Fiction

Tolu Ebenezer: Fiction by David Okorafor

Image: Pixabay.com remixed

TOLU EBENEZER! If you have ever seen a giant pawpaw fruit ripened in the cool back of an earthen pot on a mud floor in harmattan, then you have seen her: tall, yellow and heavy. She was thirty-two weeks pregnant and lived on one of those Lagos streets which can only be accessed by means of rickety, yellow-with-black-stripes minibuses whose drivers smell of local gins and sit on dwarf wooden stools, just like the rest of the passengers, being careful about puddles beneath getting splashed into the craft! Tolu’s present bodily elegance could well be described as an enduring residue of her comfortable past; that is, regarding her present impecuniousness. Nowadays, the laziness in her pace and her awkward bearing were both characteristic and merited: one hand was often free and behind, and the other placed leisurely on the hip as if to reassure the waist of the harmlessness of the mass riding in front of her.

This Sunday morning she wore a rose-pink maternity gown the lightness of which emphasized her rounded heaviness. She sauntered out of her bedroom into the adjoining small living room. The room, which seemed to scream for ventilation through its only window, was cluttered with an untidy collection of cheap, old home accessories. A tokunbo Samsung TV sat on a knee-high table with a dusty glass top; a VCD player was placed below on the second shelf. Both electronic items were more decorative than functional. An old fan stood beside the TV flush with the gentle arch which three Innoson plastic armchairs formed with a sinking, well-worn leather sofa on the palm-sized floor. Not counting the draughts-board conspicuously leaned against the wall with peeling oil paint, and not counting the ankle-high table centrally placed, the other new thing in the room was the shirt beneath the old waistcoat worn by the man slouching over the central table. The man was writing in a large notebook. Ebenezer, Tolu’s husband.

Ebenezer was handsome only on the strength of a pair of ever-twinkling, bright eyes astride a prominent nose, and a complexion not too dark but not exactly fair. ‘Two things spoil you,’ Tolu would often tease him, ‘your useless quietness and short stature.’ He used to be that jolly, well-to-do banker before the Union Bank sacked him. Over the past three years of joblessness he had become that sort of man with indecipherable temperament who wielded deliberate silence like a sword. He had been re-created by wife and other human conditions.

Tolu plunked herself into the old sofa and yawned. She said, ‘Oh, Ebenezer, don’t you think it’s time we moved out of this ghetto? It won’t be fair to have our baby here o.’

Ebenezer had been occupied with the large book. He would flip one page over in a minute, and then write out figures in the sheet of paper beside the calculator. From the three arches of wrinkle on his forehead, certain figures must be inaccurate in the church’s book of account and if that was the case, he must confront Brother Timothy, the treasurer. And that must be before Sunday school began. For now, he didn’t want to listen to Tolu whine about their accommodation and living conditions, like she would complain about her maid not keeping the matchbox exactly two inches beside the stove, or about an eye pencil not painting black enough, or the way she hated the colour of her new clothes, or how very insufficient three thousand naira worth of meat was for one pot of soup.

She continued, mockingly, ‘Ebenezer, our boy will be named Bishop, after my father. Bishop has been such a pillar in our life, hasn’t he? Just look at us… You can now afford a new shirt and Italian shoes again.’

Ebenezer paused and instead looked away from the big book. His lips tightened and curled into a furious knot. A wave of anger and pain seared through his waist. He was getting wounded.

‘At a time I began to wonder for how long you’re going to play draughts and drink kai-kai with the local boys. We would have long been begging if Bishop hadn’t called you to join The Ministry?’ She hissed, kept quiet for a moment and then continued. ‘My baby, Bishop, I know he’s a boy. I’m very sure. The way he kicks, here and there, all the time, like a healthy giant rat in a metal cage—kpum-kpum.’ She demonstrated the energy of the movements in her belly with her hands. She looked at the mound of her pregnancy again, and smoothed out the satin gown over it while wishfully saying, ‘…Only that he needs comfort, much comfort…Bishop, my son.

