BY ISRAEL USULOR
The city held a lot of attraction for young people in Ikenna’s village. Yearly, many Agumkpume youths moved to the city in search of greener pastures. At the end of every planting season, Ikenna’s age-grade lost a handful of its members to this rural-urban drift. It was usually emotionally difficult to path with people with whom one grew up and did many things together, but the desire for a better future which they believed was only possible if one stayed in the city, had always prevailed.
Many young boys of Ikenna’s age who left the village didn’t do so on their own because among the Ezzas, it was popular to send children and wards to the city where they served as apprentices under already successful businessmen who would settle them after an agreed number of years. Among the Ezzas, this was known as boy boy or igba boy. Families that couldn’t afford to train their children beyond primary and secondary education usually sent them off to the city to work as apprentices and learn a trade. While the lucky ones returned highly successful, others were usually not so lucky. A story was told of a young man called Chukwuma who served as an apprentice for ten years, but at the end, returned with nothing. His oga, Anyanwuocha, for that was his name, was said to have been rich but particularly wicked. In the end, the story goes, Anyanwuocha alleged that Chukwuma stole his money and that he was leaving him empty-handed as punishment. Of course, the villagers knew the allegation was false because Chukwuma died a poor man afterwards.
For Ikenna, the decision to relocate to the city was understandably a difficult one. He was an only child of a blind mother. His mother, Lebechi was blind from birth. Onukwuba, his father was a great palm wine tapper whose wine was regarded as the best in Agumkpume and beyond.
The old man died four market days before Ikenna’s birth after he fell off a palm tree. When he completed his secondary education, Ikenna’s overriding ambition was to stay put in the village and look after his blind mother. He rejected many offers to move to the city. He was seventeen then, but immediately he turned eighteen, pressure mounted from family members for Ikenna to move to the city. The argument, as presented as succinctly as possible by aunt Adaku, was that the village held nothing in stock for a young person of Ikenna’s talent.
‘Ikenna,’ she had called him one night she visited to discuss the matter with him. ‘Your decision to remain in the village and look after your mother is a good one, but it’s not the best,’ she said as she adjusted the edges of her wrapper. She was seated beside Ikenna on his bamboo bed.
‘I think you have to think again,’ continued Aunt Adaku. She had a way of presenting her points so as to convince her listener. Her method was to speak slowly, allowing each point to sink before bringing up the next. Ikenna knew Aunt Adaku, so he was always patient with her long pauses.
“I understand your feelings about your mother’s condition”, she said, after a long pause that made Ikenna think the conversation had ended.
‘But let me tell you my son, if I understand you very well, and if what you really want is to take good care of your mother in the real sense, then I don’t agree with you that you must have to stay in the village before you can do that. You have to go out there and earn the resources with which you can take care of your mother,’ she paused, fixing her gaze at Ikenna who in turn fixed his on the dusty floor.
‘But if what you want is to remain in the village and lead your mother around, perhaps with a stick, then you are free to stay,’ she teased as she reached for her snuff bottle tied in her isi akwa. She tapped the white bottle on her knee cap, opened it and scooped a pinch with her small finger and stuffed the brownish substance into her right nostril. She did the same for the left one and sneezed heavily then rose to leave.
‘I’m going to allow Chidimkpa, your niece to come and live with your mother as soon as you leave for the city,’ she said in-between two loud sneezes.
‘I’ve been informed that Oduburu is coming home next year to take you to the city to be his apprentice,’ she announced. She blew her nose to rid it of snuff debris.
“You must follow him! Don’t turn him down the way you did to Nzekwe. Now that there is someone to look after your mother, I don’t know what your excuses would be,’ she said, cleaning her nostrils still.
Ikenna was convinced Aunt Adaku had made a point that was reasonably true. Besides, whatever shred of doubt left in his mind about going to the city for boy boy, was completely erased when his mother, Lebechi personally confronted him on the issue. She wanted Ikenna to go to the city with Oduburu.
