Okolie was known throughout the village of Umuike. He was known for having the largest farm and growing the fattest tubers of yam. He was known for his big compound that was surrounded by moss-encrusted walls, covered with a black metallic crisscrossed gate and dense with dripping trees inside. But, he was also well known for not having a male child; for not being a man.
Okolie knew he was a man, or at least he wanted to be recognized as one. Whenever he walked, it seemed like troubles bubbled inside of him in his 5-foot-eleven frame because he’d really never tasted happiness. He tried to be happy, sometimes, most times, but he couldn’t; it always seemed like it wasn’t up to him, like it wasn’t a decision he could make all by himself. He walked with a swelled stomach, like it was custodian to all his troubles. The geography of his baldness maintained its stance that it wasn’t due to old age. It was, like his fur-coated body, an inheritance. A scattered line of beards linked the hair on his bald hair to his bulky goatee, giving his facial geometry a land of troubles. His large nose stuck out, needlessly occupying most space on his oval-shaped face. His eyes seemed to bulge at all times, like freshly peeled boiled eggs. If little was well with Okolie, he didn’t show it.
Once, Mazi Uche had said of him, in response to a “Where is Mazi Okolie’s compound?” question; “That woman who’s married to another woman?” The response froze the asker, who happened to be a sister to Okolie’s wife, Nkeiruka. Although she was directed to his house, the kind of embarrassment she felt on Okolie’s behalf was palpable to the knee-high grass that surrounded them. Even Okey the village drunk, whose face could be used to describe the shape of a mango and whose hair stood like angry weeds, knew Okolie had no male child.
“But aren’t females fit to be called children too?” Nkeiruka once asked her husband, her face tightened in disgust.
Okolie reclined on a couch, sighed and said, “Female children cannot keep my name alive when I go to join my ancestors.”
Nkeiruka knotted her brows in anger as though Okolie meant that their four female children were useless to him. She shrugged and carried the remnants of the fufu and egusi she had served her husband to the kitchen. Okolie sat still, arms dangling sideways and drowned himself in thought. He felt, with his possessions, he deserved the highest respect in the village. Even the effeminate Mazi Ikenna, who frequently clicked his tongue anytime his contributions in their Elders’ meeting was pushed aside, and sometimes would clasp his hand or snap his finger in the air as a form of rage, had more respect than him, and it always hurt him. Even though this effeminate Chief greeted his elders with hugs, a form of greeting his fellow elders fought against and lost, they still respected him because he had three male children.
“It wasn’t easy for me, my dear. I had to wait for a long time before I gave birth to my first male child. After the first, the others came easily. The gods of our land will do it for you,” he said to Okolie one afternoon, holding him in a drawn-out hug.
Okolie only smiled and nodded. Mazi Ikenna talked and talked because he thought others enjoyed his incessant gossip like he did. Okolie wore an expressionless face as he tried to hide his disinterest in a conversation that was largely one-sided. It even got worse when Okolie had to go home to get something he left, forcing him to walk the same path with Mazi Ikenna who walked with arms akimbo, in a pregnant woman’s style, talking till they parted. The villagers realized later on that his effeminacy had breezed past the physical and had clamped his reasoning when they discovered he’d been gathering some girls in the village to tell them, each day, what was being discussed in the Elder’s meeting. He was suspended for some weeks, fined and resumed later. Okolie knew it was because he was a “a real man.”
In their Elders’ meetings, his suggestions were either greeted by a chorus of groans or pearls of laughter accompanied by hurtful words that mauled him in parts of his body he hadn’t discovered yet. At one meeting where the elders had met to discuss how best the King’s daughter would find a good suitor, they filled the two long benches that were opposite to each other, creating an alley that led to where the King sat, and faced themselves. Mazi Uzochukwu suggested a wrestling contest which the elders found too dangerous. It was pushed aside, subtly. Suggestions and replies flapped in the palace breeze that smelled of wealth while the King, a petite dark man with a red crown that covered his bald head, watched them. When Okolie suggested that the suitors be tested with clearing one of the King’s large pieces of land, all eyes switched to him. Before they barked to a chorus of laughter, one elder had said, “Will you keep quiet, woman?” Another added, “Why are you even contributing as if you’ve a son, eh?” He fought the urge to reply but the words winged out, unplanned.
