Where Onwa lived wasn’t too short of a palace. He occupied a large expanse of land dotted with huts of different sizes spread around the compound. He had to count on both hands before he could tell you how many wives he had. As for the children, he could just about give an estimate. He tried to remember all their names, though he could not always put a face to the names. Of all his wives, Adaobi’s mother, Chinelo, was his favourite. Some said it was because she was as beautiful as her daughter, others said it was because she made the tastiest nsala soup.
Chinelo had just spoken to Adaobi about her father’s ideas for her and the Obi’s son. Even though Adaobi already knew it all she allowed her mother to talk without interruption. Chinelo could tell from the look on her daughter’s face that she was unhappy with her father’s plan. It pained Chinelo to know that her daughter’s life was going to be dictated in such a way. Adaobi was like her mother in a lot of ways and her mother realised and appreciated that. The truth about why Chinelo was the most favoured of all Onwa’s wives was because of her attitude – she wasn’t as submissive as the others. Most of the women married to Onwa worshipped him. They never questioned his decisions, much less argue about his orders. They completely revered him in all he did and he did not like it.
Adaobi inherited this strong personality from her mother. She always wanted her views known on every matter. It was going to make her a good queen, but that wasn’t the life she wanted. Chinelo didn’t suggest that her daughter threw herself all in with her father’s plans. She knew the value of allowing people make their own choices. She just asked her daughter to think about it and prepare her mind for a talk with her him.
After Chinelo left the hut, Adaobi remained in the room reflecting on her mother’s words. Her mother had painted the life that she was going to live should she go on to marry Dike Eze. There were parts of that life that almost every woman wanted. She never had to till the soil or worry about food, clothes or shelter. It was a life without want. But her mother also told her that she would always be in the shadow of her husband. In Aboh women were not equal to men. They were not permitted to attend, much less speak, at village meetings, and they were made to do every domestic chore in the home. A man here never touched a broom or sparked the firewood.
Adaobi looked at herself in the mirror and noticed how sad she was. She remembered the night Afam sneaked into her room to give her a gift. It was a piece of wood he had carved into a heart. She drew the heart symbol for him on the ground one night while they were away and told him what it meant. Adaobi knew a lot because her father traded with oyibo. She could even say a few of their words. It made her so happy to know that Afam thought about her deeply enough to make this for her.
She thought about the risk he took coming into her hut that night. His climbing into the compound was risky enough. Adaobi couldn’t even imagine what would be done to him if he were to be discovered. On that night all she could see was bravery and love. Now she thought about it and she saw stupidity and foolishness. It was those two things that ruled the both of them from the very beginning. She wondered why she couldn’t see it then. The answer wasn’t far from her. She realised that she did see the madness in her endeavours, but she was bound by love to give in.
As she reeled back and forth in thoughts of worry, the bamboo door to her hut swung open. Her hair weaver was standing there. This was the only person Adaobi believed truly knew about her romance. The lady told Adaobi with her eyes that it was time for her hair to be woven. Adaobi guessed it was on her father’s orders. He probably wanted to make her look her best for the night. Maybe the royal family would be visiting. Adaobi boiled in anger over her father. How could he do this to her? What had she ever done to him that made him decide to take away her life? He was practically making what she considered to be the most important decision in her life for her. Adaobi thought it should be her decision to make, not her father’s. She thought about anything she could say to make him change his mind. On a matter like this, she felt the odds were better trying to stop the sun from rising with the morning.
Adaobi followed the hair weaver. Her heart was racing and her eyes shaking. Ever since Adaobi knew that this woman carried her secret she felt nervous around her. Today it wasn’t just about the lady’s presence. There was so much on her mind. She could not prioritise what worried her the most. She followed the woman to the bamboo and plantain leaf canopy where they sat to weave her hair. Adaobi sat on the small wooden stool while the hair weaver stood on her bare feet. They did not exchange a single word as the woman wove through the hair with experienced fingers. Adaobi tried to focus her attention on a group of chickens and their chicks feeding by the corner. It worked for the first few breaths then she lost interest.
The hair was half done in braids as small as a newborn’s fingers when someone came to fetch Adaobi. This wasn’t just any man; this was Ofili, Onwa’s personal advisor. The man was only a little above fifty, and he was the only man who wore glasses in the entire village. Ofili nodded to the hair weaver and she stopped working.
‘Adaobi, nna gi choro ifu gi.’ At the mention of Adaobi’s father calling for her, she felt her heart pace faster. She tried to hide the fright but she knew Ofili saw through her like he saw through everything else. She didn’t want to create the impression that she was guilty of anything. For all her father could tell, she was still a virgin maiden.
Adaobi rose from the stool and looked at the hair weaver for some support. She had none to offer. The lady looked back at Adaobi then she averted her eyes to her feet. She couldn’t look Adaobi in the eyes with the guilt that now consumed her. It was then that Adaobi realised that her secret was no longer a secret at all. The hair weaver had talked to someone and that was all it took for it to get to her father. Anyone who knew her secret could trade it in for wealth from Onwa. She should have seen this coming.
‘Nkechi, I trusted you.’ Adaobi said in a whisper so Ofili would not hear. Adaobi pulled herself together quickly and kept her head up. Ofili lead the way and she followed two paces behind. She felt dizzy as blood rushed to her head. Adaobi feared she was going to gag or collapse on the way but neither happened. She wished the entire earth would turn to a sea she could drown in, anything but facing her father.
