By Patrick Nwadike
My village was Otutu, where men boasted of carrying war in their heads.
Kabuki is my name. I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. It would have been so if my father had not married many wives. Story had it that he planned to marry one wife but his first wife gave him so much trouble. My father went to my grandfather, the Reagent, to seek for his advice. My grandfather told him to marry again.
My father married a second wife.
Two wives brought competition and many more problems but it also came with more births in our household. When we, the children, had long slept, the kerosene lamp dipped to its lowest beam and the oil light quenched, they quarreled about who should occupy his other side of bed. My father went to my grandfather again for advice and what did he get this time? My grandfather advised him to marry a third wife.
Having three wives brought less pain to my father and more plates of food served on his pallet.
What I thought would end as a triangular affair became squared by the arrival of a fourth wife.
We liked to eat with Dad. His favorite food was pounded yam when served with bitter leaf or melon soup. We children preferred rice with chicken and fried beef but always looked forward to having balls of meat from Dad's soup. It was not only food that brought us close to him. He always had stories to tell us if we could wait a little and not dash away to a small space that served as our football field. He told one of my favorite stories like this;
Long time ago, there was a boy whose name was Hakari.
He wanted to be a pilot but was not studying hard.
One day, his school held flight test and Hakari flew to the sky.
Everyone chanted and clapped for him.
HAKARI O! HAKARI!
HAKARI O! HAKARI!
Hakari had taken a flight instruction book inside the plane. As he flew, he turned the
pages. When he wanted to touch down, the book had on the last page, "continued from the next edition."
Hakari was not with the second edition.
The whole village knew Dad for his stories. Children always visited our home to sit and listen to the King revel in tales from his archives. There was one that showed cleverness and brevity. It was about a boy and a witch.
Many, many years ago, those days when the hen used to come back to its roost at the approach of darkness, when boys were men and men were adults, days when if the night bird cried, we would know that death will soon knock on one of our doors, days when spirit and human beings converge in our market to buy and sell yam, pears, garden egg and other farm produce;
It was at that time that a boy went to pluck the ripe pears owned by the entire village. When he was about descending from the pear tree, he looked down and saw Adago the witch, smiling cynically with three teeth's left in her mouth. Terrified, the boy asked her;
"What do you want?"
"Pick all the pears, I must have them," said Adago.
"I could give you half."
"If you love your life, do as I say or I'd kill you with my claws," threatened Adago the witch.
"OK! All the pears will be too heavy for you to carry. Let me gather them and bring to your home. I will place them by your door step if you would go home now," said the boy.
The witch believed him and went home. The boy came down from the pear tree, picked all the ripe pears and ran away to his mother.
Dad's stories were full of acts and expectations. He watched the children's face, checked their expressions, timed his delivery and at some moments stopped entirely to adjust his position, stood up or call for his snuff box. Dad was the King, the master story teller. Though, sometimes, he repeated these tales - forgetting that he had narrated them before.
These stories made me feel excited and I became more inquisitive; I wanted to know everything under a day.
"You ask too many questions," Dad would say to me.
"Nwam! My Child! Come here and prepare for bed. I have spread your mat for you. You have learnt enough today, you will learn more tomorrow," my mother would say.
With this from my mother, I would close my "Day by Day English Book 1" and go to bed, clutching it tightly while sleeping. I did not want to be like "Hakari." I wanted to be that clever boy who refused to wash hands and crack palm kernel for lizards.
For adults, Dad had stories of war fought in France and in Burma (known today as Myanmar.) He said it was after that white man's war - not the first but the second war - which most soldiers from Africa came to understand that the white man was fallible, that the white man too would die. They had seen many of them run away from bullets or approaching danger while, they, the Africans stayed and fought back.
"Ebube", Dad called one of his most frequent visitors, "the only good thing about the white man was their women. I saw one in France. She was as tall as a palm frond, her neck like a giraffe and she moved her waist with the grace of a lioness."
"She was more beautiful than any of your wives?" Ebube asked.
"I was not talking about these wives; must you bring them into a talk as light as this?" Dad retorted. "The French woman cooked for all the armies and we did not finish her food."
