THE CIRCUMSTANCE SURROUNDING the birth of Afam Udemba was the kind that made you question the existence and fairness of God. From the very moment he was conceived, his life was marked to be one full of loneliness and all the suffering that came with it. He came out kicking and screaming, but perhaps if he knew what the world held in store for him, he might have reconsidered those first painful breaths. Afam was born an osu – an outcast. In Aboh, that made him a walking plague.
Onuowoli was fully aware of the life that awaited the son she had brought into the world. She was an osu herself, after all. She held him in her arms and questioned if letting him live was the right thing to do. He was so innocent, smears of blood covering his face as he screamed and she hushed him to be quiet. His innocence was his right to live, but it was also his right not to be condemned to the loneliness he was being born into. Onu based her decision to keep him on the saying that any life was better than no life at all. But behind that and a hundred other reasons she used to justify bringing him into a world that did not welcome him, she knew there was one true reason. She saw him as a cure to the loneliness that was beginning to drive her insane. He would be an escape from all her misery. The presence of someone to love was one thing, but the presence of someone to be loved by—that was simply irresistible.
Onu cuddled and nursed her baby with all the care and love a mother could give. She looked into his small brown eyes and thought about the many secrets that surrounded his birth, from his conception to his delivery. None of these secrets were ever going to be known to him. His life was shattered as it was. Knowing the truth about himself was only going to make things worse. She was scared of the future, but for the moment, she allowed herself bask in every joy she could draw from her newborn child. In Aboh, a child was seen as a gift from the gods. If ever there was a woman the gods owed some happiness, it was Onu.
Time flew by and Afam grew quickly. Occasionally, Onu found herself overcome with sorrow for him, but she never regretted having him. He grew to be everything she could imagine and even more. He was the kind of son that made one believe that a child was truly a gift. Onu was as happy as the world let her be, at least for a while.
Ndowka East, Aboh, Umuti, 1806
AFAM UDEMBA WALKED through the bushes with a calmness that had come from familiarity. He had been hunting in these bushes for many years now. There was nothing he hadn’t seen here. He had been bitten by a snake, chased up a tree by a wild beast, caught in hunters’ traps. But that was all in the past. Over the years he had come to know where the snakes lay, and where the boars slept. He could walk through these bushes with his eyes closed, without brushing against a twig or thorn.
The morning was humid and still, its silence nibbled on by droplets of water falling from the tips of leaves into small puddles. It had rained heavily the night before, leaving the ground muddy and slippery. Afam was armed with a quiver of poisoned arrows, his powerful bow, and a machete too heavy to be wielded by a lesser hunter. He slowly made his way deeper into the bush, occasionally crouching behind bamboo stems to stay hidden. He made sure he kept a steady foot to avoid slipping and alerting any preys, or worse, a hungry predator.
When he noticed a figure that stood out in the greenery, he took cover behind some leaves. The morning was still young, not even the first cockcrow had been heard. He peered into the gloomy bushes to discover a wild boar resting lazily in the mud. The boar was a strong and violent prey, but he was not troubled. He had killed one too many and this was not going to be his last. He inhaled deeply, drawing in the familiar smell of boar droppings. Yes, this was definitely a boar. He placed the machete on the ground, carefully, to avoid any noise, then drew his bow and teamed it with an arrow. Afam stretched the string with his powerful arms until it could go no further, then he took aim with experienced eyes. When he was sure to score, he took three deep breaths like he always did. Not because it aided his aim in any way, he was simply bracing himself for the attack that always came after the shot. The poison alone was never enough to kill the prey.
After the three deep breaths, he released the arrow. It soared through the air, cutting through leaves and narrowly escaping stems, before finally hitting its target. The arrow pierced the wild boar in the neck, waking the sleeping beast. The animal sprang to life with a cry of anger and pain as the arrow went through the thick hide and the poison began to mix with its blood. While the beast danced around in agony trying to rid itself of the arrow, Afam picked up his machete and sprinted through a maze of bamboo stems for the attack. Most hunters would have used more arrows on the prey, or a spear to keep a safe distance. Not Afam. He loved to do it the hard way. He was a warrior after all, always in the frontline on the battlefield. Dealing with this beast with a machete was good practice for the next tribal clash.
Knowing the first sense to be impeded by the poison was the animal’s sight, he ran in a zigzag pattern to confuse the creature. The beast struggled to focus on the approaching creature but it’s vision was too hazy to get a clear picture. As he drew closer, the boar’s vision appeared to get worse. In desperation it attacked blindly, charging head first, ready to attack anything in its path. Afam waited until the beast stood two paces away before he side-stepped out of the way. By the time the boar realised it was heading for the sharp blade of a machete, Afam had already cut deep into its skull. The blow would have killed a full-grown man, but Afam knew it was going to take more than that to bring down a boar.
