A Timeless Dance
By Veronica Nkwocha
Ochanya swayed with the young women, content under the full moon. A cool breeze lifted their short ceremonial skirts ever so slightly mesmerising the young men into thinking forbidden thoughts. The old men lay, half way upright on their Ukonobo seats, an eye open even though they lay tranquil, in a bid to catch any young man attempting a bit more than looking.
Lithe, fluid bodies twisted and turned to the rhythmic and haunting thumping of the Uba drums. This was the best part of the evening of the festival; when men sated on the refreshing and slightly sour palm wine and women, half way pliant and slightly drunk, their drink fermented just right by the old women of the village went quiet, their singing barely heard.
Ochanya’s waist beads and anklet tinkered as she twisted her hips here and there. Ameh, the hunter’s son could bear it no longer. As she passed by him, he grabbed her arm and she, anticipating this very move, slithered away with him into the night. For a moment, her father’s friend thought he saw her disappear. He tapped Elika on the arm as he snored away.
“Elika, Elika, I can’t see Ochanya.”
“Eh Eh?” Elika replied from his sleep. “Is ok, is ok.”
“You’re a foolish man Elika, you sleep while your flower disappears into the night.”
Elika made a sucking sound with his gums as he tucked his head further into the crook of his arm. He snored and farted simultaneously. “Ahh!!” His friends hissed. How this buffoon fathered the queenly beauty Ochanya; hardworking and beloved of all was beyond them. He was wry and ‘comely’ was a word that would never be used to describe him. His stature was of no consequence. He would be overlooked in a room of few. His laziness did him no favours either; he was so full of excuses, Atimakpa the village musician used him in the songs chanted as a rite of passage for boys on what not to be.
Ochanya ran along with Ameh. The leaves caressed her arms as she ducked here and there avoiding low branches. The plants poured a carpet of flowers on the path Ameh led her through. Their fragrance was heady and hinted at something new and beautiful. As they slowed to a stop listening intently to see if they were followed, she mouthed the song in her heart, ‘happy tomorrows’.
“Happy” she whispered.
Ameh asked “What?”
“It’s nothing” she said.
He walked around peering here and there to make sure they were safe.
“I’ll love you forever my Ochanya, I’ll do everything it takes to make you my wife.”
“Promise you’ll never leave me,” Ochanya purred.
“Never” he said “I’d rather die.”
Calls of “Ochanya, Ochanya” sent the lovebirds scurrying home.
Elika strolled out with as much pomposity as he could and walked into the Itakpa crammed full of gaily dressed men and women. A loud rancorous laughter punctuated the soft voices that hummed like a hive of bees. He wore an atrocious hat; an attempt by a poor craftsman at copying the latest style of turbans perched gingerly on the corner of his small head, smooth as a pebble. His oversize but brightly coloured robes caught momentarily on an empty stool at the entrance and he stumbled in. His countenance changed to a slight annoyance as no-one noticed him walk in; he had practiced the entrance for months, now spoiled by the silly stool.
This was his time to shine, his time to be covered in adulation after all the years of derision from his peers. He was after all, giving his daughter Ochanya, his comely damsel of folk tales and a hundred songs to Adeyi, the doctor son of one of the neighbouring town’s earliest converts and catechist. Adeyi was newly returned from England, the home of the Queen where he studied under a much deserved scholarship. Giving her in marriage to him was a very big achievement.
Elika had decided very quickly that he couldn’t wait for tomorrow to get pregnant when today was already suffering labour pangs. There were rumours of Ameh’s interest and Elika had been quite eager at first, saying his greetings to the hunter, Ameh’s father over and over again and waiting but he had received nary a hint. Her other suitors who had gone a bit further hadn’t quite asked for her hand with the finality of a proposal. Just a word here and there from an elderly male relative about seeing a lovely flower in his garden; their vagueness, part of the process dictated by tradition. But Adeyi’s family had been ready from the start. He mouthed a silent thanksgiving to the God of heaven, Owo icho for his daughter’s startling looks for all the noble men in the village had tried with as much subtlety as they could, to rope their own daughters with the esteemed doctor. Ojari the Palmwine tapper of note went further. He discussed openly with Adeyi’s grandfather on an Eke market day and was overheard; the shame of it all. One didn’t act as though daughters were goats to be haggled for right at the market!
Adeyi sat in another hut with his cousins as the marriage ceremony carried on in the Itakpa, he would be called in when it was time. He sighed. His legs felt as though they were lead. There was a lot weighing him down. He had only ever had a cursory look at Ochanya, once before today and was nervous. He lifted his chin and held his head upright. He was only doing what had been done, from time immemorial. When it was time, one married. The family researched and chose who one married, it was the way of his ancestors. His father was so pleased at his being so agreeable. There were others whose sons had brought strange women from other lands, who spoke languages so foreign they had never heard them before. It was the price one paid for allowing them be educated in the western ways.
