My grandmother Aya used to pull her children and grandchildren to her side every Christmas holiday. We came from Lagos, Jos and Zaria and would stay at Aya’s compound in Zaki Biam, my hometown. Zaki Biam is a tiny place almost dissected cleanly into two by a major road. It rose to the national conscience in 2001 after soldiers killed over 100 people there.
For me, Zaki Biam means Christmas. A place of play, of family and of food. Where we ate pounded yam everyday and rice was for special days like Christmas and New Year’s day.
As a city kid, I had the thrill of going to the farm. I never worked, I was there for the roasted yam and palm oil stew that was lunch. I fetched water from the well enjoying the satisfaction of hauling a bucket of water out of the ground without spilling a drop. Aya’s compound had a sandy square in the middle and the square’s sides were made up of little bungalows. There was a huge orchard behind the compound. I’d never seen the end of it. It was filled with citrus fruits – oranges, tangerines, grapefruits. My cousins and I would walk between the densely packed trees, plucking oranges fresh from their stalks. We peeled the oranges with crude, local made knives. The blades left brownish marks on the oranges and we could taste the steel as we sucked the juice out of the soft insides.
My Aunty Becky was locked up in in the bungalow where the path to the orchard began. Aunty Becky was my mother’s younger sister, the youngest in a family of nine. She was a surprise baby, coming along four years after Aya thought she was done. Baby Becky was the one who refused to be weaned. She would suck off the bitterleaf Aya had rubbed on her nipple, spit it out and keep sucking. Growing up, she was quiet. She was the neat and orderly one.
We got to Zaki Biam one Christmas and Aunty Becky was there. I don’t remember what she looked like because I never got to see her. She remained locked away all day. Maybe for our safety. She’d look out at the square through her windows covered in nest made filthy by the Harmattan dust. Through the bars, she watched us play under the coconut tree with dead leaves.
Ihungugh. Mental Illness.
There is a sense of the tragic when the most vivid memories of a loved one isn’t who they were before the illness took over but who they became after the illness had diminished them.
I spoke to my family about Aunty Becky, trying to dredge their memories to answer the questions I had about how and why she ended up in that room. Even 20 odd years after she had died, there was a painful strain in my family’s voices.
Aunty Becky and her husband were in love. My cousin describes it as the type of love that you only see in the movies. They had their first baby and that was when things began to change. The doctor called it Postnatal Depression, two words that my family had never heard before. She went through electroshock therapy at Ahmadu Bello University Teaching Hospital and quickly recovered. According to family lore, the doctor told her not to have another child until three or four years had passed. But she did have another one. And she did regress but received treatment which worked. The doctor then said not to have anymore children. But one of their children fell into a well and drowned. So she had another one. But she didn’t come back this time.
Her husband couldn’t deal with both the children and his sick wife. So he brought her home to Zaki Biam. By the time she came to Aya, the neat, quiet woman who kept to herself had gone. A vulgar and violent person who looked like Aunty Becky remained. When she became violent, it would take several people to subdue her. Aunty Becky would become terrified when the hands held her down. She would struggle to push words through lips so dry they looked sunburnt. She would not sleep but would sing through the night. She’d wander around the vast orchard plucking and throwing fruits into the dirt. Sometimes she was held down with chains that cut into her skin until she bled.
But her husband never stopped loving her. He still visited from Mkar, bringing provisions and clean underwear. When she saw him she’d become calm. He would bathe her, hold her and talk to her. And he would return to Mkar.
Aya could never accept what had happened to her youngest child. She was a desperate mother looking for any cure, losing faith in western medicine and increasingly leaning on the traditional. Aya latched on to news of any healer and would take Aunty Becky there. She heard of a healer in Kwande, about an hour and a half journey by car. Aya sent her baby off with a companion but the companion returned. Aunty Becky never returned. She died miles from Zaki Biam. Chained outside the thatched house, exposed to the elements. She was 34.
Her husband is still alive. He never married again.