PALM WINE WAHALA
It was the Sunday preceding the one on which he would hold his valedictory church service with its accompanying heart-lifting sermon that something which had been heard as a rumor for several weeks throughout Alaocha community was confirmed. That was the transfer of Pastor Solomon to the headquarters of his church. Some members of the congregation believed that Pastor Solomon’s movement to the headquarters was by design. He was being prepared to be in charge of the church as senior pastor since the incumbent was due for voluntary retirement. The incumbent Senior Pastor Michael came from a distant town and his wives and children as well as his kinsmen had been urging him to return primarily to solve the problems he created in his family; hence his voluntary retirement. He was close upon sixty years with a Bishop-like stature. A story was told that he painstakingly concealed his polygamous status and never allowed visits to his station by any of the three wives. Visits were made by only the children who he readily introduced to the members of the church whenever they came. The fact that they never looked alike did not perturb him since a child can either have much of his father or mother in him. In his own case he could easily explain away the varying complexion of his visiting children. “This one took after his mother because the mother is fair in complexion”, he would always say. Senior Pastor Michael’s concealment of his polygamous status was for obvious reasons. He was usually fiery in his condemnation of unchristian acts among Christians including polygamy. Although in his case, he could not help it because he married the three wives before he answered the call to serve in the Lord’s vineyard. He had worked for many years in the colonial civil service of his province before he withdrew his service. “Let me tell you”, he would always say to the congregation from the pulpit, “Polygamy indicates nothing but over indulgence and insatiability with its attendant worries and problems”. The headache that goes with more than one wife and many children was already getting on Pastor Michael’s nerves. He would ask two of the wives to go. But would that be fair even now that he was about retiring? Perhaps the women would think he was joking and they would throw it back to him by asking him to make them as they were before they got married to him.
It was a difficult decision for senior Pastor Michael to take over the dismissal of two of his three wives. He had discussed the matter with his kinsmen most of whom objected to the decision. If opposition had only come from his kinsmen some of whom are traditionalists or amala, he would have gone ahead with his decision but the children, particularly the boys, threatened their father with machetes and clubs if he ever carried out his decision. The amala kicked against his decision because to them it did not matter how many wives a man had. As far as they were concerned, the more the number of wives a man had the greater the respect he commanded, the richer he was and above all, the better the man fed since he would have many pots from which to eat. Whereas the man with only one wife would reject the wife’s food and be ready to accept the least plea from the wife to eat, the man with more than one wife would always reject food from the offending wife with finality. This is one of the advantages a polygamist enjoyed. Amala, when they died, were not taken to the church and members of the church did not take part in burying them. They did not believe in the Christian God or the trinity. Most of them however believed there was a creator who made heaven and earth. This manifests when they poured libation. In addition to involving the spirits of their ancestors, they called on the maker of heaven and earth to intervene in whatever matter the libation was being poured for. Their funerals were marked with more ceremonies and fanfare than those of Christians. There were always cows and goats to slaughter in some cases particularly when titled ones among them breathed their last. They were sometimes buried with live human beings. Such burials usually took place in the midnight. The reason was that the titled amala should not go to the land of the spirits to suffer by themselves. They were given somebody to minister to their needs. Those of them who took many titles during their lifetime or came home with human heads from inter-village wars usually joined their ancestors with more than one person. There would be festivities climaxing in the ese-ike music danced to by only those whose fathers were no longer living. Anybody whose father was alive and who proceeded to dance to the ese-ike music would be prepared for the father’s funeral sooner than later or he himself would die. Ese-ike, as the name suggests, is full of vibrancy and is a dance for men of valor. It is usually lively and performed on top of a platform made of bamboos firmly tied like rafters on strong fork-stick. Its equivalent for women is uko. Uko is strictly for women who do not go to church. A woman had to die very old to deserve uko music. It was on this five-feet-high platform that the ese-ike performers sat comfortably while their hands moved from one instrument to another. The man who played the six tiny talking leather drums was usually the cynosure of all eyes. With the small leather drums, the man could call anybody by name and ask questions. With regard to placing of cowries on the fore-heads of the music-makers by on-lookers, it was the man playing the talking drum that raked in the biggest amount of money, since most people would like to show appreciation for what he did with two short sticks on the talking leather drums. With the short sticks he struck the talking leather drums to produce all kinds of tones, some high and some low. The peak of the ese-ike dance is the point when the chief mourner names what he considers to be his late father’s achievements. The talking drum asks a question three times and on each occasion, the first son of the amala whose funeral is being held boasts of an achievement different from the one he had earlier mentioned. It is best done by braggarts.
This is followed immediately by the slaughtering of the funeral goat. The goat is to be killed single-handedly by the first son. Nobody lends him any helping hand. And the legs of the goat are not tied except the rope around the neck with which it is held by the killer while he is dancing to the melodious, fast and moving tune of ese-ike. It is at such ceremony that those who are men indeed are known. The goat has to be killed instantly. Anything short of this shows that the first son is lily-livered, lacks brawn and above all, is not the true son of the man he calls his father. This is because men at whose funerals ese-ike features are usually men of substance and great achievers. A story is told of a braggart, Obidike of Umunta village in Alaocha who has ever since remained silent and cool-headed. His level-headedness was sequel to his inability to kill his father’s funeral goat. Obidike had boasted a few days before the funeral of his father that he would completely cut off the head of the goat from its body at the very first stroke on the poor beast’s neck with his very sharp matchet. He had used four long days to sharpen the matchet with salt. That was even before the he-goat was brought. Obidike had no patience with such men who had to cut and cut with eyes bulging and teeth clenched firmly and in the end, they just managed to kill the goat while sweating profusely. He would ridicule and jeer at them. He often grudged them the usual showering of cowries by excited on-lookers which spontaneously greet such feet. Obidike always contended that most women would cut the throat of a goat if given the opportunity. “…men that are men in word and in deed will always act like lightening when it comes to the slaughtering of funeral goats with the ese-ike music in the background and before one blinks the eye-lids, the beast is already sprawling on the ground in a pool of its own blood”. When the first son kills such a goat in that manner, his kinsmen usually rush to snatch the sharp matchet from him lest he becomes frenzied at the sight of blood. When he is in frenzy, the nearest on-looker becomes a casualty. It, however, seldom occurs.
The stage was set and the ese-ike music was all that could be heard in the whole Ewulonu’s compound for that was Obidike’s grandfather’s name which had been adopted as the family name. The crowd was ready to watch the most thrilling part of the funeral of an amala. The ese-ike performers had brought out their best as could be seen on their faces. While some had beads of perspiration on their foreheads, others kept their mouths agape closing them occasionally as if they were murmuring a tune. Of the eight music performers, it was only one that his idiosyncrasy was to shut his eyes when carried away body and soul by music. He was Echefu and he played the wooden gong. It was this wooden gong and the six talking leather drums that said all there was to say in ese-ike with regard to name calling and showering of praises. It was at this juncture that the wooden gong indicated that the round of music was about ending giving way to the talking drums to do the rest. It was time to ask Obidike of his father’s solid personal achievements.
“Obidike”, “Obidike”, “Obidike”, the talking drums called.
