by Ugochukwu Ogbonna
There exist some excruciating moments when you wish tomorrow is never birthed. Your mind is tortured by flash-forwards of the mind-wrenching pain you will inevitably undergo. I stand at the threshold of this unwanted break of dawn.
Olanma, my sister, had eloped with her lover, with what the whole village rumoured a pregnancy. I thought I was the only person who enjoyed the turn of events, initially. I might have even suggested Ola’s decision. My mother had been staging a performance of pain and disappointment, but Mama, Ola and I were in on this. Papa had forbidden us from relating with the boys from the village just after ours, and had in fact, given our hands in marriage to two older men – men who were old enough to father our mother. These men were short, burly and everything nauseating. The only reason Papa wanted to marry us to these men was that they had promised to donate a land to Papa. A land so vast he could cultivate any crop he so desired. Ola and I just turned sixteen and Papa had intended our ‘igbankwu’ six months from now. Ola defied Papa, went away with Onyeka from the very village we had been instructed against.
I am, in many ways, different from my twin sister – identical physique and facial markings. Ola is quick, defiant and glib; I am reserved, docile and exude a lot of diplomacies.
Prior to Ola’s absconding, Papa and a host of dignified men in our village had been selected to occupy the office of ‘Red-Cap-Chiefs’. This portfolio is accompanied with much dignity, respect and honour not excluding the mouth-watering benefits that abound. Hence, my sister’s action has dented the perfect record of Papa’s selection.
‘We didn’t think this through’. The voice in my chest whispers.
It has been three days since Ola left and the Council of Chiefs have summoned Papa as his prospect of occupying this revered office is threatened. I peep through the window of our ‘obi’ and I see him walking out of our compound. His face smeared with pain mixed with disgust. He walks briskly, throwing his walking stick first as his weary legs straddle along.
My chest is filled with guilt. I wonder as I sit on my low wooden chair as Mama braids my thick black hair. My forehead rests on her laps. I drink in the scent of her pomade, mixed with the smell of ingredients, on her faded wrapper. I jostle to reality as she tightens the thread on my head. I hold the side of my head to relieve the pain and feel the guilt pour down my soul. An unusual conversation goes on between Mama and me. Not with our mouths, but our hearts sing and reply through the fastened rhythm of our pulses.
Just as the sun begins to bid us a good night, Papa walks in. His face holds no pretence of what might have transpired. I avoid his daunting, loving eyes and greet him. A frog nearby croaked annoyingly and it almost seemed like an outright display of mockery on us all.
‘Nna Nno’, I greet him. He nods and walks straight into his obi.
I looked into mama’s milky eyes, searching for clues, fully aware of how powerfully they communicated through glances. She always bore the brunt of his wrath; and this time, he had given her a piercing, icy look.
Thirty minutes after his arrival, Papa calls me into his obiand offers me the warm nylon he fetched from his bag. I open it and begin to devour the roast ‘Oka’ and ‘Ube’.
He comments on how pretty my neatly braided hair is. Despite his pretentious smiles and chatter, I know something unpleasant looms. Papa’s love overwhelms me; thinking about this, I sit with him, holding my head in my palm until I fall asleep.
The sound of deep sobs intrudes my peaceful sleep. I open one eye, then the other and sit up with a start, hearing muffled crying and following the sound until I am just at the entrance to the obi. It is Mama. Mama Chisorom, Njideka and Ujunwa serenade her. I scan the compound with my eyes, looking for Papa, and see him sitting with four other respected chiefs under the beautiful Udalatree. There is ‘orji’ on the table before them. My heart skips a beat, I wonder if Ola is fine. I step out of the obiand pause, feeling as if a hundred eyes are looking at me. I run shaky fingers on quivering lips and force myself toward Papa. I had a feeling that I was going to be punished. I needed to know what punishment had been prescribed. Now, I reach where Papa is sitting and greet the chiefs who answer me averting their eyes and begin to excuse themselves one after the other until only Papa is left sitting. He pats the bench beside him for me to sit, and when I do he reaches out for my hand, holds it so tight that it causes me some discomfort. He suddenly looks ten years older and there is so much sorrow in his eyes; he’s visibly struggling with something and I know it has to do with me, the way he’s holding my hand says it all. I urge him repeatedly to tell me what is going on and after some resistance; he stands up and gestures toward his obi. Still holding my hand, he leads me into the obi.
The verdict concerning Papa’s appointment as a “Red-Cap-Chief” is that I, Oluchi will be circumcised the next day.