In a sense Adeyi was tired of doing things differently from everyone else in his family, his sense of isolation heightened by his lone experiences of life outside his community. He had seen enough changes to last a lifetime being born at the eclipse of colonialism and growing up in the cusp of the tender shoot of a nation. He was the first of many things in his family; the first to attend school and the first to travel a few hundred miles from Elekwu with the coming of motor vehicles and then further along to far flung towns and then England.
He wanted to stay rooted to his ancestral home even though he had drifted off a long time ago; he was tired of straddling both worlds a stranger to both. Marrying someone who would understand him implicitly, the many nuances that made him; hunting with his cousins for small game in the savannah grasslands stripped of his fancy clothes, eating deliciously prepared okoho with smoked fish that stretched like rubber to the uninitiated and having his wife speak to him and his unborn children in their mother tongue drew him like a moth to an open flame. He would grow to love her in the most important way they said, not the whimsical and fancy way the movies he watched made it out to be. He sighed, his hand cupping his chin.
Ochanya wept softly. Her mother, Ehi, cajoled and tended to her gently. She remembered her own marriage so many years ago, all the apprehension and fear of marrying someone she didn’t know well. She also knew she was going to have to do more than most women for Elika’s laziness did not start recently. Fathers kept their daughters far away from him as though his laziness were contagious. Her impoverished family was glad to have her taken out of their hands practically shoving her into his waiting arms. They were practically squatters on the corners of their ancestral lands doomed to work the fallow lands in the hopes of a meagre harvest. At least with Elika she had a home in a vibrant community and could work a small patch of very fertile land for vegetables for her use and for sale. Yams, the crop men farmed were given to them by Elika’s extended family to cover their shame at his refusal to work.
She wiped Ochanya’s tears and spoke to her in low tones. She sang her favourite songs and soon Ochanya was smiling again even though her heart cried bitter tears. Her father had chosen and it was final. A web of older women made up of aunties and grandmas held her trapped in invisible age-old bonds of submission and acceptance of a Patriarch’s word. The prison she lay in to be primed with gems and trussed with silk was crafted by time and she was powerless against it.
Ehi brought out the makeup and skilfully applied the Otanjile dark and fine lining around Ochanya’s eyes, the whites glistened. Next she applied the Ewo, bright red on her lips. A few spots of black were applied in the middle of her brows and her face was dusted with powder. Her hair was braided high and extended a long graceful line past her neck corralled with beads. Her grandmother held out her new bridal waist beads, all the women agreed they were expensive and the latest fashion as were the wrappers and jewellery from her in-laws. They showed their approval with admiring glances.
Someone offered her a drink. She took a sip and told her mother she needed the toilet.
“It’s just her being nervous Ehi”, her grandmother said fleetingly suspicious as the toilet was located at the edge of the group of huts that made up the homestead.
“Are you sure? Ochanya” Ehi implored.
“Yes mama, and I need to go now” Ochanya replied.
“Ah ah!” The women murmured. “Go on quickly and be back, go with your cousin Ada”
Ada rose and wrapped her cloth around her breasts tighter, making a knot under her armpit. Ochanya also wore something similar as she hadn’t changed into the ones specially made for the traditional marriage. One would find it difficult to tell who the bride was apart from Ochanya’s elaborate hair do and makeup. They snuck out of her mother’s hut throwing on a piece of nondescript cloth over her hair in disguise. She was meant to be sequestered away until the appointed time.
Ochanya ran along with Ada. The leaves caressed her arms as she ducked here and there avoiding low branches. The plants poured a carpet of flowers on the path. The fragrance was heady as always and was tinged with a hint of sadness. They slowed to a stop listening intently to see if they were being followed, Ochanya mouthed the song in her heart, ‘sad tomorrows’.
A tear drop marred her makeup but she trudged along, hoping to see Ameh. Would he go to their secret place in anticipation? After all they were kindred souls and she willed him to be there. For one last kiss, one last touch. They walked gingerly so as not to disturb the leaves; silently they peered through the branches and she saw him.
Ochanya paused, mid motion and drank in the sight of Ameh. Strong, brawny and rippling Ameh; handsome Ameh was beneath the trees, on a bed of palm fronds and banana leaves. But his arms were wrapped around the ebony form of another woman; an undulating breast peeked betwixt their embrace. Ochanya shrieked, the sound was quickly trapped in Ada’s palm as she reached across and covered her mouth. She dropped to the floor in agony shocked at the ease with which he had moved on, un-prodded by the weight of duty and tradition. Ada wouldn’t let her be. She half dragged her along as they walked homewards, along the path from where they came.
