My Uncle, Ben, was a big man. Nene, my grandmother and his mother, had always complained about his difficult birth. “He was too big,” she would say, as she eyed his huge, imposing frame from the corner where she would be sitting, brewing herbal medicine. “The midwives struggled to hold the bulk of him”.
Indeed, the big man had to meander through our door to come in on the Sundays he showed up with his family of a wife and a two-year old son. He would put up his hand as soon as he got in and raise his voice in greeting, “Wadoo! Wadoo!” his vocal cords just as thick as his size. His lips formed a large ‘O’ anytime he greeted, making his round, very chubby face inflate more. His head was bald; a genetic trait it seemed, as my father, his brother, was bald as well. They both had the habit of running their hands over the naturally fresh skin atop their heads whenever they got impatient.
Uncle Ben liked to dress sharp. He always wore carefully-starched office shirts, neatly knotted, dark-coloured ties, and wide suit trousers on his long, athletic legs; the gators on the trousers so prominent that they looked capable of peeling Hausa yam.
He walked almost as a spring would, as though he was always in a hurry.
And it did seem like he was always in a hurry. He flung wads of naira out of his luxurious jeep window to villagers scrambling to get a glimpse of him as he drove to our family house in the village at Christmas without slowing the vehicle down. My brother and I would turn to the rear windscreen, our knees on the lush backseat to get a fast-disappearing glimpse of flying naira notes in dusty air and the mob of villagers hailing the speeding car and chanting in glee: “Uncle Ben! Uncle Ben! Omo’ no Omo! A child that is a child! Wa do ghe! Come and see! Ben Vhare ohhh! Ben has come!”
He sat as though he was in a hurry as well, only sitting with ‘half-buttocks’ and shifting his weight from side to side. He would tap his feet impatiently on the ground and check his watch from time to time at very long village or family meetings. When his phone rang, he would spring up automatically and walk briskly away to answer. Most of the time, he never came back.
When he returned from business trips, he would park his car outside—the doors and boot thrown wide open—and lean on the bonnet, a broad smile on his face as we all came out to welcome him, the children shouting excitedly—”Uncle Ben has come! Uncle Ben has come!” They would struggle to get into the car seats filled with ‘Goodies from the Abroad’ and would struggle to come out as well, each child clutching some kind of ‘Goody’—candy, sugar bread, canned soft drinks and so on. Then, they would run to my generous uncle and all kneel in front of him in appreciation. “Uncle Ben, thank you! Uncle Ben, O bi u”.
Uncle Ben was the most popular man in the village. He was the only man who would get a reserved seat during meetings even when the elders and the Odionwere, the oldest man in the village, had not gotten one to sit. He would walk into the market place on a busy market day and the women would all abandon their stalls and rally round him, singing and dancing. “Uncle Ben Vhare! Uncle Ben has come!”
My brother and I mimicked the village women and children in the privacy of our room when we got back to Benin from the village. I would act like a market woman, playing around with my mother’s Ukuse and dancing in circles, while my brother would be Uncle Ben, hands in his pockets, a proud smile on his face and walking away on his spring-heels. Aunty Osana, Uncle Ben’s wife, caught us role-playing once. We had stood, transfixed, as she slowly comprehended what was going on. Then, she smiled knowingly and walked quietly away. We never acted Uncle Ben again.
Truly, Uncle Ben travelled, moved around, and mixed with people a lot. So, when Aunty Osana had made a distress call to my father one day saying that her husband had not returned home, called or returned her calls since he went to see some friends the previous night, my father was not perturbed.
“You know Ben, Osana. Wait a while. He’s probably visiting someone in another city, drinking beer and eating suya. He will soon be back,” he said.
Uncle Ben was not back the next day so the friends he went to see that night were contacted and asked about his whereabouts. They confirmed that Uncle Ben had had some drinks with them but did not stay for more than three hours. According to them, he had kept checking his watch and had complained that he had spent so much time. He had to hurry home to complete a business report he was working on and had even joked that his wife would flog him for coming home late.
