MARY balanced the clay pot of water that was brimful on her cloth-padded head with accustomed ease. She was a slender; but not skeletal, tall and beautiful girl about fourteen years old. Her dress was a broad cloth wrapped round the body and fastened under the left arm just above the breasts. Like that of other girls in her company, the dripping water from her pot plastered her dress against her skin. It looked like spray paint and revealed well-formed feminine features; firm rounded breasts that protruded in a most suggestive curve from a wonderful, beautiful, fabulous chest. Her slim waist, plump buttocks, flaring hips that hung over long and sleek beautifully calved legs were tantalising. High cheekbone that defined her emphatic jaw that framed generous mouth with full lips, were her feature for anyone to easily notice. It was extremely hard for men to meet her anywhere without a second take. She was at the head of the queue.
Over twenty girls about the same age, bearing similar water pots and in similar attire trotted behind her in a single file along the bush path back to the village. Giant and dwarf trees entangled by leafy climbing plants surrounded the footway that snaked through the heart of the bush. Open land stretched with a dense patch of brush, undergrowth of tough grasses that edged the footway with deciduous trees and shrubs made up greater part of the terrain.
Several naked and half-naked children between eight and twelve years old, carrying containers of different sizes; according to their strength, filed behind the bigger girls spilling much of the contents as they moved briskly to keep up with the group. Most of the children in the earlier times went about naked or half-naked and were fully dressed only from the day preparations for marriage begins.
Thin pencil-like and broad timber-like rays of light from the blinding late morning sun like mallets hammering away and arrows raining hard busted and pierced the gloom of the trees projecting large and tiny spots of light on the mouldy vegetation with organic scents like an over congested dump around an outdoor fruit market.
‘I can see why the men just won’t let Ada be,’ the girl behind Ada said. ‘Look at her backside,’ she went on gently patting it, ‘it vibrates twice as much with every step as if it’s held by a tiny spring.’ Chuckles from the girls swept through the group. They were now falling to the rear as the younger children competed to take the lead.
‘You can’t blame them,’ a voice any listener would conclude was sonorous. It was melodious too. ‘She’s ever delighted flaunting it. Any man who passes her without turning his head for a second look must have a stiff neck,’ she added and all the girls laughed. It was Mary.
‘I can see you’re not bothered. You’re full of joy you’ll soon be the next wife. Though you’ll be his twelfth wife, it’ll be good for you and your parents. He’s a wealthy man and nothing is ever lacking in his household,’ another girl retorted. ‘He’d treat you like his baby girl.’ The outburst of laughter by the approaching girls tore the surrounding bushes. The wings of several birds and partridges flapped as they flew away in fright from among the trees and undergrowth.
‘What would you be doing in such a big family circle?’ Mary asked Ada and without waiting for an answer, she went on. ‘As the last wife, you’ll never wear the anklet of the tittles he has acquired. You’ll be the last in the order of the women folk in that home. Nothing changes it. Bringing forth children as much as he desires will be an obligation.’
‘What else am I supposed to be doing as his wife?’
Ada asked with flabbergasted look on her face wondering why any girl would not think she was lucky. ‘It’s a large and prosperous family anyway and it’ll be a pride to my parents to be associated with a man of high reputation,’ she concluded.
Her father had called her one evening and told her what was at stake. ‘There’re several good looking and promising young men who’ll seek your hand in marriage soon; but I shall be happy that you marry a man of solid achievements.’
Kamalu was the man. He was a wealthy man and well known for the strength of his machete, axe and hoe. He’d always worked very hard from sun up to sun down. He planted new farms and exploited the virgin forests every season with enthusiasm and zeal. He owned five huge barns, eleven wives and forty-three children and still desired more. He’d also taken the highest title worthy for man of achievements in the land. Only a few men of genus and achievements like him had acquired.
Many men like Kamalu had married many wives out of the urge to do so. They married when their open eyes and ears notice there was a girl that has attained puberty. It was time for the next wife; beget more children and help in the crude farm work with rudimentary tools.
There was always meat in Kamalu’s house from goats or chickens he slaughtered, more or less every month stored in a place only him could access and it was usually more than what several other families did in years. He personally shared out portions as he does with the contents of his barns to his household. Families as big as Kamalu’s, without goodwill and hard times aggravated by poor harvests in some seasons, quickly and easily connected with the white man and missionaries that appeared on the land. Their conducts and doctrines were great relief and safe haven.
Kamalu was a man that was always in his mind and stood out among his people. A man with knacks and capabilities was the impression about him. The force with which a man ruled his household was the contrivance that always creased his face whenever he talked. Raised in a society with such decisions made for her, if Ada had other thoughts, she’d be wrong.
