Tuesday 26th December, 2006
Eke Market Day.
Strangers were ahead of me making hand gestures and screaming some unintelligible words. Children were jumping down from trees like missiles and dashing away just as soon as their feet touched the ground. A cloud of dust hovered in front of my compound gate like the aftermath of a mini tornado. It was like the god of chaos had chosen the obori in front of my house as its playground and I was the befuddled spectator. However, all of that disarray seemed to make sense in one stupefying moment of clarity as I heard fiam behind me.
Earlier that day…
At twelve years old, all I really looked forward to was December and holiday trips. Were my parents going to decide on somewhere fancy? Not likely. Was it going to be someplace new? Probably not. But every year since I turned four, I would listen keenly after morning prayers during the December holidays, hoping that an announcement for the holiday location would be made. And every year it came. My mother’s village first, then my father’s in that order. So I didn’t expect this year to be much different.
“Let’s go and fetch water from the stream.” Chudi strutted into the living room, announcing to no one in particular. His voice had grown deeper since the last time I saw him and his fair skin rippled with muscles on his arm and chest—I suspected it was why he barely wore a shirt anymore. He had grown taller as well, taller than the living room door which ushered us into the general living room. It was like an unspoken rule in the family, if you grew taller than the living room door, then you were automatically accorded the respect of the elders, and the responsibilities.
“But it’s very early nau and the harmattan is serious,” Edu whined. Edu was like a younger version of Chudi and both were sons of Aunty Nelo, my mother’s older sister. The physical characteristics between the two were just as far as the resemblance went. The difference in their personalities rivaled the distance between the North Pole and the South Pole.
Edu was currently lounging on the three-seat sofa by my left and tapping away on his SAGEM phone, like it was the most important task in the world.
“That’s my problem with you. You’re just very lazy… ” Chudi began. He looked like he was about to say more but I had been in too many confrontations between the brothers in the past few days and frankly, I wasn’t about to watch another go down.
“Ka’m soro gi,” I volunteered.
I wasn’t sure what made me more uncomfortable, the surprised looks from both brothers or the fact that I actually said ‘Let me go with you’ in flawless Igbo. My prowess shocked even me and from the widened eyes and the dropped jaws of the two other occupants in the room, I could tell that the matter was going to spread to our other cousins before the end of the day.
Chudi looked at me curiously and I felt even smaller than I was on the lone sofa which sat at the far left of the large living room. It was whispered to have been my grandfather’s favorite seat before he passed.
“I ma-anya bicycle?” Chudi asked, still staring at me. He had crossed over from the door where he had stood to the left part of the room where I sat and he was peering down at me.
“Yes. I can ride a bicycle.” I swallowed nervously. An eternity of silence and scrutiny seemed to pass before Chudi spoke again.
“Ngwanu. Let’s go.” Chudi turned to leave and I hurried to my feet to catch up with him.
“Hian. Okwa you people know that today is Iri obolo. Akam adịrọkwa ya o!” Edu called after us but I was too invested in doubling my steps to catch up with my older cousin to pay attention to his warning.
The air outside was different. It smelled clean and cool unlike the stuffy air we were used to in the city which had an almost perpetual hint of smoke and rotting matter. The skies were clear and the morning sun illuminated the day in its full glory. It would have been a harsh, dry ride to the stream with my cousin but the trees on both sides of the narrow road provided shade and the occasional harmattan breeze complimented the hot weather.
“What is Iri obolo?” I asked after up to seven kilometres of silence, riding behind Chudi.
He seemed taken aback, like he had just realised that I was around him. The reaction didn’t surprise me. My siblings and I had been tagged the ‘ụmụ township’ probably on account of our reticence at family gatherings or maybe the fact that we spoke fluent English practically all the time and barely made conversations in Igbo. So anything we did in the village, especially in the midst of the extended family, was regarded curiously.
“Well…” Chudi’s voice trailed off, as if he was looking for the right words to say. He took one hand off the bicycle handle to scratch the frohawk he kept. I thought he looked like a white cock with his very fair skin and the frohawk but that thought was probably one of the items in the long list of things I would never say.
“Okay, you know how during the festive periods, we see masquerades and all of that, right?” Chudi paused, maybe because we had reached the stream or maybe because he had expected me to respond. So when he stopped his bike and shot me a look, I nodded obediently.
“Iri obolo is something like that.” He parked our bikes and started untying the 25litres gallon secured tightly to the carrier of his bicycle. I took the cue and began to untie my much smaller burden of a yellow 10litres gallon.
