When Uncle Sunny asked Ogbonna to come home for Easter, it was not a request, and there was no talk about human sacrifice.
Somewhere in his family WhatsApp chat, this was decided, but Ogbonna’s notifications were off.
Mama Sunny, his father’s Grandfather’s last living wife, had made The Plea that “she is getting old, and her children will not recognize her if she was helpless on the street.”
It has been ten years since his Nnanna passed away, and being the oldest grandchild, he had obligations, responsibilities.
So when his phone rang, he was merely informed of his impending return.
Now he is kneeling here, in the middle of a forest, beside his family house, with a sharp cutlass piercing through his chest, a gallon of blood gushing through his veins, and he cannot help but know, this is exactly where he is supposed to be.
For a few moments, he was alert, sensitive to the red clay running through his sole, ready, knowing that this was the fate he had chosen, knowing that these were the people he had chosen.
This was surprising because he has not even saved the numbers of all these men on his phone. He only knows them as Uncle, or collectively as Uncles, and sometimes when the Igbo is shouting, Dee Dee.
Years ago, at his Grandfather’s funeral, his cousin Obinna cautioned him not to stand too close to the forest’s trees, lest he is stung by a scorpion, or collect money from the ground, lest he turn into a yam.
But because Obinna lives nearby in Owerri and Ogbonna is from Lagos, Obinna is immune to scorpion bites and cannot transform into cash crops.
That night, Ogbonna was the only one that was forced to take a bath, and he had no blom-blom to play with. When his aunty asks them what they would like to eat in the morning, they wept, knowing Nnanna would not be there to eat Akara or pour palm wine when they wake up. When he and Obinna lay skin tight on a matted mattress, they stare at the ceiling and weep themselves to sleep.
Ogbonna thought the village was under attack when he heard the explosions from his dreams. The house shook like it was the centre of an earthquake. The blasts were followed by cheers and wailing, so Ogbonna and Obinna had to see what was happening! They leap out of their netted beds and run outside to the dusty balcony, equally terrified, equally curious.
They watch as the thick bush beside the house bow in obedience to the shouts of the cannon, and leaves stretch to catch every sound that runs away from its mouth. The bush is the only person sadder than them. It grieves knowing the last man who could ever truly know it was dead.
Mama Sunny calls her Aki, after her husband’s favourite fruit. She used to say, “the first structure built on the bush was a church, and it collapsed three days after it was raised. Then it was converted into a farm, and no matter what is planted, only Aki grows here!” She still insists Aki is God’s favourite food. Why else would God place it so close to the heavens, and why would God guard it with a strong kernel, and a sweet husk ? From one Oil palm tree, you can get drunk, build a house, bathe your children, clothe your family, and feast on its seed – Aki.
Ogbonna and his cousins listen from the balcony to their uncles below it. They drown the cannon blast in laughter, soak their sorrow in Garri, and light the night sky with cigarette smoke. That night, under the cannon fodder and earthquakes, Ogbonna helps himself to a cold glass of terror, holding onto Obinna tighter than skin. Every quake of the ground shakes water out of their eyes.
“Are you sure you want to do this?
Uncle Sunny asks.
Of course, he is not sure. Who would want to do such a thing?
But there are roman boulders where the balcony used to be, granite instead of red clay on the floor, a closed gate where it once stood ajar, no chickens running in the backyard. Worst of all, everywhere is so quiet. So damn quiet, no babies are crying, no children squabbling, no clinks of bottles across laughter, the family only ever comes back for funerals and memorials, and what is the point where Nnanna’s grave is faded, and no one bothers to repaint it!
That bush is the only thing that seems to remember anything, so he is doing it. It is not necessary, but he is doing it.
Ogbonna does not look both ways when he crosses the highway to the bush.
The palm fronds guarding its entrance seem to open, and the leaves wave greeting him. He reaches for a rustling leaf, and a century of longing reaches back. The trunks of the trees form like roots of the sky, leaves swim under the evening’s dusk. He only now sees the thickness of the forest as he enters its belly. Every step he takes inside reveals endlessness. Whether it is a python or simply the wind that slithers the grass, he does not fear to know. As long as he walked, the bush would grow into a forest.
Uncle Oluchi’s voice greets him.
“You came inside here with your own two legs.
Now, we must take you to wash your hands.
Isa Aka will purify your body and assist you in finding that which is already yours.
Come with us.”
