No one realised until ten months after his birth that this man I want to tell you about was the rot in the kolanut of a marriage that went bad, when his father sent his mother away with a Ghana-Must-Go on her head and a handwritten letter in her armpit. Those who read the letter said it ended with a generational curse that said, “May everything that comes out of you turn to potash.” That was why when we were told that it was some evil spirits—sorry, I mean some kind djinns—that dropped their heavy load on his back, I didn’t object. Who am I to?
It was on a Friday. Oh God! I cannot forget that day. We were coming out of the mosque after magrib prayers. Dusky. Hurrying. Hungry. A loud groan from Alai Massa’s house stung our ears. Terrified, we all paused. The groaning came again, this time louder, and rocked the wooden windows of the mosque. Two women from the neighbouring house rushed there, both with head ties around their waists. Surely it wasn’t Alai Massa groaning. Because where I left him at the mosque he was still sitting on his ankles with mumbling on his lips. People gushed from the mosque and passersby stopped as well. We converged in front of Alai Massa’s house, gingered by curiosity and an odd thrill, to offer any help, if possible.
It was how we lived, to assist each other. “We live for the ones we love,” my father said the day he gave out his only ram to our neighbour whose third wife gave birth to a newborn baby that year. The man met my father while we were returning from subhi prayer. The only thing I saw in his eyes was debt. But my father saw pity. He dug his knees in the ground and cried to my father that he couldn’t afford a ram to slice its throat for the naming ceremony of his child. So my father gave it to him. Days later I heard him say if not for the ram he couldn’t have stared into the eyes of his enemies and swear to them that they will never see his downfall. Everyone tried to help like father did. Like filling their buckets with sand when fire swallowed their neighbour’s house. Others often gathered children from age seven below and get them circumcised.
So after that second groan, everyone ran to Alai Massa’s house. I stood in the front with other young people like me before some elderly men pushed us aside. “Those who do not know matches should not teach people about fire,” an old man with white eyebrows muttered in my ears. But I ignored him like I ignored the men who stepped on my feet. It was becoming dark. So we lit the compound with our flashlights and found Goni lying on the floor, breathing hard, as though life was about to go out of his body. He rolled himself on the earth like a pig in the mud. I don’t mean to insult him. The truth is he’s kind of chubby, and when he breathed and groaned, he sounded like a pig. Hah! I was scared when I saw him wobble in pain. The old people who’d pushed us earlier were scared too, but feigned courage as it is their habit.
Goni had torn his kaftan with his nails when he tried to scratch at his skin. He’d worn the new kaftan that day for the first time for Friday prayers. Its white colour was now stained with dust. The pain that took over his eyes was enough to say Goni was giving up on life.
Alai Massa’s new wife stood panting by the kitchen door with her arms folded around her body. We were told he married her from the Shuwa-Arab tribe. Which means her bride price was proportional to her long hair, fair skin and slender body. And that she could make a home memorable with her burnt incense perfume. Her round eyes filled her face in a beautiful way. For the first time we all saw Alai Massa’s wives without their hijabs. The first wife was in a vest and a wrapper around her chest. And the younger one was in a flower print gown that pronounced her curves.
We formed a circle around Goni. Yet none of us could do anything until Alai Massa returned from the mosque.
“It was his people that visited him,” Alai Massa addressed us after sneaking in through the crowd. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine, insha Allah.” He assured everyone.
As at then he didn’t tell anyone that Goni had qusumbi. And maybe even, it was the size of a tiger-nut, who knows? The young among us helped Alai Massa take Goni to his room before we left. Believe me, after Alai Massa addressed us, even some grown-up men—and children who’d peeped through the small openings on the gate—didn’t understand what he meant by “his people.” I doubt you do too. I will tell you that later. For now, let me not leave from the main-main gist.
So for the first time, people entered Alai Massa’s house and went out freely. He never allowed adult men into his house. This time, no one was taken to Bulama for trespassing. He didn’t announce that he’ll lay curse on anyone with the Qur’an either.
