Read time: 11 mins

Lifestyle Guide for The Discerning Witch

by Franklyn Usouwa
20 September 2022

‘Lifestyle Guide for The Discerning Witch’ was shortlisted for the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.


You will be your mother’s only child. On holidays at your maternal home, you will hear your grandmother’s prayers for God to give her daughter a son. But after you, your mother will not conceive again, and your father’s family will accuse her of giving her womb to her coven to feast on. When you hear the accusations for the first time, your childish mind will imagine a group of women sitting around a large dinner table with a large saucer at its centre. A uterus will rest on the saucer like the one you would have seen on the chart in school, The Female Reproductive System in bold print above it. The uterus will have the deep brown texture of fried chicken. Your mother will stand at the head of the table and cut up the uterus with a knife, place each piece on a small plate and hand out the plates to the women. They will thank her as they accept the plates, and you will think about how it is her womb to give. 

Your father’s family will tell their children to avoid you lest your mother give you sweets to share with them through which they may be initiated to the occult. For this reason, you will be quieter, more reserved. You will not play as much as your cousins, and, when you do play, you will do so on your own. They will blame your introversion on your mother dedicating you to her coven and point to the frequent nightmares you had as a toddler as proof. The imaginary friends you make up for yourself, since no one will play with you, must be spirits. After a family meeting on the issue, your drunk father will beat you and call your mother ‘witch’ when she intercedes. The next day he will avoid your eyes in shame and buy you and your mother expensive gifts—an unspoken apology—but you will stop playing with your imaginary friends in his presence.  

The rumours will follow you to school, and the other children will avoid you. You will be used to such isolation already, and your mind will be enough to keep you entertained after you outgrow your imaginary friends. You will be so satisfied with your own company that you will regard as interruptions the attempts of braver children to approach you. So, you will be seen as a witch by some and a snob by others. The rumours will have their advantage: teachers will hesitate to punish you. However, there will be the occasional born-again Christian teacher who will beat you at the slightest provocation as a way of proving their faith and demonstrating their bravery to the other teachers. 

You will fill your ample free time with books and do exceedingly well in school. At home, things will only get worse. You father’s family will call more meetings. You will soon get used to these meetings. They will call your mother barren as if your existence is irrelevant. Your father needs more children, they will say. They will say ‘more children’, but it is obvious they mean ‘a son.’ He cannot just have the one child who has been dedicated to a witch coven. They will call you ‘witch’, but it is obvious they mean ‘girl.’ Your father must take another wife. 

Your father will remain silent during such meetings, which will almost always take place in your home. He will neither agree with his kin nor disagree. You will wonder why he does not defend you and your mother. You will find your mother’s behaviour even more puzzling. Why does she cook to entertain people bent on wrecking her marriage? Why do they eat her food if she is a witch capable of initiating others through food? 

At first, your father will not marry another wife as his kin advise, but soon he will begin to spend most nights outside the house. The first few times, he and your mother will fight when he returns in the morning. After a fight which gets physical—your mother will hit him over the head with her biggest spoon—he will not come home for several days. Your mother will act as if nothing is happening. She will ignore your questions about your father’s whereabouts. When money runs out, she will take you along with her to the house of one of your uncles to beg. She will say ‘please’ a lot, and you will suspect she is begging for money. The uncle will tell her ‘not to worry’ with an arrogant smile. Your mother will thank him when he walks you both to the door. He would not have given her any money, and you will wonder what all of that was about. That evening, your father will come back home, and your mother will greet him on her knees. He will not sleep out for a week, but when he does resume his nightly sojourns, your mother will no longer fight him on his return. For a while there will be no more meetings. 

Then there will be a big fight. The subsequent meeting will include some of your mother’s relations. There will be a strange pregnant woman in attendance. As always, you will try to eavesdrop. They will speak in tense hushed tones. Your parents will not speak; only their relations will. When the tense tones give way to a friendlier atmosphere, you will risk a peek and see the pregnant woman kneeling before your mother, hugging your mother’s legs. She will wear a beaming smile while your mother has a plastic smile plastered on her face. You will be busy for the rest of the evening, serving food and drink, which will flow freely as the meeting seems to morph into a party. At some point, while you’re carrying a tray of fried meat around the party, an aunty from your father’s side will introduce the pregnant woman to you as your father’s new wife. You will immediately hate her. You will protest by stubbornly addressing her by her first name. This will be the cause of several fights, but you will address her the same way regardless. 

Weeks after the meeting, the woman will move into the house. Your mother will move into your room. You will feel her sobs on the nights she cries herself to sleep. You will start to hate your father. Your home will immediately feel less homely. Periods of tense coexistence will be punctuated by sporadic fights. At first, your father will rush to the defense of his new bride, but soon enough, he will begin to leave the house when a fight starts or simply sit and watch the show.  

Your father’s new wife will have a stillbirth. Your mother will of course be blamed for this and for the several miscarriages that follow. After the last miscarriage, your father will toss your mother’s things out of the house. He will not ask you to leave, but when you follow your mother, he will not try to stop you. You will live with your mother’s eldest brother for a while. His wife will make you do a lot of housework, but your cousins will be fun. You will not be a witch there, and it will be the one of the happiest times of your life. 

