Fobuh Nwuti was scarcely fifteen, yet he had made a name in Bachaza as the best hunter, a reputation that pitched him up as the bravest young man in the neighbourhood. The more elderly men, however, were rather jealous of this boy of exemplary hunting prowess. He had killed such animals that, were it not of their jealousy, would have earned him some traditional titles, titles which like incentives enkindled hopes and would have thrust the gloom that he lodged away from his bosom.
A wretch, he could hardly tell how he came into the world, how he found himself where he was or how and why he was not like other children. He did not know his own age, parentage, sibling or other relatives. He lived all alone in a little hermitage, a mud hut thatched with grass. His closest companion was Obuh, a stunted dog he had inherited from an anonymous owner. The stray animal together with an old cutlass and a spear which he had received from the village blacksmith in exchange for smoked game constituted his collection of arms and he made the best of them for a living. No one cared to inform him on his past.
Fobuh Nwuti’s life was certainly divested of luxury, history and community. His bed was straw spread on a bamboo bed. People hardly visited him and neighbours did not cherish their children of his age going about with him. This was much against the children’s wish though, but he never cared to know why. He was kind to all whatever they held of him. The few women who stopped by his hut only did so to beg for smoked meat or to invite him to work in their farms during the farming season. He was happy with these sporadic utilitarian friendly visits. He gave them meat and worked in their farms for free but no one remembered him at harvest time, which he really didn’t mind about. Whoever came by his hut was welcome at any time.
It happened that during one of his fruitful hunts, Fobuh killed a strange animal, one he had not seen or known before, for that matter. He returned earlier than usual that day and was not disposed to sell it since there was no food in his hut. Because it was quite a large animal, he had to skin it and dry the hide for memory. The meat would serve as meal, and dry, would keep for other days.
Atah, who had the habit of spying on him for no particular reason than to satisfy his idle curiosity, saw him skinning the animal that early afternoon and recognized it as a panther. He watched the boy, peering unnoticed for some time, and then left for the palace where he narrated all that he had seen. A loafer he was and a tale bearer too who knew how to tell one with incriminating intent.
Later that afternoon, two palace messengers entered Fubuh’s hut with Atah, a brazen participant in casting the slur on his neighbour. Fobuh had never known the honour of being host to men so close to the Fon.
“Have a seat, my fathers,” he said, hurrying to offer them the lone bamboo bench in the hut. “I’m so flattered; welcome … I haven’t any raffia palm bush; I tap no palm wine; what shall you drink in this hut?” The boy managed to address them, not knowing what else to do.
“Don’t worry yourself about palm wine,” cut in Atah. “We know that you don’t tap. We were passing by and just thought it nice to say hello to you. You are a reputable hunter. If you caught and prepared anything today, these men from the palace won’t mind sharing a piece of it and giving you their blessings.”
Fobuh, who had been standing since the men entered, a little frightened and not knowing what exactly to do, now felt a little relieved, nay, delighted; he walked to his bamboo shelf with some pride, the pride of “a reputable hunter” as he had been described. He brought down a soot-blackened clay pot and a wooden bowl, and dished out three sizeable pieces of the cooked animal into the bowl and placed it before the men.
“I couldn’t prepare much of it because my pot is small and I couldn’t find any food to add to it… You just eat that and if you don’t mind it, you may take along some raw pieces”.
The boy spoke with an unusual ecstasy for two reasons: he had been visited for the first time by men of such high standing from the palace and secondly, they had described him as a reputable hunter. His solitude left him altogether for that moment and he tasted the love of a harmonious community.
The three men looked at one another furtively. The first messenger asked Fobuh what animal it was.
“I don’t know the name yet. It’s a strange animal; I haven’t caught its kind yet,” Fobuh explained to them.
“Can we see its skin?”
The boy brought down the wet skin of the animal from a bamboo that he had hung across the ceiling for the purpose of smoking meat. It felt good to satisfy their curiosity.
“Ha, that’s a panther! Don’t you see it?” cried the second messenger.
‘Kwi-fon-ntu! Who gave you the audacity to kill and eat sacred animals?’ The first messenger roared to impress shock and anger at the boy.
“Fathers, what is it you’re talking about? I don’t understand!” Fobuh cut-in in protest, but before he finished complaining, the trio had shot out in a file, abandoning the bowl of meat there untouched. Fobuh made a vigorous effort to stop them and to explain it to them, but failed. What was he even trying to explain? He couldn’t understand the cause of this sudden change in the men. Then he realized that the men had gone with the prized skin of the animal! Why? What was really the matter? What was the wrong he had done? The boy wondered, a direct reversal of feeling from the exhilaration he had a while ago bathed in.
