BY ISRAEL USULOR

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A lot of effort had gone into the preparation for the war. No stones were left unturned. Each family was asked to present a young man to participate in actual combat. It was no longer a matter of choice but conscription and this presented Ikenna with a perfect opportunity as it whittled down Mimi and Aunt Adaku’s opposition. Old men from both clans were taxed some amount of money while women donated foodstuff. Some women were selected to cook the food while a few courageous ones were asked to convey cooked food to the warriors at the war front in case the war lasted longer than expected. This was a dangerous task as one could be caught in the crossfire. Young women fetched water and firewood as well as participated in the pounding of akpu. Aunt Adaku was part of those selected to cook and she took Mimi with her as she went to the village square where large fireplaces had already been made before they arrived. Large cooking pots with sooty backs sat on tripods and a cacophony of kputu kputu sounds filled the air. Pestles clang on mortars and combined them with human voices to create a musical effect. Beside the pounders were those who molded the pounded akpu into loi loi and threw them like balls into a white cellophane bag. About fifteen bags had already been packed full. Large pots of okra and ogbono soup were brought down and placed whole beside the bags of fluffy akpu. Smoke billowed into the sky from several points. Women engaged in endless chit-chats. The village square was as busy as Orie Agu-Ukpaka market on a day it was at its fullest.

‘I think the people are organized,’ Mimi said, after standing at a corner and observing for few moments.

‘You can say that again!’ Aunt Adaku responded gaily, in a pride-laden voice. ‘This is what happens when you push a people to the wall, they‘ll come back with full force. My daughter and sister died in the hands of the marauders. I‘ll give all it takes to avenge them.’

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‘Hmmm!’ Mimi exhaled. ‘I really hope our people have the right weapons to engage the herders. In my place, they were usually well armed with expensive weapons like AK47 rifles. Most times, they overpowered our warriors and killed a lot of us.’

‘Don’t be a pessimist Mimi.’ Aunt Adaku responded. ‘We are descendants of warriors who never lost a single battle. We have very strong young people who can break humans into tiny pieces with their bare hands. Don’t be worried Mimi, just pray to the gods to grant us victory.’ The way Aunt Adaku gestured with her hands made it look as if though she would participate in the actual combat. Mimi laughed it off. She has seen war and she knew what it meant for a people to be at war. It’s no joke!

‘Come here,’ she said, beckoning to Mimi. ‘Help me mold some akpu.’ Mimi was genuinely worried because she knew it would take more than an ancestral history of prowess to win a modern war especially if the opponent was the deadly herders. She nursed a secret fear of losing Ikenna to the cold hands of death.

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‘If anything happens to Ikenna, I will kill myself,’ she would think. But each time that fear came, she suppressed it forcefully. Ikenna himself had gone for a final debriefing of warriors by Eze Ekechi. There, it was decided that the attack would take place as soon as the chickens came home to roost later that evening.

‘This way, the herders would have returned home to their camp at Ala Eli, giving us the opportunity to encircle and finish them off once and for all.’ It was Icheku’s suggestion.

‘I agree with you Icheku,’ Eze Ekechi had said. “But I think we mustn’t put all our eggs in one basket. Let’s split the warriors into two and let one advance from Ofia Welechi in case the herders take us by surprise and attack first through that end.’

‘But how could they know we are coming? Do they have spies?’ Ikenna asked.

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‘We mustn’t take anything for granted. This is war and anything is possible,’ Icheku said.

‘We need a capable hand to lead at Ofia Welechi while Icheku concentrates on Ali Eli,’ Eze

Ekechi announced.

‘Let Ikenna do it!’ Icheku suggested.

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‘No way!’ Ikenna interjected. ‘I have no experience in military leadership.’

‘But none of us does!’ Eze Ekechi said. ‘We all are novices trying to save our land and survive. You’ll do exactly as Icheku has said and you had better not fail your people. There shall be no other meetings. Just gather your warriors and match to the war front as soon as the chickens come home to roost,’ he concluded.

Of a truth, the clan of Agu-Ukpaka had never engaged in any war. As such, the clan had no standing army. Ikenna too never expected to be entrusted with such a huge task. He was not completely sure he would be able to shudder such a huge responsibility, but his quest to avenge his mother kept him going. As they rose from the meeting and he walked home, he thought of what would happen if he died at the battlefront. He didn’t want to die. Yet for every warrior, the possibility of death was very real.