Before the friend who was narrating the story could finish, my father had ended the call and dialled Uncle Ben’s again. It went straight to voicemail. He called Uncle Ben’s secretary at the office and the feminine voice at the other end of the line said that my uncle had not reported to the office since morning.
My father called D.P.O. Sanusi immediately he hung up. I could hear our divisional police officer’s croaky voice on the other end of the line as he spoke to my father but could not catch anything they said. Minutes later however, two police officers in their black Hilux jeeps arrived at Uncle Ben’s house and were asking questions.
“You say e comot yesterday? E nor come house again?” One of them asked Uncle Ben’s wife in vernacular English as another one walked around the living room; admiring the beautiful, silky curtains, extravagant chandeliers and expensive-looking sofas, a lit cigarette in between his lips. I thought of Uncle Ben, and how he would have reacted to someone smoking cigar in his living room.
“Yes. He left to see some friends yesterday evening and did not return,” Aunt Osana answered the officer, her voice breaking.
The policemen then asked if he had taken his personal belongings with him, if he told his wife anything before he left, if he had been acting strangely that week, if he was involved in illegal businesses, if he had many enemies. Aunt Osana answered all their questions.
“Is that his car?” The second officer removed the cigarette from his lips and pointed towards the car garage outside, where a Mercedes jeep rested.
“Did he not take his car?”
“He took his other car. A Jaguar,” Aunt Osana replied.
The two policemen exchanged glances.
“So, na so the man get money? Where e for dey work?” The first officer asked.
Nene burst out then. “What is your business with my son’s money, ehn? We are saying that he is missing, that we have not seen him since yesterday, and that you should find out what has happened, and you are talking and talking. You are telling us he has money. We know that already! Go and look for my son! Go and look for him!”
“Nene, it’s okay. O ni seh. Let me talk to them outside,” my father said and gestured to the men to go outside.
“You see those small boys? If they don’t know their job they should tell us! See the way that one that is asking me about my son’s work is looking like they are doing him in the coven. Even the other one sef…” Nene muttered as they walked out of the room.
“Nene, it’s okay. O ni seh” My mother said calmly, sighing in exasperation.
When my father came back into the house and the policemen had left, he told us that the policemen suspected that Uncle Ben had been abducted. My father’s and Uncle Ben’s cousins, Uncle Akhabue and Uncle Okunwe who were connected to us through the telephone did not think so. The kidnappers would have called to ask for ransom, they argued. My father agreed with them, but said that the police promised to conduct more investigations into the matter and find out if my uncle was truly kidnapped.
The third night, my father went out with his friends to look for his brother as there were no further reports from the police. Aunty Osana and Little Bobo, her son had come to our house then. She had started panicking, pacing up and down our living room and stopping to sigh deeply at intervals. She had not eaten since her husband disappeared but when my mother offered her food, she said she was not hungry.
“Osana, eat your food. Rhe Ebare,” my mother advised. “Uncle Ben will return soon. I have already prayed that Papa Daniel brings good news. Just have faith”
My father returned that night with no news concerning Uncle Ben.
By the seventh day, our family had reported the news of my missing uncle to numerous radio and television stations, offering a large amount of money in exchange for information about him. Missing person posters which contained a recent snapshot of my uncle were placed on every street junction in the city. I was the one who had taken the photograph on the posters—at my second cousin, Uyi’s wedding—at the beginning of that year. Uncle Ben had placed his hand on his rounded stomach hidden by his Agbada in a pose, and had smiled at the camera, saying to me; “Oya, snap. Make sure it’s fine o”.
Two days after the news about my missing uncle was aired on media, my father got an anonymous phone call. The male voice at the end of the line said that he had seen someone who resembled my uncle—from the photograph on the posters.
We were all seated in the living room—My brother, Daniel and I, Aunty Osana and her son, My mother and my grandmother, and my Uncles Akhabue and Okunwe, when my father left once more in response to the call. We sat the same way when he returned at midnight with four friends and the newly-found Uncle Ben.