‘And, I have endured all these years of hardship with you, Ebenezer…’ Ebenezer knew ‘these years’ were only three years.

Sixteen months back, the couple had lost the first pregnancy to malaria at 28 weeks. That had been the doctor’s explanation. ‘We see it all the time: women taking fever for granted and substituting anti-malarials with prayers. We make effort to teach them: come for antenatal, report every fever. If you must pray, pray with us in the clinic. Don’t patronize the chemists; everybody now makes their own Coartem. Don’t listen to the people who shout on the radio and send out monkeys to hang out of bus windows to sell unapproved drugs without dosages.’ That was the doctor’s advice. Now, Tolu was pregnant again, and Ebenezer was supposed to be unconditionally supportive. If quarrels could cause headache, or miscarriage, or bleeding, he would, by all means, avoid them. He had actually learned to bottle his temper, and this morning he must be loyal to that resolve.

Sunday school at the Champion of Fire Ministry began at 8.30 AM. Ebenezer must hurry then, so he would ask Timothy about the missing money. Soon he strode across the gutter in front of their apartment. The gutter contained a bag of excreta. ‘Christ! Why would a child of God throw an open bag of shit in front of our house?’, he cursed half aloud. Living in Ajegunle had its peculiarities and people not having toilets was one of them. Every family bought a roll of polythene bags. In the early morning hours each family passed their faeces into those bags and flung them into the nearest flowing water, to sail gently away, like echelons of tiny vessels.

Soon Tolu was on Lawanson Street, hurrying along with a red purse under her left arm. She wore a flowing red dress and draped a black shawl over her head and shoulders. Her effort to walk fast did not quite convert to true haste, and physiology tasked her to urinate every now and then. Now she was walking along the narrow way between two high walls covered with mildew and all manner of political and religious posters and computer-generated advertisements of vacancies for marketers, salesgirls, typists and even one for cheap teeth-work. Stench of human excreta saturated the air in the way and made Tolu cover her nose with a handkerchief until she took a relieving swerve that led her directly to the door with the sticker: THE DEVIL IS A BASTARD LIAR.

She paused at the door and listened. There were voices of the ‘big women’ from far and nearby streets, rich women of fashion, bickering, joking and bargaining for clothes, jewellery, perfumes, footwear. She caught her breath and imagined how poor and how insignificant she would appear with her little cash. But had she not saved it over many months? On a second thought, she was going to wait across the street so she would see them leave, and then go in to make her humble purchases. It was punishment enough for her to walk back the way she had come. The stench. But she had to do it.

When they had all left, she went back and knocked at the door. In just a moment it was opened by a huge, charcoal-black woman who wore red lipstick and a thick gold necklace that seemed to garrotte her. Her smile was as wide as her open arms. She carefully embraced Tolu, saying ‘Long time, long time’.

‘Madam Abosede, my sister, tings no dey easy o,’ Tolu explained in Pidgin. She usually spoke only Pidgin with Madam Abosede.

‘Of course, I know, Iyabeji, mother of twins, I know. Dis country hard well-well like rock. See as ya belly don rise like Kilimanjaro,’ she said, standing with arms akimbo, feigning a more thorough scrutiny of Tolu’s pregnancy. ‘Make sure you born twins,’ she said. They both laughed. Tolu appreciated all her wishes and concern about the ‘condition of things’, and then asked to see the latest items for sale.

‘Better-better tings just arrive from China, Dubai, and you know what?’ Tolu looked up from the heap of clothes on a sofa, to hear the surprise. ‘I get some clothes from London,’ Madam Abosede was saying while unpacking an omnibus bag full of ladies’ shoes, various grades of ornaments, designer gowns and skirts for women, beautifully designed bottles of perfumes that screamed their high prices, handbags, et cetera. ‘Dem no cost again like before. Dis fine-fine skirts and blouse na only 7K for one,’ the huge woman said, standing arms akimbo. Tiny bubbles of sweat had gathered on her forehead. It was October in Lagos and the weather usually got very hot in a hurry.