Naturally, to show that he was the head of the house, Onwa’s hut was the biggest in the compound. Ofili stopped at the entrance and ushered Adaobi in. Onwa was in the reception room. Adaobi noticed her father’s heavy bulk looking through the window. He folded his arms and stood with his back to her. Onwa was naturally a terrifying man. His enemies had died in mysterious ways and the secret to his wealth wasn’t widely known either. Some said he sold his soul to the underworld for wealth, some said he was childhood friends with the Obi, a few said he was just a very hardworking man. On the outside he bought and sold lands, sometimes bullying weaker men to obtain what was rightfully theirs, even if it meant making them disappear. But the truth about his expanding wealth was that oyibo paid well for orus and Onwa knew how to round up able bodied young men to sell. Besides having men on his payroll that kidnapped people in neighbouring villages, he played his role in making sure that tribal wars continued to happen so that prisoners of war continued to be captured.
There were questions that surrounded Onwa as a man. People who knew the village history well were aware that he was from a line of osus. He was never supposed to become a chief. But today Onwa was the richest and most influential of all the chiefs. He was feared both in Aboh and in neighbouring villages. The story of the deaths that befell his enemies such as poisoning, hanging, and most commonly, ‘disappearance,’ travelled around. In some ways his reputation actually surpassed him.
The truth about Onwa was that he was an overly ambitious man. He grew up in absolute poverty. Even as a child his mind, body and soul were committed to climbing out of his suffering. His father died because they did not have enough cowries to purchase the herbs that would have cured his ailment. That was the kind of poverty Onwa came from. He swore over his father’s grave to destroy this poverty. He told himself that he was ready to do anything, give anything.
The road to riches was not straight nor was it smooth. Onwa had to lie, cheat, steal, and kill, but he did not care what the price was. He was willing to pay anything. Somewhere along the line there was a name change. Originally his last name was Ojukwu, but thanks to a man down his bloodline, he was now called Adibieli. He took the title ‘Akaepkuchionwa’ which means no hand can cover the moon. It was his way of saying nothing could stop him from shining. Now everyone called him by his title and they were all forgetting his true heritage. A few men that lived by honour had tried to contest his chieftaincy; they disappeared or kept quiet after a few threats.
Onwa had lived a life with no room for embarrassment. Even the evil deeds he perpetuated were done under wraps and behind closed doors. Accusing fingers pointed at him for a few things but no one had the courage to speak evil of him. Onwa was willing to whatever was necessary to protect the reputation he had created for himself. And now his daughter in absolute stupidity was trying to jeopardise his endeavours. What in the heaven was she thinking, giving her body to an osu? He, Onwa, was doing his best to emancipate himself from anything linked to being an outcast and his daughter was sleeping with one.
Adaobi shuffled slowly but steadily into the room.
‘Mechieuzo,’ Onwa’s deep voice commanded. With reluctance, Adaobi did as she was told and closed the door behind her. Now there was nothing and no one between her and her father. He could kill her right there in the reception room and no one would ever find out. Ofili was outside, but he didn’t count as a person when Onwa was around. His loyalty was unquestionable. If death came looking for Onwa it would have to go through Ofili first. That was the kind of loyalty the advisor had for his master. However, Adaobi did not fear for her life, she knew her father loved her too much to kill her but she couldn’t say the same about Afam.
She managed to summon the courage to get to the middle of the room before stopping. There were cane chairs and wooden stools around. Barrels of rum with drinking horns were in the corner. From all the indications Adaobi could tell her father was expecting someone important, and it wasn’t her.
‘Papa, you wanted to see me.’ No matter how hard Adaobi tried, she couldn’t keep the fear out of her voice.
When the hair weaver first brought this story to Onwa he did not believe it. How could it be true that his daughter was sneaking in and out of his compound at night? Onwa warned the lady against spreading rumours and making false allegations. He told her to keep it quiet. He was going to make his own investigations and get back to her. Onwa did not appoint anyone to keep an eye on his daughter. He was her father. He did it himself. He dressed up like a servant and kept watch from a distance, in the shadows. He watched Adaobi dress up as a maid and sneak out of the grounds. He entered her room and noticed that she had laid her mat like someone was under it. She threw a wrapper over a bunch of clothes she had positioned to look like a person. How clever was she to make up such a plan? Very clever. But how foolish was she to think she was going to get away with it? Very foolish.
Onwa asked the hair weaver to keep her mouth shut by giving her a big hut to live in, a pair of goats, and a cow. It was far more than the woman hoped for but Onwa was not willing to take any chances.
He stared out of the window, contemplating what to do about the hair weaver. She carried this horrible secret about his daughter and that could sabotage his entire plan. Killing her seemed to be the easy way out. But what if she had already told someone else about it? Perhaps her husband, then he’d have to kill them both. Onwa was in a tight and tricky situation and he did not like it. He decided to push that aside for now. His daughter was here and there were things he needed her to know, things he needed her to do. The approaching night was going to be a big one. The Obi and his son were coming. It was the second step of the marriage tradition in Aboh; it was called ‘Inyo uno’.