All the animals of the cat family in Bachaza were considered sacred and reserved exclusively for the Fon and the Okum. But Fobuh, having grown up parentless, had never been schooled in the native mores. He was ignorant of the crime of eating a panther.
A very sombre afternoon, doubting what might happen to him covered Fobuh’s hours. With these lazy idlers around the palace, one never could tell their game. At nightfall, he folded himself on his straw bamboo bed, feeling a bit relieved that the drama had ended no worse. Maybe it was the animal’s skin that the men wanted in their greedy craft, but why hadn’t they told him then? Could he who shared smoked animals freely to people, have refused the skin of an animal to palace men? Fobuh meditated as he fell asleep.
Early the following morning at the third cock-crow, the palace gong announced that all men and women of Bachaza were to assemble at the market square at sunrise. It spoke again twice before sunrise and just before the sun rose, the royal mask trudged from quarter to quarter, making sure that no one went elsewhere. When Fobuh came to the market square, he was anxious like, most people in the crowd, to know what the matter was and as usual, no one took particular notice of him. Men and women spoke in whispers, standing in little groups, each trying to surmise the motive of the urgent summons. What did the Fon want to say; to declare war on a neighbouring village? The people questioned. Yet that was not obvious, for Bachaza had no problems with her neighbours. Whatever the people’s guesses, they all agreed that there was something amiss, something dreadfully burdensome enough to warrant the rare summons.
The royal mask that appeared was a dreadful creature to behold; a muscular animal with very stout features. It wore a sleeveless fibre garment that descended just beyond the knees, ending around the shin. Black and white feathers studded the thickly woven regalia, such that one saw no fibres but feathers. On its head, it carried the carved head of a bull painted black. When it moved, the tensioned veins on its calves became more conspicuous, the ground shaking under the heave of its heavy heels.
Abuh, the royal mask, announced the Fon’s arrival. This dreadful mask never stopped shivering and making the feathered body dance as if it was covered with termites. It held a short heavy black club in its right hand and a spear in the left. A man followed it closely with a pair of metal gong which he hit intermittently. The Fon followed at a distance, led by his Okum and the strong medicine-men of the land.
At the arrival of the Fon, the women ululated and shrieked, patting their lips with their right palms or fingers while crouching in welcome of the Fon. As he passed by, the men doffed their caps and inclined slightly forward saying ‘mbe…mbe…mbe…’
Abuh ran round the arena with spectacular skips and mock threats of throwing his spear or short club at the spectators. When the Fon took his seat, a tautly deafening silence filled the scene for a while. The first kum in the hierarchy stood up to greet the people and call their attention. He adjusted his traditional robe, inclined to the Fon and strode forward before raising his right hand and pointing to the crowd threateningly. At the same time, he sprang from the right to the left and from the left to the right. His voice sailed over the crowd into the woods as he solo intoned the traditional salutation to which the crowd responded in loud choruses.
Solo: Ooo hohoho
Abee kwo kwo fia meni ghong
Chorus: Ooo hohoho
Solo: Abee kwo kwo fia meni ghong
Chorus: Ooo hohoho
Solo: Si o’jieh!
Solo: Si o’ jieh!
He turned to the Fon and hailed him in the following words:
“Fon of Bachaza who sprang out of the deep lake!
Fon of Bachaza who fetched firewood and forced other villages to carry!
Fon of a people who came from the forest of bats!
He paused before continuing:
“A mole does not run in the day with red earth on its head except there is trouble! Tell us then, is it war? Bachaza has never lost! Bachaza has men! I salute you, mbe…mbe…mbe…!”
He swung round and moved in strides to his seat.
The Fon then stood up to give his message. Abuh, squatted but did not stop shivering and making its feathers dance as if they were fanned by a gentle breeze. The Fon was brief. His words were firm and cold. He greeted his notables, his collaborators and his subjects, and then went straight to the point.
“It is neither war nor the threat of one that summons you here today. However, it is a threat to our inherited mores and customs. The shoulders do not grow above the head in this land! Our strength lies in our tradition. It is therefore treasonable to ignore them and it is such a treason that has joined us here and now!” He took in a deep breath, paused and then resumed vociferously.