“Pwee !”, answered Obidike amidst the ovation from the crowd caused by way of music was rhythmically brought to an end before the tiny talking drums took over and started their inquiry into the achievements of the deceased. That was the most breath-taking aspect of the dance. Most of the on-lookers who would want to hear what Obidike would answer shouted at those making a noise to be silent. They surged forward to catch a glimpse of Obidike the braggart, who was by then completely encircled by men, women and children. The ceremony was for everybody who cared to watch unlike certain masquerades which must not be watched by women. There was no gaze that was regarded as profane as far as ese-ike music dance was concerned.
“Obidike, Obidike, Obidike”, the talking drums called again, this time adding his grandfather’s name, Ewulonu. His own father’s name was Akudike.
“Akudike, o mere gini, o mere gini?” the leather talking drums asked, meaning: “What did Akudike do during his life time?” Everybody held their breath. The funeral ceremony was reaching a crescendo. “Please ask that question again”, Obidike made the request for effect. There was still some noise among the sea of heads that had gathered to watch ceremony. He was waiting for a time when there would be absolute silence in the crowd so that everybody would hear boast. For unnecessarily delaying the answers to the first question, Obidike was ordered by the man playing the talking leather drums to drop some cowries which he did without waste of time, making sure the cowries fell on the rafters on which the music makers were sitting. The talking leather drums player who gave the order with the drums beamed with a smile which did not last long and nodded in approval. He used the interval to drive further in the tiny pieces of the other instrument sustained the music.
“Obidike Ewulonu, nna gi o mere gini? O mere gini? The drums again asked about Akudike’s solid personal achievements. Obidike then boasted “My father Akudike was able to prove that he was a man of valor. He went to wars between our community, Alaocha and other communities and came back with many human heads. Go to that obi, (pointing with the matchet in his hand) and count about ten smoked human skulls hanging from the rafters”. The crowd roared in appreciation of the precise way Obidike put his first account of one of his father’s daring achievements. As soon as he shut his mouth, the ese-ike music started once again and Obidike began dancing with his well sharpened matchet in its sheath. Sometimes he would pull it out from the sheath and brandish. Others, whose fathers were no more, joined in the manly and energetic dance. Some came with their matchets while others held up their walking sticks instead. They had scarcely danced for about ten minutes when the music abruptly but dramatically ended. The inquiry had to start again.
“Obidike, Obidike, Obidike”, the talking leather drums called again, “Nna gi omere gini” “Nna gi Akudike, o mere gini?” Again Obidike cleared his throat and once again boasted: “My father, a polygamist, was able to snatch seven women from their husbands. These aggrieved men accosted him over their wives’ desertion and did not know that it was their wives they should blame and not Akudike, the lion-hearted. Two of the men were beaten up when they accosted him on the way while three were dealt with when they came to his obi and molested him. On the whole the eleven wives my father Akudike married bore him many children. You don’t count children in our land. Now have a look at those behind me”. This remark attracted a long applause from the spectators who equally laughed because of the stupidity/idiocy of the five men who dared challenge Akudike over their wives desertion. “The other two acted wisely”, contended some voices in the crowd. “Is it not said that the weak safe-guards both his life and that of the brave by declining to fight when challenged”, some argued. “One might call it cowardice on the part of the part of the two men who did not bother to find out the whereabouts of their wives but all we know is that they are wise”.
When eventually the talking drums called on Obidike to talk about his late father’s third and final biggest achievement, he boasted “Although I said initially that my father, Akudike, killed men during wars, he equally saved many lives. He was not an herbalist but he saved lives with a rare shrub and bark of trees which he collected from the bush for people suffering from a stomach ailment that could cause the twisting of the small intestines which more often than not, resulted in death. Yes. Akudike, my father, handed this medicine out to sick people free of charge. He was compassionate and meek to a fault when it came to helping the sick but when a fellow man with scrotum as he had bestrode the threshold and said Akudike would not pass; he proved he was actually lion-hearted”.
The deafening applause and laughter that accompanied this was later to be drowned by the ese-ike music which was followed up by the slaughtering of the funeral goat. Many people danced with their matchets in their sheaths as well as with their walking sticks held high. And then came the long-awaited climax of the funeral ceremony. It was usually an anxiety-laden moment. Relations of the first son who did the slaughtering of the funeral goat remained tensed up throughout the period until the goat breathed its last. If it was possible, the head of the goat was severed from the body and held high by the killer for all to see how manly he was and how instantly he could slash life out of an animal which was breathing when he blinked the eye-lids a moment earlier. Any woman-like handling of the killing of the funeral goat not only brought shame to the first son but also to the entire family and the kindred. The fellow who failed to kill the goat could no longer command respect especially whenever he stood up to talk before his kinsmen. He was always hushed down by even those junior to him by many years.
Moreover many believed there was something ominous about failure to kill such animal between the time the well-sharpened matchet came in contact with its throat and the blinking of the eye-lids. In any case, there was penalty for such womanish act in some communities including Alaocha. Akudike’s son, Obidike the braggart, was under pressure because he knew that it was when it came to matter of words that he could impress anybody but when it came to the use of brawn he failed. The fear of failure gripped him as the ese-ike music prepared him for the feat. To many a serious-minded strong man there was not much to worry about the slaughtering of the funeral goat. But for the people like Obidike there was too much to worry about because of his inadequacies when it came to showing manliness. Matchets were so heavy in the hands of Obidike that he never cut anything on the farm without panting or gasping for breath. There was too much of his mother in him. He did not like farming and other tedious work. When the stage was set for slaughtering of the funeral goat, Obidike drew out his well sharpened matchet from its sheath and brandished it for a while after which he went and untied the nanny-goat holding it by rope round its neck with which it was tethered to an orange tree in the compound. In the background, the ese-ike music filled the air. Every eye followed Obidike as he dragged the unwilling she-goat to the sandy approach to the compound. Then he tried holding it in position. He tried two possible positions and was about trying the third position when certain voices came from the crowd, some advising him on how best to hold the goat as his manhood was put to test. They derogatorily reminded him that it was one thing to boast all day long and an entirely different thing to do or carry out manly acts like slaughtering a funeral goat before a sea of heads all directing their gaze at one object. It was amidst this confusion that Obidike lowered his matchet yet holding the goat loosely. And as he did this, a middle-aged man shouted from the crowd. Obidike brought his matchet down on the nanny-goat’s neck but could not severe the animal’s head, resulting in anti-climax.
