A Thin Line of Madness: by Ngozi Cole

Photo credit: Johanna Aalto via Flickr

Sweat dripping everywhere, the mattress was drenched with sacrilegious demons. The black ropes bound and bit into her coarse skin, her bones were now brittle and her tongue hung out lustily, from thirst and exhaustion. Every painful groan, every bellow from the pits of her hollow belly, was interpreted as a message from hell.

There were only three people in the room besides Angela. Her mother, Finda, was dressed in an orange bubu, her braids loosely wrapped in an orange-red scarf. Her once regal shoulders were now drooped, but her eyes held a steely determined glare as she held down her daughter’s hands when she clawed the air in desperation. Gibril, her brother, was bathed in sweat. His gold chains and rings were now a dull cobalt, but still managed to glow against his patch worked skin. He occasionally took out his white handkerchief to wipe sweat off his forehead, and the navy blue imprint of Pastor Paul imprinted on the middle of the cloth was starting to run. Pastor Richard paced the room, black leather-bound bible in hand, his pinstripe shirt loosely tucked into faded blue jeans and his eyes tightly shut as he yelled out bible verses and the name of Jesus. Occasionally, he took up a bottle of olive oil and poured some on Angela’s forehead, which only brought about a loud yelp, like a puppy in pain, and rhythmic writhing from the patient. The room was dusty and tiny, the low ceiling was stained with water marks and the mold had seeped into the wall corners. Little boxes and red and blue “Ghana must go” bags were piled in the single wardrobe and clothes and underwear peeped from the dresser. The windows had been closed shut, and the floral curtains were now filthy and musty. The room reeked of abandoned memories and the effervescent need to escape. There was no fan, and the air was dense and stifling.

Finda held back angry tears as she pinned her daughter’s hands to her side. “Blood of Jesus…blood of Jesus…” she muttered repeatedly, as her mind drifted to the unfortunate events that had led up to this moment. Angela was her second child with Pa Ali, and the only one of her children who resembled him. Her high forehead which sped down to highly sculpted cheekbones, graced a beautiful face peculiar to people from northern Sierra Leone. She was also the darkest of her children and she wore her blue-black hue with pride, the only one of her children again, who had not resorted to “Fair and White” and “Carotone” lotions, to fix a problem they didn’t have. Angela was not the prettiest – Ami, the eldest, was, but Angela had a certain elegance and grace to her body and demeanor that attracted people to her. She didn’t talk much – leave that to Philip, but whenever she spoke, her raspy voice had a richness to it, and everything she said was spoken with such depth and clarity that one was left with little choice but to listen. Angela always had a quiet drive within her, she was extremely ambitious and after graduating from high school, had won a scholarship to Fourah Bay College to study Mass Communications. She wanted do be a radio broadcaster, and Pa Ali had said that job would fit her well. She and Pa Ali had been very close, and even when cancer had sapped off his weight and drawn of most of his life, he managed to attend her graduation ceremony. Angela had looked beautiful that day, tall and resplendent in her black gown and cap, her long permed hair pulled back into a low bun. Her boyfriend at the time, Mohammed, helped Pa Ali to his feet as he cheered on and clapped for his daughter when her name was called to receive her degree. Angela’s biggest fan died two weeks later, when prostate cancer took him away at sixty-one years old. She had seemed crushed, angry even, but she had taken after the mother’s dogged spirit and she soon found a job at a local radio station that wanted her to read the seven o’clock funeral announcements. She was soon promoted to reading the one o’clock news, and then the five and 8 and o’clock prime news. Angela was well liked by her radio colleagues as they saw her as a little sister who welcomed coaching and professional advice.

She and Mohammed soon broke up. It was right after she decided to pay him back some of the money he had “borrowed” her during her student days. He felt insulted that she had dared to offer him money, as if he needed it. Actually he did, his fishery business was not doing so well, and he was entering into debt. But for little Angela to think she could pay him back all the money he had invested in her, that was a blow. He told her he had found a woman who was willing to give him children immediately, since he was almost thirty five and needed to start a family, and even though it hurt initially, Angela was proud she was able to prove that she did not need him as a pillar of survival. Finda was proud of her daughter, the only one who she could really raise her head and say “yes, that is my child”. It was a pity Angela did not resemble her physically, but she had her persevering and shrewd spirit, and for Finda, that compensated enough.

