That night the moon was full so we did not need to burn fire-wood to light up the yard for our night entertainment. Little children gathered around Pa Uche to listen to his moonlight tales, “Story, story,” he shouted to the children in his old, rasping voice and the children eagerly shouted back “Story!” Their eager eyes shone like fireflies and their attention was so intense that even if the sky had been falling, they would not have been distracted. I sat close and listened; smiling at the ludicrousness of the stories and folk songs Pa Uche blew their blameless minds with. Nkiru, my younger sister busied herself picking lice from our father’s bushy hair while Nneka, my older sister was seated with our mother beside her hut pealing bush-melon. Other than the wavering notes from our father’s carved wooden flute that seemed to invite the spirits of sleep, the chirping crickets kept the still night active and we kept awake, taking pleasure in every moment. Pa Uche then began to play his Ogene gong in harmony with the gloomy piece of music my father played with his flute and we enjoyed the cadence of their tunes. It was one of those nights that made life in Okpoko delightful. Though my mother looked quite disturbed by the tone of the music, she kept on with her melon peeling. The little children swayed along gracefully as we sat, merry, enjoying every further descent of the murk that coloured the sky.
It was barely mid-night when men dressed in red cloth, and heavy traditional beads stormed into our yard with machetes in their hands. When one of the men pointed at me, I got up from where I sat and ran towards my father. My heart pounded faster than my feet could move. But before I got to my father, one of the men grabbed me, lifted me up and placed me on his shoulder and they strode off. “Father! Father!” I yelled desperately as I struggled with them drowning in the horror of the moment. My father only stood there, with his head bowed to the ground and his shoulders lifted as when a man is trying to hold back from breaking out with a loud cry. My mother was thrown into utter confusion. “Nnayi Ugo, do something! My son!” she called as she helplessly ran after the man on whose left shoulder I was wailing and wriggling on, crying. She ran back towards my father, then towards me, then towards my father until she slumped to the ground with a loud cry. I kept screaming, “Papa! Mama,” until we were in the forest and outside the heart of the village. I screamed until my voice box burned-out. I screamed until I was one with the night.
Igwe Odiga had died three full-moons ago and in our part of the world, when a king had a reign as great as he had, six human heads were buried along with him in his honour. It was a grim custom of ours but it was proudly carried out. The heads usually buried along with a chief’s body were often the heads of people from other villages who were unfortunate enough to be caught straying at an ungodly hour or of villagers who were found in the forest all by themselves. When children and youths were warned to stay within the village, especially late at night, it meant a great chief had died in one of the villages. Two full-moons ago, the elders of Okpoko had held meetings with the different masquerade societies and with the medicine men of the village over the honouring of Igwe Odiga: as an Ama-nwu member, my father attended. The evening of the day when they held the final meeting, my father returned home depressed. He wouldn’t say a word to anybody. When my mother served him his favourite pounded yam and Oha soup for supper, he refused to eat. The next day we learnt that he had been chosen as one of the six men of the Ama-nwu fraternity to produce the heads for the ritual rites of our Igwe. He sat in his Obi that evening with a member of the Ama-nwu fraternity. I knelt by them to serve them kola nuts and pour palm wine into their tumblers when they were empty.
“I do not want to be part of such a barbaric tradition. I do not want to have anybody’s blood in my hands.” My father raged.
“Nnayi Ugo, you have been chosen! You cannot challenge our long standing tradition. You should see this as a thing of honour; you are sacrificing a human to honour an exceptional chief. You will become an Akata-ka a man who has shown another great man, an uncommon honour. You will be honoured, Nnayi Ugo. Your household shall be cared for by the royal house. And when you die, you shall be accepted into the bosom of our reverend ancestors. When men drink palm wine, they will pour some to the ground and call your name in reverence.”
“I esteemed our late Igwe so very much,” my father replied. “Then show Okpoko how much you regarded him.”
“By killing another human being? No, I cannot take the life of another for nothing,” my father insisted.
