THE WIFE I NEVER MARRIED – GRACE OCHIGBO
Ebi and Umali squatted such that their buttocks almost swept at the floor as they greeted Baba. The only reason they came over to Baba’s ‘state of the arts’ living room, furnished for him by his daughter- aunty Udale, was because their friend was no longer around. Else they would both have sneaked into Laibe’s mother’s hut, as usual, which was behind her grandfather’s. Ebi was almost mad at Umali because the later was the reason for their lateness in arriving at Laibe’s house as promptly as they had planned. Umali didn’t do this deliberately though, her father puts her under curfew, off and on, as he pleases; reasons best known to him. Obviously, they won’t be seeing their best friend in a very long time and not getting to say ‘proper goodbyes’ before she left the village this morning is more hurtful. Baba smiled boisterously as he asked them to rise from their greeting position. He had always known his granddaughter to be one of the most respectful young girls in Ofabo, so wasn’t surprised at her friends’ show of respect, in that light, anytime he luckily ran into them.
The chair Baba sat on is special, specially made for elders in the village. At a point, one would think that it was a stretcher with the way a very strong linen- which was the main seat, danced from one edge of the wood above to the other end where it attaches to a foot rest. The chair is foldable and when left unfolded, it would be standing just beside a table on which Baba’s old radio stood. The aged man love listening to news so much so that a stranger in the village sometimes ago thought he was a retired journalist. No. He hadn’t even smelt the four walls of any level of academic institution all his life. With his intellectual capacity though, villagers ask amongst themselves what would have become of him- how he would have been the best- if he ever went to a school. He can’t but faithfully listen to his favourite station; Radio Kogi, Ochaja and whenever he tuned to that frequency, Laibe would have to remind him over and over again that his food was getting cold. The only unfortunate part was that, there is almost no one around for him to share his political views and ideologies with anymore.
It is somewhat a thing of tradition in this part of the world that only the younger ones should visit the elder; making the otherwise an abomination. Therefore, since the death of Pa. Ekele, who died late last year at ninety six, Baba, at eighty three, had assumed the honourable position of eldest in the village. Every other elder and ultimately all the villagers are obligated to come see him from time to time, instead of the other way round. Going out on visitations has become close to impossible for him, that is accompanying the fact that talking was his strength. He could continue talking, analysing and explaining just a concept in his characteristic deep Igala intonation for hours and only a patient listener, unlike Laibe, could put up with that. It is one of the greatest times he misses his daughter-in-law, Laibe’s mother, Onechojon.
Ichojo, as he fondly referred to her, remain the best wife any man on earth could ever have. Judging from the way she cheerfully relates with every member of the extended family, she found and won her way into everyone’s heart in no time, with so much ease. Her cooking skills were not of this world as well, one eats her food and is tempted to eat up the rubber plate it was served in, alongside. Laibe inherited that from her mum- mastery in the art of kitchen affairs. It was on that premise that Baba brought up the idea of commercial sales of cooked food in the market square. Hearkening to Baba’s business ideas, back then, paid real well because every member of Ofabo has, at one time or the other, impulsively or voluntarily, bought food from Onechojon. All these were before the last straw broke the camel’s back, and it did break it in pieces.
Baba stopped the sound coming from his radio. He never receive clear signals- partly because of the unclear waves- he always hear some ‘shhhh, shhhh’ intermittently while the presenter talked but that didn’t matter to the aged man. The radio would be his most trusted company henceforth and he was quite aware of that fact. He, after switching off the noisy radio, sat up from the chair to pick up his bowl of akamu, the remnant from the one Laibe gave him to drink this morning. He poured some water to dilute it before drinking. As he did this, he pictured the stern look Laibe always wore whenever he took diluted pap- ofofolo, like this. The act seem unimpressive to her. She would always say ‘No’ bluntly when he asked her to drink out of it and that usually made Baba titter. Perhaps when she gets to his age, she would appreciate the need for ofofolo in one’s life.
Ebi turned to look at Umali while Baba drank. They too, like their friend, disliked ofofolo: the elderly people’s juice. The bowl was so big it covered his entire face as he drank from it. This is the only bowl remaining in the house with its original lid still intact and that’s grossly because it was specially used to serve only Baba. No one was permitted to take it away from the side stool it’s always placed on, let alone away from this living room.
“Onùkwù mè le t’Ankpa mèwñ” Baba told the two girls that ‘their friend was already off to Ankpa’, immediately he was done gulping the entire content of the stainless bowl.
Umali and Ebi nodded their head simultaneously as though they planned it. They made to move close, perhaps to collect the big bowl or ‘cup’ as the case may be and help the elderly man replace it on the table, but he was swifter than them. It’s so uncomfortable talking with an elder especially a revered one as this. History has it that Laibe’s grandfather was the first grandson of the original founder of Ofabo land. It is said that their ancestor’s migrated to come settle in this land and has been breeding children since then, up until the once hamlet transited into a really expanded village. That sounded true because inasmuch as Baba here wasn’t the crowned king of the land, has never been even, permission must be gotten from him as to who or not to coronate.
Baba is so tall and lanky; people marvel from his still intimidating height at this age, how he was as a young man. He always had to bend so as to come out through his door regardless of his already bent waist. That is how tall he is. Baba proudly tells children in the village during moonlight stories: concerning growing up, hunting in jungles and thick forest, and how he was the bravest of them all.
He cleared his throat as though ready to begin a narration but smiled when he saw, however dimly, the look on the faces of the little girls before him; they looked nervous, they looked impatient and he didn’t want to bore them with any of his talks. More so the day was still very young and they would need to help their parents out in the house or at the farm, either ways! In his good heart, he excused them to go home. Well, he had to, there is no way they would have the guts to leave his presence without his permission. That’s another bulky part of the tradition – they would be attracting a curse on themselves if they dared. The girls knew this and prayed silently in their hearts that Baba releases them to go this morning.