My mind is paralyzed, my heart is seared and my body is and would be broken. I am the redemptive soul, the sacrificial lamb, been led helplessly to the slaughter, for Papa. It was the tradition, our long-esteemed culture and I could not run from it. It was rumoured that my sister and I had the blood of our grandmother running through us. Mgborie. our grandmother, from the stories we heard, eloped with her teenage lover months after she was coerced into a marriage she abhorred. They said we looked ‘promiscuous’ and if I could not be curtailed, I would do worse than Ola did.
I looked at myself in the mirror. Of course, I had matured very early. I looked like a woman in her early twenties already, all thanks to the rotund and firm mounds of flesh on my chest. I looked down at my waist and could not help but appreciate the eight-figure wrapped around my hips. Hot tears ran down my eyes as I took my last look at this version of me. I will not run away; I will stay for Papa. I will bear the pain and then heal. Will I ever heal?
I blinked as the tears fall off my eyes. I had been kneeling for the past thirty minutes. Mosquitoes singing their irking songs over my threaded hair, while the red ants threaten me by hovering around my drill ground. I watch with blurry vision at the direction where papa is sitting. This usually was the drill; before papa acquitted you of his punishments, he made sure you cried. This was to serve as a deterrent to my other siblings. I had mastered this art. I could even laugh cry.
I was being punished for trying to run, seeking to save my life and escape the unbearable pain that awaits me. This time mama was kneeling with me. She had a black eye. Papa had found out our ploy. Mama had arranged with her sister, Ojiugo to run with me. Look where our plans had landed us!
For the umpteenth time, my eyes made direct contact with Papas’, and somehow, I read what his chalky coloured eyes bore. My mind flashed back to the beautiful memories I had with him and for some reasons, each fibre that strung our relationship snapped.
Papa is our hero. He exudes strength, wisdom and intelligence. Proverbs characterize his daily speech and on warm April nights, we would all sit together, cuddling into each other and drink from the well of his literary prowess. Once, every while, he tells us stories in the English language, but when it comes to the story of how the “Ndi Oyibo” intruded into our society, he speaks in fluent Igbo, gesticulating perfectly and using us sometimes as figures in his stories.
Nonso, my brother is also kneeling.
I had etched for myself a sweet spot in Papa’s heart. This was not so due to my being the firstborn-twin-child but like I had heard him say repeatedly, I was and I am an ensemble of the remarkable fabric that he was made of. I had a special bond with my father. Ola was closest to Mama.
Nonso, my brother had rolled over when I was four. That did not stop Papa from his preferential treatment of me. In fact, it seemed like he had two sons. Whenever we had to eat chicken in our soup, he reserved the head and gizzard for us both. We took turns taking Papa’s stool for functions at the village square.
Nonso’s disinterest in leading and taking charge as the first and only son created a vacuum in papa’s heart. My desire, however, to lead, was insatiable. I wanted to eat kola nuts when my Uncles came visiting and drink palm wine, listening to them talk. Nonso wanted to be an average male child. The pressures of taking charge were overwhelming. He seemed ok being the ‘second son’. The extent to which I could lead was limited; Society’s growling breath was-is rancid, I could not deal.
I blink my swollen eyes, and I am greeted by the pain that characterizes my waking these days – the pain I never get used to. I look and see mama and Papa standing at the door. Papa looks at me for a second, tries to hide the red-suede cap and bows his head in shame. Mama is gesturing to someone outside, I cannot see what she is communicating, but nothing matters now. I feel naked, soiled and broken. My legs are still quivering, amused by this form of affliction. My mouth is dry.
I try so hard to delete the memory from my head. It is still as fresh as the ‘ugwu’ leaves Mama uses to prepare my best soup. Even in my sleep, the whole scene is repeated, but at least I do not feel this terrible pain. I see the five huge women who stripped me of my femaleness. How they opened my legs to sear my soul, tore the perfection the Creator carved, destroyed my hidden strength, without fear or empathy. They reached in and sliced my dignity, peeled off the essence of my sexuality. I knew I must have ‘died’ in the process.
Papa loves me and so do I. My mind is playing tricks on me. Maybe, just maybe, I am a man. I would heal down there. Even if I did, I am sure my soul never would. The physical injury would heal, but I never would.
My mind is paralyzed, my heart is seared and my body is broken. Tears flow through swollen lids.
Igbankwu-Wine carrying (marriage ceremony)
Nna Nno– Father, welcome
Ugwu– Pumpkin Leaves
Ndi Oyibo– The Whites