One day, your father and a couple of his kin will come. They will beg your mother on their knees. You would not have seen your father kneel before your mother before then. Your father’s second wife will have been in labour for over a day. They will claim that they have come to beg your mother to come back home, but the implication will be clear. They believe your mother has placed a spell on the pregnancy in that way witches do, and they are actually begging her to remove the spell. Your mother’s brother will beg your mother on their behalf, and while his words sound pleading, you will sense he is not. His message will be as clear as theirs. You both have overstayed your welcome, and it is time your mother went back to her husband’s house. Your mother will accept. However, her brother cannot simply allow her to return without your father fulfilling certain rites. Still, your mother will follow your father and his kin to the hospital. Your father’s wife will deliver safely. It will be a girl. The smiles of your father’s kin will be plastic and their celebrations hollow. Nobody will say it aloud, but you know they wanted a boy. Some will imply your mother altered the baby’s gender. You will find this amusing. 

The events surrounding the birth will have helped cement your mother’s mystique. The story will grow more and more outlandish as it is distilled and embellished in that way that gossip often is. The length of your father’s wife’s labour will be increased from a day to a week. Your mother told you she only waited outside the ward and prayed with the other women, but they will say she entered the ward, placed a hand on your father’s wife’s abdomen and muttered strange words before the child was born. At school, someone will ask you if it is true that your mother showed up to the hospital with her entire coven, all dressed in black, chanting. 

A week after the birth, your father and his kin will come to your uncle’s house to perform the required rites, like an afterthought. You and your mother will return home. A special deliverance prayer will be carried out for the newborn and her mother to free them from ‘any diabolic bondage’. Your mother will make you join them in praying, though the pastor will stare intently at both of you when shouting ‘I rebuke you!’ or ‘Die by fire!’ at the top of his voice. 

Your father’s second wife will have two more daughters. Almost none of your father’s kin will attend the last one’s naming ceremony. Your father will begin spending nights outside the house again. The new wife will have none of it. There will be family meetings. At one of the meetings, she will threaten to repay your father in his own coin. She will be soundly chastised. Your father will continue his nocturnal excursions. She will make good her threat. There will be a fight. After another family meeting, she and her daughters—who your father’s kin will claim are bastards—will be sent packing. Your father will barely ever sleep at home after that, but there will be no family meetings with strange pregnant women. There will be no third wife. Some will blame your mother; others will blame the estranged second wife for ‘tying’ your father’s manhood. 

University will give you a welcome escape. It is there you will begin to find yourself.  You will remain studious and maintain a high level of academic performance throughout. 

You will never actually believe in a god. You will continue to follow your mother to church: as a child you liked the stories, but as you get older, you will begin to notice the hypocrisy of the churchgoers.  Your faith will wane. Also, the deliverance prayers and getting ‘rebuked’ in the name of the ‘most high God’ will have left you with a bad taste in your mouth about religion. You will watch people draw strength from God—or at least claim to—but you will always look within yourself for strength. 

At the university, without your mother to drag you along with her, you will stop going to church. You will have a roommate. She will be very religious. But she will be different than you are used to. You will like her. She will persuade you to follow her to a student fellowship meeting. You will go. It will differ from your expectations. The people there will not be self-righteous and haughty like the churchgoers you are used to. They will be informal, youthful and energetic, easily admitting that they are figuring things out as they go along. You will love the fellowship. These people will form the bulk of your social life in school. Still an unbeliever, you will go to the fellowship meetings for the people, not for God. 

You will date for the first time. It will end badly. You will observe similar relationships. You will be able to put a name to the institutionalized gender bias you observed growing up. You will not stand idle or stand for it. You will find like minds. The opposition will plaster various derogatory labels on you. Once in a while, the word ‘witch’ will rear its head above the rest. When called out, the users will apologize and blame its use on the heated nature of the exchange. You will learn to wear the title with pride. Goading opponents into publicly using the word will become a thing of internal pride. 

Things at home will not get better, only less vocal. Your father will grow too old and tired for his nightly outings. He will stop hosting or attending family meetings. His kin will claim you and your mother have ‘finally tamed his spirit’. As you become a woman, you will earn their recognition as more than the daughter of a witch. You will be seen as a fully fledged witch, capable of casting spells and ‘tying’ pregnancies in your own right. Your female cousins will be advised to avoid you while they are pregnant. You will remain close to your mother’s family. 

You will focus on your career. The money will pour in. Your father’s kin will look on in envy. They will say you cannot get married because you have given your womb for a ‘promotion’ in the coven. You will always wonder how they seem to know so much about the inner workings of witchcraft organizations. You will not care what they think; you have no plans of marriage. You will think all men are the same. You will meet a man in your feminist group. He will be different. You will marry. 

In her old age, you will bring your mother to live with you. You will share more about your lives. You will realize you resented her for being weak. You will forgive her. You will have two daughters. Your husband’s family will become cold to you, but you will still entertain them when they visit. In time, your daughters will overhear your mother praying for you to have a son. 

This, child, is the life you will live. If any part of it is confusing, you may read this guide again for clarity. If you have no questions, then you may proceed. The world awaits you. Good luck, child. 

Illustration © Gisela Mulindwa 

About the Author

Franklyn Usouwa

Franklyn Usouwa is a Nigerian storyteller, studying for an undergraduate degree in Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at the University of Lagos. He is interested in storytelling in all its  forms but has a particularly soft spot for short stories. Franklyn was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and his short stories have been published […]