“African women in general need to know that it’s OK for them to be the way they are - to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.”
—Wangari Maathai, Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Laureate
This is a tale you will only hear once. Then it will be gone in a flash of green light. Maybe all will be well after that. Maybe the story has a happy ending. Maybe there is nothing but darkness when the story ends.
We were three women. Three friends. We had goals, hopes and dreams. We had careers. Two of us had boyfriends. We owned houses. We all had love. Then I made these… wigs. I gave them to my two friends. The three of us put them on. The wigs were supposed to make things better. But something went wrong. Like the nation we were trying to improve, we became backward. Instead of giving, we took.
Walk with me. This is the story of How the Smart Woman Tried to Right Her Great Wrong.
With the wig finally off, Coco and Philo felt more distant to me. Thank God.
Even so, because it was sitting beside me, I could still see them. Clearly. In my head. Don’t ever mix juju with technology. There is witchcraft in science and a science to witchcraft. Both will conspire against you eventually. I realized that now. I had to work fast.
It was just after dawn. The sky was heating up. I’d sneaked out of the compound while my boyfriend still slept. Even the house girl who always woke up early was not up yet. I hid behind the hedge of colorful pink and yellow lilies in the front. I needed to be around vibrant natural life, I needed to smell its scent. The flowers’ shape reminded me of what my real hair would look like if the wig hadn’t burned it off.
I opened my laptop and set it in the dirt. I put my wig beside it. It was jet black, shiny, the “hairs” straight and long like a mermaid’s. The hair on my head was less than a millimeter long; shorter than a man’s and far more damaged. For a moment, as I looked at my wig, it flickered its electric blue. I could hear it whispering to me. It wanted me to put it back on. I ran my hand over my sore head. Then I quickly tore my eyes from the wig and plugged in the flash drive. As I waited, I brought out a small sack and reached in. I sprinkled cowry shells, alligator pepper and blue beads around the machine for protection. I wasn’t taking chances.
I sat down, placed my fingers on the keyboard, shut my eyes and prayed to the God I didn’t believe in. After all that had happened, who would believe in God? Philo had been in Jos when the riots happened. I knew it was her and her wig. A technology I had created. Neurotransmitters, mobile phones, incantation, and hypnosis- even I knew my creation was genius. But all it sparked in the North was death and mayhem. During the riots there, some men had even burned a woman and her baby to death. A woman andherbaby!
I didn’t want to think of what Philo gained after causing it all. She never said a word to me about it. However, soon after, she went on a three-day shopping spree in Paris. We could leave Nigeria, but never for more than a few days.
“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” I whispered. “I meant well.” I opened my eyes and looked at my screen. The background was a plain blue. The screen was blank except for a single folder. I highlighted the folder and pressed “delete.”
I paused, my hands shaking and my heart pounding in my chest.
“If this doesn’t work, they will kill me,” I whispered. Then I considered what they’d do if I didn’t finish. So many others would die and Nigeria would be in further chaos, for sure. I continued typing. I was creating a computer virus. I would send it out in a few hours. When they’d both be busy. Then all hell would break loose…for me, just me. Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.
My name is Rain and if I didn’t get this right, the corruption already rife in this country would be nothing compared to what was to come. And it would all be my fault.
I am beast. I am lovely. I am in control. I was born beautiful.
All this Philo thought as she walked through the fruit and vegetable section of the open-air market. Around her, women slaved away. They sat behind tables and in booths selling tomatoes, peppers, plantain, egusi seeds, greens, yams. All those things that they’d have to cook at home for their families after a long day. Philo didn’t live that life. She’d chosen better. She was above all of them.
Philo was tall and voluptuous, as she sashayed past women and men in her pricey high heels and brown designer dress that clung to her every inch. Her foundation make-up made her skin look like chocolate porcelain. Her eyelids sparkled with purple eye-shadow. Her lips glistened bright sensual pink. Perfect. Sexy. Hot. And her wig was awful. A washed-out black with auburn frosted tips, it looked as if it were made of colored straw and sat on her head like it knew it did not belong there.
