Every summer Ijeoma’s mother-in-law asked her to come to Nigeria to seek a solution to her childlessness. The previous year she had sent Ijeoma a video recording of Nigeria’s latest miracle pastor. The pastor’s name was Jehoshaphat. He had a long, well-groomed beard. He was shown in the video sending women into brief trances by gently blowing air onto their faces. He was said to visit barren women in their dreams and hand them babies wrapped in a white shawl. After the dream visitation, the women usually became pregnant and came to his church with their newborn babies wrapped in white shawls. The videocassette was filled with images of women singing and dancing their way to the microphone and telling stories of how Pastor Jehoshaphat had visited them in their dreams, and a few days later they had become pregnant. Some of the women told stories of how they had gone to a witch doctor, a babalawo, in search of a solution to their childlessness and had been made to do all kinds of weird things. A woman in the tape said that she had been made to drink cow urine for nine months, “No water, only cow urine from a white cow, for nine months.” She emphasized each word. And yet she could not become pregnant. Another woman gleefully confessed that a babalawo had told her that the only way she could get pregnant was if she let him have his way with her. The babalawo was a wrinkled, toothless ninety-year-old. She confessed that she was so desperate she had slept with the man, and yet she had remained barren. Now she was the proud mother of twins after being visited by Pastor Jehoshaphat in her dream. There was another testimony by a woman who had been driven out of her matrimonial home by an irate mother-in-law. She said her mother-in-law wouldn’t let her grown-up daughters eat out of the same plate or drink from the same cup with her out of fear that she would infect them with her barrenness. She said after she got pregnant, the same mother-in-law had come to beg her forgiveness and was in fact in church with her today. The mother-in-law leaped out of her seat and walked to the microphone, and both women embraced each other. The crowd erupted, and lots of white shawls went up in the air like cotton buds in the Harmattan wind.
There was yet another video testimony by a woman who claimed to have been married to a “spirit husband.” She said she had had a pact with her spirit husband; that she would come to earth, get married to a man and cause her earthly husband unhappiness, and then die during childbirth and return to her spirit husband. But she had ended up falling in love with her earthly husband due to his caring nature, and had become reluctant to return to her spirit husband. This had made the spirit husband angry, and he would come into her bed every night and make love to her furiously. As a result of this, she was always too tired to make love to her earthly husband and would sometimes wake up in the morning to find her own side of the bed soaked with sweat from the lovemaking with her spirit husband. A friend had brought her to the church, and the pastor had delivered her from the powers of the spirit husband. She became pregnant and was now the mother of twins. She got a standing ovation for her testimony.
Ijeoma lived in New York City and did in fact have access to some of the best gynecologists. But her mother-in-law told her that there was nothing wrong with looking for a “homegrown solution” to her problem. People in the Nigerian community told her she was lucky to have a mother-in-law who looked out for her. In many instances the mother-in-law would have sent her out of the marriage by bringing a nubile young girl for her son. Ijeoma had grown up living with her mother-in-law, and called her Mama. She had been sent to live with the woman who later became her mother-in-law by her parents when she was quite young, in order, in her motherís words, to “receive good home training and to become a modern lady.” Her future mother-in-law was a schoolteacher and a caterer, and Ijeoma had been one of many girls sent by their parents to live with her. She had taken a special interest in Ijeoma, and by the time Ijeoma had lived with her for a few months, she announced that Ijeoma would be the wife of one of her sons. Though Ijeoma had never met the man who would become her husband, she was considered fortunate by the other girls because he was living in America. His name was Juwah, and he was said to be brilliant and kind and was his mother’s favorite.
Ijeoma’s mother-in-law had a favorite saying: “Ignore what’s written on the body of the truck, and just get into the truck.” This was her mantra. She was a devout Catholic who never missed mass and was a member of the Catholic Women’s League, yet she believed in the new “miracle pastors,” as they were called in Nigeria. She also believed that when it came to curing Ijeoma of her childlessness, no solution was heathen. Once Ijeoma had suggested that the problem might actually be with Juwah, but her mother-in-law would not hear of it. Childlessness was always the woman’s problem, even if it was not always her fault, she had told Ijeoma. She had stopped short of telling her mother-in-law that Juwah, who was a computer programmer and worked from home, was always sitting in front of the computer, and each time he came to bed, his hands and lips were cold and his touch chilly like that of a corpse.
