The church was unusually cool for an April morning, thanks to the air conditioning. That was one of the reasons why Kambi had transferred to this church. It was one of the few in the city with a working generator and fully functional air conditioners. Unlike the other ones she had tried and discarded like she did her scarves—giving many of them to Ijeoma, the child witch she had unknowingly opened her home to—The Holiest of Holies Jehovah Jireh Jehovah El Shaddai Evangelical Church of God had both air and spirit. Unlike the others, this church was truly spirit filled, so spirit filled in fact that she felt it as soon as she stepped in. That April morning, the spirit whirled around her head like a wind and she let forth a slew of words neither she nor anybody else understood. She had lived thirty years, never knowing she had this gift. But Pastor Moses Elijah Samuel Okeke had helped her discover it. He had asked the congregation to speak in tongues and she, as usual, had stood tongue-tied while around her people clapped and screamed words in that heavenly language only the spirit-filled could speak. But the pastor had come to her and laying his hand on her head had told her, “Open your mouth and let it out.” Kambi felt his gold ring pressing on her forehead, felt the cool promise of it all. Her legs began to quiver as he spoke. “Let it out oh sistah! Release your tongue, sistah! Let the spirit speak through you!” He would not budge until she had shut her eyes, and opened her mouth. Her tongue was tied until her mind fixed on Ijeoma, the child who walked with a limp, the child that was tied up in the back of The Holiest of Holies Jehovah Jireh Jehovah El Shaddai Evangelical Church of God. Once she fixed on that witch, she found her gift and oh, what words had flown out of her mouth then, in that single moment. “Ojigbi jigbi ramachi jah Jehovah! kriiiii kriiii oh Father, brinf braf lawaai.” Now she was an expert tongues-speaker.
Kambi was in top form that morning. This was not just an ordinary service. Today had been reserved for exorcism. And not just any exorcism, but that of witches, and at her own personal request. It was revealed in a dream to her cousin, Ada, who lived with her that the reason why she, Kambi, had remained unmarried after all the fasting and special prayer requests she had done was because of Ijeoma. “That’s what you get for doing some of these girls a favour,” she said, as if Kambi had knowingly handpicked a witch to work for her. When she went scouting for a maid, Ada had advised her to get someone from home, someone whose family they knew, but Kambi was all too aware of the sort of trouble that could cause. Ejim, her colleague never stopped complaining of how her house was overrun by her maid’s family and because they were related to Ejim too, she could neither sack the maid nor ask the visitors to leave. No way Kambi was going to make that mistake, so instead of someone from her village, she had asked the security man at work if he knew someone she could employ. Of course he did.
Two days later, he turned up to work with a small, dark girl who walked with a limp.
“Forget the limp,” he said when he caught Kambi’s eyes settled on that unfortunate leg. “This one here works like a jackie.” And she did. She was worth the five thousand naira agents’ fees Kambi paid the gateman. And the three thousand she gave the gateman for her family every month. The girl had never given Kambi any reason to complain until two days ago when the revelation was made in a dream to Ada. Kambi was all for kicking her out of the house immediately but Ada, who was much more experienced in spiritual matters said, “You need to bind her first so that she can release your luck, then you can kick her out if you want to.”
The way it was shown to Ada, Ijeoma was a witch and had tied up Kambi’s luck since entering her house. Now that Kambi thought of it, it explained a lot of things. She was not ugly, she had in fact been a runner up in the Miss Campus Beauty Contest while she was at university. She had a good job working in the Human Resources department of an airline. In the past year alone, she had fasted and prayed more times than she cared to count for a suitable man to pop the question. There was no reason why she should still be on the market. Women less beautiful and less successful than her had found husbands. “Your husband is being held from you by that witch,” Ada assured her.
“And do you know how she got that limp?” Ada asked. Kambi said she thought it was from a polio infection she had had as a child. At least that was what the security guard had told her.
“Nonsense!” Ada laughed. “She sacrificed that leg for her powers. I saw it in a vision.
And you know what else? You remember when Agu visited with his wife before traveling? Ijeoma tied up his wife’s luck too.”
