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Sighs Against the Wind: A Work in Progress by Chika Unigwe

(A work in gradual process)

In the beginning, there was mama and I. There was Father too but he did not count. Not the way mother did. I never told him things. Not the way I told Mama. No one talked to father but he was feared. He was big. Very big. He filled Mama’s hut whenever he came into it. And to pass through the mouth of the hut, he would have to fold his body twice. At least, that was how it seemed to me. Wherever he sat, there was very little space left for anyone else. Usually, no one wanted to sit beside him so it did not matter. There was only one other person in our village who was as big as father. Obidimkpa. He scared me. He was actually bigger than Father. Taller and heavier. And uglier. Mama and her friends often said that he had the face of an unkempt dog. If we repeated that to any adult’s hearing, we got a severe beating. Whenever Obidimkpa walked beside me, which was not often if I could help it, I could feel the earth shake underneath him. It was said that he was not married because no woman would have him. It was also said that he had little children for supper. We, the children, made up songs with his name, which we sang as far away from him as possible.

Who eats little children’s feet?
Who eats little children’s toes?
Who eats little children’s hands?
Who eats little children’s fingers?
Who will never get a wife?

No one was brave enough to dare to sing it to his hearing. None of us wanted to end up in his soup pot. We were very frightened of him.

Obidimkpa was father’s friend. Whenever he came to visit father, they would sit in his hut. At such times, I had frightening visions of the earth-coloured mud hut expanding and collapsing under their combined weight. I wondered why he came so often to visit. He was the most frequent caller at father’s. They would both sit, snuffing, until even the crickets had gone to bed. Obidimkpa seemed to like snuff a lot. He would bring out his rusty tin of snuff. Then, he would tap it several times with a mighty thumb. Unscrew it. Scoop a thumb-nail-full into his wide nostrils. First the left. Then the right. Shake his big head. And go into a fit of sneezing. Father would most often follow the same ritual. Two big heads shaking and sneezing. I hated the sight of it.

Obidimkpa came even more often to visit the year I joined the otuogbo age grade. The year I joined the adult group. It was a year of mixed emotions for me. First, the festivities of the otuogbo initiation. Mama wanted me to be the prettiest girl at the ceremony. I was decked out in loads of jigida. Around my waist, the multicoloured beads hung. There were rows and rows of it. From my waist down to the middle of my thighs. On my chest and around my breasts, I had beautiful camwood designs, intricately drawn by an expert. Mama had hired Nwanyiego to make them. She was the best at it. On my legs and hands, I had bold drawings. The designs shone with a glowing blackness. My head was clean-shaven and polished with oil. It shone with a blinding glimmer. I felt beautiful.

There were about thirty of us coming out that season. At dawn, we were woken up by Dumu’s drumming. Dumu was the village drummer. We were all escorted by our mothers to the ilo, the village square, very close to the market. We had, each of us a bunch of new broom. We sang songs and swept to the rhythm of our songs. Our voices resonated round the entire village. Women and children on their way to the stream stopped to chat with us. Young men on their way to the farms stopped by to watch us. They could not talk to us. Tradition forbade it. There would be plenty of time for them to do that later. They could talk to us at the nkwaumuagboho, the dance of the maidens, later on in the day. We were looking forward to it. I hoped Doku would be there. The sun rose for him. I had a feeling he liked me too. Of all the young men in our village, I liked him the most. He always stopped to talk to me whenever we met. He was tall. Not too tall. Just tall enough. The way I liked men. He had very deep d imples. Dimples deep enough to hold water. And his skin shone. His legs were stout and strong. His arms were long and strong. His teeth were white and gapped. Every time I thought of marriage, I thought of Doku. I wanted him to see me dance. I was not vain but I prided myself on my dancing abilities. I had inherited it from mother. She was a good dancer. In her youth, she had enraptured a lot of young men with her dancing. Father had fallen for her after he saw her move at the nkwaumuagboho of her time. It was then that she had earned the nickname, gazelle, which stuck. She moved with a graceful ease and outshone everyone else.

Our brooms decorated the ilo with their characteristic zigzag pattern. You could eat off the ground. It was clean and beautiful. We were proud of ourselves. Women and children coming back from the stream, pots of water balanced on their heads, stopped to admire it. The men would remain on the farms until the sun was on its way home. Only then would they begin to trudge wearily home, to their dinners and meetings. But the young men would come back to watch the dance. And to choose wives. I could not wait to show Doku my talent. No other girl there would hold a candle to me.

