As narrated to son Ozim
Dark as the darkest night in an African village, dark, dark, it is so dark, that I remember a day sometime far ... long ago, when I was going from Enugu to Inyi my homeland. This was in December 1967, shortly after my father had been reported missing in a military counter-coup against officers from Igboland, believed to have masterminded the coup to overthrow the first post independent Nigerian civil government. The rest of the family had moved, or rather, had to flee from Lagos to Enugu - one City to another - one rowdy to one quiet - but all the same, cities that were never dark because they forgot to see the moon.
And there was no moon that night... in my home village I mean. And they knew all about it - the village people and the man with the axe up there.... They knew all about the moon. They did not have to remember to see it. Not like I. Yet I always forgot to remember. I forgot, because I was suffering from the amnesia of the city dweller, suddenly transplanted without her electricity.
We - my four year old brother Eik and I thirteen - had missed Apo's passenger lorry that traveled from Enugu to Inyi and return. And Apo - mama's maternal cousin always went out of his way to take us to our doorstep. Mama, who had a car, was not coming with us. She was taking catering courses at the then ecumenical college in Enugu. We had just come from paying her a visit.
So your uncle Eik and I have had to take one of those intercity mini-buses that plied between Enugu and Onitsha. We got down halfway at Ojiriver, and joined another over-packed taxicab that would take us to Inyi, through Achi.
The taxicab dropped us at the Inyi town junction known as Nkwo-Inyi. This name came from the nearby big market, where the surrounding rural towns would come to trade on Nkwo (the last day of a four-day native week).
From Nkwo - even though it is situated at the outskirts my village Enugu-Inyi - to my obi (extended family settlement) is about a mile and half; ... a mile during the day and two and a half at night. Or, at least so it seemed on that night when we had to walk home.
I thought about going to get some relatives who lived a few meters out along our way as escort. But I again dismissed it. They were surely going to make a fuss over us - especially over Eik; and would insist that we stayed for dinner which would be very shortly ready - that is: in an hour or two. Then they would send about a dozen or more enthusiastic volunteers, laden with yams and grated boiled cassava, to accompany us by lantern-light back home.
It is an exaggeration? Okay then: just take the dozen or more to mean one or two. But I assure you: the rest of the picture what I will tell is not blown up.
While trying to make up my mind about how best to get home, I looked around me. Because it was difficult to distinguish the sky from the trees, the lantern offered a very strong argument to go disturb the relatives.
Yet, I passed on it once more.
Not just from being weary of too much fuss from too many people ... too many relatives ... even those who explained the remotest connection with my father's family through one of my ancestors.
One such was Eze (King) Ilem Orji after whom the whole extended family is named Umuilemorji (children of Ilem Orji). These relatives, until the sad news about my father, had never met us, let alone us them. Yet, they brought with them gifts and fusses, from distant towns and villages I would hear of for the first time.
Thank goodness that the relatives who were not so generous - even though none the less tiresomely loving and caring - were those who lived near us. They were first and second uncles, aunties, cousins, nieces and nephews; that is: those we would regard as grandfathers, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children.
Consisting of more than half of the village of Umuilemorji, with as many entrenched in other families, they are direct descendants of Eze Maduekesi Ekwele, the Oluruoha of Inyi. A very popular king and in the ascendant to his great grandfather Eze Ilem Orji, after who was his grandfather Eze Ohiagu Ilem and then his father Eze Ekwele Ohiagu, Maduekesi reigned in the late 19th century. At this time the British Empire became the colonial masters and subsequently denoted Maduekesi's son and successor King, my granduncle Ezechukwu, to be a Warrant Chief.
Maduekesi had more than thirty wives - thirty one and half to be exact - selected from neighboring towns and villages. The half-wife (a joke) resulted from the fact that Maduekesi never completed the marriage requirements to the family of the woman, because during his lifetime, her father did not pay back all he owed him. At least, so grandfather (in reality my granduncle) Ohia told it. And he should know; he was one of Maduekesi’s blood-sons.
Nor, did I pass on the relatives out of consideration for them.
No. I decided against a stop-over because I thought that it really did not matter that it was moonless. It was about seven at night (without a watch) and in all likelihood one of those people driving home our way, to towns and villages further ahead would give us a ride. People were that friendly around here. We were all "Umunna" children of one father: as one would refer to actual siblings.
Inyi (town) the father of five sons (five villages of which mine - Enugu-Inyi - was the second son) was himself the son of Ufuma (the Southern neighbor-town). Because baby Inyi grew the upper tooth first he was regarded by the Igbo culture as a bad spirit come to earth to wrought mischief on a parent family. As a result Inyi was not welcomed into the family but was taken to a jungle where he was abandoned. Achi (the Northern neighbor-town) found baby Inyi during one of his hunting expeditions. He took him home, and brought him up as one of his own.
Mythology - But even there, one finds connections between Igbo villages, lgbo towns, lgbo people, and indeed all people of the world.
We are all "Umu-nne" children of the same mother. The closer the neighborhood, the more related the people.
In this neighborhood there was no fear of abduction, and had never been... even during the period of transatlantic slavery. Not like in some parts of lgbo-land. And not like in Lagos, where even grownups dared not accept rides from strangers.
