The JRB presents the winning stories of the inaugural Kendeka Prize for African Literature.
The winners of the 2021 Kendeka Prize, a literary contest for ‘the best stories written by people with citizenship to an African country’, were announced in September. The prize ‘aims at encouraging Africans to tell their story without influence from forces from other continents’.
From a shortlist of five short stories, Jenny Robson of Botswana won the Kshs 100,000 (about R13,500) first prize for her story, ‘Water For Wine’, while Fatima Okhousami and Okpanachi Irene Ojochegbe, both of Nigeria, won Kshs 50,000 and Kshs 25,000 for their stories, ‘The Women of Atinga House’ and ‘Au Pair’, respectively.
Chair of judges Lucas Wafula (Kenya), was joined by authors and literary activists Edwige Renée Dro (Côte d’Ivoire) and Rémy Ngamije (Namibia-Rwanda) in selecting the winners.
Read the first running-up story here:
The Women of Atinga House
The shrill voice of Osamudiamen Iyobosa belting out lyrics from his highlife hit, Life Na Jeje, rents the air tempting my girls to wiggle bosoms squeezed into petite, figure-hugging, brightly-coloured polyester gowns.
I am perched on a stone just outside the bar, farthest from the speakers, with two bottles of Guilder, a calculator and a nylon bag of money. Local music has never interested me. I prefer the ear-splitting mumbo jumbo of the streets. Beats that make me want to grind up on strange men, sink my fingers into their deep pockets, and claim the contents.
As always, marijuana loaded inside cigarettes and burukutu flows freely. My eyes are not what they used to be, but from this spot, I can see all the ‘houses’ of Golden Palace Brothel.
I take a big gulp of the lukewarm booze to consolidate my light-headedness.
Before this place got so big, when it was seven of us girls working, I reigned supreme. As soon as night hit, our clients swooped in one after another, eager to secure my limited slots. In the cubicle I shared with two girls, I’d massage palm kernel oil into my skin until I glistened from head to toe. Then I’d strut into the dimly lit reception—chest out and bottoms up—artfully dodging outstretched hands, deaf to pitiful pleas. The men whose drinks I sipped could count themselves lucky. Consumed by jealousy and frustration, my leftovers hung around the bar, surrendering to the music, downing bottle after bottle, causing a ruckus. Our Chairlady was forced to draw a roster! After all, there’s only so many men a woman can take in one night and my sisters must earn their keep.
At almost forty with two children, I am still the most patronised girl. Men race to me like cats to fish, so I pick and choose who and when to fuck. I am Nkem, the enchantress. I do things to a man he wouldn’t forget in his lifetime. Taste the goods I am selling and you will testify.
Satisfied that Chairlady will be pleased with profits for last month, I round off my calculations and guzzle what is left of the beer. I push some of the cash into a hole under the stone—reminding myself to switch hiding-places as soon as possible—and then I hurry to the junction and hand over the balance to her waiting houseboy.
On my way back, I head for Atinga House. The girls that are not already pre-booked must be set to hit the road once it is dark. December is a good month for sales—the cold is brutal. It is one hour before evening rush and they are on their best behaviour—primed for business. Everyone, except Omoyemwen.
My room is the last and smallest in the block—a sixteen by sixteen box directly overlooking a rubbish dump. Standing upright, my hands have scarcely enough space to form a bow. The sum total of my estate: two wooden chairs, an old kerosene lamp, a second-hand mattress, and a mosquito net with loops superglued to the ceiling. I also own a discarded Formica table roughened at the edges by human teeth, I suspect.
Hanging on the wall, is a calendar from two years ago on which is scribbled in bold fonts, Adieu Mama, accompanied by a picture of my grandmother in buba and iro. Chairlady has since upgraded all rooms from clay to cement except mine and Ijeoma’s, the girl living opposite me. Our strategic location makes us foremost beneficiaries of the melange of smells from an open sewer.