Tolu took her time to examine each item she selected with blinding admiration. ‘But Ma, seven thousand naira nor be small money o for one cloth, and my money too small sef,’ Tolu replied. ‘Oh, I just like the ox-blood shoes, and the coffee-colour handbag. Oh my God, see that black skirt, and the Indian sari. Beautiful embroidery! The design fine die!’ She rummaged through mountainous heaps of clothes and shoes and jewellery, tossing most aside and keeping few in one small heap as selected. ‘Dis slender-slender silver, I mean dis ones with stone pendants na how much?’ She held up three beautiful silver necklaces with diamond-set pendants.

The huge woman smiled widely. ‘I know say you like fine-fine tings, Iyabeji. Each one na 15k o. The sari wey you see so na original, from India, nor be China sari. No worry I know say if you get money, say you go pay sharp-sharp. Carry anyting you like, and pay small-small later. Okay…?’

‘Dem cost o,’ Tolu exclaimed ‘But, gees! Imagine designs! Beautiful-beautiful tings.’ She was helplessly spoilt for choice. She picked out all that she liked, which were worth one hundred and fifty-five thousand naira. She had sixty-two thousand naira, which she had saved over the past eight months. She would offset the balance of ninety-three later. She was about to leave when Iyabo asked her the question.

‘Which hospital you go like born ya pikin?’

Tolu stood frozen at the door. She was mute, and all her muscles seemed to relax in that moment. She looked blank and scared, like a small boy caught with fish from his mother’s pot. She came slowly back into the room and sat down on the sofa rather weakly. ‘Iyabo, my sister,’ she said. ‘If we be rich people na, we for like go America go born Bishop like other rich people dem, but money never dey. Maybe my next pikin…’

‘Na him make you dey act like person wey dem pour ice water like dis, e-eh? Cool down, money go come. Maybe next one as you say. Where you book antenatal for dis one?’

‘Dis na de problem. I book for Mother of Christ but na only once I don go since five months.’ Iyabo was shocked at Tolu’s confession. ‘In fact, de money wey my husband don give me for the five months, plus small-small money I dey save from shopping-money, na him I just give you now for dis tings.’ She held up her shopping. ‘Fear dey catch me for the day wey I go born. May be de money oga go bring for next month, I go use am go back to Mother of Christ. Abi, nor be to go book new one for People’s Choice Maternity sef? I go now tell Ebenezer say I book there. I know say dem go vex for me bad-bad but when dat one don end, I go still born my pikin for dem place.’

‘Iyabeji, nawa-o’, Madam Abosede shouted, apparently surprised. ‘Dis ya story carry weight-o. And see as ya legs swell, shebi you know say na big baby dey cause leg swelling. Ya baby don big finish for belly, you nor know?

‘But make you no too worry. Make I carry you go meet Dr Banjo, him go give you original melesin to make ya pikin slim down so you no go suffer for labour, okay?’

Tolu said okay. Before now, she had never considered her swollen feet a problem. She thought it was normal for women to have leg oedema in pregnancy. Here was Madam Abosede saying her unborn baby had grown too big in the womb, and that was why her feet were swollen. She planned to ask more questions, at least to know if Madam Abosede once had a similar case, if her baby did actually lose weight in the womb, and what kind of doctor Banjo was—since in Nigeria there were different types of doctors.

‘Oya, make we go,’ Madam Abosede said. She was fastening her wrapa with one hand, shoving her feet into her sandals while clutching her big, red purse in the other hand. ‘De place no far sef. You lucky say I get chance today…’

‘Ma, abeg, which kind doctor Banjo be?’ Tolu asked. She was half-excited and half-afraid.

‘Haba!’ Madam Abosede exclaimed. ‘Who live for Lagos wey nor know Dr Banjo. You nor hear about woman wey born six twins for Orile, last year, you nor hear?’

