Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie | Miracle

As part of our series of specially commissioned short stories, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells of a girl growing up amid the corruption of contemporary Lagos

Ifemelu grew up in the shadow of her mother's hair, the thick, long black-black hair that drank two containers of relaxer at the salon, took hours under the dryer and, when finally released from pink plastic rollers, sprang free and full, flowing down her back like a celebration. "Is it your hair?" strangers would ask, and then reach out to touch it reverently. Others would say, "Are you from Jamaica?" as though only foreign blood could explain such bounteous hair that did not thin at the temples. Through the years of childhood, Ifemelu would often look in the mirror and pull her own hair, separate the coils, will it to become like her mother's, but it remained bristly, growing reluctantly; braiders said it cut them like a knife.

One day, the year Ifemelu turned ten, her mother came home wearing a beatific expression, a wide-eyed unfocused stare. She took the large pair of scissors in the drawer and, handful by handful, chopped off all her hair, her long and lavish hair. Ifemelu stared, stunned by confusion. The hair lay on the bedroom floor like dead grass. Then her mother began collecting all the Catholic objects in their flat, the crucifixes hung on walls, the rosaries nested in drawers, the missals propped on shelves, and put them all in a large waterproof bag, which she carried to the backyard, her steps zealously determined, her faraway look unwavering. She made a fire near the rubbish dump, at the same spot where she burned her used sanitary pads, and first she threw in her hair, wrapped in old newspaper, and then, one after the other, the objects of faith. Dark-grey smoke curled up into the air. From the balcony, Ifemelu began to cry because she sensed that something had happened, and the woman standing by the fire, splashing in more kerosene as it dimmed and stepping back as it flared, the woman who was newly bald and eternally calm, was not her mother, could not be her mother.

When her mother came inside, Ifemelu backed away, but her mother hugged her close.

"I am saved," she said. She spoke with a dramatic tone, a demeanor that belonged to someone else; her essence had clearly taken flight. "Mrs Ojo ministered to me this afternoon during the children's break and I received Christ. Old things have passed away and all things have become new. Praise God. On Sunday we will start going to Revival Saints, it is a Bible-believing church, a living church, not like St Dominics." Her mother sounded as though she was announcing a special treat that Ifemelu may not yet fully appreciate, and if she noticed the tears on Ifemelu's face, she did not show it.

Her mother's God had always been a distant and amiable man; she sang to Him in Latin that her Father said was unforgivably mispronounced, wore mournful images of saints around her neck, and carefully crossed herself before she ate or drank. But, after that afternoon, her God became exacting and humourless. Relaxed hair offended Him. Dancing offended Him. She bartered with Him, offering starvation in exchange for prosperity, for a job promotion, for good health, and fasting herself bone-thin: dry fasts on weekends, on weekdays, only water until evening. Ifemelu worried that she would, one day, simply snap into two and die. Then her mother told her of a vision she had had in their kitchen on a Saturday evening just before Easter, a blazing appearance, near the gas cooker, of an angel holding a book trimmed in red thread, telling her to leave Revival Saints because the pastor was a wizard who attended nightly demonic meetings under the sea. And so her mother left the church and began to let her hair grow again, but stopped wearing necklaces and earrings because jewelry, according to her new pastor at Miracle Spring, was ungodly, unbefitting of a woman of virtue. Months later, on the same day as the failed coup, while the traders who lived downstairs were crying because the coup would have saved Nigeria and market women would have been given cabinet positions, Ifemelu's mother saw another vision. This time, the angel appeared in her bedroom, above the wardrobe, and told her to leave Miracle Spring and join Guiding Assembly. Half-way through the first service Ifemelu attended with her mother, in a marble-floored convention hall, surrounded by perfumed people and the ricochet of rich voices, Ifemelu looked at her mother and saw that she was crying and laughing at the same time. In this church of surging hope, of thumping and clapping, where Ifemelu imagined a swirl of affluent angels above, her mother's spirit had found a home.