I have mastered the art of hand jobs and blow jobs—a profitable field in this business. Giving flawless service to society’s rejects, I built a reputation and my fortune. If you have two hundred naira to spare, I will provide a service to make it worth your while. I am Omoyemwen, the polytechnic dropout who capitalised on an unexpected invasion by gunmen to escape my life sentence at Oko Prison. I hustled my way to Abuja, and made a living selling burantashi until a customer who ended up in the hospital because his penis refused to come down, seized my goods and had me beaten within an inch of my life. Today, you can see I am flourishing with a steady job and food for my stomach.
When I first arrived at Atinga House, I wasted three months savings on a blue and silver electric fan to counter the heat, only for Nkem to seize it.
‘You come here for work or to do enjoyment? Make I tell Chairlady say you go pay light bill when NEPA show?’
Every Monday, as she pockets my one thousand naira and threatens to either evict me or raise the rent, I watch my fan’s neck twisting from left to right, her plastic blades buzzing, and I beg them to pop out of their cage and slit her throat. Nkem has a big head but no common sense, otherwise she will realise the shy cobra spits death when provoked.
I rinse my mouth, spit leftover vomit into a stainless steel bowl, and push it under the three-legged stool I borrowed from Ijeoma weeks ago. Forcing myself from the bed to the door, I secure my padlock. With the help of dull yellow light from a 40-watts bulb hanging precariously close to my shaven head, I grab a mirror, take off my pant, and spread both legs wide apart. A mass of red sores greets my eyes. These, together with my bulging stomach, make it certain I would not be working tonight, again. Atinga is not the kind of place where you can afford to leave your customer unsatisfied.
As fate will have it, my life is about to change.
I am growing the instrument of my salvation. My baby will come out fat and pink, with his father’s mass of curly blond hair matching my hazel eyes and full lips. Nkem says I am an expired ashewo. That I used jazz to hook the man responsible. If not, ‘Why better man go choose babe wey resemble rotten mango when fine girls full Atinga?’
The two hundred naira bend-down-select bum shorts she wears have blocked blood flow to her brain. Make she hook person with dollars if e easy. She be saccharine, I be honey. Let her talk nonsense in my front first, so I can clear her: ‘Aunty, no be by charcoal skin and catapult nyansh. Continue to service all these yeye men. One day your kpekus go collapse.’ Money plenty for my hand. My rent set steady. The okirika I buy is high-grade. I don find my rich oyinbo.
Satisfied the girls know their duties for tonight, I move to Omoyemwen’s room and pound on the door over ten times in rapid succession. There is no response, though from the soft sounds I hear, it is obvious she is inside. Today makes it four days that she hasn’t been seen by anyone. She cannot really be thinking of keeping the child. If she doesn’t get rid of it and start working soon, what happens to my rent? I will allow her two more days of brooding before I take drastic measures.
The stench of decaying excreta sipping through the rag I used to cover my nose makes me recoil. As I turn to leave, I sense a stare—Ijeoma’s, watching me from her window. One thousand goose pimples hound my skin, and I itch all over. She always does this to me, the little witch!
Ijeoma and I used to hawk okpa every morning, back in Benin. We were secondary school classmates. A consistent moron, she had no head for arithmetic or any subject requiring the alertness of the mind. I met her in Golden Palace but even at that time, she was a liability. There is no power on earth or in heaven that can make men desire her. I have tried everything, including making her shadow me as I work, but some people were cursed from birth with bad luck.
I see her with the other girls, cooking meals, washing clothes, and scrubbing floors for free, while gathering secrets. One wrong move, and she can destroy anyone. I think she knows where I hide Chairlady’s money. The other day, she joked that my twins are rather fat for an ashewo’s children and has anybody noticed they are the splitting image of Chairlady’s cousin, Okoye? I knew to mind my steps ever since. I will move her out of Atinga. Let her focus on running errands for me. If life has taught me anything, it is that you must keep your enemies under your nose.
My baby was not conceived in the dirt and squalor of Golden Palace or by Okoye, with his sagging stomach and hyperactive sperm. It happened in a real hotel with running water, air-conditioning and satellite television. The moment Richard Tucker poured his hot seed inside me, he wrapped me in an hug and ordered room service for us. The whole of Atinga knows that when Okoye ejaculates, he groans like an overloaded lorry moving up a steep hill, before fleeing from Nkem’s bed to join his gang. They play WHOT all day, run tabs at the bar, and smoke Colorado to relax.