At the mosque not too long ago, Alai Massa pointed towards a bola and said, “You see that mad man in the street? He was cursed with the Qur’an.” Somehow, he suspected someone had visited his house when he traveled for Hajj. Look, it’s just that I don’t like gossiping like Umar does. If not, if I told you what those his wives do with other men even when he locks them at home before going to his shop, you’ll be surprised. If it was Umar he would have painted their stories on all the walls on this street with that his big mouth. No wonder he has brown teeth. It was even Umar that first gossiped to us about Goni’s people and his qusumbi. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about it at all. I knew the word. What I didn’t know was that it is usually one’s people—their djinn—that dropped loads on their back. So when Umar told us, I thought he lied.
Now this is the main-main story I wanted to tell you.
It started in Ramadan. You know how we do it. Fasting. Hunger. Long prayers. So there was this cool shade of the neem tree beside the mosque that we relaxed under. We would buy litres of water from mai moya and pour it where we placed our rubber mats. But truth is we enjoyed the gist more than the air we gathered for. Gist about many things: people, Eid, and those teenage girls who push their chests when they walked past us.
So, that day, we were lying on the mat when Goni came by. The way he throws his legs while walking will tell anyone he’s Alai Massa’s brother. In the past, he told us he was more than thirty years. But, even with such age, Goni’s behaviour didn’t allow him sit where his agemates gathered.
“Maybe his mother got tired of him and sent him to stay with his brother,” Umar said the day he had a fight with Goni.
In the past, there were rumours that Alai Massa stopped Goni from going to his shop since he conspired with one of his storekeepers and got away with cartons of spaghetti and tins of Peak Milk. Can you imagine? How could one bite the finger that fed them?
Huhhm . . . Let me not digress from the story.
So Goni joined us on the mat with a food flask and pure water by 2pm on Ramadan day. He was supposed to be fasting, ko? He opened the food flask and began to eat the hot jollof rice. The aroma was intense. It was cooked with ingredients that added to its rich colour and aroma. Maggi. Curry. Groundnut Oil. Sachet tomato. Awana gripped Goni’s hand after he pleaded with Goni to stop eating. Someone who didn’t even listen to his parents. Goni dissolved Awana’s grip from his hand and ate his food. Later he told us he was having ulcer.
“That was how he lied that he’d been operated when a stranger asked us to help him push one old Peugeot 206,” Umar smirked. “He doesn’t have ulcer. He just refused to fast.”
When the argument became too much, Goni walked away. But, not long after he left, a boy ran to us with saliva dribbling from his mouth and said Goni had fallen into a gutter on his way home. But no one stirred to the news, except me. But I couldn’t mention the matter of the djinn because of this Ramadan fast he violated even though the fear was there in my eyes. If I did, the boys would say that a dog had snatched my heart away.
Weeks later we heard Goni had recovered but we were told he couldn’t walk upright. One of those doctors who came showed Alai Massa a picture of an old white man with something like a watermelon on his back and called it a hunchback. Alai Massa only laughed as if he, too, was inflicted with Goni’s people, and called the doctor a funny masquerade, whom he eventually chased away.
“Aramma said it was his people that dropped their load there. And only they could take it away,” Alai Massa said. Well, some who were there said that the doctor got angry and muttered something horrible that sounded like, “We shall see.”
Since then, things got worse for Goni.
He developed a camel’s hump on his back. It started small, like the size of an orange, then a mango, and finally it grew to the size of a watermelon, yes, a watermelon. Mothers stopped their children from going close him because they were afraid he could transfer it to them. But what could I do? He was our friend. So I insisted to the other boys that we must go and see him.
Awana hung back for a moment, “Ali, what if his djinn attacks us?”
“We are not Goni. Besides, Goni is not in good times with God.”
Umar then claimed he wanted to first get Omo from a shop before meeting up with us. I knew he was not coming back.
“Let’s go, boys.” I led the way.
When Goni’s situation worsened, Alai Massa sent him to stay at Aramma’s house for a while. Aramma could provide more help when Goni’s people visited than Alai Massa could. Aramma knew the Qur’an and his closeness to God was why Ali Massa chose his house. It is not that God told Ali Massa that Aramma was close to Him, but he knew that after every word Aramma spoke, God followed next. If not for anything, at least, Aramma had God on his tongue.