My father and his friends struggled to push the trammelled giant into the house amidst screams and gasps from the women. Uncle Ben was laid on the floor tiles, still tied-up and unmoving. Aunty Osana rushed to his side at once, partially blocking my view of him. My mother rushed to my side. Before she could cover my eyes, I saw that Uncle Ben was naked, having only raffia leaves wrapped around his loins. He was lying in a strange position; his thick neck held in such an angle that was sure to ache terribly if he were to remain that way till morning and both of his arms and legs twisted so grotesquely that they could be mistaken for multiple dislocations. His body was caked in mud and dead leaves and his breathing was laboured, as though he had expended a lot of energy trying to struggle with the men who brought him home.
My mother roughly pushed us away towards the rooms.
“Go inside! La ‘ho we khowa! Quick! E gie gie!”
Moments later, it dawned on all of us that something was wrong with Uncle Ben. He was kept fettered in a corner of the room and did not speak coherently to anyone. He would growl and mutter under his breath while he chewed something invisible in his mouth.
My eyes were open throughout the night Uncle Ben was found. I lay on my bed and listened to any sound from the living room where the adults were still patrolling. When I heard Nene cry out again, I whispered quietly to my brother who lay with me on the other side of the bed.
“Are you asleep?” I asked.
“No,” his voice was sharp, as if he had just cleared his throat, or just pushed down saliva.
“Is Uncle Ben…?” I could not complete the sentence. My brother’s hiss bottled up any further attempts at questions.
“Uncle Ben will be fine by tomorrow. Daddy called Doctor Osaighae,” he said coolly. Doctor Osaighae was our family doctor.
Uncle Ben was not fine the next day. Daniel and I watched Doctor Osaighae examine our bound Uncle from an opening in the curtains to the room he was kept in. We did not know what the doctor’s findings were and we never got to know. That evening, Nene yelled loudly at my father and his cousins Uncles Akhabue and Okunwe, asking them to fetch someone called Anini from a faraway town. My father talked slowly and calmly at first, until his voice became louder and thicker. Nene started hitting my father’s chest with a clenched fist, finding it difficult to stand properly on her wavering leg as she dished seemingly inefficient blows at his chest.
“Let’s go,” my brother was tugging at my sweater. I refused to move. I did not know when he retreated into the rooms. My gaze was on the scene before me.
My mother came in then from hanging her clothes outside and tried to pull Nene away from my father.
“You don’t want your brother to be well again, ehn?!” Nene was shouting at the top of her cracked voice. “You don’t want him to be healthy! You want to make sure I won’t have my son back. I won’t be surprised if you caused this—if you joined them!” Nene was shouting at the top of her cracked voice.
My father was straightening his wrinkled shirt and muttering under his breath. His hand ran through his head impatiently.
Nene’s words reminded me of what my mother had said to Aunt Osana once.
“Our mother-in-law does not like my husband. My husband is the first born but Uncle Ben has money so to her he is the first”.
“Nene, it’s okay. Oni she,” my mother said now, still holding on to Nene.
“Ekrishiana!” Nene turned to my mother. “You and your husband are the same! O kpa we khin! You are planning evil for my son! Hear me now! All of you who have taken my son’s name to the coven, it will not be well with you!” she screamed.
I walked briskly away from the curtain then, not willing to get caught eavesdropping by any of the adults in the living room. On my way to my room, I caught a glimpse of Uncle Ben on the ground, bound, and head bobbing from side to side. Thick saliva pooled out from the sides of his mouth and flowed under his chin. He had turned significantly lean, the bone of his shoulder almost jutting out of his dull skin. Aunt Osana was wiping his sweaty body with a napkin.
I hurried off to my room.
The next day, there were a lot of phone calls. My father and Uncle Akhabue received most of them. Aunt Uyi called first. I could hear her distinct, sharp voice from the other end of the line.
“Ehn? What is this? Be Ghi na khin? Where is he now? Ghior ye? Can he talk? O sa boh guan?”
A woman I did not know called next; thick, husky voiced—different from Aunt Uyi’s. My father told her about Uncle Ben’s condition. He told her he did not know what happened, that he was confused, frustrated. He told her he almost cried when he saw him in that manner the very first time.
