One of our previous Longreads Member Picks, an essay by Jessica Wilbanks, is now free for everyone. “On The Far Side of the Fire” first appeared in Ninth Letter and was awarded the journal’s annual creative nonfiction award. This is the first time it has been published online.
If you scraped Lagos of traffic and trade and trash until only green and brown were left, the landscape would look like it does here in the Niger Delta. The afternoon mist shimmers over the burnt orange soil, parrots and cicadas squawk and buzz through lush walls of green, and dark streams run beside the gum trees that shade the footpaths. Deep in the distance smoke from the gas flares can just be seen over the dark line of oil palms at the edge of the horizon. Not so long ago the women here in Akwa Ibom grew yams and maize in patches of cleared bush, but now the only thing that takes root is elephant grass, razor-sharp and inedible. The okra and palm trees are slow to flower, and every year the cassava grows smaller. The men have pawned their outboard motors and left their skiffs to rot on the riverbanks; they say the fish that used to nest in the mangrove roots have fled deep into the sea. Whatever sickness the land has seems to be spreading to the people. The women’s wombs close up too early and when children are born they are often listless and small. Their bellies grow faster than the rest of them and some of them can’t take a breath without choking.
The European aid workers blame the ExxonMobil installation on the eastern side of the Qua Iboe river. They pull well-worn maps from their messenger bags and outline the slow creep of crude oil into the rivers and tributaries, the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every year for forty years straight. The more adventurous among them sneak out of their heavily guarded hotel compounds to take blurry cell phone shots of the gas flares spitting fire into the night sky. Back in the safety of the hotel they pour tall glasses of duty-free scotch and sit by the pool telling stories until their pale faces turn red with indignation. They talk of what Shell did to Ken Saro-Wiwa, the travesty of Nigeria’s missing $22 billion in oil revenue, the spiraling poverty in the Niger Delta, and the millions of naira the governor’s been handing over to Nollywood stars. In the last hours before dawn the aid workers start slurring their words and widening the circle of blame to Nigeria’s colonial legacy and their own countries’ demand for fossil fuels. When they sleep they toss and turn alone in king-size beds as the rain pounds down onto the hotel’s tin roof.
But there is a woman nearby in Cross River State who says the aid workers are wrong. Helen Ukpabio wears wide-brimmed hats in jewel tones and pumps dyed to match, and in 2009 she was consecrated as an apostle of the Lord. She says that the people of Akwa Ibom are not being ravaged from without, by impersonal demons of political corruption, environmental devastation, and disease, but rather from within, by sin and demonic attacks. The problem here is not material, she says, but spiritual—she says that she should know. When Helen was fourteen she was initiated into the ways of witchcraft and was even betrothed to Lucifer himself. God delivered her (thanks be to His name), but she still sees the world through spiritual eyes. She can look at someone for just a moment and know if they are walking in the light of God or are plagued by spirits of poverty, infertility, and disease. My father, who worships the same God Helen worships, would call this the gift of discernment.
Helen scoffs at the belief that strongly worded op-eds and environmental regulations can put the world right again. The people of Akwa Ibom don’t need better laws, she says, or even food aid. They need spiritual guidance about how to fight evil, and that’s what her ministry offers. In her sermons and books she unveils the mysteries of witchcraft, telling stories of people who go traveling and beg water from strangers only to have spirits creep into them. Once possessed, they themselves become witches and bring sin and destruction wherever they go, unless they are stopped by a man or woman of God like herself. Helen believes that when it comes to witchcraft, not even children are spared. One of her books gives a set of instructions for identifying witches under the age of two: “if a child . . . screams in the night, cries and is always feverish with deteriorating health, he or she is a servant of Satan.” But there is hope; the children can be redeemed. Unlike other pastors, Helen doesn’t even charge fifty naira for delivering witches, and when she comes across one, she doesn’t abuse them. She says she can deliver witches without even touching them, because the attack she makes is a spiritual one. Once the possessed are delivered she sends them back to their families, where, according to her website, they live happily ever after. It may look strange to westerners when she prays over child witches in that particularly ferocious way, but that’s because they are naïve and don’t know that the devil sometimes takes the shape of a lamb.
