‘May the Oba live long!’
‘So be it!’
The crowd re-echoed the chant of the high priest as he lifted his voice in adulation of the monarch. As the festival reached a crescendo, the daughters of the chiefs, six in number led the dance. Behind them, others of more common birth; all of them in their late teenage years, swayed to the rolling beat of the drums. Their sonorous voices rose and fell in unison and their bare feet tapped rhythmically on the dark red soil. There was a full moon that evening at the square. A goat had been spit over the hissing wood-fueled fire and the aroma of roasted meat blended with a mixture of wild spices and hot pepper floated through the air. The townspeople sat in groups, passing round large juicy chunks of the tender meat and sipping palm wine.
Ifueko moved effortlessly among her friends; dancing for all she was worth and smiling as she did so, to reveal a set of well arranged teeth. Encouraged by the quickened pace of the drummers, she edged forward subtly and increased her momentum. She was careful to maintain a respectable distance between her and the chief’s daughters who occupied the front line, yet she was unreserved in her bid to out-dance them. The festival was but once a year and Ifueko was determined to have as much fun as she could, leaving enough memories to last her till the next celebration.
It might have helped a little that Odion was among the drummers. Every time she turned around, he winked at her and sent her heart racing. Their constant eye contact was more than enough motivation to keep her swaying. There were at least ten pairs of hands beating against the tall, taut, beaded drums but Ifueko seemed to dance only to Odion’s beat.
When the dance was over, Ifueko was the first to break out of the dancing line. Odion took the cue and deserted his group of drummer friends. They found each other, away from the crowd. He took hold of her hand and they continued their gambol, moving to a rhythm which only the two of them could hear.
‘You are a dancer among a thousand,’ he whispered into her ear. ‘Not even the fish in the stream can glide as gracefully as you do.’
‘You have started again. You better behave yourself.’ She tried to look annoyed, but the wide beam across her face completely betrayed her.
‘I am serious, my love,’ he continued. ‘You had me captivated.’
‘That is good. I like it when I captivate you.’ She glanced over her shoulder. ‘Let that captivation carry you for the next few days because now I have to go. Mama said to come home once the dance is over.’
Odion’s face fell in disappointment. ‘Why now?’ he asked. ‘When will I see you again?’
‘Soon,’ she replied, hurrying away.
‘How soon?’ he called after her.
Without a reply, she made her way away from the festival, down the dusty, winding footpath and disappeared.
Ifueko sat quietly beside her mother, leaning a little too heavily on her so that mama had to adjust her posture twice. She had danced well some nights before, but never expected that her light, agile steps would bring Uwase to her home. Mama was outside roasting corn over a coal stove when the high priest arrived, accompanied by his servant boy who carried his staff. Throwing aside the flat board she had been using to fan the glowing embers, she ushered them into the little thatched hut.
Uwase was advanced in years but still a powerful man and mama did her best to make him feel welcome. As high priest of the Idusefe clan, it was he who had enabled his friend to earn the chieftaincy, just as he had done for his father before him. He would do the same thing for chief’s first son when his time came, but for now, there was a different matter at hand. Chief Idusefe’s keen eyes had spotted a prospective wife among the young ladies at the festival the previous day and he had sent Uwase, accompanied by a servant boy, to lay his seal of authority on her.
Head of one of the most influential clans in the kingdom, Chief Idusefe was a highly revered man. His was a noble blood line, spanning many generations. His palace was housed within a vast compound at the center of the locality over which he ruled. His clansmen held an allegiance to him that was as strong as his own allegiance to the Oba was. When the chief spoke, people heeded his voice. And what he was saying right now was that he wanted this young woman for a wife. The morning immediately after the festival, he had sent the high priest to discuss the matter privately with Ifueko’s uncle.
As Uwase surveyed Ifueko, chewing the kolanut which his host offered him, the young woman looked away bashfully. She was well acquainted with the family of the man who had come to claim her hand in marriage. When she was a little girl, mama had often told her the centuries-old folklore about the eldest daughter of the chief’s foremost ancestor. How, at the age of eighteen, she went down to the stream to fetch water with her mates when she tripped over a stone, fell into the murky waters and drowned, her water pot smashing into bits. The other girls left their water pots and ran back home, screaming to alert the entire town. They searched for days but never discovered her body. From the mysterious way she died, the high priest had declared that, the river deity’s deep affections towards the young girl had prompted him to take her for himself. It was said that in return, he had smiled favorably on Idusefe’s descendants. Their farmlands were always fertile and theirs was a formidable clan, boasting of great conquests every time they went to war.
