By Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Like the elder brother I never I had, Dambudzo Marechera, I left my House of Hunger in a hurry. All I knew was that I was leaving the city for good, abandoning the bright lights and big city of Lagos for the dust and darkness of my rural hometown of Alanso. I was aiming after anonymity, dying to dissolve into the nothingness of poverty.
Much to my surprise I ran into a bedlam. Democracy or the talk of it happened to be all the rage. It was as though the town dam had burst as a melee of my town folks trooped to St. Matthew’s school field. The pull was immense to join the flow of the rivers of people welling up in the red football field.
“The politicians will soon be here!” screamed the short man in my front. “They will come with plenty of rice, stock-fish, sardines and…”
“Condoms!” cut in the man by his side, and the twosome laughed foolishly.
I moved over to where Ogbunuju, a childhood friend of mine, stood under a shed formed by the tall mango tree.
“When did you come home?” Ogbunuju asked, surprised at seeing me.
“I have just come,” I said ineffectually. “But what is happening here?”
“The politicians are coming,” he said, shrugging wearily.
“What are they coming for? To campaign?”
“I think they were specially invited by Eze Okeke Nkata.”
“The newly crowned ruler?” I asked.
Ogbunuju nodded. “I guess Eze Nkata arranged the visit of the politicians to help heal the wound that opened between him and the chief priest during his coronation a month ago.”
I was confused. “What rift are you talking of?”
Ogbunuju stared at me like I was from outer space. “Are you telling me you don’t get to hear any news about our hometown in that Lagos where you stay?”
I was silent for some moments before I asked: “What is the trouble between the two big chiefs?”
“Eze Nkata refused to kneel in the sacred grove of Uchu to receive the priest’s traditional blessing,” Ogbunuju said, frowning. “As you do know, that’s an unprecedented slap on the tradition of Alanso.”
Eze Nkata, according to Ogbunuju’s account, had put up the defence that he was not a heathen and would not condone heathenism let alone genuflect for it. The chief priest, Nze Uchudike, fired back that anyone who had no respect for tradition should not aspire to rule.
Tension mounted as the days passed. The sword of division slashed the town in two: those who supported the old ways and those who opposed. It was actually obvious that those in support of Eze Nkata were fewer in number but the big chief would not back down. He instead plotted to avert the gathering storm by inviting the politicians whom he hoped would harp on the need for progress as opposed to the recourse to paganism.
When Eze Nkata announced the coming visit of the politicians the chief priest made other plans. Nze Uchudike was determined to thwart the new ruler. He vowed that Eze Nkata would have to kneel down in public to acknowledge his belief in the Uchu goddess, the ancestral livewire of the town. Dark, tall and sinewy, Nze Uchudike would never on the pain of death stray from his never-say-die world. The first thing he did in his bid to break Eze Nkata was to summon the town’s representative in the National Assembly to his shrine-house.
Nkemjika, a barrister, was a middle-aged father of two whom everybody knew as an either-or politician. He had no views of his own whatsoever. It was therefore not surprising that in the dispute between Eze Nkata and Nze Uchudike he bided his time, waiting for the tide to blow over somewhat.
Uchudike was stoking the fire of the shrine when Nkemjika called early in the morning. The priest ignored the politician. Uchudike chewed a handful of alligator pepper, making some hissing sounds with his quivering mouth. He threw a red-headed lizard into the fire. The reptile struggled for some moments before its stomach burst open, spilling its entrails. The old man picked up the lizard from the fire and sucked at its blood feverishly. Then he turned squarely to face Nkemjika.
“The toad does not run in the daytime for nothing,” Nze Uchudike said, thrusting his blood-stained forefinger almost into the eye of Nkemjika. “Nkata has touched the tiger’s tail.”
Nkemjika said nothing, staring fixedly into the fire.
“Somebody can drop dead!” Uchudike cried.
“I don’t understand,” Nkemjika stammered, alarmed and feeling prickly hot.
“Don’t make me go mad” Uchudike shouted, jumping on his feet. “We have made a goat our king and you are telling me here you don’t understand.”
He paused, using his leg to stoke the fire. Slowly the annoyed priest sat down while the pecks of a woodpecker behind the house sounded like claps of thunder.
“I am sorry, our father,” Nkemjika stuttered, avoiding the darting eyes of the priest.
“Go and tell the politicians Nkata invited to Alanso not to bother to come!” Uchudike thundered, looking very ferocious.
“But…” Nkemjika began and then swallowed the words.