"Igwe, you know that I fought in Germany. What I gained from that war was the injection they gave me before I went to the front line. Since then, I have never been sick," Ebube reminded the King.
"Are you telling me? What these boys bring these days from Asia are not medicines. In search for money, I heard that they buy adulterated medicines, without minding if the stone thrown to the crowd ends up on their mother's head."
"Odu-egwu! It's terrible!" exclaimed Ebube. "And is your son's health better now?"
"Not yet! That little brown insect with six legs that bites us has dealt badly with our children but the main problem is that we don't know if what are buying and giving our kids are merely chalks sold as medicines."
"Sometimes, I wish the British should come back and rule over us again," said Ebube.
"Don't speak that abomination in my compound. Which people started this confusion? Was it not the British? They came here and turned everything upside down before they left. The moment they changed our week days from four days to seven in a week, I knew that it would come to this."
"I agree with you, Igwe," said Ebube, "don't be angry now, you have always said that we would have faired better had they stayed in their place and let us be."
"Think of itÔÇŽÔÇŽbefore they came, were people dying like fowls? No one lives up to a hundred years these days. We boiled our nkprogwu roots for anyone who was sick and they got well after drinking the liquid herbs. Besides, we honored our elders and kept our hands clean," continued the King.
"Well stated," said Ebube. "Today's youth believe that money gained through whatever means is the most important in life. That's why there is so much death. Whom the gods would kill, they first make mad."
"Kabuki will be fine," the King enthused, "his mother has given him dogonyaro herbs. After he drank it, he excreted. You will see him playing football again by sun down."
By the time my father married his fifth wife, I was already a grown up boy trying to make sure no dust was left on my feet after a bare footed football game just by our yard.
Sixth wife also came, and after, the seventh and finally, the eight.
My father was quite old when he married his eighth and I wondered how he was going to manage this one. Strange faces were seen in our compound milling around Dad's younger wives. More children were born to my family. I was not sure if Dad really had ÔÇśnurtured' all the pregnancies but under our local lore and tradition, we were all children of the King because we were all born in his house and by his wives.
I began elementary school at the age of four because I was tall enough to put my hand across my head and touch my earlobe-the rule for qualification. Those days, children who lacked the physical built and strength needed for farm work were often sent off to school to learn the white man's ways while the industrious stay back to pillage the land and grow crops and other farm produce.
I participated in sports but mostly as a spectator. Whenever my school won a soccer game, we sang songs and jugged from one street to another, showing our might. I was really liked by the bully boys who were in the fifth and sixth grade. They dared not touch me because I was good in class and though slender, I never shied away when beaten in a fight. I was often ready to fight back and no matter how many times I go down, I would stand up and fight.
Soon, I entered secondary school and after graduation, passed an entrance exam to Mainland University, Ola Ofe, the only university west of the Sahara.
At campus, I lived like a poor student and not like the son of a King. Cletus would tease me:
"Kabuki, what do you think? You shower in the open and all male students see you early hours of the morning having your shower. Our people will not like it if they hear."
"Eh! I know but I think they will not like it most if I do not have any shower."
"And the toilet, you excrete in the open," continued Cletus.
"You come again with these jabs Cletus, what am I supposed to do-retain the waste in my stomach?"
"You are right, Kabuki, everyone is equal here. The students understand and honor your presence and behavior."
At this point, I would think Cletus had postponed his teasing but he is not done yet:
"You know that I'm known by everyone, even beyond our villageÔÇŽthat student from Otutu studying Veterinary Medicine. They said I wasted their money, reading a course to treat animals," said Cletus sarcastically.
"They did not stop at that Cletus. They also wondered who told you animals needed treatment; that all they needed was fresh green grass in the fields; that to kill a sick animal, you cut off its throat, spill its blood, skin it and boil with hot water. They said all these and much more but I know you could still study to become a "human" doctor if you want to," I added.
"But our people don't know this," said Cletus.
"They don't have to know, do they? I have no doubt that the people of Otutu love you. More than needing a medical doctor, they wanted to show off to other neighboring villages. Are you not aware that a snail crawls with its protective shell? Don't judge them too harshly. Remember, our people do not know that I shower in the open, excrete in the thick bush and after, dig out the sand with my bare hands to bury the waste. Remember too that our people do not know that I go hungry sometimes to afford some of the books I needed."