The woman told my father about the first wad of naira notes Uncle Ben had given to her and how he had tried to raise her by the shoulders from the floor when she had knelt down in appreciation. She told him how well Uncle Ben respected everyone around him and never had quarrels with anyone. She told him that someone was behind what was wrong with Uncle Ben, that witches were after my uncle’s downfall because he was rich. She told him about a powerful witchdoctor who could treat any spiritual sickness. She told him about Anini.
Nene, on hearing the opinion of the woman, and who had been quiet since the fight she and my father had, sighed deeply and turned her face away, in the characteristic ‘I-told-you-so’ manner; clasping her two, frail hands together and placing them between her legs.
One of my father’s uncles called next, Uncle Akhabue and Okunwe’s father. They discussed something about keeping the news about Uncle Ben’s sickness a secret for a while, especially from the village folk, until they could figure out what was going on. Uncle Okunwe made some hand and eye movements in silent communication to my father as he spoke to his father and my father’s uncle. My father agreed to call Aunt Uyi and the woman who had knelt down for Uncle Ben and warn them sternly about sharing the news.
Uncle Ben’s wife received the rest of the phone calls—most of them coming from her own family and Uncle Ben’s colleagues in the office. She cried during most and nodded her head with vigour in others. I did not pay much attention to the details of her discussions. I only remember her saying once that Uncle Ben had excreted and pissed on himself, and had cried while she scrubbed him clean in the bathtub. Some of his colleagues wanted to come visit their sick friend but Aunt Osana quickly warned them against it; saying it was ‘unnecessary’ and that he would soon get better. She even joked that they seemed to have forgotten that her workaholic husband could even stitch the doctor to his suit to make his comeback to the office.
The subsequent days dragged on. My mother never allowed us to go into the room our sick uncle was kept in. We watched him being cleaned and being fed from hardly drawn-up curtains or when we were asked to fetch the adults cleaning materials. They always stopped us at the door to collect whatever we had for them.
The neighbours began to suspect something. One day, when I went to fetch water from the borehole tap in the middle of the compound, I heard some of the women discussing my uncle’s strange sickness.
“You hear?” one said. “You hear wetin happen to Papa Daniel brother?”
“Ehn… I hear say something dey do am…say e nor well for head”
“Wetin you expect? You nor see as e get money? And person nor know the kind business wey e dey do. You know whether e do ritual or juju with person pikin, naim dem dey punish am so?”
“Nothing wey nor fit happen o, for this country”
The suspense concerning Uncle Ben’s health built up day by day for all of us until the arrival of Anini, the powerful witchdoctor from far away Nene always talked about. From the moment he entered our home, Nene started talking again, too eager to explain the condition of Uncle Ben, her son. I regarded the presence of Anini in one sweep of my eye as he walked into our living room, closely followed by Nene, who was still talking. He was clad in white from head to toe—a long, white garment and white cap. I imagined he would be clad in red. The native doctors I watched in Nollywood films were always dressed that way, in blood-red, velvet-like material. Anini was short, having a small head painted with little circles of chalk and red coral beads on his wrist. He did not reply to Nene but turned to my father who was looking at him as if he was starting to regret succumbing to Nene’s wishes. Anini spoke slowly, asking my father how he had found him. My father replied that someone had tipped the information to him and he had found him in an uncompleted building, his clothes nowhere to be found and behaving strangely.
Anini asked if he was violent. My father replied in the negative, his hand already set to rake through his head. Uncle Ben had not even raised his voice at any of us since he came back. He had remained complacent and calm. Anini then asked to see him and the adults led him to the room. My mother sent my brother and me away again. Aunt Osana handed over her little child, Bobo to me. I held the baby in my arms as I sat on the sofa in the living room with my older sibling who had put on the television. Soon enough, raised voices were heard from the room. Then, the adults started coming out to the living room from the room except Aunt Osana and the man in white, Anini. My father was angry.
“How can that man tell me to leave my brother alone with him? Did you hear what he said? We hon bo tahye? He told me that if I had my brother’s interest at heart, I would allow him to examine him anyhow he wants,” my father’s voice became louder. “Can you imagine? So, before I called him here, I did not have the interest of my brother at heart?!”
