Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher

Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher

Exodus

A memoir from Nigeria

By Kehinde Bademosi  

 

The nights arrived too soon for Kehinde and his family at Igbonmoba, their neighborhood in Ondo Town, Nigeria. If he could have paid the sun, he would have bribed it to stay in the sky a little longer, so that their neighbors could breathe.

He dreaded the stillness of night and how it amplified the roaring beast he and his mother hid in their one-room apartment. The precious beast would only howl when the sun began to shed its golden-red hue. As soon as all the creaky wooden doors in Igbonmoba were fastened, and the last palm-oil lamp was snuffed out in the oak-yellow brick house opposite theirs, Kehinde’s twin sister Taye would roar and cut through the stillness of the night with a high, deafening pitch. How could this be the voice of an eighteen-year-old girl? There were more than a thousand voices infused in that voice which spilled vile oaths and curses. No one was spared. Kehinde could only speak in tongues and smear her forehead with olive oil, which they always kept for the occasion. Aduke, their mother, would cover her face with her shaky hands, expecting Kehinde to bring everything to a complete stop. After all, she had seen him heal afflicted souls in the small Foursquare church where Kehinde was a deliverance minister. But in Taye’s case, nothing would give. Little children would clutch their mothers’ wrappers in the corners of their rooms as Taye’s voice rang through the small street. Older men claimed they peed in their pants. The hunters’ dogs became silent. One by one, she would call out people by name. Easily within earshot, everyone would hear Taye’s accusations..

She would tell Baba Ebenezer, the tailor, to go find a wife and stop pretending that Ebenezer was his real son—and if he contested it, could he show them a woman who would be glad to sleep with him in spite of his extremely small testicles?   

 With trembling hands, Kehinde would smear more of the oil on her head, but nothing would change. She continued ranting and seemed to imagine that she was on a big stage with a spotlight on her.

 “Kehinde, do something already. Father Lord! Doesn’t Jesus know she’s your twin sister? What’s the purpose of doing all those miracles for others in church when your twin sister fights these many demons in her head? Ha! Look, listen,” Aduke bawled, “She’s about to jump out of the window! Father, Lord, ha, Jesus! Do something, Kehinde!”

“Out, you demon of insanity. Out now in Jesus name!” Kehinde spoke with such command.

“Out, you demon of stupidity. Out now in Jesus name!” Taye retorted with a sneer at the corners of her mouth. When she saw that Kehinde was frustrated, she would laugh. Their neighbors tensed. Everyone knew it would be another long night at Igbonmoba.

Igbonmoba, a little off-road street in Ondo Town, was their seventh neighborhood since Taye sustained a near-fatal head injury in their family house a year before. Igbonmoba was built in an old European settlement, where the antique houses on the street still retained their colonial looks. Arched windows. Measured cornices with dentils of human-shaped heads. The windowsills were pavements of hard concrete chipping away due to the harsh sun. Most of the buildings had no color, but they wore their years in testament to how the early missionaries had lived in Nigeria.

Taye continued to defy Kehinde’s spiritual authority. “Call me Madam President and sing with me: wonder, wonder, wonders in our little street of Igbonmoba,” she said.

Now beside himself, Kehinde emptied the bottle of olive oil onto her head, hoping that something would give. There were five houses and six churches that lined the small street. Despite the eviction notice Kehinde’s family had been given, some people claimed they sincerely enjoyed Taye’s nightly show.

Aduke’s older children could not help. Kehinde’s older sister, Dupe, who lived very close to Lagos, had nothing to give. The older siblings had become unworried because as Kehinde soon discovered no one wanted to identify with crazy.

The first doctor they consulted with said it was a rupture of neural circuits involving the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, basal ganglia, and thalamus. Their church pastor at The Square Church in Ondo said the doctor was speaking rubbish. “A mental illness is clearly a heavy spiritual attack,” he said. It was easy for Aduke and Kehinde to believe their pastor because no one knew what “hippopo-campus” was.