“For nothing? You insult our customs, our chiefs and our elders when you say it is for nothing. This is for the honour of a gem. This is a ritual performed for the pride of our land and our people. You are doing it in respect of our fore-fathers and our tradition!”
“I am not a murderer!” My father responded crossly.
“There is nothing to debate here, Nnayi. You know the consequences of turning down the call of Ama-nwu. Your head could be the one to go down with the Igwe’s body and your wife and children will remain at the mercy of the gods. You don’t want that, Nnayi Ugo,” the man warned as he took one big bite of the kola nut in his hand. My father bowed his head and while he supported his face with his palms, he tapped his feet restlessly.
The six heads were buried into the ground along with Igwe Odiga’s body two market-weeks after. Under those bright skies that marked the declining days of the rainy season, masqueraders, traditional song birds, traditional dancers and titled men paraded in the afternoon heat with a zest, showing artistry and skills in their traditional displays, and sweating and smelling like stale cassava with their ebony skins shining under the yolk-yellow sun. It was a befitting burial ceremony of an Igwe. The star attraction was the cultural dance of the six men of the Ama-nwu fraternity who enriched the king’s grave with human heads. They scraped their machetes on the ground and machete-fought themselves in a dance as the Ama-nwu song bird blew the wooden flute with his heart and the drummers poured out their souls on the drums. It was a breathtaking performance. All the Ama-nwu men were agile and full of spirit as they displayed themselves, except, noticeably, my father.
Igwes of villages far and near came to grace the occasion, but it was rather shocking that Igwe Okute of Okigwe village did not attend the burial ceremony. After the whole burial festivity and after Ibu Odiga was crowned the new Igwe of Okpoko, Igwe Okute sent words to our village. “I am here because one of my Igwe’s sons was killed by your men during the burial ritual of your late Igwe,” the envoy from Okigwe announced. “If it were his first son that was slain, Okpoko would have been bleeding by now. But it was his second son that your men slay. Nonetheless, the scent of war smells and Okigwe is as ready as always to fill the land with blood and tears.” By this point, men and women, young and old present at the village square were shivering to their very bones. Okigwe was a very large and powerful village with an army of diabolical men as well as fearless fighters. Their medicine men were known to have unrivalled mastery of the black arts and their great army was led by Amadi ‘the lion’ who many thought had no soul or conscience. He was famed for his spite and ruthlessness when he dealt with culprits of taboos, victims of war or those who strayed into Okigwe uninvited. Every village lived in fear of them, especially with Igwe Okute as their chief and Okanga, ‘the vulture,’ as their chief priest. No village ever wanted to challenge them in a land dispute or boundary conflict whether or not the village was in the right.
“My Igwe wants the son of the man by whose hands his son was slain; other-wise, Amadi ‘the lion’ will lead our men here before the moon is full. He wants the man who killed his son to share the same fate. If that man has no son then six human heads from Okpoko will have to be sacrificed and one of those heads must be one of your sons, Igwe Ibu Odiga,” the envoy continued. There was a cold-silence in the village square and the look on Igwe Ibu Odiga’s face was one of an intimidated man. “I will return with Amadi ‘the lion’ in seven days, so it’s either the son of the guilty man, six human heads or the blood of your sons and daughters and the wreckage of your land. Somebody must pay! You have two market weeks,” he added as he tturned and walked away from the gathering.
The medicine men of our village looked deep by means of their black-powers and they found out the man who had killed Igwe Okute’s son. The elders reasoned that it was more sensible to offer that man’s son to Okigwe than to sacrifice seven human heads, which would include the head of our own Igwe’s son. And it was also better to offer the man’s son to Okigwe than opting to go to war with them. Before the day of the full moon, the chief and the people of Okpoko made their stands clear on the matter. Nobody wanted war or wanted innocent heads sacrificed for the blunder of one man. But I knew my father had only obeyed the demands of our traditions; to honor his land. And those cruel hands of tradition also held him bound the night I was taken captive.