The withdrawals were hard to notice at first. Angela had always been a quiet person and often, she would retreat into her room, just to be by herself and read. She read anything she could lay her hands on, Mills and Boon romance stories, magazines, the newspapers, she had even read Pa Ali’s ministerial briefs when he brought them home. She was a child then, but she seemed to receive such joy from just reading out the words. When Pa Ali died, Angela had insisted that she wanted to move to the room beside his former bed room. Finda had thought this was a strange request, after all the room had always been used as a store for his clothes and belongings and was partly his office too. Nevertheless, they moved her bed into it and cleared out some of Pa Ali’s things to his actual bedroom, so that Angela could have some more space. It was not too long after this, that Angela started locking herself in, and shutting the windows and closing the curtains. Finda thought this was just a phase of depression from her father’s death and her break up with Mohammed. She tried to counsel her, to tell her that losing a man was not the end of the world, that her father had loved her very much, but she could not seem to reach Angela. Angela told her that she was okay and that she just needed to be by herself. Then all of a sudden, Angela stopped attending The Fire of God On the Mountain Ministries, a church they had been introduced to by Ami. The Pastor always had fitting prophesies and testimonies and miracles poured from the church every Sunday and Wednesday during service. Finda went sometimes, but after Gibril had told her that he was “saved”, and that his life had turned around and his business improving after joining the church, Finda became a regular. Angela also joined her, but only on Sundays.

Angela seemed to enjoy the services, and had even promised to join the church choir. Shortly after she made that promise, she stopped going to the church altogether. Finda tried to ask her, but Angela only murmured that she wanted to fast and pray by herself on Sunday mornings, and it would be better to do that at home. It was true that Angela prayed…but her prayers become daily, and they would start very early in the morning and last for about three to four hours. They were loud and gradually became incoherent. She always seemed to be pleading for the same thing “God abeg ep me! God abeg ep me! Ep me!” after which she would take her bath, get dressed and leave for work. When she got back from work, she would eat and then lock herself in her bedroom in deep silence, only to start again around 3 am in the morning, with loud mournful pleas. The household was baffled, but whispered only among themselves, speculating what could have gone wrong.

Ami and Philip were hardly home – Ami lived with a boyfriend Pato, and Philip was usually in the provinces…on business he said. Only Gibril was regularly home after being at Sweissy in the morning. Finda’s provisions shop was downstairs, so she had time to observe her daughter’s strange behavior. Then one Tuesday morning, the wailing turned into loud piercing screams and Angela started stomping the ground and throwing the pillows against the shuttered windows. The door had been locked from inside, but Gibril had a spare key and he, Finda and Mamu, a cousin, opened and entered the bedroom. Angela was still screaming, but she gradually became violent and overturned the bed towards them. Her eyes had a bizarre light, like a hunted bush animal, and she seemed to have gained the strength of twenty muscular men. The room was dank and stank of stale urine and Angela had removed her nightdress and wrapper, leaving her only with her soiled underwear. That was when Finda decided to act. She ordered Gibril and Mamu to tie her down, and then she called one of the junior pastors at the church to come immediately – it was an emergency.

Gibril mopped his forehead again. He was now breathing heavily and also started pacing with Pastor Richard. He wanted to leave the room, but his mother had fixed him a stare every time he glanced at the door. He licked his lips several times and mumbled prayers after Pastor Richard. He couldn’t close his eyes, whatever was inside his sister might come out and find a way into his soul too. He had to be alert, his eyes had to be open. Gibril had never understood why one had to cast out demons with eyes closed. Even during church service, when Pastor Okere had ordered everyone to close their eyes and command every spirit of backwardness to leave, he wanted to see his own demon of backwardness leave, and so he didn’t close his eyes. He glanced behind his shoulder often and at the darkened corners of the room. He looked on at his sister, writhing and sweating profusely on the bed, and his heart was gripped with fear, a fear that shook the core of his spirit and made his fingers and shoulders quake uncontrollably.

Many people often thought they were twins, even though Angela was two years older than him. They both shared their father’s distinctive northern features, while Ami and Philip were daguerreotypes of Finda. Gibril would still sometimes refer to her as his twin sister when he introduced her to his friends, and Angie never denied it but always humored him sweetly. Angie looked so frail, yet so strong, her brown eyes peeled backwards and staring widely at Pastor Richard, flicking past their mother and pinned on him. This wide look made him uncomfortable, it was if her eyes were asking a question. This deliverance had now taken four days, and with each session, Angela seemed more forlorn and Finda seemed more gritty and determined, her chin always jutted upwards, her mouth offering pleas to God, as her daughter squirmed in sweat, faeces and urine.   Angela would not eat, she spat out whatever little rice or porridge Finda or Gibril tried to force into her mouth. During the third session, she had started pointing at Gibril and laughing hysterically, tears running down her cheeks. Pastor Richard had splashed more olive oil on her forehead and had used the Bible to smack her legs and her hands several times, each smack sending Angela into more high pitched screams. Gibril looked down sadly and fearfully at the strange writhing woman, her blue cotton wrapper draped loosely around her waist, her breasts sagged down to her chest and the green veins popped strenuously against coarse emaciated muscles. What had happened to his sister?

