By Eke O. Theophilus
Half the whole village celebrated the arrival of the unread letter. Their main cause of jollity was not because of what might be the content of the letter or that it was sent from one of Agbadi’s long lost sons, but because of the fact that a letter was given to an individual in the compound.
Rarely would any letter be brought to anyone in the compound so this, being among the “once in a while ones” and the most relevant because of where it came from, brought a lot of happiness to its recipient and others who did not even know what a letter meant.
Back at Agbadi’s hut, all respected individuals in the whole compound were present. The combination of the croaky voices of the women singing outside, the sound of finger nails against Pa Buwa’s skin and the jokes from Anachu brought laughter to all. They all formed a semi-circle round Agbadi, who sat on his bed like a King.
Present was Pa Buwa, the younger brother to Pa Juba. He had veracious rash under his lap and he scratched it always to the extent that it turned black. He was a dealer in sugar cane.
Anachu, the compound maintenance man; who never got more than five shillings a week was among them. Uwah sat down there also. He never spoke unless the issue burnt in his mind. All his words were full of disdain. He had an extra large head for a petite body.
Finally, was Pa Juba. Age had befallen him that everyone wished him death as good luck. He was toothless, bald and wrinkled. He was one of those men, whom no one knew their exact age. People graded him a hundred and thirty years; even more. These four, including Agbadi were the eldest in the compound.
‘Who would have thought that we would ever receive an international mail,’ Anachu said focusing his gaze at the letter on Agbadi’s lap.
‘Do you know that you’re an idiot?’ snapped Agbadi.
Pa Buwa laughed, rolling himself on the ground and holding his ribs as if preventing it from cracking.
‘Is the letter for you?’ Agbadi paused to take a breath.
‘I own the letter, I and I alone. So don’t mention “we” again and besides, why are we sitting without any wine?’ he asked jocosely.
‘Oh yes, I wanted to ask you that before Anachu interrupted me,’ Pa Juba said acknowledging Agbadi’s comment to Anachu by giving him a stern look.
‘Where’s Nnubogu? Call him for me!’ Agbadi shouted. ‘That boy is becoming a menace to this compound. One second he’s here, the other he’s not,’ he said lowering his head.
‘Nnubogu!’ Someone close to the hut, eavesdropping on their conversation, shouted.
‘I am coming already,’ Nnubogu shouted as he took leave of himself from his group of friends outside.
‘Children of nowadays,’ Uwah sighed as Nnubogu walked in majestically.
‘The person you called is here,’ he said not knowing the exact person that summoned him.
‘I need you to get us drinks from Obiekwe-the-wine-seller’s shop,’ Agbadi said, stretching his hand towards his ancient box to bring out some amount of money he had been saving since the day only he could remember.
‘But papa, I don’t know any Obiekwe in this village,’ Nnubogu lied and hissed. He was enjoying the company of his friends.
‘Tufia!’ Uwah cut in sharply.
‘What insolence’, Anachu added. ‘You dare hiss at your father in the presence of your elders!’ he continued.
‘Don’t mind him, that’s how he behaves. Very rude fellow,’ Agbadi said feeling embarrassed.
‘One, two…five…twenty,’ he counted twenty shillings and handed them over to Nnubogu who reluctantly took them.
‘Make sure you bring only the sweetest palm wine oh.’ Everyone except Agbadi’s son smacked their lips.
‘How will I know which palm wine is sweet and which one is not? Nnubogu asked feeling irritated.
‘May a thousand termites eat your rotten mouth there, you soured potato.’ Papa Juba shouted, standing up as if he wanted to throw Nnubogu on the ground.
Just then, Nnubogu ran out for fear of being cursed by old men. For there was a popular saying that whosoever is cursed by an old man, so shall it be on the person. He didn’t run because of Pa Juba. Only an infant wouldn’t know that he, Nnubogu would highjack Pa Juba and smash him on the ground in two brief seconds.
Nnubogu was a tall young boy of about nineteen years. His physical structure was the complete opposite of his father, Agbadi. He had a scar on his forehead as a result of an injury he incurred when he was playing “stone the thief” a long time ago.
That faithful day, he was unlucky to have been chosen as the thief. As he dodged the first stone thrown at him, he didn’t see the other one coming and it landed straight on his forehead, causing a hemorrhage.
Nnubogu liked to act the stubborn boy in his father’s presence because he believed that his father would consider him a man by proving that he was tough. He was hard working and he was a glutton. Nothing chewable saw him and went away without being ravaged.
‘Look at you, at this your old age you want to fight a growing man…’ Pa Buwa said to Pa Juba mocking him for trying to attack Nnubogu.
‘Of course, don’t you remember my history?’ Pa Juba proudly shouted. ‘Don’t you remember when I beat up Ukomadu, the great wrestler?’ He said with a beaming smile.
‘I remember. I remember when you even beat up Ifejika,’ Anachu said in a low tone to mock him.
‘Shut that dirty thing you call a mouth! Shut it up! Pa juba shouted angrily. Really, Anachu’s teeth were very dirty. Excess kola nut had blackened them. He had tried all kinds of herbs on it, but none seemed to work. Someone even prescribed tobacco for treatment.
‘Ahn-ahn, have you suddenly become a sadist? Can’t you old men take a joke? He said, faking a laugh. When it was obvious that no one got his joke, he stopped.