He quickly regained his balance from the first strike, planting his legs wide apart and digging his bare toes into the mud for a firmer foothold. He waited for the beast to turn around and then he went after it again. He danced around, heels digging into the mud, eyes steadily fixed on the dangerous prey. He noticed the boar trying harder to focus as it got even dizzier. He thought the blow to the head must have shaken the creature. It was time for another strike. This blow was a lot more powerful than the first. Afam slammed with both arms and scored precisely between the beast’s eyes. He knew it was the last hard blow that was needed. The machete cracked the boar’s skull open and blood oozed out as the beast galloped to its death. Afam’s entire body was drenched in sweat, but at least the most difficult part was over.
The boar struggled in sheer pain and agony as Afam hopped around it throwing in weak swings every now and again. He wasn’t aiming for the kill any more, he was only protecting himself. The beast finally gave up after running into a tree. As it lay on the ground, shaking convulsively, Afam watched with careful eyes and kept a safe distance. After almost thirty breaths, the boar no longer moved. Afam approached slowly as if he feared the beast could spring into life again. After a few pokes with the machete just to make sure there was no coming back, he sighed deeply. It was dead.
Afam had always been a deep thinker. Looking at the lifeless beast made him wonder what death really felt like. The closest he had come to understanding it was imagining death as a cold endless sleep. When he looked into the eyes of the dead beast, all he saw was emptiness. He wondered to himself if it had felt fear before it died, and if it did, how much of it? Afam was brave in a lot of ways, but he didn’t want to die. There was something about the idea of death that made him tremble. He found this onslaught of thoughts very unsettling.
He dropped his machete on the floor and lifted the heavy beast from the ground with almost inhuman strength. Then he placed it over his shoulders, gripping the two fore legs securely before he got down slowly and reached for his machete.
Afam made his way slowly and quietly, trying even harder not to alert any predators. He listened to the whistling of birds from the trees and the croaking of frogs in their ponds. These were the sounds of an aging morning. How would I die? he wondered. He never thought he was immortal, but he believed his death did not lie in the belly of a beast or in the hands of another man. At least he liked to think so. He imagined he would grow old and die in his sleep, in the darkness of night. Most men you’d ask how they wanted to go would easily choose to pass away in their sleep. But who was to say that it was as peaceful. Who was to say that the men who died in their sleep weren’t taken by demons? Who knew what they really went through in those last dark hours? He shook the thought away. He was young and strong; he was as close as he would ever get to immortality.
The uphill journey he had to make before getting on the walk path to the village was tiring. He planted one foot after the other, pushing himself harder towards the top. When he finally made it, he had to stop to catch his breath. It was still another four kilometres to the village. Afam took a few deep breaths and decided to move on. The road to the village wasn’t the safest this early in the morning. The danger had nothing to do with the wild animals in the bushes. There was another type of animal that wandered the path – the oyinbo.
Afam didn’t know a lot about these white men they called oyinbo apart from the fact that they had golden hair and eyes that changed from brown to green to blue. After he had encountered his perfect reflection in an ugebe he had seen in the hut when he sneaked in to visit Adaobi, he half believed the white man was capable of magic too. Thanks to Adaobi he had come to know that the oyinbo were dreadful and should be avoided. He couldn’t forget the fierceness in his lover’s eyes as she warned him about them. To Afam it didn’t matter if the allegations she made against them were true or false, he wasn’t taking any chances.
As he made his way back to the village, he listened intently for any sounds out of the ordinary. Adaobi had told him that one could hear the oyinbo from a distance as he whipped his prisoners. He had never crossed paths with the white man before, and after listening to Adaobi, he never wanted to.
When he heard the lashing sound of a whip tear through the air in the stillness of the morning, he tried to tell himself that it was only in his imagination. It was when he heard the voice of a man crying in woe that he knew trouble lurked. Fear gripped his entire body and with little or no control he jumped into the edge of the bush, sending the boar rolling down the hill in a panic. It annoyed him to know that he would have to repeat the uphill journey, but for now he had to be still.
The whipping and wailing grew even louder as the oyinbo and his slaves walked past. The sheer agony in their cry sent Afam’s heart racing. It wasn’t just their pain he imagined but their fear too. He had to force himself to calm his harsh breathing if he didn’t want to be discovered. He remained still on his stomach until he could no longer hear the echoes of whips and the loud cries that followed.
This was his first encounter with the oyinbo. He prayed to the gods to make it his last.