That Omenka was dead at the most crucial time Umuokwe needed him most made no sense. I am Mgbirimgba, the elder who has led you this far. The dove called kpalakwukwu said that it is necessary to remind men of its name, because it is easier to appropriate what has no identity than what everyone knows who the owner is. Thus, it coos its name regularly on the tree tops when everywhere is calm.
I am Mgbirimgba Atuegwu, the bell that rings without fear or favour. By my akaraka, I am destined to be the custodian of time from the time my father handed his ofo to me. Yet, I struggle to guard what I was told and guide what I behold. The names of our forefathers are being forgotten save for the few whose children’s children bear their names in whole or part. My grandfather’s name was Atu and my father’s Atuegwu. Who knows what names my sons would take when I join our ancestors? I had taken the horse to the stream by naming my first son Egwuatu and the other Chetenna. I hope they understand why the deer and its young put on the same skin. Wait, that my daughter, Ugonna married many farm lands away from Umuokwe named her only son Azubuike is something with which to count on women. My father whispered to me on the eve of my marriage to Akuoye, that a woman is like a cassava stem. It is insignificant and not celebrated in the festival of farm products; but it yields in fields and feeds a generation. Ugonna, may omumu increase your womb. When the ram retreats, it gathers more strength for the fight ahead. Atuegwu, my father! A wise man that revered only three things in his life: his Chi, Ekemma Uche my mother and his stomach, peace.
I am still Mgbirimgba that knows no fear, but the mystery of life rings more bells in my head than I have ever laid claim to have rung. I was rubbing Atuegwu with a concoction prepared by Akpiri on his legs when Ekemma Uche came into the Obi. It was late in the still night apart from the nocturnal animals that scurried around. The black bird nkwo mmuo was howling some distance away, an omen that a death would be recorded.
“Di m oma.” She greeted my father, looked at me briefly, turned her attention to my father and continued. “I will leave earlier, so I can sweep your Obi and cook your food”.
I thought it was old age that was speaking, but I was led to the gate of sleeplessness with my father’s response of,
“Ngwanu, a na m abia. I will be right behind you. Ihe emeghi n’izu, o mee n’onwa”
Very early the next day, he took me to his farm and showed me where he parted boundaries with Ugonabo and Odum. He gave me a hoe and a machete and drew me close as if he would point at something. Any time Atuegwu cleared his voice to talk, the spirits listened.
“He who embraces the hoe is
never harassed by hunger because to
work is to live. With its knees,
the hoe looks after this land. With the
tongue of the machete, you destroy to build.
Beyond that Ogirisi, towards the Ukpaka tree
is where our farm land started;
but Ugonabo woke up one
morning to contest it.
The case is still with the Otimgbodomgbo
He stopped as the wind filtered in a dirge from a distance. I looked at him for explanation but he only laughed in his customary way and said,
“O kpotuo, it has happened!”
I pondered at what had happened as Mmaduabuchi ran in towards us stumbling on the freshly cultivated mounds like a hare pursued by a hound. I ran to him but he shoved me aside to fall at Atuegwu’s feet and spurted,
“Nna anyi, it is Ekemma. Ekemma Uche alaa muo!”
The rest at the farm happened at my heels as I fled home the way Mmaduabuchi came. My mind only remembered “O kpotuo” as I tried in vain to understand her very last words.
On the third day after the burial of Ekemma, Atuegwu woke up earlier than usual and began to tidy his little hut. He woke me later and took me to his barn,
“Bring that ji ocha, the big one” he said.
Behind the vague unfolding dawn I could barely see any mournful expression on the old man’s face. Some patches streaked his legs from the areas where dried white concoction flaked off. His swollen legs were the only sickness of his grey hairs, but the liquid nzu is as potent as the man who prepared it. His sight was that of a kite in the sky to a chicken on the ground. Coming out from the barn, he pointed at an over turned old basket and told me to kill the fowl under it. Though its legs were tied with a dried plantain string; there was no fear of escaping because chickens are generally drowsy or dillydally at this time. Both the fowl and the yam were roasted. As the day gradually opened its eyes, people began passing across his thatched hut in one and twos. Mmaduachi came in, followed by Ozogbulu dangling a keg of mmanya ngwo on his right hand.