After my delivery, I will settle my debts, share small dollars with everybody, and gather my belongings. To Chairlady and Okoye, I will say, ‘Me and my pikin papa dey go village make he settle money for my head. As I born for whitey laidis, I no do dis work again. Na marriage I dey face.’ My bride price must be paid in full. The plans are laid out and my Aunty Nono often said I have all of her sister’s cunning and none of my father’s stupidity.
Richard and his team of white doctors visit brothels and say things like, ‘HIV is not a death sentence.’ The first time I spoke to him, my knees almost caved in. Fear coursed through my veins whilst I waited for him to tell me my result, taunting, ‘Omoyemwen, las las you don catch disease. Your matter go spread pass fire. You no fit see money, turn face. Your own na to spread leg yakata.’
Counselling, Richard spoke for a long time about tablets that would keep me negative, then he offered packs of condoms and sachets of lubricants. The smile never left his face. I turned to leave, but he stepped in front of me and looked around before pressing my shoulders.
‘You are very beautiful,’ he whispered. ‘Can we meet later?’
What was there to think about? When village people no use poverty curse me. I slipped his card under my brassiere and assured him in a clear voice, ‘No problem, doctor. Latest ten, I go don stand for Karimo junction dey wait you.’
He picked me up in a black Mercedes, wearing a Manchester United face-cap and shades, like he was scared of being spotted even under the cover of night. We chatted in between rounds—about his work in Abuja, living in Atinga, and how many men I service per day. We were still speaking when the first streaks of light cut through the black sky. It was time to leave his paradise for my hell. He paid for a cab back to Golden Palace, where as soon as I entered my room, I fell on the bed, coiled into a ball, and wept.
Life happens to the best of us and we must make do with our lot. I don’t regret the course fate chose for me. I stepped into my role with pride and became the best at it. There was a time in my childhood, when with excellent results in school, my path to a university education and an office job was apparent. It almost seems unreal now. If not for circumstance, why will people like Omoyemwen stand where I am talking?
All was well in my household up until the day my father threw my mother and I out of his flat on account of popular gossip that she trapped him with juju and I may not even be his child. It was no secret that my parents kept lovers.
We moved in with my mother’s friend Madam Nweze, and worked the evening shift at her bar. I became popular with the men who craved nothing more than twenty minutes of a young girl’s time. They just had to have me, and whoever did, longed for more. I learnt all the tricks of the trade. Whatever money I made, was put aside for school.
Eight months later, hit with a sudden stroke, my father must have mumbled my mother’s name during his struggle with death. His six brothers descended on her with cutlasses in broad daylight, leaving me too frozen to run. The area boys in our street put a stop to the chaos, but I was never quite right in the head again.
Nurse Momodu, matron at Holy Trinity Maternity, runs an abortion clinic in her boys quarters. She says she will help me for twenty thousand naira, because the baby already has hands and legs.
‘You even lucky sef,’ she cackles. ‘Na because I know Ijeoma. She sabi my work. No be you be the first person she bring come my side. If not for her wey you follow, anytin pass four months, na thirty thousand pere.’
I drag oxygen into my body to forestall another wave of nausea and push my toes against the floor, which is carpeted to perfection. Twenty thousand from my savings means after buying sanitary towels, medicine and food, I will have about three thousand left. And I still have to pay rent for the seven days I’d be on bed rest, making no money.
I stay quiet through their negotiations, my mind on the multiple missed calls and long text messages I sent to Richard. All typed in perfect English, asking about work and which day he wished to see me. His response was radio silence.
One cold morning, after a particularly wicked bout of morning sickness, I showed up at his office and he denied knowing me point blank. I bit my tongue and confessed to Ijeoma, asking her to help me beg Nkem for assistance, but my friend took charge of the situation. ‘No worry, I go take you somewhere tomorrow,’ she responded, unruffled. As if it’s malaria fever I said I have.
‘Oghogho, bring Fanta for visitors,’ Nurse Momodu calls out, to her youngest child.
