“The Clairvoyant” by Joyce Ashuntantang is part of #100DaysofAfricanReads (curated by @SisterKilljoy). It relates the moving story of how Ma Bechem, a Cameroonian seer who is babysitting her daughter’s baby in Connecicut, is sought out by a woman who wants to understand the meaning of an enigmatic gift. The ensuing revelation is as poetic as it is life-changing.
I turned the small parcel in my hand over and over, questions forming a cobweb in my mind. I had to go see Ma Bechem, from Bakebe, Cameroon. I had become casually drawn to her clairvoyance, which her daughter, Maru, treated as happy coincidences till she predicted 10 days of darkness in our little town of Burly, Connecticut. When she predicted the blackout, Maru concluded that her mother must be suffering from early signs of dementia. But Mama Bechem stood her ground. She told us in very clear Pidgin English “I don talk say place go dark for lekeh ten days. When I sleep for night I see’am for my dream; even this afternoon wey I sleep, I still see as place dark for my dream”. I was at Maru’s house that day when the brouhaha about Ma Bechem’s forecast erupted. We tried to explain to Ma Bechem that in the United States of America places don’t just become dark like that for ten days. Even if lights were to go off, it would happen for a few hours, but ten days was pushing it.
So when the lights went off three months ago in Connecticut, and lasted up to ten days in some towns like Burly, I could not help but call Maru to comment on the accuracy of her mother’s prediction. I even suggested that we should inform the media that Ma Bechem had predicted the now historic power outage. But knowledge of our marginal lives in this foreign land intimidated us. I smiled to myself as I imagined the caption in the Connecticut Courant, “African grandmother predicted power outage?” The article would have been riddled with all sorts of biased connotations. A mere grandmother from Africa could not have predicted what all the technology in the USA had failed to predict. To be fair though, even her own daughter, Maru, had doubted her clairvoyance although she now felt her mother could indeed have the rare spiritual gift of telling the future. In fact, it was after this blackout that Maru remembered that when she was twenty her mother looked at her one morning during a school break and told her to take care of her body because she had seen her husband in her dream. She also announced at the time that Maru’s future husband would propose to her when she was about twenty-eight. She had also intimated that the said husband was going to come from the Balondo ethnic group. All that had come to pass, but Maru was a student of science, so she chalked up her mother’s clairvoyance as coincidences and forgot about them.
Maru had also forgotten that hot afternoon in July two years ago when Ma Bechem arrived from Cameroon. I went with Maru to pick her mother up from Newark airport in New Jersey. As soon as Ma Bechem got into the car, she told her daughter she knew she was going to come with a friend to the airport and she was also aware that I would be wearing a blue dress. Maru immediately told her mother to forget about that her clairvoyance nonsense. Her mother was now in America and things like that didn’t count here. Somehow, I was intrigued by Ma Bechem because indeed I had a blue dress on, although that seemed quite trivial. What fascinated me more was her response to her daughter. Speaking instinctively in pidgin so I could understand too, she said, “Whiteman book don spoil wuna sense; ting fit stand for wuna front so, wuna no go see’am”. I was with Ma Bechem on that one and I knew my friend, Wale, would agree even more. Wale often talked of the deep sense of loss he felt as an African and how he wished he could regain his “African spirit” with all its healing attributes.
From the airport to the house, Ma Bechem talked about how she does not eat this or eat that just to preserve her clear vision and spirit sense. She also talked about how she had an early morning ritual during which she called on her ancestors as she splashed water on her face and legs. In this manner, she implored them not only to stay close to her during that entire day, but to clear her vision. She claimed her spirit was already telling her that she would need a lot of discipline to maintain her routine in the “Whiteman’s land” as she called the U.S. Maru was impatient with her mother’s freedom of speech, but Ma Bechem had a quiet authoritative way of talking, and it was hard to shut her up. She spoke uninterrupted for almost a third of the three-hour ride to Burly until jet-lag caught up with her and she fell asleep. Maru knew she had no choice but to resign herself to her mother. She needed her mother to help baby-sit her children for the next three years while she finished her Masters in Nursing. Consequently, she had no choice but to put up with what she believed were her mother’s eccentricities.
These memories came back to me as I felt the small parcel in my hand trying to figure out its contents. The handwriting was recognizable; it was Wale’s. I could make out the “s” and “y” even in my sleep. It was not the idea of the parcel that was intriguing; I had received many parcels addressed to me by that handwriting but these were usually books and other printed material. This parcel was small and was certainly not printed material of any sort. Another thing, most of the other parcels from this same address were always preceded by phone calls announcing their impending arrival. This parcel came unannounced. As I studied the name on the parcel as if it was written in a foreign alphabet, I was gripped by a certain fear. My right hand moved in slow motion to where I supposed my heart resided. I pressed hard because I thought my heartbeat had doubled. I had not even seen what was inside, but I had already taken a decision: Ma Bechem will have to be part of this. I was not going to open this parcel alone.
It was 5pm; at least that is what the host? at Kiss FM announced before I finished squeezing my car between two sedans packed one block away from Maru’s house. I picked up my jacket which was on the passenger seat. I had to protect myself from the fall-getting-into-winter weather. As I opened my car door, a chilly breeze greeted my face. The trees were unusually clean for mid-November, a consequence of the October snow storm which fell down many tree branches and uprooted whole trees. There was hardly anyone on the streets, and the lights on the streets seemed to be having a silent duel with the vanishing sun light. I was on the sidewalk heading to 1343 Asylum Rd, when it occurred to me that I had neither figured out how I was going to introduce the topic to Ma Bechem, nor had I even prepared a “plan B” just in case I met a whole lot of people in that house. Ma Bechem often had guests…random Cameroonians who stopped by because they knew Ma Bechem would feed them with tasty home-cooked meals. It was a battle she had fought with her daughter and won. How could she, a mother, not offer food to any child (her name for any grown up Cameroonian adult who entered Maru’s house) in a country where all they did was work with no time to prepare decent meals? As for Maru, I knew she was with the kids at their indoor soccer game and her husband would be at work, since he worked on the second shift at the local hospital.
