Lonely Roads – Previous Episodes: Prologue
Ndowka East, Aboh, Umuiti, 1806
Afam Udemba walked among the bushes with a calmness that had come with familiarity. He had been hunting in this bush for many years now. There was nothing he hadn’t seen here. He had been bitten by a snake, chased up a tree by a wild beast, caught in another hunter’s trap. But that was all in the past. Over the years he has come to learn where the snakes lay and where the boars slept. He could walk through this bush with his eyes closed and still avoid every twig and thorn.
The morning was humid and still, the silence only broken by droplets of water falling from the tips of leaves into small puddles. It had poured heavily the night before leaving the clay ground muddy and slippery. Afam was armed with a quiver of poisoned arrows, a powerful bow, and a machete too heavy to be wielded by a lesser hunter. He slowly made his way deeper into the bush, crouching behind bamboo stems to stay hidden, his machete tightly gripped in his right arm. He made sure he kept a steady foot to avoid slipping on the mud; he didn’t want to give away his presence to his prey, or worse, alert a hungry predator.
When he noticed a figure that stood out in the green, he took cover behind some leaves. The morning was still young, not even the first crows of the village cocks had been heard. He peered into the gloomy bushes to discover a wild boar resting lazily in the mud. The wild boar was a strong and violent prey, but he was not troubled. He had killed one too many and this was not going to be his last. He inhaled the familiar smell of boar droppings. It was definitely a boar before him. He carefully placed the machete on the ground avoiding any noise, then drew his bow and fitted it with an arrow. Afam stretched the string with his powerful arms until it could go no further, then he took aim with experienced eyes. When he was sure to score, he took three deep breaths like he always did. Not because it enhanced his aim, no. He was bracing himself for the attack that came after the shot. The poison alone would not be enough to kill the prey.
After the three deep breaths, he released the arrow. It soared through the air, cutting through leaves and narrowly escaping stems and branches, before finally connecting with the target. The arrow pierced the wild boar in the neck, waking the sleeping beast. The animal sprang to life with a cry of anger and pain as the arrow went through the thick hide and the poison began to mix with its blood. While the beast danced around in agony trying to rid itself of the arrow, Afam picked up his machete and sprinted through a maze of bamboo stems for the attack. Most hunters would have used more arrows on the prey, or a spear to keep some distance, not Afam. He was used to doing it the hard way. He was a warrior after all, always in the frontline on the battlefield. Dealing with this beast with a machete was good practice for the next tribal clash.
He ran in a zigzag pattern to confuse the creature, knowing the first sense to be damaged by the poison was the sight. The beast struggled to focus on the approaching creature but it was too drowsy to get a clear picture. As Afam got closer, the boar felt its vision get even blurrier. In desperation the boar attacked blindly, charging head first, ready to bite anything in its path. Afam waited until the beast stood two paces away before he side-stepped out of the way. When the boar realised it was heading for the sharp blade of a machete, the blade was already cutting into its skull. The power in the blow would have killed a full-grown man, but it was going to take more than that to bring down a boar.
Afam quickly regained his balance from the first strike, planting his legs wide apart and digging his bare toes into the mud for a firm grip. He waited for the beast to turn around and then he went after it again. He danced around, his heels digging into the mud, eyes steadily fixed on the dangerous prey. He noticed the boar trying harder to focus as it got even dizzier. He thought the blow to the head must have shaken the creature. It was time for another strike. This blow was a lot more powerful than the first. Afam slammed with both arms and scored precisely between the beast’s eyes. From the sound and feel of the attack he knew it was the last hard blow that was needed. The machete cracked the boar’s skull open and blood oozed out. Afam’s entire body was drenched in sweat, but the hard part was over.
