I had looked forward to this year's Easter holiday with glee. Our English Language teacher, Mrs. Aduaka, had told us that we would write an essay on how we spent our Easter holiday when our school resumed for its thirdacademic session, and that she expected each student to write exciting stories that would convince her that none of us lounged inside our parents' houses ‘just watching movies, chattering like monkeys and sleeping like a log.’
Mrs Aduaka was one of the few teachers in Stellar Performance Secondary School who knew her onions and took her works seriously, hence, we had no doubt that she would come down on any student who failed to submit their essay, and that she would use the assignment as part of the term's assessment.
And so, when Mother promised me and Chuka, my younger brother, that she would take us to Ndikelionwu, ourmaternal hometown, to spend the Easter break, I leapt inthe air and danced round our apartment like someone who was just announced as the winner of a coveted prize.I loved visiting my maternal hometown because of its dense forests with lively wildlife, large rivers and the calls of wild birds that greeted us each time we arrived the town and drove through the thick bushes that bothered the uneven, untarred road.
Though Father was against the idea of visiting Mother’s maiden town at first, insisting that we stay back in Onitsha, he left us to our own devices when Mother told him that our maternal grandparents wanted us to spend the Easter break with them.
Father was strict, always insisting that things be done his own way, but he never argued with our maternal grandparents.
‘‘Let the children go out and mix with other children,’’ Mother would counter him. ‘‘Let them go and have the exposure that their mates are having.Locking them inside the house will do them no good.’’
‘‘So you want my children to turn into rogues?’’ Father would retort. ‘‘I know what I'm trying to prevent, woman! Those children outside are all spoilt!’’
‘‘So visiting their grandparents will turn them into ‘rogues,’ too?’’ Mother's eyebrows arched. ‘‘Papa Mmeri, being too strict on these children will make them timid and they would grow with it. And I hope you wouldn’t want to groom timid children.’’
Then Father would say, ‘‘Be ready to endure whatever might be the result of your so-called mild child parenting,’’ and storm out of the room.
Mother said she understood our father’s fears. It took ten years before she conceived and gave birth to me.There were stories of couples who shared the same experience, and when their children started coming, they pampered them so much that the children became terrors to their parents. Father didn’t want to us to become ill-mannered and cause him and Mother heartbreak.
On one occasion, when Chuka came home from the fielddown the street where he had gone to play football with other children, Father flogged him so severely that blood tickled from the lacerations on his back, arms and legs. Mother had wept bitterly that day, cursing him for his strictnessand refusing to speak to him for weeks. Father had to inviteher people to intervene in the matter, but not withoutreceiving strong condemnation for his action.And he had never raised his hand at any of us since then.
A week to our second-term exam, in the morning when I and Chuka were getting ready for school, Sir Richards, our school principal, called Father and told him that we shouldn’t bother coming to school. The Federal Ministry of Education had ordered the closure of schools across the country in response to the outbreak of a dreaded virusthat spreads like wildfire and leaves scores dead in its wake.
Father quickly turned on our large LG plasma TV, and tuned in to NTA. To collaborate our principal’s message, the headline that sat on the screen read‘FEDERAL MINISTRY OF EDUCATION ORDERS CLOSURE OF SCHOOLS ACROSS THE COUNTRY IN RESPONSE TO CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC,’ and the newscaster, a swarthy woman in hijab, said that Federal Government was also planning to order closure of other sectors of the economy.Citizens were, therefore, advised to stack their houses with food so that they wouldn’t starve during the period of the lockdown.
Father lampooned the government for this unviable advice — ‘‘How can you ask a man, who can barely afford one square meal a day,to pile his house with food? With which money?’’ He shothis eyes at my direction, as though Iwere the governmentfrom whom he demanded answers. ‘‘This government is just a thoughtless set of crooks.’’
Countries like the United States of America, China and United Kingdom had already shut down all the sectors of their economies to contain the spread of the virus, and had equally provided their citizens with the basic necessities of life to serve them during the period of the global lockdown.
According to World Health Organization, the safety measures included social distancing, avoiding handshakes, wearing of face masks, avoiding touching metal objects with bare hands, washing of hands with soap and hand sanitizers, and reporting to the relevant authorities anybody suspected of having the symptoms of the virus.
