Uncertainty is one of the attributes of life, such that one starts a day not knowing how or where it will end or that it could be the turning point that changes everything forever.
At the back of our compound is a square concrete water tank. By the top right corner is a small square opening, with a steel door through which we fetch water.
Along the edges of the roof covering our house runs a shallow trough we call ‘Gutter’ which terminates in a funnel attached to a pipe built into the tank. When it rains, water runs down the roof into the gutter and straight into the tank through the funnel.
Most families have a round shallow well, Umi, dug in their compound which produces water, orange in colour. This they cover with palm fronds. Only few have tanks like us.
It is to the top of this tank that I go whenever I want to be alone. On a hot morning, as the sun took its place, I lay on the top of the tank and stared straight at the sky and the trees beyond our fence. Squirrels raced between palm trees and the owls hooted loudly. Every thing came alive with the new morning, except me. I felt logy. I had begun having a very restless feeling. I was not sure what it was, but I felt a strong need for change and deeply resented the fact that from sunrise to sundown it was the same things I saw; same trees, animals, people…
It was especially because of the people that I wanted to leave. The sound of cutlass hitting a tree in the distance alerted me to the presence of Odumegwu. I made an effort not to look at him strapped to the top of the tree but soon lost and peeped with my side eye.
Two moons back he had returned from the city and to everyone’s surprise settled into tapping palm wine and harvesting palm fruits like he did before he travelled. No one could comprehend why he felt the need to condescend to doing such tasks rather than live the life of luxury his rank allowed. As he hit at the root of the palm fruit the muscles of his arms and legs bunched and flexed. Sweat glistened on his skin causing his grey sleeveless vest to cling to his chest. No doubt, there were other maidens, like me, watching him from their homes.
One heavy head of palm fruit fell with a loud thud and others followed until everywhere was silent again. I looked up wondering why he was not making any move to come down and there he was, leaning against the thick rope tied round his waist to the tree, his feet against the trunk.
He smiled and beckoned. I looked away convinced he was communicating with someone else, probably someone walking past below. He whistled loudly and when I looked at him he beckoned again. I put my hand against my chest, with a questioning look. He nodded. He was indeed referring to me.
“You can’t be seen with me.” I warned when we met on the road, a great distance between us, and then asked the question on every villager’s mind. “You have servants, why must you climb the palm tree?”
“How else will I get to watch the girl I plan to marry lying on her tank?”
“You can never marry me.”
“I can’t? Why?”
On hearing footsteps i sprang further away from him and quickly turned to find Olugbajieboys rounding the bend with her elder sister, ugomma, supporting her weight.
Olanma was the most beautiful girl in Ejiochi. Some believed her to be the reincarnate of Sister Rosemary, a caucasian Reverend Sister, who had come to our village on mission duties and died of meningitis. Other Sisters returned to England after a while but Sister Rosemary remained with us, even after she became sick.
She had said “Wherever the work of the lord still needs to be done, that is my home” and stayed till she breathed her last, lying on a mat in Olanma’s great grandmother’s hut. It is said that she had also requested to be buried in our land but the white men wouldn’t have that and took her body home.
When Olanma was born, she had hair the colour of the sun and skin like an over ripe pawpaw fruit. Those who came to visit at her birth upon seeing the child exclaimed “Ewoo! Sister Rosemary has come back to us.”
Her beauty was such that everyone who saw her stared unabashedly and kept turning to take several looks. She had gotten the nickname ‘Olugbajieboys’ when a freeborn had been staring at her so much that he failed to notice the ditch in front of him. He fell and broke his neck.
Now, Olugbajieboys didn’t seem like her beauty could possibly turn the head of any boy to the point of breaking. She had lost all form of comeliness and her veins and bones strained against what little flesh she had left.
She and her sister regarded both of us with a mix of suspicion and surprise as they paid courtesy to Odumegwu.
“Daa Ugomma, anya gi. It’s been a while” I greeted
“Anya n’ibe ya. Yes, it has.” She agreed “It is Olanma’s health that has been carrying us about.”
“Kedu nu? How are you doing?” Both sisters seemed startled by Odumegwu’s question and saying nothing, nodded in the affirmative to show they were well then turned back to me.
“I am fine.” Olanma spoke slowly “At least I believe I will be better now that these have been removed from my body” She opened her hand to reveal a number of short black pins, some were rusted and she went on to explain.
“We are just coming from Nneosa village where their dibia, Onwanetiriobodo, is one like us and also very powerful. Just one tap at the affected areas and the pins fell off like rain.”
“Hmmm. Evil people! So they poured pin in you and that is what has been making you this sick? I suspected. Thank God you didn’t go to a medical hospital.”
“Ha, thank God o.” Ugomma raised both hands and eyes heavenward. “Those hospitals that for just ordinary cold they will inject you. By now she should be dead. You know needle and needle cannot go together. When their modern needle meets our native needle in the body, that is immediate death.”
