The day Adaobi most dreaded finally arrived. It was a day most women wished to be the most memorable day of their life, a day that was supposed to mark two people’s love for one another. It was Adaobi’s wedding day. The wedding was everything she dreamt of beside the fact that she felt nothing for the man she was being married to. Great kings had travelled from far lands with huge entourages. The sound of music filled the air; hands slapped on goat skin drums and udus, mouths blew into opis (bamboo flutes), and sticks slammed on ekwes (wooden hollow instrument). Fingers fiddled with strings, voices rose and fell, and it all blended in a harmony that was supposed to bring Adaobi and her husband much joy. The rise and fall of these rhythmic notes found their way to Adaobi’s heart, but instead of sending her into a state of bliss, it sent her travelling back in time. To her, instead of this day marking the beginning of her love life, it was actually spelt the end of it.
She revisited memories of Afam today not because she wanted to dwell on them, but because she wanted to leave them in peace. She was realising and accepting her loss to be permanent. What was in the past was in the past. Today was marking the beginning of her new life. She still debated settling into this path her father had chosen for her, but in truth she knew she didn’t have much of a choice. Tonight Dike was going to take her to bed. Whatever he asked of her was exactly what she was going to do. It didn’t matter if there was passion in her eyes or not, the light in the room wouldn’t even let Dike see her, and even if it was bright, the lust that she knew possessed Dike was going to blind him anyway.
In the midst of men, women and children, wining and dining, singing and dancing, Dike could not think past his hut and what he was going to do in it when night came. Up until now he knew next to nothing about what lay under women’s clothes. He had a few friends who boasted of knowing all there was to know, but he knew there was no better way to know that to see for yourself. He was so absorbed in lustful thoughts that he never questioned if he actually loved the woman he was getting married to. His father told him all about the incident that almost resulted in the rape of his future wife but it didn’t change a thing. Dike just wanted to get married to the prettiest girl in the village. The Obi was aware of his son’s weakness and foolishness, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. After all, Dike’s weakness as a son was his failure as a father. The best he could do was to work hard in bringing his lost son back to his senses. Aboh was a very strong village, and that meant it needed a strong ruler. The politics were such that required wisdom and strength of character to survive. Dike needed to become more of a man if he was going to survive on the throne.
There wasn’t a taste that wasn’t satisfied. Every type of food for every tribe was in excess. Palm wine filled every drinking horn and there were still untouched jars. The wedding was everything it was expected to be, and more. Men sat in circles exchanging stories and jokes with the occasional roar of laughter, both real and fake. Women were in their own groups and the lowness of the tone they spoke in suggested a lot of gossip and secrets being traded. On occasions like this the men who couldn’t last past five minutes in the night were exposed, so were the women who had been seen entering huts that they shouldn’t be in. Entertainment came in the form of wrestling matches where men cheered for the wrestler of their linage or tribe. There was also the maiden dance, where unmarried girls danced with very little clothing on to entice eligible bachelors.
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As custom demanded, Adaobi was presented to an alusi. Dike declared to the alusi that he had brought a wife for it. Adaobi was married to the little statue in the spirit world but Dike would take care of her in the human world before she crossed over. Words of incantations were spoken by a dibia, who frightened Adaobi with his reddened eyed and chalk-marked face. The blood of a cock was spilled in the earth as a sacrifice to the gods. This bonding meant that Adaobi would be punished by the gods should she ever take another man to bed, or have a hand in the killing of her husband. Adaobi was no stranger to the story of women having to bath naked in the market square for the gods to pardon for adultery. The thought of such a fate befalling her scared her into shivering.
The witnesses to her wedding were like the sands of the earth, the stars of the sky, and the trees of the forest. The witnesses of her punishment, should she betray the bond of marriage, was going to be ten-fold. The news that a princes or queen had committed adultery was going to travel to every corner of Africa. Every ear that heard it would pass it to the mouth so that it may be passed on to even more ears. In the history of Aboh it was unheard of. Adaobi told herself she wasn’t going to be the first in that line of history. She had enough secrets to rob her of sleep already, she wasn’t willing to add some more.
