Nri Kingdom, Western Africa, 1577
Ginika had been sifting ukwa seeds when she heard it. That ominous rattling accompanied an unhurried gait. Dibia Dike, the medicine man, was coming. Her fingers froze over the raffia tray sitting on her lap, eyes lifting and resting on the gates of her family’s compound.
Like a lizard crawling from a dark crevice, dibia Dike’s small frame emerged from the shadows and into the dull light of the crescent moon. As he walked past the bamboo gate of mazi Amadi Onyeisi’s compound, his presence stained the easy cheer the night bellied.
When the dibia stopped beneath the large udala tree M’pa sat circled by his numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, his eyes did not rest on the oldest man in Umu Uro village. No, his focus was fixed on Oriaku, Ginika’s ten-year-old daughter who sat at the feet of her grandfather, her temple leaning against the aged man’s left thigh. Dibia Dike inclined his head in a wooden show of respect as he said something to M’pa. In response, the ancient man placed a hand on Oriaku’s shoulder, urging her to lift her head as he grabbed his staff to stand.
Ginika frowned at the sight, a thorn of worry pushing through the soil of her heart. Surely, dibia Dike’s unexpected visit did not mean what she feared. Slowly placing the tray of ukwa seeds on the ground next to her stool, Ginika watched her father-in-law creak to his feet. He was so aged that watching him move was painful. Soon both men disappeared into M’pa’s hut. The gathering of children scattered, peals of laughter filling the night air as they formed play circles, raced after one another and sang merry songs. None were concerned about the snake that had slithered into their home.
That look, the one the dibia had given her child, disturbed Ginika. One possibility rang in her head, one terrifying enough to make her rise to her feet. She hurried to M’pa’s backyard on quiet feet, ducked beneath a lime tree close to his window, and strained her ears to listen.
“…what proof do you have?” M’pa’s voice, though gruff with age, was hard—disbelieving. He spoke as if dibia Dike was not the most feared medicine man in the twelve villages.
“Oho!” There was a sneer in dibia Dike’s voice. “Do you wish that I bring the oracle to your compound to speak directly to you? You may be the oldest man of this village but even you are not greater than my oracle.”
Anger flashed like red lightening, incinerating Ginika where she hid. That the medicine man would dare to speak to the head of Umu Nna with such disrespect showed how much he had grown bloated with power. The entire village, save for M’pa and an obstinate few, had grown terrified of the powers the medicine man’s oracle gave him. He had bullied nearly every household into surrendering their ofo at his shrine. Those who had refused to do so had been struck by strange illnesses or calamity. But M’pa and the Okpara of four compounds seemed to possess strong heads. Nothing happened to them when they refused to submit their ofo. There were fables about those who possessed strong heads. No charm worked on them. They could even consume meals offered in shrines and all they would end up with are full contented bellies. Women never possessed strong heads, so weak were their minds that if they so much as glimpsed a sacred masquerade, they went mad.
“Not everything that catches your eye is meant for you, Dike. I—” M’pa suddenly flew into a bout of hacking cough that stretched for a troubling period. Ginika clenched her fists. Why subject M’pa to this? The man was so frail that she sometimes feared a strong wind could break him in half. He released a laboured breath after his coughing spell, then continued speaking as though his moment of weakness never occurred. “Who gave you the boldness to come to my compound and make such a demand?”
“M’pa”—Ginika recognized her husband’s low wary voice— “Please, do not—”
“I have heard of your greed,” M’pa fired on, “but I always assumed you would keep your gluttonous hands away from the gates of my compound. Now you come, look me in the eyes, and push for my small toe. If I concede to your greed, next full moon you will come for my leg. Leave my compound this instant before I ask my sons to throw you out for this disrespect.” M’pa’s words were quiet but his threat was real.
Ginika’s heart raced with satisfaction, a smile curving her lips at M’pa’s iron will. At the sound of dibia Dike’s rattling staff, Ginika pressed herself against the wall of the hut and held her breath. Soon the rattling faded and so did the evil of his presence.
There was a heavy silence in the hut before her husband spoke. “M’pa, why? What is this you want to bring on this family?”
M’pa said nothing for a long time. Ginika could imagine him stonily staring ahead with his milky watery eyes and that fierce frown on his brow.
“Oriaku is not my only daughter,” her husband said. “I can give her up. Is it not my decision to make?”
Ginika slapped a palm over her mouth, stopping her shout of protest just in time. Understanding suddenly dawned like a slap of frigid water in a biting harmattan morning. Dibia Dike wished to take her child. He had taken from Lotanna. He had taken from Eberechi. Now he wanted her child. He wanted Oriaku.
