Have you met my ugly cousin? Have you seen her red eyes of hatred and her white tongue of hurtful words? Have you studied her callous hands—the evil she crafts with them? Have you listened to the slowness of her words, the way they buzz in your ears to annoy you? That’s what makes my cousin ugly as we are almost twins.
She always has her hair in Bantu knots like mine. She has pimples dotting her forehead, just as I do. She has a broken smile, though sinister, they are just like mine. Yes, we could almost pass for twins.
My Mother has always wanted to get rid of my ugly cousin. “Ifeoma, we need to get rid of this devil” She’d say holding on to her bible “I do not like all these rubbish” she would refer to my cousin’s evil as rubbish, nonsense—and refer to her as the devil. I was forced to chuckle sometimes, when she brought up my cousin. It was hilarious; the way she included my ugly cousin in our prayers during the family altar. She would tie her head, sit, legs wide apart, and nod her head, up and down as she prayed against the evil.
But I didn’t want her to go.
There was just something about having her around that made me powerful and secure. I decided it was my low self-esteem that made me desire her presence very much. In my anger and fury, I clung on to her, the way a baby clung to the full breast of his Mother.
My ugly cousin was full of action—my wish was her command.
It was exactly two months ago I saw Uche, my friend, with a boy I was infatuated with. My ugly cousin was with me when Uche passed by us in our school’s cafeteria, with the boy, a senior boy in ss2. Uche was gushing over whatever the senior boy with his uncombed koko hair was saying. My face had heated up as I felt betrayed that she would hang out with someone she knew I liked liked. I had looked down at my shoes, to avoid staring intently at them. I studied my laced up school shoes, looking intently at the lace of the shoes, and the dull color of the black. I studied my socks, looking attentively at the whiteness, and then the patches of orange and red, faded, but stubbornly refusing to go away, despite the JIK and HYPO. During break the next day, when Uche went to sleep in the sickbay like we all liked to do when we felt sleepy, Uche’s hair become an unruly mess of hills and valleys in place of beautiful full afro hair.
When I was regarded as a likely suspect and reported, I had told Mama it wasn’t me. “Mama, it was my cousin that did it, not me” My reply accompanied scolding, prayers, the desire to fast—climb the mountain top even, just to get rid of my ugly cousin.
We belonged to a very serious religious sect. Fire on the Mountain of God Church. We had a very serious looking pastor, who claimed he had a degree in casting out of demons. He always held his bible up, beside his armpit. He wore ill-fitting suits and ugly brown shoes, all the time. It was Mother that invited him a month ago. She invited him, just the day, she had caught my ugly cousin spitting in the water she was about to use to turn garri. She had shouted “ewoooooo,” letting our female neighbors rush to the door of the kitchen, their nose, long and ready to poke. Mother had her hands on her head, stamping her feet on the ground occasionally. She was dumbfounded, as she stood there in the kitchen, her white shirt, beginning to get stained with sweat at the armpit sides.
Mother didn’t speak to me that day. She didn’t want to know who my ugly cousin was trying to get back at. I wouldn’t tell her anyway. I wouldn’t tell her that my ugly cousin was preparing that meal, just for Father and Mother as they had earlier on, compared me to my elder sister Ada, who I was jealous of.
When the Pastor arrived that day, in his rickety car that seemed to want only to fall apart and sang songs of rage and fury daily, my ugly cousin was gone. He prayed and prayed, swinging his bible up and down. I wondered what theatrical performance he wanted from my ugly cousin, were she around. He summoned my ugly cousin but she was nowhere in sight.
It was Ada that suffered the most from the hands of my ugly cousin. It was just yesterday. Her friend, the beautiful one with beautiful clothes and accessories came to visit. I really liked that we had company, as we hardly did. But then, Ada started making ugly remarks about me. she thought I didn’t hear her from where I sat outside under the sun, watching the neighbourhood children, run around, kick stones and dramatize. But I heard. I heard her tell her friend my food was too salty. She said I was a bad cook. She told her she pitied the man who would marry me. If nothing else had happened after that point, I’d probably have told my ugly cousin to let it go, but then, Ada’s beautiful friend started to laugh. A hard, harsh laughter, that made me perspire. I was clasping and unclasping my hands, trying desperately hard to be undercontrol.
But before I realized it, my anger had reached it’s peak—and that coincided with their decision to call me in and have a little talk with me. I told my ugly cousin to follow me. they sat me down and talked to me to be more lady like. They spoke in ibo,intergecting it with laughter that was supposed to be good natured. They told me to work harder, “Biko, use roll-on, spray perfume ehn, biko Ifeoma” Ada said. I nodded at everything they said, and thanked them for the advice that they said they were giving because they loved me and not because they wanted to spite me.
That night, when Ada sent me to fetch water for her night bath, my ugly cousin decided she’d help me instead. I had stood by watching for her next move. A satchet of HYPO was torn and poured into the blue bucket of water, a dethol cap was removed, and poured also into it and then carried to Ada. I don’t know how Ada was oblivious to the smell—maybe it was the deep stench of urine in the bathroom that didn’t make her notice the pungent smell of hypo, I do not know. But all I knew was that, one moment Ada was singing in the bathroom, the next she was screaming.
When she got into the sitting room, only clad in a towel, Mother put the lantern close to her body to observe what was making Ada scream so much. Her skin was red with big bumps all over. I pitied her, to be honest. I pitied her as I searched her sorry eyes. I pitied her as she scratched and scratched her skin.
Mother then put the lantern to my face. I could feel it’s glow. I could hear her silent questions.
“Yes mother, I did. I poured hypo in the bucket of water sister Ada used to bath”
I didn’t know why Mother didn’t give me a dirty slap first. I was expecting a slap that would resound through the room and even into our neighbors houses. I expected a slap that would stop the children singing outside from singing, a slap that would cause the moon to peer in through our open window. But there was none.
I knew she was surprised that I hadn’t blamed my ugly cousin. I knew she was surprised I had acknowledged my bad behavior for the first time in a while.
I know you think I have a psychological disorder, and if you’re a religious freak like my Mother, that I’m filled with demons more than legion, but my ugly cousin is only a metaphor.