Short Story: The River Daughter – By Rodney Nkrumah-Boateng
The kerosene lantern swung gently from the low beam, its wicker flickering in the dark and casting long shadows on the hut’s mud walls. Kesewa groaned and turned her head from side to side, clutching her swollen belly as she lay on the blood-soaked grass mattress in the otherwise bare hut, her face glistening with beads of sweat.
Binta, the wiry, wrinkled toothless midwife of Asempa and the villages beyond, presided over the birth of Kesewa’s child, hopping here and there like an ancient butterfly. Occasionally, she mopped her own sweaty brow. Then she untied and re-tied her headscarf and squatted beside Kesewa, working her withered hands round her belly as she peered between her splayed legs for signs of the baby’s arrival.
‘Ah, come now, little one, we can’t wait all night, and your mother needs to sleep’, she coaxed the baby that was still lodged firmly in its mother’s womb and clearly oblivious to the old woman’s pleas. After what seemed like eternity to Kesewa, she let out yet another blood-curdling scream that pierced the night. ‘We are ready’, Binta declared in a grave voice, as if lecturing a roomful of eager trainee midwives. Then she took one final look between Kesewa’s legs and grinned at no-one in particular, revealing gums that were bare but for a single decaying stump that had seen better days a long time ago.
Eventually, after much pushing and screaming and coaxing, the little baby slithered into the world and announced her arrival with a high-pitched scream after Binta held her up and gave her a gentle tap on the buttocks. She clicked her empty gums in satisfaction and promptly snapped the umbilical cord. Kesewa, fully drained after the long labour, simply smiled weakly when Binta looked up and announced: ‘my daughter, you now have a daughter. May she live long and bring you nothing but happiness’. She was as old as (older than, some said) the village hills and surrounding forests, and had presided over countless births for as long as anyone could care to remember. But Binta treated each birth as a special occasion and clearly enjoyed being a part of the miraculous process of childbirth.
And in spite of her weary body, Kesewa’s heart danced and her soul rejoiced, for she had almost given up dreaming of this day. It all came flooding back to her…
Kesewa was the only child of her cocoa farming parents. They lived in Asempa, a large village in the forest belt, where she grew up. Her parents always made sure she lacked nothing, for she was their precious jewel, yet was never a spoilt child as so many sole offspring usually are. She grew into a graceful, delightful young woman with all the curves in the right place. Her pert bouncy breasts hung firmly, like a pair of perfectly formed, ripe and juicy melons.
Her smooth, flawless skin shone with the allure of polished copper. Her hair was as black as coal and as soft as pure silk. Her deep piercing eyes, set in a beautiful face with high cheekbones, radiated confidence, and she looked as if she had been specially carved by the Almighty to grace the earth. She had a natural gap in her set of perfect teeth, and her smile could light a whole forest. Kesewa was simply a joy to be with.
Eventually- and inevitably, the young men of Asempa -and even some of the older men long past their prime- soon began circling the young Kesewa, like menacing, lascivious, hungry hyenas seeking a cheap thrill. Yaw Kyere, her father, who was also an excellent hunter of repute, kept a shotgun in his house, and even those with only two brain cells dancing in their heads knew that he would not hesitate to blow off the head of any man who harassed his little princess.
But then, as Yaw Kyere himself knew fully well, he could not marry his own daughter. The young man who won his daughter’s heart against all the odds was Kwaku Nimo, a schoolteacher from Dabo, a nearby town. On the day of the customary marriage, Yaw Kyere organised a big feast and invited all from far and near to come and rejoice with him on this happy day.
And so Kesewa moved to her husband’s house and began married life.
The months went by, and Kesewa’s belly remained flat, causing disquiet and murmurings among the village folk. Then a full year passed without a sign of a swelling belly. Predictably, the vicious rumours started flowing thick and fast, like a stream bursting its banks. Some said she was a witch who ate her children before they started growing in her womb. Others said she had no womb to even carry a child. But what drove her husband Kwaku Nimo to despair and humiliation was the rumour that he was simply impotent.
Even though she was a good Christian, Kesewa’s faith in the Lord took a severe battering as she battled with the prospect that she may never be able to bear children. Her husband was crushed by the vicious rumours surrounding his sexual prowess, but stoically stood by his wife, even though he was under enormous pressure from his family to abandon this childless witch Kesewa and find another women who could bear him children.
It was during a visit to her hometown Asempa that a childhood friend, Benewaa, told her in confidence of a fetish priest she had heard about. The very thought repelled Kesewa. As a Christian, she did not believe a fetish priest could solve her problems. She trusted the good Lord, as her bible taught her to. She went to church regularly, and her pastor prayed regularly with her on this problem. The Lord’s glory would shine through one day, he always assured her.