My mother held onto his arm imploringly. Nene sneered. “At least, someone made you see for yourself. Have you ever heeded my words, Michael?”
My father glanced at my grandmother with a half-open mouth but held back his words.
Anini came in at that moment with Aunt Osana behind him, his white attire illuminating the dim living room. He announced that he knew what the problem was. He said it was bad medicine. He said it was a ‘simple-something’, that Uncle Ben just had to chew some plant roots and he had to afterwards tie the chewed roots with some magical vines to bind the bad medicine.
My grandmother’s voice was high then.
“I knew it! They had thrown something to my son! Those people who were jealous of my son and I… Because he just had a promotion at the office, because he has money. They will not kill us ohh…Eh mwan sabo gbimeah! They won’t succeed. Those village witches. I have always told Ben not to go to the village anymore. Would he hear? I told him not to pay attention to those gold-diggers in the village. Will my stubborn-as-a-he-goat son hear me?” She lamented.
I thought about the visits to the village in Uncle Ben’s luxury jeep. The excited people, the naira notes flying in the dust filled air, the boxes and boxes of gifts for the little, dirty village children, their lithe bodies all over Uncle Ben’s car. I thought about the old women who prayed for my uncle anytime he bought them those expensive and colourful Jorge wrappers. I thought about my grandmother’s words. Did the village women, the ‘witches’ really ‘throw him something’? Or was it like the neighbours had said? Did my uncle perform a ritual with a young girl’s head so he would become rich as they did in the movies and was getting punished for his crime?
Anini went back into the room. No one followed him in. There was silence in the living room during the hours that came. Even the usually noisy little child in my arms made no sound. We stayed that way until the darkness of the night came—quiet, waiting.
Suddenly, we heard a loud cry. It was Anini’s. It sounded like the howl of a wounded wolf. My father and the other male adults rushed into the room at once. I felt my little heart jump into my mouth. I held my open palm to my chest, trying to manually calm myself. There was a pause. Then, the men started coming out of the room. Uncles Akhabue and Okunwe were holding the struggling Uncle Ben who had some plant roots in his mouth and green liquid spilling into his loose wrapper on his waist. His eyes were unfocused and he was growling dangerously like a wild animal. His whole body vibrated. We all moved away in fear. My mother would have covered my eyes then as she stood a few inches away but she had snatched Uncle Ben’s little son from my arms and had held him close to her chest.
Nene had started a prayer in Esan, raising her hands to the heavens.
They had placed Uncle Ben on the floor and were tying him up once again.
I looked away from the repulsive sight and faced my father who was holding Anini, the witch doctor with one hand and was struggling to move. There was a loud gasp from everyone in the room as we noticed why Anini was propped up in such an unnatural position, supported almost completely by my father.
Around the short man’s neck was a dark, thick vine digging into his flesh. Saliva flowed from his mouth, through the suffocating vine and onto his white robe. His mouth was closed tight and his eyes were rolling backwards into his head.
My father hissed just then; a low, impatient hiss, and ran his hand through his head in his characteristic manner. He growled darkly, his gaze on my mother and Aunt Osana who were gasping in shock and fear.
“Help me lie him down and loosen the rope on his neck. He’s dying. Remove the chewed roots from his mouth. Ben made him swallow some roots already.”
The women got to work immediately. Anini slowly recovered minutes later. The moment he could stand, he walked out of the door and into the streets without a word and without a glance at his big patient who had been subdued and was then feigning sleep. He did not even ask for his divination fee from Nene who had crumbled to the floor in defeat.
“They have succeeded!—the ones after my son and my family. They have succeeded! Their stones have shattered my glass!” she wailed.
“Ah! I am dead! They have killed me! Eh gbi meh ah!”
My gaze went from Nene to Uncle Ben on the floor. Instead of seeing the sick, changed man in front of me, I see the Uncle Ben of Christmas, the one who raised his hand and shouted “Wadoo! Wadoo!” whenever he entered a room and who moved around town with his huge, domineering frame, chants of his name fading in the distance—
“Uncle Ben has come! Uncle Ben Vhare! Uncle Ben has come! Uncle Ben Vhare!”