On the other side of the world my father sits in the kitchen of his rented farmhouse in southern Maryland, drinking his coffee and reading The Washington Post. If you were to visit him there and ask him if he believes in the spirit world, he would put down his paper, cross his arms, and say yes, without a doubt. We live in the natural world and have become accustomed to its laws, but that doesn’t mean those laws cannot be broken. That was the miracle of Jesus, he’d say, they killed him and he rose again and showed that not even death could hold him back.
If you leaned in and asked if someone could be possessed by an evil spirit, he would say that he’s seen it with his own eyes, and spirits are not what you might think. Forget about witches on brooms with pointy hats, and think instead of the spirit of stubbornness, the spirit of fear, the spirit of defeat. Think of a dark feeling that comes on slowly, a spirit inside you that says you are nothing, worse than nothing, that there is something evil and bad within you. If you listen to that voice you could succumb to sickness and disease and even death.
And if you asked my father if a child could be possessed by a spirit, he would squint and try to gauge your motives. Of course Exodus 20 tells us that the sins of the father are visited on the children. But through the prayer of righteous men and women, children’s demons can be driven out. That’s a promise from God. All we have to do is believe.
My father has three grandsons, the youngest born just a few months ago. Now that he’s retired he watches the baby for hours, bouncing him on his lap and making animal noises at him. He reads child development books at night and plans to teach the baby sign language. He’s a softer man then he used to be—when we were growing up his beard was black instead of grey and his temper was a force of nature. He isn’t much for church these days, and the one he visits every once in a while is long on love and compassion and light on deliverance. That wasn’t always the case. When I was small we attended a Pentecostal offshoot led by a pastor who did whatever God told him to do, whether it was wearing a red tie on a particular day or moving his wife and three daughters to southern Maryland. Three times a week we gathered in his church to speak in tongues and worship and prophesy, and every October we put on a three-day revival. Our pastor would bring a guest minister up from North Carolina or Tennessee and we’d pitch a big white tent by a cornfield, rent a generator, and buy straw bales from the Amish to serve as a floor. For three nights in a row the guest minister would shout and pace, and we would sing until our throats gave out and clap until the palms of our hands were stinging.
When I was ten or so I yawned and squirmed through the Friday and Saturday services, but late one Sunday night I started listening. The pastor combed his eyes over us there in the tent and spoke quietly and seriously about the evil that was somewhere among us. There were some out there in the crowd, he said, who were possessed by the spirit of hypocrisy—they were Christians on Sunday and didn’t think of God a bit until the end of the week. There’s someone here tonight, he said, his voice growing louder, someone who believes they hide their sins from God and their community, and I tell you now they’re wrong! The plumber who was known to occasionally partake of alcohol slipped past his wife and daughters and made his way to the altar, shaking and crying in front of that man of God. And still the minister kept going, calling out all kinds of spirits. Somewhere among us was a child with a rash on his cheeks, a woman with female troubles, a man whose back kept him up at night, and it was all because of sin. I had my eyes fixed on the floor, but when the sin of arrogance came up, I swallowed hard and got up to brush past my brothers, only to find they had answered an earlier call. The pastor kept at it until the folding chairs were empty and we were all at the altar—even my father. We raised our hands to the sky and spoke in tongues, that beautiful heavenly language that comes from the Holy Spirit, and the Lord himself came down to meet us. Before long we felt calloused hands gripping our temples, blessing us and pardoning us, driving out any lurking spirits. It was then that people keeled over and fell out, rent motionless by the sheer emotional force of it all. One of my brothers fell, and I wanted to fall, but even though the pastor pushed at my forehead and the deacons stood behind me at the ready, my legs refused to give out. The pastor went on to the elderly man next to me, and I stood there by myself in my saddle shoes, wishing I could have been swept away by the spirit. Beside me the deacons shook choir robes over women’s legs as they lay there dumb in the straw.
Outside that glowing tent it was the mid-eighties and the world was marching in sync to the plans already laid out in the Book of Revelation. There were two types of people out there, believers and doubters, and to the believers God had promised every good thing. But still we had to be vigilant. Sin was always tempting and luring us away, and with that came sickness and disease and every manner of evil. I did my part, staying away from horoscopes and Ouija boards and coloring books with witches in them, and when my school friends celebrated Halloween, I celebrated “Hallelujah Eve.” At ten o’clock at night the men and boys in the church would build a bonfire and we’d throw rock albums in, or racy books and magazines. We’d watch the ashes flare up into the night as the light from the bonfire lit up our faces. I had the feeling that if I left the halo of light and moved closer to the woods, any kind of evil could creep up and slip under my skin. It was true I had been redeemed by the blood of the lamb, but that didn’t mean I was entirely safe. It was far better to stay close to the fire and read my Bible every day and watch myself carefully, so I would stay pure. Outside the circle of light you just never know.