Ifueko had lost count of how many times she had been told the story. It had happened so long ago that no one could really separate the myth from the truth. But after every harvest, the chief’s family offered the choicest portions of their farm produce to the clan’s high priest down at the river to ensure continued fertility of their soil; a tradition passed down many generations. Thus Uwase’s position was a lucrative one and he enjoyed an unending supply of gifts.
Mama too was pensive. She realized, with a shudder, that Ifueko was the same age as the young woman had been when she drowned, after supposedly drawing the affections of the river deity. Now, centuries later, here was the clan’s high priest, coming for her too. She sighed. Papa Ifueko would turn in his grave if he knew about this, but it was still better that the chief took their daughter rather than the deity.
Uwase swallowed the kolanut and cleared his throat. ‘May the Oba live long,’ he declared, the feather protruding from a white band around his close-cut hair.
‘So be it,’ mama affirmed.
‘I am old,’ he said. ‘I have tried. I served the gods faithfully for so many years and soon Etare, my only surviving son will take over from me as high priest. Since the white men came, things have not been the same. There is an uneasy stirring in the land. But I must perform my final duties well.’
Pausing briefly, he tugged at his grey beard. ‘The girl will come with me to see Chief Idusefe,’ he declared. ’But tell me first if she is suitable for him so you do not waste both my time and his. It will be abominable if he does not find her ‘at home’.’
The girl’s mother shrugged. ‘I do not know Uwase,’ she replied. ‘Ifueko is a grown girl. She can speak for herself.’
Uwase turned to face the grown girl, who shrunk back behind her mother, making mama shift her posture for the third time.
‘Are you untouched?’ he demanded, the huge lump at the front of his throat dancing furiously up and down as he spoke. She nodded, biting her nails nervously.
‘Speak up,’ mama instructed. ‘Shoulders straight, do not slouch!’
Ifueko did as she was told. ‘I am as you say,’ she said, her voice timid.
‘You had better be,’ Uwase warned, wagging his finger at her. ‘The stained cloth will speak for itself and if you are found otherwise... hmmm.’
His stern, croaky voice sent shivers down Ifueko’s spine. Unable to bear his imposing presence and the sheer embarrassment of being drilled this way, she got up and turned towards the bedroom. Hurriedly, she pushed open the matted door and disappeared inside.
‘Hei! Where is she going?’
‘You have scared her, Uwase.’ Her mother came to her defense. ‘The way you threaten her so. Our elders say when you are taking a hen from its brood, it will claw at you. But without the nails to claw, it must run away.’
Uwase shook his head slowly. ‘I am old,’ he repeated again. ‘I have tried.’
He took another bite of his kolanut and made some clicking sounds with his tongue while his host waited, unsure of how to respond. Finally, he looked up. ‘Get the girl ready,’ he ordered. ‘We must not keep Chief waiting.’
Mama entered the bedroom to find Ifueko seated on the mat, sobbing quietly, her hands clasped in her laps. Without a word to her daughter, she moved across the room to begin preparing the things that would be needed. She wanted to offer her some comfort but what would she say? Tradition was tradition; even the young children knew that.
‘I am untouched, mama.’ Ifueko repeated.
Mama paused but did not turn round. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes mama. Odion and I have never played in that way before.’
Her mother propped herself up on a stool and tore off a piece of white cloth from the recently washed clothes hanging in the rafters. Ifueko watched her.
‘If we had, would Chief Idusefe leave me alone?’ she wondered aloud. Standing up from the mat, she headed towards the door. ‘I must go and see Odion right away.’
Hastily, Mama turned and grabbed her daughter by the arm. ‘Do not go anywhere. What would Uwase say?’ She shook a warning finger at her. ‘Do not cause trouble. What must be must be. Why would you want to arouse the chief’s anger?’
‘Let him be angry,’ the young woman insisted; ‘because I will never truly be his. Chief Idusefe may take me in his arms, but Odion holds my heart.’
Her outburst made Mama tremble. ‘Shut your mouth, foolish child!’ she chided. ‘If they hear you talking like this, it could spell trouble for Odion.’
‘Let it spell what it will,’ Ifueko fired back. ‘As long as this heart of mine beats, Odion will live in there.’
Pushing aside the bag of clothes, Mama turned to her incensed daughter and tried to calm her down. ‘Ifueko, have mercy on my drooping bosom and forget about Odion. I have never liked him. He and his drunken friends sit idly day after day, filling their bellies with palm wine till it oozes out of their nostrils. They are too lazy to work their fathers’ farmland and shamelessly allow the old men to break their backs in order to put food on the table.’
Ifueko began to weep all over again. ‘Odion is a good man, mama.’
‘He does not deserve you.’
