You’re acquainted with solitude.
Your tongue has dipped and swirled in the oily bowls of aloneness. You know the taste, that chalky, blood mixed tang that resonates in your mind and heart as you walk the streets of Ogin. The children hurl stones at you, their words sear your ventricles, but you’ve become a barricaded pericardium. ‘Osu’ is your name, one you’d never be able to get away from.
There’s a boy at the boundary between Ogin and Adura. He looks sun-beaten, dustied from walking the sandy paths leading away from Ogin. He is the good one, he never goes back to Ogin no matter how much his heart aches for his mama.
They say girls are weaklings; they cannot tap wine; they cannot dig up yams. They are like you, sneaking back into Ogin every day because you cannot live a day without seeing Mama’s face, sweat licking her brow as the sun casts a ray on her dark face. You would walk long distances from Adura, disguising the bird scar on your left cheek, a sign of the osu, a symbol that they were always supposed to fly away, they could never be with all the people they loved. You would walk hastily, never shuffling, never drawing attention. Nobody could see you or you’d be dead. You would stand at the window of Mama’s hut before the cocks crowed, and watch mama sleep peacefully. You watched Obianuju and Nkem on the mat huddled beside her. Nobody ever saw you, seeing all of them was enough. A drive to walk back to Adura and find breakfast.
You’re acquainted with the river.
The mirror that reminds you of the evil that you are.
You stare at your white skin, the only thing that makes you an osu. White skin when everyone else was dark. Brown hair when everyone else had black. Sunburn skin when a normal twelve-year-old girl fetched water from the river on hot afternoons without turning red.
You remember that day vividly. The osu cleansing day. The excitement and the chills of all the osu. They were finally free to go to Adura and live on their own far from all the ridicule in Ogin. You were the only different one, you had cried the night before, you’d never see Mama again, Obianuju or Nkem.
Mama who had never treated you like an osu at least behind closed doors. Mama would comb your brown hair, apply uliaki on your skin and tell you that you were a strong woman; that you were never really an osu in your heart, if that counted for anything. With Mama, you felt black, like every normal child in Ogin. She would give you her wrapper to shield from the sun as you went for the osu training classes.
The night before the cleansing ceremony, Mama had held you and wept,
‘Afuru m gi n’anya,’ she had said, and you cried till your cheeks were sore and red.
‘An osu never cries,’ teacher had said in the class on the last day of the training.
You had gone for all the training classes with a certain indifference. You always wondered why you were born in a body that wasn’t yours. You didn’t have the bravery or defiance of the typical osu who was ready to live alone in a forest after the cleansing at ten years old. There were just two osu on the day of your cleansing. You were sent to Adura and the other girl was sent to Obolo. You were never to talk to each other or become friends. The rule was hostility. You were birds that were never a flock even though you had identical plumage.
You are acquainted with tears.
The tears of Mama as they tied your hands and pulled you out of the village square, down the streets and to Adura. The tears you tucked in as you beheld the hate in Papa’s eyes, the shame of an osu being born to the kingmaker.
The tears that shed blood and salt that first night at Adura. The cold that drenched your heart as it rained on you.
‘The first thing you must do is to make a tent’
You remember teacher’s voice echoing through the silence of Adura’s heart. In the nights that followed, you had learned to dine with the smell of dew on dried leaves and the sorrow of the darkness that buried all your dreams. The days dragged on, looking for games, making fire for food, the long, fearful walks to Ogin to see Mama’s face. The hiding away from the guards of Ogin. Everything was a haze, something you weren’t sure you were living through.
The day you see the osu boy, you are shocked. He is different from all the other osu you had seen. His hair is long and silky and he has deep blue eyes. He runs away as soon as he sees you and you run after him. There were a lot of questions in your mind. You didn’t care about the hostility rules. You ran with an unusual force and you caught his hand eventually. He looks younger than you are. He doesn’t speak when you stare at him. Your eyes hover over his frame. His petite palms, his supple and somewhat tan skin even though he isn’t black. You both stare at each other for what seemed like ages and then as if impulsively, you both walk back to your tent, the boy trailing far behind you.
You are acquainted with folktales.
Dark nights at Ogin, under the mahogany of fears and silhouettes, all the children gathered around Mama Nze the storyteller. Nights when everyone was black, no osu, just true children of Ogin. The different tales about Mbe and Eju and Agu the king of the jungle. They all sound the same just like the one the osu boy tells you.
He says his mother had returned from the war pregnant, she had been raped by the white soldiers who had taken them captive and he was a result of the gods’ anger against the white man’s sin. An osu. His mother had told him this story the night before his osu cleansing ceremony.
You don’t understand all the things he says and you’re not sure how his young mind could conceive such inane folktale. You shake your head; you think about the punishment the gods would send to you because you were talking to an osu after your cleansing.
You develop a friendship with the osu boy. A friendship that had no name. One that had sprouted past the tough clay of Ogin’s hostility. You thrive, you learn the sound of life embedded in the snores of another. You learn the comfort in four footprints instead of two. You think of mama in those days, you had not seen her face since you found the boy. You are uncertain about telling him of your trips to Ogin every dawn to see Mama’s face. You remember teacher’s voice
‘The day you step your foot again in Ogin after you are cleansed, you die’.
You hear thrums of fear suppressed by yearns for the satiety that came from seeing Mama’s face. You needed to go.
The day you tell the boy about going, you would know the life-wrenching pangs of shock, you would hear the silent screams of fear in a person’s eyes. You tell him he could see his mama too. You see the light on his face, like rays of sunlight on dandelions. You plant a seed of hope in his heart and he decides to go with you.
You are acquainted with pain.
The kind that goes away after you endure the bitter taste of agbo leaves.
What nobody tells you is that when you see the osu boy hang lifeless on the udala tree, something snaps inside of you. In that moment, you know agbo leaves cannot cure the pain or erase the memory of what you saw from your hiding position in the bush.
It all comes back to you, the loud crying of the osu boy after seeing his Mama’s face through the windows of her hut. You remember everything, in bits and flashes and wafts. The footfalls, first far away and then towards the two of you, the impulsive sprint of your legs into the bush and the boy’s feet rooted to the spot; unable to move, his eyes wide with fear, his tears dropping to the ground with furious gravity. You remember the guards dragging the boy through the sands of Ogin’s paths, the boy hoisted on the tree and then pain slicing through the very core of your being. Everything falling apart right before the boy takes his last breath and becomes blue.
Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay (modified)