“Of course.” I agreed, shivering at the thought of how close Olanma had come to dying.
By my side Odumegwu scoffed. He didn’t need to say anything. I knew he didn’t believe in pins and other diabolical events.
“What do you have to say?” I challenged.
“Nothing. Just that I am convinced that it is these native doctors who manufacture the pins and make you believe it is coming from your body. This business of sending pin into people’s bodies through the air is a lie cooked up by them to stay in business.
“Then how will you explain the restoration of good health afterwards?”
“Simple, the native doctors cause you to be sick so you can come to them for a cure then they collect your money and make you well again.”
“You see? So if you believe that a native doctor can send sickness to people why can’t you believe that there are other evil people who can also do same?”
He opened his mouth to argue again but I deliberately looked away bringing an end to the conversation.
Trying to convince people like him who have everything going well for them that evil exists in the world is impossible, but it still doesn’t change the fact that there is. Some we understood; like how someone could help uncork your drink and flick poison embedded in their finger nail into your drink. Others were beyond our comprehension. It is such as these that cause us, at gatherings, when not sipping our drink, to cover the bottle with our thumb pad to safeguard our drink from being poisoned through the air. It is also in this same way that pins are being sent into people’s bodies. This, however, is incomprehensible to foreigners like Father Maxwell and well-travelled natives.
Ugomma and Olanma said their goodbyes and left. After that, we stood quiet for moments; I, looking everywhere but at him and he, staring at me without looking away.
“What?” I asked sharply.
“You still haven’t answered my question.”
“Except you want to claim that your memory was washed away in that city that you went to, you know the reason.”
“Yes, my memory was refined by the city. So go ahead and tell me why.” I noticed that during the course of our argument he had moved nearer and we were closer than was acceptable. I took several steps back.
“What has your mother done for you to choose to kill her?” He looked at me confused while I continued “Go and find someone else, one like you, or if you can’t, tell your mother to find one for you. We have no business together. You are a freeborn and I, an outcast.
Surprise transformed his face “You mean you are an ‘Osu’?” I nodded in the affirmative waiting for the withdrawal. The freeborn have no business with outcasts. We are the scum of the earth and the merest communication with an Osu could turn a freeborn into one of us.
Like lepers, we are avoided, with separate markets, hospitals, schools, even Church, from the freeborn. At first the missionaries tried to integrate us but they would not have it and stayed away from church altogether and from the God who encouraged them to mix with those of us who owe our lives to the mercy of the Oracle.
When one who faces the danger of being killed or being sold into slavery runs into a shrine for protection, his life is spared but he becomes a property of the Oracle. He, his family, descendants and livestock become Osu. No one can kill him or his family else they will also become contaminated.
Father Maxwell, while trying to encourage us said we are like Cain in the bible on who God placed a mark so that no one would kill him while he wandered on exile. He asked us not to lose hope, that someday, like Cain, our exile will end. I seriously doubted it.
Marriage to an Osu also contaminated a freeborn so I expected Odumegwu to realise his error and walk away any minute and was surprised when he didn’t.
His surprise turned to anguish.
“I will have another talk with my father to end this segregation.” He promised and it was my turn to scoff.
“Just go. The Igwe’s power does not extend this far. Even if he could end it in our village we will still be despised by other villages.”
“Then go with me to the city. No one cares if you are an Osu there.” My heart beat faster. I wanted to go but feared the wrath of my parents and his parents, the Igwe and Lolo.
Without giving me time to retreat, he closed the space between us thus putting a chink in the walls of my resolution. “You are going with me to a place where there are no pins and black magic. I will show you the white man’s magic which is amazing and harmless. Don’t you want to know how it feels to be treated as a freeborn?”
I needed no further encouragement.
It has been five years since we eloped to the city and for the first time since then we are home bound. Ugegbeze, Odumegwu’s sister, and her husband, Peter, are also riding with us. Emboldened by her brother’s action, she had equally defied tradition to become an Osu by marrying one and had been faced with the same fate as he, disownment.
But a father’s anger can only last for a while. And where pride wouldn’t let a man go back on his words, sometimes love prevails. Odumegwu’s parents have asked us to return for reconciliation and an integration of the Osu people into community.
I believe it is the birth of their grandchildren; twin girls from me and a very new baby boy from Ugegbeze that has softened their heart towards us enough to want to change the status quo.
Looking around the car at my family, all of us Osu- the first royal Osu family, but not for long- I know that there is no battle that cannot be won with bravery. Odumegwu and Ugegbeze braved the part no royal dared take and paved the way. The wind of change is sweeping through Ejiochi, even Olugbajieboys has been touched by it. She, an Osu, is married to Anyannaya, the freeborn lad who fell into a ditch watching her. I hear he said that though he came out of the physical ditch he fell into that day, he never wants to get out of the emotional one he’s fallen into since knowing Olanma.
I am happy for us all, but of all the joys of victory, the greatest is the knowledge that none of my children will have to grow up like I did; an outcast.