IJE M (My journey).
A fictional short story by Ubaka Chijioke, dedicated to Late Chinua Achebe as he marks his 87th birthday today.
The thunderous slap from my step brother’s wife Nwanyimma that early harmattan morning brought me back to the realities and vagaries of my rather unfortunate life.
My name is Iroeshika Okoronkwo. I was born into a large polygamous family of one man, five wives and over thirty children. My late father, Okoronkwo Ezeanokete was a renowned farmer well known in the entire village and beyond. Record has it that my father remained unbeaten as the village ‘di ji’ for a long period of fifteen years. The di ji title is conferred on any man who presented the biggest yam in the entire village and this is done every year at the festival of Ihejioku. My father was also a palm wine tapper, the best within the entire village of Umuoriaha. Before his death, his tapping expertise extended to the neighbouring villages of Amaifeke, Umucheke, Amaokwe and Umuahaba.
I grew up in the pre independence era of Nigeria, when all a man was worth is how thick and stuffed his barns are with yams and cocoyams, how many wives and children he had, as well as how many feathers he had on his cap which signifies the number of titles he has. Suffice it to say that my father was rated a successful man by these standards.
My late mother Ugomma was the last of my father’s wives. I was told that my father married her at his old age when his sights were already failing him and his manly strengths a memory of what it used to be. My father died when I was an infant, in my second month precisely. I can’t tell what he looked like. The much I know and say about him are just what I get from people’s stories.
By the time I was three years old, Mazi Ugwuoke the first son of my father’s first wife Ucheime was already married with two children. Emeka his second child was same age as me when my mother died four years after my father. Mazi as we call him, who was supposed to be a brother to me, now became a father figure in my life.
Mazi had informed me the previous night that I will follow him to Amaudala early the next morning for a very important meeting of the ọzọ title holders. This should be the third consecutive time he is inviting me to such outings in the last four market weeks. Tradition demands that when an ọzọ titled man is going for a function, the youngest boy in the house has to accompany him while carrying his animal skin bag and folded wooden back-chair. It is unfortunate I didn’t do it for my own father.
(We set out at the first cock crow, at a time when one could barely see the face of other people on the road. We passed through the lonely uzoiyi path branching off the ezekoro forest. Because it was dry season, it was easy for us to waddle past the shallow nwangene river and emerged unto the only road connecting Amaifeke and Isieke the hometown of Ogbukiyi the great dibia.
I was in front with his raffia bag slinging down my lean shoulders, my two aching hands firmly supporting his wooden chair on my head.
Nwanyimma had shaved off all my hair the day before, and used uli to make some paintings on my bare skull. She also made a new obonte for me to wear, saying that it was an important event so I had to look special. At each step of the journey, I could see Mazi through the corner of my eyes furiously trailing me, walking faster than his old age could carry him. The look in his eyes were frightening, but what scared me the most was that even though I am of the same age with Emeka his son, he will never call Emeka for such outings. Why does he always prefer me?)
I still remember vividly how Mgbafor and Ukwuoma my two elder sisters followed Nwanyimma his wife to the market and never returned. This happened one year after my mother died, I could barely tell my left from my right then. I cried bitterly when I didn’t see them return and nobody was ready to tell me what happened to them. All Mazi could tell me was that ‘Someday, I will be with them again’. It was later that I heard from a neighbour how she sold them to the white man in exchange for mirror and some pieces of stock fish…
… To be continued