The celebration lasted through the day into the late hours of the evening. Hands changed on the drums, pots, and mortar. The merriment had most of the men in a drunken state; some of the young men who didn’t know when to stop had to be dragged away to be put in bed. Now that the sun was going down, Adaobi had to do the final act of custom that would declare her Dike’s property. It was the Ibu Nmaya act. In Aboh marriage was actually called Ibu Nmaya. A group of men of all ages sat under a bamboo canopy, from young, strong men with heavy chests to old men with yellow teeth and wrinkled skin. Adaobi walked towards the canopy one slow and gentle step at a time. She was carrying a drinking horn full of palm wine but her slow steps were dictated more by dread than carefulness not to spill the wine. Every time her bare feet touched the clay earth, she felt one step closer to Dike and it reminded her of how much she hated the life she was being condemned to. She felt a mixture of hatred and fear that turned to almost uncontrollable anger when her eyes met with her father’s. She caught a glimpse of his smile and it set off something in her that told her that she would never forgive him for what he had taken from her. She tried to think of what exactly it was that her father had robbed her of: love, happiness, peace; he had robbed her of everything good, he had even robbed her of hope. But more than that, he had sold her a lifetime full of grief, pain, and sorrow – how could she ever get herself to forgive him for that?
Dike waited under the canopy, knowing exactly what was going to happen. He could hear men screaming: ‘Eba, eba…bia eba…’ they were all asking Adaobi to bring the cup to them. Dike looked at the woman he was being married to as she trod towards him. He tried to steal a look at her eyes but she denied him by burying her head, pretending to be watching the wine. Somewhere in Adaobi’s mind she wished that the wine tapper had poisoned the wine so that it will kill Dike. When she realised what she was wishing for, it shocked her to know that she could wish this on her husband. Adaobi told herself just to play this evening out the way her mother asked her to.
Before Adaobi could clear all thoughts from her head, she was standing just three paces away from Dike. The roaring sounds of men summoning her filled her ears. She lifted her face, hoping that her eyes didn’t betray her by exposing her true feelings under the smile her mother told her to wear. Her eyes swept through the crowd and the noise asking her to come soared even higher. Dike, the spoilt, good for nothing, arrogant prince sat silently in his chair, leaning on the backrest. Adaobi noticed how relaxed the arrogant prince was and for a second she contemplated passing the drinking horn to someone else, but she knew the consequence of her exhibiting such anger was unbearable.
As custom demanded, Adaobi knelt down in front of the man chosen for her to marry and offered him the wine. Dike reached for the horn and he noticed that Adaobi’s hands trembled. He wondered why it was so. Dike sipped the wine and patted Adaobi on the back before he held the horn for her to drink from. At this point the music stopped playing and silence covered the grounds. The Obi rose from his chair holding a horn full of wine and everyone listened as he made a toast to his son’s marriage. He first explained what a great man Onwa was and expressed the joy he felt when Onwa offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to Dike. He told the crowd that Onwa was a man he felt privileged to share family with. Before he could say the final words of the toast, he asked that anyone who had anything against Onwa or his family should speak now or forever hold their peace. Everyone in the crowd knew Onwa was a man you mustn’t show your back to. Even if he were lying dead, you would have to poke him with a stick before showing him your back. They knew all this but no one dared to stand and voice their thoughts because they feared what he could do to them.
Somewhere in Onwa’s mind he feared that someone he had wronged would choose death over living in silence. He watched the crowd, hiding all his anxiety behind his eyes that portrayed confidence. The fear Onwa commanded was one that made men to refrain from even grumbling to each other; the silence was deafening. In a way, the power of the silence was words. The crowd was trying to say a lot of things by saying nothing at all.
