Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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No one would admit that they’d stolen my phone, so Manager threatened to call a juju priest to settle the issue spiritually.
“The thief will die within three days!” Manager said. “Their whole family will run mad!” The three suspects, all employees at the bar where I had come to charge the phone, laughed at his threats: Who uses juju to settle disputes in 2017?
Livid, Manager added another threat to the list: “The thief will fart and fart until all the air is gone from their body. They’ll dry up like stockfish. Just wait and see.”
The whites of Manager’s eyes were scarlet, which could have been from anger or from the dry gin I could smell on his breath. I hoped someone would confess to taking the phone as a prank, because Manager seemed like he meant every word, and as a Christian I wanted nothing to do with juju. I’d heard many times how the devil gives shoes only to ask for the person’s legs in return. But as Manager trained his red eyes on me, I realized the situation had escalated beyond my control.
“You’ll get your phone back,” he said to me. “I’ve worked too hard to make this bar the best hangout spot in town. By the time I’m done with these idiots, they’ll know that I don’t play around with the reputation of my business.”
The bar in Uyo, Nigeria, was an open-air space with plastic chairs arranged around plastic tables and patio umbrellas to shade patrons from the burning sun and shield them from the torrential rains. There was only one building in the compound, and that’s where the freezers were. Most nights you’d find crowds of people my age watching football on the large TV chained to the fence, or whispering sweet nothings to each other, or typing on their laptops. The bar was strategically close to the new college campus — built on the outskirts of town after the area around the old campus had become too congested — and most of the customers were undergraduates. The generator at the bar ran from 6 PM to midnight every evening, guaranteeing nighttime power in a country plagued by blackouts. The owner had also taken Manager’s advice and placed electrical outlets all over the fence, and customers flocked to them. Every night the bar would come alive with people gathered around to plug phones and laptops into those cherished sockets. We remained tethered to them.
Knowledge flowed along with electricity as people used their computers to learn product design, graphic design, programming. Some undergraduates who had already mastered these skills came to the bar to work remotely with clients from India, the U.S., and elsewhere. They were “big tech boys” because they earned dollars at a time when the Nigerian naira was weak.
Out of a job and down to my last few bucks, I had registered on a freelancing platform to get writing gigs, which is why I frequented this place. I was going to start earning in dollars like the tech boys, but first I had to convince prospective American and European clients that I understood English well enough. This proved challenging, and I was forced to accept five dollars for every thousand words. The tech boys flashed their car keys and told me I was undercharging.
Overhearing the conversation about my stolen phone, a bar patron suggested Manager call the police. Manager replied that they would just extort him in the name of opening an investigation and then torture everyone within a five-mile radius of the bar.
He was right. I’d heard of people being whisked away to the police station and tortured until they confessed to crimes they didn’t commit. When I suggested he install security cameras, Manager shook his head and said he didn’t sell enough bottles of Fanta for that kind of expense. I should have just told him to let the matter go, but my computer was in the repair shop, and I needed my phone to write articles for clients.
Manager assured me he was traveling to Uruan to see a traditional priest that night. I would have my phone back by morning, he said, beating his chest to show his resolve. The phone thief had been given enough time to confess — it had been seven hours since it had gone missing. The culprit deserved whatever was coming.
The first suspect, and the only female on the list of possible thieves, was the bar’s waitress/cook. A tiny bullet of a woman, she could go from a scowl to full-blown rage in a matter of seconds and had been known to fling grown men out of the bar. Patrons rarely misbehaved when she was around, and Manager had informally added “bouncer” to her job description.
The waitress never tried to hide her hatred of me, always swerving from my table to avoid taking my order. Our beef had started when I’d asked her why blood was still flowing in the veins of the fried chicken she’d served me. In response she’d asked why I couldn’t fry my own chicken at home: “Do you have leaky pots? And what self-respecting woman goes to a bar every blessed night?” She’d clutched the serving tray angrily.
When questioned about the phone, the waitress claimed she had been washing beer glasses behind the bar at the time of the incident. With a gleeful smile, she told Manager he was free to consult the devil himself about her guilt or innocence if he liked. Manager sighed and shook his head, his shoulders slumped in defeat.
When I was a little girl, my mother bought a piece of land with the intention of building a house on it. It was the early 1990s, and the landscape of Uyo was changing. Land was available and affordable because few people were farming anymore. Following the discovery of crude oil in the 1950s, Nigeria’s economy had rapidly shifted from commercial agriculture to near-total dependence on oil. Rural people were migrating to the city, and longtime residents were selling family plots to new arrivals. In compounds where families had lived for generations, there were suddenly new faces. The green forests gradually disappeared, and new cinder-block houses sprouted, their corrugated metal roofs glaring under the white-hot sun. Most of these newcomers were students at the newly christened University of Uyo, which sat in the heart of town, pumping life into local businesses.