I was pounding the bitter utazi leaves with some pepper when Chiene, Nwanze’s father came in through the azu owelle. He smacked his tongue, peeped into the basket of the roasted yam and made for the frontage soliloquizing. When the vulture is scarce at a sacrifice, something very serious must have happened in the spirit land! Chiene doesn’t care whose mournful wailing it is, but what the oracle speaks when offered a lobe of kola nut. His father was a native doctor and on several occasions had told his kinsmen to give him food lest he pronounced what the spirit did not say,
“…maka na-akwuru onu na-achu aja, anya huhie, onu ekwuhie!”
Chiene’s voice became clearer when he confirmed over the brink of his eyes that the feast was about to be served,
O onwu ghara!
Ihe onwu na-eme!
Onwu gburu ji, onwu gburu ede.
Ma okpoko nri dabara n’ofe
Adaghi ajo ada
Maka na mgbada dara ibi
Bu uru dinta
Ihe onye riri ka o bu ala mmuo
Atuegwu kasie o
Nri m, Odogwu…”
The steak of fawn staring at him cut his reverie short. He sat down as I brought in the basket with the oku in which the ngu recipe was prepared. Chiene stood up and sat down withholding his drive of not needing any invitation at meals. He knew Atuegwu does not eat or drink without libation to his Chi and ancestors. Ozogbulu sneered at him and asked if he was reincarnated by one starved to death. Mmaduabuchi hid his reactions for the proverb, “when a child washes his hands, he eats with his elders” does not mean he could tamper with the pieces of fish in the soup if his father does. Otherwise, with his hot-temperedness as a short man, he could have shown him what fire does with the ears of a rat!
Apart from the sudden cough that came on Chiene when a piece of yam strode into his trachea and he kept calling for wine as if water will not be in a better position to flush it, the rest of the day was uneventful. As dusk peeped in gradually through the weary eyes of the sun, the guests left as they had come; and my anxiety breathed like a boil about to rupture. I stayed at a place like a chicken dust bathing in hot igwugwu sand. I heard him clear his voice and rose to the bait of the unknown. He called for the reserved parts of the chicken – the trunk to its buttocks, the gizzard and a lap. He cleared his voice again and my heart skipped a beat as he speaks,
“The fall of a ripe breadfruit is not a loss to its tree, though it may seem but also and a gain to its owner or whoever lays hand on it first.”
I pondered over the proverb upon the chunk of dried gizzard he gave me. Women and children don’t eat eke na ike okuko but my father Atuegwu had given me gizzard to eat. He said that the thing beneath my groin is no longer naked so I was a man.
“Work so that you cannot only give to your visitors, but teach them to work so that no one dies at dusk. It is very bad for one to die before the evening meal is cooked, for before he reaches the land of the spirit they must have done with their supper.” He looked silently into the horizon.
I looked at the moon that was running as if something was pursuing it and cut another piece of the meat but as my teeth was about to celebrate with my tongue, Atuegwu coughed and I swallowed the chunk. I remembered what he once said, that whether a piece of meat was chewed or not before swallowing, the most important thing is that it is in the stomach. This comforted me regrettably. I turned to him as he speaks softly,
“The journey of life that starts in
a day and ends in another day is a distant one,
but the journey that begins after it is like jumping
from here to the end of the sky.
Everything about life is work, eat and rest.
So, my son ka chi foo.
The night calls for a rest.”
Omekannaya, indeed is not a bad name. That night, the jingles in my head rang louder than the big bell hung on Ukpaka Egbutumma by the white missionaries. I swore that my eyes would know no sleep; neither would I go into my hut. I stared at Atuegwu as he sipped the left over wine with his mpi Atu. As my eyes blurred, it seemed his heads were struggling to drink from the antelope’s horns in his right hands as my thought drifted to death and the many people it had taken on its one way journey.
