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Carol A. Bowman Creative Writing Contest 2012 Results


By Mgbechi Erondu, '15 


The plane took off suddenly as though lifted by a great hand.Ijeoma craned her head to look through the cabin window. As theplane climbed higher, the clouds seemed to come together, the bluespace between them becoming the eyes and mouth of a beardedman.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for flyingBritish Airways," the pilot's accented voice sounded even moreclipped over the intercom." We should be landing in Lagos atapproximately oh-eight-hundred hours."

 Ijeoma willed the butterflies that fluttered under herheart to quiet down. It was the summer after her first year ofmedical school.


It was Ijeoma's father who had found her the opportunity toaccompany the youth members of the Kingdom of Heaven Pentecostalchurch on a mission trip to rural Eastern Nigeria, the area wheretheir family was from. The Kingdom of Heaven mission team wasexcited to have Ijeoma on board given her knowledge of the Igbolanguage. They would be working with a Nigerian Pentecostal churchcalled the Spiritual Bank of Jesus Christ. There were six of them,and Ijeoma was the only black medical student in their group ofnurses, phlebotomists, and student mission workers. Although shedidn't have her medical license, let alone a degree, even thenurses and phlebotomists who had more clinical experience thanIjeoma, deferred to her. They made her feel as though she wassupposed to serve as cultural informant on a mission that wasmainly religious and clinical.

During the early stages of the flight, Ijeoma had tried todistance herself from the group. She'd ignored their comments aboutthe unbearable heat and tropical diseases awaiting them.

"How do you say hello again?" She had overheard one group membersay to another.


"IJ, is that right?" They had turned around in their seats toface her.

Ijeoma had pressed her fingertips to her headphones andpretended not to hear.


This trip was a homecoming for Ijeoma. Her greatest fear was tobe dismissed like a foreigner; yet another meddler who didn'tunderstand the sociology of disease. A stranger who didn'tunderstand that malaria nets are useless during mosquito peakactivity hours, in the early evening when everyone goes outside tocook. Later, nobody wants to stay inside in tiny rooms with onlythe light of a candle, and the sour smell of kerosene filling yournostrils. One can harp on the importance of condom use, but theones they sell in the markets are poor quality, smell too stronglyof rubber, and break easily. And why would you use a condom withyour husband especially if you're trying to get pregnant? He goesto look for work in town and comes back to the village once a week,but how can you know what he is doing? How can you ask?

Kingdom of Heaven, in conjunction with Spiritual Bank, would berunning an HIV testing and counseling mobile clinic--a satelliteoperation of the Nigerian Christian Hospital in Aba which had beenfounded during the Biafran war.

 Ijeoma's grandmother had been a nurse at that hospitalduring the war. This had been her father's motivation for becominga doctor. He had seen children with kwashiorkor coming in to whatwas then a makeshift clinic in a rundown, looted and bullet-pockedschoolhouse. He had wanted to one day be like the tireless,red-faced white doctors who did not seem to fear the blood ofpeople who looked so different from themselves.

His mother had encouraged him to study medicine in the States.When he chose Obstetrics and Gynecology, she didn't understand whyhe, a man, had chosen a profession that was so similar tomidwifery. She didn't understand his passion for assisting women inchildbirth after having witnessed so much death in childhood. Hedealt mostly with middle class white women who painstakingly waxedtheir pubic hair and gasped at the suggestion of an HIV test by ablack African doctor. They also protested when he confirmed thattheir spoiled teenage daughters were pregnant, gasping at thesuggestion that they, too, should be tested for HIV. The excusesthese women made for their daughters came just short of calling thepregnancies an Immaculate Conception.

Perhaps this was why Ijeoma's father was proud that his daughterhad chosen to go back to Nigeria. They had visited Nigeria twicesince he had married Ijeoma's mother. Once when Ijeoma was a baby,and again when she was nine. Her father had tried to explain toChimaobi the importance of the places they saw--his parents'graves; even the trees his family had hidden behind during theBiafran war. But Chimaobi had been more concerned with swattingbugs, complaining about the heat, and insisting that Nigerian icecream didn't taste like real ice cream. Their father had refused togive up. Chimaobi, his only son, would inherit everything. Still,he noticed how Ijeoma listened eagerly, and he encouraged her,secretly hoping that her enthusiasm would one day rub off on hisson. It didn't.