That too made sense to Kambi. No wonder her brother and his wife were yet to be blessed with children. She remembered suddenly that Ijeoma flitted around the couple, asking every second, You want something anty? You want something onkul? And they had thought that she was just being thoughtfully solicitous. Agu had even said, What a gem of a maid you have here, Kambi. Small but mighty! And all the while the witch was busy plotting evil against them. Agu wanted babies. He said so himself every time they spoke on the phone. He could not understand why his wife was unable to conceive. Now, they knew the source of his childlessness. “What a wicked child,” Kambi said. “What do we do now?” she asked her cousin.
“We will beat out a confession from her and get the pastor to bind her on Sunday,” Ada said. They would beat out the confession, Ada explained to Kambi, because once she confessed she would be powerless to harm Kambi for a while. “Before she can gather her strength back, the pastor would have bound her and thrown away the key!” Ada shouted triumphantly. But to be on the safe side, Kambi was not to eat any food Ijeoma made. Ada took over the cooking. Jobless, a year after graduating from university, she had the time to shop and cook. It was the least she could do for her cousin who had taken her in and offered her a roof, she told Kambi, waving away her gratitude.
That Friday morning, Kambi stayed home from work. Beating out a confession was a serious chore on its own without the distractions of earthly labour. Ijeoma was dusting the centre table when Kambi came to her from behind. Thwack! The first lash of the koboko on her back caught the girl by surprise. “Anty?” She turned to look at Kambi. Her eyes wide, like those of an animal caught in the floodlights of a car.
“Witch! You think I don’t know, eh?” The koboko whizzed through the air and landed on Ijeoma’s back, thwack!
“Anty?” She writhed.
Thwack! It landed close to her face.
Ijeoma slid to the floor, hunched her back and buried her face in her chest to protect it.
After she had finished fortifying herself with prayers and a passage from the Search The Scriptures pamphlet, Ada came out of her room screaming, “Confess! Confess! Confess witch!” like a demented priestess in a Nollywood film, and for added reinforcement, began to speak in tongues, interrupting it only with shouts of “Confess! Confess!” while she lashed out at Ijeoma with the belt.
“You witch! Confess! Raba dabba Confess!”
“I haven’t done anything oooo! Mama m ooo! Anwukwa m ooo!”
Thwack! Kambi landed her another lash across her breasts.
“I’m not a witch ooo!”
“Anty, you’ll kill me oo!”
“Confess!” Thwack! One across the head from Ada. “Rabbi shaddai graam graam.”
“Anwukwa m oooo. What have I done?”
Thwack! “You can deny it all you want but I know!” Kambi shouted.
Ada had warned her that Ijeoma would deny everything. “She will swear that she knows nothing about witchcraft but believe me, by the time we’re through with her, she’ll tell us the truth, eziokwu. That’s how witches are when they are caught. They’ll deny, deny.”
“Ramesh ramidiii Jehovah Jire dada gram gram. Confess! Thwack!”
The buckle of Ada’s belt must have cut her because she started bleeding under one eye. She touched the blood, looked at it and started screaming, “Yes, Yes. I’m a witch please stop hitting me. Yes! I am. I am sorry. Please, stop!”
Kambi could not believe it. What had she not done for Ijeoma? This girl who had come into her house with one pair of underwear, no bra (even though her breasts had begun to sprout) and two dresses. In the two years she had been with Kambi, her wardrobe had increased. She even had three pairs of shoes. Leather shoes, not those colourful plastic shoes many maids wore. Kambi, thinking of the fifteen year old’s future had wanted her to learn a trade, something that would better equip her for life. She had even started making enquires with Obioma the tailor about how she could be apprenticed to him. All that she had done and yet all that while, Ijeoma had been fighting her on a spiritual level, slipping bits of witchcraft into the food she served her mistress, whispering spells over her as she slept. “What have I ever done to deserve that?” Kambi asked Ada last night.
“Nothing,” Ada assured her. “Witches are just fond of gratuitous acts of malice.”
“Why would she want to hurt my brother whom she hardly even knew? Why?”
The two women sat Ijeoma down in the middle of the sitting room, her back against the centre table.
“How long have you been a witch?” Kambi could no longer shout. A tiredness had settled on her like a veil, making even speech an effort.
