Edited by: Darlene Jones
Placing the mat beside her father, Okuoba sat down on it and fixed her gaze on him. She had always viewed her father, Ichie Umeh, as an intelligent man, a fighter who would give his all for a just cause. At this delicate moment when her family was focused on finding her brother’s killer, she wondered if her father had come to seek her own advice on the matter. She was just a female and going by tradition, her view should only be applicable to relatively lighter issues.
“I remember the day you were born. Afor, it was. On that day, I was working over there with your uncle and some of the older servants.” Umeh gently pointed in the direction of the large barn in their backyard. “Upon hearing that your mother had gone into labour, we abandoned the ongoing construction of the barn.” A smile lightened up his mood a bit. “Your arrival was met with joyful shouts and dancing by the midwives.”
When his eyes locked on Okuoba’s, a chuckle escaped his lips. “My daughter, you came during a season of plenty. Our biggest harvest. Ever.”
The feeling of being special washed over Okuoba. But she couldn’t get herself to brag about this. She never had.
The birth of a child during a bountiful harvest was of great significance to her people. Her mother, she recalled, took much delight in narrating the same story. Lasting blessing from the gods, she called it. No wonder she was named Oku oba—fire of a barn. In other words, her name meant keeper of good fortune.
“Your happiness and safety means the world to me. What would have become of us if you had been abducted?”
“We owe my rescue to Dubem—he acted very bravely. We ought to thank him properly, Papa.”
The near-cheerful look on Umeh’s face recessed into a frown. He took a long deep breath and turned away. With his thumb he scooped some tobacco from his snuff box, waited as if he was now contemplating further indulgence in the dry dark-brown substance. Replacing the tobacco in its container, he focused ahead, tight-lipped and serious.
Okuoba was perplexed. She couldn’t understand the reason for her father’s abrupt withdrawal and silence. Curiosity, however, compelled her to lean forward.
“He’s just a servant.”
“He saved my life. What difference does it make if my rescuer were someone else, a freeman to be precise?”
Her father glared at her. The look instantly made her feel like the servants working for him—they were entirely subservient.
“I’m sorry, Papa.” Okuoba lowered her head. With slightly trembling hands she began to stroke the light brown fur of the wrapper, made from goat pelt, which covered her lower region. “I regret the rudeness,” she added.
She stole a glance at her father, this time, wondering if his paternal gaze—still fixed on her—meant that he perceived that there was more behind her question.
Could he sense her budding love for Dubem? That, of course, had fuelled her assertion about the young servant. If so, did such desire please him? Would he go ahead and give her to Dubem in marriage? Her heart constricted at the thought that the male servant could be exiled or beheaded because of her.
“It’s all right, child. You’re entitled to your own opinion.”
A reddish-brown bird, almost the size of a pigeon, perched on a side of the dwarf mud barrier surrounding the obi. After a brisk short movement, it beaked the insides of it wings, then made a cursory inspection of the father and daughter. It chirped briefly before fluttering away. Until it was out of sight, Okuoba was stuck admiring its dynamism and ebullient nature. How she wished she could experience that same freedom. To bare her intimate feelings and not to be bound by the traditions governing marriage in her village.
“I blame myself for your brother’s death.”
Okuoba cocked her head. “I don’t understand.”
She watched as her father closed his snuff box and placed it on the floor. He crossed his legs and placed both hands on his thighs. “I shouldn’t have sent him on that errand …”
Feeling she now had a grasp of what he meant, she said, “Papa, it’s not your fault. Whoever went on the errand would’ve been killed. Really, that’s the way I see it.”
Umeh coughed. Grimaced while tapping his chest. “Let me explain: Your brother and a few servants were sent as an entourage to welcome a group of men from Isiochie village. As those men and I had earlier agreed, they were coming with the intention of formally asking for your hand in marriage.”
Okuoba couldn’t believe her ears. She was stunned that such detail had been kept away from her this long. Even though by custom it wasn’t her exclusive right to pick her marriage partner, she thought she at least deserved to know about the intentions of these visitors before now. To make it even harder for her to bear, her brother had been murdered in the process.
Looking remorseful, her father compressed his lips into a thin line and gesticulated with raised hands. “So you see … it’s all my fault. I thought that if I gave you as a wife to a wealthy man’s son from any of the neighbouring villages, that would help create an alliance between both villages—perhaps save our bloodline in an event of war or epidemic. But as it stands, I don’t think that’s possible. Maybe it is the will of the gods all along that your husband should come from our village, so that people may also refer to you as Nwa Ada—just like your mother and the other women, who bear the same name because they were born here and are married to men from this village.”
Umeh positioned his body to face Okuoba. With bent elbows resting on his thighs, he leaned forward, concern in his eyes. “My daughter, after the Mputa ezi ceremony, it’s widely expected that you and other maidens will get married. It’s my duty to give you in marriage to a nice man, who is not just responsible, but is also rich. I regret not telling you about the intentions of those men from Isiochie. But I’d like to make things right by being open with you this time: I’ve arranged for your marriage. Your would-be husband will be at the Mputa ezi ceremony.”
PART 16||PART 17