“Here,” a woman said, running up to Philo and handing her a roll of naira. “Take. You will make better use of it than me.” The woman paused and frowned, obviously confused by her own actions and words.
“Thank you,” Philo said, with a chuckle. She grabbed the money with her long nailed painted fingers and stared into the woman’s eyes. Philo felt her wig heat up and then a dull ache in the back of her head. Then she felt it behind her eyes, which turned from deep brown to glowing green. Philo sighed as the laser shot from her eyes into the woman’s eyes. The woman slumped, looking sadly at her feet. It always felt so good to take from people, not just their money but their very essence. Philo quickly moved on leaving the tired sad-looking woman behind.
She passed a group of young men. They stared and she stared back, zapping and taking. Their ravenous looks grew blank. Philo smirked knowingly. She felt amazing. She strolled into a booth where a man sold hundreds of Nollywood movie DVDs. She glanced over the array of colorful dramatic covers where women and men scowled, wept, grinned, pointed, accused, laughed. “I’ll take this one,” she said, picking a DVD at random. She’d watch it. She’d enjoy it. She loved Nollywood. These days, she enjoyed everything. The world was hers. Soon it would be, at least.
She tucked the DVD into her purse and left the booth without paying. No one stopped her. As she stepped into the sunshine, she turned, absolutely loving herself. She knew everyone was looking at her, just as she knew she was sucking the life from them as they stared. Her wig’s heat increased and her brown eyes glinted a bright green as she smiled at any man who caught her eye. By the time she left this market, she’d be weighed down with naira given and life juices taken. Market by Market. It was like this every day.
Her cell phone went off. A male voice happily drawled, “Hellllo Moto,” then upbeat music began to play. Everything about Philo rattled as she stopped and lifted her purse- the jangling bangles on her arms, her jingling earrings, and her three gold chain necklaces. She was clicks and clacks, shines and sparkles.
“Oh where is it,” she said, digging in her purse, mindful of her long nails. “Where, where where.” She pushed aside her lipstick, her unnecessary wallet, tissues, compact case, a pack of gum, wads and rolls of naira. Her cell phone continued going off. She laughed. She already knew who it was. Rain, the weakest link in the chain. She could tell by the ring tone. However, she could also tell by more than that. In her mind’s eye, Philo could see Rain standing outside her compound, next to some flowers, holding her cell phone to her ear, waiting. Philo found her phone, flipped it open and held it to her ear. It clicked against her long gold earring.
“What?” she said, grinning with all her teeth. She heard nothing. “Rain, I know it’s you. Say someth…”
She felt it before she saw it. A coolness that contrasted horribly with the heat of her wig. She frowned as the phone made an odd beeping sound. She held it before her just as the phone glinted a deep green similar to the one her eyes flashed when she sucked psychic energy from those around her. Her phone buzzed, an electrical current zipping across it before disappearing. Green smoke began to dribble from it.
“Chey!” Philo exclaimed staring at it. If she were smart, she’d have dropped it. But Philo was never really that intelligent. Just greedy. Rain didn’t know that before but she knew that now. A text message appeared on the screen but Philo could make no sense of it. It was a series on nonsensical symbols, rubbish. She dropped the phone, pressing a hand to her wig. “That bitch,” she snarled, looking around with wide enraged eyes. “How dare she even try.” In the sunshine, her canines almost looked pointed.
Right then and there, Philo disappeared in a flash of green.
Coco had just lit a cigarette. She leaned back on the plush white leather couch and crossed her legs. She held her glass of champagne up to the photo of her husband on the wall. He was out. He was always out. Working. For her. She laughed, scratching under her itchy wig with her long-nailed index finger. Scritch scritch. It was spiky, dark red and short and no one in his or her right mind would wear it. She got up and looked at her reflection in the glass that protected her husband’s photo. Her skinny jeans and t-shirt fit wonderfully snug. Her face was flawless. And her hair was power.
“Mwah,” she said, blowing herself a kiss.
