Ikegbunam age group had gone earlier to the Ilo to join their peers from the other three villages in preparation for the festival. They cut, cleared and swept the ground and tied omu nkwu round the whole place. The giant Iroko tree at the rear, wore a blood stained white cloth that waved with the wind as it blew chicken feathers around, which assures of a great tomorrow. An assurance that the gong; big gongs would speak till the third day when the little masquerades would display their new intricate dance steps and chase people around to prepare the ground for the emergence of the big spirits. The children following these masquerades or bear canes for them had been initiated into the cult; otherwise they would have joined the others in fleeing before the mmonwu. Ulaga and Nwaikpo were most exciting. Ulaga mainly sings and its umu ukwu respond while Nwaikpo dances, but often, flog their audience mischievously with their little sticks. Ikeudo and Ajibusu were no mere obere mmonwu. It is only the young men who were tough enough that dare put on the shrouds of such spirits. The chicken hearted ones have nothing to do with awuru mmonwu. Anu ekwo ya akaghi aka, anaghi aga ogu eji mpi anu! This is so with the latter masquerades as they would compete among themselves on who will out do the other in flogging sprees. Who wanted to win would not just run away like a woman but would strive for a clapping lash, shriek loudly and run off with the loud ululation from the crowd of on lookers. Ajaegbuedi the legend Udo would run from one end of the ilo to the other, slaying its invisible opponents with its elastic agba at intervals especially when the other spirits are keeping their distance from it. The crowd would retreat in fear and shout “ichere” with each sharp crack of Ajaegbuedi’s whip whether it landed on a mortal, another spirit or on an invisible opponent. The big bell hung round its waist would ring, with some half cut pods to the rhythm of its unpredictable movements as it awaits a challenge from any Spirit or human. Afterwards, others could take up the Ogbo to display their own finesse and glory.
Ike di na awaja na awaja! Till the great day of the festival, different masquerades would appear with misdemeanors peculiar to its kindred spirits. Some go with attendants, while some are lonely wanderers. There were the Gossips, Tax force; Wine tapers, those that stared and forgot themselves until their partner came to their rescue but the most important feature is the gender; male and female masquerades. Most of the elderly ones are unkempt and emit some awful scents. Akara oke mmonwu bu isi muo. Beard and the ones without beards, Nne mmonwu; fully clad like a woman, Agbogho mmonwu with pointed breasts to umu mmonwu that dance naturally around their mothers like butterflies: representing every age that death could cut across in a fascinating display of the ‘beauty of death’, mma onwu! Every masquerade would emerge from its hole and then go to the Iroko at the Ilo to pay homage before it could take on any other activity.
Muo gi n’ isi (smell)
Mmadu gi n’ isi (blindness)
Kedu maka nna nna m?
O no ofuma
Okoye was still nodding his head recounting how his inattention at his youthful age denied him the knowledge of carving from his mother’s place. If he had shown a little interest, Ofora, his nna ochie, would have taught him and he could have said yes to the nagging question of who would continue from where Omenka stopped! At least, a half breath of yes would be enough to strengthen the morale of Umuokwe. Kama agaghi agba ngo, agbaa n’eku. Onwu gburu Omenka emego anyi ihe! It was at this point that everything stopped. Helplessness stood before the elders of Umuokwe, while silence took the place of the winds. The sun had set. It was cowardice to go home without arriving at hope, yet it was hopeless to sit from dawn to dusk mopping at one another. The tension was high.
Kokokoko! Ka ka-ka-ka-ka-ka-ka! Kakako! Kakoka m! The metallic words sank home and at once, everyone knew it was not the town crier. It was Otaachara. He hit his metal gong rhythmically once more and stopped, his unbroken gaze at the elders of Umuokwe and he said these words,
“Why do you sit like children waiting on an unripe udara to fall? Do your wives cook your soups with unfermented Ogiri paste? The chicks have come to know that the comfort of the shell is not to be compared with scratches at the feast of grasshoppers. But then, Omenka is ready and waiting! Let your spirit meet the great carver at the festival. Ekwuchakwa m!”