When things quieted down a little—usually at dawn—Kehinde stared incredulously at his twin sister and wondered how the same girl who had received the prize of the best female science student in Ondo state could lose all those brains. Again, he kept convincing himself that any form of mental illness was a spiritual issue. That’s what the Holy Spirit told him. He read in the Bible that Satan had come to steal, to kill, and to destroy. It couldn’t have been any neural circuit or basal ganglia kind of thing. The wicked ones saw that Taye was a rising star, and they sent the devil to destroy her with this mental illness. God, Kehinde reasoned, must have allowed legions of demons to enter into her so she could learn that God never joked about sin. Sin such as allowing boys to squeeze her boobs when no one was looking. Also, because their mother had married a Muslim, Kehinde theorized that God might have placed a curse on her, and now all her children were suffering.

Most mornings, once Taye gave them some respite from her nightly frenzies, Kehinde quoted from 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 while he spoke in spiritual languages.

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.

Whenever Kehinde spoke those words, Aduke claimed she felt something in the air. She believed what people said on the streets, that Kehinde was an extraordinary preacher boy. She had heard him pray, and she believed her son had an unusual relationship with God.

#       #       #

 Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher.

Illustration by Evangeline Gallagher.

“Crazy people don’t look good on the church, you have to remove this girl from the premises,” Kehinde’s Pastor delivered a church council verdict to him and his mother. Aduke used the edge of her cloth to wipe her oily brow and stared at Kehinde. The message in her eyes was clear: You are a miracle worker, save thine own sister.

One of the Deacons in the church asked, “Where is the father of the girl?”

In response, Kehinde squeezed his brows and looked away. B.A., their father, he recalled, had never been present. B.A.’s place was a sprawling ten-bedroom flat on Yaba Street, west of Ondo, and some sixty blocks away from Igbonmoba. Six bedrooms downstairs, three bedrooms upstairs, and one penthouse built for B.A. to feed his enormous sexual appetite—only unmarried women ever made it to B.A.’s passion room. Six of B.A.’s wives were living in the house. Ten others lived outside. It was a favor to the women, he would say. If he did not marry them, who else would?

B.A.’s house was mainly divided between the boobs wives and the hips wives. The boobs women ruled the night, and the hips wives ruled the day. The children were also polarized along that line—the Boobs Wives Children, BWC, and the Hips Wives Children, HWC.

One noisy night, during their annual Eid-ul-Fitr celebration, B.A.’s last child, Bashir, who was one of the hip wives siblings, joked that the BWC had tiny brains and might end up with boobs and no brains like their mothers. He referenced the latest landmark event where Taye, an HWC, was awarded the prize of best female science student. Taduma, a BWC, who was also Taye’s classmate, didn’t take the joke too well. While everyone laughed, Taduma seized the opportunity to carry out her execrable mission. Right then, before Taye could finish laughing, Taduma whacked her with a burglary-proof iron bar, which B.A. had wanted to affix to his penthouse window. Unrestrained by other half-siblings who supported her rage, Taduma hit Taye several times over the head until she lost consciousness and her swathed voice was ringing from hell.

Before Mr. B.A. could step down from his Penthouse, Taduma had disassembled Taye’s skull. Like a gift to her own self, Taduma held up the bloodstained metal bar in her hand with pride. The BWC drew the line with Taye’s blood smudged on their father’s precious oriental rug. They would become the untouchables.

For two weeks Taye couldn’t speak, but when she eventually did, she came back with visions. She prayed loudly, asking people to pray for the world because she feared it was about to end. Some days, she mentioned to the nurses that the world would become one nation, and she was going to be the first female president of Nigeria. She demanded that she must be called ‘Madam President.’ Another time, she disclosed to her mother where she had hidden her X-rated magazines and requested that her twin brother burn them.

After one month in and out of the hospital, recovery was so slow that her twin brother demanded she should transfer to a church campground where the issue would be tackled spiritually. Kehinde knew he had seen worse demonic afflictions at church revival meetings as a preacher boy. He had once laid his hands on a little girl who claimed she ate four people daily. He had heard people confess despicable things no human mind could imagine. And he believed Taye was being possessed by such demons.

