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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? “

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