A first son loses the money sympathizers would have showered on him if the goat was not slaughtered immediately after the burial. If in the course of his waiting to get the money to buy a funeral goat for his late father, the first son equally loses his mother, he must not kill a goat for his mother until he kills one for his late father. He can kill two goats at the mother’s funeral, the first one to be killed being for his late father who died earlier. What he dares not do while he waited to procure a goat for his late father or mother is to eat the meat of the funeral goat elsewhere. If the first son of the deceased on whose shoulders rests the responsibility to kill the funeral goat is so foolhardy to partake of such meat somewhere when he has not made good his pledge to his late father, the result is death. There are no two ways about it. His late father will visit him and show him that he incurred his wrath by striking him dead. This is usually the fate that befalls first sons who find meat of goats irresistible. That was precisely what claimed the life of a great wrestler in the community. Ikeri was his name. When his father died some years ago, Ikeri told his kinsmen that he intended to use one of his newly-born goats for the funeral goat when it grew up. The decision by the great wrestler did not go down well with his kinsmen but there was nothing they could do about it since it was not compulsory that a funeral goat must be slaughtered on the day the burial took place. Ikeri could afford to buy a big goat for his father’s funeral but refused to do so because he argued that there was no need for him to spend money to buy a goat when his only she-goat had given birth to two kids which will grow up in a few months. In the interval, Ikeri kept away from funeral ceremonies lest he partook of either the meat of a funeral goat or food prepared with it. He knew he was gluttonous. But one day a prominent man died in his community. The children of the man who was a local chief announced that they would kill a cow for their late father, in addition to the funeral goat. On hearing this, Ikeri decided he would be at the man’s funeral. “Would avoid any goat meat and eat only beef and chicken”, he said to himself. Little did he know that his gluttony would soon cause his demise. At the funeral of the local chief, there was plenty to eat and drink. Ikeri was occupying one of the front seats among the sympathizers. From his vantage position, he was served everything that was prepared for the funeral: oil-bean salad, meat, yam, foo-foo, palm-wine. He drank and drank to the extent that he could no longer tell goat meat from beef. In the tipsy mood he was, he ate every meat that came his way. By that mistake, Ikeri had proved he was an irresponsible and uncaring son who could sell his birth-right for a mess of porridge. He had to pay the price. Two days later, he went to bed but did not wake up again.
In the morning the news of the death of the great wrestler was received with shock and disbelief throughout his village and beyond. ‘Was Ikeri not the man we saw occupying a front seat at the funeral of the local chief two days ago?” many people asked. But when the reason for his death was known, most people said it served him right because a man was not supposed to be gluttonous; a woman could be.
The valedictory church service was well attended with every space on the well-swept floor of the church building occupied. The church service had two purposes. The first purpose was to enable the out-going Pastor Solomon express gratitude to all the active members of the church while the second was to introduce the new Pastor Moses who was to step into the shoes of the outgoing pastor. To most members of the church present, the latter was what attracted them and not the usual “thank you” sermon delivered by the priests who had come to the end of their pastoral work at a given parish or station. It was a “well-known fact” to the congregation that more often than not out-going priests used the opportunity offered by their valedictory sermons to lash out at them in areas where they fail short of expectation and shower praises on them where they deserved commendation. In extreme cases some priests had mentioned names of those whose “sins” were greater than those of others and so needed to be exposed. It was a belief among members of the church that it was the priest who did not get the number of fowls and yam tubers they expected through personal thanksgiving by members of the church who were usually hard on them in the end. But those whose tenures witness an increase in personal thanksgiving often raise their thumbs for members of the church since such booms means plenty of fowls and yam tubers for the priest. “Is it not stated in the Holy Book that those who work in the Lord’s vineyard should enjoy some of the benefits such service entails?”, some of the priests occasionally ask in defense of various gifts they collect at the end of the services at which as many as four or five families offered thanksgiving after counting their blessings. And so before the last tolling of the bell, the inside of the rectangular-shaped church was already filled to capacity. Outside, at the bases of the posts of the three doors to the church, were coco-yams and plantain leaves of various sizes and shapes with which most of the church members came to service because it was drizzling that morning. Those who could not enter into the wet bushes around to cut coco-yam leaves came with thatches that they held over their heads. It only one umbrella that was seen and it was brought by a member who a Kotima in the colonial defense corps. He fought in the white man’s wars and was home to select a girl to marry before he would go back to the barracks. The reason for the sudden piety among members of the church with regard to attendance was that people could not afford to be told how the out-going priest either showered praises on the church members or chastised them with his tongue. And of the in-coming priest, they must not be told what he looked like. They had to be present at his first outing to size him up. Was he tall or short, good-looking or ugly? The way he looked would make them deduce if he was going to be kind-hearted and approachable, or wicked and unapproachable. If he was short, then he was hot-tempered and unapproachable because it was said that short persons always felt cheated. If he was scraggy and lean, he was wicked because it was constant ill-feelings that wore him out no matter what he ate. If he was fat, he was a jolly good fellow who would be long-suffering; his type would, however, frown at the giving of the lowest denomination of cowries during church offerings. Such were the types of assessment every member of the church would make of the new priest so that they would know early enough how to get along with them before they mount the pulpit for their first sermons.
Contrary to their expectations, the out-going Pastor Solomon was not hard on the congregation in his valedictory sermon. The sermon was a mixture of praises and criticisms. He commended the members of the church in areas where they deserved a pat on their backs but did not spare them where they performed below expectations. Because he took a long time in reviewing the over-all performance of the church members, Pastor Solomon nearly forgot an equally essential part of his early remarks in his sermon. That was the introduction of his successor, Pastor Moses, and the stressing of the need to make his onerous work in the Lord’s vineyard easy through cooperation. In the course of his sermon, Pastor Solomon did what he never liked doing as he had made known several times in the past. He singled out certain individuals and groups for either commendation or rebuke.
It was at this juncture that he began talking about the successor. “In our midst this morning is Pastor Moses, my good friend and colleague in the Lord’s vineyard’. As soon as the new Pastor Moses’ name was mentioned, he became the cynosure of all eyes with every member of the congregation stretching his neck to catch a glimpse of the new pastor as though they had not known he had been sitting complacently on one of the arm chairs at the altar. In front of him was a small table with light blue cloth spread on it. Some members of the congregation at the rear could not help getting up briskly to have a quick look at the new pastor whose profile had hitherto been the much most members of the congregation had seen of him. As soon as the out-going Pastor Solomon begun the introduction, Pastor Moses turned and faced the congregation. His predecessor thanked him and formally welcomed him to Alaocha parish.
After dwelling a little bit more on the need for them to join hands with the new pastor to ensure the growth of the church, Pastor Solomon quickly rounded off his sermon with a short prayer, “May God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost be with you and strengthen you so that you can carry on with the spreading of the gospel in Jesus name”…”Amen”, the congregation responded as Pastor Solomon stepped away from the pulpit which was followed by a chorus from the choir.
Thereafter, the congregation either danced or nodded their heads as they walked up to the altar to drop either a cowry or two in a medium-sized basket the inside of which was covered with a piece of cloth.
On their way home from the church later at the end of the service, three members of the church like many others discussed what manner of person the new pastor could be. To Maduforo whose baptismal name was Philip, the new pastor would be strict and would never be as permissive as the out-going one. ”I say this because he looks very lean. And this is because he does not eat a lot or drink”. But to Ohanu and Alaribe whose baptismal names were Andrew and Simeon respectively, somebody’s outward appearance could sometimes be deceptive. “I have seen a fat man who is very wicked”, said Ohanu.
“This is true”, Alaribe agreed. “A typical example is the pastor at Abala parish. You need to listen to members of that church tell stories about him”. Each of the three men held different views with regard to the new pastor’s style and attitude towards church activities. They were baptized as adults a few years back. While they were considering the names they would answer, each made sure that he chose a name that could be found somewhere in the bible. “As long as it is not Judas Iscariot, any other name in the bible is good for me”, Maduforo told the catechist the day he went to the pastor to ask him to help choose a name for him. Because they were baptized when they were close to fifty or sixty years, their vernacular names which their parents gave them were what they were called by many. In fact, it was only within church circles that they were referred to as Philip, Andrew and Simeon. One of such occasions was the roll-call for payment of stewardship and other fees accruable to the church. During such roll-calls, many would wonder who had what English names.