The boar galloped restlessly in sheer pain and agony of the death it knew it couldn’t outrun. Afam hopped around it throwing in weak swings every now and again. He wasn’t aiming for the kill anymore; he was only protecting himself. The beast finally gave up after it ran into a tree. It lay on the ground, shaking convulsively. Even at this stage Afam did not relax. He watched with careful eyes and kept a safe distance. After almost thirty breaths the boar was not moving anymore. Afam approached it with caution as if he feared the beast would return from the dead even madder than before. After a few pokes with the machete just to make sure there was no coming back from where the boar had gone, he relaxed a little. It was dead, gone forever.
Afam had always been a deep thinker. Looking at the lifeless beast made him wonder what death really felt like. The closest he got was imagining it as an endless sleep. When he looked into the eyes of the dead beast all he saw was emptiness. He wondered to himself if it felt fear before it died? And if it did, how afraid was the creature, really? Afam was brave in a lot of ways, but he didn’t want to die. There was something about the idea of death that made him tremble. He found the thought of all his feelings leaving his body very unsettling.
He dropped his machete on the floor and lifted the heavy beast from the ground with almost inhuman strength. Then he placed the beast over his shoulders, gripping the two fore legs to make sure it was secure before he got down and reached for his machete.
Afam paced his way slowly and quietly, trying even harder not to alert any predators this time. He listened to the whistling of birds in the tress and the croaking of frogs in their ponds, the sounds of an aging morning. He wondered to himself, How would I die? He never thought he was immortal, but he believed his death did not lie in the belly of a beast or in the hands of another man. At least he liked to think so. He imagined he would grow old and die in his sleep, in the darkness of night. Most men you’d ask how they wanted to go would easily choose to pass away in their sleep. But who was to say that it was as peaceful as we imagined? Who was to say that the men who died at night weren’t taken by demons that brought a fear we could barely imagine in the light of day? Who knew what they really went through in those last dark hours? He shook the thought away. He was young and strong; he was as close as he would ever get to immortality. Death is for the old and foolish, he thought to himself. He was neither of these things. He had nothing to worry about.
The uphill journey he had to make before getting on the walk path to the village was tiring. He planted one foot after the other pushing himself hard to make it to the top. When he finally made it, he stopped to catch his breath. He had to walk another four kilometres to the village. Afam took a few deep breaths and decided to move on. The road to the village wasn’t the safest place to be this early in the morning. The danger had nothing to do with the wild animals in the bushes. There was another type of animal that wandered the path, the oyibo(white man).
Afam didn’t know a lot about oyibo men besides that they had golden hair and eyes that changed from brown to green to blue. After he had encountered his perfect reflection in an ugebe (mirror) he had seen in the hut when he sneaked in to visit Adaobi, his lover, he half believed the oyibo was capable of magic too. Thanks to Adaobi he had come to know that the oyibo were dreadful and should not be approached. He couldn’t forget the fierceness in her eyes when she warned him about them. To Afam it didn’t matter if the allegations she made against the oyibo were true or false, he wasn’t taking any chances.
As he made his way back to the village he listened intently for any sounds out of the ordinary. Adaobi had told him that you could hear the oyibo from a distance as he whipped his prisoners. He had never crossed paths with the oyibo before, and after listening to Adaobi, he never wanted to. He was horrified by the thought of being captured and taken away to an unknown land.
When he heard the lashing sound of a whip tear through the air in the stillness of the morning he tried to tell himself that it was only in his imagination. It was when he heard the voice of a man crying in woe that he knew he was in trouble. Fear gripped his entire body and with little or no control he jumped into the edge of the bush. Panicking, he sent the boar rolling down the hill. It annoyed him to know that he would repeat the uphill journey, but for now he told himself to be still.
The whipping and crying grew louder when the oyibo and his slaves walked past. The share agony in their cry sent Afam’s heart racing. It wasn’t just that he imagined their pain, he imagined their fear too. He had to force himself to calm his harsh breathing if he didn’t want to be discovered. He remained lying on his stomach until he couldn’t hear the echoes of whips and the heart-aching cries that followed.
This was his first encounter with the oyibo. He prayed to the gods to make it his last…..