Three severed human heads spotting okpu -agu(red warrior caps) sit on a plain white George wrapper atop a wooden board.
A faint mist wavers around the mysterious items.
Symbol of hope, life and legend.
The Akwatankwa players start to beat the tempo as the eleven of us walk to the rightward tip of the village square.
Kpan kpan kpa kpan kpan kpa kpan kpan kpa kpan kpan…….
I walk majestically as a leader should, as I was taught.
“Tall and erect, never let them see your fear”.
The air is thick with dust. Flies buzz around drunkenly. Naked children scream as they run round playing Uka.
“You can’t catch me”, yells echoing from them. The grown ups sit according to their age groups, drinking palm wine or gossiping, depending on their sex.
I look around for Papa. He has been aloof since the day broke. Brows furrowed, he had grunted when I greeted him. I think he is worried I might not do well in the dance. I have tried to reassure him that all will be well but he worries. He always does.
The all too familiar bite of a black ant on my neck reminds me of where I am. Slapping it doesn’t take the pain away. The drum beats speed up as I squint from the blazing sun and try to concentrate.
Kpan Kpan kpa Kpan kpa Kpan….
The beat changes. From a calming vibe to the almost hypnotic taps of the war dance.
We take the first steps into the square.
Tall and muscled. Clothed in our special blue loin-clothes and goats mane armband. Chest muscles bobbing up and down in a pulsating manner. Warriors at heart.
My face has been decorated with red and white chalk. It marks me out as the leader. I transfer the palm frond given to us by Ogwu, the village herbalist from my hand to my mouth. Ten other fronds follow suit.
A palpable silence falls on the crowd.
It has begun.
One step at a time we dance round the fringe of the crowds saluting the people silently. Actions have replaced words.
Two elderly men follow us, holding the local drums, singing about our past heroes. They are the only people allowed to speak during the dance.
Sauntering to the center of the square, I pick up the Ugboagu. Ogwu’s last words as he completed my cleansing rites that morning had been, “The gods will dance for you. Do not control it”.
I had asked him to explain, he never did.
It was my first time dancing the Iri-agha in public. It is a great honor be chosen by the oracle. The last leader, Ibekwe, had been killed in a boating accident. His death rocked the community. He had been one of the few young men in the Ogbu-isi group. We had mourned jointly as a village and even the masquerades had come out in his honor.
A month after his burial, a new lead dancer for the dance had to be chosen. I had come out of my Obi and almost tripped over the Ugboagu. The sacred wooden board complete with the trademark skulls and blood gourd in between them was always left in front of the next lead dancer’s Obi to show that Kamalu had chosen him to lead the war dance.
I had been chosen. My fate was sealed.
As was tradition, I presented myself before Ogwu for cleansing., initiation and tutelage. He had taken me into the Ulo-mmuo and done things to me that shouldn’t be told to mere mortals. The incisions on my chest still hurt.
I smile as I think of all that had happened in the months leading up to this moment. I stare at the crowd whose noise had become hushed. Looking to the left, I spy Papa sitting near the Udara tree at the left hand side of the square with the older members of the Ogbu-Isi. He always sits there, wearing his okpu-agu; grey haired, proud and muscled even for his age. The Ogbu-isi are the elite warriors of our land. Warriors who have cut heads of the opposition in battles.
Remembering my first battle brings a grim smile to my face. 4 battles after i landed a head. It had belonged to Dialla.
Proud, scarred warrior from Arochukwu, commanding an army of 120 men. I knew I was no match for him. His thighs were rumored to be like the boughs of the Ijele tree and legend had it that he had never been felled in a wrestling match or beaten in a sword fight.
My courage had deserted me that day as I stood from where I had felled an Arochukwu man. I had seen my friend Maduka being stabbed and had run to help. Dialla had charged at me from nowhere. Stopping abruptly in front of me, he had said in a rich baritone full of scorn,
“Your men come against us in battle but your women come to us with open legs.”
He had ground his tobacco stained teeth, spat at my feet and licked his blood stained blade.
“Your sister is the sweetest of all the maidens. Ripe and juicy like odara. Her name is Uzo. Okwaya (Right)?”.
I had seen red. It seemed like Kamalu, our war god, had taken over me. Anytime I think back to that day, I know that statement was the only reason I had fought the way I did. Dialla’s skull still sits in my Obi. I left the teeth so I could have a last reminder of the last time I had felt raw, naked fear.
I stare in father’s direction. He stares back at me. Unblinking. His gaze dares me to carry the. Ugboagu . Show me you are a man, his eyes seem to say, the earlier fear in them is gone.
The other dancers dance faster as the beat of the akatankwa and the shrill flute sounds increase. .
” Blood, sweat and earth is how we were formed. Blood,sweat and earth is how we will end”, I think to myself as I pick up the Ugboagu. I place it on my head. “Carefully”, just as Ogwu had instructed as he taught me how to do the leader’s dance. “Do not rush the gods”.
Letting out the “war cry, I let the board sit firmly on my head.
The akwatankwa beat faster…..
“Let you and the Ugboagu be one”.
-To be continued…(next wednesday)