“You have spoken very foolishly, my son. One who learns nothing forgets nothing. Look around you. How many children has he taken to serve him? That man is the grave; he is never satisfied. You gave him yams and livestock to feed his chi that has no mouth. Now he asks for your daughter. Soon he will demand your sons. Later he will gouge out your eyes and claim his chi needs it to see. Yes, Oriaku is your daughter, but she is my grandchild. I will not live and watch that dog pour faeces in my compound.”
Ginika fled from her hiding place. No tears blurred her vision. There was no sorrow in her breast, only rage. That dibia. That vile man.
Still cooking in the kind of rage her mother promised will ruin her, Ginika hurried to her husband’s hut and waited at his door. Her tongue trembled in her mouth. Burning words clanged in her head.
Oriaku is not my only daughter.
Chei! Her husband’s declaration fanned something beastly in Ginika, waking it up. Giving her head a fierce shake, Ginika tugged at the beaded necklace hanging from her neck. “Not my child,” she mumbled. “Never my child.”
Ginika halted her pacing and whipped around at Chimaroke’s approach.
“What are you doing at my door?” His question came with a sigh.
Instead of answering, Ginika entered his hut, slapping the raffia mat that hung over the doorway aside in her haste. A lamp burned at the window. She retrieved another at the foot of his bed, lighting it as well. Every angle of his face must be visible; let her watch his lips move as he tells her it was alright to give the medicine man their child.
Ginika resumed her pacing, choosing not to speak until he sat on his bed and cleared his throat.
“I saw him.”
“Saw who? Speak clearly, woman.”
“Oriaku is not my only daughter.” Ginika flung Chimaroke’s words back at him, wishing it would strike like a heavy blow to the head.
Chimaroke clutched both knees so tightly, the veins of his arms bulged. “You were listening.”
“My chi led my feet to M’pa’s hut and opened my ears to the evil that you wished upon my child.”
“She is also my child.” Though his voice was low, it came with a bite. He would not look her in the eye.
“And I carried her in my body.” Ginika gripped her belly. “When did I begin to stink in your sight that my child will mean so little to you? I have only one, but you have how many? Fifteen.” Her voice shook and she loathed herself for it. “You must despise me.”
“Do not speak nonsense.” He pushed the words through clenched teeth. “I do not despise you.”
But you do! You would sacrifice my only child on the altar of your fear. How is that not hatred?
Ginika wished to yell those words, to smear him with the filth of his cowardice but she contained herself, pulled the roiling emotions in, and fought the outburst begging to be free. For years, scalding accusations, bitterness so deep and raw had burned in her. She had been on her own and he came for her, took her from a family only too willing to trade another daughter for some cowries and yams. The only good thing he ever gave her was Oriaku and now, now…
“Since you listened to the conversation, you must have heard the words of my father. The dibia will not take the girl.” He removed the strip of cloth hanging from his neck, folded it neatly, and placed it at the head of his bed. “I do not see the reason you approached me with your displeasure.”
“I…” Ginika shook her head. “I only—” She drew in a breath for strength and exhaled. “I only came to tell you that Oriaku is my life. If the dibia insists…”
“If the dibia insists, what will you do?” That familiar harshness slipped into his voice. He was finally looking at her, his brow forming deep ridges and his lips pressing into a flat line. “Do not bring emotions into this, Ginika. Have you not seen what happened to others who resisted him? Are you so selfish that you would clutch one and sacrifice all?”
I do not care! Let everyone die and let my Oriaku live.
Why can’t the dibia be content with the bounty he owns? Why must he come and take the only eye she used to see? “The treasure I have guarded all these years…”
“Perhaps that is why he chose Oriaku. Because you clutched her too tightly you shouted her value to his oracle.” He motioned for the doorway with an impatient hand. “I grow weary of this conversation. Tell Oge to bring my dinner.”
The next morning, M’pa died. It was Oriaku who found him. She had made it a habit to wake the aged man each morning, rushing to pass him his kola nut and sitting with him as he ate. Her cry had pierced the morning. The members of the family, from the oldest son to the youngest infant had gathered at the front of his hut. A town crier was sent to spread the news.
Ginika had hugged Oriaku, assuring her that M’pa was now with their ancestors. “He no longer has that cough that worries you. He no longer stands stooped. Now he watches you. He protects you. Do not cry, my child.”
Oriaku had been M’pa’s favourite grandchild. He had delighted her with folktales he was yet to share at the full moon gathering, always gave her a large portion of his meat whenever he was done eating, and enjoyed explaining the meaning behind deep proverbs with Oriaku. The proverbs would fill her daughter with unending questions. Whatever answer she could not get from her grandfather, she would ask Ginika.
In the midst of her child’s grief, one reality burned bright. Now that M’pa was dead, nothing stood between the dibia and her child. That monster that stole her sleep the night before, that ugly fear that made her stay awake gazing at the face of her sleeping daughter, grew larger, suffocating her and hissing promises.
