We Are All Naked Dancing
She danced naked in the rain.
I must have been seven when Inna danced naked outside the mosque that night. The rain poured with rage, and with it came Inna banging on our door, howling Mother’s name. Her stench filtered through the keyhole and assaulted our nostrils and sleep. It was around 4am, almost time for the prayers at dawn, when she threw the gates of the house open, flew into the rain and stripped herself naked. She danced at the entrance to the mosque while multitudes of faithfuls bowed their heads in prayer, the muezzin’s voice twirling in the wind.
The men rounded off the prayers and found her naked, raindrops bouncing on her skin as she stomped on the floor, dispatching puddles of water. We found her in the morning, shivering in her room. Uncle Umar had found her with the men after the prayers and, knowing her antics, whipped her with a leather belt, slashing through her wet body till she became lucid again. Pain served as a means of driving the demons away.
Inna was a routine visitor to our house. I spent a good chunk of my childhood watching her arriving and leaving. She usually left at night, ragged and drained, travelling light with a matted bag containing her little clothes and her piles of asthma medications. Her heavy wheezing signalled her arrival from afar.
The women of the extended family usually recounted the stories of Inna at weddings or naming ceremonies. She had gone mad because her husband married another wife. Since then, she roamed from one relative to another, across cities, trekking hundreds of kilometres. Most of the time when she arrived, I gazed at the blisters on her feet, the thick muscles of her thighs, and the distress on her face, which all served as signals of her long sojourns. My father was her favourite among the extended family, and he was the only one that never raised a hand against her, or flogged her when she soiled herself, or when she pissed in her plate of food. He tolerated her so much she stayed longer in our house during her trips and visited us more than anyone else.
A room was reserved for her whenever she arrived. The first few days of her arrival were the only moments when we got to interact with her in a sane manner, free of any trouble. She always seemed shy, talked a little, and identified everyone by name. For the first two days, she was a normal being, eating well, shitting in the toilet, and tidying up her room. But by the third day, the room began to stink, her wrappers besmeared with faeces, and her plates and cups filled with urine. The nights would then become horrifying for everyone in the house.
I cannot remember whether her raging and howling in the middle of the night were all from my dreams or it is the wailing that chased me to the nightmares. Mother’s name was always at the tip of her tongue when the incidents began; for most of the time Father was not in town except for a few days every two weeks, as he travelled away for work. The shouts began once it became dark – a high, shrill voice competing with the crickets. Most times, she ranted about her former husband, raining abuses and curses on his new wife, then pleading that she needed to be saved, or that she was having an asthma attack, forcing a false wheeze. As Inna repeated her monologues, I placed my hands over my ears and recoiled into a foetal position, willing myself to either wake up from the nightmare or dream myself to sleep. I didn’t find sleep in those nights, and reality was a blurry snapshot.
In the daytime, I crossed the passage in front of her room with my hands cupped tightly over my nose to avoid the terrible stench. At night, we huddled together, all of us – Mother, my younger sister and me – on the same bed, and tried to drown her wheezing and raging within the darkness.
I was 10 when my eight-year-old sister, Zulai, began speaking in a tongue that I found difficult to decipher. When it began, her eyes turned rouge and her once calm and peaceful demeanour became violent. During those periods, Father and Mother would take her away from us as she struggled and fought them off, sometimes throwing Mother to the floor. Zulai would unleash a high-pitched cry then growl and laugh. Tears rolled from her eyes, but her mouth would be open in a feast of laughter. Cassettes with recordings of the Holy Qur’an would be inserted into a player, reciting in a loop over and over as she was held and forced to listen to the verses all so the demons could escape. I would crawl away and hide alone in a room, sob my heart out while the cassette recordings and Zulai’s shrills raised the ceiling.
Different healers continued to troop to the house to pray for her. They dropped sprinkles of saliva over her head and recited verses of the Qur’an. They urged the demons to vacate before they unleashed their wrath on them.