“Wow.” I whispered when I saw the stream. The water was clear and rays of sunlight bounced off the surface making it gleam like a polished mirror. The trees at the banks boasted ripe, succulent looking ụdara fruits. Vivid green of leaves blended with the bright red and orange of fruits and the deep brown of the earth. It felt like I was just seeing colours for the first time in my life.
“First time?” Chudi asked but I could only nod in response, unable to tear my eyes away. My eyes were greedy for sight, like I had been looking at the world with blurry lenses and I was just seeing it clearly for the first time.
“So instead of the normal parade, the masquerades actually go about their business like normal human beings. It usually falls on the Orie market day, I think…” he grunted like he was trying to lift something. I turned to him and realised he had filled both gallons without my notice and was then securing each to the carriers of the bicycles. “That’s tomorrow,” he continued. “People are usually advised to stay indoors so as not to provoke the wrath of the spirits but they don’t usually come out till around 3 in the evening or so.”
“But if tomorrow is Orie market day, and the Iri obolo falls on Orie market day, why would Edu be talking about it like it’s happening today? But that also makes today Eke market day, right? And no masquerades on Eke market day, right?” I asked in quick successions. I could feel my heart beat in excitement.
“Look, I don’t know. It could be Eke, it could be Orie. Let’s just get home.” Chudi snapped. He looked at the watch on his left wrist and frowned a little. “Well, it’s some minutes to 12 now. We should be getting home by after 12 or so. So you don’t have anything to worry about,” he said casually.
I hoped he was right. And while I didn’t want to have to add angered spirits to my problems, I prayed my mother would not discover my absence while I was gone, nor would she find out that I had lied to my cousin about her giving me permission to leave the compound.
The ride home was silent and Chudi rode ahead of me while I leisurely rode behind.
The midday sun was directly above our heads, like personalised mobile hair dryers which followed our every move. The road was deserted or so, I felt, but the absence of humans drew my attention to the different kinds of trees decorating the dusty path.
At some point, I must have gotten distracted by the scenery and serenity of the view that when I looked ahead, Chudi was far gone.
I pedalled a little faster but as I got closer to the obori about three kilometres away from my compound gate, I felt a tingling sensation at the nape of my neck. Something was wrong.
Children were dashing into compounds ahead of me. A couple of people were making hand gestures at me from their homes. It didn’t make sense but they had one thing in common, a petrified look on their faces.
It was at some point in my confused state that I felt a swish of air behind me, like something just cut the air and narrowly missed hitting me. I turned back and the sight I caught was one that would never leave my mind in a hurry. Three masquerades, heavily armed with canes were in hot pursuit after me.
If there were to be a superhero who excelled at cycling, then it would have probably been me. I was screaming and crying and pedalling all at the same time. I made several promises to my maker at that point.
“Don’t look back!” I heard someone scream in front me, snapping my head forward while in mid-turn.
There was Chudi, bright yellow skin and dark dishevelled hair, standing in front of the compound gate. He held the small door open with one hand and with the other hand he was beckoning on me and steadily screaming ‘Don’t look back!’.
The relief I felt was like adrenaline to my heart because I pedalled with strength I didn’t know I had. I could hear screams and chants from the masquerades behind me but they were faded by the time the first tyre of my bicycle crossed the compound gate.
Chudi lifted me out from the seat, dragged the bicycle in and shut the door in super human speed. All I could hear was his grunts above my racing heart.
Before I could thank Chudi for saving my life, I felt a palm land on my left cheek.
“…igbu onwe gi? What is wrong with you?” I heard when the ringing in my ears eventually stopped. I shook my head to clear the stars I was seeing at that point.
Aunt Nelo was holding my enraged mother while shooting death stares at Chudi. My mother seemed ready to launch another attack.
“Nneka, hapụ ụmụaka biko. Nke unu mee karịrị.” A hoarse voice caused all of us to turn to its direction. My mother’s cursing and fussing immediately ceased. The only person in the world that could have that effect on my mother was Mama Nnukwu, my grandmother.
Mama Nnukwu took me and Chudi from our mothers amidst muttered protests and led us to her room where we spent the rest of the day.
Though I was able to escape my mother’s wrath that day, I learnt a few valuable life lessons. One, Iri obolo starts from Eke market day and lasts through the four days of the week before the last week of the thirteenth month of the year. Two, the masquerades come out by noon and they run as fast as cars. Lastly, always double check facts to avoid stories that touch the heart.
Ngwanụ – Alright.
Obori – open space
Ụdara – African star apple fruit