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Osimiri, Dawn and the Girls

Sunrise. It was the most beautiful experience in Amaiyi. The orange glow lined the horizon like the marks on a ripening pawpaw fruit. Its soft warmth in the early hours of the morning was just beginning to set in. Thatch roofed huts littered the landscape, silhouettes of the huts, trees and everything else with significant height stood between one and the horizon. Music from the trees greeted the rising sun – from the Olive Pigeon to the Wood Dove all the way down to the lowly Crow, the loud deep-throated singer who woke everyone up three or four times each morning. Mgborie Agu woke up at the second crow but her daughters Mmecha and Anuli would not rise from their mats till the third or fourth crow. Their little twelve-foot-square hut would then be filled with yawns, moans and a little bit of stretching. None of these came from Mgborie herself. She was a tough woman, a widow of twelve years playing father and mother to her teenage daughters, hidden away on the outskirts of a remote Igbo village. Poor and burdened but happy.

Memories of Ikenna Agu filled her thoughts every other day since he died. He was her man. A farmer, a hunter, a Palm Wine tapper. He made every other able bodied man in the village look extremely laid back. A few more years and he would have been rich enough to earn a chieftaincy title. He had organized the young men of his Age Grade to cut the path to Osimiri, the large river that gave the entire village and many surrounding villages life – Umuisi, Ezeama, Onu-Ibina, Okafia, Umuhu and many others. The drinking water, the rice fields, the farms all depended on Osimiri. The villagers were happy with Ikenna Agu, at least most of them. Everyone had said Ikenna had not died naturally. His body had been found floating on Osirimi late one night after a frantic search. Someone must have drowned him.

“Mmecha, Anuli, shake laziness off your body. Stand up and go to the river…”

“Mama I am tired o. I am tired…” said Mmecha. She was older but less enthusiastic about her morning chores. Her little sister naturally followed her but was not as vocal about her own feelings. She just kept that precocious little face like an innocent toddler making it very difficult to tell what could be going on in her fourteen-year-old mind.

“Stand up!” Mgborie snapped, giving Mmecha that look that made her upset but obedient. Mother was all they had and no matter how uncomfortable it was, they had to obey her. Mmecha stepped out to the door of the hut, tying her worn out wrapper from behind then across her burst till she made a knot with the ends behind her neck. She look at the sunrise: One of the wonders of Amaiyi. The lands elevation and their hut’s position made it a grand experience just watching it. Osimiri was in the other direction, westward. The view was even better from there. Going downhill made it look like the sun rose several times each morning.

Anuli had grabbed two twenty-litre clay water pots. She mumbled a greeting to her mother and lightly bumped into her elder sister “You are standing in the way…” she murmured. Mmecha was upset. She stared at her sister with disdain. Anuli had broken into her morning fantasies. When would the young, strong man come to take her and make all those stories her Mother had told them about their father happen for her? Anuli simply ignored her and stepped back into the hut briefly to pick up two large pieces of cloth. They looked dull and dirty, not obviously dirty because of the dark colours but any keen observer could tell neither had been washed in quite a while. Anuli threw one in Mmecha’s direction and carefully rolled the other up into something that looked like a wheel whose diameter was small enough to sit on her head – a head pad for carrying water pots. It did not bother her that the head pad she had just constructed would make a mess of her plaits done with rubber threads. They were coming loose already anyway. Mmecha had similar plaits. It was common fashion for young girls of Igbo descent throughout Eastern Nigeria.

Before long the pair had left their mother cooking and started on the downhill path to Osimiri. Everyone had told them their father was known to have gathered the young men of the village to create this path but after years of poverty they had stopped being proud of that… it just did not matter anymore. Several girls and young boys were on the path too. A lot of chatter was not uncommon on this path early in the mornings. Normal practice for almost everyone in the village was to set out early in the morning to get water for cooking and drinking. Often they would bathe in the river before returning. The path was rough, undulating and about a meter and half wide. It was restrained by something that could pass for a short wall as if some erosion had dug through the path elevating the sides that we still preserved by bush and shrubs. Massive trees were spotted every few meters, even fruit trees.

