Papa had never wanted her to go to the farm for as long as she could remember.
“Stay at home Olanna,” he would say whenever she talked about going to the farm with the family. “You are the eyes with which I see, the bracelet that adorns my wrist and feet, catching the light as I move, and making the whole village look at me with envy. Nne, biko ejena n’ugbo. Please don’t go to the farm.”
And for moons she had stayed at home without a murmur; at least not an outward murmur. Inside, her spirit questioned Papa’s instruction.
Amaka and Kelechi, and little Ugochi all go to the farm, carrying their woven baskets on their heads or clutched under their arms with their elbows. Ikenna, Ebuka and Marcel all go to the farm too! So why not Ola? Were they not all Papa’s children? They may have different mothers, still, that counted for little. Nne Ola may have died a long time ago – she was his third wife, the one he married for love, and they say Ola looks a lot like her – but they all still had one mother, Mama Nnukwu.
Ola wanted to make real ridges, and pluck weeds, and water seedlings and tendrils, and catch crickets, and dig grasscutter holes and run around in the bush. She wanted to get stung by those soldier ants with the light skin, watch dung beetles roll nsi and struggle with their big ball of shit. Ola wanted to make a fire in the open and roast yam, she wanted to eat this yam with palm oil and fresh green and red peppers she would pluck from the pepper bush. She wanted to experience for herself all the joys and pains of going to the farm; she was tired of being told the stories by her brothers and sisters.
Everyday she asked Papa, and everyday Papa said no. Every evening her heart would beat like the drums at the music festival as she made her request, and every evening her spirit will feel crushed from a ‘no’ she knew was sure to come.
So she was surprised that evening, during his meal, she asked Papa and he said yes. It took a moment for his answer to reach her mind’s ear, but when it did, she knocked over the bowl of washing hand water as she flew at him, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck.
“Nne, you are choking me.” Papa said in a pretend hoarse whisper.
“Papa ndo,” she giggled. “Papa daalu! Sorry! Thank you! Thank you!” Her excitement was almost tangible. She danced as she cleared his plate, the piece of azu mmangala he fed her from his soup tasted even sweeter tonight. She had the same fish in the same soup with her dinner, but this piece from Papa was just sweeter.
Mama Nnukwu, her father’s mother, smiled as Ola danced from her father’s obi to the kitchen at the back of the house carrying the dishes. Her humming carried clear across the compound as she washed the plates. She was a good girl, and Mama Nnukwu was happy that her son had finally done right by her.
The next morning, Olanna woke up long before the cock crew and swept the inner compound, the light of the mpanaka, the bush lamp, wavering in the chill morning breeze. The dust reduced by the water she had sprinkled before sweeping.
When they set out, Papa put the boys in charge of her, with firm instructions not to let her out of their sight. The walk to the farm was long and arduous, and twice Olanna wanted to beg for a few minutes break to rest, but her pride would not let her; not even when she stepped on a thorn. She bit down on her tongue to stifle the cry that was sure to escape, and trudged on. On her head she carried Papa’s cutlass wrapped in a cloth and over her shoulder, she slung the small hoe she used for tending the garden at home.
By the time they reached the farm, the sun had burned off the last of the morning mist. Her neck was stiff and her shoulder ached, she had lost all feeling in her legs. The boys would not let her do anything other than watch them work.
“Take it easy little sister,” Ikenna said. “Just sit down somewhere and rest o, inugo? I know you must be tired from all that walking.”
Little sister? Little sister? She was going to show Ikenna little today. She just needed to rest a little.
A sigh escaped her lips as she rested her back against the trunk of the tree she had selected. She chose that spot because it had a good, thick layer of brush and foliage nestled between two of the tree’s giant roots, and branches thick with leaves rose overhead to give her some shade.
She watched Ikenna as he and the other boys worked. Bushy haired, square jawed, Ikenna. Ikenna with the broad chest and bulging muscles. Ikenna who bullies tried to stay out of his way. “Ofu okpukpu, single bone”, some called him. “One blow, seven akpus” others hailed him. They claimed he could knock down any child or youth with a single blow, a feat achievable only by someone with a single fused bone in his arm. Ikenna was just fifteen years old, so how dare he call her little?
Other children had arrived too, and their voices as they shared the easy teasing banter of friends reached Olanna where she was seated. She sighed again, envying them that easy camaraderie. It was at that exact moment that Olanna first felt it.
She opened her eyes a crack to see if anyone had snuck up on her to play a practical joke, but she did not see anyone. She could still hear her brothers with their friends, and there was no suspicious change in their tone. She closed her eyes and wriggled closer to the trunk. Her eyes flew open in an instant. The bushes beneath her had moved!
