When Afam entered the village he greeted the elders like custom demanded. They ignored him. He and an osu ate from the same calabash, drank from the same cup, he ate the salt and pepper of an osu; born of her or not, he was an osu. Afam and his mother were banned from all village meetings, and no man from the village would go hunting with Afam. He found it ironic that they would let him fight in times of war.
He made it to the front of the hut and called,‘Nne’m oh!’ Onu was wide-awake, lying with her face to the ceiling and wondering what would become of her son. He was a strong young man whom every woman would love to marry and have children with. He was hard working enough to feed the family, and he was strong enough to protect the house. But in Aboh there was a lot more to strength than bows and arrows, machetes and spears. There was influence, whom you knew and who knew you. A man’s father paved the foundation for the man’s reputation. For Afam there was no foundation, he had to start from scratch.
Onu mother climbed out of her worries and stood on her feet. Her eyes were wet with tears. She wiped them with her hand before she went out to see the son she wasn’t so sure she should have brought into the world. She blamed herself for all the suffering he had been through and would continue to go through until he was dead and buried.
One time when Afam was only a baby, Onu had carried him down to the stream in Kuwale. She sat down and cried out loud with Afam in her arms. She asked the gods why they were leaving her to suffer. She looked into the water and she contemplated throwing her baby in. At that moment it felt like the right thing to do. He would go through a lot of pain drowning, probably more agony than she Onu could imagine, but it was going to be the end of his suffering.
Onu lowered her son into the stream, but when she tried to immerse him, she felt the coldness of the water and it made her afraid. She wasn’t sure what she was afraid of, but the fear was causing her to shake. A sign from the gods, she thought. Onu raised her son and placed him on her back, holding him with a sling.
Now as she walked out of her small hut to meet the young man, wise and strong, but still her son, she wondered how foolish she was that morning when she thought of drowning him. Afam might have not been what most men in the village were. He might never be able to obtain chieftaincy, but he was a man she was proud to call her son. He wasn’t just hardworking and respectful, he was enduring too. Through all the suffering he never left her, and even more than that, he never blamed her.
She walked out with a wrapper cloth as large as a bed-sheet wrapped around her to cover her enormous breasts and wide hips.
‘Ezinne’m.’ Afam greeted, putting down the boar at his mother’s doorstep like he had done for years now. She smiled at him with a heart full of pride and joy, even though somewhere in there was sorrow too. Afam had watched his mother closely over the years. He knew there were things she carried that she didn’t share with him. Burdens in her mind that kept her eternally locked in sorrow and chained to grief. Every now and again he heard her weeping in the dark hours of the night. He did not rise to comfort her. He quietly lay on the mat awake but pretending to still be asleep. For so many years he had thought about confronting her and asking her why she was always in pain, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He knew it had to do with his father, but he also thought there was more to it. Afam knew his mother carried a secret that had shaped her life into what it was, the same secret that shaped his life too. What the secret was Afam did not know, but he was sure to find out one day. There was a saying often used by the elders:‘Mirin madu gaara ada erufenagia’ –‘The water a man shall drink would never flow past him.’ If Afam was ever going to know what the secret was, he would know it, one way or the other.
Onu greeted her son and thanked him for the kill that was now going to make breakfast and dinner. Two meals a day were enough for them. There was no way they could eat the entire boar – they had to sell what was left of it. Neither Onu nor Afam could sell anything in the market because no one would buy from them. They met with a trader in secret and he bought the meat for far less than it was worth.
Afam smiled at his mother but she too could see something strange in his eyes. Afam, though strong and disciplined, had things that troubled him too. One his mother knew of was his relationship with Adaobi. Adaobi was the daughter of a rich chief, one of the Obi’s best friends. She knew some nights her son sneaked out of the hut and met Adaobi in the bushes. She could only imagine what the pair got up to in such lonely hours of the night. To her relief, the girl was not pregnant, yet. It was unheard of, unspeakable; the daughter of a chief like Uti Adibieli, the Onwa of Aboh, could not have the child of an osu. The shame it was going to bring to the chief and his household was unimaginable. If Onwa ever found out about his daughter’s visits to the bushes in the night, she would be in a lot of trouble, and so would Afam. Onu worried about this, but there wasn’t a lot she could do. She knew her son needed someone to love, and if being with Adaobi made him happy, who was she to stop him? She often related the romance with her son and Adaobi to hers with Esimai. It didn’t end well, but if she could take back all the rains, she wasn’t going to change a thing. All she had now were memories, but they were enough to keep her going.
Even though Onu pretended she had no idea what her son was up to, Afam knew she did. He walked past his mother and complained about hunger. She asked him to go and rest from his hunting while she prepared some food. Onu knew her son better though; he was not going to rest. Not when they were running out of firewood. Afam figured he’d get some wood, then after that he would relax for rest of the day.