Along the way the quiet morning chatter was swallowed up by the of a pair of ranting boys who were fighting over some udara fruit they had been plucking from a sixty foot tree! They could not have been more than eight or nine years old each. Anuli dropped her pot and quickly ran over to stop them.

“Stop it! Stop it!” She scolded. She dragged them apart and stood between them, ordering one to move along towards the river which was their intended destination in the first place.

“Stupid children. Your mother sent you to fetch water and you decide to stop by and pluck udara. Are you not planning to eat this morning? Will udara fill your tummies?” Mmecha hissed from a few blocks away. She had stopped briefly to wait for her sister. This fight would be something they would talk about for the rest of their ten minute walk to the river. And why would they stop to dissuade children they may not have known personally from fighting? Well, everyone cared about everyone in this part of the world.

Okorie and Okafor had caught up with them while they were playing the Good Samaritan. They kept their distance though and simply eavesdropped on the ‘fight conversation’. They were well known twins in the village, a rarity in this part of the world. They were twins, but there was some mystery about their birth: they had been born hours apart, on different market days. The old men of the village who were born in the previous century often discussed what would have happened to them if they have been born in their time. The simply would not exist. The twins did not carry any water pots. The young men who had been initiated in the Oboni cult never carried water pots. That was left to women and children. Oboni was mandatory for every adolescent boy, it was a shame not to sail through the initiation rites. The twins were members. They knew the secrets….

Mmecha and Anuli arrived at a point along the path where it broke into three. One path led to the source of the river. The water was sparkling clean here and good enough for drinking. Good enough for drinking in Amaiyi and surrounding villages. They had neither the facilities nor the knowledge to do any other kind of testing on the water so their taste buds were sufficient. It was good enough for drinking according to their test buds of everyone in Amaiyi. It could even be labelled ‘sweet’, and it was just the right temperature too, no need for a refrigerator, a dispenser or any of those fancy White Man’s stuff some of which had not even been invented. There was a saying in this part of the world: what one does not know cannot kill one. It seemed to be working! The third path led to the end of the river. There they could have their baths hidden behind tall bushes along with other stark naked women, young and old. The men’s ‘bathroom’ was further down the river. All the soap left by the women seemed to disperse after a few minutes ride down Osimiri and it looked clean enough to bathe in again. The wonder of flowing water!

Anuli’s eyes brightened. She stopped and stared into Mmecha’s face. Mmecha knew that look. It came over her little sister whenever she wanted to say something silly. It was like some familiar spirit.

“What is it now?”

“Let’s go and bathe first!” Anuli blurted, smiling from ear to ear, wide eyed.

Mmecha hissed and started going down the first path. Anuli’s face fell. She stood a few second and yelled, “I am going to have my bath first!” and started in the opposite direction.

“Oh God!” Mmecha whined, dragging the ‘Oh’ and stamping her feet now and again on the moist floor in quick succession out of frustration. She could not leave her sister. Her mother would strangle her, raise her from the dead and strangle her again. Neither could she make her change her mind. That was an impossible venture where Anuli was concerned. She could try to persuade her, beg, cajole, plead or any of the other less intrusive methods. Making Anuli do something was completely out of the question. She played big sister to those who were younger than she was but she would not accept being the younger one and taking instructions so easily herself. Anuli ignored her elder sister and started walking northward. The river was in view just behind the mix of elephant grass, ferns, and variety of tropical shrubs that grew along Osimiri. ”Ohhhh God” Mmecha cried out again and started walking briskly after Anuli. Her explanation fell on deaf ears, “Don’t you know that if you bathe first you are going to get dirty again when we go to get cooking water? “

”I want to bathe first, Mmecha. If you want to go the other way please go. I can take care of myself. I will join you later”

”Anuli you are acting like a child! Listen to reason!”

Anuli turned around and faced her elder sister. She hesitated as she balanced the empty water pot on her head. ”I am not a child!“ She snapped, ”I can take care of myself. Please go if you want to! “

This part of the river was teaming with young children swimming, diving, having water fights and laughing hysterically. It was noisy but looked like a whole lot of fun. There was always something enchanting about Osimiri. The sparkle, the gentleness of the ripples, the perfect temperature, the scent of natural moist green. A child could stay here till twilight when his mother would come looking for him. The adults who wanted to bathe in the river came much earlier. Some came here about midday after working in the farm for hours. But no one came to the river or even stayed there at night.