Uncle Sunny is not wearing one of his usual plaid polo shirts or Italiano suit trousers. He is not in his thick black traditional garment, the one that had the face of a leopard printed on it. Instead, his belly is fully naked, his bottom draped in a red garment and his chest marked in white Nzu. If not for his familiar voice, Ogbonna would have produced instant forest manure.
Slightly ahead of them are men he recognized only by the marking on the left of their eyes. He has always wondered why he does not have one of such marks; every man in his family has one, even Obinna.
Ogbonna is a match stick, and their eyes a tinderbox. When he locks eyes with them, their family scar begins to smoulder. Then, with their eyes lit, they gait, one foot behind the next, lighting the path deeper into the forest.
When Nnanna refused to bury his only child, Ogbonna’s father, he said it was because “a father must never bury his son” Uncle Sunny led the proceedings at the funeral. When Nnanna died and the village people came to claim their dues, Uncle Sunny read his will. Now the man who buried his father, and his Grandfather, leads him to do what, to wash his hands?
“Uncle Sunny! Uncle Sunny ?”
Ogbonna always calls him Uncle, but does he even know how he is related to this man?
“Uncle Sunny! Uncle Sunny! Dee Dee ?”
The smell of charred skin pierces his nose as he follows the dim glow deeper into the forest.
“Anyi bu mmandu ndu”
He hears a voice, but there is no one on-site to speak it.
“Uncle Sunny is that you,
Where are you? Where do I wash my hands?”
Their words replay in his mind, and the fire fades into dusk.
“You came here with your own two legs.”
The forest watches Ogbonna watch it. It is quiet, patient, and observant. He is tall enough to be a man but walks with his back slouched. His eyes are faded white, with full brown pupils. His hair is cut to be seen. He does not look like the warriors, priestesses, lost children, or spirits that have walked its grounds. His shirt is black. He checks his dark grey shorts for his phone, a habit he reflexes to when he is anxious. His pocket is empty. He looks behind the trees, backpedals, and runs forward, looking for the men he followed here. He looks like he came here to run.
“Dee Dee is that you!”
Standing on the balcony, Ogbonna wondered what it would feel like to see this place he has been taught to fear from the inside, to swallow its greens, browns, and dark yellows with all his spirit.
“Anyi bu mmandu ndu”
And now he is here; he is looking for a way out.
The silence peels away like the scab of a wound. It was as if it spoke from the top of a mountain. His ears collect sound fragments from the echo of an echo, and the little Ogbonna pieces together sounds like Igbo that lived in the forest all its life and has never been disturbed by history.
“Uncle Sunny, is that you?”
“Nnukwu chi mere anyị obere chi !”
His ears do not know how to collect the words. The voice, not finding a way into his ears, looks through every hole in his body for another way. It enters through his eyes until he cannot see and through his nose until he cannot breathe.
A drum beats, crackles, and then cracks. It feels like the drummer is beside him, but there is no one in sight.
“Dee Dee, help me!”
He hears another beat and then another beat. His body grows cold as tears clog his throat. Finally, he rises to his feet, resolved that this forest will not overwhelm him. But it is too late now.
He will run. Find his way out of this forest.
But it is too late now.
He will listen for an engine roaring from a generator or from a car. He will look up to the sky for a plane flying and follow its path to an airport.
But it is too late now.
His phone and laptop are in his bag, his credit cards are in his room, he is the only son, of an only son, of an only son. The house, the yard, all of that, is in his name.
He is the perfect fool.
He did not even put up a fight, he did not ask any questions, and now here he is, exactly where he asked to be.
The forest watches un-amused as Ogbonna fights it. The forest is inevitable. When they tried to build a church in it, it swallowed it. When they tried to plant a farm, it tricked every crop into believing it was an Aki tree. It watches lost people die every day. It knows that dead boys taste like wet meat and burnt rubber. The wind’s rush kicks the soul from under his feet.
With the final resolve before what surely is death, his vision now set, breathing clogged, hearing faded, his running clothes soaked with sweat and sorrow, he musters the last jolt of energy to flee.
On the first attempt, his blood thins and then clots. Now near death, he hears the drums more clearly. They are not beside him; they are inside him. The beat turns into a violent throb behind his neck, his legs cramp at the thought of flight.
“Stop fighting; it just wants to talk to you.”
“Mama Sunny, is that you?”