When I called my mother and told her I was going to Nigeria to see for myself what was going on in Akwa Ibom, she wasn’t as worried as I thought she’d be. She knew that my New England liberal arts education had wrung almost every last bit of Pentecostalism out of me and probably thought those Nigerian pastors had a thing or two to teach me. I think she liked the idea of me spending time in a part of the world so religious that whole cities shut down on Sunday mornings, semi-trucks had salvation messages etched on the front of their cabs, and the President himself resorted to intercessory prayer when his wife became ill. Thankfully she didn’t have access to the internet, so she had no way of knowing about the state department’s ban on travel to Akwa Ibom or the news reports about westerners who had been nabbed by the “area boys” and held for ransom. But even if she did know those stories, she may not have worried. She had faith that God would wrap his cloud of protection around me and she promised to pray for my safety every day. I didn’t tell her not to. I don’t really believe in evil spirits anymore, but every once in a while, it’s comforting to think that if there is a great web of spiritual safety, my mothers’ prayers keep me in square in the middle of it.
My escort to Akwa Ibom was Yemi Ademowo-Johnson, a cheerful, stocky man who informed me when we first met that he was the rarest kind of Nigerian: an atheist. Over twenty ounce bottles of Star beer and bowls of ponmo, Yemi explained that when it came time for President Obama to visit Africa for the first time as President, he bypassed Nigeria and flew into Ghana instead and nobody blamed him a bit. Nigeria is a mess. The Christian south blames the Muslim north for everything from poisoning vegetables to bombing churches to taking more than their share of power. The north blames the south for taking the bulk of the oil profits from the Niger Delta. And just about everyone blames a culture of corruption in Nigeria, where powerful politicians divert oil revenue to their own bank accounts while the majority of people in regions like Akwa Ibom live on less than a dollar a day. When they fall sick they have to pay up before a doctor will even look at them, which is part of the reason why the life expectancy for the average Nigerian is barely fifty years old.
In the heady mid-seventies, when oil revenues tripled in the space of two years, trains crisscrossed the south and it was safe to travel. But when the oil bust hit a few years later, the bush crept over the train tracks again and no one dared drive at night. When Yemi and I drove through the green hills of Ibadan he pointed out the homes that were abandoned half-built when oil prices started falling. In those days churches had sprouted up like mushrooms. There was the Redeemed Christian Church of God with its four-thousand-acre headquarters north of Lagos and all night Holy Ghost services, Deeper Life, known for its holiness teachings, and the Mountain of Fire and Miracles, which claims to heal people from HIV and AIDS. For Nigerians, there was something familiar about the Pentecostal churches—the pastors shouted and danced like the babalawos, the holy men, used to before all that fell out of fashion. Yemi spoke of his more religious countrymen the way an older uncle would speak of a wayward nephew that fell in with the wrong crowd; he saved his bitterness for the pastors. He said they were vultures preying on the poor, the ignorant, and the superstitious, and he pointed out that as Nigerians converted to Pentecostal Christianity, there was an uptick in traditional beliefs as well. The more people believe in the Holy Ghost, the more they were inclined to believe in his enemies.
That’s what Yemi said had happened in Awka Ibom. For centuries, witches had lurked at the fringes of society, and as recently as the seventies, witch-hunting crusades were common. Volunteer armies of fierce-eyed young men would go from village to village with machetes and sticks, forcing everyone into a central square. Their leader would study the faces of the men and women and then subject those they suspected of witchcraft to age-old tests—burning them with hot metal, rubbing red pepper into their eyes, covering them with biting ants, and forcing them to eat the poisonous esere bean. But it wasn’t until the twenty-first century, just after the release of a film Helen Ukpabio made to teach her followers about the dangers of child witchcraft, that children in Akwa Ibom began to be accused. The film End of the Wicked follows the adventures of a girl of eight whose soul is summoned from her sleeping body by a small witch-boy dressed in black. The two of them travel to an underground coven where a man in whiteface sits on a throne. The children are charged with draining money, health, and happiness out of their people, and for the rest of the film, they run amuck, eating human flesh and causing their fathers to have heart attacks.
