by Chukwu Sunday Abel
When a snake sloughs its skin, it doesn’t lose its dreadfulness with its old shell.
You came to us with good news of salvation, we accepted it. You came through our borders uninvited and handed to us your books of alphabets. We embraced them even at the expense of our own tongue(s). You told us to discard our flourishing authorities; they were primitive and unpopular — we accepted your acclaimed error-free rule by majority. Thereafter, you tethered on our necks your strange supreme books to guide our indulgences. We didn’t rebel, even as the sleeping eyes of our ancestors glowered angrily at us. You told our children to slough their God-given soot through the help of your hot anti-melanin oil. We turned blind-eyed, but the silent voices of our sleeping ancestors warned us, told us of their wrath, called us unworthy sons. However, we never questioned you. We didn’t complain; we gobbled them gluttonously so as not to offend this, our nonreciprocal bromance.
You came with this gospel of self-determination, gospel of free-choice. You told our women to stand and pee, to climb our palm trees, to become sons, to become husbands; our men, you told to become wives, to bear children. Aru! Were snakes to lose their dreadfulness, women would use them to bind their hair.
There was no place like home, one’s home, one’s ancestral home, especially when one’s first name was Echezona: “Do not forget.” Don’t forget your roots, perhaps. “Don’t forget where you come from,” a maxim from my father before his death.
Google tells me: “Nigeria, an African country on the Gulf of Guinea, has many natural landmarks and wildlife reserves.”
Then, “Anambra is a state in southeastern part of Nigeria.’ Nothing about culture and tradition, nothing about Ajoagwo nor Ngenebaka — “they were predominantly Christians and spoke Igbo,” Google said. My father before his death told me nothing about Ajoagwo; neither did my mother who died before him.
When our flight touched down on Muritala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, I knew that I had not only made myself happy but made my father proud. Lagos was the most populated state of the 36, was soiled by numerous carcasses of woebegone nylon bags, discarded empty plastic cans, bagged refuses, and human feces in black bags. Perhaps, in the absence of a well-structured waste disposal system, the residents of the bellicose but accommodating city that emerged from collective unpremeditated floridness from past and present residents, the reason for its longstanding apothegm, shine your eyes, resorted to littering the face of their unsmiling city with their dumps — maybe in protest of incessant failed governments or as evidence of deficiency in the midst of sufficiency.
The residents drove competitively and recklessly on the road in a bid to overtake whomever, whatever was in their front. Nobody waited for another. Patience was time-wasting. It was unsafe to adhere to the traffic regulations. Whoever wanted to obey religiously the traffic rules ate his dinner on the road or passed the night on the Lagos roads. But Google didn’t tell me this, and neither did my father.
Lagos to Anambra was about 480 kilometers by road and would take about nine hours to drive. By flight, it would take less than an hour. But I was on an expedition, and having a better view of the countryside meant that I should take the road It was long.. But it wouldn’t have been as long if not for the military and police checkpoints that punctuated the flow. The checkpoints were notable as much as they were characteristic: woebegone concrete-filled drums, coated with yellow paint accessorized by uneven black stripes, stood tactfully on the road in such a way that only a single vehicle would be able to move slowly in between the drums in a zigzag. Atop the drums were tires sprinkled with green leaves of weeds struggling for sunlight. The police (for police checkpoints) or soldiers (for military checkpoints) stood side by side on the road, withRussian AK-47s held menacingly in their hands. They bathed in the anxiety in the air as they smiled in one second and frowned in the next,leaving passengers numb. They conspired in low tones and yelled spitefully at unyielding bus drivers. Many change their route at the sight of checkpoints to avert possible extortion or mistreatment.
Sometimes, buses sped off from a checkpoint. Their drivers tried maneuvering around the policemen, who would wave conspiratorially at the drivers to stop. The drivers would decelerate and then jam on the brake. One of the policemen would handshake the bus driver, looking into the passengers’ faces to know if there was any potential threat, a perceived stumbling block to his bribe. He would then shake his head and hail the driver — a sign that he may pass. Same thing he did with other commercial buses coming after and after until the day ended and another came. Shaking hands and head or pointing at the side of the road with a shout of park well if the driver refused to shake hands with him. The bus would thenbe delayed for hours over particulars,after which the bus would be taken to the police station for a crime that would have been overlooked with a mere handshake with one of the police. This was the core task of policing in this part of the world that Google didn’t tell me.
The historic Niger bridge that lay over Mungo Park was the gateway to the southeastern part of the country and to my destination, Anambra state.
Amerikanah no, welcome, they said one after the other — men and women, boys and girls. One thing was peculiar in their looks, their skin stood out, nitid in its unusual whiteness. Scurfy, parched, harmattan-whited. Their lips were caked by that same harmattan, some of them trickled out blood which was usually licked cursorily. The people visited, then the totem of the land. They moved pridefully, as if they owned the land, fearless, territorial and arrogant. The closest I had come to snakes was during my college days at Messiah College, Mechanicsburg. They said that whenever a visitor entered the community, these arrogant snakes came to welcome them.
