Dear Miss Kuku
Dear Miss Kuku,
My first word was “Baba.”
Until recently, I thought I called my father’s name first - out of every other disyllabic word in existence - because I loved him. It took a lot of heart-searching and heartaches and one heart attack he gave to my mother before I realized that maybe I called Baba first because it was the word most spoken in my home.
Because Mama wanted my elder sisters to keep out of Baba’s way. Because Baba’s mistress had come to live with us for a whole week, and we had to be cautious or face his wrath. Because Baba was drinking again, and Mama had to leave her work to go to the farm in his place so people wouldn’t talk. Because my brother never again wanted to feel the wrath of Baba’s belt - even though he did a thousand times after.
Baba was always the topic of discussion, as any tyrant would be. Baba was whispered in my new-born ears, in fear, in pain, in anticipation, in regret. So I said his name first. Mama told me the story at least once a year. It was eleven in the night, and even with the shuttered windows and closed doors, the cold harmattan air had found its way into the house. We couldn’t afford the monthly light bills, and Baba and Mama were still saving up to buy a generator, so we had candles lit up on every flat surface in every room. I was lying in my mother’s arms, a tiny child with big eyes and a curious mind, and my siblings were gathered around her.
They exchanged stories - things that had happened, things that hadn’t but convinced themselves they had, and stories that weren’t anything more than sugar-coated lessons. It was the weather for stories, Mama used to say. The perfect amount of wind and darkness and candle-warmth was all it took before someone sunk into a story they’d heard months before and thought forgotten. A couple of people telling stories attracted more, and the larger crowd attracted even more people until everyone was clustered together in a small space, listening to the magic that is birthed when worlds are repainted through tales.
A story is a universal language. Something we all relate to, no matter our place in this world. And where we were was home, Mama used to say. Happy, and hungry, and weary, and apprehensive about Baba’s return. That was home. And in the midst of the Stories of Home, I spoke my first word.
“Baba,” I had said, and I raised my hand and pointed somewhere behind them, somewhere in the distance.
Mama said, in those few seconds, they were too busy fearing that Baba had really returned, to recognize what I had just done. Their heads turned, scanning through the darkness for signs of him, anticipating. When they realized he wasn’t there, my achievement finally had room to shine. Mama said they’d never been so happy. She said she cried because her native doctor had told her I was going to be her last child, so everything I did she was seeing for the last time. She said my siblings danced, and my eldest sister brought olive oil and slathered it on my forehead and prayed. She said my brother played his flute around the house and laughed so hard he lost his voice. She said although that moment was special, it wasn’t special because I spoke - speaking wasn’t that important.
Many people spoke. It was special because they wanted it to be. They needed reasons to laugh, to celebrate, to cry, and I was their excuse. But then there was the question of what I had said, and why I had said it. Why did I call Baba’s name? Did I hear his voice? Did my eyes come across a picture? Did I just imagine him?
Mama told me, every year, about how they all got together in the next moments to find out. It was exciting to them, like some sort of investigation. They smothered me, rubbed the bottom of my feet and made me laugh, blew into my belly, combed out my hair, and kept saying the word “Baba” over and over again until I felt compelled to say it too. And when I said it this second time, I pointed again. Their eyes followed, quickly, and then fell upon what I was gesturing at. “Baba,” I said again, and they laughed.
It was a large wooden spoon, hanging from a nail on the wall. It was this that I called Baba.
And every time that would be the end of Mama’s story, and she’d have a glass of water or palm wine or anything next to her because she couldn’t talk that long without being parched. That was Mama’s story, and I heard it so often that somehow, at the back of my mind, I always thought I’d hear it thousand times more.
But Mama had her heart attack, and we gathered around her during that raging storm as the light left her eyes. Dead.
Are you surprised? Did you think she would survive? We could afford to pay for electricity by the time she died, but we couldn’t afford much else. When we laid her body on her mattress, Baba walked into the room. He cried and screamed, and he beat my brother and me constantly that week. My sisters had come from their husbands’ houses to see Mama’s body the next day, but they were smart enough not to stay. It was just my brother and me, living in the hell my father had created, burning - while he never got so much as a scald.
The devil doesn’t burn in hell, my brother told me once, and I thought that was the wisest thing he had ever said. Do I still live with Baba? No, I do not. My father now lives in the ground, in an expensive oak casket as far away from our mother as possible. Everyone told me tradition called for them to be buried together, but I couldn’t stand the thought of him doing the things he did in life to her in death.
So no, I don’t live with him anymore. But in a way, I guess you could say he lives in me. I found a home as far away from Baba as possible. I made sure my life would be a thousand times better than his. Every time I’m about to act on impulse, I stop myself, because Baba was dangerously impulsive.
I adopted my only two kids because Baba spat at adoption. I hire nannies because Baba would have hated it. Every single decision I ever made, I’d ask myself, “What would Baba do?” and then I’d do the exact opposite. His existence - his presence, and lack of it - has consumed me, and the knowledge drives me crazy. But I can’t stop. I think of him constantly, more than I think of Mama or my siblings. I let him control my life, whether he’s aware of it or not. I let him mould me, and every time I pause to think I realize that everything I am - everything I am going to be - is because of him. I hate that, and I hate myself. He’s winning, I think. He’s winning, and the bastard isn’t even alive see it.
My first word was “Baba,” and I used to think it was because I loved him. Until I realized it was because he was hated in my home. Now I wonder, was it an omen, from the start? Baba had made me - him and the woman he killed - and now Baba would kill me too.
I do not drink, because Baba did, and so there is no alcohol to numb my pain. There are no parties - I never seem to get along with people. No family outings, no vacations are able to get my mind off of him for more than a week. On my honeymoon at Venice, the second the plane landed I started to wonder what Baba would think about Italy. I think that was when I realized I had a problem.He’s been dead twelve years now, Miss Kuku, and he’s as alive in my head as he was when I was a ten-year-old child, running back home when I heard he was about to finish at the farms. I want to stop it. I want to stop him. Sometimes I’ve considered shutting him up in the worst ways possible - ways that would shut me up too. But I have children, Miss Kuku, and the last thing I want is for them to find me haunting them years after I’m dead.
The last thing I want is for them to be me, writing a letter their therapists asked them to, explaining that the first word they ever uttered is the thing that is now destroying them. Both their first words were Mama, Miss Kuku. Please let their letters be happy ones.
Sincerely, your patient.
Photo by Daniel McCullough on Unsplash