Goni was at the compound when we got there. He lay on a rug under a blackcurrant tree. Soaked in water in a silver cup were some tree barks. And beside Goni’s pillow, a slate leaned to the tree with Arabic writings scribbled on it with wet ink. We brought with us oranges and banana in a black nylon. No one would say we are stingy people. You know, these days, people even weigh the amount of tears one shed at their family’s burial to shed same for you. Some even use Robb in their eyes. What am I even saying? Let me continue.
An old woman who was taking care of Goni welcomed us and received the nylon bag.
“May Allah reward you abundantly,” she said.
“Amin Kaka,” we chorused.
“He is getting better now. The only problem is this thing on his back . . . and . . . and his people often visit him,” she explained, stealing glances at our faces as if she was dissolving our lack of interest in the story.
Goni twitched his toes as if something itched them. When I raised my neck, pain creased his forehead. His eyes bulged. They were white as if his eyeballs had disappeared. He supported himself and sat up. I had never seen Goni’s eyes like that. If I was alone, I would’ve run away.
“Sorry, Goni. Are you okay? Sorry,” the old woman said.
Goni looked at us, then stared at the tree above his head. The old woman tapped his shoulder and when he turned to her, his face changed. He gave a loud groan—like the one that evening that nearly cut off our earlobes—and knocked down the silver cup beside him. We jumped back, frightened. The old woman tried to press him down but was flung to the side by Goni’s sudden, powerful arm. I stumbled backwards, my legs wobbled and something pounded continuously in my chest. Goni panted, making funny moves with his mouth as if he was speaking in tongues like the olumba-olumba people who pass our street every Sunday.
Aramma and three other young men ran out from their rooms and helped hold Goni down. He struggled but couldn’t throw them off like he did the old woman; he garbled in a strangled voice as if a tuber of yam was lodged in his throat. He spoke outlandish languages that no one understood. Eventually, his voice changed. It grew louder at first and vibrated like the voice of a weed smoker. It changed and he spoke in the voice of an old woman, and then that of a child. Aramma dashed to his room and reappeared with a Qur’an and a silver bowl of water.
“Hold him tight if not he will throw you out. It is not his strength, but his people,” Aramma said.
Aramma recited the Qur’an and wetted his face with some saliva from the recitation. He spat from his mouth onto Goni and into the silver bowl. He sprinkled the water from the bowl on Goni’s head, scooped some in his palm and washed Goni’s face with it. When he was sure Goni was relaxed, the young men held Goni’s mouth open while Aramma poured some of the water in. I took a step towards them. Aramma turned to me and smiled.
“His people just visited,” he said. “But we chased them away with the Qur’an.”
Goni was laid on the rug again. They were careful not to lay him on his back, maybe because his qusumbi will cause him more pains.
“Even if he gets better, he can’t walk upright. He’s developed qusumbi and it is meant to stay,” Aramma said.
“Qusumbi?” I didn’t know when the word left my mouth.
“Yes, this muscle on his back,” Aramma said. “It’s usually the evil spirits, djinns, that drop their load on someone’s back.”
Does that mean my djinns might drop theirs on my back, too? I wondered. I dismissed the thought from my head and stole a look at Goni’s back; his qusumbi had already matured. Horrible. Painful. You can’t understand until you see it. But, you too, think about it: how could someone live with a hump or watermelon on their back? You see?
The old woman thanked Aramma. “Maybe you should give us the remaining water you recited the Qur’an in,” she asked.
“Sure. You can have it,” Aramma answered.
As we left that day, none of us spoke to the other. In my sleep at night I saw it. I quickly changed my position and slept on my back. The next day, all of us, even loose-mouthed Umar, zipped our mouths. Who were we to talk about anybody’s people again?
Sa’id Sa’ad is a Nigerian writer from Maiduguri. He is the winner of the Peace Panel Short Story Prize 2018. His works have appeared in Afritondo, Bookends Review, Kalahari Review, Ibua Journal, Nzuri Journal and elsewhere.