In those days when Ma Chukodi and other mothers ran around naked and when one could drop a shilling on the floor, go to farm and see it still lying there on returning; Ifejika, a simple minded palm wine tapper; and a very timid looking fellow, challenged Pa Juba to a fight. Pa Juba had recently beaten Ukomadu-the-great- wrestler, at that time as he was called. Because of this, he developed pride and went around the neighbourhood, looking for trouble.
It was at a point of insulting Ifejika, that the latter got infuriated and challenged him to a duel. To the admiration of everyone, Ifejika threw Pa Juba on the ground and shoved a handful of sand in his mouth within a few seconds. He won much more admiration when he placed his right sandy foot on the fallen giant’s chest to show that he had beaten Juba without malpractice.
Since then, people used that incident to mock Pa Juba anytime he boasted about anything.
‘Here is your wine,’ Nnubogu returned, with two jars of palm wine. Everyone smacked their lips a second time. As soon as he dropped it, he dashed off so as not to be sent another errand.
‘That spoilt brat,’ Uwah said with an angry look.
‘So who’s going to launch this drink?’ Pa Buwa said with a big grin that stretched his wrinkled lips from one ear to another. One would have thought it would bleed.
‘You can all serve yourselves, I bought them for you all,’ Agbadi said proudly.
‘Ha-ha! That’s why you’re always the best. Omenka!’ Anachu jumped off from his seated position and seized a jar from where it was kept.
They were all drinking and laughing over jokes by Anachu. Severally, Agbadi’s wrapper got loosed as he laughed and this made them laugh even more.
Pa Buwa’s rash began to tickle him. He knew that if he touched it, he would let loose the beast in him. The best solution was to take his mind off it. He said:
‘By the way, Agbadi, we don’t know the content of the letter which we are celebrating.’ He brought the laughter to a halt.
‘That’s true,’ came chorusing in the room.
‘I’m aware of that,’ Agbadi responded to their murmurs. ‘But who among us here is able to read the white man’s language?’ he continued, asking them.
‘Well, apart from your son who ran away from school and can’t even speak just one single word, the only person in our community that can read a little is Thomas, the Catechist’.
Nnubogu used to attend one of the local schools in Umuonu. The teachers and every other person had always stressed that Nnubogu’s brain was too small to contain anything pertaining to education. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was when Nnubogu’s teacher gave ‘No’ as an example of a short word and asked him to give an example of a long word. Nnubogu dropped everybody’s jaw and provoked a thunderous laughter when he said ‘nooooooo’. His teacher caned him and he stopped going to school since that day.
‘Ah! Catechist! That man is too proud and besides, he charges a lot of money, five pounds per letter,’ Uwah said scornfully.
‘There is nothing we can do,’ Anachu cut in. ‘We are all paying dearly for our ignorance.’
‘We just have to call him and we must have to send our children to learn from these leprous-skinned people or else…I don’t know what to say.’
‘Nnubogu…Nnu,’ Agbadi shouted, raising his eyes up to heaven as if talking to a spirit.
‘Yes Papa, you called.’
‘Go to Umunti, summon the Catechist for me. We have a pressing issue that needs his presence.’
‘Ah, Papa, Umunti is too far from here, when am I…’ just as Nnubogu was talking, sand from Pa Juba’s hand, flew past his mouth.
‘Tufia! Who did that?’ he said, shrugged his shoulders and left the room, spitting out the particles of earth left in the mouth.
‘We need to do something about this your son,’ Uwah said with a disgusting face, as if about to spit out bitter leaf mixed with rotten pepper.
‘Please leave him alone, there’s more pressing issue at hand than that scallywag of a boy,’ Agbadi replied.
Meanwhile, Ma Chukodi and her singing crew became exhausted and decided to sit down to catch their breath. Nevertheless, she still had that bright smile on her face, that kind of smile that could bring life back to the downtrodden.
Agbadi and the rest waited impatiently for Nnubogu’s arrival with the catechist. Just at the point of dispersing to their various huts, Nnubogu returned, depressed.
‘I can see your son coming, but he is not with Catechist,’ Pa Juba broke the silence, pointing towards the entrance to the compound.
They all strained their eyes to affirm what he said.
‘Papa,’ Nnubogu called from outside the hut. ‘He refused to come today, Oh, Saying that he was busy conducting service in the church.’ He said as he entered.
‘Chei! But when did he say he would come?’ Agbadi asked.
‘Tomorrow, unfailingly,’ he replied.
‘You can all see what I’m talking about,’ Anachu said and spanked his palms on his laps.
‘A fellow black man, yet he continues to disregard us…all because of these ndi bekee,’ Uwah added.
‘When those scoundrels came to our land like looms, we all thought they were helpers sent from above. We listened to them talk of God and their big book because we couldn’t hear them. Now look at what they are doing to us. They took our land and people while we took their big book…’ Anachu continued.
‘How I wish the Gamanii’s would win this war. Maybe, just maybe, it might bring an end to this nutty colonialism,’ Pa Buwa said with his hand on his chin.
‘Just look at Thomas, a mere palm wine tapper, who by the stupidity of the British became a catechist,’ Agbadi said scornfully, spitting on the ground. He bit his lower lip.
‘Hmmm, we’ve got just this wine to console us,’ Pa Juba said as he gulped the last drop of palm wine.
Everyone dispersed one after another and Pa Juba, looking frail, went into his hut and lied down facing the thatch roof. He mused about nothing else but the letter. He slept off.