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The Last Matriarch

Eric Ngalle Charles


The apple tree next to my mother’s room, splashed white over the years by a barrage of bird poo, is there. But the weaver birds are gone; their empty, grey, green, manicured nests hang upside down. Sometimes, a feather floats, dancing with the breeze. An egg falls, and a yellow-head lizard waits, mouth open. The bagworm moths have vanished, leaving their tiny black cabins hanging like inverted anthills. Millipedes have disappeared into their underground burrows after pleading with the gods to render them deaf and blind – Eju leya Matoh, Eju leya Misroh, Isra waeya waeya waeyama wannu wator Wama.

I remember the tall eucalyptus trees and a hibiscus flower fence that once surrounded our compound. Today, my mother sits on the veranda, and four churches blind her view. The Christ Embassy in the north is currently closed. The pastor, Chris Ewuu-owu, ran away with the tithes, and the landlord is demanding one year’s rent upfront. The Redeemed Church of God is to the west, the Apostolic Church to the south and the Olumba Olumba to the east. The Olumba Olumba pastor shares a room in a wooden house down the hill with his wife and two children. Last Sunday, I heard him through the loudspeaker telling his congregation that ‘Israel is in heaven’. To which they shouted, Amen. This was on the same day that the state of Israel bombarded a hospital in Gaza. 

The worst day to visit our compound is a Sunday. There are unrhythmic church drums, men and women babbling, speaking in tongues, rattling. And my sister’s head buried in the King James Bible. Like the stone crab, I wobbled, crossing the path to my mother’s house. Yes, she was on the veranda, my niece on her lap. As I approached, she said, ‘I cover you with the blood of Jesus’. She placed her index finger on her lips and smiled, indicating that my sister was in the parlour. I am happy for Jesus, but I don’t want his blood over me. My sister pokes through the curtains and asks, ‘Ngah, are you attending church today?’ Why does she bother? The answer is always the same: No

I have been in Cameroon for three weeks and have had enough preaching come into the house through various loudspeakers to last me a lifetime. 

My mother opens the gate. My niece’s eyes are teary. The church racket is too much. How many people have died because of noise pollution? There should be laws against opening Pentecostals within earshot of a community. An Agama lizard struts close to my feet. I move back. My mother laughs. ‘A big man like you fears a lizard. Wales has spoiled you.’ 

I wasn’t scared, but I was concerned. The lizard had neck muscles like my late uncle Ngombe. He never forgave me for bringing shame to the village during a wrestling competition. Thank goodness, a red cockerel chased it away.

How would Sianel Pedwar Cymru – Channel Four Wales, have reported my demise? ‘After seeking refuge in Wales all this year, Eric Ngalle Charles was eaten by a Komodo dragon in Africa. What a way to go.’ I can see my friends with pints of IPA, drowning their sorrows in Owain Glyndwr’s pub. ‘He didn’t stand a chance.’ ‘Komodos are monsters.’ ‘I told him to lose weight.’ ‘He could have outrun it.’ ‘To be honest, he was on the heavy side.’

My niece screams, beads of tears covering her face. ‘Mwanna mi, Maendenga waeya?’ My sister takes her. She whimpers. I understand her. I’d been in the compound five minutes, and I, too, felt like crying. The cacophony of church drumbeats, voices like extra noise amplifiers, and open windows are enough to send someone into an asylum. 

‘Jannu,’ my mother says, stands, and grabs my hands. I am excited, thinking she will do what she did in 1997, gently bite each of my fingers – an invocation, an entente cordial between her, my ancestors and me. She doesn’t. Instead, she puts her hands around my arm, leans on me and walks. 

We turn left behind the kitchen and walk down towards my grandmother’s house. ‘Mama, I say, annu ndi imma gweya Zri I la Ngweli. My mother stops, stares at me, and then glances back at the house.

‘Ngah, your sister is disturbing me. I cannot mention the word Ngweli anymore. Every evening, your sister comes at six o’clock and preaches the bible. Confess, confess. Is she praying for me to die? Is she running away from her husband?’ She smirks.

She turns to my grandmother’s house. And I see what she sees. Since Grandma returned to the forest, her house has become covered with tendrils crawling through closed, blackened doors that look like heads with plaits. Waves of spider webs cover the front entrance. Coco yam leaves arranged like steps, giant trees with brown and red leaves, and a sea of green strawberries surround the house. A gaunt bird with a red crown hangs upside down, its talons clasped on a branch. A bat has got trapped; it shakes and moves, and a giant spider claps its claws towards it. A thick mould of black covers the back of the house. Anthills gobble up elephant grass. A white bird with black spots taps its wheelbarrow beak on a branch, sounding like the Mozonje drum, inviting us to a wrestling match.