My hand was on the door bell before I could conclude my thoughts. Ma Bechem responded with a quick opening of the door. Her bright purple blouse with silver sequins took my eyes by surprise and they blinked repeatedly. She looked much younger than her frequently announced age: 68 years. Her two sharpened front teeth, a fashion fad when she was a teenager, rendered her smile an exotic event. I smiled shyly back, while giving her a hug. She pulled me inside away from the chilly weather. I could see that she was alone. She did not show any surprise at seeing me. On the contrary, she was behaving as if I lived with her in this house and it was customary for me to come home at this time of day. Before I could take off my jacket and sit down on the long couch nearest to the door, she had already entered the kitchen and was back with a bowl of hot pepper soup. I welcomed the pepper soup since I needed to buy time to plan how to approach my mission. The first few spoons of the hot spicy pepper soup drove out the butterflies that had invaded my stomach since I picked up the parcel from my porch. Unknown to me, my face was radiating secret signals to Ma Bechem. I finished eating and put my bowl away. As soon as I sat down again, Ma Bechem came and sat near me. She looked at me beseechingly and said “show me”.
I looked at her with suspicion. Then, I asked her quietly in Pidgin English, “Show you weti, Ma?”
She now sucked her lips lightly, pulling in the smile that was beginning to go into her cheeks and then looking penetratingly into my eyes; she spoke in Pidgin English again, “ No fear, me too I be ya mami”.
This invocation of a mother –daughter bond between us melted my confusion and without asking her how she knew I brought something to show her, I took out the envelope from my hand bag. It was a small square FEDEX envelope. She took it from me, opened it and slowly revealed the contents: a large pair of beaded circle-shaped earrings. The outer circle was covered with white beads and the center had an intricate design in yellow green and red beads with a cowry shell lodged at the center. The earrings came with a note. Ma Bechem handed the note to me. My whole body studied the words, “Stunning big and bold handcrafted disc earrings by Maasai women in Tanzania”. In awe, our eyes moved in a flawless choreography from the contents to a focused eye contact. I was now confused. Wale had never sent me anything this personal and I was at a loss how to interpret this. What did he want from me? Whatever he wanted, I hoped it was something I could give him. At this point I was even more willing to defer to Ma Bechem’s clairvoyance.
Ma Bechem was quiet and I could see that it was deliberate. She seemed to be reading my thoughts as she studied my face. In the imploring voice of a five-year-old in the USA asking her mother what Santa will give her for Christmas, I asked Ma Bechem, “Mami this gift mean say weti?”
She looked at me and pulled her lips together. She took both earrings placed them in her left hand and closed her eyes. Using her right index finger she gently caressed each bead slowly then rested her finger on the cowry shell. Then, she opened her eyes, and taking both of my hands in her palms, she said, “Man wey ih send woman dis kind ting for dis wuna kontry, na man for yesterday; them no remain plenty”. I looked at her, my twisted brows and pursed lips begged her to explain herself further. She hesitated, and then continued:
“Dis wan na for join wuna spirit because ear na special place. Fingers dem di touch plenty dorty. Dis one pass white-man ring for married. Dis one na for friend way ih no di finish”.
I don’t know whether I understood Ma Bechem perfectly, but the flow of her words were like the cool taste of mint – refreshingly soothing. I could hear myself quoting Ma Bechem in translation to my Caucasian colleagues at work: “the man who sent you this gift from this country must be steeped in long lost values; there are very few of such men left. The gift is special because it binds your spirits together; ears are special because they don’t come into contact with much dirt like fingers. This handcrafted beaded earring set is more significant than a Western wedding ring. This gift symbolizes eternal friendship”. I almost burst out laughing at my own translation. I already knew words and phrases that needed revising. For example when Ma Bechem said “dis wuna kontri”, it carried a lot of connotative value and my translation “from this country” stripped the phrase of all the added value. I knew I had to work on that translation before I could tell my story to my colleagues.
Not surprisingly, my spirit was at ease with Ma Bechem’s divination. I took up my handbag, and Ma Bechem led me to the door while apologizing that due to the cold she could not step outside. We did not talk about it, but we both knew this was our secret and not even her daughter, Maru needed to know.
When I got home that night, I sent a short text to Wale, “Thanks for the surprise. The earrings are beautiful.” A reply came back almost immediately, “Our friendship is beautiful”. Then another beep and a second text message followed, “Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?” Laughter erupted in my throat as I remembered reading this statement by Groucho Marx a couple of months earlier. Just then, my phone rang. It was Wale! His voice teased my spirit out to play, and our usual laughter enveloped the air for hours. I knew then, I would be going back to Ma Bechem. I needed to ask her, “How can one protect this kind of laughter?”
Born in Cameroon, Joyce Ashuntantang is presently an Associate Professor of English at the University of Hartford, Connecticut, USA. An actress, poet, and short-story writer, she is the author of several publications including Landscaping Postcoloniality: the Dissemination of Anglophone Cameroon Literature and A Basket of Flaming Ashes, a poetry collection. Her poetry has appeared in recent anthologies such as Reflections: An Anthology of New Work by African Women Poets, We Have Crossed Many Rivers: New Poetry from Africa and World Poetry Almanac. She was a guest poet at the VII International Poetry Festival, Granada, Nicaragua, (2011), 22 International Festival of Medellin, Colombia (2012), and the First Athens World Poetry Festival, Greece, (2013). She blogs her world at http://www.joyceash.com