Arriving at the part of the river bank which had been prepared for bathing was like emerging suddenly out of the bush, a narrow path suddenly widening just a few feet from the river. The river bed sloped very gently. The children whose cackling noises filled the air must have been quite quite safe as they played and often went very far into the river. No one was afraid. One could clearly see the river bed along with tiny fish and other interesting creatures that strayed this far out from safety. Anuli dropped her pot in a hurry almost cracking it. That would have been the news of day the. She hardly noticed how hard she had dropped it. Mmecha took care of things as usual, putting together both pots and their head pads. Anuli’s rush into the river made Mmecha giggle about that statement she had heard a few minutes previously ‘I am not a child’. She certainly acted like one. Her wrapper had been left flying off her naked body as she rushed in, her pair of slippers too. Mmecha picked them up and put them together with their water pots then she gently unclothed herself too and walked in bare feet, testing the water with her toes first.

The children payed absolutely no attention to the girls and said nothing to other another either. All one could hear was the giggles and occasional screams, the splashes of water, the ripples and all. All the children, almost twenty of them were naked but Mmecha noticed there was only one pair of shorts on the river bank. Their own wrappers were the only other pieces of clothing there. Had the children come to the river stark naked. That was not farfetched but it was definitely unusual these days. Children had become more conscious of themselves since their own days.

“Anuli,” she almost whispered. A sudden deathly fear had come over her. Something in the atmosphere had changed but Anuli did not notice. The river bed suddenly seemed dull. The giggling died down and one of the children stood upright, knee deep in the water and turned her head in Mmecha’s direction fixing her gaze directly on Mmecha. Mmecha looked back and the tales of the Village Wise man all rushed back into her memory. Tales about the children of Osimiri and their yearly sacrifices. They never spoke to anyone and they appeared and disappeared at will and for specific purposes.

“Anuli, Anuli, they are not children. They are not children” by now she was shouting at the top of her voice. Her voice was so loud the young men heard her and shuddered. They also had noticed the change in the atmosphere. It was as if Osimiri had woken up and was looking for something, or someone.

“Anuli!” Mmecha shrieked. She was overcome with fear. Anuli raised her head and looked around wondering what had come over her sister. Then she noticed something very unusual. All the children were gone! All, except one. She must have been about six years old. Her skin colour had changed, whitish. Her belly looked like a little hill blocking Anuli’s view of her face. She was lifeless, floating on the water. Anuli noticed the movement under the surface of the water. The ripples that resembled arrows seemed to point in her direction, approaching steadily. She heard Mmecha’s call. She knew this must have been the fourth of fifth time her sister called her, standing outside the river, frantic. “Anuli, come out! Come out!”

In the confusion a few young men had run towards them, shouting back, “What is it? Are you alright?“ Among the young men were Okorie and Okafor, the twins. Anuli had started running out of the river. There was no time for graceful swimming, she just struggled frantically with all parts of her body, making her way to the river bank. Inches away from the bank, she felt the touch of a pair of fangs. She could not have guessed what it was but it was very painful, more painful than the sting of a wasp. Mmeche watched her dropped on the floor; the lower part of her body sent splashes of water up in the air. Mmecha shrilled, frozen with fear. Okafor ran towards Anuli and picked up both arms dragging her out of the water, naked. Her toes drew a set of parallel lines on the river bank. Okorie covered her up with her wrapper. He had been keen enough to notice her colours when they were on the way to the river earlier that morning.

Okorie and Okafor knew the secrets of Osimiri and always came prepared. In Okafor’s pouch was a short knife, some bitter kola nuts, known to drive snakes away, a few scent leaves and other medicinal leaves. He quickly tore a strip off Anuli’s wrapper and tied it just above her knee making a very tight knot. He glanced at her face and noticed she had getting pale. Her eyes bulged slightly and were staring into nothing. She could be dead in seconds. He chewed a combination of leaves and squeezed the resulting fluid on her ankle where the fang marks were. He and his brother were surrounded by up to five others who just watched solemnly. Mmecha was now sitting at a distance, carrying both palms on her head, her elbows pointing sideways, tears running down her cheeks.