Gazing at the house, my mother taps my shoulder. ‘Ngah, there will come a time when even saying Ngweli will be banned.’ ‘But Mama, that ritual holds some of our finest memories. We meet our nieces, nephews, aunties, and uncles through Ngweli.’ ‘Yes, but those days are gone. Your sister and all the churches keep reminding us. Look around you. Denominations everywhere, fishing for souls. Some nights, I cannot sleep. They do their vigils, playing drums and casting out demons. What demons? Jesus, the Son of God, died for our sins. Isn’t that what they say? Why the shouting from dusk until dawn?’ 

Why did she drag me towards my grandmother’s house? Why hasn’t she followed my sister into that Olumba Olumba church?

She picked up a stem, poked a hole into a fallen palm tree, and, like magic, fattened sago worms danced and shook their black heads and white abdomens. She collected a few, cut off their heads, and threw those over her shoulder, before chucking the rest into her mouth. I threw one in my mouth and chewed. ‘Ngah, you are supposed to cut off the head.’

I enjoyed the crunchiness. 

She pointed at Grandma’s kitchen. ‘Do you remember when you were here last?’ 

Of course I do. I was thirteen years old. The men sat bare buttocks on the ground, and the women wore cloths covering from their chests to their knees. We, the children, were glued to the fire as Grandma threw leaves, tree bark, seeds, bush pepper and kontri onions into the pot. We saw spirits dancing through the flames, spiralling up through holes in the kitchen roof towards the heavens. When the pot was boiled and the kitchen filled with steam, Grandma steeped wenyengi nyengi leaves tied with raffia palm rope in the pot and sprinkled it on our bodies around the kitchen. Starting with the women, she doused their foreheads, knees, and ankles. I enjoyed the tattoos on the men’s chests and necks as she turned to them, indicating who was a hunter, a wrestler, a warrior. Uncle Melua was the best. A warrior, he had a snake’s head with a mouth resembling a coffin tattooed on his neck. His great grandfather, Gwawa Maija (Snake Blood), killed fifty German soldiers in the Bakweri War of Resistance in 1891, led by the Bakweri chief, Kuva Likenye.

Once everyone in the kitchen has been sprinkled, Grandma stands to the left of the entrance. We line up behind her according to age, touching each other’s shoulders, our lineage stretching out beyond the hibiscus flower fence. Then, she starts an invocation. We join her, chanting, Mezringwane, Mezrazringwane, Mezringwane, inviting clean and unclean spirits of our dearest to join us. We sit again around the pot and bring our hands forward, the left hand facing downwards and the right upwards. She puts a powder substance on the back of our hands, and one by one, we lick it. We children hated this part of the Ngweli ritual. The concoction burnt our mouths. 

As I remembered, my mother started singing. ‘Mbando Liolioliolio, Njokandanu menneh, Mbando Liolioliolio.’ I joined in the chorus and danced. Transported back in time, wild hairs stood up on parts of my body I never knew existed. She dipped into her pocket and passed me a clove of alligator pepper. I opened it, removed seven seeds, and put them in my mouth. We chewed together and danced. A line of fireflies joined us, their buttocks flashing amber. My mother glowed, and I knew all our tradition was not lost. I was looking at the Last Matriarch, the mantle being placed on my shoulders to pass on the knowledge she was now handing over. She rummaged at the base of the fallen palm tree and gave me a red fruit shaped like a long, thin bamboo whistle. ‘Mameh eneh?’ I asked. ‘Tondo,’ she said. It is used to heal wounds and invoke Mami Wata’s spirit for a young girl’s rite of passage into womanhood. As I pondered, she picked a bud and handed it to me. ‘What is this?’ ‘Eliwa Liwa.’ ‘What does it do?’ ‘Watch,’ she said.

She squeezed the Eliwa Liwa into her eyes. ‘I will race you to the house,’ she said.

I am not the fastest, I know. Sometimes, my knees cannot carry the weight of my body, I understand. But there was no way my mother would win in a race. No way.

She squeezed more Eliwa Liwa into her eyes, which were fiery red.

Woteya li wanga, she said. I did not need a second invitation

She moved her shoulders like she was developing wings. Suddenly, she was taller than my grandmother’s thatch roof. I Usain Bolted it up the hill, and just before I reached the house, I looked back and slowed to catch my breath. I couldn’t see her, so I turned right, strolled past the kitchen, and climbed the staircase. My mother was on the veranda, wearing a green and yellow head tie, a long, white-sleeved shirt, a purple gown covering her ankles, and was eating monkey nuts. How did she get to the house before me? Did she use a flying carpet? Magic? Reading my thoughts, she said, ‘Oweli weya anuzre, No’oweli the, ozra vittie li zrongitaneh. There are things on earth, if I explain, you will not understand.

She opened her left hand, and a brown butterfly fluttered away.

‘Ngah, why are you breathing so heavily?’ my sister asked, as she took a picture of my mother and me. 

My eyes met my mother’s. She gave a wry smile and squeezed my hands.