Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Onyenke the Nchaka Master

I tossed again on my bed, it was a restless night. I could not concentrate on the hot yam pepper soup I was savouring in my dream as the drumming of ekereke invaded my sleep.
As I lay on the bed the dum dum of the drum moved my waist without my permission as it bellowed its way through the air straight into my eardrums.

I imagined the drummers tapping the dried animal skin over the wooden carvings with so much expertise as though they studied Rhythm of Percussions from an African School of Arts. One would not hesitate to dance to the melody of the ekereke even while dreaming because the songs that accompanied the beat were rhythmic and made one’s feet wiggle unconsciously.
The night was grey; it would have been totally dark if not for the light from little stars that peeped in through the crack of the window. Mma Omoku lay still beside me, sleeping soundly like a newborn and  undisturbed by the drumming. Her hair was all grey; it would have been dark like mine if she was my age, but age was no longer on the side of Mma Omoku and I feared she would pass on before my tenth birthday, just like grandfather did before my sister's 10th birthday.

I wondered why I didn’t hear Mma Omoku snore; usually, it was the only sound that disturbed my night aside the croaking of frogs from the gutter in front of  the house. But on this night, neither her snore nor the frog’s croak could stand the supremacy of the intimidating sound of the local drums. 

It was the early hours of the much anticipated Nchaka Festival of the Omoku People. Since the announcement of the festival (Ikpo ekwe Nchaka), the ekereke was played every night at the Palace to entertain his Majesty - Oba Odudu, as well as prepare the people of Ogbaland for the ceremony ahead.
Celebration at Oba's Palace
I knew what the day would be like – colourful display of participants of the festival at Ahia-orie playground. Grandfather and I had witnessed Nchaka the previous year and it was one of my best experiences in Omoku. Although father would have knocked me hard on the head if he learnt I followed grandfather to watch what I shouldn't as a believer.
“Papa, why is a snake wrapped around that man’s neck?” I had asked tightening my grip on grandfather’s hand, afraid that the snake would suddenly uncoil itself from its master’s neck and head for mine.
“It is part of the festival display,” he replied.
Realising I was seeing nothing from below the crowd, grandfather lifted me up and placed me on his shoulder making me wrap my tiny legs around his chest just like the snake did with its master’s neck.

From my elevated position, I could see the playground in its fullness: traditional display everywhere. The Festivalians showed off different magical powers. Some carried live crocodiles on their heads; others lifted live cows on their backs. A man played with fire, danced around it and even inserted a burning wood with red flames into his mouth, and was unburnt by it. Another man pierced his mouth with a stick and it came out from his jaw, he later removed the stick and his skin and jaw became normal without a scar. 

We heard a story that happened many Nchakas ago. A man had cut off his head and held it in his hands with blood dripping off. Unfortunately, when it was time to place the head back his erisi failed him and he died.

I looked around the playground to check for any of such fetish display but didn't see any. Exhaling in relief, I was glad that the gory story did not happen in my time.

That day with grandfather was memorable. Men paraded the playground, dressed in thin pieces of red clothes, and their bodies painted with chalk, charcoal and blood. I and my siblings call them onyenke because that was the phrase they said more often during their parole.

One man had a dagger pierced through his stomach and another, a bicycle spoke through his ears. They all looked unharmed by these sharp objects as they went around hitting metal staff called oji on the floor and rambling incantations repetitively.

Onyenke ooo, onyenke! Onye kwu’ola whe adiwuli imani mu mma Nchaka wure a” they had yelled at the top of their voices.

“It means whoever says things will not be good for me, let Nchaka take him,” grandfather had interpreted verbatim when I asked what the men were saying.
“You mean, let the person die with Nchaka?” I had asked not sure of what he meant by a festival taking someone.
“Yes, my son", he said," I think you have seen enough, it's time to go home."

I could not keep laying on the bed as the sound of the ekereke were replaced by the gonging of ukela and the rattling sound of oji as onyenke men paraded past my gate to the Oba’s house. It was the male festival – Nchaka ka nde nwoko, so only male displayed.