“Stop using your ears,
metchie one gi,
stop breathing with your nose,
nodu ani, just listen”
The instruction comes like his mother telling him to tidy the house on a Sunday morning. It is not a suggestion, neither is it a command. It is just the truth. She is simply naming what he is about to do.
He holds his breath, covers his ears, closes his eyes, clears his mind, and opens his blood. For what is surely his last act in his life? Blood gushes through the tear in his dark brown skin and melts into the red clay underneath his Adidas Forest Grove.
Each drop feels like a release, his back on the warm clay, his face staring at the trees; for the first time, he realizes how beautiful the forest is. He feels shame to live beside such a beautiful person and live only in fear of it. He feels shame for allowing himself to be scared, never asking for more, for choosing to live in fear, for this reckless return. Was there not another way to know this? Must it have been so sudden, so rushed, so final?
The leaves twist and turn like dancers; they shimmy and bounce as they wave away the evening and welcome the night sky.
“I wish I came home more often, I wish I knew my uncle’s names, I wish I learned how to light firewood, I wish I knew what trees could heal and which could harm. I miss my cousin, I miss my father, I miss Nnanna, I wish I was there to clean his grave.”
The wishes of a dying man.
Tears thunder out of his eyes, and when he wails, the forest is the only one there to hear it. He wipes his tears with his bloody hands, and as they fall and he rises to his feet, he washes the blood and the clay off his hands with his tears.
“ Anyị bụ ihe okike nke onye okike kere.
We are the creator’s creatures that create.”
Igbo, a language he had never learned, comes to him clear as the night sky.
“Chi ukwu mere anyị obere chi dị icheiche
The big gods made us small gods
Ịhụ ihe anaghị ahụ,
to see what can’t be seen,
Ịlụso mmụọ ọgụ nakwa ịdụ ihe ọjọọ aka n’ọnụ,
to wage wars with spirits and confront evil,
Mmekọrịta mmadụ na Chukwu na-ebute mmekọrịta mmadụ na ndụ only harmony with chukwu brings harmony in life,
Ị ma akaraka gị?
Do you know your destiny ?
Ka e were ya na ndọgbu n’ọrụ gị niile lara n’iyi?
Suppose all your struggles end in vain?
Mmadụ gbachaa mbọ, Chi ya sị na oge erubeghị
if a man struggles but his spirit says it is not yet time,
Mmadụ ọbụla atala ya ụta. let nobody blame him.
Mana anyị ga-ata onwe anyị ụta maka na
Chi kwụsịrị mbọ anyị na-agba na ndụ? but should we because our chi stop the struggle with life ?
Ihe mberede ọ ga-emetụta gị mgbe Ikéngà chebere gị?
Will any accident accost you when the Ikenga protects ?
Ikéngà, ezigbo ikike nke eziokwu na ịrụsi ọrụ ike. Ikenga anaghị akwado mmụọ ọjọọ.
Ikenga, the positive force of truth and hard work. Ikenga that permits no evil spirits.
Nke ahụ na-eme ka nsi e tinyeere gị na nri gbaa onwe ya ama
The one that causes the poison in your food to announce itself
Ikike nke na-aghọta, hụ echi nakwa ọdịnihu.”
the power to discern, to foresee the future, that is what we now give to you”
Sharpness sinks its teeth into his flesh and sucks blood like a mosquito breaking its fast. His scream sends wind flying away from the forest. His uncles pin him down, one by his hand and another by his leg. Mama Sunny must have been part of it all, her words, the final betrayal. He is now ready to die. It is now too late. He should have fled when he had the chance.
I imagine death does not have a clock hanging on its walls.
But surely it has ears.
The quietest place on earth is the commute down the elevator from the twenty-fourth to the ground floor of 200 Bloor. That is where I live with Boluwatife. The Vet calls him Beowulf, but his name is Boluwatife, a three-year-old white-grey Morkie with strong opinions about our neighbours. He probably misses me right now; he gets along so well with the other dogs in the building. Everyone here has a dog. Other people have cats too.
They are all so happy, so busy. When I am on the elevator ride, I have to be so quiet. If I make a peep, I can’t help but feel I am doing something wrong. “Disturbing the peace” It’s all a delicate ritual of smiles and nods but no real sounds. When I am anxious, I pull out my cellphone, find something to do, or just pretend like I am busy.