She placed both hands on either side of her to brush the bushes aside. She saw the bushes move, and underneath it she saw scales that glittered in the daylight. She also felt, through her palm, the smooth coolness of the snake’s skin.
“Chimoooo!!!!!!” She screamed as she jumped up from the bushes. ”
Ewu, ewu chimooooo!!!” She screamed as she raced back the way she had come with her brothers.
“Ahhhhhhh!!!” She screamed as she ran as fast as her ten-year-old legs could carry her.
“Ahhhhhhh!!!” She screamed as she ran past her family where they stood frozen, wondering why she was shouting.
“Ahhhhh!!!” She screamed as she breezed past neighbours on other parcels of farmland all around her.
“Ahhhhhh!!!” She screamed as creeping vines reached for her and low hanging branches slapped her face and arms.
Not even the sound of her father’s voice followed by his thundering footsteps slowed her down. The sound of Papa crashing into branches seemed to galvanise her already tired limbs. Straight home did she run, and straight into Mama nnukwu’s room and onto her bed!
That was where she stood shivering when Papa finally arrived home, out of breath.
“Ola, ogini? What is it?” Papa managed between pants.
“Agwo, snake” she choked.
“Na ebe e? Whwere did you see it?” Papa asked.
“Agwo.” She flinched when Papa reached out a hand for her.
“Ngwa ndo, onwero agwo obuna no na ebe a. There is no snake here. Shhhh…” Papa made soothing noises to calm her down.
Later that evening, they were sitting in Papa’s obi: Papa, Mama Nnukwu, Ikenna, Olanna, Mazi Okafo who lived close by, Odinaka who owned the village drinking place and Nnadozie, her uncle the palm wine tapper. He was Olanna’s favourite uncle, not only because he allowed her press the bell on his bicycle making it go griing griinng, or because he would bring her special palm wine which was really watered down and sweetened palm wine in a small gourd, but also because he was the kindest man she knew after Papa, and a colourful story-teller. He could make the animal noises, and sing beautiful songs to go with the stories.
Papa was telling them about the incident at the farm earlier in the day when a voice was heard outside the low fence.
“Kpam, kpam. Onwe ndi bi na ebe a? Who lives here?”
“Onye choro ima? Bata ba nu o. Who wants to know? Do come in.” Papa replied.
In came three men, led by Mazi Obierika. Even if Olanna had not known who and what Mazi Obierika and his sons were, it became instantly clear from their attire covered in cowries, their body paint, the white markings around their eyes and weapons they carried – he a dane gun, and his sons machetes – it was clear they were hunters.
They came in, sat down and were offered kola nut and some palm wine.
After prayers had been said, and the gods had been offered their bits of Kola and drink, the leader, the man with the gun, cleared his throat and stated their business.
They had been out checking their snares when a screaming girl and her father had raced past them. She had disturbed a python resting under a tree, digesting its meal. That was the only reason she was alive; it had recently swallowed a guinea-fowl which it probably stole from someone’s farm, and had not finished digesting it. They thanked the gods that the python had not slithered away before they arrived to kill it. As was the custom, they had cut it up in pieces and shared it round the clansmen. They had come with a small token for Olanna and her family.
Mazi Obierika spoke in a guttural voice which made it hard for Olanna to follow his narrative, he also spoke with a pink piece of kola nut dangling from his lips. Olanna expected the piece to fall to the floor at any moment, but it never did.
When he finished speaking, he held out his hand to one of his partners, and it was then Olanna noticed they were carrying something in a bowl. She was filled with dread even before the bowl was presented to Papa, before Obierika set it down before him.
The bowl was actually a hollowed out calabash covered with small rectangles of banana leaves that had splotches of brown-orange and dark red. Olanna did not need Papa to remove the leaves to know what it contained.
Her scream was high pitched, and she was shaking all over again. She hit the floor hard and was thrashing about, her skin covered in hives. She tried to fight it as wave after wave of trembling coursed through her. Papa kicked the bowl with its offending contents out of his obi. Odinaka and Nnadozie herded the men out gently but firmly. Mama nnukwu held her shoulders gently until the shaking subsided, and Mazi Okafo vigorously rubbed her arms and legs. Her brother just stood there looking helpless and confused.
Papa had never wanted her to go to the farm for as long as she could remember, and now, her spirit agrees with Papa. Olanna tends the garden behind the house. She has her ugu for making delicious soups, and green for making ji akwukwo nri pottage; she has nchuanwu for improving the aroma of her ofe akwu, and anara for eating abacha, who needs grasshoppers? Or crickets? Or bush pigs? Or fire ants?
As Papa would say: anybody who is not satisfied with his lot in life is a thief, and Olanna is not a thief.