‘I hear.’

‘Na Dr Banjo do am na. Confam doctor wey some oyinbo doctor sef dey even come collect idea from him hand. Na him I dey tell you so-o! Him melesin na one touch, you sef go confam’.

She was now convinced. ‘But him dey work for Sunday?’

‘Yes. Banjo na moslem him be. Him dey work today.’

‘Okay, ma. Tank you well-well as you wan help me just like dis. Tank you.’

Madam Abosede asked her not to mention.

The billboard at the entrance of Banjo’s hospital was king-size: BANJO ULTRA-MODERN CLINIC. There apparently was no Sunday holiday at the clinic. A lot of people were seated at the reception, waiting for their names to be called by the bespectacled male nurse who wore white upon white and carried the folder of each patient he called like a tray of Holy Communion in an Anglican church.

Through a glass window, Tolu could see another nurse, a female, prompting each new patient who sat at her desk to hold a slender device in their left hand. The device, which looked like a kind of electrode was connected to a laptop computer, or something that looked like one. The nurse would continually look at the screen before writing in a long piece of yellow paper. ‘Dat na their computer lab,’ Madam Abosede explained. Tolu didn’t know she had been following her gaze. ‘Dat doctor inside there go test people wit dat computer. If you get infeksion, staf ayreus, gonocacus, AIDS, liver problem o, eye problem o, prostrate o, yeye belly, dem go show you there. Den, dem go come prescribe de correct melesin give you. E no better like dat?’

‘Haba, e better na,’ Tolu answered, accepting that the method at the clinic was the best.

In a moment, a pot-bellied, cheerful man strode into the reception with a bunch of large, white envelops with the inscription BANJO ULTRA-MODERN CLINIC. The man looked sweaty and boisterous. He shouted his greeting to everyone in his baritone voice. ‘A-ha! Tank God,’ Madam Abosede said. ‘Dis man dey come from government hospital wit many, many foto for people wey break leg. Dr Banjo dey set their bone. And, see all dis people working here na graduate. Banjo dey pay dem well-well.’

It was true that many people in Lagos knew about Banjo Ultramodern Clinic, but what they would hardly know before consulting him was that he was not a trained medical doctor. He was a herbalist who imported an electronic device from China and erected a beautiful structure near Mile 2. There were a thousand and one other herbalists all over the country who had acquired the same device that Banjo used for diagnosing his patients of all kinds of ailments. They ran jingles on private and government-owned radio stations every minute of the day and had different labels of herbal tonics, linctus and lozenges, hawked on the streets by unemployed graduates.

‘It’s your turn, madam,’ the nurse came over and told Tolu. He spoke with a fake foreign accent.

‘Oh, yes. Tank you,’ Madam Abosede replied before Tolu could respond. ‘Who I go give de N5000 conzultason fees?’

‘You’ll pay inside the lab,’ said the nurse.

Tolu was finally going into the laboratory, to also hold the electrode-like device and feel its hotness or coldness. Was it going to be a painful exercise? Was it really an omniscient device as Madam Abosede had said? Would Baby Bishop turn out a big baby, a big baby boy? She could not wait to find out. Madam Abosede offered to pay the consultation fee, and Tolu was all the more grateful. ‘Thank you, Ma,’ she kept saying.

Fearfully, she sat down at laboratory desk and held the device in her left hand, unconsciously closing her eyes for the expected pain, or just something discomforting. Besides a form of fine vibration, there was nothing else to it. The operator soon scribbled something on the usual long sheet, and turned to Madam Abosede whom she probably supposed was Tolu’s mother-in-law to say, ‘Her baby is a boy, but his weight is too much. Our doctor may place her on Slim-jelly for three weeks.’ She wrote down even more things on a different sheet of paper. ‘Hapatitis is there; Liver is large. Coital insufficiency. Chest condition. Worms also for treatment. Infeksion, discharge, okay? We will give medicine; you pay little.’