During an earlier visit home, Ijeoma’s mother-in-law had taken her to visit the popular Baby Market in Ajangbadi, a run-down part of Lagos. As they got out of the car, a couple of girls with faces turned yellow by skin-lightening creams crowded around them.
“What type of baby do you want? Boy or girl? Or even twins—I can have them for you if you pay me very well and take care of me,” one of the girls said to Ijeoma. Even that early in the day, the girl’s breath reeked of ogogoro and cigarettes.
“Sister, I have customers from London and Germany, and I have their letters to prove it, I can help you. I have given birth to many fine babies, and there is no sickness in my body—I have my doctor’s report here,” another of the girls said, thrusting a sheaf of stained light brown papers into her face. All around them young men stood around smoking marijuana and smilingly watched the conversation and negotiations. There were other well-dressed women there, busy negotiating with the girls.
What had grown into the Baby Market had been going on underground for years but had now come into the open because of the downturn in the economy. For a long time, many rich barren women would go to “white-garment churches” and come back home months later with babies. Quite often, the pastors of the white-garment churches had a flock of young men and women who were in their employ. Once there was a demand for a baby, the young people were given the go-ahead to sleep together. As soon as the girl got pregnant and had the baby, she and the young man were paid off and the baby handed over to the barren woman, who paid handsomely for the baby and walked away with it, no questions asked. There were no adoption agencies in the country, and the idea of adoption was frowned upon. Besides, no adopted person could inherit any property at the death of his adopted parents. The relations of the deceased would simply throw him out, referring to him as an outsider.
Turning to her mother-in-law, Ijeoma had whispered that they should go to one corner of the Baby Market to talk privately. Thinking they were going to talk about money, one of the young men had accosted them and started to explain. “Auntie,” he said to Ijeoma, “are you married to a white man? Don’t worry, we have many half-castes among us here who can give you a very yellow baby—even, sef, when your white husband sees the baby, he will swear that the baby is his own, I swear to God.” Ijeoma looked at her mother-in-law and began to drag her toward the car, but the young ma
n was unrelenting.
“Or is it the money that you are worried about? We accept installment payment, sef—even if you are living abroad in London, America, or Rome you can go with your baby and send us our money month by month through Western Union money transfer, and don’t worry yourself about any problem in the future, we can never come to ask for the baby, in fact we sign a guarantee paper and we even swear with Bible and ogun if you like that we can never come to disturb you or try to take away the baby.”
Ijeoma had dragged her mother-in-law away at that point, fighting to control her rising temper.
“Mama, don’t you see that most of them are drug addicts and drunks—who knows the kind of sickness they are harboring?”
“Everybody who needs a baby in Lagos comes here to patronize them, and there has never been any complaint concerning them,” her mother-in-law replied.
“But Mama, for these people it is only a business, and a baby should be conceived in love. A child is not a commodity, you know.”
“It is you who will give the baby love when he is born, not these people,” her mother-in-law replied with her sometimes impeccable logic. But Ijeoma had not been convinced. She suggested that she needed time to think things over and promised that they could return the next week when she had thought sufficiently about it.
“My daughter, it is because I want to carry your baby on my knees before I die—this is why I am doing all of these things. Don’t forget that I am getting old and I cannot be with you forever,” she said to Ijeoma in a tone that sounded woebegone but wheedling.
By the time they went back to the Baby Market a week later, the place had been raided by the police. There were reports that some Lagos women were using the babies they bought from the place for moneymaking juju rituals. A few months later, the Baby Market resurfaced in a new location and was said to have grown even bigger. It now had the police on its payroll and was receiving police protection. All that had happened during her last visit, and this time she was hoping things would be different. She had no wish to return to the Baby Market.
The weekend after Ijeoma arrived, her mother-in-law chartered a taxi to take them to a church in Badagry, on the outskirts of Lagos, where the prophet’s church was located. Badagry used to be the center of a famous slave market in the days of slavery, which housed the place that used to be known as the “point of no return.” It was said that once a captured slave reached this spot, he had no chance of ever going back. It was said that to this day, the slaves’ voices could still be heard, crying out that they did not want to leave their fatherland. It was now a tourist destination; there was also a Museum of Slavery that housed chains, shackles, and other paraphernalia of that infamous trade in black people.
