals. They do not seem to have anything to worry about. I was the total opposite. I cannot eat or sleep or stop my hands from shaking. As soon it’s morning, I have to leave this place. In fact, before the sun rises. Before the house awakens for the morning prayer. There was no way I could imagine a sharp knife in my vagina. I had held a kitchen knife against the folds of skin down there, hoping to imagine what the pain might feel like. The coldness of the steel on my flesh was enough to make me back out. I have to protect myself now.
After clearing my unfinished plate, I immediately went back to my room. I needed to plan how to leave this place. My first thought was to go to Eedris’s place but then I immediately remember he’s the reason I am in this mess right now. And he’s no more. I think I have enough money in my piggy bank. The yellow-coloured plastic pig he had gotten me last year. I broke it open now and out came enough money to possibly survive for a week. I’ll take an early morning bus and go to Ibadan. It’s eight hours from here, enough distance to be away from these people. I’ll miss Mother. And Father. I will write them a letter, I muttered as I start packing my school bag. Eedris’s big t-shirt that I often slept in went in first.
I was sleeping in a curled position on the floor when I heard a knock on the door. A pen fell away from my grasp and dropped on the long piece of paper in from of me. Aminah was at the door, silhouetted against the light in the passageway.
“It’s time for salah, Sis. Wake up.”
She came in and drew my curtains. It was morning and the sun was up in the sky. ‘Dear Mami’ was written boldly at the top of the paper.
Destiny awaits. Allah has decreed.
Mariam Adetona is a mental health advocate, writer, and medical student at the University of Ilorin. She runs a bimonthly newsletter where she talks about positive psychology topics such as resilience, positive thinking, the power of incremental changes, etc. She writes across genres and her writing has been on Aljazeera, Popula, Meeting of Minds, Punocracy, etc. She was longlisted for Punocracy Prize for Satire 2020. She runs a literary outfit ‘The Shade Book Club’ in Ilorin, Nigeria, and believes in the restorative powers of ice-cream and chocolate chip cookies.
Twitter handle: @Amamayoyo
Instagram handle: @maryamtona
Photo by Nathan Wright on Unsplash