Her mother began to wear jewelry again, to drink her favourite Guinness stout; she fasted only once a week and often said, "My God tells me," and "My Bible says," as though other people's were not just different but misguided. Her response to a "Good morning" or a "Good afternoon" was a cheerful "God bless you!" Her God became genial, and did not mind being commanded. Every morning, when she woke the household for prayers, before the singing and clapping and covering the day ahead with the blood of Jesus, she would say, "God, my heavenly father, I command you to fill this day with blessings and prove to me that you are God." On Sundays, she was first to hurry to the altar to offer a testimony. "I had catarrh this morning," she would start. "But as Pastor Gideon started to pray, it cleared. Now it is gone. Praise God!"

The congregation would shout "Alleluia!" and other testimonies would follow. I did not study because I was sick and yet I passed my exams with flying colors! I had malaria and prayed over it and was cured! My cough disappeared as Pastor started praying! But always her mother went first, always Pastor Gideon smiled brightest at her as she glided, smiling, to the altar, enclosed in salvation's glow. Later in the service, when Pastor Gideon would leap out in his sharp-shouldered suit and pointy shoes, and say, "Our God is not a poor God, amen? It is our portion to prosper, amen?" Ifemelu's mother would shake her head and raise her arm as she said, "Amen, Father Lord, amen."

Ifemelu did not think that God had given Pastor Gideon the mansion in GRA and all those cars, it was obvious he bought them from the three collections at each service, and she did not think that God would do for all as He had done for Pastor Gideon, because it was mathematically impossible, but she liked how the new church swallowed her mother, absorbed her, made her predictable and easy to lie to. "I am going to Bible study" or "I am going to fellowship" were the easiest ways for Ifemelu to leave the house unquestioned during her teenage years. Ifemelu was uninterested in God, indifferent about making any religious effort perhaps because her mother already made so much, and yet her mother's faith comforted her; it was, in her mind, a white cloud that moved benignly as she moved. Until the General came into their lives.

During morning prayers, Ifemelu's mother commanded God to bless the General, "Father Lord, bless Uju's mentor," she would say, the word "mentor" pushed out of her mouth like a challenge. "May no weapon fashioned against him prosper! May his enemies never triumph over him! Lord, we cover him with the precious blood of Jesus!" her mother would conclude, in that sing-song manner she had whenever she prayed and Ifemelu, sleepy-eyed and kneeling on the scratchy carpet of the living room, would mumble something nonsensical instead of saying "Amen". The story Ifemelu's mother told the neighbors was that the General had helped Aunty Uju find a job because, having once wanted to be a doctor himself, he was committed to helping young doctors. A story whose inanity glared like a blood stain on a white napkin. Blind desperation thickened her mother's voice whenever she told it, as though the force of her words would not only erase the neighbors' knowing smirks, but would also remake the world into a place where young doctors could afford Aunty Uju's new Mazda, the intimidating, streamlined latest model.

When Aunty Uju first announced that she had a job – "The hospital has no vacancy but the General made them create one for me," were her wry words – Ifemelu's mother promptly said, "This is a miracle!"

The high-pitched cries of a hawker selling beans on the street floated in through the window, further away, cars were nosing against one another in long, exhausted petrol lines, lecturers were gathering to announce another strike, pensioners were raising wilting placards demanding their pensions, and Aunty Uju, freshly graduated from Ibadan, had a job at the military hospital in Victoria Island.

"A miracle," Ifemelu's mother repeated.

Aunty Uju nodded, and Ifemelu wondered why she did not say, in her lightly amused way, that of course it was no miracle, that she had expected to tumble, like other recent graduates, into a parched wasteland of joblessness until she went to a friend's wedding and the General sent his ADC to call her and when she came to him and said, "Good afternoon, sir," he looked at her and said, "I like you. I want to take care of you," and she agreed to be taken care of. But perhaps she said nothing because there was something of a miracle in those words "I like you, I want to take care of you", and in her new car, and in her move to Dolphin Estate, the cluster of duplexes that wore a fresh foreignness, some painted pink, others the blue of a warm sky, hemmed by a park full of bright green plants and grass lush as a new rug and benches where people could sit – a rarity even on the island.