The brown curtain hanging on the wooden door opened just as they stood up to leave and the last person they both expected to see in the house this early morning walked in. He wore a native buba shirt and a trouser that stood somewhere in-between knickers and full length trouser. Everything about Omachoko, the young man that just walked in, irritated Laibe’s friends, especially Ebi, to their bones. Is it the three Igala marks that his parents drew on his face? Drawn in such a way that it’s like running a black marker on a clean white linen. Yes. Almost everyone in the village has the Igala mark; some running from the edges of their lips to some points on the cheeks, while others from the edges of their eyelids downwards. Omachoko’s whose fairness was fading due to rigorous lifestyle, wasn’t an exception. Maybe they disliked him so much for putting undue pressure on their friend, ever since he inherited that old bicycle from his father. Once, he asked Laibe to remain at home so he could fetch water for her from the stream instead. The poor girl said NO to no avail and by the time he was done filling up the two large drums at the back of the house with water, she still said NO. Another time he carried her firewood all the way from the neighbouring village, where they usually go to fetch firewood, down to her house. He said he loves Laibe – he can and would do anything for her. That would have been a melodious song in the ears of some other girls in the village who believe there isn’t so much to a woman’s life and have acquired a stereotyped dream of getting married to someone who can fend for their needs and those of the children unborn. Not Laibe, not any of her friends. The three girls have always believed in themselves, believed in the fact that if they worked just a little harder, they would get a man that deserved them much better than the ‘local champions’ around. The mothers of Ebi and Umali have however warned their girls to desist from such mentality as Laibe. Reasons being that the respective families needed the income that would be generated from the dowries of the girls.
“Olodúdú Baba” Omachoko prostrated to say ‘Good morning’ to Baba who didn’t see anyone walk in at first. Baba’s vision was gradually growing dim and his sense of hearing saved him more often than not. Baba smiled on recognising the voice and Ebi pinched Umali’s hand almost immediately. They both gave themselves a knowing look and hissed lightly, so light Baba must not hear. It is another gross, unpardonable form of disrespect to hiss in front of an elder no matter how irritated one becomes. So much for tradition.
Omachoko to them look, sounds and thinks too pompous for their liking. Perhaps because his father was the wealthiest farmer in the land and he had inherited everything since the elderly man passed on, one and half years ago. They both told Laibe, just when he was on her neck, that she should look out for a young man who can make money on his own and not depend on his parents’ inheritance to survive, in her best interest. Though Laibe has been quite indifferent about the whole matter. What would a girl rather do with a never-give-up young man anyway? She still knew marriage was close to the last thing on her mind at that moment.
“Mà donè kà jì Ankpa”
Ebi and Umali stopped involuntarily at the door when Omachoko said those words, telling Baba that ‘someone had been kidnapped in Ankpa’. Many thoughts ran through their minds individually as each one tried not to believe what her brain was suggesting. Baba sat up with his mouth agape, more like jerking up. He asked for details from Omachoko and the only thing the young man could say was that one of his relations came home late hours of this morning, telling everyone that the most recent events in Ankpa right now were kidnapping and human trafficking. The relation proceeded to say that the kidnappers use several tricks to get younger children, especially girls, for what no one knew about and that; some two girls were kidnapped within the space of this morning to noon.
Tears started dropping from Ebi’s eyes and Umali held her hand firmly. Ebi has always been like this, being the loudest and craziest of the three, yet too emotional for strength. Everything made her cry and Umali knew more than anything else that her friend is already regretting their actions. They were part of the strong forces that encouraged Laibe to travel even when she had double thoughts, even when her grandfather was not approving of it.
“Ì dàbù kùmà àbà!” Baba exclaimed as he sank back into the seat behind him. He said he had never been more apprehensive about anything else in his life and inasmuch as he tried to dissuade Laibe from travelling, her mind was made. He knew his granddaughter very well; how nice and humble she can be and also how extremely unbearable she gets every time she chooses to be stubborn and follow her own will.
Baba could feel his heart beating fast and his body was already beginning to get hot. He can’t afford slumping over from high blood pressure at this point, not now that he had no idea, whatsoever, about the whereabouts of his beloved granddaughter. If Laibe was in danger as his minds feels right now, if she ever needed any help, he should be the one available to render one. The more he thinks about it, the more he realises that none of them, both him and Laibe, were careful enough to ask for vital details from the young man that claimed to be sent from aunty Udale. The only thing Baba know is his name – Ocholi, and that was because the young man even had the courtesy to introduce himself by that name, not because he was asked. Who knows if that was a fake name just to deceive and get his young granddaughter to follow him. The eagerness. The hurry. Everything was so much this morning indeed.
“Éwñ àche àbàjo í?” He turned to ask Omachoko, ‘what is the next possible thing to do now?’. He looked confused, he looked hurt and helpless. Omachoko looked more confused than even the two girls still clinging on to the door knob. Though his reasons for dissuading Laibe from traveling to Ankpa were selfish ones. He felt, proximity should enable him drive his point home soon enough. Home, was and is still Laibe’s heart and the more he imagines whatever situation his heartthrob was in, the more his heart broke into pieces.
Baba lay face up as though he could see heaven from where he sat with a little more intense stare. He had heard of child trafficking, he had heard of kidnapping but never imagined giving out his own granddaughter willingly to kidnappers. He never envisaged it coming this close to him. There was something he could literally taste in his mouth; it was fear.
To be continued