Helen’s movie flew off the shelves in outdoor markets throughout the south, and the more popular the movie became, the more children there were in the street, running in packs and scavenging corncobs from the market. Every day there were new reports of child witches: a young girl in Ondo who was said to have changed into a cat and back again as her mother grew sicker and sicker, the two-year-old in Eket whose hunched-back and small stature was a sure sign that the devil was growing in him, or the six-year-old twins who were nearly buried alive by a man who believed they were behind the death of his wife. Helen had never met any of those particular children, but Yemi said that didn’t mean she wasn’t to blame.
Since a BBC special covered the child witchcraft accusations, countless charity-workers and reporters had bucked the travel bans. Some of them had been able to track down Helen and interrogate her, and when they did she denied the existence of any street children in Akwa Ibom, saying that the very notion of abandoning one’s children was un-African. She even told a New York Times reporter that the children who had been filmed and photographed with wounds and scars from deliverance ceremonies were likely actors, and even if their wounds were real, there were many ways that children could be maimed. Yemi said that after all the negative attention she’d received from the international press, there was no way that Helen would consent to an interview with me. I told him I wanted to go to Akwa Ibom anyway and he shook his head, saying the Niger Delta was no-go these days—even the oil workers with their armored vans weren’t leaving their compounds anymore. A trip like that would mean hiring armed guards to escort us to and from the airport, and even then the chances of a kidnapping were four-in-ten. As we ate and drank he told me story after story of kidnappings and shootings, but when he was done I counted out ten thousand naira and put the stack of bills on the table. He looked at the pile of money and leaned back with his arms folded.
“What’s there for you?” he asked.
I peeled at the label on my beer. My boyfriend had asked me the same question. Reporters had already covered the story of Akwa Ibom—what would I see there that I couldn’t read about in The New York Times? I couldn’t really explain it. It had something to do with how, as a child, I had nodded along with the rest of the congregation when our pastor paced the length of the altar, waving his leather-bound Bible and calling out curses on nonbelievers and blessings on those who did God’s will. If that man had told our congregation to sell everything we owned and move to Africa, I think we would have done it. I’m not sure what we would have done if he had looked out over his flock and said that somewhere among us there was a child with an evil spirit inside him that could only be driven out through force. I have a feeling we might have parted like a sea and left the child alone to face whatever might have awaited him.
Yemi sighed. “I’ll give you one day,” he said. “One day, one night, then we get out.” A week later, we were flying over the tributaries of Qua Iboe river.
On the drive from the airport in Uyo I sat between two off-duty policemen with AK-47s in the back of a rusty Nissan hatchback. The heat was overwhelming; the car had no air conditioning and Yemi had instructed me to wear a long skirt, long sleeves, a scarf, and a hat, in hopes that I might be mistaken for an albino. The policemen beside me couldn’t have been more than eighteen, though one acted far older, solemnly combing the roadside for threats and frowning when his colleague laughed and joked with the driver. His partner knew a bit of English, and his eyes lit up when I told him I was from the U.S. “Obama’s country!” he said excitedly, again and again, until Yemi rolled his eyes and shushed him.
Early in the trip we noticed crowds of people planting young palm trees along the road, weeding the median strips, and re-painting white lines in the road at a furious pace. One of the policemen explained to Yemi in pidgin that the president was coming to Akwa Ibom tomorrow and the governor had ordered a major clean-up initiative in preparation. Yemi was delighted to hear the news and told me my chances of being kidnapped had just gone down significantly—not only would there be extra security on the roads for the next several days, but odds were that any and all would-be kidnappers would be too busy making a few hundred naira as part of the governor’s impromptu clean-up brigade.
The roads grew more ragged as we drove and there were fewer and fewer buildings of any kind. At intersections, hawkers gathered around the car selling cellophane bags of “pure water” and roasted corn for twenty naira apiece. Under the gum trees on the roadside old men dozed and young women braided one another’s hair. In the distance, we could make out the pipes and smokestacks from the ExxonMobil plant that loomed over the town. We must have passed forty churches between Uyo and Eket: House of Favor, Tabernacle of Truth Ministries, Faith Builders Mission, Sanctified Apostolic, Holy Ghost Family Deliverance Ministries. Yemi said that it was the last church that was one of the worst offenders, but he wouldn’t say what they had done.