The prophet’s church was a large white hall surrounded by canopies and tents. Behind it were little shacks made out of palm fronds. Members of the church and supplicants who had traveled from afar wore white flowing gowns and walked about on bare feet; the prophet had designated the location of his church a holy ground, and no shoes were allowed. All around women and children in dirty white soutanes sat waiting. Some of the children played in the sand, while a few played in puddles of urine. There were flies everywhere, and the heat was stifling. The majority of those waiting had apparently been fasting, and their lips appeared to be coated in a white film. Big cooking pots were boiling atop large fires, and the smell of boiling beef and rice filled the air. According to a brochure that Ijeoma bought at the entrance to the church, the prophet had started out as a carpenter and coffin maker. One day while he was in the bush, cutting wood, a little black bird had called out his name. As he stood still listening to the voice of the bird, he had fallen into a deep trance, and when he woke up, a voice had spoken to him and told him that from that day onward he would become a giver of life, rather than a taker who built coffins with which people were buried.
Ijeoma and her mother-in-law were given round plastic numbered disks and sat on white plastic chairs awaiting their turn. The inside of the church smelled of burning incense, candles, and unwashed bodies.
After a while, a female usher called their number, took them in to the presence of the prophet, and commanded them to kneel. The prophet laid a moist warm palm on Ijeomaís head and began to intone in a voice that had the raspiness of an angry night masquerade.
“You have traveled far, woman; you have crossed many waters to come to me. Ah, you have many powerful enemies, and their wish is to make your life akin to that of a barren she-goat, cursed to be always wandering and never finding rest. They locked your womb with a padlock, melted the key, and threw it into the bottom of the ocean; their one wish is that your womb will never be unlocked. But you have a powerful prayer warrior in the person of your mother-in-law here. We shall find that key and unlock your womb, and you shall be a mother not just once but seven times, yes, seven times you shall be a mother.”
The prophet began to twirl around and move jerkily on his feet, his face and white soutane quickly becoming damp with sweat. He began to scream in a strange language that was an admixture of French, Greek, and his native Egun language. When he stopped, he took Ijeoma by the hand and led her to a pond behind the church. The water on the pond was clear and tinged with a touch of light blue; the sight made Ijeoma feel a bit cooler. Ijeoma could see many small fish swimming in the water. Pointing at the fish in the pond, the prophet spoke to Ijeoma.
“These are all children; these are all babies waiting to be born. Look closely, and tell me the one that you like.”
Ijeoma was confused for a moment; all she could see were fish swimming in the clear water. Her mother-in-law nudged her, and she bent her neck and peered closely at the fishpond. She saw a tiny white fish with a little black stripe on its side. She pointed at it. The prophet smiled.
“You have chosen very well; that is a beautiful baby girl that you have picked.”
He took them back inside. Ijeoma was already beginning to feel dizzy from the sun, the heat, the smell of incense, and peering at the clear water of the pond.
“We cannot thank you enough, man of God; so what can we give you as offering?” Ijeomaís mother-in-law asked.
“Some people choose to buy me cars—I have more cars than I can count, I have even given out many to my assistants. Some people build me houses, but I can only sleep in one house at a time. An important man that I prayed for even wanted to pull down this church and promised to build a new one in its place within seven days, but I told him not to worry, for it is not the size of the building that matters but the power of the anointing. So what I am saying is that it is up to you to give whatever you want to as a love offering—yes, that is what it is, a love offering, because you cannot buy or pay for the anointing. I see that you have crossed many seas to come here, so give us whatever it is that you people eat in that part of the world that you live in,” the prophet said, rubbing his sweaty palms together.
Ijeoma dipped her hand in her bag and brought out five hundred dollars in hundred-dollar bills. The prophet took it, looked at it, and smiled.