Kehinde believed that these demons usually lived in swine, and whenever these demons needed somewhere to live, other than in the swine, they would seek out human bodies—usually human souls filled with dirt and filth. He knew what the Bible said, and he wouldn’t shift his belief: for we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

At B.A.’s house, after the bloodbath feud, the BWC took the throne, and the HWC realized that everyone in B.A.’s house was dispensable. Taduma walked around freely as if nothing had happened. B.A. had never meddled in fights between his children and wives, and he thought Taye and Kehinde should have defended themselves. If they couldn’t, too bad. All B.A.’s children had to be strong. If someone fought you, you fought back. If you failed to fight back, B.A. considered such child a bastard.

Without being told, Aduke took her twins out of B.A.’s mansion as quickly as she could. She beat herself so hard for waiting that late before getting out of polygamy. Now, she might have to keep her daughter in chains.

With Kehinde, things were meant to be the way they were. He had seen it in a vision. It was God’s way of bringing his twin sister back to the faith they once both professed. When they had first confessed to Jesus at the age of twelve, they had both been devoted to the things of Christ, until Taye veered off the narrow road and started to use makeup and eye pencil and playing with the boys in the back of the yard. Kehinde took every word of God seriously. If God had said no one must touch your boobs, He meant it wholeheartedly.

Kehinde, the preacher boy, knew exactly what to do for her. He had to bring the same healing power he had used to heal so many people during church revivals home to his family. He had to cure his sister. But first Taye had to repent of her past sins.

#       #       #

Kehinde dragged his sister along to the Neuro Psychiatrist Hospital, NPH Aro Abeokuta, a former military medical facility for Nigerian soldiers who fought in the Second World War. Aduke followed behind with a few items: a sturdy plastic bucket, some sanitary towels, changing clothes, and Taye’s purple scarf. Other families who came with their loved ones to the mental health facility ducked their faces behind their palms. Some wore dark glasses to mask their heads. For most Nigerians, the NPH Aro was for the cursed, the rejected and the misfits. Kehinde could sense the shame hanging around their necks as he and his mother walked Taye through the long paved walkway. A few people greeted them along the way, while some just stared.

“Oh, she is a beautiful girl, how come she lost her mind?” someone asked.

“What a pity! Is she smoking marijuana? We keep telling these girls to stop toying with drugs and they won’t listen. Look at this one now.” A passerby pointed at Taye as Kehinde dragged her along. 

Aduke had no answers. Some people thought she was the patient because of the loads she carried on her head and the way she tied Taye’s purple scarf around her waist. Or was it because of how Aduke’s hair was unkempt and how her feet had been marked with dirt while chasing after her daughter in the streets? Kehinde wondered why everyone was avoiding his mother. As she followed her son, the preacher boy, Aduke wished Kehinde could just change things around with a wand of magic. After all, in the Bible, the woman with a bleeding tumor only had to touch Jesus’ garment to be healed.

As they neared the wards, Kehinde observed how some patients were locked up with no access to the outside world while some were chained down to their hospital beds. Some were allowed to roam with some degree of supervision. The air around the hospital thickened as the staff, which mostly wore brown khakis, acted like prison wardens. They gave strict instructions and couldn’t feel what Kehinde was feeling.

The doctor’s office was white fluorescent lit. No colors on his wall. Just a desk and a chair. No smiles on his face or on the psychiatrist nurses assisting him. After a few observations, he established that Taye had sustained a deep injury in her skull. And that there were more deeply disturbing issues.

“Why are you angry with everyone?” the doctor asked Taye.

“Do I seem upset to you? You should ask B.A., my good-for-nothing dad,” Taye said.

“Why is your dad such a no-gooder?”

“Ask my mother. I’m not the one who married him. This stupid woman did.” Taye pointed at Aduke.

The doctor gestured to Aduke not to react and gently continued.

“You are the special guest of honor here. Not your mom. So, I want to hear from you only.”

“See, there’s no way you can call a man a father if he’s not present with you when it matters most.”

“That’s very true, Taye.”

“No, call me Madam President. I am your president. I rule the world.” Taye raised her voice and laughed. The doctor dragged his chair closer to her and waved his hand to request quiet.

“Your father was not present when it mattered. Madam President, could you tell us more about that?"

“See, I won a state-wide scholarship as the best female science student in the entire Ondo state, and I was invited to the state capital to receive a scholarship for that, but guess what?

“What?”