Before they parted ways as they approached the roads leading to their respective villages, Philip, Andrew and Simeon discussed other issues particularly events that took place in the villages. One of such recent events was the inability of Obidike to slaughter the funeral goat for his father, Akudike. “It is unbelievable that Obidike with his boasting could not slaughter a funeral goat which many men or even boys in their teens kill with ease”, Philip remarked. “Was it not last year that the young son of Echefu who is still in his teens neatly and effortlessly silenced the funeral goat for his father just the way such goats are usually killed”.
“It is even good it happened that way”, remarked Andrew. “It is a big shame that will certainly make Obidike not to be swollen-headed any more”, he concluded. “But why did he not hang himself in shame or run away to his maternal home?” asked Simeon. “Many a man will take either of the two actions”. “No, hanging oneself because of one’s inability to kill a funeral goat is going to the extreme”, contended Philip.
“Describe it in whatever way you choose. But if I were him, I would not mind taking my life. It is said that the disgrace suffered by a wealthy man is much more than a situation where he is killed outright”, argued Andrew. “The only thing is that I thank God because I am a church member and my father who never went to church died when I was a toddler according to my mother, although I’m the first son”.
“The who killed the funeral goat for your father?’, asked Simeon. “One of my uncles did. I was told that although he had slaughtered the goat in cold blood, he came to where I sat and made me touch the blood-stained matchet”, explained Andrew. “By making you touch the blood-stained matchet, that means you did the killing”, contended Philip.
“No” countered Andrew. “That is what it means since you could not handle a matchet because you were a toddler”. “But my mother did not tell me so”. “It was not your mother who should tell you things. It may well be she did not know. What do women know about our culture after all?”
At this juncture, Simeon cut in to suggest that running away to one’s maternal home and coming back after several months or years was better than hanging oneself for something that was merely ominous. But as the argument continued, Simeon cleared his throat and started telling the a story of Ohamadike who hanged himself for the same reason in far away village of Umuoka. According to Ohamadike himself, it was better he ended it all than go about with head bowed in shame after answering his kind of name which suggested prowess. It was on a big pear tree in front of the family obi that his body was found hanging. He had taken his life two days after while everybody in the compound was fast asleep. His young wife knew when he opened the door and went out but she did not have the least premonition about the suicide and never suspected her husband because of his habit of going out regularly in the wee hours of the night to urinate. This made her believe he was going to ease himself.
The pear tree was later to be felled because its fruit had been made unwholesome by that singular act of suicide on the tree.
The church service the following Sunday was as well attended as the previous one. The congregation also defied the morning rain to be at the service, for that was in the heart of the rainy season. There was no gain-saying the fact that except the devoted ones, the rest had come to see and to hear the new priest from the pulpit as that was the first time he would conduct a church service in his new station. It was a special service at which the choristers sang as they had never sung before for a long time except on the day the founder of the church came to open its thirteenth assembly holding at Alaocha parish. The founder was accompanied by many members of the church from far and near. That day he performed the opening ceremonies of the three-day assembly.
The choristers sang all the songs they knew including the new ones they had learnt because of the coming of the revered visitor. It was the agile and left-handed choir-master who stole the show. The left hand with which he held the choir-master’s stick made his two hands move like lightening from one extreme of the choristers’ bamboo benches to the other and from the front row to the rear. At the rear the grown up boys in the choir sang with enlarged necks as an aggrieved snake and the bulging eyes in their effort to ensure that there was bass in the songs. At the end of it all, it was to the short slim choir-master all the praises went. One of those who handled the instruments also stole the show for he played the big metal gong the way he never did before with the result that he sweated profusely in spite of the fact that the ceremony was held outdoors. As usual with pastors’ conduct of maiden church services in their new parishes, there was special thanksgiving during which the congregation both
old and young, men and women, danced to the alter to drop cowries in a big basket placed on a stool in front of the alter. Unlike in harvest thanksgiving, members of the congregation would go only once so there was no need for them to change their money into smaller denominations in order to be able to go to the alter as many times as one was moved by the songs.
Whatever was realized offering would be handed over to the new pastor as inconvenience allowance to enable him and his family to settle down. As for his household belongings, some able-bodied members of the church had to go on foot to his old station and bring them down carrying them on their heads. What remained was brought back on a bicycle. Throughout the land, it was only the pastor and the headmaster of the primary school in the town who owned bicycle. The pastor and his wife had been brought together with the pastor sitting on the carriage while his wife sat on cross-bar. With three persons on a bicycle the likelihood of their falling down at certain points would be there especially on sandy portions of the road. The bicycle was ridden by an able-bodied middle aged man who had learnt how to ride the bicycle early in life many years before in a city in the western part of the country where he spent a greater part of his life plucking cocoa for cocoa-farmers. He learnt how to ride bicycle by hiring eriente a small bicycle with any money that came his way as a boy. He could ride the bicycle lying with his belly on the saddle or placing one of his legs on the handle bars or even squatting on the saddle. He often displayed his skill for people to see.
For one cowry one would collect any of the small bicycles displayed by the owner and ride it for up to thirty minutes. With two cowries one would enjoy such a ride for an hour. Usually the owner of such small bicycle for hire who was engaged in one trade or another, kept a table-clock in their bicycles with which they timed the hirers. The bulk of them were bicycle repairers. If any hirer over-stayed the period he paid for, he was surcharged when he came back. People who often over-stayed were those who rode long distances with the bicycle on important errands, or even for pleasure. Such persons could not walk on foot to their destinations. So they usually guess how long it will take them to reach their destinations and come back, and then pay the appropriate fee for bicycle hire. There were of course, some boys who liked riding on bicycles for pleasure.
The bicycle hire service was also popular with senior secondary school boys in the cities where there were also motor-cars. It is their pastime. After they had come back from school and had their lunch, they would go to any of the shades of the bicycle repairers to deposit up wards of three cowries. With such payment, the hirer selected one mini-bicycle and ensured he neither over-stayed nor fell down. If one carelessly fell down, one quickly lifted the bicycle and checked whether it had a dent somewhere or whether the chain had been forced out of the sprocket. If it had, the rider would try to mend the dented part or get prepared to pay the cost of repairs if the owner knew about it. But if the problem was with chain, the rider quickly put it back on the sprocket. The bulk of such bicycles belonged to bicycle repairers and this made their repair easy.
While Williams, for that was his name, was conveying the new pastor and his wife to their new station, in his mind he went back to the days when the white missionaries were everywhere. In those days, when a white pastor was going on transfer, he was carried on a hammock by able-bodied members of the parish he was leaving. Half-way to the destination, able-bodied men from the new parish took over the assignment from members of the old parish, and concluded he usually long and wearisome journey. To the men who carried the missionary, it was a thing of honor and joy to be among those selected to fetch the white man and his property, the Whiteman hardly came with wives. Their property usually comprised their portmanteaux in which were stacked their clothes, ties, shoes, stockings and helmets as well as hats.
They never took away any item of furniture or other household property. This was because such household property belonged to the mission. A missionary went on transfer to start using the property left behind by his predecessor. The task of conveying them to their new stations was made easier because the white missionaries never came with their children either. They only came alone and had cooks and stewards trained in the mission’s vocational centre at Ama-oji. The area where the centre was located derived its name from a tall old Iroko tree there which could be seen within two kilometer radius.