Years later, Chimaobi told Ijeoma that he didn't understand whyit was so important for her who, like him, had been born and raisedin America, to return to Nigeria. Their mother couldn't agree more."Go to Ghana, or even Costa Rica like your classmates. Let thatGod-forsaken country fend for itself. Those corrupt leaders cannotsee a good thing unless it involves putting dollars directly intotheir pockets." Ijeoma forgave her mother's antagonism. It was thefirst time she would go to Nigeria without her parents. She alsoforgave her brother and hoped that his opinion would change withtime. But she also remembered hearing him crying secretly, in thebathroom, after his cousins bullied him, mocking his inability tokick the soccer ball straight even though its flatness hurt hisbare feet. Were it not for the encouragement of his father, all hehad wanted to do was stay inside the house under the fan and playwith his Gameboy.


As the plane prepared to land, Ijeoma recalled how much sheloved Nigeria's climate--the palm trees, the smell of smoked cornand dried fish. She would beg to accompany her father on his visitsto see his relatives. Her father would ask her brother first, ofcourse, but deciding that Chimaobi was a lost cause, he gladlyallowed Ijeoma to accompany him. "Adaukwu, make sure to remind yourbrother that Nigeria is your true home!" her relatives toldher.


After returning to the U.S., Ijeoma would pretend the streaks ofmoonlight shining through her bedroom window were the fronds ofpalm trees, and dreamt about the day she would finally go home.

The Kingdom of Heaven group landed in Lagos and thentransferred to a local plane in order to go to Aba. Road travel wasno longer safe because of armed robbers and bad roads. The smallplane made Ijeoma nervous and she was more than relieved to finallyreach Owerri airport. The group had been advised to hire armedescorts. They were met by two sets of SUVs and four unsmiling menin green berets with tightly laced military boots, each with asubmachine gun. Ijeoma felt as foreign and uncomfortable as theother members of her group. They had been overwhelmed by thecollection of hawkers and luggage boys that had flocked to theirwhiteness like ants to sugar. Ijeoma hadn't had any trouble tellingthe hawkers and the luggage boys, "Ah ah, I sed I no want!"dismissing them, to the amazement of her group members, with aflick of her wrist. But armed escorts? It was not the Nigeria sheremembered.

Before meeting the Spiritual Bank team, Kingdom of Heaven took amoment to pray for the success of their mission. Each member of thegroup took turns praying, and Ijeoma gritted her teeth as she heardechoes of "these people," "help," "sin," and "darkness." It wasclear that the travelers had already made a clear distinctionbetween the enlightened and the powerless.

"Dear God," Ijeoma finished, "Please help us to remember thatonly You know the heart of our fellow man. We are here not tojudge, not even to pity, but to do your will, whatever that may be,wherever you may lead us. Amen." 

Spiritual Bank Church was filled to capacity with men, women,and children, ranging from the very young to the very old. Manylooked ill, and starved of food and hope. The latecomers sat on thefloor, crammed shoulder to shoulder against the wall. Kingdom ofHeaven was ushered to the front where five pews had been reservedwith a sign that read "KINGDOM OF HEAVEN USA." They sat andlistened to the remainder of the pastor's sermon. 

"Repeat after me: The devil is a liar!" Shouted the pastor. 

"The devil is liar!" The congregation repeated. 

"He tells you that you are sick, but you are healed in Jesus'name! Jump and shout hallelujah if you are well in Jesus'name!" 

The church was a circus of crying and shouting people--somewaved their hands while jumping, others prostrated themselves whiletheir neighbors walked back and forth between them, speaking intongues. 

"We are the Spiritual Bank of Jesus Christ!" The pastorcontinued. "In this church we are storing up souls! Each day thatyou are closer in your walk with Him, your soul gathers interest.This interest is the Holy Spirit, amen?" 


"I said, shout amen if the Spirit of the Lord grows deeper inyou day by day! Amen! Will you be ready when God is ready tocollect His balance? Some of you pray for earthly riches but thisidea is a concern of the flesh! Give God His 10% and He will returnit one hundred times over. I said, give God His 10% and He willreturn it how many times over? How many times?" 

"A thousand times!" someone shouted. 

"One hundred times one hundred times!" shrieked another. 

"Amen?" the pastor lowered his voice. 

"Amen!" the congregation concluded. 

The ushers began to pass around white buckets. Ijeoma wasshocked to see that in a short while, the buckets were filled tothe brim with crumpled wads of dirty naira bills. Where did thatmoney come from? Ijeoma wondered. 

After the sermon, the Kingdom of Heaven mission team was led tothe church offices to meet the pastor and the elders of the church.As they waited for the pastor to finish with his round ofhandshaking and annointings, Ijeoma noticed that the room hadpurple plush carpet and mahogany wood furniture. Imported? shewondered. They were finally greeted by the pastor who reached outto each of them with a many-ringed hand. A gold watch peeked fromunder his starched sleeve. 