But as the months went by and her childlessness tormented her, Kesewa allowed herself to be persuaded to visit this Okomfo that Benewaa kept talking about, more to satisfy her friend, really, rather than conviction that this Okomfo could do anything for her. However, she made Benewaa swear on her life that no one would hear of this trip. She could not even tell her husband, for she knew he would be vehemently opposed to it. And heaven forbid that any of her church members, or worse, her pastor, should hear that she went to consult a fetish priest!
And so, early one Saturday morning, she told her husband she was going to see her mother and would be back later in the evening. She then travelled to Asempa, where she met her friend before beginning their journey.
The Bosomefi shrine was located deep in the forest, on the outer edges of a small village, and near the source of the river Dum. It was said that the river belonged to the gods of the shrine, and that if one got to the river early enough before dawn, one could see the gods in the form of mythical creatures having a bath in the river. There was a large rocky outcrop by the river across from the village, and it was said that this was where the gods rested to dry themselves, disappearing into a misty cloud just as the sun rose.
The two women walked until their feet hurt. They sought directions from villages along the way, and in one village, an elderly man ordered his young son to accompany these two young women to Bosomefi. They were so grateful. Many times during the trip, Kesewa wanted to turn back, but Benewaa urged her on.
Finally they arrived at the village by the river Dum, where they made further enquiries. A man offered to row them across the river in his dugout canoe to Bosomefi on the other side, where he would wait for them till they were ready to return. They were grateful and gave him some money for his trouble.
The Okomfo, a formidable-looking man with the appearance and build of an ox, was sitting in a semi-trance as they entered his compound, the walls of which were adorned with the skulls of dead animals and had dried animal blood. At the opposite end of the entrance stood a little hut, and it was in front of this hut that the priest sat, rocking back an forth as if swayed by a gentle tropical wind. His eyes were shut. He wore a raffia skirt and his upper body was covered in beads, amulets and charms of all sorts. Some white powder was sprinkled on his head, which was as bald as an egg. In front of her, a young girl who was obviously his assistant sat holding a bowlful of cowries and muttering something to herself. Both completely ignored the women.
Kesewa and Benewaa stared at the scene before them and clung to each other tightly, pure terror written boldly on their faces. What had they let themselves into? A million dreadful thoughts crisscrossed the women’s minds like a spider’s web. They stood rooted to the spot, as if their legs were logs of heavy mahogany.
Suddenly the young girl seemed to notice them, and she beckoned them closer with a faint smile. She explained that the priest was consulting with the gods and that he knew their problem and would deal with their matter as soon as he was done. They gave her the gifts they had brought for the gods-a bottle of schnapps, a dozen white eggs and a cockerel. She accepted them, and they took stools and waited, still fearful.
When he eventually granted them audience, the priest startled them by telling them straightaway exactly why they had come to him and who they were, even before they had opened their mouths. He assured them that the gods had heard Kesewa’s cries and would put her enemies to shame by opening up her womb. But there was one condition, he warned.
‘In nine months from now, you will bear a daughter,’ he began in a voice that rumbled like low thunder. ‘But that daughter is not for you. She is coming to open your womb so that you can have more children’. He paused. ‘When that girl comes of age and begins to see monthly blood, you shall bring her to the oracle, for she is a daughter of the river, and there shall she return to join the gods. No man shall have sexual relations with that child, for it shall annoy the gods, and their fury knows no bounds. Thus proclaims the oracle.’
Kesewa quickly nodded her assent. She would be having children!! After sternly repeating his warnings, the priest sent the women on their way, ordering Kesewa to make sure she had sexual relations with her husband that very night.
Two months after her secret trip to the Bosomefi oracle, Kesewa realised she was pregnant. She was stunned, and could only cry tears of unbridled joy. At last, she was a woman! She travelled to Asempa that very day and told her friend Benewaa, who was overjoyed. Soon, everybody in Asempa and Dabo had heard the news, and her church organised a special service to thank the Lord and pray for a successful pregnancy and many more children for Kesewa and her husband. Kesewa was tempted several times to confess to her pastor what she had done. On the other hand, she said to herself that there was no proof that her pregnancy was even due to the fetish priest. After all, her pastor had also been praying for her, and it could well be the pastor’s prayers that had been answered. She decided to leave sleeping dogs to lie alone.
Now as she cradled her daughter in her arms, Kesewa wondered whether she had had a daughter rather than a son because that of what the Bosomefi oracle had ordained, or that it was the work of the lord and just a coincidence. Either way, she could not see herself giving her daughter away, ever. The Lord shall protect my family, she thought fiercely to herself.
As she stared into her daughter’s eyes, she began to recite softly, one of her favourite bible passages: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…’
END OF PART ONE. TO BE CONTINUED
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