(Read the second part here)
Kachi’s mother named the child Ahamefuna, the one who would preserve the family’s name. His hair was full and his eyes had a downward slope. Every one who peeked into his cot remarked, “this one, na im papa born am.”
Chikanyimma called Ahamefuna ‘my little prince charming’. He was quick to smile just like her and did not make a lot of fuss when strangers carried him.
Chikanyimma and Kachi started to worry when Ahamefuna had not begun to crawl by the time he turned one. His transformation was sudden. He began to cry and struggle when other people carried him. Many times, he refused even Kachi, and only Chikanyimma could carry him.
“See, nna m, it’s daddy,” she would say pointing to Kachi, but Ahamefuna only fixed his eyes on her pointed finger. He let Akunna and Nwakego pull his cheeks, but he did not always smile back at them as he used to.
Chikanyimma and Kachi worried even more. Ahamefuna was oblivious to sounds. He didn’t respond to his name. He didn’t look people in the eyes. He was two years already and the only words he uttered were “mama, mama, mama” repeatedly. A doctor-friend referred them to a specialist hospital on the Island.
After examining Ahamefuna, the paediatrician sat behind a desk decked with files. He was elderly and spoke slowly, as though picking his words, “His case is not extremely peculiar. I mean, I have seen much worse cases.”
He peeked out of his glasses as he spoke, “People who have been diagnosed with autism usually have deficits in what we call cognitive function. Simply put, they may be a little challenged in intellectual processes like how they think, how they reason and understand ideas and even how they remember. You know, it’s a good thing you have detected this challenge quite early. This disorder can’t be cured, but with proper interventive measures, you can teach him to develop self-care and social…”
The paediatrician spoke on, but Chikanyimma was no longer hearing. Her child was abnormal. Would be abnormal forever. Ahamefuna, the one preserving the family’s name. She felt Kachi’s arm on her shoulder, and darkness clouding her world.
On weekends succeeding their first visit to the paediatrician, they attended classes with him where he taught them ways to adequately care for Aham.
Chikanyimma was diligent with the classes, determined to give Aham all the support he needed. Many times, Kachi was by her side, both taking notes, both watching videos, but sometimes he went away to Port-Harcourt or Abuja for work seminars and conference meetings.
Chikanyimma kept a sleep diary for Aham. By 8.50pm every night, she would lie with him on his bed, singing in a soft voice and patting his back until he fell asleep. She checked on him frequently during the night and usually found him awake sitting upright, his knees to his chest. Each time, she would again lie with him and hum a soft tune until he fell asleep. She got very little sleep herself, and soon dark lines circled her eyes.
She adhered to strict schedules for him, sticking to routines that tired her out. Sometimes, Aham would not budge when it was time to sleep. He would struggle with her for an hour or more until either of their strength gave in. During prayer time at night, he would wander around looking for another meal.
“Aham, but you can’t eat anything again. You have just brushed. C’mon, let’s pray, then we’ll sleep,” Chikanyimma would say, hoping he would reason with her. But Aham would run round the house, tossing things about until he got his request.
The paediatrician told them frequently, “The key factor in this journey is to never give up, no matter the temptation. A good number of autistic children turn out quite fine as adults.”
“Baby,” Kachi said to her many times when she flopped down wearily on the bed, “you are the best mother Aham could ever have. I’m proud of your strength, proud you are my wife. For every thing you have given up for our family, I’m grateful. I know someday we’ll look back at this time, and smile triumphantly.”
“Yeah,” Chikanyimma always managed to say before drifting into sleep, snoring loudly.
“Olodo rabata,” aunt Bisi began swinging her cane to and fro as she hit Ahamefuna a few times on the head.
“Oju eja lo mo je,” the nursery two class carried on, their voices rising and falling in an excited chant.
O ni lo paper
Sileti lo ma lo
Ore mi kilo gba?
Odo oju eja
Shuku shuku shuku shior
They beat their desks with their pencils and clapped their hands as they sang the new song aunt Bisi taught them.
Whenever anyone failed a question aunt Bisi asked in class, she would begin the song swinging her cane, hitting the victim. The class would take up the song, happy for another chance to make a round of noise, happy that they were not at the receiving end of the cane. It made them pay the more attention to what aunt Bisi said. Ahamefuna was frequently a victim.
“You are the oldest in this class, yet you know nothing. Stupid child,” aunt Bisi wagged her cane at Ahamefuna. He stood at the corner of the class crying, one hand over his face, the other rubbing his head where the strokes had landed.
It was break time and the twins had gone as usual to spend their break with Ahamefuna. They stood by the window peeping into his class, watching aunt Bisi hit him. They cringed as each stroke landed on his head.
Aunt Bisi let the class out for break and the twins rushed to Ahamefuna, patting him on the head, “Sorry, Aham,” Nwakego said, “I’ll let you have all my ribena if you want.”
Ahamefuna shook his head and went to sit on the pavement.
As soon as Chikanyimma drove in to pick them up from school, the twins filled her in. “Mummy, Aham’s teacher hit him many times on his head.”
“Yes, and the class sang olodo rabata for him too. And he was crying.”
The next day, Chikanyimma sat in the headmistress’ office, trying to contain her anger, “I do not pay a lot of money to have my son hit on the head, and stupid songs sung at him. What the hell is olodo rabata? And I’m sure yesterday was not the first time this happened.”
“Madam, please calm down. There must have been some sort of misunderstanding. I am so sorry. Miss Bisi is new here. I had no idea she was hitting the kids and calling them awful names. I will address the issue immediately,” the headmistress pleaded.
“You had better,” Chikanyimma said standing up and dragging Ahamefuna after her.
The next term, Chikanyimma and Kachi enrolled Ahamefuna in a new school.
“They pay close attention to special kids,” her colleague at work told her when suggesting the new school. Special was how they described people like her son. Special was what she told the twins their brother was. Special was what she truly wanted to believe.
After orientation with the staff of the new school, Chikanyimma wanted to walk to each of her neighbours and tell them that her son was only special, they could quit calling him an imbecile. She wanted to phone Funmi and tell her that she and her white-robed Jah-Jehovah-shouting prophets were all wrong. Her son, Aham, was not possessed by a legion of demons. He was only special. She wanted to tell everyone of her colleagues at work that Aham was not a skeleton in her cupboard; he was her son and she wasn’t ashamed of him.
Chikanyimma resigned from her job at the Nigerian Ports Authority, devoting more time to Ahamefuna. She drove him to school everyday and brought him back home. She spent hours with him, following through their daily routine, reading to him even when he wasn’t listening and watching him colour his books when she was tired.
Sometimes, she was grateful at his progress, and at other times she asked God why he made her son that kind of special. Sometimes, she felt her faith could move mountains, and at other times she felt like a failure. She was happy with Aham sometimes; and angry at other times…
… such was the night she smashed her favourite dining set against the kitchen wall.
P.S: I can’t wait for the 4th and final installment. Can you?