The land my mother had purchased was close to her family compound, where we lived. It was uncommon for a woman to build her own house, and my mother’s case was especially noteworthy because she was also raising two young children by herself.
Having been left fallow for decades, my mother’s newly acquired land was overrun with African oil palms so tall they blocked out the sun. It was the middle of the rainy season, and when we went to inspect the property, the undergrowth was thick. Wet leaves brushed against our bodies as we waded through, cutting a path with machetes. When my mother was ready to start building, she paid men to fell the oil palms and clear space to plant crops while construction progressed. Every weekend she shut the doors of her hair salon and dragged my cousins, my sibling, and me to her land. We swung hoes and machetes as we walked there, but by afternoon, tired from digging holes and dropping in corn seeds and yam heads, we kids would abandon the farmwork to go and watch the masons mold blocks for the foundation.
One weekday morning the masons showed up at our house with wide eyes and trembling lips. My mother offered them glasses of cold water and listened as they described what they had seen. I went to the land with my mother to confirm it. Sure enough, as the men had said, we found a thin piece of red cloth and a palm frond tied to a tree. In our Ibibio culture the scarlet cloth and the palm frond signified an injunction. The land was under arbitration, and anyone who set foot on it would swell up and die within days — or so my grandmother said. Later we discovered that the man who’d sold the land to my mother had no legal right to it: he was battling his brother for ownership after their father’s death. If the matter went to court, the process might drag on forever.
The second suspect was a huge waiter who had become the bar’s unofficial overnight security guard after his landlord had thrown him out. Manager let him sleep in the freezer room to keep the place secure at night. Everyone thought the huge waiter was the culprit, since he’d been the last person to see the phone before it had vanished, and — although no one said this out loud — because of his economic situation.
He was poor, but he was a joyful guy and always wore a smile. I didn’t suspect him because he liked me and served me drinks from the bottom of the deep freezer.
“Mortuary-standard beer,” he’d say with a wink. “Because you deserve the coldest.”
Sometimes, when there were only a handful of customers at the bar, he and I watched movies on my laptop. He especially loved The Green Mile, because I had once mentioned how he reminded me of Michael Clarke Duncan’s gentle-giant character. After we exhausted all the Michael Clarke Duncan movies on Netflix, the waiter asked if the actor had any new work. Tears formed in his eyes when I told him Duncan had died.
Other times the waiter would sit with me as I uploaded my CV to job-search websites. “You’re so smart,” he’d say, watching me do something basic in Microsoft Office. “I’d offer to marry you, but you deserve an educated man.”
Though his situation was worse than mine, he’d beg me to let him pay for my drinks when I was broke. (Customers were required to have a bottle in front of them to stay in the bar.) When my computer died, the waiter even offered to contribute toward the repair. He was awed by the fact that I was the only woman in a sea of tech boys, and he swore to give his future daughters the best education possible.
The day of the theft, I’d given my phone to the waiter and asked him to charge it in the freezer room while I ran an errand. I returned to find the phone gone and him standing beside the freezers in tears.
After we discovered the red cloth tied to a tree, everyone told my mother to forfeit the land. People shared stories of so-and-so who’d defied an injunction and ended up dead. It was said that victims begged for death in their final days, swelling up until their bloated skins burst at the seams and putrid water gushed from the infected wounds. My grandmother told us about a man who had to sit with loose sand packed under his stool to absorb the bodily fluids. From the smell, you would have thought his organs were rotting inside him, she told us. Asked if she considered juju methods barbaric, my grandmother scoffed and shook her head.
“How humane is a death sentence handed down by a court?” she asked. “Or do we condone hangings, electric chairs, and lethal injections because the judge studied his barbarism in a classroom?”
According to its proponents, the traditional method of dispute settlement was swift, precise, and accurate. Before the arrival of Christianity, Ibibios had often used traditional oaths to settle disagreements. Aggrieved parties would both take the oath, and the guilty would be swiftly punished. Society ran smoothly because fear deterred wrongdoing: theft was discouraged; men with roving eyes avoided sleeping with their neighbors’ wives; and the rate of covetousness was low, since claiming another person’s property could have dire consequences.