Your sun will soon set.
Your eyes will soon dim.
Oriaku is no longer yours.
And the day came a full moon after M’pa was buried. That morning, Ginika was sitting on a stool weaving Oriaku’s full dark mane into neat, braided lines. She had reached a finger to the calabash holding shea butter when she heard the rattle of his staff. A low moan escaped her lips before she could stop it. At the sound, Oriaku turned around, eyebrows scrunching in worry.
“Mother, what is it?”
Shutting her eyes, Ginika dragged in a breath and forced an exhale, repeating the action even as that rattling sound drew nearer.
“Look, mother. It is the dibia.”
Heart throbbing in her throat, Ginika placed a trembling hand upon the slim shoulder of her child.
The sun has not set.
My eyes can still see.
Oriaku is not dead
Opening her eyes, Ginika looked ahead. Her husband was sitting beneath the shade of the same Udala tree his father had sat on that night. From the distance, she could not tell what they said. But her heart already knew. When they finished speaking, both men looked in their direction. Ginika was careful to keep her expression flat.
When the dibia began to make his way in their direction, Ginika pushed her breath through her mouth. The air was suddenly too thin.
“Stand, my child,” Ginika managed to mumble. “The dibia is coming our way.”
Oriaku did as she was told. Her eyes were respectfully averted like every child was taught to do when in the presence of their elders. Ginika was clutching the wooden comb in her grip too tightly. Perhaps she should stab the dibia with it.
Her husband followed a few steps behind. He gave her a pointed warning gaze. Ginika blinked at him, careful to maintain her flat expression.
Finally, dibia Dike stopped before them. He was a short man with narrow shoulders slanting to the left. Across his neck and face were pale patches upon dark skin. His eyes were small and soulless, and his lips were thin and downturned. Perhaps he was the same age as her husband or older, Ginika could not tell. What she was certain of was one truth: she was looking at the face of an enemy, one whose eyes only showed the smallest spark of life when they crawled over her child’s frame. A sickness pushed at the back of Ginika’s throat. She swallowed and prayed to her chi for strength.
“Her father will bring her tonight. I will be waiting.” Then he turned and walked out of the compound, that rattle of death accompanying each step.
Oriaku was the first to speak. “Papa, what does… where are you taking me?”
Chimaroke met Ginika’s gaze instead. His eyes were grim with finality. “Your mother will tell you.” He too left, leaving Ginika with a burden he was too much of a coward to carry.
Gripping Oriaku by the arm, Ginika led her into their hut. She pulled a wooden stool from underneath her bamboo bed and sat. Clasping both hands between her knees, Ginika asked, “Do you know what strong head means?”
Oriaku’s bright eyes dimmed with confusion. After a moment of thought, she shook her head. “No.”
“Get the calabash of shea butter then come sit on the floor between my legs. I will tell you what strong head means as I finish braiding your hair.”
Oriaku did as she was told. Settling upon the floor, she hugged her knees to her chest and waited. Ginika began lining her hair into larger chunks, her fingers moving quickly as she wove her child’s hair into intricate braided lines.
“M’pa had strong head. No medicine man could kill him.”
“But Mama Oge said dibia Dike—”
“Mama Oge’s words are always heavy with foolishness. Never take her seriously,” Ginika’s voice grew sharp. “And M’pa was as old as the earth. It was his time to meet his ancestors; no one killed him.”
Oriaku meekly nodded.
The evening of the day M’pa died, Ginika had made an irreversible decision. She had carefully crafted and begun working towards a plan with this day in mind.
“They say only men can possess strong head. I have been pleading with my chi to gift me strong head because of today.”
Silence reigned for a moment. A cockerel crowed. A baby was crying in one of the huts. Perhaps Oluchi’s son.
“Mother,” Oriaku whispered. “I am scared. I do not want to follow papa or go near the medicine man.”
“Do not be scared. No dibia will take you while I am alive.” The fire of Ginika’s determination burned the monster of her rising fear to a heap of ash. “You are my sun—the eyes I use to see. You deserve life and you will have it.”
It was mid-afternoon when Ginika left her husband’s compound. None of the other wives had come to her hut to share their sympathies. They were wary of the one dibia Dike’s oracle had chosen. They did not want to be smeared with bad luck. Their distance was comforting.
Before Ginika took the path that led to dibia Dike’s shrine, she made fifteen stops at twelve compounds. Now she tugged a reluctant young goat along and prayed to her chi beneath her breath.
Instead of taking the usual path, Ginika took a shorter route, one that was less travelled simply because it was too close to the path that led to the dibia’s shrine. She had made this short journey five times before, and each time she stopped closer and closer to his shrine. Today, she would come to him as one of his many visitors.
