Edited by: Darlene Jones
The melon-shaped beads looked fantastic. Okuoba thought the dark red would complement her mahogany skin. However, what was left undone of the ornamentation process was drawing up the beads on a string to form bracelets and a necklace needed for the upcoming Mputa ezi ceremony.
“You don’t seem to like them.”
Okuoba quickly looked up at her mother, Oluchi, and beamed a smile. “I do, Mama. I think they are the creation of a skilled bead-maker. It’s just that I …” She picked up a bead from the colourful bunch on the raffia mat and began to turn it slowly between her fingers as if she was further evaluating the ball.
Her mother got down on her knees so they would be on the same eye level. “Go on,” she said, gently placing a finger under Okuoba’s chin, beseeching the young beauty with her eyes as well, “you know you can always tell me anything. And I mean anything.”
“Well …” Okuoba looked away. She could tell her mother that she had reservations about the upcoming ceremony which would usher her and other maidens in Ngwo into womanhood. That the gods she once revered and believed to be ever awake were at present probably on a journey or lying dead to the world. But such concerns had receded lately.
Day by day, after her failed abduction, she found herself giving in to more and more thoughts of Dubem. Pleasant thoughts that left her strangely amazed. This had not happened to her before. Not with any other man.
Admittedly, his presence was a great influence on her thinking. She no longer saw the young male as one of her father’s servants. She thought growing into adulthood and diligent labour, which included working at her father’s farms, had made him the hard and overpowering male who appeared before her. His keen dark eyes were like lustrous black pearls, always seeking her, wordlessly calling her to him.
Once, she had dreamt of him. She had dreamt of those eyes of his as they focused on her, then languidly moved downward, inspecting every inch of her. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw him. She knew he was going to touch her. Waiting with anticipation, she offered him a coquettish smile. He ran his fingertips across her cheek, then speared his big fingers through her braids and cupped the back of her head. She gasped with pleasure. He pulled her to him, lowered his head and claimed her mouth in a hungry, demanding kiss. Desire unlike any she’d ever known before spiralled through her, making her want him desperately.
Okuoba became conscious of her surroundings the moment someone stepped into the obi. By the gods! Her nipples were tight, her breasts swollen, her hands and face damp with perspiration and her feminine core throbbing. Just thinking about the dream could do that to her.
No sooner had she turned than she saw her younger and only sister, Chika, settle close beside her on the mat.
The squeeze of her hand made Okuoba face forward. “I’m still waiting for you to say something,” said Oluchi.
Okuoba cleared her throat. Maybe the time wasn’t right to disclose how she felt about Dubem. Maybe the time wouldn’t come at all. “Do maidens on the threshold of womanhood dance a lot during Mputa ezi? I mean, will they dance in front of people—even potential suitors?”
“Of course, that’s how your father and his people saw me. He said I was irresistible—my dancing made it impossible for him to leave me. But then, the dancing only comes after you girls have gone through the final indoctrination.” Oluchi tilted her head, her brows almost coming together. “Is that why you suddenly look nervous?”
Okuoba nodded sharply, hoping the lie would be a suitable answer to the question.
“She’s lying, Mama!” Chika chimed in, laughing, prodding Okuoba’s elbow with hers. “Her heart has been seized by a love-filled symphony.”
Oluchi looked confusedly at the girls. “Am I missing something?”
Chika was about to talk again when Okuoba pinched her from behind. And then came the sharp cry of pain. The two sisters exchanged glances. Okuoba’s was stern—the watch-your-tongue type that had the power to temporarily freeze someone.
“Can you girls please tell me what’s going on?” Oluchi’s gaze jumped from face to face. But neither of the girls uttered a word. Looking like someone who had gallantly conceded defeat, she shook her head, chuckled, rose from the mat, then extended a hand to Chika to follow her. She said to Okuoba, “Just so you know: custom demands that the food for the participating maidens be prepared by their mothers. This food will be shared amongst the girls at the village square.” Bending slightly, she added, “Don’t worry. It’s a stage in every woman’s life and I promise you that it will be fun. Okay?”
Okuoba offered a weak smile.
“In the meantime, your sister will accompany me to the homes of a few friends of mine; women whose daughters will also be participating in the ceremony.”
As the duo were about to leave the obi, Umeh walked in, his snuff box in hand.
Okuoba watched as her parents engaged in a short discussion about the next planting season. Thereafter, she helped her father to his wooden stool, placing his walking stick beside him on the floor.
Umeh grinned and tapped the bottom of his snuff box. “They must be for the ceremony.”
Okuoba instantly knew that her father was referring to the bunch of beads on the mat. Taking her position on the mat once again, she said, “Yes, Papa. Do you like their colour?”
Umeh gave an appreciative nod. He opened his snuff box, scooped a bit of the dry dark-brown tobacco and sniffed loudly. An uneasy expression later appearing on the old man’s face prompted Okuoba to ask if everything was all right.
“Come closer, child.” Umeh waved.
PART FIFTEEN||PART SIXTEEN
Mputa ezi (Right of Passage) ceremony: This is a ceremony practiced by the Igbos in pre-colonial Nigeria. The ceremony is intended to showcase young females to the entire community as they advance from one level of life and responsibility to the next.