Ifueko let out an exasperated sigh and returned to the mat. The room was silent for a while. Mama placed the white cloth in the woven string bag; praying silently, despite her daughter’s reassurances, that when the time came, it would return as a symbol of honor and not of shame.
‘You will grow to love the Chief,’ she assured.
‘And who will grow to love me?’ her daughter asked. ‘Will this man, who already has a harem of five wives, be able to give me any attention? Am I to expect any affection from him at all?’
Her mother pressed her lips together. She wondered what kind of woman could dare to think she could lay claim to the heart of a stallion of their land. Chief Idusefe was a great warrior like his father before him; he did not get himself entangled with matters of the heart. Such trivial affections would only distract him from the weightier matters of his clan and indeed, the entire kingdom.
‘It is enough that you have been chosen to be his wife and bear his children,’ she replied. ‘You must perform this role well and do not get carried away with silly childish fantasies.’ Mama paused and bit her lip. Turning around, she came to sit beside her daughter. ‘You are young and will soon forget about Odion. Your father and I have trained you well and I know you will make a great wife to the Chief. Remember everything I have taught you. A butterfly does not shed its colorful wings just because it has flown out of the forest.’
She forced a smile. But Ifueko shook her head stubbornly. Many women would have jumped at this opportunity, but not her. Her obscure position as Chief Idusefe’s sixth wife was hardly anything to be excited about. She was young and spirited. She did not want to lose the freedom which the common women enjoyed. Neither did she want to be watched by the eunuchs of Chief’s household and escorted everywhere she went. The elders said that it did not matter the size of the red yam, its place would always be at the back of the barn. Most of all, she wanted to be free to love whom she chose.
‘The gods have seen it fit that I become Chief Idusefe’s wife and they may see it fit that I give you lots of grandchildren,’ she declared. ‘But mama, I must tell you that my love for Odion will never die.’
Uwase left quickly with the young woman, his servant boy carrying the two bottles of fresh palm oil which Mama had offered the high priest as his parting gift. Chief was quite pleased with this new arrival and accepted Ifueko with open arms.
She entered the preparatory house all skin and bone, but emerged; six months later with a full, buxom frame; her skin smooth and supple. Arrangements were put in place and the marriage rites were conducted. Mama’s joy knew no bounds when Ifueko passed ‘the test’. The stained cloth emerged, after her meeting with her husband, confirming her to be previously untouched. Gifts were sent to Mama: tubers of yams, bunches of plantain, pots of spices and two young goats. With great jubilation, the new wife was ushered into the women’s quarters of Chief’s large compound to join her other mates.
‘You say you did not love him?’ Stella asked, puzzled.
‘I did not even know him,’ the old woman replied.
‘So why did you agree to it? You could have refused, couldn’t you?’
‘No.’ Edede shook her head and laughed. ‘I am not sure you will understand. Chief’s word, backed by the high priest’s authority was final. You could not refuse.’ Her voice fell to a whisper. ‘Traditional protocol allowed our noble men to marry as many women as they wanted. Back then, the more wives a chief had, the more he was considered to have been smiled upon by the ancestors - and the love-deity.’
Edede’s voice slowed to a soft drone and she drifted off to sleep. Stella leaned backwards and closed her eyes, listening to the old woman’s deep snores and musing over the events that led to her betrothal. She could not help being thankful that she did not live in Edede’s day. How horrible it must have been to be made to marry someone who did not love you, just because he was of noble blood.
The love-deity. Who had ever heard of such a thing? Stella rolled her eyes in annoyance.
‘It should have been called the lust-god, if you ask me,’ she whispered to herself. ‘A total perversion of the true essence of love.’
Any mention of the traditional gods left a sour taste in Stella’s mouth. Issues surrounding the ancient deities were the cause of the squabble between her and her husband, as well as the subsequent assault that had left her bruised and seeking succor outside her home.
The old woman suddenly opened her eyes, let out a yawn and looked around the room. It took her a while to grasp where she was and what she had been doing.
‘Edede, it is me.’ Stella said softly as the old woman’s gaze fell on her. A look of recognition crossed Edede’s face and she sat up slowly.
‘Oh. Sorry I dozed off. You must bear with me. In the words of our dear friend Uwase; I am old and I have tried.’ She yawned again. ‘Umm; my memory fails me. I was telling you about the old days, right?’
‘Yes; and how mama said that you would learn to accept what must be.’
The old woman snickered. ‘You know, when I became a part of his household, I knew that I would have to share my husband with the other women there, but nothing really prepared me for the reality of such a life.’
‘What do you mean?’ Stella asked.
‘Do not jump the gun,’ Edede chided. ‘You must allow me to unfold it to you bit by bit.’ She placed her arms in her laps and continued.