“This is very good money. I like its color and the way it smells; it has traveled far to come and meet me, and I thank you for it. I demand nothing, only that you bring your baby here when you deliver so I can anoint her with holy water and olive oil to protect her from the eyes of the wicked, that is all I ask,” he said, smiling. He rang a bell, and an usher came and led them out back to their waiting
On the ride back, Ijeoma began to think of asking her mother-in-law questions about what had happened at the prophet’s. She was tired and weary, and something inside her had recoiled at the prophet’s reference to the little fishes in the pond as children. She knew that this was probably the last time she would be coming to Nigeria in search of a solution to her childlessness to please her mother-in-law. She loved her mother-in-law and did not want to hurt her, but had decided that she would convince Juwah to bring her over to come and live with them in New York. But she had also heard that there were Nigerian white-garment churches and babalawos in parts of Brooklyn. She wondered whether her mother-in-law would go searching for them, but also realized that her mother-in-law might not be able to navigate the confusing subway system in New York City.
All around them were vendors selling iced water in plastic bags, DVDs, videotapes, and all kinds of imported Chinese plastic toys.
A woman whose shriveled breasts were exposed, and who carried a very young baby with kohl-lined eyes, knocked on the window of the cab. She gestured with her hand to her mouth, apparently asking for money to feed herself and the baby. Ijeoma began fumbling with her purse, searching for loose change, but her mother-in-law stopped her.
“Don’t give her anything—they are all tricksters. The baby is not hers. She hired the baby from the real mother. She knows that with a baby in her arms she’s likely to get more sympathy and receive more alms. Whatever she gets at the end of the day, she’ll share with the child’s real mother.”
“You mean a woman would loan out her baby to be used for begging in the hot sun?”
“Of course—they do it all the time. The real mother of the baby probably has more than ten children and not enough money to feed them. As our people say, ‘A headless man often owns many caps.’”
As the traffic began to ease up, Ijeoma threw a few notes out of the window to the beggar woman, who picked up the notes, touched them to her face, and began to pray for Ijeoma. As they drove away, Ijeoma waved at the woman, and her mother-in-law hissed.
“If you give money to all the beggars on the roads of Lagos, you’ll become a beggar soon yourself,” she said to Ijeoma.
“I was thinking you’ll come and live with us in America. Juwah will be very happy to have you live with us,” Ijeoma said to her mother-in-law, trying to change the subject.
“Me live in America—God forbid. I have heard all sorts of things about the place. I donít think it is a place for people of my age. I think the cold will kill me, and besides, how can I live in a place where I hear some people will have dogs rather than children?”
“Haba, Mama, people also have children in America. Those who want children go to great lengths to have children—there are fertility clinics where people go for treatment. People even donate eggs and sperm so those who do not have can receive them and get pregnant.”
“Tufiakwa, that is not the will of God; the best thing is to beg God for children. I am glad that you chose to listen to me and come back home to find a homegrown solution to your problem and not go to those fertility clinics,” Ijeoma’s mother-in-law said.
“But Mama, promise you’ll at least come to visit us. You may find out you like the place.”
“When you have your baby, I will definitely come to help you bathe and carry the baby. It will be worth the trip, and I look forward to that,” her mother-in-law replied.
Shortly after Ijeoma got back to the United States, she discovered she was pregnant. At first she didnít believe it, but after two further tests, the result was the same. She was indeed pregnant. Juwah was excited and began to spend time away from the computer screen. Ijeoma would sometimes tell him to touch her stomach and feel the baby’s movement. He would touch and squeal in delight like a child. They soon had a sonogram and found out it was going to be a baby girl. Both were delighted. They agreed that the baby’s name would be Nnneka—”Mother Is Supreme.”
When the baby was born, she was very fair, and a black birthmark almost covered one side of her rib cage. Ijeoma’s mind went back to the little white fish with the black stripe. The doctor reassured her that the birthmark might fade away within a short time. The day after the baby was born, her color began to change to ink blue. She was having difficulty breathing. They hooked her up to an oxygen machine, but the baby did not get better, and later that night she died. An autopsy showed that the baby had been born with very underdeveloped, weak lungs.
Ijeoma called her mother-in-law and narrated the story of the death of Nnneka—Juwah’s name for the baby, meaning “Mother Is Supreme”—-all the while sobbing, with snot running down her nose. Her mother-in-law’s response surprised her.
“Don’t worry, at least the world now knows that you are not barren. You’ll come home again. We shall return to the prophet’s place. This time you’ll pick a strong black fish, it’ll be a boy, his lungs will be strong. . . .”
Ijeoma dropped the phone.