The women had celebrated theirs four days before – Nchaka ka nde nwanya, and on a low key. The women were dressed in white wrappers with red ropes tied on their arms and earthen pots placed on their heads.

They sang and danced to the Palace. The older ones held logs of blazing firewood that waved from side to side as they danced. Mma Omoku said they usually go to the stream afterwards and dump their firewood into onosi-omoku, after chanting series of incantations.

Then they race back to their homes to cook and eat yams. It was believed that any woman whose firewood quenched before getting to the stream was a witch and was cut off from the celebration.
“Grandma, don’t you think it is normal for breeze to quench the fire while they are dancing?” I asked Mma Omoku. Her response was quite clear to me for she had sighed and waved nonchalantly before saying.

Ama ra jenim wo o.”
I totally understood her and was glad she was beginning to see the ignorance in such accusation that natural breeze imposed on unlucky Nchaka victims.

It was not so for the men, they were luckier as no ritual led them into falling as wizard victims. Even when most of them were seen as local versions of Harry Porter in their customs, performing rituals and incarnations that had after effect, the men were hardly accused of practising sorcery.

Nchaka wure la nya Mma Omoku would say anytime rumours of someone's death went around town. 

The night before had been a long eve; young men, boys and old men stayed awake in anticipation of the dawn that ushered the male festival. Unlike the female festival that had no watch-night, the male’s was a night of drinking, throwing of fireworks, shooting canons and pouring liberations to erisi-Omoku for bringing fertility, protection, bounty harvest, and to mark the end of the harvest season.

In spite of the quietness of the female festival that occurred days before, we heard that over a dozen men were slaughtered that night in cold blood at their respective homes. That incident could not have been associated with the festival because such had never happened in the history of Ogbaland.

I wondered if someone would do something about the killings. I wondered also if anything would be done about the kidnapping that was fast consuming the town, and chasing away the foreigners from the once peaceful land of black gold.

With anger, I pounded the pepper that Mma Omoku needed to spice up the yam she was cooking in the three-legged pot. I was angry about the massacre; one of the men killed was my play mate's father. He was calm and lovable, always smartly dressed with a papa’s cap tilted to one side of his handsome face.

I wondered what would happen to my playmate, his siblings and the children of the other men who were murdered that night. I was not sure if they would find pleasure or comfort in the new yams that would be served today, but I was sure they would not celebrate Nchaka with joy and happiness that other people would celebrate with.

Even the forthcoming Christmas that was to be white and merry would be different for them, for their fathers would not be around to buy them goats, bags of rice, or even awo crismes.
I unleashed the pain in my little heart on the pepper by increasing the pace of the pounding. The kpoi kpoi of the pestle on the mortar was getting too loud and Mma Omoku could not help but shout at me.

Swe! Omela la? Osno ni rila ariri, omri la kini o?” she said.

“Nothing,” I said frowning. But Of course the pepper needed to suffer so it will suffer the yam in turn to bring out all of its sweetness – I could not wait to eat Iji mini-okwnu Nchaka so I would have enough energy to jump around the Festivalians as they display.

At the thought of the Festivalians, I wished grandfather was alive to take me to the village square. Although father would scold me if he found out that those fetish things caught my interest and that I love eating Nchaka yams which were also sacrificed to some gods, it didn't bother me.

I wish I could chase after my favourite Ogbu Masquerade with other okorobia at Ahia-orie playground too, but that would have to wait till a month or two after Christmas, for that was when the Masquerade ran.

Maybe by then I would have forgotten the people who were murdered,  maybe not. But whatever the case, I pray this Nchaka would come and go peacefully without taking anybody with it.

Beautiful people of Ogbaland
Short Story culled from a work in progress by Ajumoke Nwaeze.
© December 2014.


This story is a combination of fiction and real life experience. Any resemblance to persons or situations is simply coincidental. The Nchaka Festival is real; It is an annual new yam festival and is celebrated today by the people of Ogbaland in Rivers state, Nigeria.