“But what?” Uchudike was unrelenting.
“The visit is already in the gazette…”
“What are you talking about?” Uchudike looked at Nkemjika from head to toe and hissed.
“Government has already taken a decision to come,” Nkemjika was saying, looking away from the priest.
“Tell government we don’t want them,” Uchudike said. “We are not going to receive them. No masquerades, no traditional dances or whatever. Let them come if only what they want is to drink tea in Nkata’s house. I have other engagements slated for the day of their so-called visit.”
“Keep quiet and listen to me!” Uchudike cut in sharply. “If the politicians want shame, let them come. If they still need their pride they should stay away. It’s either they make Okeke Nkata conform to our way of life or they forget Alanso. Go and tell your fellow politicians what I have said.”
It was with a wobble that Nkemjika made to leave the shrine before he was called back by the priest.
“Now there is this alternative for your politicians,” Uchudike intoned, coughing. “They can visit us. But not at St. Matthew’s field. They should come to the Masquerade Square. We shall have nothing to do with Okeke Nkata. Tell the politicians of the alternative open to them.”
He waved Nkemjika away like a leaf. When the barrister could steady his wobbly legs he detoured to Eze Nkata’s palace beyond the Umugama hills.
The handsome six-footer was lazing away in one of the cushiony sofas in his sitting room when the flustered Nkemjika made his entrance. Signs of sleep still clung to Eze Nkata’s thick eyelids and his yellow house coat barely covered the loops of fat on his enormous hairy chest. He was yawning repeatedly.
“Honourable, is it your face I am seeing?” said Eze Nkata excitedly, sitting up on the sofa. “You do not look particularly happy, I can see. Is the world coming apart?”
After some shaky evasions the barrister said, “The chief priest is asking that you cancel the visit of the politicians.”
“And who does that old foggy think he is?” Nkata was laughing.
“He is dead serious that he would not receive the august visitors.”
“Who told him he would be missed?”
“I think you should reach out to him, sir,” Nkemjika said, scratching at his temple. “The old man said he would not sanction any traditional dances for the politicians. In fact he is planning his own festival at the Masquerade Square on that day.”
“That hungry pagan is what I call a braggart,” Eze Nkata said, laughing some more and patting his chest. “I’ll soon arrest him, including his abject supporters. After a year in prison we shall know what becomes of the old pagan and his wooden gods.”
“The priest I saw is in fighting mood,” Nkemjika said.
“What will he fight with?”
“He has the backing of the gods of the land.”
“I can assure you those are bribable gods,” Nkata said, still laughing. “I’ll stuff his juju into his heathen mouth and send him off to jail.”
He continued to laugh while asking his servants to serve beer to Nkemjika.
In the wee hours of the D-day, the town-crier woke the town with the news that the Wonder Masquerade of Alanso, Uchuala, would make a once-in-a-lifetime appearance at the Masquerade Square. The town-crier could not make the announcement a second time before he was arrested on the orders of Eze Nkata.
However, the policemen who went to the shrine of the chief priest for his arrest reported that Nze Uchudike disappeared into an ant-hole and could therefore not be arrested.
It’s against this tense background that I became part of the immense crowd gathered at St. Matthew’s school field, Alanso, in this day of Our Lord. It was quite obvious given the crowd available that the chief priest had lost out to Eze Nkata in their war of attrition. Eze Nkata basked in the glories of the day, wowing the assembled throng. The wide array of minstrels and dancers assembled in the field made pulsating music that somewhat made nonsense of Nze Uchudike’s boast to thwart Eze Nkata.
The wait for the politicians was long and indeed wearisome. The politicians took their time while the sun tore through all of us, the people assembled in the field. Then a piercing siren tore through the air. The crowd surged as all makes of jeeps and SUVs ground to a halt after making jerky rounds across the field.
Politicians clad in voluminous agbada and babanriga emerged and were shepherded to the portion of the field shaded with palm leaves and canopies. But the crowd was quick to find out that the Special Guest Honour, the acclaimed Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary Agadagbachiriuzo, was not yet present. Nor were there any known ministers. In no time the people were murmuring that they had not taken all these pains and made all the preparations to entertain inconsequential politicians. Some even pointed out that the chief priest may be behind the no-show.
One of the politicians, a portly fellow not unlike two footballs placed on top of each other, took the microphone and said: “It’s a real pity that the Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary Agadagbachiriuzo is not yet here. He will come in no time at all with the ministers. Urgent state matters held them…”
The disenchanted crowd would not hear him out. Cat-calls and wolf-whistles rent the air.