‘Okay,’ echoed Madam Abosede, with unconcealed excitement. Tolu, too, looked happy, that a hospital could accurately make all those diagnoses for just N5,000. And it is true, she thought to herself, I have chest pain. Could it be the liver problem? Oh, the lab doctor also mentioned ‘chest condition’. To her, every second of the encounter in the lab was epiphanic, and pieces of the puzzle flew into meaningful coalescence.

‘Don’t be afraid. We have every medicine for all your health problems. Just go in and see the assistant doctor, he will give you the medicine and direct you for taking it, okay?’

‘Okay,’ said Madam Abosede. Tolu was almost disappointed that she was not going to see the main doctor, Banjo. ‘All of dem powerful. All de doctors here powerful wit knowledge,’ Madam Abosede reassured her as they walked down the long, well-lit passage, toward the last room.

Inside the room they met a lanky oldish man who wore a lab coat and a pair of eyeglasses. His face looked weathered but he had a pair of knowing eyeballs behind his skewed glasses. He collected the sheets of paper from them without uttering a word. Then, from the drawer in the right side of his busy desk he brought out two bottles. One was dirty-green because of its obviously slimy content and the other looked like bleached palm oil, enu, in a plain bottle.  ‘When you want to use this medicine,’ he began, raising the dirty-green bottle first; his Yoruba accent was thick and suffocating. ‘You will boil water, first. Prepare your normal akamu, pap. Shake the bottle very well and add like two to seven spoons to it. Mix it very well, and drink as it is hot. See,’ he held up two ringed fingers, ‘two weeks, your legs will down kpata-kpata, and your baby will be set for the new weight. For hapatitis, infeksion, gbogbotigbo-o, use this one. He raised the second bottle and set it down noisily on the table top. ‘The same method. Two weeks, come back here with good news. Oya, bye-bye.’

‘Bye,’ they said to him.

Tolu was very grateful to Madam Abosede. She went home to prepare some of the pap already in the house. Before her arrival, her maid, Nkechi, had come back from the mill with ground beans. They would use it to prepare moi-moi for dinner. Tolu instructed her to boil some water for akamu. When the akamu was ready, she added seven spoons from the green bottle. Each time she scooped the bitter pap into her mouth, she squeezed her face so strangely Nkechi was scared for her madam. Whatever it was she was shoveling into her mouth must be very bitter, Nkechi concluded. But she was only a maid who must maintain an attitude of respectful quietness in her Madam’s presence.

In the following hour, Tolu began to feel severe cramps in her abdomen. Then she began to cry, loudly, holding her abdomen, wailing and writhing on the floor. Nkechi had gone out to buy some ingredients for the moi-moi. Jide was the shaggy-haired young man who lived next door with his bosomy girlfriend. He was an ‘area boy’ who played draughts with Ebenezer whenever the latter was disposed. More often than not, he would sit on a wooden bench on the veranda, not far from Tolu’s doorstep, drinking cheap gin and smoking and blowing blue rings of smokes into the air, while his girlfriend, who loved to fry plantain with palm oil, would sit on his lap. Nothing about Jide disparaged Tolu more than this ‘stupid’ ritual. When Jide heard Tolu’s cry, he ran into the room and saw Tolu, sprawled on the floor.  From the streak of blood on her left thigh, he deciphered she was in great danger.

He quickly found a taxi and whisked Tolu to People’s Choice Maternity Home on her very faint instruction. ‘The doctor’s not around,’ a nurse whose shins were sharp enough for a butcher’s use rasped in obvious inattention. ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. Better go to the Teaching Hospital,’ she added before walking away with her BlackBerry phone to her ear.  Soon she was seen coming back, laughing raucously and waving her thin arm amusingly in the air in response to the person on the other side of the line. It then became clear to Jide that it was more prudent to move the bleeding woman to just any other hospital. But today was Sunday and even most non-Christian residents of Lagos took the day off to merry in inner-city clubs and at the bars and alcohol- and pepper-soup-offering shanties in the ghettos. Some would visit their friends and relations and yet others would simply sit in to watch loud Africa Magic movies.