The dance troupe called to entertain the guests was belting out their most popular tunes. Both families were trying their best to outdo the other dancing and there was laughter all around. Adeyi strode in majestically like a young prince. He and his friends squatted in obeisance to the elders of Ochanya’s family. Elika’s grin was permanently plastered on.
When the bride was ushered in, resplendent in her beautiful clothes, there was ululating and singing. She was more subdued than her friends and cousins who walked her in to the itakpa. They danced and clapped their joy. She looked around wildly like a trapped animal and went through the motions to show her consent. Her father watched her carefully; glad she didn’t disgrace the family by publicly showing her hesitation.
Adeyi sat quietly watching her intently. Her eyes cold as glass rested momentarily upon him and turned abruptly away. An icy chill gripped his heart and he wondered what he had gotten himself into. He would have thought she would be grateful, eager. He was stunned at the idea that she may not be as keen as all the other women who constantly threw themselves at him. Her shoulders stiff as an iroko tree looked like an impregnable wall.
He should have stayed with Samantha, his West Indian ex-girlfriend; the laughter they shared walking on the beach and gazing lazily at the sky on summer evenings, the setting sun showing off her artistry painting different colours and hues which they tried in vain to capture in lilting poetry. She said they were soul mates; it seemed he might just be wedding himself to a mate from hell instead.
Ochanya’s beauty had captivated him from that first time he saw her and he had been glad and relieved the wife chosen wasn’t some gnarled woman baked by the harshness of the tropical sun. The fact that she was a person with feelings hardly occurred to him, it ran like an undercurrent utterly unimportant in the grand scheme of things; the goal of bringing up the next generation with some tribute to their ancestors had appeared paramount above all else. Now, why was he waxing philosophical he thought to himself pensive. The beautiful music refused to lift his mood.
The ceremony was over by nightfall, the lone chirping from an insect cut through the night’s silence like the constant dribble from a thatched roof after a rainy day. Adeyi and Ochanya sat on the stools in his room in silence. He tried to make small talk but she refused to answer any of his questions. She held unto a handbag he bought as part of her wedding trousseau as though her life depended on it.
He tried one more time. “You should at least change from your clothes and go to sleep?”
She ignored him staring straight ahead. A few minutes later, he was fast asleep tired from the long day. Ochanya stared at him; this stranger lying on the bed across from her. She gingerly changed, happy to take off her uncomfortable wedding clothes and careful not to wake him up. She moved closer to the lantern and lowered the wick but did not turn it off entirely. A hard bound cover on the table caught her eye. She sat on the chair and picked it up and her countenance changed, lifted by a happy smile. It was ‘Pride and Prejudice’!
The reverend sister at her primary school which she hadn’t yet completed at eighteen having started her education late for a lack of schools had allowed her read it by chance. She loved reading. The texts that were a part of their curriculum could not satisfy her hunger once she discovered fiction books. Sister Jane had noticed her love of reading and fed the hunger with a wide variety from her ample library.
She held the hard cover excitedly. She had read it almost to the very end, enjoying every morsel from Jane Austen every chance she got; one of her regrets was not finishing the book due to her marriage. Oh how she looked forward to finishing school whilst married, the only hope in a long tunnel. She turned the wick, setting the flame to as high as she could and settled down to Mr Darcy and Elizabeth.
Adeyi found her curled up at dawn the book opened flat across her face. His stunned expression was a picture. He was shocked his wife had any interest in literature. Instead of cuddling up to his new bride through the night, there she lay clinging to one his favourite books of all time. A tender smile played around his mouth. She lifted the book waking up and her gaze met his; hers, tired from reading through the night.
“A lady’s imagination is very rapid; it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.”
She smiled at the incredulity of his quote from the much loved book.
“Imagination, yes. Admiration, love and matrimony? Surely Adeyi, you and I are mirroring the quote backwards, if at all?”
She turned her gaze away from him in embarrassment; maybe she was being too forward she thought suddenly shy.
“Ah imagination, I love imagination” he said a glint in his eyes. He stretched out his hands for a handshake.
“I am Adeyi, good morning and how do you do?”
“I’m Ochanya,” she answered airily taking the proffered hand, “pleased to meet you, how do you do?”
They laughed out loud at their silliness, surprising each other with the sudden conspiratorial and near chummy tint. He leaned over her chatting excitedly both of them flitting across the pages; him sharing his thoughts and she lending him her eyes.
The future looming large and unknown may not be a desert after all; it may well be a thriving garden blossoming out of the seeds of a faltering friendship and watered with the tentative hope that trailed like a ribbon encircling them on the very first morning of their married life.