They had always sworn that she was the calmest and most level headed of them all, she had taken a bit after their mother-Finda. Gibril had never seen Angela lose her temper and the closest she had come to losing her cool was when Philip had used the money to pay for their father’s burial fees to buy more goods for his business from Guinea. He had always been the lone wolf in the family, and this had stemmed from his deep sense of insecurity that came with being the last born child. Philip had never thought he would measure up to his father’s expectations and he had left home ten years ago when he was only fourteen, to try his hand at trading illegal petrol at back end garages. Unfortunately, this insecurity had made him extremely selfish, he harbored no consideration or empathy for anyone but himself. Angela had screamed at him that evening for hours on end, spitting out the foulest of curses that even Gibril could not remember hearing at Sweissy . When she had finished, she was shaking uncontrollably and her breathing was ragged and uneven. She had gone to her room quietly after that. Everyone had been shocked by the outburst, but Finda had calmly diagnosed this as the stress and depression that came with losing her father, nothing else. But Gibril had always felt that there was something more to this, that something else had fueled her outburst, because even if she had been angry at Philip, her typical behavior would have been to call him aside quietly and ask about the money, not rain curses at him so openly. When he tried to talk to Finda about it, she had dismissed him, saying “ Angela is grieving, allow her to mourn. Time will pass and she will be okay, it was just one outburst.” But Gibril had still not been satisfied. He decided to talk to Ami about it, but Ami had laughed in his face “I didn’t know prim Angela knew all those curse words! Where did she learn them? And here we were thinking she was the clean-mouthed angel. Gibril duya lef me ya.” Philip had also been stunned by the incident, but only while it lasted. After that he found a way to cough up the burial fees and vanished again to the provinces, not even staying for his father’s burial.

Gibril had been left alone in his confusion. And now, he couldn’t tell whether he was more confused, scared or sad. He knew he was the closest sibling to Angela, but in a very respectful and guarded fashion, almost as though they were the only high performing co-workers in an office. Angela had no relationship with Ami. Ami thought that Angela’s intelligence and education had made her snobbish, and Angela felt that Ami was unfortunately dull and outrageously shallow. Angela didn’t trust Philip with her life, and Philip hardly cared. But she and Gibril shared a closeness, guarded but present and Gibril saw his sister as the epitome of all that could be morally right in contrast to his often clandestine dealings in town. He was always embarrassed when he felt that she suspected what he was up to, so he offered her gifts often-a phone, a watch, gold rings and necklaces…Angela hardly accepted them and when she did, she insisted on paying for them. If Gibril refused the offer, she would sneak into his room and place the money in one of his trouser pockets. Gibril knew this, and his sister’s pride made him respect and admire her all the more. So this strange creature, eyes bulging out, tongue flicking around like a serpent, could not be his sister, this could not be the elegant and unruffled Angela, what demon could have possessed this beautiful creature?