"Hmmm," Cletus thought deeply.
During holiday, the whole village looked forward to my returning and welcomed me with drum beats. It could not have been otherwise since we were only two college students from Otutu. While Cletus studied Veterinary Medicine, I studied Communication.
Cletus created problems for me because while the villagers didn't understand what Communication was all about, they felt I must be wise enough to learn from Cletus's mistake. And so, every holiday, the sick and old, the tired and not so tired were brought to my family home for healing. They did not want to take any explanation from me. In their minds, Cletus was a dupe and I was their last hope especially when they did not contribute money for my schooling.
Knowing that I was not a doctor, what was I supposed to do? I gave adviceÔÇŽ "Ogbuke, take some rest from farm work." "Onuka, when you go to the farm, pluck more vegetables for your wife to cook for you and your children, eat fewer carbohydrates." "Nneamaka, treat your neighbors children well and stop quarrelling with your husband's mother and you will be pregnant soon." "Otakagu, your palm wine drinking is good but drop the snuff box; it's not good for your health." When my father, the King of Otutu complained about too much headache, I gave him more water to drink and he became well. Husbands and wives came to me to settle family disputes when I was not yet married.
Suddenly, the villagers began to call me "doctor," "engineer," "accountant,"-every profession they imagined to be reflective of western knowledge and education. The only name they did not ascribe to me was a Veterinary Doctor. As far as they were concerned, Cletus had polluted that name.
When I was a sophomore in college, a boy was sent to me with a message: my father needed to see me immediately. On approaching the village, I heard the sound of a large iron gong and knew that something had happened. Sound, in those days was a means to communicate meaning. The gong and drum beats spoke and the whole village understood. That was long before radio, television and newspaper came to insult our ears and blind our sight.
Grave diggers were at work in five compounds. Death had occurred in five families and the four men and a lady that died had complained of same problem before their death: pain at their lower abdomen. The villagers told me that their death was caused by an evil witch. I agreed with them because I believed too that any sickness that could take the lives of young ones at same time was foremost, evil.
I promised to seek assistance and when I returned in a few days, seven more deaths had happened.
The villagers went back to their normal lives after thirty days of mourning. For the first time, they took physical examination by a qualified doctor that came with me. The doctor had explained that they should wash their food very well with water and salt before cooking and wash their hands at all times. There were no more deaths.
After this incident, the villagers added a name to my already over-flowing basket of names; Nwakannia (a child bigger than his father). I tried my best to stop this insult to my Dad until the village boys added another one Ezennia, "His father's chief."
My father told me secretly that he liked this name given to me. "Kabuki, one of your teachers, Mangriyaya came to our home today. He gave a good report about you."
I kept silent. The King's face betrayed that words were still in his mouth.
"I heard your age group calls you Ezennia. Do not ignore strong names that can invoke spirits when heartily given."
I smiled and continued listening. What could I have said?
"I must go out now to the village square. In our Ilo Udu, we're widening our village foot paths. You know that many young people come home from cities with motorbike these days. I must go and see how the work is progressing," the King said and left.
Everything moves in a circle.
Time changes all of us.
Before my father became the King, he wrestled all the mighty men of our neighboring villages and won; the man that killed elephants and tigers with his bare hands; the man that youth in war used his name to sing songs, invoking his mighty deeds to enliven the spirit of life and death.
I noticed that the King's physical appearance had changed. He looked now much like my late grandfather, the Reagent of Otutu before he passed on; grey hairs, gaunt but still tall with athletic built.
In our tradition, which child was bigger than the father who brought him to earth in the first place? True, my father was aging and his health not so good but the King of Otutu was still living. I would not pee on my father's head when he was dead, how much more when he was alive.
With all these thoughts in my mind, I stood up and left the King's cottage to seek my mother's advice and she told me a story:
My son, wonders shall never end. You remember the year that Nwaeli got pregnant without first marrying? That same year a child claimed that he was bigger than his father and wanted to be called Nwakannia. Our people of his village refused to know him by such name! They wondered how a child who had seen nothing in life could claim to be bigger than his father!