Father said that China accidentally ‘manufactured’ the virus in their bid to develop a chemical weaponthat could be a threat to the whole world, and unseat the US as the world power. However, their action boomeranged on them andleft thousands of its citizens dead and others on the jaw of death. Father mocked their foolishness, and said that theirs was a case of the irritable man that set his house on fire in his bid to eliminate the rat in his house.
But our neighbor, the chronic bachelor who lived directly opposite our apartment, had a different view. He said that China deliberately ‘manufactured’ the virus in order to reduce their astronomical population.
Few days after the closure of schools, Federal Government made good their threat to shut down businesses, churches and other sectors of the economy.
Father came home very early that day, a copy of the Satellite newspaper under his armpit and a small, see-through, black polythene containing face masks in his hand. He announced thatMother, Chuka and I would be travelling to our maternal hometown that very day before thetemporal ban on transportation was imposed by the state government, while he would travel to Awa, our hometown, the next day.Chuka and I leapt upand danced round the house in excitement.
Before we left for our maternal hometown, Father asked us to wear our face masks always, avoid shaking hands with people and to refrain from any act of mischief. He specifically warned Chuka not to play football in the village as there were high chances of contracting the deadly virus at crowded places. He threatened to cut off Chuka's legsif he defied his warnings, and to gouge my eyesif I ‘sneaked out searching for things like scavengers.’
I am notorious for picking up scraps of objects lying on the ground, and decorating our apartment with them. Father had beaten the hell out of me many times for ‘messing the entire house.’ He never cared that I used those scraps to create beautiful arts and crafts. He never liked the fact that I'm inclined to arts — he had boasted to whomever that cared to listen that his children would be doctors and lawyers and engineers.
Kwu-kwu-kwu!kwuu-kwuu!Ndikelionwu welcomed us with the calls of wild doves. They seemed to be increasing their coosas Father droveus, in his Acura, through the untarredroad that ran through the villages.
The air smelt different — dampand musky—, and the atmosphere was partiallycalm.
The villagers looked at us curiously as we drove past, and those of them who recognized Father’s car waved at us, shouting, ‘‘Nnoo nu o! You're welcome!’’
Ubaka, the boy who lives with my grandparents, ran forward to welcome us as we drove into the compound. He must be a year or two older than I, but he is shorter, and has a very dark complexion,rough palmsand muscular biceps that must have been caused by long exposure to sunlight and hard labor. Mother and her siblings had employed him as a houseboy to help their aged parents with domestic chores, and some outdoor chores like fetching water from Nama (a tributary of the great Agho Mmiri, the river that serves as a boundary between Awa and Ndikelionwu in Anambra State), fetching firewood from the forest, cutting down palm fruits from tall palm trees(something he does effortlessly and enjoys doing) and setting traps for animals. He would later teach me and Chuka how to set traps that could catch the creepiestof all creatures — the python!
Our grandparents emerged from the inside of the house and stood at the balcony, a wide grin flashing across their faces. Like Ubaka, they must have either heard the sound of Father’s Acura (the croaky sound of the car is so distinct that one can tell, from afar, that my father is approaching) from inside the house or they must have peeped through the stained glass window to see us arrive.
Ubaka flashed his yellow teeth at us, and greeted my parents. He was wearing no top, and so, his dark body gleamed in the afternoon sun. As he walked past me to the rear of the car where Father was already standing with the booth open, he nudged me playfully and turned and flashed his yellow teeth at me. He smelt of fermented cassava, and I wondered if he ever bathed at all or brushed his teeth.
We all proceeded to the rear of the car and, with Ubaka's assistance, carried the luggage and the other items we came with to the house.
‘‘Nnoo nu. You’re welcome,’’ my grandparents chorused, looking at us one by one with strained eyes as we stepped onto the balcony.
The couple still lookstrong in their old age, save for the slight droop of shoulders, the crow's feet, the wrinkles on their faces and the prominentveins that crisscross their arms and hands. Both of them are retired civil servants, and I always wonderwhether sicknesses associated with old age don’t affect people of their calibre. Perhaps educated people have an age-and-sickness-defying talisman in their bodies.
Our parents and our grandparents exchanged pleasantries while we carried the items we came with inside the house.
‘‘Mmeri,’’ Grandpa called me, his face brimming with grin, ‘‘you look big now. You’re already a man.’’ He nodded satisfactorily. ‘‘What class are you in school now?’’
‘‘JSS3, sir,’’ I replied, forcing a smile on my face.
‘‘Oh, you’re among those that will write Junior WAEC.’’ He nodded and looked at Father and Mother. Both of them nodded in the affirmative.