‘Ikenna,’ she had called him one morning he was about leaving to inspect his traps which he had set the previous day at Ofia Welechi.
‘Oduburu has indicated an interest in taking you to be his nwa boy. I think you have to accept that offer. It is the best for you. As for me, don’t worry. I will be fine in the village.
Besides, Adaku your aunt has promised to allow Chidimkpa to live with me when you are gone. So you have nothing to worry about,’ she had said in a resolute tone that left Ikenna surprised and defenseless.
‘Alright mother, I’ve heard you, but I’ll only go to the city at the end of the next planting season. I need time to put things in order,’ he responded politely.
‘You reason so well my son, just like your father. I will send word to Oduburu to come for you at the end of the next planting season,’ said the old woman. ‘And may the gods bless your traps with a big game,’ she prayed as Ikenna made to leave.
That was one year ago. In Ikenna’s thinking, the time had flown really fast and now, the planting season had ended and Ikenna seemed sufficiently ready to migrate to the city. Oduburu had sent Akubundu, his younger sibling, to fetch Ikenna. His age-grade had organised a farewell dinner for him a week before his departure. It was also a sort of planting season ceremony used by farmers to hang their hoes. There was usually a lot to eat and drink at this dinner.
The young at heart used it to unwind and engaged in endless chit-chat amidst kegs of palm wine. The subject could be anything, but usually, within Ikenna’s age grade, the subjects ranged from which member was getting married and who was relocating to the city at the end of the farming season.
Members looked forward to these discussions because it involved a lot of youthful idle talk called njakiri. Expectedly, as the members drank palm wine that evening at Ikenna’s compound, the topic of discussion was Ikenna’s plan to relocate to the city.
‘I learnt this noble group is about losing another member to the city,’ Icheku Oku, the leader of the group opened the floor with his characteristic deep voice. Icheku Oku has led the group since its inception about two years before. He was twenty-two and the most educated member of the group having earned a National Certificated in Education, NCE.
The man commanded respect among his followers perhaps because of his level of education or maybe due to his throaty voice and the charismatic manner in which he carried his stoutly built body.
‘In fact, I can confirm that this member already has his other leg in the city,’ he teased as he emptied his upi or horn and handed it over to be refilled by Ngama who was in charge of the kegs of palm wine. There were altogether five kegs of palm wine of which four had been emptied. ‘Ogrenya,’ called Echara, who like other members referred to Icheku as ogrenya which is the Ezza word for elder. Echara himself was drunk and his voice sounded as if he had water in his mouth.
‘Ikenna is leaving for the city in four market days, but as for me, I have planted a bottle in my farm and I shall not leave this village until it germinates. So even if everybody leaves today, you still have me. Our age-grade shall live long. It shall not die,’ he said raising his voice and punching the air with a clenched fist. The other members applauded him.
As at that time, young people who knew they would never relocate to the city made a mockery of the idea by saying they had planted a bottle and are waiting for it to germinate. Since bottles are not viable seeds and never germinate, this was their own way of rejecting any idea of travelling out of Agumkpume.
‘But let njakiri go back,’ intervened Uchendu, handing his upi to Ngama who in turn announced that what was left in the last keg of palm wine were the dregs which as tradition demanded was reserved for Icheku Oku, the eldest person in the group. Disappointed, Uchendu placed the upi on the floor and returned to what he was saying.
‘Let us not make it appear as if Ikenna is going to die in the city. I suggest we wish him good luck from his chi when he goes to serve Oduburu,’ he observed.
‘You are right Uchendu,’ concurred Icheku who by then was heavily drunk. Yet that did not affect his voice. It remained throaty.
‘We wish Ikenna favour from his chi,’ ‘Ikenna!’ He called. ‘Don’t forget home when you must have hit gold in the city. Remember that charity begins at home,’ he advised, dragging his left ear warningly as a father would when talking to a child. As members rose to retire to their various homes, Ikenna thanked them profusely.
Watch out for part 2
Israel Usulor is a journalist and short story writer. You can reach him via @JonalistIsrael and [email protected]
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