I am sure they are nice, but I don’t know anybody’s names, but I can guess their addresses. If anyone here died in the middle of a forest, I would probably never know. I think this is why I picked up the phone when Uncle Sunny called. I just wanted to tell someone how I was.
The commute to St. George is the longest five minutes on earth. Hundreds of people are thousands of miles underground, sharing the sweat, grease and rust that soak the air and moping at the pale green marble lining the walls. We are all in a rut and in a rush.
We trust each other, though. It takes trust to be underneath the earth with another human being, waiting on a metal box travelling at the speed of sound. The only thing separating life from death is a yellow line and trust.
“Please stand clear of the doors!
The next station is Museum, Museum Station.”
I heard this for seven years. What would seven more really mean?
The kindest place in the world is the Downton campus. On my campus, there are ancient castles and researchers inventing worlds we cannot yet dream of. On the day of my second convocation, the Dean gave a speech about academic excellence and putting the health and wellbeing of the student first.
She shook my hand when I walked across the stage. I wondered if she knew my name, or knew it was on her Dean’s list. I said thank you. I meant it. She is a kind person.
When I walked across the stage, my mother greets me. Her golden bangles jingle across my chest, her rings press on my ear, and the warmth of her arms pull me into myself. She tells me how proud she is of me. She asks me what a summa cum laude is and if those people who have it have two heads. I smile. When she asks me where my friends are, I tell her, “mum, not everyone makes it out of here alive.”
She says my Dean gave a great speech. I agree.
What is so unbearable about this life that I really could not continue to tolerate? Is there anything so beautiful about this forest that cannot be undone by a simple bite of KFC? I should have known this answer before I voluntarily died. We have forests in Toronto, in Spadina, in Fort York, in Stouffville. If I wanted to know what a forest looked like, I could have just gone there.
Was I so keen on repainting Nnannas grave? Do I really care that the house has been renovated? Who would not recognize Mama Sunny if they met her on the road? Have you met her? That woman is hard to forget!
“Come, my dear,”
“I know that voice!”
She is partly to blame for his death. He will not be tricked a second time.
“Have you washed your hands? It is time to eat!”
A village of children chase after She, and Ogbonna realizes it is not him she calls. They run through him like he was in them, or they were in him, or they are him, or he is them, or they are all the same. What does this matter in death? They form around She, all sitting on the floor or the sky. Out of the darkness emerges a man who is also Us, but older, much older.
Progenitor; I know because; I remember. She sits beside him, and they are joined by their wives, their names arriving on his lips like the first taste of salt to a babe, Adaure, Adaugo, Ekene, and Chinwendu, he remembers.
The children rejoice as Progenitor speaks!
“The great Ikenga, taller than the tallest of men, was hewn out of the holy Akanta tree in the holy forest of Umunohu. Transporting it to its final abode at the Ougotu shrine was the greatest spectate in the far-flung memories of the Igbo. It happened so long ago, even before my time, that I cannot say when!
Eze Mmuo Nri called out to the people to propitiate the Ikenga! Thousands offered themselves in sacrifice to this great honour. Eze Mmuo Nri, in their great wisdom, selected four who were pure of body, mind and spirit.
All of the Igbo rejoiced for this great sacrifice. All the clans of the Igbo made sacrifices as the Ikenga journeyed through their lands from its pilgrimage to Onugotu in Obowo. As long as the Ikenga stands at Onugotu, Igbos will never be conquered or brought to their knees, and no evil shall come near us!”
“Come, my dear,” She beckons.
“Come join us. Your father is about to bless the Kola.”
Progenitor looks at him, but surely, it is Ogbonna who is looking at himself.
She calls him again.
“Don’t be afraid, Child. Come to me.”
“The last time somebody called me Child, they killed me.”
“Do you not want to meet your father?”
He recounts this story in his head of the thousand people who believed so deeply they offered to sacrifice themselves to a piece of wood called Ikenga. This is what it is, is it not? A piece of wood from a tree that is holy. Like bread is holy. Like Jesus sacrificed himself on a tree. Holy. Sacrifice. For people. Is this not what it is? That people die so they can be free. Like armies go to war. Like mothers sacrifice their lives to bring forth another. This is it. Sacrifice. People picking and choosing what is holy and what is worthy of sacrifice.