While Onu gathered what was left of their firewood stock and her herbs for cooking, Afam walked out with an axe over his shoulder.
‘Zueike nwa’m,’ his mother suggested rest.
‘M’wetesia nku nga ezuike.’ He told her he would rest after fetching the firewood. He didn’t as much as look back as he set off.
On Afam’s way to the woods he walked past village girls who carried buckets full of water on their heads. He felt and even saw their eyes on him, but he knew that was the most they could do. When they were with their mothers they dared not to even look at him. Afam still marvelled over how he ever found love with Onwa’s daughter. It all began one day when he was returning from hunting, Adaobi walked past him with her servants and he couldn’t take his eyes off her. He could see that she liked him, but there was so much between them. Even though they stood five paces away from each other, there was an invisible wall separating them. A wall Afam thought to be impossible to climb over or break through. The circumstances of his birth and hers caused them to live in parallel worlds.
Adaobi looked into his eyes and she saw things she had never seen before. She was born into wealth. She knew nothing about pain or danger; someone else did everything for her. But that wasn’t what the attraction was about; she didn’t envy his poverty. Adaobi thought she could find freedom with this stranger. This was a man who hunted alone; how much more freedom could you have? He lived his life in the open, but yet in secret. His life was more or less her fantasy. She had to go everywhere with her servants and they took note of everything she did and reported to her father. She wanted a life that allowed her to spit without someone watching.
When Afam noticed that she watched him just like he watched her, he didn’t move his eyes. Adaobi was considered the most beautiful girl in the village. Around the village night fires men even said the Obi’s son had his eyes on her. In Aboh, the Obi was king; whatever the Obi wanted was what he got. It was that simple. If the prince decided to share his bed with Adaobi, she had absolutely no say as to whether it was going to happen or not. And to make matters worse, her father and the Obi were best friends. There was no better way of cementing their relationship than offering her to the prince for marriage. That would make her father a kinsman. That would make her a princess and the future queen. There weren’t a lot of people who would refuse the option of royalty in Aboh but that was not the life Adaobi wanted. She wanted freedom and that was what she thought this stranger had to offer.
Adaobi admired Afam’s fearlessness. Most men were too afraid to look at her because she walked around with four men, all wielding machetes. Afam was sure he could kill every one of the men that escorted Adaobi in battle. One at a time or all at once, he could take them on. But he’d rather not add murder to his already frail reputation. Just before they lost eye contact, she cracked an inviting smile and he responded with a blush he tried in vain to suppress. Afam was not used to smiling. Even when he did, it was only a cloak over the worries that troubled his mind. But on that morning he smiled from the bottom of his heart. He remembered a weird sensation in his stomach. The smile carried him for days as he dreamed of a life with Adaobi like a little boy. It took a few days for Afam to realise he was living in a stupid fantasy conceived by the most immature part of his mind. After all he was Afam, the osu. He must have run into a tree thinking he was ever going to have anything to do with Adaobi. The daughter of a chief, a girl the prince had his eyes on, the most beautiful girl in Aboh. He felt foolish and stupid for even thinking he had found love.
A few days later, Afam was taking a swim on another of his adventures. He was in a river far away from Aboh. No one knew who he was here which made it okay to swim with everyone else. He had walked for almost half a day to this village and it wasn’t because he wanted to swim with other people. It was the river where the oyibo men arrived with their gigantic boats. Afam was yet to meet Adaobi so he still thought the oyibo men were everything good. Men had tried to use canoes to follow the ships but the journey was endless. Afam swam as far as he possibly could in an attempt to get to discover where the big boats disappeared to but all he could see was more water ahead with every stroke. When he swam back to the bank he was completely exhausted.
Afam wondered how far the oyibo men came with their large boats. He imagined they must have come from another world. Maybe there was a portal somewhere in the water that transported them to their world. What Afam did not know was that the world was a lot larger than Aboh and the surrounding villages. He rested on the shore and then he went into the water again for one last swim before he returned to his village, where he had to swim when the water was empty of people. As he kicked and pushed in the water he noticed four men he had seen before. And then he noticed the beautiful Adaobi in the midst of them. Afam wondered whose life was better. He had absolute freedom but he lived in isolation. Adaobi, on the other hand, was being watched all the time. She could not hold a conversation without someone listening in on every word. She noticed him almost immediately and she smiled. To Afam’s amazement, she commanded the servants to stay where they were before she came into the water and swam closer to him. She didn’t have the right to order them away. They had direct orders from her father not to allow her out of their sight, but they could at least allow her swim by herself. Adaobi had fought hard to force her overly protective father into agreeing with this and sometimes he still complained.
Afam felt his stomach folding as she approached him. He felt the rush of blood around his body as excitement kicked in. When Adaobi was a pace away he wished her not to come any closer. Under the water his amu had become aroused and he wasn’t sure he would survive the embarrassment if she came as close as to feel it.