“A son of this land has challenged our authority, questioned our mores and broken the bond between us and our forefathers. A son of this land killed the sacred panther and decided to make it his meat in broad day in defiance of our customs…” He paused again while many sighed, trying to conjecture who it was had so viciously and deliberately committed the abomination. The Fon then took from his first messenger the skin of a panther and spread it for the people to see.
“He killed it and did not only eat it but decided to dry this skin as the relic of a great game. A mere child! Our ancestors must be in rage and I hear them urging me to weed off the young wild plant before it destroys the farm. He is Fobuh Nwuti, the daring son of the late title grabber!”
Fobuh sank to his knees. He felt like urinating and defecating there and then. He clutched his dog with both hands and orphan tears flooded his eyes. He had no time to think over even for a little while what was happening. His mind was in a maze. A dark cloud engulfed him and he felt like one in a labyrinth. The Fon went on to pronounce the sanction.
“When you throw a poisonous seed into the bush, you must throw it far enough because you never know where it will fall. When you throw a cat into a river, you must blind it lest it plug off your eyes. This boy, we banish from this land of ours forever! We forbid any son or daughter of Bachaza to shade a tear. The royal mask shall chase him until he enters the Forest of Evil!”
The sympathetic women, such few as they were, could only weep in their hearts; any open display of sympathy in such situations led to severe sanctions. Fobuh was lost in the crowd that tossed him from side to side like an infected dog. They cut fresh grass and threw at him, scooped dust in both hands and blew it at him. They stoned him and in that pandemonium, Abuh, the royal mask was giving him the clubbing of his life. It was worse than jungle justice on a thief caught in the market. The way to the Forest of Evil was long, very long and rough. He kept running, stumbling and falling, the mask ruffling him. The people cursed and threw debris at him as if he had been a dead dog on the road. His closest companion, Obuh alone, was ready to weep openly and defend him to the last. Obuh rose to the instance and dashed from one man to another in mad rage. Men and women fell back and even the masquerade ran away to escape from Obuh’s charge, yelp and fierce barking. He was ready to tear everyone and everything into pieces. The dog succeeded to rescue his master from the mad crowd and would have killed the man accompanying the mask if he had not been vicious enough in early retaliation, to use his sharp machete to split the dog’s head. The dog yelled and ran towards Fobuh for help, but Fobuh was helpless himself. Obuh fell and gasped his last.
By the time the mask left Fobuh deep in the forest, the sun had crossed the middle of the sky and had started the downward climb to the West. He lay there, choking and bleeding; half dead. It was not, until mid-night that he stirred, trying to raise his head, but it seemed to be clamped down by an enormous load. He tried to lift his legs and hands but they were all unusually heavy. He tried to stretch himself but felt excruciating pain all over his body.
His body was swollen and ached terribly. Where was he, sleeping in the horrid dark and damp night? He could not recollect his ordeal. Gradually, as he came to full consciousness, it was clear to him that he was not on his little bamboo bed in his hut. Where then was he? He tried to wake from an imaginary sleep and break what was to him a very cruel dream.
When a glimmer of the facts flashed through his mind, he opened his eyes wide and it dawned on him, though still faintly. Something had happened to him; he had endured hell some hours, some days, some years ago; it wasn’t clear how long it had been since he was declared an ‘outcast’ and exiled from his village. He tried to think it over but his dazed mind wouldn’t give way for any clear thoughts. He lay still, in a state of amnesia for a long time.
As he gradually became more conscious, he could hardly believe what he had passed through. It was strange that he survived that avalanche of stones, sticks, blows and curses. It was miraculous that he wasn’t dead. He managed to remember the Fon’s words describing him as ‘the daring son of the late title grabber!’
He had heard people talk about a ‘title and land grabber’ each time he was around, but never knew it was a derogatory reference to his father. He thought of his dog and remembered how the animal had run towards him with a split head; and he could not so much as touch it before it died. A thick phlegm stuck to his throat. He coughed and blew his stuffed nostrils. He felt lumps of coagulated blood as he rubbed his palms.
Lying on the leaf-carpeted forest floor, in the heart of the Forest of Evil and far into the dark night, he heard something like a faint voice from a distance calling him:
‘Fobuh! Fobuh! Fobuh!’
He opened his mouth to answer, but not a sound came out. He tried to rise, but where would he go, even if he had the strength? Where, in a dark, pathless forest? To which direction would he go in this labyrinth? He let his head drop on the soothing forest straw.
