BAPTISM by Sybbil White
To us, she was ChakaChaka because the strings of pierced mineral corks she wore on her ankles rattled every time she walked past. ChakaChaka never missed mass. Always, she found her way into our church before the priest made the sign of the cross. We whispered amongst ourselves that perhaps she had been a Reverend Sister or a conscientious Catholic before her transformation. On her first visit, the wardens tried to chase her away but she screamed so loud the priest pause the communion rites and reminded them that God welcomed everybody into his presence, so they let her be. The reverence she exhibited was like a mirror placed before all who came into church clad in clothes suitable for the house of God, and some of us saw our pretentious punctiliousness reflected through her simple actions. Daily, she would quietly sit at her spot by the altar-facing door and prostrate once the host and chalice were lifted up but always left before we filed out for communion.
Mind you, we saw her on the streets too, but there, she was just like any one of her kind; holding one sided conversations as she walked past, chasing after anyone who stared too long and scavenging for treasures in refuse dumps. So when she stopped coming for mass, some breathed in the fresh air with relief while others began to wonder; had she moved on to unconsciously revive more souls at a new church or had something bad happened?
It wasn’t until someone spotted her waddling down the road with a protruding abdomen that we realized that ChakaChaka had been put in the family way. We could not tell if it was by her kind or the worst of humans who paraded their sanity in daylight whilst sinking into depravity in the cover of darkness. The priest asked for volunteers who would persuade her to return to the church where she could be looked after, but she turned violent, one of them returned with a bleeding gash in his arm. ChakaChaka stayed clear of our church throughout her pregnancy but food items were often dropped in the uncompleted building that was her home.
The night she birthed her child, her screams echoed through the street causing mothers to gasp with tension and pace their bedrooms. For some it was their restraining husbands that prevented them from marching into the night to lend a hand. Hours later, when the baby’s thin cries were heard ricocheting off the walls, they released their held breaths and finally slept. The next day, after morning mass, some parishioners courageously made their way to her abode. I was with them, so I will tell you what I saw and how I saw it.
The path to the building was covered with long elephant grasses that sliced at my calves as we marched forth. I listened to a woman place a bet of 10,000 naira on the certainty of someone’s pregnancy being a male; her ears had learnt to distinguish the sounds babies made the moment they were born, didn’t they know she had spent twenty five years of her life as a midwife? She placed her ‘pure gold, no be GL’ wedding ring as collateral while I chuckled at the foolishness. The silence should have tipped us off because the only time ChakaChaka stayed quiet was during mass but I presumed her to be tired from the night before. Death never crossed my mind since it was a well-known fact that God looks after his own, especially her kind. However, the bouncing back of our voices prompted us to fan out and explore the building. I was preoccupied by the ferns and mosses growing on a wall when a chorus of screams caught my attention and propelled me toward it. In the corner of the room, fingerprints of dried blood stained the wall and the smell of blood and rotten fish hung in the room, there was no ChakaChaka but the shocked screams had called almost everyone else.
As I tried to squeeze past the shrugging shoulders, shaking heads and fingers snapping out Tufiakwas and God forbids, I saw the buckets; two dirty, handless, enamel magnets that drew all eyes to them. I stepped on a foot and threw a mumbled sorry over my shoulder when the victim shoved me roughly but finally secured a spot from which I peered into the buckets. One was filled with water that had turned bloody and murky; she must have washed the baby in it. And the other? It was filled with surprisingly clear water that allowed one see the tiny limbs sticking out in a frozen plea. I am not overtly brave and things like soldier ants cause me to break out in hives. When a man dipped his hand into the bucket and brought out the bloated baby turned blue, I heard the gasps, the outburst of tears and the violent retching of weaker stomachs. Wound round its neck was a plastic rosary, the kind that fluoresces in the dark and it could have just been asleep but for the strip of cloth that plugged its small mouth. Someone suggested we bury it in the church, and one woman produced a polythene bag in which it was placed. We returned the way we had come, but with sad clouds in our hearts as we laid it in the church grounds where the priest sprinkled holy water and said prayers over the spot.
It wasn’t until weeks later when I travelled to a neighbouring town for a colleague’s wedding that I understood what happened the night ChakaChaka drowned her baby. You see, I found out that the madwoman they called Baptism in this town was the ChakaChaka I used to know, but here, she threw stones and hurled the word ‘baptism’ at women who passed by with babies in their arms.
Now if you must know, her baby was a boy, his weenie told me so.