"You have to study medicine, Ifem, look at how well your aunty is doing," Ifemelu's mother said, while unpacking the new television Aunty Uju had brought them. Ifemelu looked at her mother and wondered how people could tell themselves stories about their reality that did not even resemble their reality.

"Mummy, doctors just started another strike because they have not been paid," she said. But her mother, as though she had not heard, went on gently stripping away the last bits of styrofoam packaging from the television, humming a song – the Lord has given me victory, I will lift him higher – which was often sung at collection time in church.

Ifemelu's father sat in his well-worn sofa, silently reading his well-worn book. He had been jobless for months, fired from the federal agency for refusing to call his new boss mummy. "If you have to call somebody mummy to get your salary then you do so!" Ifemelu's mother had said when he, wracked with bitterness, came home with his termination letter, complaining about the absurdity of a grown man calling a grown woman mummy because she had decided it was the best way to show her respect. He went out every morning for weeks afterward, teeth clenched and tie firmly knotted, patiently circling job advertisements in newspapers although most of them said "Applicant must not be more than thirty-five years," but soon he began to stay at home in a wrapper and singlet, to lounge on the shabby sofa near the radio, to nod mutely each time Ifemelu's mother reminded him that she was struggling to support the family on a teacher's salary.

He spoke the formal, stiff English of an old-fashioned civil servant, and Ifemelu often imagined him in his colonial classroom in the fifties, wearing an ill-fitting school uniform made of cheap cotton, eager to impress his missionary teachers. His handwriting had a terrifying elegance, all the curves perfect, the flourishes unforgiving, and he used an elevated language for everyone, even their househelps who hardly understood English. As a child, he had scolded Ifemelu for being recalcitrant, mutinous, intransigent, words that made her little actions seem epic and almost pride-worthy. But, in the months of his joblessness, he no longer muttered "nation of intractable sycophancy" when the nightly news started on NTA, no longer held long monologues about how Babangida's government had reduced Nigerians to imprudent idiots. And, most of all, he began to join in the morning prayers. He had never joined before; her mother had once insisted that he do so, before leaving to visit their hometown. "You cannot travel to the east unless we pray first, we have to cover the roads with the blood of Jesus," she had said and he replied that the roads would be safer, less slippery, if not covered with blood. Ifemelu missed the man he used to be. She would come home from school and greet him and fight the urge to shout at him because she knew that he, if given another chance, would call his boss mummy.

By the time Aunty Uju moved to Dolphin Estate, Ifemelu had stopped saying "Amen" to her mother's prayers.

"God is faithful. Look at Uju, renting a house on the island!" her mother said.

"It is the General's house, Mummy, Aunty Uju is not paying one kobo to live there," Ifemelu said, knowing that her mother would ignore her.

That Sunday, after a Young Christian Girls meeting, where Sister Ibinabo gave a talk about the sinfulness of tight trousers – "Any girl that wears tight trousers wants to commit the sin of temptation," she said – Ifemelu refused to join in the Sunday Work. They were in the church backroom, cutting and curling pieces of tissue to form flower-shapes that, strung into fluffy garlands, would hang around the thick neck of Chief Omenka and the smaller necks of his family members. He had donated two new vans to the church.

"Where does the man's money come from? Why should I make garlands in church for a thief? The man is a 419," Ifemelu said to the astonished Sister Ibinabo before walking away.

Of course she had joined in making garlands for other 419 men in the past, many of them worshipped at Guiding Spirit after all, men who donated cars with the ease of people giving away chewing gum.