Back in Bachaza, no one thought of the young orphan any more as days went by. People surely discussed in secret whispers by their fire-sides, but no one cared to know what became of Fobuh Nwuti. It was clear to everyone that he wouldn’t survive his ordeal, for the sentence to exile was the coded indication of sure death. The victim was beaten, broken, so to say, and left to die without help in the forest.
No one dared to question his punishment, but the old men knew more of the punishment than the young. They knew that men were never exiled or sentenced to death for such offences; that they were only made to pay fines, fines that varied from a number of cocks or goats to pigs with jugs of wine. These things were not paid to the fon but to the ‘Okum’, those who handled such matters. Only witches and wizards were exiled or stoned to death. Yet Fobuh Nwuti had been exiled in a way that many understood was not meant for him to live.
Atah became a sworn ally of the Fon, a spy which gave him free access into the palace where plenty of wine, food and meat were always available. He had, after Fobuh Nwuti’s exile, ransacked the hut and then set it ablaze, as if the boy had been a nuisance to the neighbourhood or an insidious vermin in his farm.
It was a long time after Fobuh was exiled from Bachaza, some fifteen years since. The Fon had fallen ill and all the medicine men in Bachaza and the neighbouring villages had failed to restore his health. He had been bedridden for one long year and apart from the swollen stomach and heavy breathing which were quite perceptible, not much was known of his illness. But as it was, no one was allowed to talk of the Fon’s illness, not even his wives. Only those in the inner circle of the Okum had access to his bedroom.
One morning at sunrise, a man appeared from the direction of the Evil Forest. The morning was unusually bright and it seemed all the birds and insects of Bachaza were in excited happiness. The man, elegantly tall, was hairy and wore a rather rough beard, something like a soldier’s tunic too with two bags hanging over his shoulders. One was made of raffia fibres and filled with various articles that no one could see or guess. The other was smaller, of tiger skin with cowries stuck all over the edges. A well sheathed machete dangled from his left hip, sustained by a rough leather belt that held tightly to his waistline and folded the tunic garment around the waist. On his head was a large hat of animal skin. Old leather sandals graced his feet. This outfit, added to the den gun that he carried, would have made any one conclude at a glance that he was either a hunter or a native doctor. He had to make himself known by the palace if he intended to stay in Bachaza. At the entrance to the palace, two old men stopped and questioned him at length. His name, he said, was Ngang and he had come from far away to save their Fon from death. The old men were surprised at his bold declaration; they couldn’t understand how the man had come by the knowledge that their Fon was bedridden. But the name ‘Ngang’ meant ‘medicine man’ or traditional doctor and, judging from his appearance, it was easy to believe that he was one of repute.
One of the two men who had stopped him was Atah. He made the other man stand with the stranger while he went into the palace to give this strange news. Several notables came out to observe him and after intriguing whispers, showed him in, leading him directly into the room where the Fon lay. Ngang did not sit down, but made straight for the bed. He touched the patient and turned him to face him. He then asked for a stool which was brought instantly. Sitting on the stool, he managed to make the Fon sit up. Then he removed some black powder from the tiger-skin bag and ate and gave some to the Fon. Next, he took out some cowries from the bag, seven in number and held them out in his right hand, the left hand holding a small black horn whose outlet was sealed. He shook the horn for a while before throwing the cowries down three times and murmuring incantations. At last he made a sign for the Okum to come closer. When they had gathered around him, he warned all of them including the Fon not to tempt him by disputing what he had to say, which some of them already knew.
“Your Fon is the cause of his illness and some of you know,” he announced. “When you see a tiger growling by the tail, you know its end is near.” Although he appeared agreeable, he wasn’t chatty, perhaps due to the solemnity of the situation.
“The first ancestral Fon of this land was Ayaka who was succeeded by his son Amehritsa. Your present Fon seized the crown of Acheh, Amehritsa’s first son with the complicity of some of you. Isn’t that true?” He looked steadily at the Fon who only groaned.
“Amehritsa had died,” he resumed, “and the village was still observing the normal one year period of mourning, but you faked crimes against Acheh whom you called a ‘land and title grabber.’ You even spread false information that he was insane, can you deny that?”
He paused and waited for opposition but none came; rather the men were exchanging strange glances of amazement. So, he continued.