The abolition of the transatlantic slave trade ushered in a period of heightened missionary activity. Colonial powers carved the continent up like a pie, the system of government changed, and Western education convinced the locals that their culture was cruel. The Church affirmed this stance. The old traditions faded but never disappeared.
My mother gave up her claim to the land.
I had a work assignment due the day my phone disappeared: an article about getting your man to kiss you again after you’ve cheated on him. Failure to turn it in on time would lower my rating on the freelancing platform and jeopardize my chances of being hired in the future.
I was restless in bed that night. Whoever had taken my phone had access to my banking information and might already have cleaned out my meager savings. The weight of my situation settled on my chest like a boulder. With the phone gone, I felt untethered from the world. I wondered if Manager had made the trip to Uruan and what the traditional priest had said. Christianity, juju — I didn’t care. I needed my phone back. It was my livelihood. My life.
The third suspect, also a waiter at the bar, claimed that he’d been innocently stocking the freezer with drinks that fateful day and hadn’t seen any phone while he was in there. He was a new staff member who, in addition to waiting tables, acted as the bar’s stock boy and janitor. I barely knew him. He’d been working there less than a week before the incident. Our only interaction had been when he’d tried to short my change, and I’d called him on it.
“Are you calling me a thief?” he had said, offended.
“I’m just saying that the money you handed me isn’t the right amount.”
He tightened his jaw, and the vein on his forehead throbbed. “Someone better get her away from here,” he said to no one in particular, “before I start treating her the way I treat lying women.”
Manager stepped in and paid me from his own pocket, apologizing the whole time. He warned the new waiter about being too hasty counting change. I never spoke to the suspect again.
When Manager had threatened to handle the matter spiritually, the new waiter had shrugged and said nothing.
I was the victim of a theft in secondary school. I was fourteen years old, and my tin of sardines had gone missing.
“We’re going to find the thief and punish her accordingly,” our dormitory prefect, an older girl, said. The official punishment for stealing in our all-girl Catholic school was suspension or expulsion, depending on the worth of the stolen item. The dormitory prefect was being merciful by not reporting the matter to the principal or the compound mistress. She believed that finding and disgracing the person would deter others.
Everyone pitied me because my mother was sick. I hadn’t had visitors for months and was already running low on the nonperishable food items we were allowed. Without my sardines, I’d have to eat at the refectory, which served hard beans floating in a sea of palm oil.
The five sardine-thief suspects — all girls who had skipped prep that afternoon in favor of chilling in the dormitory — denied wrongdoing of any kind. The prefect grabbed a Bible, opened to a particular chapter and verse, and strung a thread between the pages like a bookmark, with both ends hanging out. Then she instructed two bystanders to each hold one end of the thread while the Bible hung precariously in the middle.
“Careful,” the prefect warned. “We will all die if the Bible falls to the ground.”
She told the suspended Bible that we needed to catch a thief, and she called the names of the suspects one after the other. When she spoke the last name, the suspended Bible began to jerk on the thread. The girl whose name had been called cried and reached beneath her bunk to retrieve the stolen tin. The prefect made us swear we’d never tell the principal about the jiggling Bible.
No one ever stole in our dormitory again.
On the other hand, my mother’s younger sister once told me about a time someone accused her of stealing money: She was only a teenager, and her accusers brought a prophet to fish out the thief. As the man got into the spirit and began to shake and vibrate all over, my aunt couldn’t help but laugh. So the prophet fingered her as the culprit. She was beaten and disgraced. That evening the money was found where the owner had left it: tucked between the pages of a novel. No one ever apologized to my aunt.
“Sometimes this spiritual stuff is total bullshit,” she said.
The day after the theft I went back to the bar and found Manager smiling and holding my phone. The new waiter had been the thief. He’d been fired.
“The idiot even threw your SIM card into a drain,” Manager said, “but he was so tortured that he dove into the slimy water and fished it out.” Manager recounted how he’d presented the names of the suspects to the juju priest, who’d pronounced a curse of excessive itching on the thief. The third suspect had arrived at work that morning with bloody scratches all over his body and shreds of skin under his fingernails. No matter what salve he rubbed on his skin, the itching wouldn’t stop. Manager smiled, handing me the SIM card.
It was muddy from spending the night in stagnant water, but I wiped it with a serviette and felt grateful when it came on. I immediately checked the freelancing platform. One of my clients had left me a message: “That’s why I don’t like hiring freelancers from shithole countries.” He was terminating my contract.