The young boy asked to be challenged if they needed a proof that the name should be his. The villagers told him to visit the land of the dead and come back alive.
To undertake this journey, the child who claimed that he was bigger than his father must pass seven villages, seven rivers and seven big trees on his way to the land of the dead. Coming back, he must go through same stiff conditions and face dangerous animals like lions, snakes and reptiles that may wrestle with him.
On the appointed day, before sunrise, drum beats was heard far and wide. It was like a soul transmitting, charting into the unknown- when the child was leaving for the land of the dead.
As instructed, he passed seven villages and seven towns, went through rivers and highlands, met monsters who inquired where he was going, he counted all the big trees till the last count of seven. With his body bare, a knife tucked into a loin cloth tied round his waist, the child blew his bamboo flute seven times to announce arrival at the land of the dead.
The head of dead men came out, welcomed him and asked what his mission was. The child bigger than his father said he had come to see the mighty man he was to be controlling the land of the dead and having seen him, he was satisfied and could return to his village. The child asked for his blessing which was needed in order to return to the land of the living.
The head of the dead men had four heads. Each head had a pair of horns that stood straight. Surprisingly, he had only two hands and a pair of legs. He could move in any direction he chooses; left, right, backwards, front and center. He had dull pairs of eyes on each head and his voice sounded like echo or sound from a container filled with water.
The head of dead men warned him that the journey though seven days and seven nights will appear longer because of the dangers that lie ahead.
As a parting gift, he gave the boy a human skull along with instructions to deliver the skull to the leader of the land of the living to show that he had actually reached the land of the dead.
He took the skull with his knife, raised it high to the sky and danced around three times before disappearing down the path. On the way back home, he fought not only animals but men both dead and living till he got nearer home. He was weary of journey but he remembered his flute. He stuck it out from his loin cloth and blew it for the whole village to hear, "Pipilo┬şÔÇŽpipilo, pipiloÔÇŽ┬şpipilo."
At the sound of the first fluting, the villagers were not sure. It has been fourteen days since he left and yet no news. They all thought the child was dead but as he drew nearer to the village, the sound of his flute became louder.
The King came out to receive his son, summoning all his council members and the whole village for a warm welcome. The child handed over the human skull from the land of the dead to the village head but kept for himself the lion's head he had killed and beheaded on his way back to his village.
Spontaneous joy mixed with tears erupted in the whole village. People stopped whatever they were doing and converged in the village square--drumming, fluting and dancing. The two markets in our village quickly closed with all the palm wine tappers assembling their delivery to honor the occasion. The song of the child's age group was the loudest;
OBODO GBAKOTA NA NWAKANNIA ANATAGO;
LET THE WHOLE VILLAGE ASSEMBLE, NWAKANNIA IS BACK;
LET THE WHOLE VILLAGE ASSEMBLE.
From that day on, the King recognized the child as one who was bigger than his father and told the villagers to call Nwakannia.
Mother had been a dutiful and loving wife, an exemplary woman to the whole village. By the time she finished her story, my sister had slept, and the newborn baby of the eighth wife was gently snoring. Mother turned to place the baby's head on the raft pillow.
I asked my mother what happened after the child became Nwakannia. She ignored the question and continued.
"Your father and the whole village respect you. You have read the white man's book and therefore had discovered their secrets; you are not shy to use what you have learnt for the benefit of your people."
"Look at the fading moon, my son," she continued. "Your father, the King of Otutu may soon pass on to the great beyond; you cannot run away from nature, you cannot erase destiny, my son."
I looked down at the floor as my mother spoke, only raising my head when the rhythm of her voice changed.
With all I heard from my mother in my mind, I started humming;
OBODO GBAKOTA NA NWAKANNIA ANATAGO;
LET THE WHOLE VILLAGE ASSEMBLE, NWAKANNIA IS BACK;
LET THE WHOLE VILLAGE ASSEMBLE.
I was still humming this when I stood up and left for the King's cottage, the place where men gathered.
Patrick Nwadike is a Nigerian writer who lives in Japan. He is a member, Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan.?