‘‘And you, Chuka?’’ He turned to my younger brother.
‘‘JSS1,’’ Chuka replied matter-of-factly, clearly uninterested, like I was(but not hiding the fact like I did), in the conversation. It was obvious that he wanted to dash outside and join the young boys we saw at the school pitch playing football.
‘‘This Corona virus has spoilt many things.’’Grandpa shook his head in resignation. ‘‘All my life, this is the first time this kind of thing is happening. And not just here; the whole world is affected.’’ He shook his head again.
Grandma rose up from the threadbare sofa and excused herself. Mother followed. It was obvious they were going to bring the food which Grandma had prepared for us. I was already salivating for her usual meal of curry-scented vegetable stew with dried fish and local rice. It is customary for her to prepare the delicacyeach time we tell her we would be visiting.
‘‘It’s terrible,’’ Father said, shaking his head, too. ‘‘Those Chinese people have killed us.They brought the virus and the whole world is suffering it now.’’ He paused briefly before he continued, ‘‘But why won’t they trigger the virus when they eat the most disgusting things like cockroaches, live birds, frogs, name them.’’
‘‘They do?’’ Grandpa looked at him with a mixture of shock and disgust on his face.
‘‘Ha!’’ Father shot him an affirmative look. ‘‘You didn’t know?’’
‘‘This is terrible.’’ Grandpa shook his head and twisted his face in disgust. ‘‘I don’t know why these white men do the most abominable things in the name of adventure and experimentation.’’ He was now looking vacantly at Father, perhaps trying to imagine the Chinese people eating the cockroaches, frogs, birds and what have you, with weird appetite. ‘‘And they end up bringing calamity on the world.’’
Then, with a heavy heart, he told Father about the recent happenings in Ndikelionwu — the invasion of Fulani herdsmen in the town; the massive destruction offarms and crops left in their wake; the attack on the people who challenged their insensitive actions; the people’s reprisal that forced the infidels to leave the town; and the subsequent disappearances of six young boysunder mysterious circumstances.
‘‘Things have changed,’’ Grandpa said, shaking his head sadly. ‘‘In the past, these men dared not invade our town, let alone do what they did. There was nothing like this sort of pandemic. Everything has just changed.’’
‘‘The world is coming to an end,’’ Grandma asserted as she stepped inside the living room with Mother following her with a tray containing plates of food. ‘‘It’s an evidence of end time,’’ she maintained.
As we ate the food, Grandpa told us how the men of Ndikelionwu transformed into leopards overnight, and mauled the herd of cows belonging to the herdsmen to death. In fear, the recalcitrant herdsmen had vanished from the town, perhaps never to return again. But the recent disappearances of the six young boys had cast doubt over the peace the people had thought had returned to their town.
Father left in the evening, when the sun had set. As if waiting for his departure, darknessdescended immediately, accompanied by a crescent that sat in the sky, partially illuminating the environment.
I, Chuka andUbakawere forced to play hide and seek with other children from the village.
Amidst the tumult of our game, the town crier’s gong came, and the atmosphere became still and tensed. Everyone listened. For the past couple of weeks, he had been the ‘harbinger’ of bad news, telling the people about the herdsmen's invasion and attack, and the sudden disappearance of the six young boys under mysterious circumstance.
Contrary to the people’s apprehension, he announced that the traditional ruler of the town had summoned all adult males of the town to an emergency meeting the next morning. But he didn’t mention what the subject of the meeting would be.
As he mounted his motorcycle to leave, the children followed him, calling him fondly, ‘‘Akpatananwu! Akpatananwu!’’
He seemed to be fond of children, too, for he stopped and patted their backs, while I and Chuka just stood few metres away, watching.
Later that night, Ubaka told me and Chuka that the town crier is one of the best hunters in the town, and that he, sometimes, generously gives some ofhis games to the children.He also told us that it was his and the town crier’s traps that are known for catching giant pythons. He promised to take me and Chuka towhere the traps were set in the forest, and told us that if we were lucky enough, his traps might catch the dreaded reptile.
I couldn’t wait to see this python, and touch it even. I imagined its neck caught in the string loop, as Ubaka had described, wriggling violently to free itself from the snare, baring its lethal fang and pulling down nearby plants and undergrowth in the process.