In Eket, we pulled onto a narrow dirt road marked by a makeshift sign reading Child Rights and Rehabilitation Center. Yemi rolled down the window at last and craned his neck out, pointing and shouting. There was Sam Itauma’s house—he was the man who built the center—there was the sickbay where they treated the children for parasites and malaria and whatnot, there was the path to the outdoor kitchen where the children ate their meals. I pulled my scarf off and sat up straight, afraid of what I would see when we rounded the corner. The policemen seemed uneasy as well.
“There!” said Yemi, directing the driver to a dirt field ringed by a set of ramshackle concrete buildings in faded pastel colors. There were bits of colorful cloth all around the perimeter, and in the middle of the field, playing soccer barefoot, were the children I had come to see. We parked the car and when Yemi bounded out, the children stopped their soccer game and rushed him, whooping and hugging his legs and patting his pockets for gum. Their heads were shaved, boys and girls alike, and while their arms and legs were thin, they all seemed whole. You had to look closely to see the scars.
A little boy tugged me away from the car, calling me Miss and watching me carefully to make sure I avoided the puddles. He led me toward a tall, broadly built man wearing jeans and a baseball cap, a man I recognized from YouTube clips as Sam Itauma. He and Yemi exchanged a complicated handshake and he shook my hand formally at first, then pulled me in for a hug. He was very glad I came, he said, the more westerners who visited, the more attention the politicians paid to the children. Sam explained that they had recently succeeded in getting a national child rights bill passed, but enforcement was always an issue. The policemen who were supposed to protect the children were just as afraid of them as the rest of the villagers. Sam said that recently a policemen in Eket brought his own daughter to the center after he became convinced she was a witch.
A tiny girl of seven clung to Sam’s arm as he spoke to us, and Sam explained that he had found her that morning, sleeping in a pile of cast-off clothing on the side of the road. She was so frail that at first he had thought that she was dead, but once she ate a scotch egg he bought from a roadside vendor, she came into herself enough to tell him her story. Her name was Nkoyo and her grandfather said she was a witch, so her father beat her and kicked her out of the house. That had been over three weeks ago, and she had been sleeping on the street ever since. Nkoyo was bone-thin and her big belly poked out of a ragged, dark-blue Victorian-style dress. Her arms and legs were speckled with burns and other scars, and an ugly knot rose out of the back of her left hand. In her other hand she gripped a plastic toy alligator she had found in Sam’s pick-up truck, and over the course of an hour, she moved from Sam’s arm into the midst of a group of children who seemed far more interested in her alligator than they were in her. Before too long, an older girl had her by the elbow and took her around the center: the crumbling cement-block boys’ quarters, the UNICEF-funded girls’ quarters, the school rooms, an open-air kitchen, an administrative center, and the field in the center of the compound. Later, Nkoyo would go to the sickbay to be treated for worms and lice. Her wounds would be examined, and she’d see a social worker who would listen to her story and log the name of her accuser in a ledger. The next day she’d be paired up with an older girl who would be responsible for making sure she was getting along well with the others and eating and sleeping enough.
Beyond that, Nkoyo’s future is uncertain. There are few jobs in Nigeria, though the children in Sam’s center have big dreams. When I interviewed a few children in the one-room schoolhouse, one little girl lifted her leg onto the table between us to show me the scars from rope burns on her ankles before telling me she wanted to be an actress. She relayed her story in a matter-of-fact manner, taking great pleasure in signing her name in my notebook once the interview was finished. She was the one that told me how the pastor brought her in front of the church and accused her of going to the witchcraft world while she was sleeping. He accused her of taking her mother’s stomach, eating the baby that was growing there, and putting blood and water in its place.
As the shadows lengthened, the children on laundry duty gathered up the clothes that had been drying on tufts of grass in the soccer field. Yemi, Sam, and I walked them through a thicket of yucca and cassava plants to an outdoor kitchen where village women were ladling scoops of rice and beans into tin cups. The children ate with their hands, perched on wooden benches while the cooks eyed them, shouting at them in the local language when they became too noisy. As we watched them, Sam told me that he’d had a hard time finding kitchen staff when he first opened the center, despite the fact that jobs in Akwa Ibom are hard to come by. The women he approached had been afraid that they’d catch some spiritual contaminant at the center. But Sam is handsome and persuasive, and after a few weeks without any unusual sicknesses in their families, most of the women he hired lost their fears of the children and even started touching them occasionally, swatting their bottoms when they failed to queue up or patting their heads as they distributed food.