No progress was achieved, so Mother diversified the process and visited other healers. She came back with packages of herbs to be sprinkled in yoghurt; bottles with mixtures of traditional medicines to be sipped; incense to be sprinkled over burning charcoal and its smoke to be inhaled till Zulai almost suffocated; and other herbs to be sprinkled in bathing water morning and night. But the episodes continued and the cries continued and the cassette player kept reciting in loops and nothing miraculous happened.
The next healer to visit was a huge man with a long beard. He had bulging, reddish eyes like he had just awoken from a deep sleep. The healers were usually invited when one of the episodes began or immediately after. This one, however, arrived during a period without incidents. I hid behind a cushion to hear all that ensued and imagined the scenes from the conversation and played them in my head. He began by chanting litanies in Arabic and then struck up a conversation with her in Hausa.
“What is your name?”
“How are you feeling?”
“I need you to relax and free your thoughts. Allow everything to come.”
He continued his chanting and there appeared her familiar shriek. As he summoned her episodes back, my heart split into tiny pieces. Why would a healer resurrect a latent injury? Then her voice changed, and the person talking was not my sister anymore. It was an adult lady, begging to be left alone.
“I promise I will leave,” the new voice shouted in Hausa. But the healer continued his litanies.
“I promise I am not coming back,” the voice yelled again in a fearful tone.
The litanies stopped. I stayed confused. Where was Zulai and who else was in the room with them? I fought to wake myself up from the dream. But I could not, as multitudes of voices raged in my head. Conversations rewound and memories disappeared from my head. I re-emerged and found Zulai in a deep slumber in Father’s arms, on the bed. From that day, Zulai was lucid, without any episodes, leaving me in my solitude to discover the thin line between a true memory and a dream.
On my 15th birthday, the feelings began to rush to me like a snap. Sadness. I felt empty. Hopelessness. Worthlessness. No pleasure in doing all the things I loved so much. My body hung in a void for days. The days brought back flashes of memories of Inna. I tried but failed to understand how she endured a life of persistent walking and night-howling. What was it that was playing within her mind, tearing her apart, leaving her constantly on the run, back and forth?
I knew mine was some sort of mental illness and I wanted to bolt away from it and howl all through the nights. I researched the symptoms on the Internet and in a few psychiatric texts at the library while preparing for medical school. But I did not want to accept it. So, I ticked the names off my fingers. Depression. Anxiety Disorder. Bipolar. Dementia. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Schizophrenia. Then I discarded them because the symptoms were terrifying. I didn’t want to accept that I had all the symptoms required for a complete diagnosis.
I was a prayerful person, so I could not be caught in the web of any spirit or evil eye. A prayerful person: rinsing myself of all evils through ablution five times a day, sometimes with an extra ablution just before I slept; morning supplications, bedtime supplications and spitting the prayers on my shoulders to cast away all evils; the words of the Qur’an a constant companion early in the morning and at night. Mine were just some freakish episodes – I was convinced I was not depressed. Maybe I was just stressed. The symptoms were on today, off tomorrow. Nothing to worry about so much.
But I craved solitude. I locked myself indoors for days. Mother called it my moody days and said that eventually, I would be back to normal and shake the whole thing off. Her contribution to my healing process was burning incense and herbs, the smoke swirling into the rotating blades of the ceiling fan in my room.
I was 17 and this is how I best remember the incident: I woke up around 3am and walked in the dark, floating. My head became my legs, because I walked upside down. I switched on the lights and looked in the mirror. The mirror lied; it said I was normal, standing upright, but I knew I was upside down because I felt the blood in my body descend into my brain. I struck the mirror with my fist, and soon my reflection was broken glass, my knuckles dripping with blood. Father ran into the living room, reached out to me, and wrapped me in his arms as I struggled to regain my posture, afraid that I might turn him upside down too. He subdued me, and I melted in his warmth as we rose together upwards, mid-air, and slept suspended.