In Kamalu’s compound, there was a steel tank larger than the earthen pot placed conspicuously at the side of the way that led to the wives’ section; but his wives still had the earthen water pot in their places beside their huts. He was able to acquire it from the white man by which he conveyed his position in matters of wealth. None of his daughters, even if she’s the eldest of the children he fathered, could be a beneficiary.
The steel tank served as an accumulator of water for his household in preparations for special occasions. It was a regular thing in his home. His children, particularly the girls and other villagers he engages with stipends, helped in filling the tank. It was confounding how he cherished the white man’s products with negative disposition to the new way of life and development the white man had brought.
With people like Kamalu, the largeness of his family with greater regards for the male was a factor that ensured the ancestry was consistent and the pedigree permanently rooted with commendations and blessings. A man was good as childless when all his children were female; but with male children, the ancestry remained steadfast, unshakable, unfailing and unending; so Kamalu believed.
It was bizarre how and why men had exceptional likeness for their male children with the female somewhere below. Women expressed unquantifiable love for children, male or female. Here, mothers or female children were lowly. Invariably, it could be because the woman, having been through what she goes through before and after a child is born, could be regarded the real owner of the child. Men treated the uniqueness of childbirth and childcare in particular like child’s play.
There were Africans dazed and dazzled that in the white man’s divorce laws, the custody of the child or children favoured the woman with the man’s place at the fringe in spite of his support. From the spiritual state with no gender disparity, one is made female in the gross material nature so is the male; but the man has transgressed in sublime disregard of the woman, taking advantage of the state of the gross material as it manifests. In time, some women transgressed too and in that way, they failed to flow in their purity.
From the woman’s perceptive, she influences the nature of her offspring starting from the womb then the home where she’s the queen and that’s if she lives positively with what womanly abilities endowed to make her.
The queue went on smoothly without breaking. There were no more men on their way to the bush to farm or hunt or from the bush after night hunting. Whether married or unmarried, the men would stop when any of them spot the girls. Like a man mesmerised, a man would point at or reach out to fondle any girl calling her his wife or next. The girls’ backside and breasts were the targets and the desire to hit the targets never bothered any of them of the probable spank, smack or blight any of the girls would unleash.
For the most part, the girl concerned would either move away as fast as she could or stand firm with repulsiveness on her face that should scare any man. It never scared any man. It was rather inviting. It was usually moments of scampering and dashing this way or that way by girls with the men after them like butterfly hunters. Usually, the scenario was like a show of cocks with puffed feathers chasing hens on a chicken farm in the morning hours. The men were ever excited in the presence of girls and with licentiousness in mind; they never let opportunities of indiscreet flirting pass them. So young and the virgins that they were, they were treasures worth exploiting.
Despite the fragile clay pot of water, the girls had mastered the art of escape. A girl approached would attempt a dash off spilling water or deliberately splattering some toward the man as she scolds to keep him off. An intolerant girl would suddenly unleash a slap in the direction of the man with or without the certainty of hitting him. Nonetheless, such girls seldom miss the target. The men were rather excited so it never bothered them. They were ever willing to dispense manliness; welcoming smacks from the girls. It never bunged them from the intention of satisfying their passion. One of the girls was smarter. She took on the habit of always carrying a club to the stream. In that way, she kept only the less daring men at bay. A friend noticed the efficacy so she worked on a stick making it look like a baseball bat.
The girls were never so lucky to get away from any of the men. The men went after them like something that means so much with zeal. They were ever able to catch up with great delight. They were ever quick to pat the buttocks or grope about the girls’ body with their steel-like fingers. Sometimes the girls let out hilarious scream expressing hysterical excitement or vehemence. Their vituperations that expressed their discontentment were part of the excitement to the men.
Anyhow, the men went about their businesses excited and hoped for another opportunity they’d grab as if it was the only chance ever. For the most part, it created enmity between the men when a man is caught ogling a betrothed girl. More often than not, it ended up in a fight to the admiration of the girls, ever amused and wished for a hell’s beating of a man they despised. The men still never relented at any opportunity to show off to any of the girls that was in their interest their toughness.
With the influence of the foreigners in the land, the mode of dress of Mary and her mates was proper. Nothing more than a small piece of locally woven material could have been the costume girdled round the waist to cover only the private part. That challenged the privacy of the breasts of the grown up. Even the married and older women not excluded lived ever exposed to the licentious scrutiny of men. Very young girls that were the wives in waiting were the most scrutinised.
In the season of cold weather, children spend most part of the day indoors with huts kept warm by the ceaseless burning of an exceptional log of wood that glowed to the last coal in the hearth. Stepping out, they wrapped bigger fabricated materials over their bodies to keep them warm.
They lived their lives in a way that never indicated change or advancement as at the time the white man, as they called the foreigners, entered their land. In his own practise, the white man had now and again fashioned out and modified customs and costumes. They were a people set for changes and advancement that in spite of their climate, they’d always determined their kind of costume in designs. From the climate of their natal home that is different from the climate of their discoveries, they adopted new designs that fitted the climate of their discoveries.