Tolu’s voice was getting fainter, and fainter, and her breathing more laborious. Her face shone with rivulets of sweat and her body had got precariously cold. She had grown so weak that she closed her eyes most of the way to the Hospital. Two hours in the traffic. No progress. Jide was becoming impatient with the taxi driver, but the man would have none of his vituperation. ‘You nor see say hold-up don jam? Why you nor fly ya wife with ya private jet?’ The driver cursed. Nigerian commercial drivers and their conductors were from hell, Jide knew that. They could curse one’s whole generation for the sake of ten naira. ‘E better make you cool down and nor dey talk yeye talk to ya fada, young man. Ah, kilode?’ The driver raged on, opening his mouth very wide.

The weather was hot and the journey was fast becoming a hopeless one. Before they could arrive at the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Tolu had become limp and pale. Her dress had been drenched with blood. Her pulse raced and her hands and feet were now clammy.  The nurse on duty quickly alerted the doctor who came and quickly set up intravenous fluids.

Having paid in the little money he had on him, Jide contacted Ebenezer on phone. ‘It’s Jide, your neighbour. Please, come to LASUTH, me and Tolu dey there. She dey die o,’ he told him.

After reading the result of an emergency ultrasound scan, the senior doctor said to his house officer, ‘It’s a case of abruptio, probably precipitated by some form of mechanical stress.’ The House officer asked, ‘Chief, so we should proceed with grouping and cross-matching?’

‘Yes, of course,’ he replied.

He turned to Jide and asked, ‘You’re the husband?’

‘No, sir,’ he answered. ‘De husband dey church. Na pastor wife be dis.’

‘We need to see her husband because we may section the woman to save her life, and we may need blood for that. Have you contacted her husband or other direct relations?’

Jide did not understand. The total blankness registered on his face suggested to the doctor that he must explain his jargon. ‘I mean, we may do CS on her; that is cut the belly and bring out the baby,’ the doctor said, with gesticulations to be sure Jide understood the procedure. ‘But we need consent, permission, and blood just in case… So, if you really want to help her, call her husband, or better still give the consent if she’s your girlfriend.’

Jide brought out his phone and called Ebenezer once again. ‘Dem say make you come wit blood…’

‘No, that’s wrong,’ the doctor corrected. ‘Please, may I speak with him?’  He took the phone and explained the situation to Ebenezer in twenty-two seconds.

Ebenezer got to the hospital sooner than expected and flung the consent at the team of three doctors already assembled for the surgery. Tolu was taken into the theatre, for a caesarean section. The surgery took one hour and for most of it, Ebenezer and a few members of his church who had arrived at the hospital prayed along the corridor. Ebenezer paced anxiously up and down the corridors, continually snapping his fingers loudly in prayer, clenching his teeth and disfiguring his face to rebuke demons of premature labour, spirit of death. Some of his church members spoke in tongues and others sang continuously. They needed God to do something.

Ebenezer’s anxiety had grown and solidified as palpable fear in his throat. Though he had been praying with his voice, he was frightened in his heart. Life! Labour! Child! Bishop? Bishop, please, come out alive.

Finally, the doctor came out, maintaining a void countenance. There was absolutely nothing that could be read from his face. ‘We’ve done our best, and I believe she will pull round very soon,’ he said, facing Ebenezer directly.

Ebenezer hung in-between confusion and gratitude. The doctor discerned the incomprehension on his face and further explained. ‘I mean, she’ll soon recover. She’s perfectly OK.’

Ebenezer nodded, and then asked, ‘What about the…?’

‘Oh, we lost her, but thank God we didn’t lose your wife or her womb.’ The doctor instinctively reached for Ebenezer’s hand and led him to a corner and consoled him, but he cried much, like a child.

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Image: Pixabay.com remixed

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  • David tells stories with punch. He is a true African breed. We can celebrate another African literary breakthrough.