That is not all. For even though I was sure we would get a safe ride, I equally knew we would have to walk a little before.
There lay the problem.
I looked at Eik, and a strange feeling came over me. Confidence chased after Fear. Fears remembered from stories of evil spirits. Stories about "Ajo-ofia", the bad forest where twin babies and children who had their upper tooth first were - for fear of them - abandoned, in the days before the missionaries came.
Through this jungle, we would be passing!
The image of the church burial ground just before one entered Ajo-ofia, did not come to aid. They were Christians buried there. Yes I know. I only hoped they too knew it. I smiled.
"We go eh? We are not afraid are we? And we can walk home all by ourselves."
"Yes?" Eik replied doubtfully.
“Of course!” said I.
“Of course!” was the proud echo.
Funny: baby he still was; yet I was not afraid because he was with me. He looked up to me so much. He was so little ... so innocent... and so brave. Nothing wrong would want to happen to him. And that followed, that no evil could befall me since that would mean that something wrong would happen to him. That was Confidence!
Taking Eik's extended hand; I picked up my bag from the side of the dusty road where the taxi driver had hurriedly dropped it. It was not at all heavy. I liked that. I hated carrying things and mama knew it. So, she had packed in just the cake she baked special for us ... and the biscuits ... and the chin-chin ... and the “this” ... and the “that” ... until I protested that Eik would have to do the carrying, if he was so keen to take home the whole Ecumenical College.
We began to walk.
Past the Catholic Church dimly glowing about four hundred meters away from the road, behind a big open field.... There must have been something going on there.
Past the side road which led to the relatives. As we did, the temptation came again to call on them to walk us home.
This disappeared as fast. For even though everything in that direction looked like one solid impenetrable block, with a faint indication where the sky would be, the Protestant church was quite close ahead. We only had to go past it, turn the comer, overcome the short stretch of Ajo-ofia, and wham! There would be the junction of Umuilemorji!
So we walked on.
We turned the comer after the Protestant church and rammed straight into ebony blindness. There was no sky here; nothing to be seen but coldness.
I had never until then, been aware that I had eyes ... that I was only eyes… eyes without a body. Eyes - who could only be a projection of the soul!
It was an unearthly heady feeling that overtook me. I was weightless. And even though I could not feel my body, awareness was over me that those eyes that were observing me … saw me. They knew all about me from my inside out; in my entirety.
And there were those in the darkness, looking at me… eyes, or rather souls, studying me. But as I turned in the direction of the uncanny observation - as one would do to catch the penetrating look of an observer across a room or a street - I met nothing; nothing but pitch darkness.
And it was not just one observer out there, but several!
Should I have panicked? Was I to?
I saw me from outside of me ... from above me. I was looking at me; how my legs were moving so fast they were barely touching the ground. It was a wonder how they knew what direction to go; how to remain on the beaten road. I was looking at my heart hurting badly - thumping so loud - jumping so fast - ever so high - as it threatened to break out for freedom through the roof of its cage - into my mouth.
I was in panic.
But wait! Was that not Ilem Orji among the observers? There was also Maduekesi; and beside him, grandfather Iloputaife. And my father was there. He was reported as "missing" in Lagos, but here he was all along in Enugu-Inyi - amongst the ancestors. Amongst those who I never met because they had passed on, long before I came along.
Yes. You see: - they were all there. So they must have known all about us. My father Afordiegwu was sure to have told them that we were family - that is: if they did not know that already by themselves. M-hum! I could feel the warm envelope of their protection.
I saw Warmth chase away Coldness. I heard the crickets in Applause. Nothing could ever happen to me. Nothing! Ever!
I felt my clutch on Eik's hand, that I had it too tight. I let loose; and squeezed it.
Yes. Eik was also there. He was like me. I was like him. All was okay. Nothing wrong can ever happen to us!
I could see deep blue peeping from above - beyond the blackness. And I knew. We were out of Ajo-ofia.
I saw a blink. ... I had been looking into your eyes.
Life is an elusive illusion, and all in it is a reflection of the "I".
Illusion being a projection of a hypothetical reality: the "I" self.
Therefore Fear - personified in "Strange Encounter with the Ancestors" - is an elusive reflection of this self.
At face to face confrontation with Fear, emerges the clown or avoidance syndrome. The temptation to hide behind the trusted living relatives and friends whose presence and accompanying light would scare away evil in the dark.
Cornered, the "I" - in quest for anonymity - wears the various faces of Fear: - the caricature syndrome. The incapacitated senses - the eyes which strain to see in total darkness undergo monstrous transformations. They "see" the appraising hostile observer, who eventually becomes overwhelming through progressive multiplication in number, might and aggression.
The last defense mechanisms - the hide and hit syndrome - then switch on. The unknown but trusted, the god, the ancestor, the hero spirits: figures, as abstract as the object of Fear itself - are conjured up as weapon and shield against the "spirits" of Fear.
Only at the moment of nakedness - when the masquerading is over and the "I" admits the "Fear" - comes the realization that "Fear" and the "I" self are one and the same: illusions.