He beat his gong affectionately and left his bemused audience through the small path behind Omenka’s homestead. His beatings could still be heard hours after his departure as the wind dispatched some batches of it intermittently. Every village can boast of one mad man or two but there are some whose madness is worse than that of others. Here, in Umuokwe, Otaachara was one good mad man that everyone knew. His madness had a strong string attached to his Ogene and he could beat all day long saying one thing or another. His utterances are laden with mysteries as the day he spoke about the state of the dead in market place;
“Umuokwe, do you all come to the market at the same time? Do you come to buy or sale rotten goods? Do you stay put other than going home when your wares are finished? If an old woman brings forth insect-rippled Ugboguru vegetables to the market, and the bargain is not too good, she alternatively goes home sad with it. When a child defecates without a pointed end, it becomes dysentery. Ekwuchakwa m!”
Otachara never bothered whether he was understood or not, but to end his utterance with ‘ekwuchakwa m’, I have said my piece! He neither called people names nor chased them about like other mad people; though he went about bare footed, his neatness was incomparable. Why was Otachara called mad. I, Mgbirimgba Atuegwu understood that our failure to understand him is our own madness. He spoke of sheathing our manhood… was it not madness for our brother Ogwu to have gone into awuru mmonwu right from where he met his wife? The death that kills a dog first makes it unable to perceive the smell of excreta. Was three days of sexual abstinence too much for a man who has a wife to keep in order to assume a spiritual form for a day? Such was the madness that killed our brother Ogwumagana. Such was the premonition buried in the words of Otachara. Indeed, the rodent that wants to feed from tubers, must not mind the taste of earth. Indeed, impatience and disinterestedness have eaten deep into the roots of the proverbs that convey the spirit of our being.
The elders stood up gradually and left without speeches; yet echoes of unresolved worries ran beneath their red feathered caps. Some hesitated before making a step, a stylish way of dealing with cramps lest a titled man falls. The body is like a pot of red oil. When it stays for a long time in a place, it congeals until it is shaken to loose its grip. That is what atita ngwere does on the body. Like needle that could cease the nerves and make the body numb for a while until the blood runs through it evenly. The day is gone and we have only a day left before our whispers are heard. Every grey head became sober as each walked home through the dark path that cuts across a bush to his home.
It was another test of fate, such that Umuokwe had when Okeokwe threatened to wipe away our young men and take our daughters. They have fought in distant lands and taken spoils of heads, goats, and women home, but our men were not afraid of them. Then Nwanze had not taken to wine. He took to arms with other fearless young men, but they were stopped. Yes, they had to be stopped for it has never been ideal for two people to go mad at the same time; but come to think of it, if Otiji, Otiji nkporugwu were alive, would they dare? They dared not! Besides, nka ka okenye ji agbara ehi oso. Our elders sent emissaries with a lump of nzu but Okeokwe treated them scornfully and called us cowards that were not men enough to take up our machetes and clubs? Our youth said yes, but the council of elders said no. What was the need to spill our blood, to fight with our lives and live the rest in misery and pains? So Umuokwe sent some pots of palm wine to them. They drank our wine and broke a pot on our spokesman’ head. Blood streaked down his head till they came home. Our youth rose but were calmed down like a live charcoal that stood amidst a heap of ash. Those who had seen war knew it was not what one rushes into in haste. What the bitter kola sounds in the ear is totally different from its real taste in the mouth, but if a struggle is not put at the pathway behind ones house, the trespass would never cease. We were not children, and even if we were, a child knows how to bite or beat in retaliation.
