I’ve not been able to write a nice tribute to the late Nigerian poet and novelist, Chinua Achebe. It’s a shame because his works have inspired me a lot. Every time I go through my bookshelf, I see some of his books (Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God, There Was a Country). They remind me of the power of words (literature). Well, I’ve decide to write a story in his honour. We Are Not Cursed is based on a fictitious account of one man’s family in pre-colonial Nigeria. The story installments will be every Tuesday, unless I indicate otherwise. Critiques or suggestions are very welcome.
WE ARE NOT CURSED
Edited by: Darlene Jones
Only the eyes that moved swiftly would see the legs that desperately sprinted across the farms and pathways. Thereafter thoughts would arise if the runner was after something, or rather, was the prey.
For Dubem, who was the runner, the reason was clear.
His legs were burning and his heart thumping, a painful knot down one side, sweat stinging his eyes. He drew huge ragged breaths, his throat dry and raspy. A single minded imperative kept driving him forward, determinedly placing one foot in front of the other despite his utter exhaustion. He had to get to his master’s house. The story needed to be heard.
But those men were hunting him down—he couldn’t stop himself from feeling this way even after the long distance covered. He threw frequent frightened glances over his shoulders, praying they were not getting any closer. They would kill him if they caught him. He knew this as sure as he knew his own name.
Arriving in Ngwo brought Dubem some bit of relief. He trudged past a group of young girls returning from the stream with clay pots sitting on their heads, a crier whose gong delivered a rhythmic hollow sound in his head, and a man pickaxing a large trunk of wood. But none of them paid particular attention to him. Five female servants were on their knees pressing oil when he arrived at his master’s compound. When they saw him, they abandoned their work to give him support.
At the centre of the compound, he went down on his knees and cried out, “Nnaanyi! Nnaanyi! Calamity has befallen us!”
The women placed their hands over their hearts in fear. Two of them ran towards the largest mud house in the compound to call Umeh—the master of them all. Shortly after, they reappeared with him, his wife and two daughters, and the other three male servants trailing behind them.
The sight of Dubem—covered in bruises and sweat—made Umeh double his pace, his walking stick barely touching the ground.
“Where are the others—where is my son!” he asked, impatiently.
Dead bodies in a pool of fresh blood flashed in Dubem’s mind.
“They’re dead, Nnaanyi.”
The compound rang with loud shouts. Umeh’s wife and daughters were especially thrown into a state of agitation as they clutched their braids and wrappers. Numb with shock, Umeh unconsciously let his walking stick fall to the ground. Earlier, at first light, he’d sent his son and three of his male servants, including Dubem to welcome and accompany his visitors from the neighbouring village to his home. This was what the custom required; a practice even his chi didn’t consider wrong. For as long as he could remember, he had no enemies. He always endeavoured to settle disputes where they existed. Why would he be the target of such malicious attack, then?
He beat his chest slowly. “My only son?”
Dubem didn’t know if he should reply or simply nod in the affirmative. He could sense doubt in his master’s tone, but the grimace on the old man’s face told an entirely different story.
Umeh inched closer to him, bent slightly. “Where—is—my—son?”
Dubem, stunned by the question, stuttered. “Nnaanyi, we were attacked. A group of hefty men came out from the bush, attacked us and…”
“In the process, your son was killed.”
Umeh’s face creased with pain. He sniffed and after a while said, “So you escaped?”
Dubem was unsure of what else to say. He was just a servant. The same answer may give his master the impression that he had no regard for his son.
“Bring him to the shrine!”
“Nnaanyi…Nnaanyi, I’m saying the truth!”
Alusi (Shrine) pic credit: G.I. Jones
The other male servants seized him. The resistance he put up was minimal because of his fatigue. They dragged him past their master’s obi to the small shrine in the corner of the compound dedicated to Amadioha, the god of thunder and lightning.
Standing before the shrine, Umeh poured fresh palm wine on the ground, then called out the name of his chi five times and then added, “Ndi nwe m, eji m ofo na ogu bia n’iru unu.”*
To Dubem, he said, “Now, declare your innocence before the gods.”
All eyes fell on him.
He’d heard about the swift response of Amadioha. He had once seen the burnt body of a man who was struck by lightning because he lied in the god’s name. Ever since, he’d lived in constant fear of the consuming power of the god.
He looked up at the sky and said in a quivering tone, “If I’m the one responsible for the death of Nnanna and that of my fellow servants, may Amadioha strike me dead!”
That didn’t happen.
It dawned on Umeh that his servant’s words were true and that he was innocent. Heavy with pain and sorrow he slowly left the gathering and inside his obi, he wept. Now his new guest was trouble.
He knew it would be staying for some time.
(*)“Ndi nwe m, eji m ofo na ogu bia n’iru unu” in this case, specifically means “My gods, I come to you with clean hands.”
Nnaanyi–a title conferred to a married man or master of slaves
Chi–a personal god.
Obi–a small place for relaxation.