“That good-for-nothing daddy did not show up. See, everybody had their fathers on stage with them. My mother is not his favorite wife. So, we—my twin brother and myself- are not his favorite kids. He never showed up for us. My mother, my stupid mother did. Ask my mom, what exactly has she gained from B.A.? No, I know they fucked every other night if the other wives allowed. So, apart from being B.A.’s shit bag, what has she gained? See, I’m only seventeen, and I’m already the president of the whole world. I gained something. All my mother did was cook, wash B.A.’s clothes and lay down for him to climb over her. Yikes! Doctor, is that how you treat your wife?"

“Shut up, Taye. I bind those demons inside your soul!” Kehinde fired. The doctor did not restrain her. Rather, he and his nurses kept writing as they watched the conversation mushroom.

“Which demons, Kehinde? Shouldn’t you be ashamed of yourself too? At seventeen, you have no girlfriend. I’m only a girl, and I have been fucking since I was fourteen. No wonder your armpits smell like a rotten dead rat. You run around the church like a fool, carrying a tambourine and a big Bible, singing and praying for people who stupidly follow you. Wonder wonder, wonder,” Taye sang.

After a brief examination at the doctor’s office where Taye was grilled with questions, the doctor gave her some injection. All the aggression stopped. There was a respite for Aduke who had dreaded hearing the sound of her daughter’s voice. The nurses gathered Taye’s falling hands together and wheeled her to the ward.

“She will be here for some days,” the doctor said.

“What exactly is wrong with her?” Kehinde asked.

The doctor said it was a rupture of neural circuits. He also suggested that their absentee father had contributed to her depression.

“While I respect your diagnosis, I think I should let you know a few things about how the spiritual world operates,” Kehinde intoned. “The Bible clearly says in the book of Ephesians 6:12 that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

The doctor politely left the ward while Kehinde was talking and flailing his hands.      

#       #       #

In church, when Kehinde spoke about the love of God, the young girls believed his words. He created a certain aura in the air and walked like he was floating in it. His thickset calves shook when he mounted the pulpit. He was graceful; most of the churchgoers described him as an embodiment of humility, innocence, and power. The church was thrilled. A new boy had entered the town with fire and with power. Demons would bow. Sicknesses would flee, and young people would be brought back to the way of the Lord.

It was very easy for everyone to love Kehinde at The Square Church, Oniwaya. When he had the opportunity to preach in the Youth Church, news went everywhere that a fierce Preacher Boy had arrived in Oniwaya. Women formed a long line to be touched on the forehead by him. Parents brought their kids to him in the hope he could cast out their demons.

Even though she knew her twin brother could belt out notes and speak in spiritual tongues, Taye felt the women were exaggerating. She couldn’t feel a thing. Was it not still the same Kehinde she knew at home who snored so loud? Hadn’t anyone noticed the body odor that oozed out of his unshaven late-teen boy armpits. She honestly didn’t get it.

Maybe it was his angelic voice, Taye reasoned. He could sing two different parts—tenor and contralto. He could lead worship in the style of the American choirs. Although he had never been to America, he oohed and aahed gospel songs like the Hezekiah Walker of this world. His top range was full, and he easily got into high soprano whenever he wanted to outdo the ladies in the front pews. Members of the choir noticed that he wouldn’t do the Gregorian chant or the melismatic often but every time he did, he brought people to their knees and made ladies cry.

And at such times, his own deep-set eyes got misty as though he was about to cry, too. His lips quivered when he sang, and everyone would be moved. He looked like he knew what he was singing about. He sounded like he knew what the words of every song meant. He sang about pain and comfort like he had experienced it all. He sang about renewed hope and perseverance. He knew most of Shelley Caesar's lyrics by heart. Andrew Crouch. Marvin Sapp. Everything gospel with Blue drawls. Songs with Celtic flare. Songs written on music sheets soaked in tears. And when the songs were happy, they often involved heavy hand clapping and feet marching. Chants of praise and worship.

His favorite lyrics were songs that contained the word ‘Zion.’ Kehinde had imagined a Zion where there would be no more suffering and pain. He had often fantasized about a city that had a golden river running through it, and its streets were made of gold. Where he would be married to Jesus. Because there would be a wedding on the Last Day when millions of people who had kept themselves holy would be married to Jesus. Jesus would be the Groom, and everyone—male or female—would become the Bride.