When eventually the new pastor mounted the pulpit, he spoke about his pleasure in being posted to Alaocha parish, and how he worked so assiduously at his immediate former parish that he endeared himself to the people. He stressed that “my aim in working very hard wherever I find myself is so that members of any parish I am leaving will miss me immensely… I’m sure that whenever it pleases the Almighty God I serve that his humble servant should be posted out of this new parish, you will miss me and wish I come back. Some of you may even come knocking on my door with gifts thinking it is my own making”. In reaction to this last remark, the congregation roared with murmuring; some whispering to others that the pastor had already started soliciting for fowls and yam tubers.
“Some of you must be thinking that I am asking for gifts already”, the pastor quickly defended. “Far from that. But am telling you what actually happened in my last station. Some members of the church came to me with fowls and tubers of yam and goats pleading with me to rescind my decision to go on transfer but I told them I was not responsible for the transfer. It was at the behest of the church headquarters.
With a few admonitions, the pastor rounded off his brief but fiery maiden sermon. His reason for making it brief was that he did not want to be dubbed “a long preacher” from the outset as was the case at his subsequent sermons. Fiery long sermons had come to be Pastor Moses’ trademark.
There were those who liked him for that and they were the people referred to by other member of the church as bigots. A good number of them were widows who were often oppressed by the kinsmen of their late husband and so needed some words of comfort. And there were yet many other members of the church who were looking for an opportunity to look him in the face and tell him his long stay in the pulpit was getting on their nerves. A majority of this group were men who would want to go and tap the afternoon round of their raffia-palm and palm trees while others would like to attend social activities taking place at several venues and partake of palm wine served at such occasion. That was the case at his former parishes.
There were many social men in this Alaocha parish who liked going out. Often they cherished going out in pairs. Ajilo and Iwuji were such two-some. Any drinking spree where there was one without the other needed not have taken place at all; though the one present would drink but without relish. Ajilo and Iwuji came from neighboring villages but one seldom drank even in his house without the other. It got to a stage where either Ajilo or Iwuji would send for the other on getting a calabash of palm wine so that they drink together amidst occasional outbursts of laughter arising from the stories of their exploits in their hey-days. Sometimes their discussions at such drinking sprees centered on church activities with particular reference to their membership of the church committee and any past sermon in which palm wine drinking was condemned. They never took kindly to such condemnation. That was why they heaved a sigh of relief when in the new pastor’s maiden sermon, he made no mention of alcohol drinking. The pastor who was ushered out of the pulpit with special song by the choir was yet to unfold his package of “dos” and “don’ts” as could be deduced from his fiery maiden sermons.
Later, members of the church were informed of the death of the senior Pastor Michael after he reached home. It was from him Pastor Solomon took over. According to the sad story which sent cold shivers down the spines of church members, the children from two of his wives had carried out the threat to matchet and club their father to death if he dared send their mothers packing. The pastor who took over from Pastor Solomon broke the
unpleasant news. It was then that the members of the church knew that the man who presided over all church activities in their parish for some years was polygamist who to a large extent preached one thing and did another.
It was at his next church service that Pastor Moses told the congregation that he was authoritative and was not going to allow certain conduct and habit among the members of the church.”I am not going to be permissive like some of my predecessors”, he warned the congregation. The “don’ts” were rather gradual in coming. He pronounced them as they came to mind. Each church service brought new dos and don’ts which included a ban on taking part in the funeral ceremony of an amala and partaking of food and drinks served at such funeral ceremonies. “You shall not go near the venue of such heathenish ceremony not to talk of dancing to ese-ike music with the satanic brandishing of matchets and firing of dane guns as well as canon shots that go with it. The other day at the place from where I came, one of the eyes of ese-ike dancer was inadvertently plucked out by another dancer and yet in another village an ese-ike dancer mistakenly touched the trigger of his dane gun and the bullet hit another dancer in the shoulder. He bled to death soon after. Canon shots are known to have sprung up and hit on-lookers. You see why it is not good and should not be encouraged besides the fact that it is repugnant to God’s ordinances. God resents it. Some of the time, it is canon shot at such funeral ceremonies that also kills or maims on-lookers. Such practices must stop”, the pastor warned with finality.
He was swiftly reacting to reports he got a few days after his arrival that some members of the church attended the funeral ceremony of an amala, Akudike, the father of Obidike. “I don’t like ex-communicating people but if it is the only way out, then I don’t mind doing precisely that”, he vehemently cautioned. This warning attracted a prolonged loud murmuring from the congregation who obviously did not welcome the idea of ex-communication. It was a long time such a drastic measure was taken in the parish. It was last done in the era of one of the strict pastors who had served in a church at the neighboring community and the axe fell on Akujo who immediately changed over to a different church and had since refused to come back to his former church even after the pastor had gone on transfer. He had always told the members of his former church who had come prevailing on him to come back that he had found peace of mind and equity with regard to the financial involvement being a member of his new church. In his new church, Akujo would tell any member of former church who cared to listen, that there was not much to pay by way of levies. Akujo, “the expert”, was best known for his unequal skill in climbing palm trees and cutting down palm fruits. He was actually an expert in many other things including sweet tongue to convince widows to be friends with him and keep the money they would have paid him for cutting down palm fruits for them. It was his ignoble amorous affairs with widows which earned him ex-communication from the church. He was however good at helping to keep the church compound clean. Akujo Onwumere did not marry until he died in his sixties but there was undisputable resemblance between him and many children in the village and beyond. That was how church members came to believe his affair with widows in the village. His defense always was that widows needed help from people like him but he could not explain whether he was actually helping them by increasing the number of their children.
At the end of the service some members of the church with whom the ban on attendance of funeral services for amala did not go down with grudged home. They were not happy because of what they would miss at that kind of funeral service which more often than not, involved the slaughtering of many goats and fowl and sometimes cow. The sadness was more on those handful of female members of the church who were fond of knocking at the door of the pastor to tell him one story or another. Such holier-than-thou members often went to report on one type of errand or another on which they were sent by the church and at the end, they would feed the pastor with reports of who did what in the village. There were also some members, mainly women, who pass on their reports through the pastor’s wife. They would go either to help the pastor’s wife on the farm or in her household chores like shelling of melon. Shelling of melon provided ample opportunity for all kinds of idle talk since it is a sedentary chore and done for several hours especially when the quantity of melon is large. It was at such an occasion that stories of the misdeeds, misdemeanors and unfaithfulness of female church members and their husbands are told. With Obidiya whose baptismal name was Ruth, such reports normally started with laughter. Obidiya would laugh so heartily that anybody around would start asking her what the matter was and she would immediately start telling the story she had in mind. From one story she told another until she narrated all she had heard over a period.