"Welcome!" The grinning man was short and round-faced--not atall the immortal being who seemed to fill the entire church withhis voice that morning. Ijeoma was reminded of the Wizard of Oz."As you can see, God has truly blessed this ministry." He made abroad, sweeping motion with his arm. 

His called himself Pastor George Michael (Ijeoma wonderedwhether this was his given name). He had dark stains under hisshirt, and wiped at his glistening forehead with a handkerchiefinitialed in gold. He announced that he would guide them personallyfrom village to village. 

"But Pastor George Michael, we can't ask you to do that! Youmust have quite a bit of church business to attend to! Surely, wecan get one of your church elders to escort us!" the Kingdom ofHeaven youth leader stammered. 

"Nonsense! A pastor always has time for his flock!" He clappedthe youth leader heartily on the back. The group laugheduncomfortably. They would later realize that the pastor was usingtheir presence as a political campaign to harvest more innocentsouls to invest in his spiritual bank. 

Their first mobile clinic outreach event was housed in a localschool. When it came time to practice her Igbo skills, Ijeomafroze. As she listened to the patients applaud her teammates evenas they stumbled over words, she sunk deeper and deeper into a fearthat her own mistakes wouldn't be so well received. She spoke onlyEnglish that first day, taking a back seat. She handed out suppliesand watched silently as the nurses explained the procedure to eachpatient before deftly pricking a finger to collect blood. Theresults of the HIV rapid blood test took 20 minutes. As the patientwaited, he or she would be directed to speak to one of the youthmissionaries. 

They had arrived with a supply van flanked in front and behindby the SUVs. Two guards stood near the van while the other twopatrolled the schoolyard to maintain order. "Ijeoma, right?" 

Where had the pastor come from? Ijeoma turned to see a widesmile tease across his face. The ministerial team was now handingout Christian children's books and candies to the waiting patients.She had expected that the pastor would be among them. Instead, thetwo were alone at the back of the supply van. 

"I have visited America quite a few times. What you're doing isgood. Most American born kids like yourself don't seem to have anyinterest in what is going on in their parent's land." He placed ahand on the small of her back. 

 Ijeoma tried to convince herself that this was a fatherlygesture. She said nothing. 

"I just wanted to let you know that we at Spiritual Bank commendyou for what you're doing. The whites mean well, but there are somethings they don't understand about our people. How we do thingshere. Everything is so hurry hurry for them. They swoop in likeSuperman during a crisis, but always leave before the real work isdone. The devil does not rest. Superman does not realize that oncehe leaves, the monster will simply put himself back together andterrorize the city all over again!" 

His breath smelled like eggs and sour fish. Ijeoma was glad whenhe finally went away. She could still feel the imprint of hisfingers along her spine. 

She finished the inventory of the remaining supplies andreturned to the schoolhouse. It was a long, hot day, and by the endof it, everyone, particularly the guards, was irritable and tired.As they packed up to leave, intent on reaching their hotel beforenight fell, the crowd became agitated and started to swarm the van.One of the guards fired his weapon in the air. Someone screamed andthe crowd dispersed. The guard was quickly reprimanded. 

Their hotel was rundown, but clean and had a power generator andfans. The windows and doors had screens, but each person still worelong sleeved pajamas and took an anti-malaria pill. 

That night, Ijeoma's mother called to say that she had heard inthe news that kidnapping in Nigeria was becoming more popular thanfour-one-nine fraud scams. Some relatives would be coming to seehow Ijeoma was doing. Ijeoma's father was more interested inhearing about each patient--what illnesses they had and the storiesbehind their illnesses. Had they been able to test everyone? 

They had not been able to test everyone that first day, and oncethe patients realized that the mission team was running an HIVtesting clinic, some left, muttering, "How can a church besupporting such a thing. They should just let those people die."According to official statistics, AIDS didn't seem to be as rampantin Nigeria as it was in other sub-Saharan African countries. ButIjeoma wondered whether it was underreported. Part of the problemwas that those suspected of having the disease were shunned.Ultimately they died unnoticed or were buried in secret so that itwas never confirmed what disease they suffered from. 

The team had invited a few local doctors to join them. Thedoctors were responsible for taking care of general health concernsand handed out vitamins and bed nets to women with children. Soonolder men (there were very few young men at the site) were totingkids to the clinic. The local doctors helped the mission teamconvince those who came to the clinic for other ailments to gettested for HIV, too. But the testing process was a double-edgedsword because, for those who tested positive, the team could onlyoffer counseling and then a referral to the nearest hospital forfurther testing and medication. Ijeoma did not know any individualstories because on that first day, she hadn't dared attempt tospeak to anyone. If she said her name, the patients would respond,"So your name is Ijeoma. The way you're speaking English now, Iwonder, ma i n'asu igbo?" 