But it was a particularly hot day, period cramps were chewing at her lower belly, and she had looked at Sister Ibinabo – her dried-up face that hoarded years of personal frustrations and made it difficult to tell her age, looking at young girls with a poisonous spite that she pretended was religious guidance – and suddenly saw something of her own mother. Sister Ibinabo was a person who denied that things were as they were. A person who had to place the crown of religion on her own petty desires. It had all seemed benign before, her mother's faith, all drenched in grace, and suddenly it no longer was. Why could her mother not simply like the things Aunty Uju brought as the General's mistress without pretending that they were from God?

At home, her mother slapped her, finger-shaped welts rising on her cheek, and said, "The devil is using you." Later Ifemelu would notice her mother watching her at the dining table, eyes hooded with worry, as though she knew that she was losing her daughter.

"You need somebody to talk sense into your head," her mother said. She would ask Aunty Uju, as she had always done in the past. "Go and give that girl Ifemelu a talking-to," her mother had told Aunty Uju often during the teenage years. "You are the only person she will listen to."

Aunty Uju got along with Ifemelu's mother, the easy relationship between two people who carefully avoided conversations of any depth.

Perhaps Aunty Uju felt gratitude to Ifemelu's mother for not questioning her presence, her status as the special resident relative. Ifemelu had never felt like an only child because of the cousin after cousin, aunt after aunt, uncle after uncle, who lived with them for months, or for years.

Most of them were her father's relatives, brought to Lagos to learn a trade or go to school or look for a job, so that the people back in the village would not mutter about their brother with only one child who did not want to help raise others. Her father tolerated them, with a disciplined obligation, always insisting that everyone be home before 8pm, and locking his bedroom door even when he went to the bathroom.

But Aunty Uju was different. Her father called her his youngest sister although she was the child of his father's brother, and he had always been more protective, less distant, with her. "Uju was too clever to waste away in that backwater," he often said, especially when Aunty Uju brought home yet another school result littered with As. Ifemelu was a surly three-year old who screamed if a stranger came close, but, according to the family legend, the first time she saw Aunty Uju, thirteen and pimply-faced, Ifemelu walked over and climbed into her lap and stayed there. She did not know if this had happened, or had merely become true from being told over and over again, a charmed tale of the beginning of their closeness. It was Aunty Uju who brought her James Hadley Chase novels wrapped in newspaper to hide the near-naked women on the cover, who hot-stretched her hair when she got lice from the neighbours downstairs, who talked her through her first menstrual period, supplementing her mother's lecture that was full of Biblical quotes about a woman's virtue but lacked useful details about cramps and pads. And it was Aunty Uju who, after Ifemelu met Obinze in class four in secondary school and announced that he was the love of her life, told her to let him kiss and touch but not to let him put it inside.

After Aunty Uju moved into her house in Dolphin Estate, Ifemelu would watch her giving instructions to her househelp, Ekaete, and wonder how deeply she had submerged the village girl brought to Lagos, whom Ifemelu's mother mildly complained was so parochial she kept touching the walls, and what was it with all those village people who could not stand on their feet without reaching out to smear their palm on a wall? Now she was twenty-five years old, with two househelps, a driver, and a gardener called Baba Flower. During the week, she hurried home to shower and wait for the General and, on weekends, she lounged in her nightdress, reading or cooking or watching television, because the General was in Abuja with his wife and children. She avoided the sun and used creams in elegant bottles, so that her complexion, already naturally light, became lighter, brighter, and took on a waxy sheen; and at the hair salon, where different shades of female power were most understood, she had all the hairdressers hovering around her, over-praising her handbag and shoes, curtseying deeply as they greeted her.

"Those girls, I was waiting for them to bring out their hands and beg you to shit so they could worship that too," Ifemelu said when she went with Aunty Uju to the salon, and watched the dramatic fawning.