“Ndum Ikenga, ndum Ihitte,
Life to Ikenga, Life to Ihitte
Ihe kwuru, ihe akwudebe ya
When a thing stands, another must stand in support
Ndu miri, ndu Azu,
Life to water, Life to fish
Mmiri atala, mana azu anwula
Let the waters not dry, and fishes not die
Ebe bere, ugo bere; nke si ibe ya ebele, nku kwakwak ya,
May the kite perch And the egret perch, Whichever refuses the other space, must suffer broken wings, the Almighty Creator descend
Eke kere uwa, bia taa orji
The Almighty Creator descend, to partake in this communion
Amadioha Nwozuzu, orji abiala
Amadioha of the thunderbolt, Kola has arrived
Achi na achi mba, onugotu, ala igbo duru nwaanui s a ala ndi iro,
Achi, the spirit deity of leadership, Onugotu the Igbo earth goddess.
dulata, asi m gi bi taa orji
Ka, anyi nile taa orji tata ndu na ahu isi ike, Sitte na one nweanyi.
And the Igbo world that guides a choice bird from enemy territory back home,Let us all partake in this communion of Kolanuts, and eat to life and good health
We are one voice when we respond
Ogbonna woke up on a bright hot afternoon stuck in a question. He is covered in bright red, resting on a matted mattress, and laid near the window, close to the roman boulders, where the balcony used to be. Every cell in his body ached, but nothing more than his confusion. His nose catches a whiff of yam smouldering over a firewood-lit cooker. Uncle Sunny and the procession of Uncles sit around it, sharing each other’s company.
“Ahh, Ogbonna is awake!
Come and take your seat, eat with us.”
These are the men who almost killed him, but is he not here? Old scars lie where flames once lit. His shoulder was still aching from the bite of the cutlass, his hands covered in bandages.
“Come and eat!”
Mama Sunny chirps.
It is not a suggestion, nor is it a command. It is simply an affirmation of a truth that was about to occur. He takes the plate from Uncle Oluchi as he passes on a pail to wash his hands. Ogbonna dips the yam in the salt and peppers fried into palm oil stew and journeys it into his impatient mouth.
At this moment,
You must be wondering,
Who made this incredible stew!?
It is Obinna, your cousin. He came down from Owerri once he learned you were around. He said he would have come earlier, but his notifications were off.”
“Ahh, Obinna is here!
Where is he? Are you sure he is not the yam we are eating!”
When Uncle Sunny laughs, the sun shines brighter. His lips are full, his eyebrows thick, and his ears are long. Like mine. The men in this family learn to laugh before they learn to speak.
Ogbonna has missed their laughter so much.
“He also took the time to update all your uncles’ names on your phone.”
that was not necessary.”
“When you went missing, he thought to look through your bag to see if we could find a way to locate you.
Based on what he saw, well.
There was an Uncle One, Uncle Two, Uncle with the big nose, Uncle who asks for money … I think it was necessary….”
These men are his family, his kin. It feels like he has known them all his life and over again in different lives. It feels unbearable to him that there is a world called Yesterday where he did not know their names. So he responds the only way he knows how to. With tears.
“I am so so sorry!”
“Don’t worry, we got a good laugh out of it, and Samson calls everyone for money.
By the way, who is Boluwatife? Yoruba girl?
You should bring her home with you next time,
“That is my Dog!” He laughs while still trying to dry his eyes.
“You call your dog ?”
“It’s hard to explain,” his hands to his face, tears rushing from his eyes.
“You should come home more often, son. It is your home, after all. This house belongs to you; that bush belongs to you.
But you cannot expect the world to stop when you leave and restart when you come.
We are people like you, and you must respect our lives.”
“I will, I do. I promise”
“There is much to discuss with you about this forest business.
What has gotten over, I must ask,
Are you sure you still want to do this?
Nobody has gone there since your Grandfather died, and no one has summoned the courage to take you inside.
I don’t think that will be possible my son.
Those are the old ways, and those days are gone.”
Ogbonna shifts uncomfortably in his seat. He reaches into his pocket for his phone. He could have sworn it was there. Although the yam is now growing cold on his plate, and Obinna is still nowhere to be seen, he reaches for it. In its place, he pulls out an Aki seed.
Well, now we are here.
Uncle Sunny, can you please tell me how we are all related again?”
Aki is adapted from Gerald Oluchi Ibe’s Ikenga Quest: One Man’s Quest for his African Heritage. Ikenga Quest is available for purchase on Amazon.
The forest speaking, and the blessing of the Kola is derived from Ikenga Quest, and is written and translated by Gerald Oluchi Ibe.