She ambled into the living room where two fans were blasting. She stood very still between them, her wig’s “hairs” blowing about her face. It felt secure, despite the blowing air. She shut her eyes and inhaled deeply. Behind her eyelids, she could see. Then she began to draw it in from…
The busy street. People sitting in bustling bush taxies and perched atop hundreds of okada motorbikes. Market women walking alongside the road. The mish-mash of old and modern buildings of Lagos. Disabled beggars in the road. Boys playing soccer on a field.
When she opened her eyes, they glowed a deep green and the wig glinted an electric blue. The blowing fans made the heat from her wig more bearable. Her cell phone went off and she nearly jumped. “Hellllo, Moto,” it said as it played its dance music.
“Ah ah, what now?” she muttered. But she was smiling. The wig. It always left her feeling so good. Minus the heat, which left the actual wig feeling like a burning helmet. She ran to her cell phone on the couch. It was Rain. What did she want now? In her mind, the wig showed Rain standing outside her compound looking worried. The woman always looked so worried; she should have been at the top of the world.
Coco held the phone to her ear as she brought out some lipstick. “Hello?” she said, smearing on a fresh coat. She grinned, sure of what she’d hear. She frowned. “Hello? Rain, what is it? Speak up.”
But she heard nothing. She held the phone to her face when it suddenly became like a chunk of ice in her hand. “Iiieeey!” she exclaimed, throwing it on the couch. As she stared at it, appalled, the cell phone began to dribble green smoke. A text box opened on its screen. Coco squinted trying to read it. It looked like rubbish. But, like Philo, Coco understood what was happening.
“Oh,” Coco said, out of breath. “You want to play now, eh? Ok.” She threw her lipstick on the leather seat, the lid still off. It left a smear on the pillow. “Someone will die today, o. And it will not be me.”
I have made my choice. That’s why I am still here, standing in these lilies. I run my hand over my shaved head. Waiting. The sun shines bright and happy in the sky, unaware of what’s about to happen to me. Unaware of what I have done and will soon suffer the consequences for. Unconcerned.
Philo appears. She is standing on the lilies, mere feet away from me.
“What is wrong with you?” she shouts. She looks beautiful and ghastly in her tight brown dress that probably cost more naira than a market woman makes in two years.
“I’m…” Fear pumps through my veins like adrenaline and blood.
“Why is your wig off, eh? You look horrible.” Her wig flashes as the digital virus tries to cripple it. Notice I say “tries”.
“I took it off,” I snap. “This is wrong, o! This is wrong! Wake up!”
Philo chuckles. “And what is wrong about it? We have everything we want.”
“Stealing from people is not what I made these for! I made them to help us give! To cure the deep seated culture of corruption by giving people hope and a sense of patriotism. Remember??”
She looks at me as if I am crazy. The wig has made her forget. Na wao. Tricky tricky things, these wigs.
“Put it back on,” she says, pointing a long nail at me.
“No,” I say. “It has made us cruel witches. Look at you!”
Coco appears behind me. She hisses like a snake. She is in no mood for words. Her wig flashes. The virus is not working. When you mix juju with technology, you give up control. You are at the will of something far beyond yourself. I am done for.
See how it all ends? Or does it begin? I am watching them approach me now. I tell you while my life hangs on its last thread. I am putting my wig on. It is so hot. I should have paid more attention to the cooling system when I made these. I hear the heartbeat of everyone around me now, including the irregular rhythm of Coco and Philo’s. But oh, the power. It rushes into me like ogogoro down the throat of a drunk.
See Philo bare her teeth. They are indeed sharp like those of a bloodsucker. The virus is working through her wig now. But something has gone very wrong. They are both smiling. For a year, we have been psychic vampires but now as they come at me, mouths open, teeth sharp, I see that they have become the blood-sucking kind.
I feel my own teeth sharpening too as I prepare to defend myself. This is new but I can’t think about that right now. I tear the wig off and throw it aside.
“Come then!” I shout. Then, I…
“Hello, Moto” copyright © 2011 Nnedi Okorafor
Art copyright © 2011 Jillian Tamaki