Younger children now go to the streams regularly using plastic or steel containers. Lack of expertise in handling clay pots used by only grown up girls had ended up in breakages most of the times. Most families could not bear up the cost of damages so they profoundly welcomed utensils with which the white man appeared. Now, more and more children, with playfulness unrestricted, without fear of damages went to the streams to fetch water. This was unlike the bigger girls. As the ones responsible for fetching water for the home, they found delight in carrying clay pots to prove their expertise in the chore. The boys were always engaged in things-only-men-do tasks with their fathers.
The slanting rays of light in the shades of the big trees began to give way as the footway busted onto another footway that was much wider. It was a one-lane dusty road in one area and sandy in another that looked like a double path formed by the tires of trucks and rickety buses that transported passengers and wares weekly to and from the neighbouring villages as well as the distant city. In the rainy season, it was usually muddy except the sandy area of the terrain, which was always sandy only where the terrain was a level ground. Water gathered in puddles where there were gutters or potholes.
The bigger girls and younger children no longer moved in a queue as they got onto the one-lane road. There was enough space for everyone to manoeuvre past the other. They were now chattering more amusingly, stopping now and then to make a jest or a statement.
The foot way led to an open ground that also served as a market place and once every week people gathered to buy and sell. Rows of forked sticks erected, stood about seven feet above the ground and connected by longer sticks on which raffia palms laid on as roofs. The sticks and raffia palms tied with ropes made from the bark of banana trees served as stalls.
A giant cotton tree stood in sparse undergrowth that surrounded the open ground. Under it was the trunk of a huge tree cut out. It looked antiquated. A slit cut along the length of the trunk about nine inches wide, chiseled deep into the trunk formed a hollow in which lay two short sticks that also looked antiquated. They were sticks for beating the talking drum as they called the cut out stem of the huge tree. Only those honoured in the folklores and myths of the time understood its language when it was beaten.
Beside the wooden drum was a platform made of wood, cut into boards and placed on longer sticks that connected the forked sticks. The platform stood at about three feet above the ground. On matters of emergency, the wooden drumbeat summoned the villagers to the arena. It was the job of a man as an orator to speak for the village. For a woman to stand on a platform and address the people especially where there are groups of men was never accepted. It seemed it was the reason that women never climbed trees.
It was resenting for a woman to get on a pedestal to address men. If anyone had ever asked for the reason, the men faced up such question with strong rebuff. Only few people, if really there was any, ever bothered to know. Man is superior and it ended there. Physical gross material approach was all about it and it ends there as they see it. Man assumed an air of importance that is disturbing and it blinds him from seeing and fitting in the dynamics of an even existentiality with woman.
The open ground also served as a playground and every village had one that was as old as it was. On a moonlit night, the villagers gather in merriment and ecstasy and indulge in folklores. Several adjoining footpaths from the open ground proceeded to homes and other parts of the village.
The throng of water fetching group trooped through the playground where they began to disperse. Mary approached her father’s compound with vivacity. Her breasts were emphatic as they vibrated in unison with her buttocks. She went in by the gate that was the only entrance into the thick wall of red earth enclosure.
As she pushed the dwarf gate open, she could see the door of her father’s hut. It stood directly opposite the gate half-open. He’d returned from tapping palm wine in a nearby bush. Four other huts lined up at the back of his hut in which his other wives and their children dwelled. At one side of the wall, enclosing the compound was a huge barn, which was ever in his control. Here, he stored the crops, mostly the staple food. Beside the barn was a shed for the goats. The chickens, which the women bred, roost after the day’s rummage in small attachments constructed beside its owner’s hut.
Mary strode in, found her way round to the back of her father’s hut and went straight to her mother’s hut. She stopped beside a large earthen pot that was beside the entrance of the hut and took off the lid that covered it. It was made of craftily woven palm frond fibres.
She tipped her pot of water over the large earthen pot with total concentration as the content went down like waterfall. She put the lid back and gently placed the empty pot down, beside the large one and went into her mother’s hut. She might still go back to the stream for more water. Several trips were required to fill the large pot to the brim for the chores that was all what the children, mostly girls did. When it was laundry time, the stream was the place.
Her mother was sitting by the fireplace and tending it. Martha came in next followed by two of Mary’s half sisters. They made straight to their mothers’ huts. The children had woken up before dawn and begun the almost one mile trek to the stream. It was an unquestionable responsibility that every child, under compulsion, should prove his or her worth in the household and there could be no better opportunity.
It was the carefree season that came between planting and harvesting. There was no dry and dusty cold wind coming from across the Mediterranean through the Sahara to make anyone feel indisposed from getting out of bed early in the morning.