Birds called. The trees lining the path loomed tall, blocking the light of the sun and giving her spirit a strange calm. The shadows of the shrubs seemed to shift. Rustling sounds could be heard now and then, matching her steps. She should be terrified. That ugly fear that had been swelling should be choking her now, but all she felt was calm, and a strange sort of detachment. She would save her child or die trying. Another path, much thinner and less beaten, branched out to her right. She took it. The rustling sounds followed her.
Ginika reached the clearing just as the dibia pushed aside the mat at the door of his hut and slunk into the dark interior like a snake fleeing the heat of the sun. The hut sat like a large severed head upon the earth. Its hair was thatch, its windows were eyes and its door a gaping hole of death—one she must pass through.
Ginika stopped before the doorway and called out a greeting.
“Dibia Dike, I greet you. I bring an offering and a plea that you speak to your oracle on my behalf.”
There was a grunt. A shuffling sound. Then he spoke. “Tie your gift to the stick by the water pot and enter with your back to the door.”
Ginika followed his instructions. Before she entered the shrine with backward steps, she spied movement in the surrounding bushes.
Dragging in a fortifying breath, Ginika took the final step into the shrine and was immediately embraced by a thick rotten smell, the kind that stuffed down the nostrils and made one gather saliva at the back of the tongue, unable to swallow.
“Turn around,” came a command.
The first thing Ginika noticed when she turned was the stacks of human bones. Small skulls arranged in several heaps. Chicken feathers scattered about. Unsettling chalk drawings upon the walls. Hanging spread clothes stained with blood. Several stout blood-splattered wooden figurines. Two lit open-flame lamps. Her gaze travelled back to the pile of skulls.
“Woman!” The sharpness of dibia Dike’s voice tore Ginika’s attention from the chilling display. “You must first bow before the oracle and sit.” Still standing, Ginika dropped her gaze to the dibia. From her position, he appeared much smaller—completely human. This small man wished to add her child to a pile on his wall.
“And if I choose not to bow?” Though her lips spoke the words, Ginika felt severed from her environment. Now was the time for his oracle to strike her dead for her insolence.
“Have you gone mad? Do you not recognise where you stand?” The boom of his voice was unnaturally loud and in the wake of it was a sudden attack of rationality—why it made sense to be terrified of the dibia and the power he commanded.
The voice of reason rushed to the surface, slapping about for attention like a drowning man. Kicking her courage in the face.
You should not be here. He is the most powerful dibia in twelve villages. M’pa died the next morning after challenging him. A woman cannot have strong head. You have sealed your fate. Now you will die along with your daughter.
“And that will be better.” The words ripped out of Ginika, equally loud, deranged as he accused. “That will be better than remaining alive while the chi of another man eats my young.”
“Get out now,” he shouted, spittle flying with his enraged words. “Get out before you invite wrath on yourself and your compound.”
Instead of cowering at the display of his anger, Ginika gave him a parting message, one she hoped escorted him down the path of death. “You have not seen the wrath of a mother and neither has your chi.”
Rushing out of the hut, Ginika yelled to the bushes, “As you can see, I am not dead.” She slapped a palm over her chest twice. “His chi did not eat me. My head is strong. Mothers, come and greet the eater of your children.”
It was then they emerged. Some held lit torches, others held sticks. In one’s grip was a bloated wineskin. An explosive kindling. Ginika stood tall as each woman rushed past her. Lotanna’s daughter had been five when the medicine man came for her three years ago. Her daughter had been the first among many. And there was Eberechi. Her daughter had been the one taken four full moons ago. The first and the last. No more.
Ginika witnessed fifteen women push into the small hut. She laughed. They said women cannot possess strong head, that their minds were too weak to look upon the face of a sacred masquerade and not grow mad. But what power does an oracle possess over the grief of a mother? All that rage trapped in a corked gourd. What can a man’s chi do when that gourd was broken?
Ginika heard his shouts. Thirty enraged fists. Some small. Some wielding sticks. Some eyes wept. Some lips laughed. When his shouts ended, they withdrew and threw in lit torches. The crackling of the hungry fire. Lotanna flung the bloated wineskin into the mouth of the hut.
As they stood aside, the sound of a blast came. Flames roared. Black fumes bled from windows. Like black tears they floated to the sky, forcing it to darken with the grief of the young ones lost.
Satisfied, each woman turned away. Back to their huts, they went. The sun and the bushes and the tree had witnessed their indiscretion.
Today, this night, Ginika would embrace her daughter. If any asked if she knew of the abomination that occurred in dibia Dike’s shrine, she would answer and say, “Ask the sun and the bushes and the trees. Perhaps they saw something.”
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