It was in the middle of the night when I was jolted by a rope-like creature descending onto the bed I lay in front of the room window. My room was starkly dark, the power holding company and water corporation unaware of the existence of Umunri community. I switched on my torch and the 9-foot variegated python was bared to my petrified eyes. My spinal cord shivered. I scurried to my feet, directed the ray of the torchlight at its head. Its eyes flickered. The thought of the Singaporean woman swallowed by a python haunted me. Then you realized that you were in a different, strange-yet-familiar environment, where 911 was useless and where there was no replica. Then, the situation was kill or be killed.
The day you strolled into this our land, the atmosphere smelled different. It was a Christmas period, dry season, but the heavens heralded the misfortune you would bring. The bright and dry heavens bellowed, unleashed their fangs on us — lightening paralyzed the Udala tree at the village square. The Udala tree, one of the remaining monuments of our ancestors, where we had our gatherings. The unusual downpour disrupted our festivities, the cloudburst, as thick as hailstorm, pelted our bodies. They said you had returned from a land that knew no lack — where fallen crumbs could be picked up in their garbage-dumps and eaten. They said it was a land of no-lack except for mosquitoes and roaches and rats, unless one wanted to see them in places where they were preserved. They said where you came from lacked darkness; it must as well lack culture and manners.
They said that you were born in this our land by a man from this our land and a woman from this our land. How then did a leopard change its skin? How did coyotes and wolves become allies? Nobody knew who you were, even though we knew that you were the only child of Mazi Okonkwo, who went missing so many years ago. It was said that he left with the whitemen that brought a message of salvation to us. We knew when you were born, but now you have been reborn. We saw you as a woman from your looped hair touching your torso, your pendulous legs, your glowing sun-untainted skin, fake mascaraed antenna-like eyelashes, rouged pinkish cheeks — not until you were caught climbing the Mazi Uchendu palm tree. Thereafter, you told us you were not a woman. You showed us at the village square what made you a man. You said you were a man. You agreed to be part of our village gatherings, to obey our traditions and culture. You drank from the cup we drank from. You called yourself a son of the soil. No sooner had we done this than you went to the sacred river of our deity, Mmiri Ngenebaka, and swam in it. You told our youths to kill the sacred fishes of the Ngenebaka river, to hunt the crocodiles — to ridicule us, what made us. As if the killing of the fishers was not enough, you massacred the sacred bride of Ajoagwo Arusi, our sacred peaceful pythons. Were you not told that our forefathers met these sacred pythons in this land ? Were you not told that one who killed our python died? Not only did you kill these pythons, you told our youths to disbelieve that the pythons had protected them, prospered them and kept our farmlands fertile from the time of our ancestors.
As if the wrath of the gods you had brought upon yourself were not enough, you did that which the tongue had never spoken in our land — that which no ear has ever heard of, which no heart has ever conceived, in our land. That which was capable of making the gods open up the earth to swallow us. That which made our farmlands weep and produce no crops, which caused our streams to dry off.
Without fear for the gods and your chi, under the split crimson moon of the night, and at the paralyzed Udala tree, you were caught soiling the chastity of a bearded man like you. Aru! He said you gave him a cigar that made his head woozy, his legs wobbly and his organ stiff. He said you told him that where you came from, the land that knew no lack, that a man was free to go in with a man, a woman free to go with another woman. When the Ikoro, gong of war, went and summoned everyone at the village square over your act, the strangest and rarest in our land, you told the elders and chiefs, children and adults, men and women of Umunri that there was no wrong in your wrongdoing. You said, though you were a man, you were also a woman. Amerikanah Wonder! As you offended the land, the gods, the land in turn unleashed on you its venom for killing our sacred pythons, desecrating the sacred river of our deity, and for soiling our land by your unspeakable alien culture.
The Ikoro gong of war plumbed sonorously in the night, throughout the three clans that comprised the seven villages in Umunri, from strategic locations in each clan, sharing the same message. The night became uncommunicative, noiseless, aside from the chirps of unconcerned crickets. Even owls, which usually relished the blissful night breeze, observed silence. The moon withdrew into its shell stealthily, making the darkness incomprehensibly thicker. Kerosene lanterns displaying yellow tongues of fire and smoke puffing into the air from its perforated cork were the only source of luminance. Everywhere there seemed to be hovering evil spirits, as if the gods had already unleashed their expected fangs. Something urgent must be done to avert that. Shrubs turned to humans when sighted from the distance, leaving the viewer terrific with a swollen head.. That Ikoro sound was to parade a nocturnal, unusual rapist and to officially announce the end of strange foreign practices. A nocturnal rapist who despoiled the longstanding values of the land.