Through this manner, Obidiya and a few other women like her made themselves object of hatred that were taken particular notice of at occasions because of stories they told about what church members did at social and cultural gatherings. For the reported erring church members, the use of violence of any sort in retaliation was prohibited because of obvious consequences which could take the form of ex-communication or suspension from the church committee if one was a member, or even banishment from receiving Holy Communion. To many serious-minded church members, each of these penalties carried a lot of weight. To a member of church committee, suspension from the committee meant missing all the goodies that came the way of members in the form of meat, oil-bean salad and palm wine usually brought by church members performing one church rite or the other. Such rites included baptism, confirmation, and admission into the church from another church , new members and in very rare cases, wedding. Women with whom their husbands wedded held their heads very high and they were called michichi by elderly persons, which was a bastardized word for “Mrs”. Before their wedding day, the michichi were sent for special training on how to manage homes. They learnt Home Economics/Management, including dress making, at the end of which their husbands bought hand-sewing machines for them. If a michichi prepare food especially for guests, it was very tasty. Consequently, they were often selected in the groups that prepared food for special guests during church activities like harvest, conventions and synods which attracted people from far and near. Even where they did not take active part in cooking, they played supervisory roles. They would determine at once the quantity of oil, salt, pepper, ogiri and other ingredients which would be enough for a pot of soup without any of these ingredients being in excess or too little. This baffled other women who would add these cooking ingredients over and over again until there was too much of one type or another in the food. This is what makes the untrained women to believe that a skill that one took time to learn is better than emergency skill acquired through the power of juju. In fact, to date, some of the villagers still remember with regret that at a food preparation exercise in which no michichi took part, there was too much salt and pepper in the soup prepared for guests. As a result of this, many guests who came for the general assembly of the church had runny stomach on getting home.
That was why it became a rule up till today that there must be a michichi whenever food is prepared for even the least church activities that would attract guests from other parishes of the church.
Iwuji it was who let Ajilo know of the ban placed by the pastor on the attendance of amala funeral ceremonies by the church members. Both men discussed that at Ajilo’s obi when Iwuji went to visit him. The ban did not go down well with the two of them just the way it did not go down well with some other members of the church. Their concern was the drinks they would miss at such funeral ceremonies.
The two men went on to discuss the quantity of the previous day’s palm wine left in a small calabash. Each had his drinking gourd. At the narrow bottom of the drinking gourds were leaves rolled into a small ball which was believed to serve multipurpose. The leaves changed the taste of the palm wine for the better especially when palm wine from raffia palm that is being tapped newly in which case the wine is sweet. While this kind of palm wine was the favorite of women and children, to most men it was capable of causing stomach upset. So the sugary taste of such palm wine had to be diluted a little but embittered with the leaves. The leaves also neutralized the power of any poison which might be served somebody in the palm wine. With the leaves on one’s drinking gourd, there was little or nothing to fear while drinking in public. That was precisely what saved Uwandu of Onini the day he drank palm wine at Orie-Usu market square. He never knew that someone served him along with the person for whom the poison was prepared. Uwandu was very close at the approach to his compound when he started vomiting.
It was at this poit that one of his two sons who was about to cut some grass for their goats saw him and called on his mother Azuanuka, who came running with two palm holding her breasts. It was not until she saw where her husband was squatting and the vomit which contained little blood that she raised an alarm, “They have killed my husband! They have killed my husband!” She kept screaming amidst sobs and tears. Azuanuka was soon joined in the wailing by the son who came running with a matchet in one hand and a rope in the other. With the rope he would have tied the grass he would cut for the goats. But the condition in which he found his father made him forget the grass and the goats for the time being and join his mother in shouting for help. The help did come immediately with men, women and children dashing towards the scene. It was the son’s piercing voice which attracted their village men and women. Everything about Osondu’s voice was remarkably different. At the age of seven, Osondu had a voice older than his age. When he spoke, his voice was so clear that were he old enough to address a crowd in a market, he would not need any form of amplification device to do so. The larger-than-life voice started manifesting when Osondu was a baby. He cried a lot.
It was not until Adiele came and helped move Uwandu into his obi that it was discovered that he drank palm wine. It smelt all over his body. Shortly after Uwandu was moved into his obi, he fell asleep on one of the two bamboo beds therein. On the other sat his wife, two sons, two daughters, and Adiele, as well as his other kinsmen. It was when he woke up latter in the evening that same day that he told his story and who he suspected had poisoned him. The poison had been sent to the drinking shed by a man with whom a customer who frequented the drinking shed had a land dispute over the years. However, the wine seller who was engaged to carry out the evil deed failed to clean the tip of his fore-finger where the poison was meant for. Five days later, a story was told that Uzondu the man with whom Uwandu drank a few days earlier had died after an unsuccessful battle to save his life at the house of a famous medicine man in a far away town, Dioka. The sad story was a shock to Uwandu. It was a narrow escape for him. But for the leaves in his drinking gourd, his case would have been as serious as Uzondu’s despite the fact that he partook very little of the poison. The leaves in his drinking gourd had reduced the power of the poison.
Another Sunday came and the church service was not well attended although the year’s church harvest was three Sunday’s ahead. The atmosphere truly depicted harvest season. Since it was nearing the beginning of the dry season, most leaves in the bush had turned brown with dust. The pumpkin leaves in the farms around the homes had to be soaked thoroughly to wash off the dust in them before they were cut into pieces for soup.
During the harvest season which normally comes towards the last months of the year, the dominant vegetable is oha and this is eaten in most households. Already the light brown species of birds which usually go in flocks heralding the dry season could be seen all over the sky singing tunefully. They are harbingers of dry season.
The men had harvested their yam tubers which they heaped at various corners of their yam barns pending the time they would tie them to the bamboo stakes. Before the yam tubers were finally tied up, some cleaning exercise was carried out on them. It usually involved the removal of their dry and often thorny roots of all sizes and the display of the yam tubers within the barn for the rain to wash off patches of sand on them. Shortly afterwards, women would also be busy harvesting their cocoyam. With the cocoyam, the women would make their own offering during the harvest thanksgiving church service which every church member looked forward to. In addition to cocoyam, some women would offer bunches of banana and plantain as well as other kinds of fruits like pawpaw, oranges and pineapples. On that day they would put their agricultural produce in rectangular or round baskets as offerings, sing and dance to the altar where they would empty all they were carrying in the baskets and receive God’s blessing in return. Some well-to-do women would place on top of what they were carrying a hen or cock. In the history of the church, it was only once a member offered a goat. It was a she-goat. The member was later quoted as saying he offered the she-goat so that the church could start rearing its own goats and sheep from her offspring. Another church member and a member of the church committee who welcomed the idea of the church rearing goats promised to offer sheep. That was to take place the following year when the two lambs his sheep gave birth to would have grown. Mbonu had many sheep but as the harvest was a few weeks away, misfortune struck at the house of his half-brother who was also rearing goats and sheep. One of his sheep contracted a disease which later claimed the lives of all his sheep and goats. Out of fear of such a colossal loss, Mbonu sold all his sheep leaving only one which was pregnant and one that was about growing into adulthood. His reason for leaving the young was to take the place of the pregnant one in case it dies while giving birth to its young ones. It was the growing one that he intended to offer at the year’s thanksgiving if all went well. But he later changed his mind and gave one of the newly born lambs. The tragedy which had struck earlier at his half-brother’s house decided to go round the entire village albeit in varying dimensions.
The poor attendance recorded at the church service was not because members were scared of the end-of-harvest thanksgiving. Far from that. When it came to harvest thanksgiving, no one lagged behind with regard to attendance. The congregation was usually large since people used the occasion to show off their harvest. And it was only just a handful of persons who never bothered.
The actual reason for the poor attendance at the church service was that Pastor Moses was no longer new in the station. The euphoria which greeted his arrival at the parish had completely died down. It was so with every new pastor but in the case of Pastor Moses, it was a little different. This was because before his arrival at the Alaocha parish, news had spread of his unalloyed dislike for or impatience with his permissive colleagues. That was why the mud church building was filled to capacity on the day he conducted his first service at his new parish. Some church members attended just to catch a glimpse of the man whose idiosyncrasies they had heard so much about. Because of the poor attendance at the church service, Pastor Moses’ sermon centered on the race to heaven. He went down memory lane and told the congregation how every space n the bamboo benches in the church was occupied the first day he conducted the service and during the two subsequent church services. The pastor said something which indicated that he knew the reason behind the large turn-out of the congregation. He knew the members of the church had heard stories about both the ones that were complimentary and those that were uncomplimentary.