An average height, slender, teenage beauty appears with two bottles of Mirinda. ‘Sorry, madams, please make do with Mirinda; we have run out of Fanta,’ she whispers like a shy bird, placing a stool and a bottle opener in front of us.
I try to estimate how many dead babies pay for her crisp American accent, shiny coffee skin and crochet braids. From the corner of my eye, I watch Ijeoma’s penetrating gaze devour her from head to toe. This new version of her is frightening.
She places fifteen thousand naira on the arm of Nurse Momodu’s chair. We act like nothing happened, but the atmosphere already seems more relaxed.
‘Manage this one for us. When make she come?’
‘On Friday, around eleven o’clock. Don’t eat anything o. E go pain you, but no wahala. It is well in Jesus’ name.’ Her kindness does not reach her eyes.
‘Thank you, Aunty. You see this my friend, despite her big head, she fit disappoint person. She wan follow whitey do relationship, but she no wise. She come carry belle, she no talk until time don dey near to born.’
‘Na so girls of nowadays be, my dear. She tink say na so dem take dey marry.’
Their joint laughter swells and festers in the air. I don’t contribute. I’m thinking of curly baby hair.
Omoyemwen is here with her rent. The flushed skin, tired eyes and slight tilt in her steps tell me everything I need to know. Her suffering should make me happy, but my heart breaks for her. I want to hold her hand and tell her the worst is over. I wish she would say something of the ordeal she’s scaled, so I can share my own abortion experiences or at least, give her important advice. ‘Make sure you finish the medicine you were given and if after two weeks you are still bleeding like a loose tap, go back. There will be moments in the life you are yet to live when thoughts of what you did will plague you. It is normal. If you get pregnant again, keep it lest your chi plague you with barrenness for being ungrateful with her gifts.’
She leaves one thousand naira next to my fan and gallops out of the room. I allow my thoughts to linger on her until a customised ringtone blares from my phone notifying me of Donatus’ call.
Donatus is Godsend to me. We met on my way to Lugbe to see a friend. Pressed against each other at the back seat of a station wagon, his first words to me were, ‘You have very beautiful skin.’ I ignored him.
‘What is your name,’ he inquired? ‘I’m Donatus.’
‘Nkemdilim,’ I answered, rather shy, after stolen glances revealed a handsome, well-dressed youth.
We talked in whispers, about nothing and everything until it was time for me to alight when he surprised me again by paying my taxi fare. I gave him my phone number and waited in high hopes for his call.
Things progressed quite fast in three weeks.
‘I don’t really … know how … to show you my … feelings,’ he stammered, when confessing his love, the accompanying tears touching a soft spot within me.
I finally confessed about the twins and what I really do for work. Not only did he forgive me but he also assured me our days at Golden Palace are numbered.
I give Ijeoma two thousand naira after the hot gist. According to her, Nkem’s new relationship is top secret. The guy is called Donatus. What kind of stupid name is that? He lives in Durumi and he wants her to come over with the children on Saturday, but she must not tell anybody.
Today is Wednesday. I have enough time to decide if spilling the beans to Okoye and Chairlady will be worth my while. Will they send her away if I spice up the story by saying that she has been stealing money to give her boyfriend? On the other hand, I could blackmail her and make easy money. This is my chance and I must make the right choice.
I pick up my phone and re-read Donatus’s text. He wants me and my boys to spend the night in his house.
‘This is real love,’ I say to myself. ‘Look where we are today,’ I whisper, taking all the money I retrieved from my stash and splitting it into two. I find a new home for both halves inside the twins’ new shoes.
They look so peaceful in their sleep that at once, I change the plan.
‘They can come with me another time,’ I conclude.
It is better for a new couple to know each other very well first. I drop four packets of Capri-Sun on the table, a note that I will be back tomorrow morning, and to stay away from their Christmas shoes.
Outside, the harmattan chill seems to pierce through my sweater.
‘Why are you afraid?’ I ask myself, for the hundredth time.
