The somber atmosphere belied the momentous event taking place in the unusually large and brightly illuminated room.
At the end of the last season’s harvest, Abeke had commissioned this house; a modern brick structure with four rooms and a doors on each opposite end. Although plastered with the red earth that was customary for the village, its size, shape and corrugated roofing distinguished it from all the huts in the iga, as it stood in its solitary grandeur on the outskirts of the communal compound, where she had chosen to erect her home.
With four rooms and two entrances; one on both ends; two separate mud huts for her kitchen and the toilet respectively, as well as her now-signature raffia fence enclosing her enclave from the rest of the compound, this home was Abeke’s refuge. She had moved in as soon as the work on its construction was done, just before the rains started. Just before her husband married his young bride and moved her into the hut she vacated.
That had been several months ago and Abeke had played a major part in the orchestration of that union, wanting to give her husband a chance at what she had so far been unable to have. And that was before she knew she was pregnant, again.
Abeke had been pregnant six times before. Yet Raufu was her only child.
Still, she had been gratified when her young co-wife started displaying the signs of conception well enough for the rumours to reach her on this fringe she had chosen to inhabit. More than for herself, she prayed for a safe delivery for the girl.
And a child that lived. Lasisi deserved a child that lives.
All of Abeke’s six sons, lusty and robust at birth, had died before they saw two harvests. She’d stopped naming them after the third one and had shed no tears for the last.
Yet here she was again in labour, surrounded by the stern-faced older women well past the age of childbearing themselves. They were the only ones who would brave the birthing chamber of a woman afflicted with abiku*. Every other woman stayed far away from her cursed womb and the diabolic progeny it brings forth, unwilling to risk the child latching on to them instead.
Except good old Shadia.
Still as barren as when Abeke moved into the village all those years ago, the woman proved a good friend to her over and over again. Now well into her middle age, she was the first to alert her to what was being said about her and her babies, at about the time they had buried the third dead child. Reluctantly explaining the mythology of the abiku to her, Shadia had been vehement in her denial of the myth.
Life and death were the purview of Allaah, she would claim, and dead souls do not return, certainly not to torment a woman by being born then dying in an eerily similar fashion. It was Allaah who gave life and took it in death – and sometimes that meant even the souls of little babies.
Abeke could never understand how that explanation was supposed to be more consoling than the idea that she had offended a spirit child who then chose to torment her by being born to her – then dying – on a continuous loop.
The end results have, so far, been the same.
The collective consensus of the women of Jilete was that she must have encountered the spirit of the abiku child during one of her market trips. Unwittingly or otherwise, given her propensity for being outdoor during the unlucky noon on most days, she must have offended the spirit. Everyone knows that the abiku roam the streets at midday like the witches were known to patrol the night. This was why pregnant women and young children were shielded from exposure during these times.
But Abeke, they sighed despairingly, with her strange and deficient understanding of the norms – who could blame her, she was raised in French?! – must have inadvertently brought this upon herself during one of her trips to and fro the market. Oh, what a price to pay for financial success!
As for Abeke, she was unsure what she believed. All she knew was she was tired of birthing and caring for babies that died on a seemingly pre-determined schedule, like the cornstalk. Predictably and seemingly unavoidably, except her sons did not even live long enough to fulfil their purpose. They did not reach maturity, nor did they leave behind seeds that could propagate their line. Like a swarm of locusts, death swooped in on her children, long before maturity, leaving nothing but devastation in the place where there had been hope.
Abeke was tired of hoping.
So she bore this latest bouts of pain in stoic silence, surrounded by the women whose very demeanor betrayed the fact that none of them expect this child to live any longer than he – or his brothers – had done in the previous episodes. And she steeled her heart against the loss she was already expecting – of this baby, too dying of iba, a diarrheal disease, a rash with fever, or just like the one that refused to awaken one fateful morning.
She got up after the mandated seven days of lying in, returning to her routine as much as she was able. After the ruckus she raised following baby number three, Lasisi knew better than to attempt naming the boy and the villagers did not expect any merry making in the name of idana.
Why invest in a life bound to be so fleeting?
When she emerged from her home after the forty days had passed, Abibatu Abeke went about her business with her usual aplomb, a woman refusing to be deterred by life and its trials or by death and its biting viciousness.
She strapped the boy to her back, nursed him, saw to her trade and plantation work, cared for her little family, clung to her position of influence in the village and dared anyone to malign her – or worse, pity her – as child after child born from her womb passed on, regular as the seasons.