‘Yes, it is possible I could die. It’s possible,’ he said to himself as he approached home. Anyone who knows the reality of death puts their house in order. That’s what he was going to do.

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‘Mimi!’ He called loudly as he entered the compound. He sat in front of the hut waiting. Soon Mimi came running from the back of the house from where she was fetching firewood. The day was half-spent and she was about to make fire and prepare an afternoon meal. It was for this purpose that she left Aunt Adaku at the village square.

‘Obi m! Are you back?” she asked.

‘Who taught you that word?’ Ikenna asked, surprised. Mimi had never used any Igbo word before.

‘Aunt Adaku taught me” she answered. ‘She said it means “my heart” and I love it” she said excitedly as she poured the pieces of firewood she was holding near the fireplace.

‘Hmmm!’ Ikenna sighed with a smile on his face. ‘Please sit, I want to talk to you’

Mimi sat on a small stool beside Ikenna. She had only a wrapper tied across her chest. Ikenna saw that her pregnancy was beginning to shoot out. He stared at her continuously with a broad smile.

‘What?’ Mimi asked, giggling.

‘Our baby is growing,’ he said, with a broad smile.

‘Yes! That’s right! I can’t wait to have him in my arms” Mimi said rubbing her tummy.

‘How do you know it’s a “him?” Ikenna asked.

‘It must have to be a “him.”

‘What would you name him?’ Mimi asked jovially.

‘Uzodimma’ he answered. ‘It means “the road is good.” Remember where we conceived him?’

Ikenna asked laughing out loud.

‘Of course, I still do,’ Mimi answered, a shy smile registering on her face.

Suddenly, Ikenna stopped laughing. It was as if though he remembered something terrible.

‘What is it Obi m?’ Mimi asked drawing closer to him and placing her hand on his shoulder.

‘Talk to me. Why the sudden sadness?’

‘I may not come back from the war,’ he said, his head bowed and his eyes cast on the dusty floor.

‘Why would you say such a scary thing?’ Mimi asked in a jerky voice.

‘I’m going to war, right? That means the possibility of death is more than real. And I think you should be prepared for this,” he said lifting his face to look at Mimi eye-ball-to-eye-ball. ‘If this happens, I just want you to be strong for our baby. Please, promise me you would stay alive and raise him so he would continue my family tree,’ he said. Mimi hesitated. She removed her hand from Ikenna’s shoulder and moved her stool away from him. She sat and waged her chin with her left palm.

Promise me,’ Ikenna insisted, drawing his bench to meet her, but Mimi quickly stood up violently.

‘I’m not going to make such a promise because you aren’t going to die. You’ll come back here and help me raise this baby,’ she said, tapping her stomach. She adjusted her wrapper and refixed the edges under her armpit.

‘If I make such a promise, I won’t be able to keep it. I won’t live longer than a day if you don’t return to me,’ she said. She walked briskly to the fireplace and started breaking firewood to make fire for an afternoon meal.

‘Come help me break this firewood,’ she said. Ikenna stood and walked tiresomely like a man who has sensed his death. He was sure all wasn’t well but was worried Mimi failed to understand. He took the axe from her and started chopping the logs of firewood into small pieces fit for the fireplace.

‘Let me go to the next compound and bring live coal,’ Mimi said. Ikenna didn’t respond but continued what he was doing. When he was done, he went straight into the hut and lay face-up on his bamboo bet. He wanted to sleep and wake only when it was time for him to go and fight the herders, yet sleep refused to show up.

‘Only a fool would sleep when his house is on fire,’ he said to himself. He jumped from the bed and walked to a corner of the hut, took his cutlass and walked outside, and sharpened the metal on a stone close to the fireplace. Mimi had finished making fire and was dicing a tuber of yam and dropping them apiece into a black pot placed on the fire.

‘You are right Mimi,’ Ikenna said to Mimi who seemed absentminded. ‘I shouldn’t die at the war. I promise to come back to you. Mimi merely lifted her head, looked at him, and continued what she was doing. Soon, the ikoro sounded. It was time!

Read part 16 HERE

Israel Usulor is a journalist and short story writer. You can reach him via @JonalistIsrael and [email protected]



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