Saturday evening. I decided to familiarise myself with the situation before making a decision. I’m in the tricycle behind Nkem’s—from Gwa-Gwa to Karimo to Life-Camp junction, where they meet up.
‘This one is either kidnapper or ritualist o,’ I murmur.
It is in his sunken eyes, trembling lower lip, and a throbbing vein at the right side of his thick neck; that aura of wickedness. I lived amongst it for two years while incarcerated, so I should know.
‘Nkem, you don use your two left legs waka enter last bus,’ I laughed, in a wretched voice and ordered the driver to take me back home.
The tricycle drops me at Life-Camp junction and I stand in front of the ATM as agreed. When our eyes meet, I am consumed by an almost overwhelming urge to run. From deep in my subconscious, the lyrics to ‘Three Blind Mice’ play out of tune, but I cauterise my dread.
‘This man loves me. He wants to meet my children. He is the chief marketer in a multinational company.’
Standing before me, I perceive alcohol and a whiff of … Colorado?
‘Where are my boys?’ he asks, doing a quick 360.
I don’t like how he calls my sons his boys. The tone is too commanding, but to avoid an argument, I reply in as peaceful a voice as well as I can pretend, ‘They were sleeping and I didn’t want to wake them.’
His flash of anger is so quick, if I wasn’t on guard already, I might not have caught it.
‘You will meet them next time,’ I volunteer.
My subtle addendum must have reassured him because his reply is a barely audible.
‘I’m sure you will be enough for now.’
How do I say what happened next when I have no idea? One moment we are inside the taxi he hired, listening to sports news on Brilla FM. I grab his right palm with my left but it is cold. He does not smile. I must have slept off, because my next memory is waking up in this roofless building thick inside a forest, bound hands and feet like a ram to the slaughter. I never saw the apartment in Durumi with its electric fence and caged Rottweilers.
On good days, he feeds me a bowl of garri. On bad days, I drink my spit for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Sometimes, he is so frustrated with my reluctance to tell him how to kidnap the twins that he makes his colleagues force themselves on me until I can feel my stomach rise to my throat. As pain devours me and the forest swallows my screams, I think how easy it would be to confess. All he has to do, is wait for the boys at the football field next to my junction in the evening, and offer them Capri-Sun. They would follow him anywhere.
The witchdoctor for the money rituals has made it clear nothing substantial will result from using only me. Where will he find another blockhead mother of twin boys? My misery has only one end … death. Why won’t God take me before I crucify my own children?
The girls work and keep all the money for themselves. I cannot remember the last time anybody paid rent. Everywhere stinks. Golden Palace is crumbling but hard-headedness will not allow Chairlady to appoint me second-in-command. She is still waiting for the police to find Nkem. An oracle she consulted, divined the guilty person is ‘inside her house’—a statement she interpreted as code for Okoye.
Rain drums against my battered frame with unrelenting fury. Donatus has abandoned me. I do not know if he simply lost hope in ever getting my boys or it is the journey to this hideout just to torture me that no longer holds the allure for him. I drag myself against the wall. These days, I have only my thoughts for company and such morbid guests they make. It is a new thing, this habit of my subconscious to travel back, visiting unhappy times in the past. I am an unwilling spectator in this never-ending horror show, doomed to participate in a requiem to my life; a pitiful, fading memoire.
I am eighteen again. It is a new semester. The court has shamed my uncles and ordered payment of my father’s gratuity into my account. I am in love with Ayomide, my course mate. Everyone calls him ‘’soulja because he was in the Nigerian Defence Academy for one year before opting to drop out. ‘My life is worth more than this useless country,’ he boasts to friends and fans, whenever the subject arises. He says getting a diploma is like a vacation after which he will return to Lagos for his import and export business. We spend our nights making love while he regales me with his big dreams for us.
Maybe I shouldn’t have poisoned him, but the judge in charge of the case could have shown a little kindness to a victim. What option was left after he and the girl posing as his cousin used my two million naira to plan their wedding and laughed in my face when I begged them to return my money? A little rat poison masked within vegetable soup did the trick. Wicked people should not be allowed live amongst gentle folk.