Some of the men began making comments:

“What kind of foolishness is this? How could she have gone into Osimiri to bath at this time of the morning even when she heard the sound of children? She is not a stranger is she? Does a toad run about at noon for nothing?”

“I passed by them when her sister warned her not to come this way. Our people say whoever does not here with his or her ears will hear with his or her body. It serves her right!”

“How can you say that, do you not have any compassion? How could she have known they voices were the voices of Osimiri’s children? She is a woman. Women know nothing!”

“All of you, keep quiet and let us hear!” yelled Okafor.

The river was still; sparkling again. The child’s body was now ashore, as if Osimiri had spat it out. Someone went close to identify the body. He would have to send word to Oti Ekwo, the village newsman so the child’s parents would come and make the appropriate sacrifices required to claim the body. The sun was rising higher, knocking its light off the surface of Osimiri though Mmecha was no longer interested in admiring its beauty this morning. Okafor lifted Anuli across his left shoulder. Her head and arms dangled down his back. Okorie took Mmecha by the hand while she sobbed. Her left hand was in Okorie’s, her right carrying her pot and head pad. Okorie carried Anuli’s water pot. They made their way back up the narrow, sloped path to the village. Along the way Okafor and Okorie switched positions, one carrying Anuli and the other taking Mmecha by the hand.

Mgborie knew something was amiss. The girls had spent much too long this morning at the river. She figured some young men had stopped them to speak to them. That would be a good thing. However, she was troubled. Her instincts told her it may have been something unwelcome. She thought about the day Ikenna’s lifeless body was carried into the village from Osimiri. The goddess had taken him, silenced him with her snakes; silenced him forever. She wondered where he was. Was he with the ancestors or in Heaven? Was he good enough to be in the Missionaries’ Heaven? But he had never heard about the Jesus whom the missionaries preached. Where would he be now? She broke her thoughts momentarily and looked at the pot of Oha soup she had been cooking on a tripod just outside their little hut. It was ready. She stirred it and then served a drop on her left palm to taste. She gave herself a little nod after tasting the soup. Then she heard the tumult from a distance behind her hut. She hurriedly took the pot of soup into the hut and rushed back out to see what was going on.

She peeked into the river path and saw the crowd approaching. She made out Okafor carrying someone on his shoulder. The commotion was thick. She waited just a little bit before she noticed Mmecha in Okorie’s care, weeping. She gasped and then gave a loud shrill.

“They have come again o. My enemies have come again!” she threw herself on the ground. Among the crowd those who knew her ran to her and held her. “Woman do not hurt yourself. The girl is alive. The girl is alive.” Mgborie sat up. Relieved. She shook her head and lifted both hands, “My God, you have done well…” She praised.

”We have to take her to Umunnato,“ Suggested an enlightened fellow in the crowd.

”Umunnato to do what? We have given her medicine. She will be fine,“answered Okafor.

“Let us take her there. The White Man’s medicine is sometimes more powerful than ours. You gave her medicine to keep her alive but she is not well yet. The hand cannot be thicker than the thighs.” Another voice added.

“Please let us go there o. But how shall I pay them. I do not have any money. Should I not hang my bag where my hands can reach them?”

“Do not worry, Mborie. The missionaries have already paid for us all. They say it is Jesus Christ who has paid but have not seen Jesus Christ, we have only seen them,” concluded the first man.

Ummunnato was the location of the General Hospital built for the people who lived in Bende division, a local government in Eastern Nigeria of which Amaiyi was a part. It was miles away. Riding there could take an hour. Okorie offered to get his father’s bicycle and Ekekwo, the first man who had suggested the trip offered to bring his too. Everyone was eager to help out, the joys of communal life.