“That I don’t have a son does not make me less a man,” he said, unflinchingly.
Then the laughter came, loud and bitter. Mazi Ikenna even flung himself to the ground. Regret covered him like a big wrapper. He felt stupid for replying them and he wished he hadn’t said anything at all.
“Real men father boys, not girls,” Mazi Uche said, giving him an evil glance.
The palace became swollen with silence. Breaths became audible. The King dismissed them and fixed a later date for them to meet again. Okolie fixed his gaze on the ground as he left the palace. There was a sad, manly slowness to his unsteady gait.
He toddled the slushy gravel path that led to his compound, buried in thought. But it was one of such days for him; wind blowing bitter dust and the smell of sorrow hanging in the air he breathed. He wondered why he always got shut down with frowns that exposed territorial dislike from his fellow elders and why the lines on their foreheads contorted with hatred.
He announced his arrival at home with his walking-stick hitting the gate. His first daughter Ada, a girl with a chiseled face that lifted whenever she smiled, came to open the door.
“Welcome, Papa. How are you?” she greeted, running towards him for a hug.
“I’m fine my daughter,” he replied, roping her with one of his hands.
“Your face is not looking bright o! Ogini, Papa? What is it?” she asked, her voice sharp with concern.
“Nothing, my daughter. Go and get me my food, I’m hungry,” he answered, dropping his stick and pushing a chair backwards for a comfortable rest.
Nothing. It had been his go-to answer for almost everything he felt powerless to explain. As his daughter arrived with his food, his face fell into his hands just so he could prevent her from seeing the tears that stung at the corners of his eyes. She dropped the food and went back into the room. He brought up his head, his gaze slipped back and forth, up and down and hot sweat curled the tendrils of his hairline. He ate his food in complete silence, although with a restless mind that bubbled with thoughts. When his wife arrived that night, she informed him that the doctor confirmed her pregnant. Three weeks pregnant. She was sitting on an armchair playing with the hair of Chinelo, their youngest child whose head was cradled between her thighs. Chinelo, whose hair matted into locks came close to being a boy and had once been called an ogbanje due to her reoccurring convulsions. Dada, as she was fondly called, was treated like a flower vase. Delicately. Okolie became friends with powerful dibias because of her, but it was four years since she last experienced the involuntary muscular contraction.
“Did you confirm the sex of the child too?” Okolie asked, and suddenly felt bad.
“No. And I’ll not do that until the child is born,” his wife said, her eyes blazed with disappointment.
He shifted forward, stretching his hands to call Egodimma, his third daughter. He hopped her onto his lap. He began to tell them tales after tales until they fell asleep. Later that night, as he laid with his wife on opposite sides of the bed as if one was quietly praying for the other to leave, he rolled over to her side coddling and kissing her until they made love. That was an apology because it was a taboo, in Umuike, for a red-capped Chief to tell a woman “I’m sorry,” unless he was sympathizing with her for the death of a loved one. Their bodies merged and separated as they battled for who would lay atop. After they made love, they laid beside each other, allowing the darkness to swallow their silence before they finally slept. The sex was both an apology and a celebration. He silently prayed for a boy.
The news of Nkeiruka being pregnant began to seep through the front door of every compound in the entire village, like soup crawling beneath a fistful of eba served inside one plate; slowly and steadily. As if it was incredulous, a menagerie of people flooded into his compound to confirm the news. He sat on a long bench with his wife, discussing the possible names they’d give their unborn child and they ended up, after each new suggestion, chortling like babies.
“Greetings from us all, Mazi Okolie. We come in peace and we bring with us good tidings,” Mazi Uche said, others behind him as they came in a file.
“Welcome, my elders. I greet you all,” he responded, telegraphing his wife to bring chairs from a stack at their backyard.
The chairs came and were arranged round a table of groundnut and kola nuts. Okolie confirmed the news and was bathed with congratulatory prayers from them.
“We shall call him Odogwu!” Mazi Uche joked. Okolie wished it was a boy, it’d make him happy but he knew that beneath the glint in Mazi Uche’s eyes was a quality of mockery. They liked him without a male child, he could swear. He was sure the ache of hatred in their hearts was still untreated.
“Thank you very much, Mazi Uche. I pray it’s a boy,” he smiled, his voice weightless.
