A Foundational Problem – By Gabrielle Harry

The meat pie at the Crunchies on Marian is an apology. The crust is too dry and the filling is three-quarters mushy overcooked potato and one-quarter questionable beef. Affiong takes another bite and washes it down with her lukewarm Fanta as she checks her phone for the twelfth time this hour. The face she sees when the screen turns black is a tired one; she’s exhausted, not physical exhaustion, it’s the kind of syrupy lethargy that seeps thickly from your soul, finds its way between the joints and crevices of your body and hardens, locking them up, leaving you unable to move.

Even in the indistinct reflection of her phone screen she can see that her hair is weeks past rough, a fuzz of black coils has broken free from the dark red braids so that in certain lights, it looks like there’s some sort of dark halo around her head. It’s fitting. She’d braided her hair that day, the day of the robbery, and she’d paid cash so she could tip her hairdresser. That was why she’d gone to the ATM that night.

She looks around to try and distract herself, but apart from Affiong, the place was practically empty except for the man on the table to her left in a brown short-sleeved suit rubbing his thumb nervously over the beads of the cheap glow-in-the-dark rosary on his neck as he ignores his bland-looking fried rice and chicken. She hates those glow-in-the-dark rosaries. She hates men who wear them too.

The man probably has serious problems, she thinks with a sad, spiteful kind of satisfaction as she contemplates the sickly green peas in his rice, because why else would he be in the Crunchies on Marian, which was more of a landmark than a restaurant, at noon on a Tuesday when normal people are at work or school or home or at the very least not at the Crunchies on Marian. No one ever comes in here. People use this place to navigate; turn right after Crunchies, the street opposite Crunchies, not far from Crunchies… you don’t go in. Unless you have serious problems and you’re waiting for someone you don’t want to be seen with. Like the man in the short-sleeved suit (probably). Or Affiong.

Affiong finishes off her disappointing meal and is dusting a few errant crumbs off her short black dress (she’s been intentionally wearing a lot of black lately, she can’t decide if that’s funny or sad, probably sad since no one understands the joke except her) when she sees the person she’s been waiting for walk in.

When her cousin Asi had first suggested that Affiong consult the “spiritual advisor”, she’d been ready to slap her and tell her to go back to Abuja. She’d had enough spiritual advice to last a lifetime. She’s lied that her mother is sick and taken time off from the bank where she works to go to mega-churches and house fellowships, she’s climbed mountains barefoot, rolled on beaches at midnight, sung and wailed and gone days on end with nothing but prayers on her tongue until her stomach threatened to devour itself. She’s buried stones at crossroads, sprinkled holy water round her compound and currently has five bottles of anointing oil from different churches scattered round her house…and not a single thing has changed. She’s still having the dream.

She’s been having the same dream every night for six months…since the night she was robbed. All the pastors tell different stories, that it’s a problem from her father’s family, from her mother’s family, from a jealous coworker, from a man she slept with…but she knows they’re all lying. She stopped going to pastors after one pushed her head toward his crotch while she was on her knees waiting for him to cast out the evil spirit he claimed was possessing her. She’d left immediately, but now even the faces of random pastors on billboards she sees on the road make anger rise from her stomach like lava, and when she feels that fire in her throat, swirls it round her mouth with her tongue as it threatens to pour out, she almost believes that she really is possessed.

Asi heard from her mother, who probably heard from Affiong’s mother, that Affiong is having “issues”. Affiong’s mother only told Asi’s mother in a fit of frustration after Affiong insisted she wasn’t going to see any more fake pastors. They decided that she’d listen to Asi even if she wouldn’t listen to her own mother because that’s what she’s always done.

The summer after Primary Six when Affiong was inconsolable about being sent to boarding school in September, Asi came to stay with Affiong and her mother for two weeks and told her all about hostel life and how amazing it was. After Affiong and her mother fought during her third year of university, Asi travelled from Abuja to Ibadan and showed up in the middle of the night at the house Affiong shared with three other girls with a big brown envelope of kilishi to beg Affiong not to drop out of school to get married to her first serious boyfriend.

When Affiong’s first serious boyfriend decided to “teach her a lesson” for cheating on him, Asi was the one Affiong had called. She still remembered the wetness of tears streaming down her bruised cheek as she pressed her phone against it and listened to Asi curse him and all his descendants, hearing her laugh hysterically as she thought of more and more ridiculous insults. Asi always laughed before she cried, and she always cried when she was angry. Nothing made her angrier than feeling powerless.

Affiong stopped listening to her mother the year she turned eight and her mother had found one of her cousins who had come to stay with them for Christmas with his hand up her nightgown and his cheap rosary dangling in her face, glowing in the dark. Her mother told her not to tell anyone because it was a family matter.