Okorie hurried away while Okafor stayed with Anuli. She was breathing heavily but she did not speak. She was now lying on the ground beside her mother who was still sitting down, relieved for all he help she had received. She placed her hand on Okafor’s shoulder. ”My son. Thank you very much. May my God bless you and your parents. You are a blessing to us. Thank you. “

”It is well, Mother.“

Okorie ran through the village square. His father’s house was on the other side of the village. He stopped for a moment. He could not resist. The Ikperikpe Dancers were out. They were war dancers. His grandfather father often told him and his brother that their ancestor Ejeagba was a great warrior who often led the war dances in his generation. The lead dancer would carry a narrow rectangular platform on which were among other things the freshly cut human head, a pot of concoctions, feathers of rare birds and the skin of a leopard or other wild cat. These days they did not carry real human heads but Okorie’s grandfather had told him that Ejeagba, his own grandfather was a true warrior. He got his name ‘does not return empty handed’ because whenever he went to war or to an assassination, he always came back with fresh human heads. Okorie sometimes wondered whether there would be recompense on his generation for all the blood his ancestors shed.

The Ikperikpe Dancers all wore the traditional red and white soft woven hats which fell to one side. Those who were not singing had palm leaves in their mouths signifying silence. After the assassinations of those days, no one was to speak of what they had done. The music was largely made with primitive percussion instruments. Every now and then the ‘singer’ made intermittent long shrills in tune with the drums and sticks. They danced shaking their ‘breasts’ which was a prominent part of their physical features. They were the strong men of the village, second in appearance only to the Men of the Big Hoe, a bunch of heavy eaters who farmed acres for anyone who could pay with a lot of food and palm wine.

Okorie ran on after watching for a few minutes. He rode back to the edge of the river path where Mgborie Agu’s hut was. Anuli was still breathing but less heavily. Okafor had to carry her again, walking behind Okorie and the bicycle till they found smooth road some distance away from the village square where the dancers were still sweating it out, dancing around the five hundred year-old tree which marked the square. Every year, a live chicken was hung on this tree and allowed to die there. Women were forbidden from coming close. A marker on the ground showed the border but stones were available for men to sit on at the foot of the tree. It was not very clear what the tree did for the village but ever since anyone remembered, it was supposed to be something sacred.

The ride to Umunnato was silent. The morning sun had become very strong by the time the three bicycles got there. Mgborie’s cousin had also come with his bicycle. Okafor still had the job of carrying Anuli. Umunnato was a reasonably moderate sized building. It was big enough for Bende Division’s health problems. The entire building was painted pure white. The white missionary nurses welcomed them as soon as they crossed the open gates and arrived at the reception. A white nurse asked what was wrong with her.

”Osimiri… Osimiri almost killed her”

”Osimiri, “Nurse Anne replied sounding not particularly alarmed,”OK. Bring her this way “

Nurse Anne spoke Igbo fluently and knew the villages in Bende quite well. She knew Osimiri referred to the part of a tributary of the Niger that crossed Amaiyi. She also knew that Osimiri was also used to refer to the river goddess who killed people twice a year. She also knew that there were snakes in that river. So it must have been a snake bite.

It was not too long before the venom was neutralized with a very painful injection. Okafor was amazed. ”The White Man is spirit,“ he concluded. He and his brother kept gazing at everything at the hospital. It was certainly not something they were used to. Mgborie was more concerned about her daughters, grateful that neither death nor Osimiri had dealt her another blow that morning. Her daughters were safe.

Later that evening Anuli and Mmecha were out listening to tales about Osimiri from the village sage, Mazi Okoro. They were ecstatic, almost as if nothing had happened that morning. They enjoyed the tales of the Village Sage, Mazi Ebube and then sang folk songs with other teenagers, dancing around a bonfire. The twins were there too. They talked. Okafor with Anuli and Okorie with Mmecha. They laughed, talked and laughed again. As the sun sank into the horizon on the west side of the village, just behind Osimiri, the twins decided to walk the girls home. Mgborie was glad to see them. Her smile formed as soon as she saw them, long before she could hear their conversations. Maybe this all worked out for good after all. In one day, both her daughters found good young men. That would be the story, if the twins asked eventually. There was still hope for Mgborie Agu, maybe she could enjoy life once again.

Kenneth Igiri


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