Edited by: Darlene Jones
“Ha! It seems there were more girls in attendance today.”
“The dedication … It’s about to happen soon, right?” The older of the two servant girls moved closer to Okuoba, eliciting an answer from her with a knowing smile.
Not too far in front of them, a shrew darted across the low greenish-brown grass that flanked the footpath. A few more followed shortly, leaving behind trembling blades in the wake of their passage.
More than two market days ago, both servants had accompanied Okuoba to a session where young Ngwo girls on the threshold of womanhood were collectively lectured by the Umuada in the village. On their way back from the village square, Okuoba had happily shared with them the reason for such gathering.
Throughout this last meeting, however, Okuoba sat inattentively while stories and details about Ani, the goddess of fertility, were relayed. What rather preoccupied her mind was the mystery surrounding Nnanna’s death. The more she thought about it, the more unanswered questions sprang up. Questions meant for the deities, especially Ani also known as the Earth goddess.
She wondered why the goddess would let Nnanna’s killers go scot free—at least that was the way she perceived it at this point. Ani was meant to deal with abominable acts against the land; acts that stopped life without proper reason or physically reduced a person to an animal.
Soon, she would be required to stand before the shrine of Ani along with other marriageable maidens. But of what value would it be to take oaths and then formally dedicate herself to a goddess who couldn’t protect her family?
“Do young girls in your village go through the same ritual?” Okuoba said, but quickly reminded herself that the girls were just servants. Their largely unfortunate circumstance, which had subjected them and a few others to servanthood in Ngwo, made her wish she’d not asked the question in the first place.
The older servant, who seemed to ponder over the question, shook her head. “No. I don’t recall being told about any ritual before womanhood.”
“It seems your enthusiasm is waning,” the other servant said, her brows knitting in the middle as she stared at Okuoba. “Surely it must be the anxiety of embracing womanhood, calling a man your husband and someday—perhaps, very soon—carrying his baby inside you.”
Okuoba’s abrupt stop caused the servants to do the same. She placed her hands on her waist. “The dedication is a fortnight from now.” She looked straight ahead at nothing in particular. “I’m not sure I want to be a part of it anymore.”
The servant girls immediately squared off in front of her. The look of surprise on their faces soon turned to worry and it spoke louder than their respectful protest.
“No! I won’t be there. And don’t remind me it’s the tradition of the land.” Okuoba felt her blood beating in her ears as her muscles stiffened in anger. “My brother’s spirit yearns for justice. Justice from gods, who have now turned their backs on us!”
Both servants looked at each other, but didn’t utter a word.
Okuoba resumed walking and soon afterward they closed up with her; one on each side. Together, the trio covered a considerable distance in silence, moving past men and women with hoes and axes who were either heading for their farms or were on their way home; palm wine tappers with calabashes and thick fat ropes slung over their shoulders; naked little children in playful mood trailing behind their older siblings.
The elder servant broke the silence. “Who knows if the locusts and then the strange humming that killed many of our people by sundown were sent by the gods. Had it not been for your family and a few more in Ngwo, we would’ve been dead by now.”
Okuoba eyed her. The implication of those words had landed heavily on her conscience like a stone on an eggshell.
The younger servant gestured. “I’ve realized that it’s not in man’s place to question the gods; rather he ought to show complete reverence at all times. This ritual … what if it’s a gateway to your own happiness as a woman?”
Okuoba had once been told by her mother that Ani had denied some women in Ngwo from giving birth because of their grave crimes.
She was about to speak when the familiar voice of Ibeabuchi, calling her name, yanked her attention to the connecting road leading to her father’s farms.
“Asampete nwaanyi!” Ibeabuchi’s voice rang out like that of a happy man. His smile was all teeth. Across his shoulders was a long stick and drooping from its ends was a roasted kill. “Even a blind man can tell of your beauty with his palms.”
Okuoba wondered where her childhood friend had been since the past two market days.
Ibeabuchi hadn’t even been at her brother’s funeral.
Part Seven||Part Eight
Ani/Ali/Ala — Earth goddess or goddess of fertility is believed to be the wife of the thunder god, Amadioha. “Ani” as a word means “ground.” During the precolonial era in Nigeria, the Igbos attributed this name to the Earth goddess because they believed everything (living or inanimate) had a base.
Umuada/Umu Ada — An association of women who are natives of a community and are also married to men from the same community. This association still exist in Igbo land and is highly respected.
Asampete nwaanyi — Very beautiful woman. In some texts, it’s translated as “handsome woman.”