On Christmas day, as Affiong stared blankly at the lights her mother hung in the parlour every year flickering blue-green-red, all she saw was the sickly neon white glow of a rosary. When Asi came over with a stolen chicken thigh and asked what was wrong, Affiong told her what had happened; it was a family matter after all. None of their relatives could say they’d forgotten the sight of ten-year-old Asi with her telephone wire braids waving a knife stained with blood from both a chicken’s neck and their cousin’s cheek, laughing, and then crying, but everyone still pretended they had when they hugged him at family gatherings, ignoring the scar on his cheek.

They both hated it, hated his challenging stares and how he walked into family gatherings with complete assurance, but they couldn’t do anything. The incident had been a family matter and the family had settled it years ago without asking if Affiong wanted it to be “settled”. Asi and Affiong could hate him, but that was all they could do. They were powerless.

***

When Affiong wakes up from the same horrible dream for the hundredth time to see a text from Asi that says “I’m coming to stay with you for a while”, she’s much more relieved than annoyed because she knows that somehow, Asi will make things better. Or at least, Asi being there will make things better. They spend the first night after Asi arrives sprawled on the fluffy white and blue carpet at the foot of Affiong’s bed eating kilishi and drinking (multiple) cans of Star. Affiong’s room is a mess because when you’re under spiritual attack, cleaning isn’t exactly your top priority.

Affiong tells Asi about the night she was robbed and the dreams she’s been having and Asi listens intently as she wipes off her airport makeup and combs out the spare wig she’s brought. Affiong tells the story like it had happened to someone else and Asi absorbed it as if she dealt with a supernatural occurrence every week. It made Affiong feel more normal than she’d felt in half a year.

Affiong threw a piece of kilishi at Asi and asked “How is this not shaking you at all? I’ve been here questioning my whole life and you’re not even shocked”, Affiong complained, “Are you a witch?” she asked, only half joking because at this point anything was possible.

Asi hissed, “This one? This is a minor problem mbok.”

“Don’t you remember when my mother used to drag me to Living Works Ministries? The people in that church had real problems! When you start vomiting snakes, then I’ll start panicking. Nothing can shock me anymore.”

Affiong rolled her eyes at that “I’ve told you before, those things are all staged”

“So who is staging the dreams you’re having?”

“Shut up abeg. And why did you pack two wigs? You need two wigs to help someone overcome a spiritual attack? Do you want to sacrifice one?”, Affiong asked.

“One is a regular closure”, Asi patiently explained “Do you think I’m going to wear a 360 lace frontal into the village?”

“The village?”

“When we go to see the herbalist”

“The herbalist?”

Asi chuckled and set the wig aside, satisfied that it was detangled.

“You think I came to Calabar just to eat fresh fish? We’re going to solve this problem.”

“Asi please be serious.”

“Affi I’ve never been more serious”

“A herbalist? What if he’s a fake? In fact…what if he’s not? Do you really want to get involved in this kind of thing?”

“I do. If that’s what we have to do to help you, we’ll do it. It’s better than nothing. I’m tired of doing nothing.”

***

The next morning, they woke up early to get ready. As they sit on the rug eating the Indomie for breakfast, Asi explains that they’re going to their grandmother’s village to see a herbalist that one of their cousins has told Asi’s mother about. Asi’s mother had made her promise not to let Affiong’s mother know that she’s recommended a herbalist because she doesn’t want her sister to think she was involved in that kind of thing.

“Which cousin?”, Affiong asks, reaching for a bottle of water.

“She didn’t tell me o”, Asi said as she tucks her fist under her chin like she always does when she’s gossiping, “But I suspect Angela”, she says with absolute certainty.

Affiong rolls her eyes at that, “You always suspect Angela.”

“Because she’s a thief.”

“She took your earrings one time when she was fifteen.”

“If you can steal, you can kill and if you can kill, you might use juju to do it.”

“Please can we just go already?”

Asi, wearing the wig she brushed the night before with jeans and Affiong’s orange 2012 Calabar Carnival t-shirt which she’ll probably never return, makes fun of Affiong’s black jeans and top,

“Black on black with this red hair. You look like they’ve already initiated you.”

“That’s not funny.”

Asi keeps laughing anyway, until Affiong joins her.

They drive two hours out of Calabar and past Akpabuyo and arrive at their grandmother’s village around noon. They’ve been to the village to visit their grandmother enough times that it isn’t too difficult to follow the directions Asi’s mother sent on WhatsApp to the group of identical boxy bungalows, powdered with a sunset shade of harmattan dust and surrounded by a field of yellowed overgrown grass. The dusty buildings remind her of those little houses from Monopoly. She always cheats at Monopoly. And Scrabble. And Whot. Maybe if she was a more honest person, she wouldn’t be under spiritual attack, she thinks remorsefully. She slaps away a sandfly and turns to Asi and asks ” What now?”

“I’m calling him but his line is busy”, she says with her phone to her ear.