There are two demons in this room, one of them has the face of a dark brown dog with four red eyes burned deep into his forehead, fiery mean slits that just glare at me. This demon is lurking behind Gibril-run Gibo run! Run,he is behind you! But sometimes this demon settles on top of Gibo’s head, and it’s funny to watch. The other demon is pacing the room, he is half man half goat, he looks like one of those that would appear in my childhood dreams. His face is cruel and menacing and sometimes he comes over to pour hot oil on my head. My mother, as usual, is condoning this behavior. She has tied my hands, she is pinning me down, these black cords are biting into my flesh, and of course she doesn’t care. This demon has a black book it keeps waving at me, he is saying strange things, and the only thing I keep hearing is “Honor thy father and mother”. I am hungry, and I am thirsty, but whenever I try to eat, this same demon wraps its hands around my neck and tries to strangle me! I want to run outside, I want to be in the sun, I want to run up to the mountains and not come back to this house of secrets. But whenever I try to leave the bed, they pin me down again. My voice is hoarse from screaming, I can’t feel my tongue anymore. Gibo looks terrified, I think it must be the devil behind him, he feels it, even though he cannot see it. But that demon is not my problem, it is this half man, half goat that keeps pouring hot oil on my head – he has to go away, I try to tell mama, but she’s not listening, she is also looking up at the ceiling, summoning an unknown spirit…why can’t she pray to God and God alone? Praying to God helps, I prayed to God and those dreams stopped and that demon stopped showing up in my dreams… now, he is back. I gave him a name, Tol. My dreams were always about nice white houses with clean white roofs, and I was always with several other children and we would be playing in our clean white robes. All my siblings were there; Ami, beautiful and resplendent in her white robe and thick hair, Gibo, with his bulging eyes and full lashes, smiling quietly, and that little rascal Philip. Tol would come in, and he would start dancing, all the children would be amused, even though he looked extremely ugly and terrible, but he was entertaining. Then he would pick up Ami and carry her gently in his arms, and then leave. I was always sad when he picked up Ami and left me behind, I wanted to be ugly Tol’s friend too. My dreams went on like this till I started primary school, then one night, Tol didn’t pick Ami, he picked me instead, and I was happy! Tol carried me in his arms and took me away. That was when Ami became jealous and stopped talking to me, she got rid of her white play clothes and stopped playing with the children. The dreams started to torment me, I didn’t like being with Tol, he was big and ugly and I started to cry whenever he came for me. I told my mother about my dreams, and she said there was something wrong with the room, that we had to change the room I was sleeping in. So she moved me from Ami’s room into Philip’s room, but Philip wet his bed too much, so I moved back into Ami’s room, but she was angry with me for leaving so she kicked me out. Gibo always slept in the living room because of Philip’s problem, so I joined him. But Tol still appeared in my dreams… I stopped playing on the white rooftops and I stopped playing with the children, but he found me in the store room near my parent’s room. He found me behind cartoons of milk and sardines, buried under bags of sugar and rice, with worms and flies and ants, Tol would always find me. I played hide and seek with him, he was the only one who would look for me, who would lovingly carry me in his arms. Ami didn’t care for me, Gibo was afraid of me, and to Philip, I was just an appendage to the family, he didn’t care about anyone anyway. My mother watched me all time, I could always feel her eyes on my back, haunting, watching my every move, noticing when I was about to spill water and would tell me “watch yourself! Be careful!” She would notice tear stains and trembling, but she always tried not make her watching too obvious. She never believed my dreams about me and Tol, and she would always tell me to just change where I slept. Tol stopped visiting when I went to high school, he told me that I was now getting old and that he had to find another child. I was heartbroken but relieved. Before he left me, he gave me a garland and said “honor your father and mother”. I was happy with my garland, I wore it on the day of my college graduation to make him proud. His cancer had made him uglier but smaller and he looked so frail in Mohammed’s shadow.

Why is there a warfare in this room? Why is Gibo here with mama and Tol? And why are they tying me down? They should be tying down Tol and four-eyes.

Pastor Richard wiped off more sweat from his forehead and whispered hurriedly in Gibril’s ear. They both nodded at Finda and left the room.

“Pastor, what is it?”

Pastor Richard sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know what this is , but we need reinforcement. We can either leave her in church so that prayer warriors can take turns in fighting this battle, or we would have to keep her in this room and call on some of the senior pastors, but they are every busy, and the overseer is out of the country”

“So you can’t handle this?”

“I don’t know what it is, it’s a very powerful one, it’s not responding. Brother Gibril, I suggest we continue praying and fasting, but we need more”

“So we should leave her at the church? How will she eat, who will wash her?”

Finda came out, a tall shadow in her now soaked bubu.

“She is not going anywhere” she whispered furiously. “We shall leave her in the room till the overseer gets back. When will he be back?

Pastor Richard’s face twitched. “He will be back in two months ma… are you sure you want to?”

“Yes! We will keep her here, my daughter is not going anywhere. When she is quiet we will chain her in the yard, and at night we will bring her back inside this room, and wait for Pastor Okere to return.”

The door had been left slightly open and Angela glared at them as she sat on the bed, her long neck craning at them. Finda looked at her and their eyes met. For a brief second, Angela looked into her mother’s eyes and thought she saw Tol, tall and ugly, dancing in her mother’s irises, Finda flinched at the intensity of her daughter’s glare and proceeded to close the door behind her as she turned to face Pastor Richard. Angela’s high pitched scream killed the words in her throat, it was a mixture of extreme pain and torment like she’d never heard before, it was if her daughter was being pierced open and something was being taken from her. Gibril shivered and Pastor Richard muttered “Blood of Jesus”.

Finda quietly shut the door and after the screaming had died down, she said to Pastor Richard, “Please let me give you some water, and we have some rice and potatoes leaves stew”

“God bless you mama Finda. Do you have a bottle of coke too? I am very thirsty”

“Of course.”


Ngozi Cole (@ngozimcole) is a storyteller who believes in the power of individual narrative for transformative collective change. A freelance journalist and writer, Ngozi covers issues surrounding gender and mental health in Sierra Leone. Ngozi is a 2013 recipient of the National Youth Excellence Award for Leadership in Sierra Leone, an exhibition of her deep commitment to her country. She has contributed to Voice of Women Initiative, For Harriet, Open Society’s Open Space, and African Youth Journal. She has lived and worked in The Gambia, South Africa, US, Brazil and Ghana,and describes herself as a global citizen. She blogs at sepiadahlia.com. Catch her on twitter @ngozimcole for tweets on feminism and breaking news!

Related country: Sierra Leone

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