But it wasn’t the dexterity of his voice that people got high on, the church ladies claimed. It was his looks. His manners. His demeanor. The Youth Church loved his deep-set eyes. Like his father’s, they were hidden behind his jet-black eyelashes. Those eyes never fully opened, his fans soon observed. They only did when he spoke of his future home with Jesus.

#       #       #

The last time Taye went to church was when Pastor Charles called her out during an open meeting.

That Sunday, the choir had just done one of their best songs from Shirley Caesar classics ‘He’ll Do It Again.’ Kehinde took the lead, and when he got to the bridge of the song, in his usual style of delivery, he stopped the band from playing the full orchestra. He wanted just the drum pedals to roll as the people clapped.

As the music rose, Pastor Charles was charged up to perform miracles. Two pretty ladies carried a bottle of olive oil that they poured on a plate. These women followed him as he staggered through the crowd, dipped his hands in the oil, and smeared the congregation. Ten more pastoral assistants stood behind him. They readily expected the congregants to fall as the spirit moved them. When the spirit moved, some congregants fell from their pews. Some fell into chairs. Some carefully waited for the ushers to come closer, and then fell into their hands. Swiftly and gently, Kehinde and the band sang:

‘It’s not by power, it’s not by might, but by my spirit, says the Lord. This mountain shall be removed. This mountain shall be remo-ooo-oo-ve. This mountain shall be removed. By my spirit, says the Lord.’

The congregation was in awe. The atmosphere was charged as though they had all ascended into rings of clouds. When the Spirit of the Lord came down, Pastor Charles floated in the air, and there were occasional outbursts of ecstasies.

The long queues of people waiting for Pastor Charles to pray for them stretched as far as the outside lobby of the church. He laid his hand on people. He would smear them on the head with oil from one of the pretty ladies following him around, and the congregant would fall. It was important that everyone fell down and let the ushers catch them. Or as put by Kehinde, it was better that people were slain in the Spirit. When they were slain, their dirty souls would give way to new ones. Their sins would be washed away in the blood of Jesus. Their demons would jet out into any pig farms nearby.

Then it was Taye’s turn to be slain in the Spirit. Aduke had forced her in line against her will. Pastor Charles smeared her head and pushed her forehead gently. Taye didn’t budge. She had a smirk on the left corner of her lips. Pastor Charles pushed gently once again, but still, nothing happened. It was unusual not to be slain by the Spirit. Not when Pastor Charles put his hand on someone’s forehead.         

Kehinde watched from the altar where he sang. Taye did not twist her wrists. She did not let her body go down to the ground where the waiting ushers would catch her. She stood there like a century old tree with her trunks firmly rooted in the ground. Pastor Charles waved his hand at the choir to stop singing. A complete silence enveloped the church. The initial frenzy was replaced by fear. He took a long pause and told the entire congregation to stretch their hands to pray for Taye. He disclosed to the hundreds of people watching that Taye was someone troubled by the devil, and in spite of all the care the church rendered to her, she had yet to surrender her life to the Lord. He went on to allude to her twin brother and asked if anyone would have thought that both of them came from the same womb. He continued by saying that Taye was a stubborn sister whose soul had been inhabited by over one thousand demons. Her case had defied simple prayers because she was not cooperative with the Ministers of God. “It’s the duty of the church to cast these demons out of this young lady, and now is the time. Watch, the devil in this young girl is about to fall,” the Minister said as he dipped his hand into a jar of olive oil.

As soon as Taye was led toward the minister of God one more time, she didn’t stay at the altar side. She went straight to the door that led into the baptistery. Her eyes were paprika red, and her veins were twitching in her neck so much that they were visible to the eye. The ushers didn’t dare to stop her. She looked like ten giants walking toward them. From the baptistery, she made her way out through the back door of the church, and she was never going to come back. She had it with the church. She had had it.


Kehinde Bademosi is a senior manager, social innovation and research at Johns Hopkins University. He currently manages two major Center for Disease Control grants at the Baltimore City Health Department. Kehinde is a graduate of Maryland Institute College of Art with a Masters in Social Design.