The afternoon crawled into evening as the sky began to swallow the shriveled yellow sun and everyone began to disperse. He was left with his wife, their hands as they watched the white cloud change to black. He was still praying for a male child and if it was a female child swimming inside his wife’s womb, he murmured to the gods to change it, like the changing cloud, to a male child. He believed his name wouldn’t become a dim past, that his riches would be built on and expanded. He held the belief in a tight clasp, like a stingy kid holding a naira note, and each time, it brought a frisson of excitement as if he hadn’t thought of it before.
The weeks swelled into months and so did his anxiety, his fears and his prayers. Every morning, he bit the tail of a kola nut, chewed into a powder and spit it out at the burgundy, small wooden doll whose eyes and mouth opened like an excitement, wrapped in a red clothe and resting on the stem of one of his palm trees. Once, Ada had asked him how he communicated with the image and he answered, in spaghetti-straight lines, “The gods prefer to act than speak.” Ada never asked again, because she believed him. She believed him because he was prospering with unparalleled rapidity, so the gods truly preferred acting.
When Nkeiruka returned from the hospital, with the new baby girl, Okolie locked his gate, refusing to see anyone. He sent word to his wife’s family not to bother coming because, in his words, they wouldn’t be allowed in. He sat on the mat that night, distancing himself from the mother and child. His knees were hugged tight to his chest and his eyes fixed on his portrait that hung on the wall. For three days, he stayed indoors, refusing to attend meetings or eat and the attitude kept injecting a serum of torture into his wife’s blood. She cried the day he refused to touch the baby, a girl swaddled in a beige duvet, with fat bulge of flesh at the ankle and cheeks. She hoisted the crying child, shifting her weight from one leg to another in an attempt to calm the baby.
If, as a man, you weren’t directly oppressed to play the role of being responsible, in control and rational, at your own inconvenience, then you really never qualified as a man in Umuike. Because as a man in Umuike, you’d be looked at with critical eyes, but as a man without a male child in Umuike, you’d be looked at with peculiar critical eyes as though being weighed like a piece of meat that may be bought or abandoned for another meat. You’d be forced to be a man and even ceremonies like marriage or being born with sexual organs that certified you a man, you’d still have to wait till they called you a man themselves and in their own way. They’d make you their own kind of man, albeit with a male child. And sometimes in trying to be their own man, you’d lose yours because it’d get to a point where you became a known stranger to yourself and it’d leave you spending the rest of your life reintroducing yourself to yourself. Sometimes it’d be as though you were wearing someone else’s body and smelling of them.
Okolie remembered Mazi Okeke. A man who left when the steam of the village seemed to be at his front door. Too hot that he could barely gasp. He had three daughters and when everyone thought the fourth pregnancy was a male, it came out as an Nkechi. Four daughters and greeting Mazi Okeke became a labor for the villagers, his fellow elders. He couldn’t gulp any of it anymore so he fled at midnight because Okolie met an empty house the next morning he rode his bicycle to visit him.
Mazi Obiora, a father of eight girls, lived in Umuike in shards. Greeting him was a luxury the villagers couldn’t afford so he spent most of his time with his children. They’d sit round him on the red earth of Umuike soil while Mazi Obiora settled his weight on a four-legged stool. It was story time and the evening sun danced on their tender ebony skin while their eyes twinkled with excitement. His wife would join them later after cooking, they’d eat, choke on a few jokes and retire to bed. He tried to create a unique happiness for his family but you don’t do that without the permission of Umuike. You’d be ruined. He married his daughters off as at when due, but lost his wife two years after. His wife had complained incessantly about how people greeted her with avalanches of vituperation, how they had refused to sell to her or buy from her. Depression set in and even his “It is well” replies didn’t hold her back. He died a year later. Some said it was an unknown illness that took his life but Okolie knew it was Umuike. Once he had been tempted to engage in a brawl with Mazi Uche when he whispered “woman,” as they drifted past each other but he realized his strength had never lied in his muscles.
“If Umuike means people of strength, why has it ever harbored weak people and is still harboring them?” He asked himself, sounding forceful as though expecting to answer himself. He knew it was pain so he ambled inside the house.