After a few more minutes of waiting, Affiong notices an old man holding a phone to his ear standing outside one of the houses looking at their car and waving them over.

Inside the house the man gestures for them to sit on an old brown couch. They sit in silence as he gets comfortable in an equally old, equally brown chair and starts to scroll through his phone. Affiong doesn’t think he looks like a herbalist. For one thing he’s wearing a well-made blue and yellow star-patterned ankara shirt and brown trousers that look relatively new, with brown palm slippers, instead of the red wrapper and white chalk she expected. For another, his iPhone is a newer model than hers. There’s obviously money in this business.

The old man keeps scrolling through his phone, seeming to have forgotten them.Affiong opens her mouth to say something, but Asi pinches her arm hard and eyes her in a way that says “behave”. After a few more awkward moments, during which Affiong wishes dearly that she’d just handed that money over to that useless thief at the ATM that night…the herbalist finally drops his phone and clears his throat.

“Eheh so…consultation fee in one hundred thousand naira”

Asi and Affiong stare at each other blankly. Asi snaps out of it first and bows her head reverently, (Affiong has never seen Asi be so respectful).

“Yes wise one, we-“

“Let me give you my account number”, the man says, cutting her off.

 That seems to drain away all the reverence Asi has managed to manufacture for the occasion and she begins to bargain like she would with a mechanic who is trying to cheat her. Asi sometimes pays market women double what she knows the actual price of food is, but she never let mechanics cheat her.

“One hundred thousand? We don’t have that kind of money o! Where will we get that kind of money from? Me and my sister are both unemployed o! We just managed to-“

The old man sighs deeply and leans back into his chair. His eyes roll back, revealing only the whites. Asi’s mouth clamps shut as she grips Affiong’s hand. The herbalist doesn’t move for about a minute, then leans forward and blinks, his eyes returning to normal.

He regards his fingernails with disinterest as he addresses them.

 “You’re not unemployed. Your cousin is a Branch Manager at Access Bank” he pauses momentarily, “the one on Marian if I’m not mistaken, and your business is doing very well. You sell weave-on, not so?”

“Not weave-on, wigs…one hundred percent huma-” Asi abandons the correction after a pointed look from her cousin and leans back silently into the brown couch. Affiong sits still, her nails digging into her palms until the herbalist points at her.

 “You. I know your problem. The dream you’ve been having? You dream of a woman in a river. The question she’s asking? You need to answer her soon. It won’t go away if you don’t do something about it.”

Well, they can’t say he doesn’t know what he was doing. He knows about the dream. Affiong looks at Asi, resigned but hopeful, and reaches for her phone to transfer the money but Asi grasps her wrist, saying “I’ll pay…I’m the one who brought you here”. After Asi grudgingly pays the old man, he makes them wait five minutes until he receives the alert from his bank before he says another word. When he finally gets the message, he turns to  with a satisfied smile.

“What you have…is a foundational problem”

***

Affiong remembers the phrase bitterly as she gets out of her chair at Crunchies. Apparently that particular herbalist is something like a general practitioner, a jack of all trades, he can help you if you want to steal someone’s husband, render someone barren or fertile, destroy someone’s business, get a promotion and a million other necessary evils, but he can’t do anything about a foundational problem…whatever that is. So he gave them the number of a “specialist” and after Asi finally got over the one hundred thousand naira she wasted, after Affiong dragged her away because the last thing they needed was more spiritual problems, foundational or otherwise, Asi convinced her to call the specialist.

That’s why Affiong is in the Crunchies on Marian drinking the warm dregs of her Fanta and as the spiritual advisor comes up to her and says, “Are you the one I’m supposed to meet, or is it that man over there? I can’t tell because both of you have serious problems?”

Affiong doesn’t know what she was even expecting the spiritual advisor to look like, but it isn’t the person in front of her. For one thing the woman is shorter than Affiong, and Affiong isn’t tall, Asi has always towered over her. She looks like she’s in her early twenties, a couple of years younger than Affiong, and her waist-length braids are a unique mixture of white and neon pink, the kind of colours that would make a hairdresser ask “Are you sure?” more than twice before starting to braid. She has a single white bead on one braid that matches her white beaded bracelet. Affiong thinks the beads look like white coral, but she’s not sure. The long modest-looking denim skirt she’s wearing contradicts the three silver hoops in each ear and the amount of cleavage her purple strapless top reveals.

 The girl, she’s more of a girl than a woman, leans on the grey tiled table, glancing at the white plastic bag that holds the crumbs of Affiong’s meat pie and the empty Fanta bottle.

“You already ate?”, she asks, sounding a bit disappointed.

“I can get you something if you’re hungry”, Affiong says,  to offend someone who apparently has spiritual powers, no matter how odd she looks.

“I wouldn’t mind”, the girl says, smiling brightly.