“Eh?” Ijeoma sounded confused. Snot ran down her nose. She wiped it off with the back of a palm. Ada raised the leather belt above her head. Before she could bring it down, Ijeoma shouted, “A long time!”
“When do you go for meetings with your fellow witches?” Ada asked, waving a Bible in Ijeoma’s face. There was a wild fire in her eyes. Her voice was loud, as if the person she was talking to was not in the same room.
“Eh what? Am I talking with water in my mouth? Don’t pretend you don’t know what I am talking about, or I’ll bring out the belt again.”
“At night. I fly out of my body. I flyhighhigh. Please, don’t hit me again. Please, let me go back to my mother.”
Ada looked at her cousin triumphantly. “See?” She told her. “See? See? Ekwuro m ya ekwu?”
“Where is your coven? Is it that mango tree behind Obioma’s house?” She held the belt over Ijeoma’s head. It dangled like a tail growing out of her hand.
“Yes. yes, Ijeoma said, trying to stem the bleeding with a palm. I want to go home. Biko nu. Let me go home. Ka m naa uno. Ehhhhh! Ehhh!” She was crying hysterically, drawing out the ehhhh of her cries.
“Shut up, you amosu! You want to go where?” Ada shouted. “I told you, Kambi. I told you. She wants to go home so that she can recover her power and then finish you off. Go and call the pastor. Now. Call him kita kita, this minute. No wasting time!”
Kambi’s hands were shaking so much as she dialed the pastor’s number on her mobile phone, that the phone slipped out of her hand once. She had never seen a witch, let alone lived with one in a house. She had trusted this girl and she had spat on that trust. The pastor said it was a good thing she called as he was at that moment going to call her. In fact, he had answered at the first ring because he had his phone in his hand ready to call her. Yes, he knew all about it and that was why he had been about to call her. It had also been revealed to him that she had a witch in her house, and that her life was in danger. “Praise God that you’ve got it under control now and on Sunday, we shall bind her spirit of witchcraft forever.” Kambi got a list of what to bring: a piece of white cloth; a small sack of salt and a bottle of olive oil.
“Sistas and Brodas! Today we have a very special request!” Pastor Moses Elijah Samuel Okeke’s voice boomed and the speaking in tongues and clapping and dancing stopped. Two assistant pastors dragged Ijeoma from the Inner Sanctuary where the demon-possessed were kept until they were cleansed. She wore nothing but the piece of white cloth Kambi had bought, tied under her arms and reaching down to her knees. Her hair was shaven; mala shaven, so clean shaven lights bounced off it. Maybe it was the shaven head, but she looked smaller. There was a welt where Ada’s belt had cut under her eye. She looked like some wild creature, the way her eyes darted over the hushed congregation. When they landed on Kambi, Kambi shut her eyes and said a prayer, covering herself in the blood of Jesus, to ward off any evil Ijeoma might still be capable of.
“Brodas and Sistas! This here is a witch!”
The congregation gasped as if they were being shown some exotic creature, even though for many of them, certainly the older members of the church, a scene such as this was not entirely new. Kambi heard that before she joined, the pastor had done at least three exorcisms. One was of a widowed woman whom her brother in-law had caught walking around the house at night mewing like a cat. The pastor had revealed that she was responsible for her husband’s death. The pancreatic cancer which the doctors had said killed him was just a symptom of the woman’s sorcery. Like Ijeoma, she had denied it too, but during the exorcism had confessed.
“Today, we are going to cast the spirit in her and send it back to the pits of hell! We are going to reclaim this girl’s life for the one true and ever living Father in heaven. Let me hear Hallelujah!”
There was a sporadic outbreak of speaking in tongues. The pastor raised one hand, the gold ring on his finger glittering like a promise, and a hush fell over the congregation again. He closed his eyes, mumbled a prayer and started slowly to sing, his voice deep and sonorous,
My hands are filled
With the blessings of the Lord
My hands are filled
With the blessings of the Lord
Anyone I touch surely must be healed
Anything I touch surely must be blessed…
And as he sang, he walked up and down the podium. He started the song a second time, dragging the words out very slowly as he made his way to Ijeoma who was being held by two men, one at each side, her hands outstretched as if she was being readied for a crucifixion.