"Yes, I speak a little." She would answer in Igbo, but afterthat small phrase, she reverted back to speaking only English. 

After hearing these things, Ijeoma's father insisted that inorder to get the full experience, she would need to follow theexample of her teammates. "Next time try your Igbo," he said toher. "If they laugh at you, so what? Your Igbo will improve thatmuch more!" But she had already grown frustrated with every grosslymispronounced attempt on the part of her teammates would be metwith clapping and encouragement, while her own, near correct accentwould be met with laughter and disbelief. 


As the days passed, Ijeoma befriended the local doctors whoappreciated that she was humble and eager to learn. Unlike manyexpatriate medical students who called on them only to serve astranslators, she did not assume that she knew more than they didbecause she was training in America. The Kingdom of Heaven teamstayed three days at each site. Soon the crowd learned the patternof their coming and going. People would gather hours before themission team arrived. Some would even make repeat visits. 


On the seventh day, as the drivers revved the engine to go,Ijeoma noticed a woman sitting on the side of the road with alistless child in her arms. The child didn't look to be more thanfive or six months old, and Ijeoma could see its distended bellyfrom where she stood. 

The woman was crying. "They tell me that a witch is doing thisto her but I cannot believe it." She said to Ijeoma in Igbo. Thewoman could not have been much older than Ijeoma, but her cheekswere drawn and the corners of her mouth and eyes were alreadydeeply wrinkled. "This will be my second child to die from thissickness. They say that I'm cursed. My husband won't touch meanymore." 

The Kingdom of Heaven crew called to Ijeoma from the cars. "IJ,tell her to come back tomorrow! We have to go!" 

 Ijeoma was transfixed. "I've been travelling all day,"said the woman. "Nobody has been able to tell me what is wrong withmy baby. She was born healthy, and now she won't eat. She strugglesto breathe. They told me that she has the disease. That is why Icame here. But each time these people chase me away. They tell menot to come near, that I'm a witch, I'm cursed. It's my in-laws whodid this to me. They didn't want him to marry me and now they havedestroyed my name. I refuse to walk anymore. I will wait here.Maybe by some miracle this child will live. If not, I will diehere, too." 

 Ijeoma looked at the child. She had swollen hands andfeet, yellow eyes, and a distended belly that indicated a swollenspleen--all symptoms of severe sickle cell disease. This childneeded folic acid and a blood transfusion. 

"Cheer, we're going to help you." Ijeoma ran to one of thedoctors in the nearest SUV. "It's unacceptable that a child shoulddie of sickle cell disease in this country! Where is the nearesthospital?" 

The doctor told her. 

"We have to take this woman there! I'll meet the rest of you atthe hotel!" Ijeoma beckoned the woman over to the vehicles. Theguards looked irritated. 

"But IJ, it's getting late!" The group hesitated and then,seeing that she was serious, the Kingdom of Heaven team made roomfor Ijeoma and the woman by squeezing into the remaining cars. 

Signaling for the group to go on without them, Ijeoma helped thewoman into the freed passenger seat of the first SUV. They werejoined by a doctor and one security officer. As they drove to thehospital, the child woke up and began to whimper weakly. The guardeyed the mother as she tried to press her swollen nipple into thechild's mouth, dripping milk yellowing her faded white T-shirt. Shelooked up self-consciously. They all looked away. 

When they finally reached the hospital, the nurses said, "Bloodtransfusion? We don't do blood transfusion here!" 

 Ijeoma was so frustrated she wanted to cry. The doctor shehad come with argued with a nurse until she at least agreed to letthe child and her mother stay the night. 

As they drove to the hotel, Ijeoma was so physically andemotionally exhausted that she began to nod off. 

She was jolted awake again when the car stopped abruptly. 

"Mumu, if you know wetin be good for you, I sed you bettageroutnow!" 

The armed guard pushed the doctor out of the car and the driversped off. Ijeoma thought about action movies where the actorsrolled out of moving cars to safety. Did people actually surviveafter doing that in real life? The guard, noticing her eyeing thedoor, told her gruffly, "Don't do anything stupid!" 

 Ijeoma began to pray silently. Why was her mother alwaysright? She hadn't spoken to Chinmaobi since she'd arrived inNigeria. Now she missed him more than anything. 

The car finally stopped at what looked to be a food stall orrundown shack. 