Aunty Uju laughed and patted the silky hair extensions that fell to her shoulders: Chinese weave-on, the latest version, shiny and straight as straight could be; it never tangled. "But you know, we live in an ass-licking economy. The biggest problem in this country is not corruption. The problem is that there are many qualified people who are not where they are supposed to be because they won't lick anybody's ass, or they don't know which ass to lick or they don't even know how to lick an ass. I'm lucky to be licking the right ass." She smiled. "It's just luck. He said I was well-brought up, that I was not like all the Lagos girls who sleep with him on the first night and the next morning give him a list of what they want him to buy. I slept with him on the first night but I did not ask for anything, which was stupid of me now that I think of it but I did not sleep with him because I wanted something. Ah, this thing called power. I was attracted to him even with his teeth like Dracula. I was attracted to his power."

Ifemelu said nothing. Aunty Uju had told her different versions of this story, as though by doing so she, too, would make sense of her attraction to the General.

They were in the cold interior of the Mazda and as the driver backed out of the gates of the salon compound, Aunty Uju gestured to the gate man, rolled down her window and gave him some money.

"Thank you madam!" he said and saluted.

She had slipped naira notes to all the salon workers, to the security men outside, to the policemen at the road junction. "Do you know they aren't paid enough to pay school fees for two children?"

"That small money you gave him will not help him pay any school fees," Ifemelu said.

"But he can buy a little extra something and he will be in a better mood and he will not beat his wife this night," Aunty Uju said. She looked out of the window and said, "Slow down, Baba Sola," so that she could get a good look at an accident on Osborne Road; a bus had hit a car, the front of the bus and the back of the car were now mangled metal, and both drivers were shouting in each other's faces, buffered by a gathering crowd of people. "Where do all these people come from? These people that appear once there is an accident?" Aunty Uju leaned back on her seat. "Do you know I have forgotten what it feels like to be in a bus? It is so easy to get used to all this."

"You can just go to Falomo now and get on a bus." Ifemelu said.

"But it won't be the same. It's never the same when you have other choices." Aunty Uju looked at her. "Ifem, stop worrying about me."

"I'm not worrying." "You are worrying because you think that one day Oga will get tired of me and all of this will disappear and then what will I do? Well, when it disappears, it disappears." Aunty Uju turned back to the window. "You've been worrying since I told you about my account."

It was true. Ifemelu had assumed that Aunty Uju, living in her big pink house with the wide satellite dish blooming from its roof, her generator brimming with diesel, and her freezer stocked with meat, would have a bank account full of money from the General. Even if only to keep her life oiled and running. And so Ifemelu had asked if Aunty Uju could "give something" to her father for their late rent, telling her how the landlord banged on their flat door, a loud unnecessary banging for the benefit of the neighbors, and how he had rushed to the electric meter and yanked off the fuse, while hurling insults at her father. "Are you not a real man? Pay me my money. I will throw you out of this flat if I don't get that rent by next week!"

As Ifemelu mimicked the landlord's voice, a wistful sadness crossed Aunty Uju's face.

"I'll ask Oga. I have nothing in my account. He never gives me big money. He wants me to ask for everything I need. And do you know I have not been paid a salary since I started work? Every day a new story from the accounts people. The trouble started with my position which does not officially exist, but they still send patients to me."

Her tone was flat. She looked suddenly small and bewildered among the detritus of her new life, the fawn-colored jewel case on the dressing table, the silk robe thrown across the bed, and Ifemelu felt frightened for her.

A few days later, Aunty Uju visited Ifemelu's parents and handed her father a plastic bag swollen with cash, "It's rent for two years, Brother," she said, with an embarrassed casualness, and then made a joke about the hole in his singlet. She did not look him in the face as she spoke and he did not look her in the face as he thanked her; it was the easiest way to navigate their new discomfort, by evading each other's eyes.

Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

• Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian writer, based in Nigeria and the US. She won the Commonwealth writers' prize for best first book with Purple Hibiscus (2003) and the Orange prize for fiction in 2007 for Half of a Yellow Sun. The Thing Around Your Neck, an anthology of short stories, was published in 2009

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The GuardianTramp

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