My hands are filled
With the blessings of the Lord
He rubbed her bald head as if he were rubbing Aladdin’s magic lamp to release the genie trapped in it.
Anyone I touch…
He touched her face, traced her lips with a finger.
Surely must be blessed..
He trailed a hand down her throat.
Anything I touch
He touched her chest and ran his palm down her front.
Each time he touched her, Ijeoma jerked and tried to free her hands from the men holding her, but she was powerless against their strength. Done with singing and the blessing, the pastor asked Sister Kambi to please come forth with the bag of salt and olive oil. Kambi whispered a prayer and with all eyes on her walked to the front clutching the paper bag with the salt and olive oil a little bit tighter than normal. The pastor took the bag of salt from her, tore it open and poured some salt on Ijeoma’s head. Then he took a pinch and forced it into the girl’s mouth. Ijeoma pulled a face and when it looked like she might spit it out, the pastor gripped her by the chin and threw her head back until he was satisfied she had swallowed it.
He faced the congregation for a second. “This sister might be young,” he said. “But the spirit in her is as massive as this house, brethren!” There were pockets of laughter as if he had told a good joke. He rubbed some olive oil into his palms and massaged Ijeoma’s head with it, so that it now shone with an unearthly luminescence.
“Bind her, Father, shabba rabba Jehovah Niissi.”
“Amen !” The congregation thundered as one.
“Bind her, Father! Grabba ramidishi wey Jehovah M’kadseh! Take this spirit from her and send it down to the bottomless pit to burn forever and ever.”
“Let it burn until there is nothing left, Father Almighty!”
“Ah! Ranisha dab ah Jehovah rabba ooooo Father free thy servant! Make her thine! Subdue this spirit within her.”
“Subdue it, tear it out, throw it down into the deepest , hottest part of hell.”
The pastor was shaking now, his hand holding the microphone, his legs in their silk trousers, every part of him was trembling.
“Send down your angels, Father, I need strength! Send me an army of angels, oh Lord. I am but thy humble servant. Send me an army of angels, Father! Jehovah Jire! Jehovah Shammah! Jehovah Rapha ! Heal her!”
“Angels, Father! Heavenly armour!”
Kambi pounded her fists and prayed along with the pastor. She closed her eyes and imagined all the angels fighting this battle alongside her pastor; angels in white dresses, flapping feathery wings like huge birds, flying above the pastor to fortify him.
“She’s stubborn father! Make her worthy to wear white like your angels! Shabba dai rabba hallelujah Addonai! Addonai!”
He walked off to the side of the podium, reached down and picked up a koboko, lying curled in a corner like a snake. That was his special exorcism whip, authentic cow hide, cured by the Hausa man with a reputation for treating the most effective whips. He brought it down on Ijeoma with a crack. She let out a cry, drowned by the stamping of feet and the praying around her. She twisted, but could not free herself. He brought it down again across her calves. On her bare feet. Her skinny ankles. Each time the whip connected with her body, she hopped as if she was treading on hot coal. He flogged her frantically, his hand with the whip rising and falling so quickly that the koboko blurred, while the praying and the clapping and the stamping continued. He flogged her until the evil spirit in her was defeated and the weight of the exorcism bowed her head and shut her eyes and she no longer resisted. It was only then that the assistant pastors let go of her and she fell like a heap of laundry at the pastor’s feet, the white cloth bunched up to expose her thighs.
Then a song of thanksgiving began.
Chika Unigwe was born in Enugu, Nigeria, and now lives in Belgium, with her husband and four children. She was a 2008 UNESCO-Aschberg fellow and a 2009 Rockefeller Foundation fellow (at the Bellagio Center), and she holds a a Ph.D. from Leiden University. She is the recipient of several awards for her writing, including first prize in the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition and a Commonwealth Short Story Competition award. In 2004 she was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing. Her stories have been on BBC World Service and Radio Nigeria. Her first novel, De Feniks, was published in Dutch in 2005. Her second novel, "On Black Sisters Street" was recently awarded the Nigeria Prize for Literature.