"Don't move! If you run, I shoot!" the guard clutched at his gunmenacingly as he got out of the car, then pulled Ijeoma so hardhatshe felt as though her arm was yanked from its socket. She fell tothe ground. 

"Oyo, how much money do you have there? And that cell! Give itto me!" Ijeoma emptied her pockets, tears streaming down herface. 

"We knew one of you would be stupid enough to go off alone. Wehad expected it to be one of your white compatriots, but no matter.If your parents get money to send you here, make them pay well tobring you back." The driver laughed.

The guard nudged Ijeoma with the butt of his gun as he circledher slowly. "I like how this one does not speak. This American galgo make good wife. She knows how to make the thing easy for us.Oya, go and sit down somewhere!" 

 Ijeoma did as she was told. She sat with her back againstthe wall of the hut and drew her knees tightly to her chest. Shefelt lightheaded and struggled to breathe. Even worse than rapewould be death. If she shouted for help, who would come? She wishedshe had followed her brother's example for once and never lefthome. Her heart was pounding so hard she feared her captors wouldhear it. As she watched the guard and driver motion toward her, shefelt her soul slowly stream out from the top of her head and out ofher body. Trapped, perhaps, by the ceiling it hovered just aboveIjeoma's head. 

The driver was saying, "The kind of father that sends hisAmerican daughter to Nigeria by herself, no go pay ransom. Thiskidnapping business, in fact. I don't know. By the time they agreeto pay, they will have found us. I think we will fetch more moneyif we sell her passport." 

"How can?" asked the guard. 

The driver turned to Ijeoma. "Stand up girl!" the Ijeoma thatwas no longer completely Ijeoma did as she was told. "We'll let yougo if you give us your American passport." 

 Ijeoma wore her passport on a neck pouch, messenger bagstyle, hidden under the arm of her shirt. Not even her group matesknew. 

"I left it in my hotel room." She heard herself say as theIjeoma above her head writhed against the ceiling. 

"Is that so?" 

With her soul now divided from her body, Ijeoma felt everythingtwice, slowly as if it drawn out into one long, excruciatingmoment. She felt the guard's hot breath on her face. She closed hereyes. Her soul quivered. 

"Take off your blouse." 

 Ijeoma's body went numb and her soul panicked as she felther legs nearly give way beneath her. The guard pushed her in thechest with the tip of his gun. "I said, take off your blouse!" 

Fingers trembling, Ijeoma unbuttoned her shirt. Her thoughtsmoved like quicksand. Everything was happening too fast and sheneeded to figure out how to reunite with her soul. Before she couldremove her arm from the sleeve, the driver, noticing the pouchstring, pulled the pouch from around her neck, giving herastringing rope burn. 

"She doesn't speak except to LIE!" The driver barked, flecks ofspit flying in her face. 

"Foolish girl, you think we're stupid?" The guard raised hishand as if to slap her, but thinking better of it, pushed her backagainst the wall. A shower of dust fell from the wooden rafters.Ijeoma that was still not completely Ijeoma rubbed her eyes,spitting and coughing. The Ijeoma that hovered above it all watchedthis unfold in slow motion and laughed, deciding it was too unrealto be happening. 

There was the sound of a motor. 

"Put on your blouse, idiot! And stop making noise!" shouted thedriver. Ijeoma slowly put her shirt back on. How could she go tothe US Embassy for help without a passport? Would her Americanaccent be proof enough? How many people line those gates every daymaking the same claim? 

"Lucky for you, I'm going home to my wife tonight." The guardglared down at her. "I have no interest in these little things." Hepinched one of her breasts hard. "But maybe the driver would liketo teach you a lesson?" 

 Ijeoma's heart stopped. Her soul fell from theceiling. 

The driver shook his head. "Oga, let's go. We know who you are," he waved her passport at her, "If anybody asks you'd beta tellthem you dropped this in a river. Otherwise, that means you'rewanting us to come and finish the job." 

"We were nice to you!" the guard added. 

 Ijeoma said nothing, instead wondering where her soul hadfallen and whether she would find it again. 

The guard pushed the tip of his gun to her temple, forcing herhead to the side. "I didn't hear you!" 


"Good." He smiled at her. 

 Ijeoma noticed that his front incisor was chipped. 

The two men strode to the SUV laughing and joking until theydrove off. 

 Ijeoma's body wouldn't stop trembling. She had watched asher soul, waving good-bye, had tiptoed out the door behind them andbegged God to tell her what to do. How will I find my soul again?Is this what I get for trying to be a good Samaritan? Ijeoma,feeling like nothing more than an empty shell, curled up, blockingher ears from the whining of mosquitoes and willed the sun to comeup so that she could find her way home again.