The long awaited end of the year harvest eventually came. Clearing the grass from the church compound had begun two weeks earlier. All young and able-bodied members of the church took part in the clearing of the church compound and the church building itself. While the men cut the grass and trimmed the hedges as well as worked inside the church building especially the altar, the women went to the stream where they collected mud with which they gave the walls of the church a face-lift. With the mud and red soil, all the cracks and holes on the church building were filled. Thereafter, with nzu or white chalk which they got from a deep wide gully beside the stream and mixed in water with charcoal, they decorated the base of the walls and the doors of the church building.
At each door of the church stood two woven palm fronds each tied to the posts. One of the banana stems was tied to the pulpit with leaves providing cover for whoever would preach the sermon. The sound of the church’s wooden gong was heard in all the seven villages which make up Alaocha town. The sound of the gong was also heard beyond Alaocha during the harmattan when distant sounds pierced through the chilling air.
Early on harvest Sundays, the large wooden gong was beaten to awaken people and make them prepare for the special occasion.
When the end-of-year thanksgiving church service eventually began, it did so with a bang. At the altar were Pastor Solomon (Pastor Moses predecessor) and two other pastors from neighboring parishes of the church. The visiting pastors had been asked by Pastor Moses to grace the thanksgiving church service with their presence as special guests. As a mark of honor, the pastors from the neighboring parishes had been requested to read the first and second bible lessons, while Pastor Solomon would preach the sermon. The choir had prepared well for the service with many new songs. During the church service, the choir sang the way they had never done before, and in response the congregation clapped the way they had never done, to back up the heart-lifting songs. The congregation did not only clap so loud that it was deafening; they also danced to and from the altar terminating at a big basket placed between the altar and where the choristers were sitting.
In his sermon, Pastor Solomon commented on the ten lepers healed by Jesus Christ when he was on earth out of whom only one later came back to show gratitude. He also reminded the congregation of the volume of blessings which poured on the biblical widow who gave her mite with a heart full of joy. He also refreshed their memories on the Shunamite woman who gave even the last food she and her only child would have eaten and got ready for death as a result of famine in their land.
As Pastor Solomon delivered the sermon, most members of the congregation held him in higher esteem than they had held him when he was at their station. The reasons for the higher regard for Pastor Solomon were because he was now the assistant to the head of their church and had been to Jerusalem which was thought not to be in this world. To ensure that the congregation gave as many times as possible, the resident Pastor Moses called them out in groups including “those of you who are still alive today as a result of God’s infinite and enduring mercy”. He had called out those who were blessed with new babies and those whose number of sheep and goats as well as chicken multiplied during the year. Everybody was roped in as far as the thanksgiving was concerned which was usually rounded off with the presentation of farm produce like tubers of yam, cassava, pumpkin, fruits of all kinds and vegetables. When finally it was time to offer these agricultural produce, men came first with their basketful of tubers of yam. Among them were Ajilo and Iwuji also carrying their own yam tubers in long baskets. The baskets belonged to their wives. It was with such long baskets that women went to the farms to collect palm fruits from the bush. Ajilo’s tubers of yam were not as big as those of the previous years. There were however, a few men who enjoyed bumper harvests. The handful of men among whom was Iwuji made a good display of their yam tubers for everybody to see. The women had no problems with their harvest. The cassava tubers, plantains, pumpkin, fruits and cocoyam they were carrying were big enough. With a melodious song, the first group of women danced to the altar with their agricultural produce. The rest of the congregation watched out for the largest in number. Each group danced to the altar with their song different from the one sung by those who went before it. Sometimes, the song could be started by a chorister or the leader of the groups.
The first Sunday service of the year was characteristically fiery focusing more on Christians who were not Christian in the things they did. Among such Christians, according to Pastor Moses, were those who were finding it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop drinking alcohol. He warned and admonished the congregation to desist from drinking alcohol.
With the service over, members of the congregation headed for their respective villages. Those from Alaocha and Alaoma took the same route but later parted ways half-way to the approach to their villages. For church members from Umuoka, Umunta and Umuoha, their journey home was much more difficult than those from Umuelu, Alaocha and Alaoma. In addition to a sandy terrain, there were slopes, but their faith in and acceptance of Christianity had made them unrelenting. Of all the things Pastor Moses said about drinking of alcohol, what caused some worries to the people concerned was the announcement by him that a monitoring team would be set up to report defaulters whom he referred to as people of little faith who were a disgrace to Christianity. And they were Ajilo and Iwuji as well as their friends. For people like Ajilo, it was better they were excommunicated than abstain from drinking palm wine which they started drinking from infancy.
Later, a committee was set up to monitor violators of the order prohibiting the “drinking of alcohol”. The ten member monitoring committee was headed by the wife of Ajilo while the wife of Iwuji’s elder brother was the deputy. The appointment of Ajilo’s wife, Mma, was deliberate. It was because her husband, Ajilo, was swell-known for his big appetite for palm wine. Another reason was because the woman would live up to expectations having been at logger-heads for a long time with the husband over his excessive consumption of alcohol. To Ajilo, he and palm wine were inseparable.
One gift Ajilo had which the rest of his drinking mates did not have was the ability to understand things quickly whenever he drank. Ajilo was not only endowed with the ability to drink any quantity of palm wine and yet remain sober, but also the capacity to know which tapper tapped the palm wine he was drinking and tell you the type of grass used in tapping it. If the wine was tapped within the community he would know immediately and tell you as soon as he tasted the wine.
Iwuji was caught drinking palm wine at a funeral service by two members of the church monitoring committee who reported the incident to Pastor Moses, leading to Iwuji suspension from church activities. Ajilo got news of his bosom friend’s suspension with mixed feelings: a feeling of sadness and joy. He was sad because his friend’s name would be dragged to the mud in many quarters where the story of what happened when the women caught him drinking would be told and retold. On the other hand, Ajilo was happy that the time for a show down with Pastor Moses was near. He knew that he would certainly step on the toes of Pastor Moses some day and he made up his mind on what he would tell on the day the show down would take place. He knew Pastor Moses’ family background very well just the way the son of a carpenter was well known by the Jews in the bible. On that day, he would tell Pastor Moses what nobody had dared tell him before. He would bring to light things about him that could make people question his credentials as a man of God.
What led to the show down was quick in coming. Ajilo brought palm wine to sell at the market. The wine was in three calabashes. He decided to keep one for drinking and to sell the other two. Two men came to find out who the owner of the two foaming calabashes of wine was. The men were Ibezim and Uwazie. Ibezim wanted to know the current price of a medium-size calabash of palm wine. His uncle had asked him to find out the price for him because he was going to host his age-mates the following week. Ajilo recognized one of them, Uwazie as a member of their church. The other fellow, Ibezim, he did not know well although he came from a neighboring village and close friend of Uwazie. He was devoted though he was not seen as zealot, but one of those who endeavored to abide by the injunction of the pastors no matter how unpalatable. That was why he never drank. As soon as Uwazie saw Ajilo at the palm wine shed, he inquired from him if was the owner of the medium-sized calabashes of palm wine in front of him. Ajilo knew the inquirer, Uwazie would not have anything to do with palm wine and so was not going to buy. That made him refuse to answer the question asked him by Uwazie who he saw as busy-body. He felt that since Uwazie did not drink and could not offer somebody palm wine, the inquiry was unnecessary, hence the silence. His silence made Uwazie to jokingly make an allusion about those who would rather call it quits with their church membership or even drop dead than give up drinking palm wine. On hearing this, Ajilo flared up and ran after Uwazzie and dared him to repeat what he had said.