The cry of the baby stole sleep from him. He rolled and rolled in a bid to deflect the sound but it kept coming in serious torrents. He sat up and perched on the edge of the bed, ruminating on many of the village happenings and feared for her future if it remained so. He wondered how celebrating the birth of a female child in Umuike became a dirge and how they chose their own peace for you to live with. It disturbed him that he couldn’t do anything and his body burned with the shame of incompetence. He smelled of impurity and it infuriated him. His wife calmed the baby and merged with him, patting him at the back. They had sorrow as their bond.
“Don’t worry, my husband, the gods of our land will give us a male child,” she broke the silence, wearing an assured look. Okolie shrugged. He was in dire need of a male child because he couldn’t wear shame as a second skin like Mazi Okeke did.
He laid awake that night, and when he was sure everyone was asleep he left the house. He floated out of bed, tiptoed out of the bedroom into the sitting room where he searched and groped for his small torch light. He’d used the torch since he was a boy living with his parents, and it became his fully when his father died. In the sitting room, near their only table, he stood still and the quiet darkness that covered him amplified the pounding of his chest. He was almost breathless staring at a silhouette behind the room’s window blind. He found his torch. The silhouette shone to be a hung wrapper when the light from his torch exposed it. He exhaled. For a moment, he’d flirted with fear. As if it’d aid his vision, he splashed cold water on his face. He gasped as the water snaked across his wrinkled face, soaked at his beards before dripping onto his hairy chest which he’d inherited from his father.
He slunk through the back gate, because the hinge of the front gate would expose his escape. It was an uphill battle to defeat the village singlehandedly. The highfalutin elders who’d tangled themselves within the thorns of bitterness and hostility were allergic to repentance and change. He passed his compound, passed the village square, passed the King’s palace, and he felt his problems whittling.
“Where are you going this early morning, you this woman?” Mazi Uche asked, startling him.
He ignored him, walking even faster.
“With your walk steps, people who do not know you will mistake you for a man.”
“Mazi Uche, why do you always make me feel you’re a part of my problems?” he asked, his eyes red with anger.
Okolie made the long trip to Ngele River. He stood at its bank, unclothed. The silence of the environment was something Okolie cherished, something that’d been missing from Umuike. He even wondered if the river truly was in Umuike, saying, “How can Umuike look like a double world? One part quiet, the other hell, eh?” He slowly entered inside the cold water, and when it swallowed the rest of his body except his head, he looked sideways as though drinking the sight of anything good. Then he immersed himself completely, allowing the water to take control of him.
For a moment, as though he was attempting a U-turn after crossing the shaggy border between life and death, his hands slapped the water in a back and forth manner like it was an oar paddling a wooden canoe. He slapped the water continuously in that manner, trying to propel himself back to life as if he wanted to drop a message and go back. And when he realized death was a slow, painful process and not just a moment, he relaxed, allowing the slow pain seethe in his bones, and he left the world breath by breath.
In Umuike the villagers’ existence was like a toggle switch. The ruling class – in which were the elders in Umuike’s case – could decide to see you live if they pressed, “On” or end your stay in the village by pressing, “Off” but it depended largely on how you crocheted your comportment, however inconvenient it was.
The stony body of Okolie was brought to the palace by the King’s retinues. Mazi Obinna folded his arms across his chest, his face ugly with unshed tears. It particularly hurt him because he knew that, unlike Okolie, he’d chosen enslavement over his pride as a man. He had saluted oppression. Okolie stood for everything he and the village believed in – equality, respect and pure love. And so, Okolie was, to him, the greatest hero Umuike ever had.
Okolie’s wife ran carelessly, almost half-naked in her tattered beige gown, her breast half-exposed and flapping against the air in her oversized gown. She tore through the crowd, flung herself on his lifeless body and her wailing amplified.
“Okolie was a great man, one of the most respected Chiefs in Umuike. Even though we’d love to give him a befitting burial, our hands are tied because he killed himself,” Mazi Uche said.
“Ah, Aruuuu,” the villagers that encircled his body roared, dragging the last word. Mazi Ikenna added, in his singsong voice, “Abomination!” If he’d intended to shout, then he failed.
“Shut up! All of you, keep quiet! Cowards! You all killed my husband and still have a voice. May the gods of our land judge you all. All of you, without sparing one,” Nkeiruka said, moving her fingers across the elders as though counting them.
“How dare you, woman?! Guards!” the King bellowed.