“Poli-trick-cians!” shouted a very loud voice.
“419 Executive Council.”
“Power to the criminals!”
“Prostitutes of power!”
A voice rang out in song and was joined by myriads of other voices:
Their wives wayo
Their children wayo
Their stomach wayo
Their head wayo
The general feeling was that this would eventually end up as yet another jamboree of wild noise and unfulfilled promises by a gang of political upstarts. In the undercurrents there was the speculation that the Special Guest had actually sent spies to survey the situation in view of the open conflict in Alanso. Word would soon reach the big man and the ministers in the neighbouring town of Achina where they were holed up about the grand reception awaiting them in Alanso and they would soon show up…
Just then, a penetrating song, enchanting and magnetic, reached the crowd. This was followed by intense battering of talking drums and Ukansi’s flute that woke the dead and the unborn. There were no doubts whatsoever where the otherworldly sounds were coming from: the Masquerade Square. Those old enough to know in the crowd explained that the music was no other than that of the famed Uchuala, the Wonder Masquerade.
It stood before every eye like answered prayers. Who ever wasted the chance of a lifetime listening to unknown politicians?
As the people made their move a terribly enraged Eze Nkata took the microphone, shouting into it: “Don’t be tempted by the devil! Don’t be lured away by the devil. That music is the song of the devil…”
Swiftly the crowd began to dash to the Masquerade Square. Chaki the Wee Mask emerged from an ant-hole and dashed into the Square, somersaulting as only he could. Odudu Bariba, the big one, erupted from his own hole like a volcano and danced to the Square, with balls of fire issuing from its mouth.
When the Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary finally appeared at St. Matthew’s field with the ministers they met no crowd, only a disconsolate Eze Nkata who could not but tell them what had happened.
“Let’s then head to the Masquerade Square!” roared Agadagbachiriuzo, the indefatigable Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary. “My business is with where the people are!”
“That heathen place?” Eze Nkata protested.
“Our politics as politicians is with the people,” one of the ministers said. “And the people, we are told, are in the Masquerade Square. Let’s make there fast!”
“My friend, join me in the car,” said Agadagbachiriuzo, patting Eze Nkata on the shoulder. “You have nothing to lose but your people!”
The politicians roared in laughter as the jeeps and SUVs roared to life.
In the Masquerade Square, a large clearing hedged in by dwarf kola and palm trees and umune, the mammoth crowd was too immersed in the ethereal dancing of the fetching masquerade Afa to notice the arrival of the dignitaries. Nze Uchudike was in frenzy in the centre of the gathering. Rivulets of sweat dripped down every inch of his body as he chewed mouthfuls of alligator pepper. He emptied a keg of palm wine into an ant-hole and spat the alligator pepper into it. He chanted a charge of incantations, and then fire started emerging from the ant-hole before the gigantic Uchuala Masquerade burst forth from the hole. The cheer that erupted reached the heavens.
The gongs and drums came to animated, shattering life. Ukansi’s flute tore through the winds. The Wonder Masquerade dissolved into the music.
Agadagbachiriuzo saw his place as Special Guest Honour being given over to the Wonder Masquerade in one moment of insight and, this way, he surged into the Square, dancing to the music of the cardinal points until he sank on his knees to receive the blessing of Uchuala, the Wonder Masquerade of Alanso. The other politicians followed the lead of their leader, kneeling before Uchuala to receive blessings from the duo of the Wonder Masquerade and its priest Nze Uchudike.
Then the Wonder Masquerade swept aside from the politicians, dancing away frenziedly, until he faced Eze Nkata squarely. Time stood still. The entire world was at a halt. I could not breathe again. Death made eyes at me. Then slowly, almost unaware of it, as though pushed on by a force he could neither understand nor help, Eze Nkata started walking forward while the crowd made way for him. A leaf-drop silence seized the Square as he got to the spirit circle of Uchuala the Wonder Masquerade. He hesitated for a split second and then he slumped on his knees. Hands of man and spirit instantaneously came upon his bowed head.
It was like thunderbolt. Struck by the occult dictatorship of the dancing devil Eze Nkata broke into the democracy of dance, an all-encompassing dance that took in its sweep Uchuala the Wonder Masquerade, Chief Priest Nze Uchudike, the politicians, the assembled people of Alanso, my poor self, the winds and the forests, all breathing and non-breathing things, the entire cosmos; we all intertwined in a thrilling and refreshing dance of unity.
- Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is the author of God of Poetry. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.