Indeed, it was high time Okeokwe was told that the gentle strides of the Tiger had never been a sign of cowardice. Umuokwe youths could not take it any more as their blood boiled like water and tension built up so much that it could be felt with closed eyes. War songs, violence and doom rolled through the mouth of invisible war drums. The youth saw it in our eyes and were prancing like a caged hungry lion. They went down to Ezu Lake to smear their faces with brown and black mud. The gazelle before a hungry lion is only a heap of flesh and by the fall of the dawn, Okeokwe shall pay for their outrages and there was no need to wait on the weakness and fragility of old age. They would break through the thick forest over the mountains and through the caves. Okeokwe would be on the siege and would be wrestled down unexpectedly through the back. So, they went down silently like soldier ants with neither torches nor songs as not to be seen or heard. Such a dreaded path at noon was not the safest even in the dead of a dark night. How could the elders know when nights rest assuages waist and knee pains at sleep. Or could they have known they hid their weapons of warfare in the branches of wood, one or two bore across at intervals. When a group of two walked into the bush late at this time, it was either for a group hunting or initiation into the masquerade cult. Hence, the few elders that met them were neither keen to weigh their greetings nor to know whose sons they were. The night fizzled away restfully and without complacency, the snoring that sweetens the night’s rest was unusually interrupted by the howling of the owls and other nocturnal squeaking. One who has a big boil in between his buttocks always sits down with caution.
We woke before our chickens to hear that our youths went down the Iyi valley intent on revenge against Okeokwe. In their hurriedness, they forgot to alert the spirits that human were coming down. They saw what should not be seen and all fainted. They remembered nothing not even how they were gathered at the Uderemani. They could only recall that a female voice was repeatedly saying,
“Do not hurt them, my children, for they are also my children.”
It was no other spirit than Enemma, the mother of the four villages of Okeokwe, Okwekokwe, Nneokwe and Umuokwe; the benign and beautiful wife of Okwe. Every child knew Enemma for her proverbial dominance in their folk tales, but none, not even the elders have once set eyes on her. But she was commonly felt, just like the breeze is felt in the trees battling with winds. Our fathers told us about her, and we told our own children,
Ene enee ooo oma m e
Enemma muru omumu, nwunye nna m e
Aguu guwa nwa, Ene enye ya nri e
Akpiri kpowa nku, Nne enye ya mmiri e
Enema muru omumu nwunye nna m doo
It was the chorus in line of the popular tales that celebrated Enemma across the villages and even beyond. A favourite for the children, especially in singing a baby to a sleep and indeed, Enemma was an epitome of beauty. Our rivers do not drown strange people not to talk of our people. Enema, according to what Atuegwu told me instructed them not to drown those who came to them. Uchu and Ula Rivers defiled her instructions because they thought she had no powers and filled their watery bellies with people who came to quench their thirst and cool their bodies from the scorching sun. Infuriated, Enemma went to Oshimiri, the head source of waters and danced for him from one Eke day to another. Oshimiri was so impressed that he gave her Ozua, Ezu, Ula and Uchu as present for each of the market days she graced his court. When she came back, she let stones, white pebbles and sands tell the stories that there once were rivers in the deserted sites where Ula and Uchu once reigned supreme. Such was the power Enemma wielded.
We never went to war and all transgressions were forgiven. Enemma may have intervened but it is not for mortals like me to know.
It was nostalgic as the mmanwu festival loomed closer. Our youths began to recover, when like a wild fire it spread that Okeokwe said that they were disappointed in the femininity of Umuokwe. They called us bearded women on red caps. They said that we were men without manhood! Aru! Abomination! And they also said they were waiting to scoop igwugwu sand in our eyes if we dared to display our feminine masquerade at the Uta. That was how our predicament became worse than the issue of how to pursue the tsetse fly that perched on the scrotum. Strike it hard and hurt terribly or leave and risk been sucked to death. If only Omenka were alive to finish that mask, we would have shown them that an old woman is never old in the dance she knows how to dance. Ma anu gbana taa, echi bu nta. Such was the hope, the strength and the spirit that kept us going. The animal that ran away did not flee to nowhere for its footprints and ours are still on the earth of Umuokwe. At the Ilo Uta, comes the festival, and we shall be forced by circumstance to sit like women and watch other men treat us with scorn and make us resemble what they said we looked like. Umuokwe have been pushed to the stage where despair has no place. Omenka! Onwu gburu Omenka emego anyi aru!