‘Aham bu Adaobi,’ she introduced herself. Adaobi wanted to stand close to him and touch his body, but she knew they were being watched.
‘A mam onyei bu.’ Afam said.
Adaobi hated it when people she just met said that they knew who she was. The only thing anyone knew about her was that she was Onwa’s daughter. But they somehow assumed that was all they needed to know. They assumed she was a rich spoilt child who walked around the village with four armed men. When Afam noticed the frown on her face he realised he was setting off on the wrong foot.
‘I mean, I know that is your name. But of course I don’t really know you.’ He watched her closely and noticed her relax.
‘Most people assume I am a spoilt rich child because they know who my father is.’ Adaobi complained.
Afam’s eyes momentarily swung to the guards to make sure they weren’t listening to the conversation. From where they were standing they could barely recognise him and Adaobi didn’t look directly at him when she spoke. Afam could tell she didn’t want to be caught with him in this way.
The reason Afam could comprehend Adaobi’s worries was because he too was a victim of assumptions. ‘I can understand. People choose not to speak to me because of my mother,’ he said.
Adaobi had heard the story of Onu and therefore the story of Afam too. After she saw him on the road she asked her mother all about osus. Her mother told her the story of how Onu became an outcast and how by law that made Afam an osu too. Adaobi told her mother that she thought the law was unfair to Afam. Chinelo, being an understanding and compassionate mother, agreed that the law was unfair to Afam, but the law was what it was. It had been like that for generations. There was nothing anyone could do to help Afam. Just as it was in the prince’s blood to be Obi, it was in Afam’s to be an outcast because he was raised by one. The law of the land had no real provision for adopted children of osus but the decision of the elders on Afam’s arrival was that he would be treated as an osu if he were to live with Onu. Chinelo warned Adaobi to stay away from Afam for the sake of their family’s honour. Even though Adaobi agreed to this in the hut, she knew she couldn’t resist the freedom this outcast promised. There was something about the adventure that intrigued her. The thought of the dangers in being with Afam lured her into wanting him even more. For once in her life she wanted to take a risk, she wanted to do something she had absolutely control over. It felt so right to her; it felt like something she was willing to give the world for. She slept and dreamt of making love in the bushes with this stranger. When she was awake, she daydreamed about running far away from Aboh with him, bearing his children, living far away from her father’s confinements. She thought of him and touched herself when she was alone.
After a few days, Adaobi realised she was being foolish thinking she was ever going to get married to an osu. She wasn’t just anybody’s daughter. She was Adaobi, the daughter of the Onwa of Aboh. It was probably the last time she was even going to see the stranger. The Obi’s son had his eyes on her and her father told her that he wanted to be a kinsman. But even in the midst of all this fire that separated her from Afam, she still believed in some stupid dream that she was one day going to be emancipated from this life and runaway with someone like Afam. She realised it was foolish, yes, but it got her through the days.
The water was crowded, making it easy for Adaobi and Afam to stay close. Even though they knew next to nothing about each other, they saw so much in each other’s eyes. For Adaobi there was the promise of a free life. It was dangerous. She was swimming in troubled water, but it felt so good she was willing to drown in it. For Afam there was the promise of love. Even though he denied it even to himself, he feared dying a lonely man. The only chance he stood was getting married to another osu, but now all that was about to change. But was it, really? Yes, she was here right at his doorstep telling him she wanted him even without speaking, but did that mean anything? Afam was not sure of the future at this moment, and he knew he never would be. Was there even a future or was he allowing himself to get lost in a fantasy? She was after all Onwa’s daughter. Afam acknowledged the risks involved in the life he was about to choose, but like every love-struck man he was willing to do whatever it took. Neither fornication nor adultery was punishable by death, and Aboh being a man’s world, nothing would be done to Afam officially anyway. The only problem for Afam was in Onwa’s private vengeance. His real fear, however, was for Adaobi. She was used to living a wealthy life. Afam wasn’t sure if she could survive in his world, and he didn’t want to walk around with the thought of being responsible for her banishment.
They both knew the dangers in what they were doing but love blinded them and they went all out for each other. That day in the river they discussed their lives and what they wanted. Adaobi told Afam she wanted freedom; a life without men watching her back when she swam. He told her he wanted a life where people would not judge him for living in a bamboo-fenced hut. He wanted a person other than his mother to love and accept him. Afam wasn’t being too demanding, he told her one person was enough for him. In his mind he wished it would be her and he wondered if he should be careful what he wished for. After they went for a swim and she found that behind the quiet hunter there was a soft side and a philosophical side, she fell even deeper in love with him.
After they left the water, the pair arranged secret meetings. It was in these meetings that he told her not only about his questions of life and death, and his curiosity about the oyibo men with their golden hair and strange eyes. He also told her that he loved her. And he made love to her.
Story by William Ifeanyi Moore