This was the version of the incident that would later be related to me: I knelt down near my two-year-old brother’s nursery. Abba was howling in the night and I raised him into the air, shushed him to sleep, and began banging his head on the floor in a rhythm, bursting into laughter. Father rushed in and put his arms around my waist and held me back. Mother collapsed on the floor. Her baby lay in a pool of blood, his white napkins completely wet in red. Father walked me out of the room, his arms wrapped around my shivering body. My breathing was slow, but my laughter would not stop.
In the morning, after digging two feet into earth, Abba was buried. He died of a severe fever at night, mourners were told, before he could be rushed to the hospital. For the next few months, I banged my head on the floor, where the pool of blood leaked and stained, the exact spot where I crushed Abba’s skull, till I bled. I would then become a prisoner in Inna’s old room, and in those periods of solitude, I implored Inna to visit so she could narrate to me how she found solace in walking distances and travelling on blistered feet.
Mother would sit cross-legged on the floor across the room to watch me, her face in her hands and the food on her plate getting cold while flies hovered around.
“I am sorry Mama,” I whispered to her from my restraints on the bed. She rose, staggered, and the plate of food in her hands tumbled away. She ran to her room.
I don’t remember a lot from that period, but I remember the taste of sadness. I remember Mother eating and humming, trying to regain control of herself, dabbing her eyes with a napkin till they became red and the tears stopped. I remember silence, secrets, and untold stories that never left the four walls of the house. I remember longing for the howls and wails of Inna, so I could plug my fingers into my ears and awaken from the torrid dream.
I was in the middle of a workshop for medical students when my phone rang.
“Hello. Is this Zulai’s father?”
“Hello. I am her brother; you can speak to me.”
“You need to come over to her hostel immediately, please.”
The connection ended. I grabbed my stethoscope and rushed over to my now 20-year-old sibling. I found her in the infirmary, restrained by three nurses. She fought them off like a warrior queen. Her clothes were covered in dust and her hair spiked upward as she growled and made desperate efforts to escape. A nurse was bent over her, reciting verses from the Bible, but that seemed to worsen Zulai’s fury. We locked eyes. She recognised me and broke away from them, falling into my arms. I hushed her, as tears welled in my eyes, and felt her whole body tremble within mine. She complained and asked me to tell them all to stop laughing. I promised her we would catch them and deal with them, and she became calm again.
This was the first episode Zulai had since that healer visited all those years back. This situation was different though. She could see and hear things I couldn’t. Delusions and hallucinations as I remember from my psychiatry class. Something haunted her and despite my promise to protect my baby sister, I couldn’t do anything. The episodes continued coming when they wanted, and all the spittle, herbs, and smokes from Mother did nothing to stop them. Unlike me, she would never heal again.
I sat by the guava tree where the memories of my childhood were stowed in torn bits. At the site where Abba’s cracked skull was buried together with my fragmented memories of years ago. Zulai lay on her back, her head on my lap, counting the innumerable and invisible opponents that would attack her and vine her hair when I left for my medical induction ceremony the next day. I picked up a stone and took the head off one of them lurking on the tree. She shrieked and joined in the attack. We kept stoning leaves and birds flying across the rumbling sky. I kissed Zulai on the cheek and dragged her away into the house, away from our defeated opponents and the heavy downpour. But she was undressing, jumping in clay puddles, and the rains fell, washing away dirt from her hair. I wanted to drag her and run back into the house, but I stopped, and joined her naked, dancing in the rain, practising a ritual to resurrect our tangled memories.
Sada Malumfashi is a writer living in Kaduna, Nigeria. His fiction has appeared in Transition, Bakwa Magazine and New Orleans Review’s “The African Literary Hustle” issue. His essays and creative nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Africa Report, Saraba, This Is Africa, The Republic, Asymptote and Music in Africa, among other venues. He is a fellow of the Goethe-Institut/Sylt Foundation Writing Residency and Reporters Without Borders, Berlin Scholarship Program.
*Image by Chandler Cruttenden on Unsplash