Ajilo was many years older than Uwazie. And that infuriated him more. If the remarks had been made by somebody who was of the same age bracket, he would not have flared up the way he did. Uwazie was sorry for what he had said as soon as he noticed that Ajilo was not happy as a result of his joke. He did not know that his remarks would annoy Ajilo and in his usual calm way, he told Ajilo he was sorry but his remorse could not stop the aggrieved old man from accosting him. Under the heat of emotion, Ajilo rattled on. His verbal attack was total. He spoke of hypocrisy on the part of those who would collect his money for dues and levies paid with the proceeds from sale of palm wine; he spoke of those trained with proceeds from sale of palm wine that had now turned round to prevent others from being trained. Ajilo also lashed out at members of the church who would not drink alcohol but did several things that the Creator resented. “Go and tell Pastor Moses to show some us some seriousness in his crusade against palm wine. Let him do so by cutting down all the oil-palm and raffia-palm trees in his village starting with those in his family! After cutting down those belonging to his father and grandfather as well as great and great-great grandfathers, he should descend on those of the rest members of his kindred, his village, and then his entire community!”
Most of the people in the crowd would like Ajilo to roar on. They would want him to go ahead and give vent to his thoughts that he had bottled up for a long time. But few others would like him to stop creating a scene and desist from ridiculing his pastor and other members of the church. It was these few persons who tried to pacify him but Ajilo would not listen. He continued to talk and argue, often gesticulating as he replied to questions asked from the crowd. Uwazie and his good friend, Ibezim, had long left the scene. It was while Ajilo was neck-deep in the outburst that his boy sold the two calabashes of palm wine and was waiting for him. Soon both of them were on their way home. Within Ajilo he was happy that he had bared his soul but a still small voice was telling him that he had ridiculed his pastor, his church and some members of the church in the market square of all places and that his punishment was inescapable.
The news of the previous day’s market drama was quick in reaching the church compound. One of the members of the women monitoring group was in the market at the time of Ajilo’s outburst. As soon as she learnt that Ajilo and two men were quarreling, she dashed to the scene believing that the palaver was as a result of drunkenness. After listening to Ajilo, Ukachi was enraged by his utterances. She quickly went back to her shed and collected all her wares which were some seeds of oil-bean, some coco yam, two coconuts and a bunch of banana, into her round basket. She lifted the basket unto her head with it resting on a cloth pad. The woman had intended to sell the items for a few cowries and use the proceeds to buy some dry-fish and salt for soup since she had other ingredients like pepper, vegetable and palm-oil at home. But out of over-zealousness, Ukachi decided to call it quits in the market and headed straight for the church compound. The fact that she had not sold any of her agricultural produce did not perturb her. Since she needed to buy only salt and fish, she would collect salt from one of her fellow house-wives in the compound. With regard to fish, she would make do with the little quantity of cray-fish in her small basket hanging over the fire-place used for smoking cooking ingredients. This decision which she took within a few minutes made Ukachi to pack her wares.
Ajilo’s tirade was quick in becoming the subject of local gossip among the womenfolk some of whom saw it as sheer display of foolhardiness which would backfire eventually if he intended it to make Pastor Moses become permissive. But among most of the men folk, the market outburst was quite hilarious. Soon it dominated every discussion at drinking sprees, social and cultural ceremonies as well as festivities by the amala. Most people regarded it as the biggest joke of the time but for those who share the same sentiments with Ajilo that served the pastor right. The feeling among the latter group was that the pastor’s authoritativeness which had subjected them to serious regimentation was no longer tolerable. To them, enough was enough.
Ajilo was summoned by Pastor Moses a day before the next church service. He was accompanied to the church compound by his friend, Iwuji, who was not allowed to come in on grounds that he was on suspension.
Ajilo’s meeting with the pastor was purposely arranged one day before church service so that whatever was the outcome would be mentioned in the sermon. If Ajilo was apologetic, he would be cited as a good example of a repentant disobedient child. But if he remained remorseless, he would literally be torn into shreds in the sermon.
At the meeting, Pastor Moses took time to explain to Ajilo why he was personally opposed to alcohol drinking among church members. He also condemned in strong terms Ajilo’s outburst at the market square five days earlier. At the end of it all, Ajilo refused to apologize. He rather asked for the refund of all the money he had paid in the church from the proceeds of sales of palm wine. Since he was prepared for a showdown, Ajilo repeated before the pastor all he said at the market square and concluded that it was a wild goose chase asking him to call it quits with drinking. According to him, there was no way a man who was fed with palm wine instead of breast-milk as a baby because his mother died a few days after giving birth to him, could give up drinking as an adult.
When the pastor found out that Ajilo had made up his mind to be recalcitrant, he announced to Ajilo that he had been ex-communicated. On hearing this, Ajilo did not utter a word but left quietly for his house where he informed Iwuji and the rest of his friends who had been waiting for him that he had been ex-communicated from the church. He subsequently went in and brought out a sizeable calabash of palm wine and they started drinking. Thereafter, they decided they would quit the church en-masse for another denomination where they would not be regimented especially with regards to palm wine drinking.
The news of Ajilo’s ex-communication spread fast as harmattan fire. Some who heard felt the punishment was very harsh while a few others, especially the zealots were happy that with the measure some sanity would return to the church. According to them, those who worship God should be prepared to forgo that which gives them pleasure and worship Him wholeheartedly.
Three days later, Ajilo and his friends met to finalize their plan to desert the church. The following Sunday their message was conveyed to the congregation. And their message was simple: “We have decided to leave the church. We may return when the regimentation is over, that is, if before that time we don’t become ndi-amala”.
The thought of these men becoming amala once again touched the pastor. He knew he would be required to give account of their return to idol-worshipping by the headquarters of the church and even thereafter. He was convinced that their sins were not beyond pardon and that he over-reacted. He told himself that what the men and the rest of the congregation needed was persuasion in order to be made willing to continue to hold fast to the faith. After all, God in His wisdom does not compel us to go but only makes us willing, he recounted.
Pastor Moses knew all these but he could not make up his mind fast to rescind his decisions even against the advice of the grey-haired and bald-headed members of the influential all-male church committee.
By the time he eventually made up his mind, it was too late. Ajilo, Iwuji and a couple of their friends were already heading the deities in their respective villages and kindred and so could not come back lest the gods strike them dead. Ogwugwu, Ala-ukwu and Amadioha would not spare them if they abandoned them a second time. Moreover, they now had lots of sacrificial cocks and he-goats to slaughter and eat with all the numerous calabashes of palm wine that went with them. And when they died, their funeral would feature ese-ike dance with the clicking of matchets by dancers and slaughtering of goats, cows as well as all funeral rites that were due to ndi-amala.