The Obi was about to move on when the impossible happened. A woman stood up in the crowd with her right hand raised up to signify that she had something to say – a woman. Heads and eyes turned and hearts raced in anticipation. Someone objecting to a marriage wasn’t the rarest thing in Aboh, but not a royal marriage. What compounded this situation was that it was a woman trying to contest the marriage. The crowd knew that Onwa had stolen something from this woman, and they knew she wanted it back, or at least she wanted to take something from him. It was hard to tell if she was going to succeed, but there was no doubt that the challenge would be remembered for the rest of time. The very moment that unravelled before the crowd was already a timeless memory. The story of how a woman stood up to contest a royal marriage was going to be passed on from generation to generation. Along the line there would be additions and omission of details, but the fundamental part of the story would never disappear.
Onu took slow paces as she made her way to a vantage position so the crowd could get a better view of her as she spoke. It had taken the best part of her courage to push her to her feet. Onu had waited for this moment in perpetual fear. The dead silence the crowd fell into when they were asked to speak was a sign of Onwa’s ruthlessness. It made Onu’s stomach turn, and it buckled her knees. She had tried to stand more than three times but her courage seemed to ebb away every time she took a deep breath. Then she thought of what Onwa had taken from her – everything. There was nothing left for her in this world, just an endless stream of sunrises and sunsets. Life had turned tasteless for Onu, like eating pounded yam without soup. Onu thought it would be an insult to her son’s memory if she sat there and watched Onwa get away with everything. It didn’t matter if she won the battle or not, what mattered was that she fought to the end of it. She didn’t owe Afam a victory over Onwa, but she owed him a fight.
As Onu moved into a position, light whispers escaped lips, sending a hissing sound around the grounds. Onu knew it was about her being an outcast that everyone whispered. That fact too was going to be a strong selling point for the story. Not just any woman, an osu woman. Whispers over the whereabouts of the osu woman’s adopted son soon began to circulate as well.
Onwa cursed himself for ignoring the fact that this could happen. He should have taken care of this woman as he had taken care of her son. How could he be so reckless? The town crier had brought it to his attention that the osu wanted to shame his honour but he thought too little of her. This was Aboh after all, women had no place, they did not speak unless they were asked to. How was he to tell that this woman would be disrespectful enough to rise up to him in the presence of so many men? A lot of these men were kings and chiefs in their villages. This was more shame than Onwa could imagine. The type of fear that enveloped him was the type that no degree of acting could mask. The best he could do was to stop his hands from shaking.
Onu caught Onwa’s eyes, held them for a breath or two, then looked away. She turned to the Obi and the look on his face told her that in her anger and desperation she had ignored some very important details. Walking out of a crowd to humiliate Onwa on his daughter’s wedding day was also walking out of the crowd to humiliate the Obi. She hadn’t even thought about the effect on Adaobi and her mother. Her anger had robbed her of her thinking. It had made her irrational and reckless. In truth, she was doing the Obi a favour. She was protecting him from bringing an evil man into his family. But this was Aboh, where face, pride, and honour came before truth. People here lied and kept secrets just to keep a good name. It didn’t matter if what she had to say was true or not, it wasn’t wanted in any light at all. Onu knew all this because she could see a look on the Obi’s face that told her that her mouth was better off shut. The Obi was the most powerful man in all of Aboh; locking horns with him was very dangerous.
All of a sudden, Onu felt like she was making the biggest mistake of her life. It was as if the world was collapsing on her. Despite all the space, she felt claustrophobic and she went into a state of panic. Her breathing deepened and quickened all at once. Her palms, armpits, and face dripped with sweat. Onu felt her heart jolting so hard in her chest it was hurting. She opened her mouth to talk but not only had her mouth gone dry, the words she had rehearsed times without number were nowhere to be found. In an instance all her courage disappeared and was replaced by an unmovable mountain of fear. Onu felt like the harder she tried to climb out of this nightmare, the deeper she fell into it. She wished that she could rise from her bamboo bed in a cold sweat to realise that this was nothing but a bad dream. But she was very sure this was happening, she could feel the hard earth under her feet. The light evening breeze stroked her face as sweat dripped from her chin. Onu thought of how far she had come, she couldn’t afford to turn back now.
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