Atuegwu and I sat together in his Obi. He drew nzu on the floor and rolled it over to me. We were quite in a lively mood, and I looked at what he had drawn and drew mine. I saw him nodding as if I was standing beside him. He gave me a kola nut and told me to keep it beside me; and brought another one which he broke with his thumb’s nails.
“Oji agbaa ano!” He shouted, “four lobes of kola nut, four market days of Eke, Oye, Afo and Nkwo. It’s a good one my son”.
He drank some wine and gave me the mpi Atu, which I took and finished the content. He then brought out his ofo and gave to me… Speechless, I looked at him but I began to shiver as Ekemma walked in urging me to take the staff.
“It will not burn you my son. Hold that staff well and never allow the fire of its foundation to die. Drink, drink of wisdom from immortality” Ekemma said.
Her last words barely fizzled away when one of the legs of the stool on which Atuegwu sat cracked! I rose up like one stung by an unknown insect…
Amadioha o! It was a dream. I was like someone by a fore stand, massaged with okwuma balm. I opened my eyes like a fish doped out of water but could hardly comprehend what I saw, since I knew that if I had slept off, it would be in the mbara. So I expected it would be palm trees and the ogbu tree in the centre of the compound around me, but it was not so. It was as if something held me down from my wake as cocks crows welcomed the new dawn. The morning sieved in through a hole as if I were in a cave. Could this also be a dream; staring at the dried goat skin hung at the corner of Atuegwu’s hut. I jerked up, my heart pounding like a heavy loaded local canon guns.
“Oketagbara!” I shouted.
My shivering hand clenched at the ancient piece of wood I last saw my father with… or was it still a dream. Atuegwu used to say there are things on earth only Chi could explain, but I had never thought it was true. How could I explain staying out late with my father and waking up in his hut with his ofo in my hand? The roof I last slept under when I was still bathing on my belly. Atuegwu was not strong enough to have carried me in, neither was I drunk to have walked in and slept where other lesser spirits dread to thread! True to my father’s words, only the gods can explain how all these things happened and how water filtered into the stem of the fluted pumpkin.
I sprang to my feet with the ofo in my hand as the flute of Ogbuoja pierced the quietness of the morning. I could hear my name in the notes of his oja and intermittently, I deciphered a dirge. The wooden gong calls upon a warrior on two occasions, one in life to run his course and the other at death to calm his spirit. I ran to the obi and saw Atuegwu dressed in his full ozo regalia. His countenance was white and blissful. The flute crept in again serenely with a resonance of,
“Dike alaa na mmuo.”
I called Atuegwu by his name, but he did not answer. I pranced forward and called him again, but only silence spoke very loudly. It was death. Atuegwu was dead! Onwu, ogbu onye mgbe ndu di ya uto! Death, our ancestors interested you with names and supplication, yet you snatched them away one after the other. They dreaded and at the same time revered you. They resigned to you that you may spare them yet you never did.
Onwuemerie! Death, you have conquered, and with this manner you have convened people from their homes like the gathering of ants. The day one mourns for another is the day he mourn himself. However, when an old tree falls, its stock rises in its place. Henceforth I, Mgbirimgba Atuegwu, the son of his father have assumed the staff of authority to serve the oracle of my Umuokwe. I have become my father… and thus older than my age. Onye bidoro na nwata buwe ofo umunna, ndi muo mere ya okenye na nwa! As people streaked in wailing, some falling and rolling as if it were their father that died, I looked through the cloud of tears in my eyes and saw no one because they all moved from the Obi to where I stood with sad faces. A man weeps in his heart. Did I weep as heavy sighs and moaning filtered like the droning of the bees? Indeed, Atuegwu was the jewel of Okwe and people of Umuokwe gathered heavily in his Obi to pay their last respect. Onwu! O baforo be onye?
O kpotuo na be Omenka!