We all went home to have breakfast and to rest before the major event. I could hardly eat for excitement. And it was my favourite meal. Pounded yam and bitter leaf soup. My heart beat against my ribs. It beat fast, as fast as mad Okpe’s drumming. When he drummed, his fingers seemed to be worked by a machine. It made no sense. Mother said it was agwu which had a hold of him. Someone whom he had wronged had got a powerful native doctor to put the curse on him.

My heart beat. It was certain to me that after that day, Doku would come to see my parents. A man does not stop by every day to talk to you if he had no serious intentions. Besides, he had told Nneka, his niece, that as soon as I came out, he would ask my father for my hand. You could not marry before your otuogbo came out. My heart beat. Father would accept him, of course. Doku came from a nice home. His father was titled. He had barns of yam. He had three wives. Doku’s mother was the chief wife and Doku was the overall first son. He would inherit the barns and the land at his father’s death. He was a good worker too. Father would be proud of such a son-in-law. Mama liked him. I had already mentioned to her that I thought he would ask father for permission to marry me. She told me that Doku’s mother, Nwanyidimma always asked her after me, with a sly smile.

It was, finally, time for the dance. We all gathered at the ilo again. Thirty nervous girls. There was already quite a crowd of spectators. Men. Women. Children. Dumu was there with a group of drummers. Ekwi, his wife, was there with her group of singers. They had the female instruments; ichaka, the beaded calabash, gongs and hollow pots. My eyes searched for Doku. My day would not be complete without him. My heart hammered against my chest threatening to break loose. At last, I saw him. He looked very handsome in his lappa which was the colour of the earth. It suited him. He had it tied in a loose knot just under his navel, his firm legs boldly peeping from under. He was talking to Chimdi, his friend. I could not understand why they were friends. They were as different as salt and pepper. Chimdi was as lazy as the other was hardworking. His yams were always the smallest and his farm the most ill-kept. He was the last to leave for the farm but the first to go back home. As his father was dead and Chimdi was his mother’s only son, her roof was always leaking. Just before the rainy season, when every man replaced their thatched roofs, and those of the women under their care, Chimdi slept. He disgusted me. I resolved that when Doku and I were married, I would dissuade their relationship. Of course, no woman ever told her husband whose friendships to court or drop, but, I would try.

The sun was high. It shone with a ferocious brightness. Everyone told us that the goddess of the sun was very happy with us. We were lucky. Last year, even though it had been in the middle of the dry season, and a good rain-maker had been hired to keep rain away, there had been a heavy, unruly downpour. The otuogbo ceremony had been completely ruined. Who wanted to stand in the rain and dance? It had dispersed and distressed everybody. The rain-maker’s reputation had been destroyed too. Nobody was interested in his claim that his power had been counteracted by a hidden sin of one of the girls. Ojemba would never practice his trade in the village, again. He left soon after, and rumour has it that he is a wandering mad man in far away Eziulo.

We sweltered in the sun, but our spirits remained high. The “mother” of the day, udumefuna, the wife of one of the village heads, came to where we were clustered, called each of us by name, and made us take the oath:

Ifeatu, Ifeatu, daughter of Chikezie,
Chikezie, great hunter, omekannaya,
descendant of a great family
Ifeatu, do you swear to keep up your family’s good name?
I do
Ifeatu, do you swear to uphold the dignity of womanhood?
I do
Ifeatu Ifeatu, Ifeatu. How many times have I called you?
Three times
Come here

Ifeatu stepped out of the group, took a bunch of palm leaves from Udumefuna, swore she was a virgin, ran round in a circle, raising dust in her wake and came back to the nervous group.

One by one, we all went through the same ritual. When the last of us was through, Udumefuna, her voice as clear as an ogene showered a rain of blessings on us:

May you get good husbands
“Ise ee”, we chorused to seal the prayer.
May your homes be filled with children
Ise ee
When you age, may your children provide for you
Ise ee
May your roofs never leak
Ise ee

The sun smiled down on us. Then the music started. Dumu and his group began with the drums. After a while, Ekwi and her group began hitting the ogene, the udu and the ichaka.


Chika Unigwe
Chika Unigwe
Chika Unigwe is the author of the widely acclaimed novel, 'On Black Sisters’ Street' and winner of the 2012 Nigeria Prize for Literature.

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