The stars glittered high up in the sky like diamonds and the moon, seemingly in a bid to admire every single one, raced across the night sky, sometimes getting lost in the clouds but always finding its way out. In the small village of Dzogbeƒime in the Ketu-North District of the Volta Region of Ghana, outdoor cooking fires fueled with wood and charcoal in big hearths were brightly lit as the women of the village began to prepare supper while the children fetched water from the only borehole in the village, situated at the centre of the village square.
But Edudzi didn’t notice the beautiful night sky or the bright, shiny stars. She was seated on a stool, with a fan in one hand, trying to rekindle the flames in the hearth on which she was heating up okro soup to go with her husband’s daily dinner of akple. Now in its third day, the soup was surely going to displease her husband but Edudzi was passed caring the fate of soup. Her thoughts, like her left hand, were on her protruding belly and the fate of the baby growing inside her. This was Edudzi’s third conception and after having a stillborn first child and her second passing away after a week, she was desperate for this one to stay and would gladly have done anything to guarantee the survival of her baby. This assertion of hers was being tested as her husband and mother-in-law had categorically stated that the face of her child would be marked in order to ensure its survival.
Edudzi’s mother-in-law still blamed her for the death of the first two children and had stated in no uncertain terms that she expected Edudzi to undergo the elaborate rituals that safely guaranteed the survival of a child born in Dzogbeƒime. Edudzi’s mother-in-law had drawn her attention to Adzovi, Edudzi’s sister-in-law, who put to bed at about the same time Edudzi gave to her second child and whose son, Adzigbli was now a healthy, strapping boy of four. In observance of customs that were believed to have originated from Heluvi, another village in the Volta Region and which spread to nearby villages like Kuli, Hlemfi and even as far as Suhum in the Eastern Region, Adzovi did not carry her son at her back for a duration of three months after his birth. If she needed to carry him, she carried him at her side with a pure white cloth. Neither did she shave a hair off his body as it was considered a taboo to touch a property of the gods with a razor nor did Adzovi’s husband lay with her as it was believed that flouting these rules would lead to the death of the baby.
Edudzi had tried, for the umpteenth time, to explain to her mother-in-law that she hadn’t flouted any of these rules but her mother-in-law was adamant that Edudzi’s reluctance to complete the whole ritual had led to the gods exacting punishment on her by taking away her children. This was a sore point and Edudzi could still remember the pain she felt when her child had died just a week after it was born. But the pain of the loss couldn’t compare to the guilt she had felt when there were insinuations that she was the cause of the death of her babies. This allegation gained more grounds when the rites of induction of Adzigbli occurred three months after his birth.
Edudzi could still remember the sound of the town crier’s gong and his ringing voice as he announced the occasion every day for a whole week before the event. On the day of the induction, singing, drumming and dancing had preceded the entourage of joyous family members that escorted Adzovi, her husband and little Adzigbli to the shrine of the gods. Adzovi’s husband had earlier arranged for the provision of alcoholic drinks and live chickens which would be used for the ritual. After hours of singing, dancing and merry-making as well as congratulatory messages to the parents, the priest emerged from the shrine dressed in a long red cloth tied around his body with his instrument of office. All singing and dancing ceased abruptly in order for him to focus on the rituals he was present to perform. One of the priest’s attendants grabbed a chicken and passed it on to the priest who severed the head of the chicken from its body with a short knife. He then threw the chicken up and everyone’s eyes followed the path of the chicken’s fall. The fall of the chicken was significant because it was believed a chicken which fell with its wings spread wide indicated the couple had abstained from sexual intercourse for the three-month duration. Any deviation from the preferred landing would have resulted in hefty fines which if not paid immediately could have been very detrimental to the baby’s life. Adzovi had had no problems as the chicken had fallen with its wings spread. The remaining chickens were quickly slaughtered and their blood offered to the statues of the various gods in the shrine. Choice entrails were also draped around the statues. But all these were only a prelude to the main event; the marking of the child.
Adzovi carefully handed her son to the priest who after pouring libation and saying a few prayers to the gods had then carefully cut two small bloody marks, like tears, on the cheeks of the little boy, using a small, sharp blade. Adzigbli wailed in pain as the cuts were made and the priest hurriedly applied a mixture of herbs into the wound to kickstart its healing. The marking of Adzigbli signified a welcoming into the community and his bawling was soon drowned out by the singing, drumming and dancing that had begun again in celebration of the new member of the society. Adzigbli was pacified as his mother offered him her breast milk while members of the community offered their congratulations to Adzovi and her husband.
Edudzi snapped out of her revelry when Adzigbli tapped her. He had been sent by his mother to deliver a pestle which she had borrowed and as he ran back to his mother, Edudzi couldn’t help but wonder how her child’s fate would have panned out if she had been willing to go along with the ceremony. Edudzi wanted her children to be like the young community nurse who had impressed on her the importance of prenatal and postnatal care. The nurse had assured Edudzi of her confidence in the baby surviving if she followed the advice given to her by the nurses and had also educated her on the risks associated with such archaic practices like tribal marks, including tetanus and the transmission of diseases through open cuts. Edudzi had never missed a session or flouted any of the instructions given to her by the midwife and other nurses.
But she wanted this child so much. Her marriage, pride and even sanity depended on the survival of this child. Her husband, so smitten with her in the early days of their marriage, had been willing to listen to her advice on how their children should be raised. But the two deaths and his mother’s constant voice in his head had made him very obstinate to any of Edudzi’s suggestions that did not involve marking of the child. After all, he had told her one night as she expressed her desire not to mark her child for life, he also bore the marks and she still desired him anyway. As Edudzi carried the hot pot of soup with her bare hands into the unplastered cemented structure she shared with her husband, she couldn’t help but wonder if marking her child was so big a sacrifice to pay to ensure its survival.
By: Ferdinand Hassan