Echezona now called Amerikanah by Umunri people, continued his staggering, his sagged scrotum slapping against his thighs. His penis shrank, maybe catching cold, but it wouldn’t be catching cold in that dire condition. Not when he already received uncountable strokes of canes in addition to his agbara infested body. The youths steered him to the village square where bigger crowd had gathered, awaiting the arrival of the miscreant. His partner in their alien act walked beside him. On their heads were crowns of abomination, woven from tender yellowish fronds. Their waists too, were wreathed with same fronds. Their bodies, from head to toe, gleamed with ashes. The culture and tradition of Umunri was clear and direct on this — as it was unpardonable. In Umunri, the sacred pythons of Ngenebaka were indeed inviolable in acts and in words. They were gods in disguise. They were tamed by the gods, toothed and venomous, yet harmless. Must be reverenced, praised by the lips of the women, eulogized and thanked by those of the men. When it lay in your bed at night before you, the gods needed it; you were to sleep on the bare floor or enjoy its warmth and poking in your bed. Whoever killed any must carry out a burial rite for it. The type of burial rite and ritual so befitting to a chief who had collected so many titles before his death. The chiefs with the red conic cap with two white ugo feathers by the side. A number of goats must be slaughtered to accompany the murdered god, python, to its meticulously dug grave. Numerous spotless fowls must be sacrificed to the gods as to appease them; to restore the purity of the land and ward off the evil spirits that might come in consequence. These rituals and rites were required to wash off the curse of the gods, to wash untimely death off whomever killed the inviolable python, and to restore his progress.
Every child of Umunri knew why the sacred pythons, ajoagwo arusi, were inviolable, why the fishes in the sacred Ngenebaka river were sacred, why the river itself wouldn’t be swum both by intent and in an error. The story of why these must not happen had been told in hoarse voices, clear voices, in day’s light and in the night’s darkness.
The ancestral father of Umunri, Nwanri had migrated from Nri with his three sons, his daughters, his wives, and the wives of his sons to settle in the southern part of Ngenebaka river. His daughters and wives were constantly abducted by neighbouring villages, sold into slavery or offered as sacrifices to the gods of their abductors. Nwanri and his household could not match his enemies militarily; as a result, he offered one of his virgin daughters as a sacrifice to the goddess of Ngenebaka river by burying her alive at the bark. He pledged his loyalty to the Ngenebaka’s river goddess, demanding protection and prosperity from her. The river goddess prospered him and protected him from his enemies. She fought for him with her pythons. There came about the sacredness of Ajaogwo deity.
But the previous cases in Umunri were either the killing of the sacred python or the killing of the fishes in the Ngenebaka river. There hadn’t been a case of blatant disregard for the culture of the people as was in this. Or a case in the time past involving the three offenses committed by one person. Or a case of a man doing that that could only be done with a woman with his fellow man.
When they arrived at the square, the crescendo of Umu-ada chants thundered into their mulish ears, piercing his heart and clouding his mind. In his mind, he wondered why human life would be ranked below that of a python in this part of the world and in this 21st century. This part of the world in which one’s sexuality could sully the land and invoke the wrath of the gods. This part of the world in which the right to self-determination was neglected.
Among the irate youths, some said their blood should be used to purge the land of their sins, some said they should be ostracized, some said they should be castrated, but none said they should be forgiven. The gods were angry and must be appeased. “Was it limited to killing of the sacred pythons and swimming in the mmiri Ngenebaka, Amerikanah will be treated with mercy, but considering the magnitude of the last of the offence: sodomy, it’s unpardonable,” one of the gyrating youths said.
Echezona stood before the unrepentant Umunri people, naked, body sprinkled ashes, his hair scraped — those were the inevitable recipes required to appease the gods of the land for such an occasion. The culprit must be paraded naked with chants from the youths that relate with the abominable act, after which the final judgement would be passed by the Ndi-ichie — chiefs-in-council. He stood feebly on his wobbly legs, awaiting the Ndi-ichie’s pronouncement — his fate.
In Umunri community, whoever killed the sacred python and refused to carry out the rituals and rites died. In Umunri, from time immemorial, whoever was caught having sex with an animal was ostracized. Whoever was caught having sex with their blood relative was sent out of the community with the partner and never to return. But there hadn’t been a case of a man sleeping with another — the gravest, rarest crime in the land.
Author’s Note: The piece comprises different real life events webbed: the story of the totem happened to me in one of the Southeastern states in Nigeria. The snakes, up to date, are regarded inviolable. The river too. Another of the events: the story of a two spirit, also happened in same region but in different communities. It’s told in multiple perspectives to satirize unbending practices that undermine right(s) to self-determination in some African societies.
Chukwu Sunday Abel is an Igbo-born journalist and a writer; he is the 2020 Creators of Justice Literary Award First Prize Winner For short stories category (International Human Rights Art Festival Awards, New York). He emerged a Runner-up in the Victoria Literary Competition Festival, Canada (2020). He is a finalist in the 2020 National ENDSARS Poetry Competition. His Literary works have appeared in magazines and anthologies across four continents. He writes to right.