In the eyes of the villagers, Alero the juju girl cast her spell on Tim the white visitor. She turned the bright young man into a mumu, her special fool.
At the snap of her fingers, so went the story, he would crawl blissfully into the jaws of a crocodile. Alero was the crocodile. She inherited those awful scales and ocean-ready glides of nightly omens from her mother. They knew the reptilian light in her eyes.
They heard her voice of an enchantress. By the same token, they knew she had baited the wrong person in the world.
If she wanted to fall in love, she should have cast her net elsewhere. Not with an American. Was it love or some sort of wiles and guiles of mischief? Prior to this, she had felled many quarries, big and small men, driven to the giddy wave of her witchcraft eyes. She had all the stealth and suggestions of a beast.
But you didn’t joke around with those Americans, not when one of them was trapped in the obscure corner of the world – in the entrails of the African continent.
Very soon, the world would know and his relatives would worry and trace their steps to the backwoods lair of Orogun village. How would they react once they found their son changed into a tanned and bemused romantic, in the dubious comfort of an African witch? What would all the venerated elders say? What wisdom would they latch on to?
The thing, though, was that the villagers did not know how to handle this. This juju girl had helped nurse this white man back to life after the episode of assaults from wild pigs. The beasts wanted to waste him and his friend, Itse, in the Forest of Silence, the lure of abomination.
Itse was, as they were pleased to say, a son of the soil. It was Itse who steered him there from his American home. The only thing the villagers knew about him was that he followed their son over to Orogun village.
They did not go through the social rituals of interactions and minimal familiarities before the incident in the Forest of Silence. He was just a being, or a ghost, a mystery of flesh and face, as one of the villagers characterised him.
Only Itse knew Tim’s purpose in the place. All they heard was that the man was doing research. That was a strange word even in translation. Chief Omona called it “resash”. But once Itse broke it down and explained that he wanted to see the tomb of an oyibo, his ancestor, who was buried in the forest many generations back, it made sense.
But not immediately. Some of the chiefs suspected mischief. When did an oyibo sneak into that forbidden fortress? The chiefs were not altogether fair, and they knew it. They knew the forest was not always forbidden. They knew about the time, in the foggy past, when oyibo men came around with weapons and captured their folk and took them away through bush paths to sea shores, chained and hungry. They threw the human cargo on their boats and ferried them faraway to their lands across the water. They knew, too, that some of their chiefs could never claim innocence of the turbulent era when kin sold kin to greedy men in skins as light as walnut.
“If you have a different purpose let us know”? asked Chief Tietie in the Itsekiri language. They suspected at first that the oyibo was a man of medicine. They had heard that people from the oyibo land travelled to forests of the world to search for leaves to conquer death. But they had scored only smaller triumphs like cures for malaria and headaches.
The ancestor, claimed the oyibo, fulfilled his exploits in the giddy days of slavery and the slave trade. The elders then feigned understanding. This did not wipe out suspicion. It only mitigated anxiety. They would not tell the visitor that they were aware of the past when their fellow villagers became wares to powerful chiefs and the foreigners who saw a meaty prize.
Itse was now in a coma, and only God knew if he would make it. Both of them were in a coma until they were rescued from the bowels of the forest where they took a hike in search of the ancient tomb.
The Forest of Silence was an enchanted swath of riddle, fear and history. It held the soul of the people in many curious ways.
The villagers could not thank the gods enough that the white man was up and about. When he was unconscious, all the elders and villagers thought that the end was near for the whole community.
The Americans, known for their fighter birds and love of their own, would know that the people of Orogun had killed their son. In retaliation their birds would charge into the village skies, fly low in a pre-dawn sortie and raze the village to rubble. No one wanted that to happen. May the gods forbid, as the locals would say.
Only one voice mocked this mass hysteria over an American backlash. But who would listen to Ajuya? He was a hunter who always claimed to know a lot about the world. But the elders felt it was always better to discount his ideas. Was he not the one who regaled the young ones with meaningless yarns? He told tales of the exploits of the Americans in the battlefield? Didn’t he tell them that they had their military nose in every battle on earth? At any rate, the man had gone senile. They knew better than to listen to a man who knew about the world from tales he must have read from his strange, fat books. Few elders believed his claim to Western education. Although he told them of his exploits in battle, they discounted the veracity of his personal example. The loss of his right hand did not persuade them. Neither did his army uniforms and epaulettes. Anyone could fake the army gear, they contended. And who knows where the rascal put his right hand that forced his nemesis to cut it off? Who gave him permission to fight beside the white man anyway?
“Your illiteracy prevents you from seeing beyond the fog” was Ajuya’s response. “This is a paradise for blind people.”
They never believed that he was a veteran, a man of valour who threw heart and limb into the Burma campaigns and other conflicts in World War II. He continued to throw bad weather in their quiet noon.
So, against their better conventional judgements, they contacted this witch, or so they thought her to be, who happened to be the only person around the village with the white man’s education they could use, and she was a nurse. They would not go to the hunter. She was also Itse’s friend, if of the platonic kind. They wanted her to nurse both men.
Meanwhile, everyone dreamed apocalypse. They saw bombs and apparitions of the white man’s birds blackening the skies. They were not sure what to call the jets. Hawks were puny. Eagles had no bullets or bombs. These birds spat balls of fire and had people inside. For flesh or bones, they had huge metal panels and parts. They were rude and noisy and startled the gods in the sky. They would pounce on the fragile swath of the village. Humans on earth heard the voices of the white man’s travesty of birds loud enough to burst the ear.
One of the elders called the planes “witch birds who unleashed several nails hidden in their chests.”
Many of the young ones did not share in this hysteria. They listened to Ajuya. In the open, however, they denied the meaning of his prowess and the truth of his courage.
He had also told them of a black man who was looking to be the American leader. For want of a better word, they said he would become the king of their country. That meant a black man would not send an army to obliterate his people no matter the wrong. After all, the only person in question was a white man. He would not take sides with a white person and unleash mayhem on his own people.
As they learned later, he actually hailed from the village of Aloma, which was about an hour’s walk away.
When the new black king was crowned he would understand that the good and benevolent Orogun villagers would not go out of their way to imperil an oyibo man. What wrong did the white man do? How could his own blood also disgrace him back home?
But subversive thinking remained under the eaves of Orogun village. Nobody who thought aloud like Ajuya could escape the tyranny of the elders. So, the popular view held its ground. The Americans were coming. They had done so recently to a nation that played havoc with them. Who could guess how far a small and puny village like Orogun could go with the looming bombardment?
The gods answered two prayers, though. That no newspaper man came around and spread the word abroad and that this white man recovered so they could persuade him to return immediately to his country. They did not want trouble. They did not invite the man. He invited himself. Who knew what trouble lay in that hair of his that waves like the ocean in its uproarious moments?
Not only was he bringing death to their precious son, his coming threatened oblivion to the village. Itse had been in America, for all they knew, and lived well and had acquired enough to build a decent home in the village. The home was bedecked with electric lamps and tasteful furniture. He had also been kind to the villagers. That was why they welcomed his friend, the oyibo man.
Itse had told them he had returned home for good. He was not going back to America. He did not say much about the white man except that he wanted to see the long-forgotten tomb of his ancestor. The request was granted reluctantly because the forest was shrouded in mystery and had not sniffed human flesh for many generations. If they calculated well, it would mean a century. The oldest man in the village said his great-grandfather was not alive when it happened. But they let Itse and his friend into that place, and see what they brought.
Imagine everyone’s relief when the visitor came to. A few days after the village youth rescued them from the forest, the white man began to cough and his body jerked back to life.