“You planned and poisoned Acheh’s drink during a traditional council meeting here at the palace and imputed the cause of his death on his young wife whom you intended to kill as well but she fled overnight, abandoning her three year old son to her mother, but the old woman died almost immediately of grief.
“Well, that boy was Fobuh Nwuti, a harmless young man. Yet you never slept because you were afraid of him. Yes, it was that fear that made you exile him for eating a panther. You had encroached on all his father’s lands, burnt down his house, sold all his animals and raffia bushes and more.
“You can all understand now why the Fon’s stomach is swollen. You know the tradition and you know what is imminent. It is for you to act as fast as possible, otherwise you can expect a plague on the land!’’. The man started gathering his things to go but they held him down. The Fon on his part tried to say something but, all that he could say audibly was “the hand has grasped faeces.”
The Okum looked at each other, seeing the tiger growling from its anus, authority began to shift.
By tradition, a special medicine man was supposed to lead such a case to the Evil Forest and allow him to die there for the land to be purged. The old men knew this and so they quickly concerted, agreeing to summon the villagers at the market square the following day. There, the first Kum would explain everything to them. Ngang spent the night at the palace in the kitchen of one of the palace women.
The decor at the market square the following day was exactly as on the day Fobuh Nwuti had been exiled. The villagers assembled in time. The royal mask arrived as usual, leading the Fon who was carried on a bamboo arm-chair. When they placed him down, the First Kum greeted the Fon and the crowd, really paying little honour to the Fon. Authority already was forgetting the dying king. Then he gave room to Ngang to tell the people why they were there.
The man stood up and greeted traditionally as the first notable had done on the day of Fubuh Nwuti’s exile. But, unlike the First Kum, he greeted the dying Fon with due respect.
He began by narrating the history of the Bachaza Fondom before stunning the people with the dreadful infection from which the Fon was suffering. That done, and the people having been made to understand the gravity of the Fon’s case, he told them what he had told the notables and that he would allow the first Kum to conclude for them. Ngang moved backwards leaving the stage to the First Kum. It was his duty to salvage the land, and there was no time to waste.
“People of Bachaza,” he spoke gravely. “Our ancestors are not sleeping, they watch over us at night while we sleep. We received Ngang in the palace yesterday, and through him, our ancestors warned us. I will cut the head of the snake immediately.” He paused, reflected a little, how best to proceed.
‘The shoulders never grow above the neck. No man in this land, however powerful, can deceive our ancestors,’ the Kum resumed authoritatively. We, the people of Bachaza declared a young innocent boy here an outcast some 15 years ago. It was a serious offence against our ancestors and I regret it! We exiled him in the most dreadful manner. That boy whom we exiled was our legitimate Fon, and some of us knew it. We intended to kill him, to cut off the line of Amehritsa, but our ancestors refused. They redeemed him from the Evil Forest through a hunter who found him and took him to their own village where, as the gods had willed, Fobuh’s mother had fled and was living. With the hunter’s help, Fobuh was treated and later found his mother. Not long from today, we will see his mother here and she will narrate the details of his life in exile to us. But know that the boy is here! Here he is!” he dramatically paused, pointing at Ngang with a trembling hand. “Here is Fobuh Nwuti, our legitimate Fon whom we exiled! Yes, most of us desired his death when we stoned him like a jungle beast. We forgot our own saying that ‘having beaten a child, we take him into the house thereafter’.”
Men and women were stunned by this revelation and a dreadful silence filled the market square. Some were disposed to tears but held them back. They all wondered what the reputable medicine man would do to them in revenge. Many wondered whether what Kum was declaring was true and if the man indeed was Fobuh come back from the Evil Forest incognito.
Any close observation would reveal that he was Fobuh, transformed, no doubt. They admired the man they saw before them and could hardly believe him to be the Fobuh Nwuti they had expelled with sticks and stones years back. The first Kum broke the silence of asides and whispers.
“When we banished him, he was Fobuh Nwuti the lonely orphan living in his late grandmother, an old widow’s abandoned hut; but today he stands here not only as ‘Ngang’, the most potent medicine man of the land but, more importantly, as the legitimate heir to the throne of Amehritsa. A cock does not crow on another man’s yard stone. A good number of us here would be afraid of revenge but from his word, that is not his mission. Our fathers have sent him back to purge the land of all evil and to take back the throne and that is what we shall enable him to do without any waste of time. When the hand lingers at the anus, it touches excreta. We have to act immediately.
Story Continues …