Shopping for Spirit
Heather Njoku
Abstract illustration pastel colors

Shopping for Spirit

Heather Njoku

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  • Nonfiction
  • Memoir
Narrated by

The market carries a heaviness in it that one cannot tell very easily, just by being there, unless you have been told, or are acutely observant of such things, and capable of detecting the energy imbalance when it manifests. As an inquisitive kid fueled by doubt, I enjoyed the stories but I also enjoyed working the storytellers with questions, but there was always that sense even as children we can distinguish fiction no matter how intensely it is told, from real-life experiences.

I must have been about 10 years old when I overheard my cousin telling another grown-up about a dismembered hand that he had seen crawling in the Ariara market. I developed a deep-seated fear for that market particularly and for a long time, markets in general. There were other strange narratives told, like how if you take a mirror to the market and look at it upside down from between your legs, you will be able to see in the reflection, any demons out there. They say that not everyone walking and talking in the market is a human being. The explanation is that the market provides a dense convergence of human activity. It has a pulse too vigorous to be neglected by the spirit world so when humans come to shop for their means of sustenance, the spirits are out getting their share.

The first time I saw a dead body was in 1998. There was a mob of angry indigenes most of whom were youth, with palm fronds around their heads, waists, and in between their lips. My dad and I were returning to Aba from Umuezeala after having dropped my mom off at her parents' house. Her sister had just died during childbirth and she was needed at home to break the news to my grandmother. That was the first time she would have to bury her child.

I got to appreciate the concept of death better after seeing it up close very early on in the form of the grief my family endured and then the charred and butchered corpses littered on the streets of Aba during the Sharia Riots reprise of 1999, and the rise of Bakassi vigilantes around the same period. For the Bakassi vigilantes, theirs was a particularly entertaining form of extrajudicial executions of suspected armed robbers. They had this head-splitting technique where they'd strap the guy to the back of a motorcycle so that his head would be bouncing off the tar as the rider sped down a long road.

Seeing these things on my way to or from school, cemented in my mind the image of crawling hands and upside-down universes in the market.

These memories over time receded to the deeper recesses of my mind but I cannot think of my childhood in Aba without the picture of a crawling hand and the burned quarter of a man's body lying on the side of the road, near a lamp post. I never went to the Ariaria market as a child but I have a picture in my mind that I am sure is vivid enough to rival any surprises one might find in the real market.

When I started going to the market a lot, I had moved to the northern part of the country. I did not carry the trepidation I felt as a child into my adulthood but I have had one or two encounters in the market that have caused me to reflect on the things that were said to have been happening in the Aba of my childhood.

In 2017 I was living in Gwagwalada and I was going to the market frequently. I was still running my food delivery business at the time and had gone to buy chicken for the day's meal. After selecting a broiler from the battery cages, I followed the butcher to the back where they slaughter and scald the chicken. For some inexplicable reason, I suspected the possibility of my chicken being swapped for a smaller bird during that process so I insisted on keeping my eyes on the entirety of the work-flow from the cage through to the cutting edge - A swampy area covered with maggots feasting on chicken remains. The butchers occasionally fetch mounds of ash from the charcoal stove that boiled the scalding water and throw the ashes on the maggots. This was the scene of one of the most bizarre things I have seen. A black cat in chains decorated with cowries and other strange things. Her master, a shirtless and heavily scarred man whispered commands. The cat stood upright and shrieked viciously. Too viciously for any cat I've ever seen. A crowd was gathering for the main event. The cat squared off against a python in what was undoubtedly her Arena. I noticed that she was not let off her leash even for the fight. The python would strike first, drawing blood from the cat's already chipped ear. The cat pounced and locked jaws with the snake. Goosebumps crawled up my skin and the cat tore the snake's mouth at the corner. He lunged at it again sinking its teeth in the snake's abdomen, and dragged it to the corner. Within minutes the python was dead, the crowd cheered and some of them gave money to the master. I quickly took my chicken and left.

Again and more recently I was buying goat meat in a market here in Gwarinpa and curiously asked if it was possible to get the leg bone of a cow. I wanted it for a decorative fixture in my living room. The butcher looked at me curiously and said: "We No Dey Sell Am". I asked why and he got to explain that people use it for bad jazz. According to him, there is a dark practice where you carve a person's name on that particular bone and burn it and the person ends up dead within days.

Of course for the rational mind, it is easy to hear such things and laugh them off as a hoax or superstition. But there was no laughing or explaining away a chained cat routinely murdering pythons in gladiator-styled combats. Just like there is no explaining the decision of a mob to set a person on fire because someone called them a thief and I cannot explain to you my mixed feelings about markets. Beneath the liveliness, sounds of traders catcalling customers, high-pitched gospel songs played at unreasonable volumes, and the vitalizing smells of fresh and rotting foods and other goods, there is a dark and fearful channel that must exist in every kind of market in every part of the world.

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Heather Njoku

Heather Njoku is a writer from Nigeria. They are currently working on a novel.

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Review of Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard
Chijioke Osuji
  • Nonfiction
  • Review
Chiamaka Amaku
  • Poetry
  • Free Verse
One Verse Wonders
JT Mole
  • Music
  • Hip-Hop / Rap
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