When the children finished their meals, I treated Sam and some of his staff to dinner at a restaurant in town. Over pounded yam and fish pepper soup, he told me how, just after Helen’s film was released, he had come upon four children being attacked by a group of men and women carrying sticks and rocks and machetes. The mob believed the children were witches who had come to “bring down” the products in a nearby outdoor market. Sam convinced the mob to let him take the children into his home, and when word got out, children arrived on his doorstep at the rate of five or six per month, and he could never bear to turn any of them away. He approached the government to see if they could help, but the officials in charge of Akwa Ibom’s hospitals and orphanages were worried that the children would spread the seeds of witchcraft to their wards. It wasn’t until a British aidworker became involved that Sam was able to get enough funding to turn his ramshackle collection of outbuildings into a formal charity operation that would eventually house nearly two hundred kids.
Sam and his staff did everything they could to give the children a normal life. Early on, they took them to soccer games in town to give them a chance to mingle with the rest of the community. “Then these men approached us at the stadium and said we had to leave before nightfall,” Sam said, shaking his head. “They believed that was when the children would turn into witches. We did not budge in spite of the warning—it was a public place—and they turned to a mob and said they would stop us from ever going there again. They said if we took the children into town they would use a bullet on us. So we left and haven’t gone back.”
I sat across from Lydia, a graduate student in sociology who was writing her thesis on witchcraft accusations. She had become involved with Sam’s center after she had brought food to a child living in the street, only to have the child run away in fear, thinking she had been trying to poison him. When Lydia’s own children first asked her about the street children they passed on the roadside, she wasn’t sure how to explain what was happening. She decided to tell them they were God’s children, but that just confused them even more. “If they’re God’s children, then why doesn’t God take care of them?” they asked her. “Why doesn’t he build them a house?”
Dinner ended early because Yemi insisted on dropping me off at the only hotel in town before night fell—he said the roads weren’t safe for whites at night. The Belajno was right next to the ExxonMobil compound, but I saw no sign of the oil workers or any other guests. There was nothing to do in the hotel but type up my notes and read the testimonies of the children I had interviewed. Their stories were all very much the same.
My uncle’s wife said I was a witch, that I was the one who wanted to kill and torture their children. She tied me with a rope. I did not think I was a witch.
My mother saw me sleeping different. She took me to the church for a long time. The church made me dry-fast with no water. Even when they gave me a bath they would put a cloth on my face so I couldn’t drink. When I saw the wife of a pastor eating a cucumber I took it and ran away. The pastor ran after and slapped me and tied my hands and arms and beat me with three brooms until 6:00. Then he called my grandfather. He said if I stayed in the house I would destroy everything. I was rooming on the street until they directed me here.
I greeted the pastor in our house. He called to me and said, are you a witch? I said no. He beat me and dug a hole. He says if I don’t say it he will bury me alive. So I said yes, I am a witch.
I lay on my king-sized bed for a long time before I came to the conclusion that I hadn’t learned anything by coming to Akwa Ibom. There was nothing remotely special about these children. They were just as beautiful and brilliant and magical as any other child in the world. It wasn’t the children I needed to see if I was to get to root of all of this, and it wasn’t Helen Ukpabio. It was the mothers and fathers who had nodded when the pastors picked their children out of the crowd and named them witches. But Sam often tried and failed to find the children’s parents, and I thought it was unlikely that I would succeed. Even if I could find them, I wasn’t sure I wanted to try. I was afraid there wouldn’t be anything special about them either.
At twilight on Friday nights in Akwa Ibom, when people walk miles to the deliverance houses, the color that blooms out of that green and brown world is nothing short of astonishing. There’s magenta and gold vermillion and cerulean blue and lavender. Families wear the same fabrics to show they are one people, and the women wear headwraps of the same material, wrapping the fabric around their head like enormous, winding crowns. They walk like queens, backs ram-rod straight, scolding the children as they chase one another along the paths. You can only tell they are poor because they have no shoes.