Manager apologized one more time. “I hope this little episode won’t stop you from coming to our bar.” He offered me a drink on the house and asked the waitress/cook, now freshly exonerated, to serve me whatever I wanted. I told her I would accept any peace offering as long as it wasn’t fried chicken, but the joke bounced off her stony face. She brought the bottle of soda I ordered and took a seat opposite me.
“I want you to stop coming here,” she said. “I was hoping this missing phone would teach you a lesson, but it looks like you haven’t learned anything.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Look around you. How many female customers do you see here? Every evening you come in and stay until midnight like you’re not a woman in this wicked world. You should be glad it was only your phone they took and not something else.”
My mother was given another piece of land to replace the one she had lost. The seller apologized profusely. He didn’t know when he would settle this matter with his brother, he said, and it wouldn’t be fair to keep my mother waiting until things were resolved. So he was giving her a new plot. When he took us to see the land, it, too, was overrun with oil palm, and we had to go through the clearing process all over again.
The new plot was much bigger, though, and on the surface it looked like my mother had benefited from the conflict. She funneled all the proceeds from her salon into building us a new home. Ten years after starting the project, however, all she had to show for her effort was an unroofed building, its naked cinder-block walls covered with algae. The house was never completed, because we always needed the money for something else. Those who saw the unfinished building assumed construction had stalled because the seller’s brother had invoked the diabolical during the fight over the previous plot. The devil had asked for legs in exchange for shoes.
After recovering my phone, I called friends and shared the story of how the thief had returned it with a cry for mercy on his lips.
“Blessing, you should have just let the phone go,” one friend said to me.
“You should know by now that you don’t fuck with that diabolical shit,” said another. “The devil gives and takes back promptly.”
“You got your phone back,” said my best friend, “but at what cost?”
I began avoiding the bar. The waitress had been right: I could have been mugged or worse. I placed myself on a curfew: in bed by 8 PM, no exceptions.
Two weeks later I hurried out of church at seven in the evening, hoping to make it home on time. It had been raining all week, and the solar-powered streetlights were dim. I used the flashlight on my phone to illuminate the path, which was full of construction debris. I felt a chill, as if my body were issuing a warning, and I picked up the pace. A dark figure leapt from the shadows and snatched the phone from my hand. I chased my assailant, but the moonlight was too weak, and he vanished in a blur. The sound of his footfalls grew distant, until all I heard was the rain.
Afterward I remembered my mother’s land. Had the injunction been responsible for her bad luck? Or was it simply because she was a single mother juggling too many things at once? Somehow I felt I was being punished for “fucking with that diabolical shit,” as my friend had put it. I reflected, too, on the jiggling Bible in secondary school. The girl who’d taken my tin of sardines had been expelled later that term — not because she’d done something bad, but because the school was overcrowded, and the authorities had to send some students home. Midway through the term it was announced that students who scored below 87 percent on their finals would have to leave. They called it Operation Fail and Go. Two hundred girls failed and went, the sardine girl included.
Hearing about my predicament, a generous friend sent me funds for a new iPhone. At the phone shop the saleswoman counted my money and sighed longingly as she handed me the box.
“Wish I could afford one of these,” she said, smiling.
“So do I,” I said, trying to smile back.
Outside, I squinted against the sun and flagged down an auto rickshaw. As the driver took me home, he occasionally poked his head out of the vehicle to curse other drivers. I took the replacement phone out of the box and held it in my hand, recalling the fate of my mother’s replacement land. I imagined bright-green algae creeping over the iPhone screen, my new device turning to ash and falling between my fingers. I wondered what my long-dead grandmother would have said about the events of the past few days. Though a staunch Catholic, she’d defended African traditional religion with all her might. I closed my eyes and imagined her voice, deep and smooth: Didn’t you get justice when you got your phone back the first time? Or did you think that justice meant total victory?
Just then the rickshaw driver yelled at a car that had stopped short. Startled, I clutched the phone to my chest like a prayer.
Blessing J. Christopher
My relationship with The Sun began when I read Laleh Khadivi’s short story “Wanderlust” [June 2014] in your online archive. I was entranced from Khadivi’s first sentence on.
Wanting more, I devoured new issues and read through much of your archive. Each story took my breath away, but I was often frustrated by the absence of nonwhite authors. I wanted to see more of the vast America I know.
You can imagine my delight at finding “The Devil Takes Back,” Blessing J. Christopher’s moving essay [January 2022] set in her native Nigeria. Coming from Lesotho, another African country, I was moved by Christopher’s somewhat-familiar stories about jiggling Bibles and traditional African spiritual practices. She presented the place and its people with complexity and compassion. I hope The Sun will continue to publish these varied voices.