“Do you want a meat pie or-“

“Please ask them if they have beans. If they have they should give me beans with rice…white rice and plantain. And stew if they have stew. And chicken”, she recites the order quickly, like she’s memorized it.

“My name is Edisua by the way.”

Affiong walks to the counter and orders, contemplating her life for probably the sixth or seventh time that day. When she gets back with the tray of food, Edisua takes it happily without bothering to say thank you and starts eating.

“I got you a Fanta too”, Affiong says hesitantly.

 Edisua pauses her decimation of the rice and beans to open the bottle of Fanta and gulp down half of it.

“Mm…”,she says, ignoring the multiple serviettes the bored-looking Crunchies employee gave to Affiong and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, “I don’t like Fanta…do they have Coke?”

One plate of rice and beans, three pieces of chicken, one Fanta, one Coke, one Sprite, three meat pies and two sausage rolls later, Edisua finally looks up at Affiong.

“The food here isn’t even nice. Eheh what was that your problem again?”

By this time Affiong is fuming, almost completely convinced that she’s been duped again. She contemplates carrying her bag and leaving the useless glutton of a girl, maybe she can ask her mother to find another church for her to go to. The thought of another pastor keeps her in her seat a bit longer.

She clears her throat and says “I thought you kne-“

“Ah…that man is finished.”

“Excuse me?”

“That man”, Edisua repeats, pointing at the only other customer in the restaurant, the man in the brown short-sleeved suit “He’s finished”

The man looks perfectly fine to Affiong, as fine as anyone wearing a short-sleeved suit can look, he even seems to somehow be enjoying his bland looking rice.

“What do you mean?”

Edisua doesn’t have to answer because the man suddenly slumps over the table and starts to convulse.

A Crunchies employee rushes to his table shouting, “Sir? Sir?” and then, “He’s not breathing o! Jesus he’s not breathing o!” Someone else shouts “I hope he didn’t eat the moi-moi!” from somewhere behind the counter.

“Let’s go”, Edisua says, dragging a dumbstruck Affiong out of the restaurant.

“Will he be okay?”, Affiong asks, suddenly desperate to know the answer.

“Okay? Somebody that’s dead”, Edisua laughs.

Affiong stops walking and puts both hands on her head in resignation. The person who’s supposed to help her is at best, insane and at worst a demonic sadist.

“Oh don’t worry, his case was completely different from yours…he knew what he was getting into. Your problem is a foundational problem.”

“But what does that mean?”, Affiong shouts, not caring about the looks they’re getting from people on the street.

“Do you live around here?”

***

Half an hour later, Asi and Affiong are in Affiong’s living room listening intently to Edisua as she tries to explain exactly how Affiong’s life was at stake between handfuls of chin-chin.

“So a foundational problem is basically from your family.”

“This rubbish again? This is what all those fake pastors told me!”,Affiong sighs with barely contained frustration.

“When I told you that Angela was a-” Asi mutters under her breath, stopping short at Affiong’s glare.

“No”, Edisua laughs, “not like that.”

“It’s more of an ancestral thing…long-forgotten covenants that you’ve somehow renewed.”

“Hmm”, Asi says, patting the back of her head “this is serious.”

“But what I’m curious about is what triggered the renewal…when did the dreams start?”

Affiong hesitates for a second, but Asi gives her a nod of reassurance.

“One night a few months ago, I was withdrawing money from an ATM and then this man came up to me with a gun and told me to give him all my money. I tried to struggle so he pointed the gun at me but somehow…the gun went off and he…he died. There was no one around so I just…ran.”

Affiong feels no guilt about what had happened, she remembers the look in his eyes, he would have killed her…or worse. She’s glad she had killed him first.

“Oh okay that makes sense”, Edisua says, nodding and reaching for more chin-chin as if Affiong had just confessed to killing a goat and not a man.

“So most likely whatever this is, it was triggered by you killing that man and the women from your dream thought it was a sacrifice to summon them”

“Summon them?” Affiong asks, “summon them for what?”

“Whatever you want”, Edisua shrugs “Wealth, fertility…revenge…anything…they have power and they want  to give it to you.”

“It’ll be relatively easy to make them go away though, you’ll need a few things…chickens, goats-maybe a tortoise-and I won’t do it for free obviously-“

“Hold on”, Affiong interrupts, shocking herself, “What if…what if I don’t want them to go away?”

“Well”, Edisua says, smiling in a way that suddenly made her seem like something more than a girl with obnoxiously pink braids…something fathomless.

 “I could help with that too.”

Affiong and Asi look at each other, both of them wondering what it would be like to not have to laugh off things that weren’t jokes. To be able to deal with family matters by themselves. To have…power.

THE END

Bio: Gabrielle Harry is a 20-year-old Nigerian writer who loves African speculative fiction.

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