The downpour has subsided and all I feel is the sting of cold cement as it creeps through flesh, muscle and bone. I would cry, but tears I have found, are a luxury reserved for the well-fed.
This life ehn, when you see opportunity, shine your eye grab am before another person collect food from inside your mouth.
I bath, dress up in my favourite skirt and blouse, cover myself in perfume, and leave the brothel, bound for Okoye’s room-and-parlour in Suleja. When I get there, it is pitch-dark and his security lights are on. I knock on the door and enter, offer the twins watching television Capri-Sun, drag him behind the dividing curtain, wrap a bandana around his mouth, and fuck him till he is just at the edge. Then I present my proposal. He must return to Golden Palace and seek the forgiveness of his sister.
‘Once two of you settle, start giving her strong Colorado. The type wey go scatter her brain. If you succeed, I dey here whenever you need to hold body.’
I’m the most senior girl now. The two of us can run Golden Palace by ourselves.
It is a beautiful April morning. My mother sits by my side, guiding me through the process. Although every breath feels like a dagger to my tired heart, her presence gives me the strength to persevere. It is no longer lonely in here. The air is filled with bickering of ghosts linked to me from generation to generation by blood.
It won’t be long now. I have done my penance and kept the twins safe. I shut my eyes to preserve in time, my fondest memory of birds chirping and green leaves dancing in the cool breeze, then I stop. It is so simple. My soul exits my body to the tune of a canary’s song.
My mother and I take one last look at the carcass we are leaving behind, then link hands and slither away.
The evening that marked the beginning of her end, Chairlady pushed open her living room door, shouting nonsense, and tearing her clothes. Some people pursued her while I joined Ijeoma on the veranda, laughing. They say she jumped a fence into a policeman’s house, then squeezed under the gate to come outside. A bike-man hit her and she did not stop. A tricycle swerved too fast to avoid ramming into her and ended up in a ditch. A Labrador barked at her and she yelled back. So it was, that she ran into the express without watching, only for a speeding lorry to put a permanent end to her race.
I turned Golden Palace around in three years. The brothel boasts two more houses making a total of eight. Seventy-two girls work for me. Each house has a manager for a rotating tenure of six weeks.
If any girl is slacking, I tell her to get pregnant or leave. I am a major shareholder in the booming black market for babies. The laws of demand and supply obey me. They don’t call me Chairlady for nothing. My girl gets two hundred thousand and vanishes; the customer receives her baby and I earn something upwards of one million. It is a win-win for all parties.
Ten months after branching into this business, I have a furnished three-bedroom bungalow in Kado to show for my efforts. Okoye, my husband, owns two workshops. For each girl I lose, there’s five more waiting to join ‘Golden Palace and Affiliates.’
A pedicurist and her technician are making my nails sparkle. I pick up my Samsung Galaxy S21 and dial a client’s number. A most miserable, barren woman. Everything is set to turn her life around.
I am pregnant again. With my temperamental periods, it is a miracle. I run my slender fingers over the small bump, leaving a trail of goose bumps. Dear God, let it be a girl. A tiny version of me to guide and love the correct way.
I am not sure how Okoye will react to being a father in his old age but that does not worry me. Despite his reputation as a master carpenter and the stress of handling sixteen boys working under him, Okoye still finds time to carry on a relationship with Ijeoma. I say nothing since it keeps him from interfering with my life.I grab a pillow, and place it between my neck and the sofa. In twenty minutes, my delivery guy will arrive with fish pepper soup, chocolate cake and a giant cup of strawberry ice cream. The most important thing of course, is his pump-action penis. I grab my purse and remove a wrap of burantashi with his thirty thousand naira.
- Fatima Okhuosami is a pharmacist and avid consumer of literature and global politics. Her poetry and short stories have published in The Kalahari Review, CHILLFILTR Review, Jalada Africa, Everyday Fiction, Agbowo press, 101words.org, Third Word Press, Kreative Diadem, Flash: The International Short Story Magazine and Itanile magazine. She was a runner-up in the 2020 Collins Elesiro Literary Prize. She is a graduate of the 2019 International Writing Programme Lines and Spaces Tour held in Abuja, Nigeria.