The deliverance houses are the shabbiest of all the churches, made of cast-off wood with rough concrete floors and repurposed tin roofs. They aren’t tied to any larger church bodies, not Deeper Life or Christ Apostolic or even Helen’s own denomination—Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries. There are no artificial flowers on the altar, no polished cedar crosses, no hymnals or even Bibles. Sometimes there aren’t even walls or floors, just hard-packed dirt with a few grimy plastic chairs. There are often leaks in the tall tin ceilings. Around here, roofs only last a couple of years because the acid rain from the gas flares eats away at the tin. During the day you can hear the drops of water coming down into the buckets the pastor’s wife puts out to catch the water, but at night the sound of worshipping drowns it out.
First there are the praise songs, set to the beat by drums and tambourines and the women’s soprano lilts. And then at an almost indecipherable moment some spirit bursts through the crowd and the whole place becomes a frenzy. Women clutch their chests and cry as if in great bursts of fever. Men clap their hands and pounce in place, pumping their fists and shouting as if boxing with a very large spiritual beast. The children let loose with their heavenly languages and cry out to Jesus. It’s then that there’s supposed to be healing and renewal and revelation, but instead something else happens. The pastor gets in front of his congregation and sees the women holding sick babies in their arm, their dark eyes asking him why.
Maybe that’s when he combs through the crowd and his eyes land on one of the stubborn children, squirming in the back of the church. He remembers a film he saw once and curls a strong finger to draw that child up to the altar. When he does he’s alive again, with the force of God behind him. His tongue loosens and he begins preaching the way he was always meant to preach, because now it’s clear that the sickness of this whole community is in this mischievous child. That child was behind his aunt’s barrenness, his youngest sister’s coughing fits, even the village’s shrunken crops. The child protests but is not to be believed. After days of fasting, chained to the side of that deliverance house, he’ll end up confessing his crimes. He will be driven away, and then the village will have some peace again.
When I was eighteen and about to leave home for college, my father sat me down on a wicker loveseat on the porch and told me a few things about the world. He had seen a bit of it before a stroke cut him down, and in his early twenties he spent six months in Vietnam.
He told me that the world is vast and beautiful and would never stop astonishing me. I should see as much of it as I possibly could. And then he said something I didn’t understand. He told me I was young and I hadn’t known true suffering yet. But he had, and it taught him that sometimes the world throws us so much pain that we may be driven to do things we never imagined, because we just can’t see any other way. He then told a long, vague story about a woman he met once who had been abused as a child and then became a drug addict and sold her body. “Can any of us really blame her?” he asked me. “After all she had been through?” Then he stopped talking, just sipped his Budweiser and looked out over the tobacco farm that lay beyond the porch. Deer fed on the corn that our landlord threw on the fields, and a lone red-tailed hawk played sentry from the top of a dead oak.
At the time I wondered about that woman, who she might have been, and how my father might have known her. I couldn’t make much sense of my father’s send-off. But now I think he was warning me that until that point I had lived my life under the halo of the bonfire, but there was a world out there filled with things I couldn’t even imagine. He had grown up away from the fire and had fought his whole life to bind up evil spirits so he could take dominion over them. He didn’t always succeed. I think he was telling me not to judge him too harshly for some of the things he had done. I think he hoped that I would never know that darkness myself, but in the meantime I should remember that as long as I went untried and untested, I didn’t know what the darkness could do to me.
I went to Akwa Ibom and came back. The pastors are still holding court in the deliverance houses, Nkoyo is sharing a single bunk with three small girls, and Sam is writing reports to funders in hopes of keeping the bags of rice coming. The policemen are still stopping okadas, demanding bribes of twenty naira to pass and threatening to shoot if the drivers try to overrun them. Back in Maryland, my father is cooing to his baby grandson and teaching him the signs for hurt, hungry, more. Yemi is back in the city teaching philosophy to undergraduates; his band of atheists are ripping deliverance posters off market stalls. A biologist in Minnesota catches the story of Helen Ukpabio and posts a hyperlinked screed on his website; he calls her an evil criminal responsible for the death of countless children. While he sleeps Helen preaches two continents away in Cross River State; she delivers a thousand witches without touching a single one.
Back in Akwa Ibom, the pump jacks tip up and down day and night, and oil trickles between the roots of the mangroves. These days Akwa Ibom produces more oil than anywhere else in Nigeria and claims to have more churches per square mile than anywhere else in the world. That makes sense to me. When the world gets filthy, people will try to find a way to clean it up again.
Photos courtesy of Jessica Wilbanks