The next morning, after the men of the town came back from the emergency meeting, news suddenly went round that the daughter of the wealthiest man in Ndikelionwu was missing. The little girl is the only child of the business mogul. The man and his family live in Canada, and had come home for the burial of his father, but couldn’t go back because of the closure of international borders occasioned by the pandemic. And so, he was waiting for the lockdown and border closure to be eased, before this unfortunate incident struck.
The business mogulpromised to reward whomever found his daughter and brought her back to him alive with a whooping sum of ten million naira!
The people pointed accusing fingers at the herdsmen, becausethey suspectedthat theycarried out their acts of reprisal in the dead of the night, and feard that the girl must have suffered the same fate like the six young boys.
The people had thought that the kidnap of the six young boys by the herdsmen was some sort of a ritual associated with males only, but this latest incident had cast doubts over that assumption.
As a result of this incident, children were warned to desist from stepping out of their homes, and no parent or guardian should send their child or their ward on an errand pending when these troubles were over.
It was twilight when Ubaka, Chuka and I sneaked out of the house to go to the forest to check Ubaka's traps. The three of us slept in a separate room which faces the backyard, and so, Mother and our grandparents didn’t notice when we left.
I knew we had taken the bull by the horns,and we might be the next victims of the kidnapping, but the thought of a giant python being caught in one of the traps filled me with glee. Again, we believed that the herdsmen didn’t carry out their act of kidnap in the wee hours of the morning.
The morning air felt damp and chill, and I shivered as we strode in the Indian file through the narrow footpath bordered by thick bushes, massive trees and undergrowth.
From time to time, an owl hooted, and Chuka and I stopped abruptly to find out where the sound had come from, but Ubaka, who was leading the way, told us in whispers to ignore the intruding bird.
At a particular path bordered by a hilly terrain and an oak tree, Ubaka stopped and told us that he was going to take the Browns to the Super Bowl. Chuka and I joined him as he ran up the hilly ground and disappeared into the bush.
When we were done, we continued our adventure. It didn’t take long before we reached the belly of the forest where Ubaka's traps were set. They were winding sets of interlaced fronds held together with ogirisi plants that ran through the forest.
Ubaka told us that the town crier’s traps were located at the other side of the forest demarcated by bamboo plants. He said these things in whispers, either because he didn’t want the herdsmen, who might be lurking nearby, to catch us or because he didn’t want to scare away potential games.
The first three traps didn’t catch any game, but Ubaka assured us that one of his traps must catch at least a grasscutter. His traps had never failed him.
Before we got to the fourth trap, I heard faint voices nearby. I signalled to Ubaka and Chuka and we stilled our movement and listened. Then, my eyes caught a glimpse of three silhouettes standing not far from us. I signalled again to Ubaka and Chuka, and we fell on all fours and crawled to where we could get a clearer view of their identity, while, at the same time,shrouding our presence.
There werethree menstanding before us, oblivious of our presence because we were hiding behind the thick bush,and a little girl who was lying on the ground with her mouthgagged with a tape and her legs and hands bound with ropes. Among the men was the town crier, and he was talking with the two men in what Ubaka said was Efik language.
Ubaka had lived in Calabar before he was employed as a houseboy for my grandparents.It was he who told us what the trio were discussing about: the girl is the business mogul’s missing daughter, and town crier was going to sell her to the two men who, in turn, would sell her to their partner in Libya! They were still in custody of the six young boys because they wantedthe number of their victims to reach seven before they would proceed on the long torturous journey through Sahara Desert — that is, if they weren’t intercepted by an army of security men prowling every border to enforce the global lockdown order.
Stealthily, like a cat, we crawled out of the place, and when we got to a part of the forest where we weren't within sight or earshot, we ran home, like a bat out of hell, to report what we saw.
The business mogul and his wife were very happy to set their eyes on their daughter again, and so were the parents of the six young boys. To make good his promise,thehegave me, Chuka and Ubaka the sum of ten million naira which he earlier promised to give to anybody who found his missing daughter, and, in addition, offered us scholarships for oursecondary and tertiary educations.
Soon, our story made headlines, and we became the talk of the town. The governor of Anambra State lauded our bravery, andgave each of us the sum of two million naira, while ordering that the town crier and his accomplices be brought to book.
I know that Father must be proud of us now, especially seeing his two sons on TV and on his favorite Satellite newspaper receiving praises and rewards for a seemingly daunting adventure. And I can’t wait to see the smile on Mrs.Aduaka's face when she reads this story.