My grandfather was a superb story teller; he’d sit on his giant upholstery chair in his sitting room, his glazed eyes blinking sporadically like he had no control over what they did, his hands shaking as he gesticulated vigorously, while we his grandchildren, would sit on the floor at the foot of the chair, looking at him in awe as he painted pictures with his words and brought characters to life with his feeble hands. He would tell us beautiful stories of gods, spirits, animals and men who were larger than life. His voice was hoarse and we had to strain our ears to hear him, that and the way he sat in his upholstery chair gave him the look of one his many great characters.
He told us, one night, of a medicine man from Abiriba, a long time ago, when the settlement was still new and growing, long before the white men came and built the church at Afia Nkwo. The medicine man, Ikwan, was on his way back to Abiriba from business in the Ibibio country when night crept up on him.
“The night holds many secrets and in the dark are hidden a lot of things not meant for the eyes of mere men. The dark is the playground of the spirits,” my grandfather said, his voice was lower than usual and created a dramatic effect and images of fear in our heads and young minds.
“Ikwan knew this and decided it was not wise to continue his journey in the dark. He had to find a place to rest for the night. He was not far from Aro, which was at the time a very new settlement also, and so he headed for the town.
“In those day, people were very hospitable, one was always ready to let in strangers into their home and host them without thinking twice. People were very kind and far more trustworthy than they are today,” grandfather said and then paused to clear his throat. Grandfather cleared his throat always, it seemed his throat secreted more phlegm than normal.
“The first hut Ikwan saw belonged to a hunter named Okonta. Okonta happily welcomed Ikwan into his hut and immediately prepared a place for the medicine man to sleep. Ikwan thanked Okonta for his hospitality and requested for food. ‘I would like to eat something before I sleep, you see, I have been on the road since morning and have had very little to eat, I would appreciate it if you could prepare something for me to eat Ikwan requested of his host.
“No,” was the reply from Okonta “I cannot do that.” Ikwan was shocked, he had not expected an outright refusal from Okonta. “Why? Do you not have food?”
“I’m sorry my friend, but I cannot prepare food for you this night, the noise and fire might attract raiders.”
“Yes, for a while now Aro has been harassed incessantly by a group of raiders. They wear suits of raffia, their heads look skywards, their nails are pointed like spears and are very sharp, they use it to cut off the heads of their victims,” Okonta explained, his voice very low as if the raiders were outside the hut listening. “They attack at night and have looted many homes over the past few moons” Ikwan nearly did not believe Okonta’s tale but the fear gleaming in Okonta’s eyes could not be a lie, “their heads look skywards?”
“Yes,” Okonta continued in whispers, “I have seen them with my own eyes. I am a hunter, I have seen all kinds of creatures, those that crawl, fly or walk in the day and in the depths of darkness, but these raiders, they send shivers down my spine like no creature has ever done”.
“Are they spirits?” Ikwan asked. Since his childhood, he had learnt to commune with the spirits and the gods. His father was a great priest and had taught him well, the ways of the spirits.
“I do not know, but mere men do not have heads that look towards the sky”.
My grandfather’s gruff voice was even lower as he mirrored Okonta’s whisper, his glaucoma glazed eyes were opened so wide, it seemed they would pop out from his sockets and with his shaking hands he gave life to the images he created with his words. My grandfather was a one man theatre production.
“Ikwan did not push further and had to sleep hungry. In the morning, Okonta prepared a meal of porridge yam and bush meat for the medicine man. When he had eaten his fill, Ikwan continued on his way home. Ikwan arrived Abiriba in the evening and rested in his home with his family. The next morning, Ikwan went to the agbala to discuss what he had heard in Aro.
“Men whose faces looked skyward?” the men asked him after hearing his incredible story.
“And with fingers as sharp as knives”, Ikwan answered
“Abiriba people are known for their might,” my grandfather said, his voice laden with pride “in those days we fought in so many battles and we came out, more often than not, victorious. The Nkporo people used to occupy most of what is now Umueso, but we expelled them and we did the same with the Item people who used to occupy Omaughuzo Amaeke. We also fought for the Aros during their conquest of Igbo land. And when we did not fight, we were great travellers and businessmen, setting up trading posts all over Igbo land and the Calabar area and as far away as Fernando Po.” Grandfather had the habit of delving into a bit of history while telling his stories. I learnt about Nigerians who fought for the British in the Second World War while he told a story of the tortoise and his cracked shell.
He cleared his throat again and continued with his story. “Six gallant warriors were dispatched to Aro from Abiriba immediately. They arrived Okonta’s hut at night and asked him to make them food. Okonta seeing the warriors, felt safe enough to begin to roast a bush rat he had caught in his trap earlier that day. As the smoke climbed into the night sky and the aroma filled the air, the warriors got ready to pounce on anything coming out from the surrounding woods. Suddenly, out came the raiders; dressed completely in raffia, on the top of their heads were their faces and their fingers glistening in the moonlight. The Abiriba warriors attacked them immediately and rounded them up. They discovered they were mere men wearing suits made from a leguminous weed and they rested their masks on their heads to make it look like their head faced skywards and they wore gloves with very sharp edges. The warriors removed the masks and the raiders turned out to be Ibibio men who had been expelled from their land by the Aros.
“To thank us, the Aros gave Abiriba a mirror, a very special mirror given to them by the white men whom they did business with. Now, you might think there’s nothing special about the mirror, but two centuries ago very few people had seen mirrors before and it fascinated them, it was like magic. In those days, people sold their children into slavery for mirrors, especially the stubborn ones” Grandfather paused and let his eyes move through each of us as if he was checking to see which one of us he would have sold into slavery for a mirror.
“The masks of the raiders were taken back to Abiriba and till today the ekpe akoro Ukpo masquerade wears its mask on the top of its head, the mirror also, still hangs today at the Obu Umu e’chukwu, Amaogudu”.
“Really?” my cousin, Ebere asked, obviously fascinated “So, this is a true story?”
“Of course, it is a true story”, grandfather replied, a little irritated “Did you hear me mention any talking animals?”
“No,” Ebere whispered, looking away sheepishly.
“Grandpa, were you born then?” My six year old younger sister asked.
“No, I wasn’t”. Grandfather answered, chuckling “My father told me this story like his own father told him. My grandfather wasn’t even alive then.”
“Grandpa, people really sold their children into slavery for mirrors?” Ebere asked again
“Yes, their stubborn, disobedient children, they sold them for mirrors, walking sticks and hot drinks”
“Grandpa, that means you were a good boy then, that’s why your mummy and daddy didn’t sell you,” my younger sister said and grandfather laughed.
“Grandpa was not even born then”, I told her
“If he was born then and he was sold, we will be Black Americans now,” Ebere said
“That would be so cool,” my sister said, smiling “There’s nothing cool about selling people into slavery”, Agwu chided, he was the oldest of us all
“If we were such great warriors, why didn’t we fight the slave traders?” I asked. “They had guns and we had spears and machetes and sticks” Agwu answered.
“We had guns too,” Ebere argued
“No, we didn’t”
“We had guns, bombs, jet fighters, giant ship, we had ogbunigwe” Ebere argued animatedly. “We have all sorts of weapons and ammunitions, I saw them that time my class went on excursion to the war museum,” he was now chatting away to my sister who was looking on, very fascinated. “We have all these huge fighter jet planes and bombers, the ogbunigwe too and a very large fighter ship, we can win any war!”
Agwu and I laughed at the young boy, as he kept on talking. I looked over at grandfather; he was snoring deeply, fast asleep.
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