As it was customary, Mary’s father strictly ruled his large household of four wives and thirteen children like every other man residing in the village. He sometimes got too busy to take note of all matters in the family. He routinely checked the huts and never tolerated misdemeanour from anyone no matter how trifling it was. None of his wives drew lines, no matter how thin, between her children and that of other wives. There was only one mother to the family. She was his first wife whom everyone in the family called Mama.
Commonly identified by the name of their foremost child, it was with keenness with the name of the male child to the father. It was honourable. Because they’d remained mothers of only female children much longer than expected, they remained Mama Mary and Mama Titi even after they had more kids.
As Mary joined her mother in the hut, a voice called from one of the other huts. It was the first wife calling. Her children had not returned home. ‘Mama Mary,’ the rasping voice skimmed its way from her hut and hovered about in the compound.
‘Is that me?’ Mary’s mother responded. At night, people responded to calls indirectly. No one answered a call when the caller is not within sight. The natives had assumed evil spirits could mimic people’s voices at night so they respond to calls from unseen callers with a question. The people believed spirits backed off when questioned. They felt that way guaranteed protection against malevolent spirits and it became a common practise even in broad daylight.
‘Is there any child there who can bring coals of fire here?’ Mary’s mother took out one of the wood burning in the fire and crushed live coals on a piece of broken clay pot and handed it to Mary as she told her to pass by the barn and see if her father had brought out their share of yam that would be prepared for the evening meal. Mary came back with four big tubas of yam.
Mary’s mother was peeling the cocoyam she was going to prepare porridge for breakfast. As she turned round to look outside after dropping the yams in a corner, Mary sighted a troublesome nanny goat peering into the hut. The goat had seen Mary passed by with the yams and followed and as a routine, it stopped at the door of the hut. With its head tilted one side then the other side, it peered into the hut. It knew very well that it was unwelcomed. All Mary did was stoop and with the speed of a dart, the goat was gone to escape any object, possibly wood or stone it knew was what Mary stooped to pick and would whiz out of the hut straight to it.
Mary always watched her mother peel the cocoyam. As required and was the routine observed by every girl in every home with the boys out, she watched her mother worked. She had to be handy always to learn from her mother.
‘My girl that you are, I know you’ll help her set the fire,’ Mary’s mother said ever pleased with her daughter’s cleverness and resourcefulness and Mary affirmed she did without moving. ‘Don’t sit like that,’ her mother went on to caution her. She was sitting on a low stool with her legs wide apart. The dress she had changed rested at her knee level such that anyone could easily have seen up between her legs. ‘It’s indecent and portrays lewdness.’ Mary was an untroubled girl, a trait about her that made her mother proud of her always. Her mother never relented in any way in grooming her. Her eyes fixed on what her mother was doing; she quickly brought her knees together.
Her mother had always taken the time to be prudent and devotedly made her understand the art of cooking. Experience had shown that condiments followed a proper order, which was necessary for the best taste and that was one thing she never wavered. She ensured Mary knew it.
After peeling the cocoyam, she cut them into small pieces, washed and poured them into the pot that was already on the fire. Mary went to a corner of the hut and carried a basket of vegetables back to where she sat opposite her mother and began to pick them. Constricting as much leaves as her hand could hold, she placed it on a chopping board picked from beside the basket of vegetables and sliced them into tiny bits. She picked a bowl and was about to go out to get water and wash them.
‘Oh, there’s no need to wash them. They’re clean. I plucked them high above the ground.’ She kindled the fire, deftly lifted the lid of the pot and moved her head sideways to evade the thick up surging steam that puffed from the pot. ‘Let me have the vegetables. Where’s the dry fish?’ Mary handed over the vegetables and went back to the same corner for the smoked fish. She broke them into tiny bits on the chopping board and poured into the already boiling pot as her mother watched. ‘I’ll add the vegetables in a little while.’
Mary grew up learning that not all ingredients go into the pot at the same time. Until the cooking done, her mother emphasised on seasoning and timing at the preparation of every meal. Some food items needed prolonged heating to bring out their taste. Some food items needed lesser time on the fire. Mothers made sure their daughters mastered the art; knowing food items that lose taste or taste nauseatingly when untimely applied. By the standard, Mary had mastered the art of cooking at thirteen.
The ingredients followed in their proper order. There was a portion of smoked chicken, which she’d added to the cooking earlier and the vegetables went in last. It needed the least time of heating.
‘This porridge will really be tasty.’ Mary said as she took over cooking from her mother gauging the contents.
‘I’ve always prepared very tasty dishes.’ Her mother still on her sit just watching said.
‘But papa has never praised your cooking. In addition, how do you know he likes what you cooked?
‘Darling, it’s easy. Any time your husband’s bowl is returned to your hut empty or half empty, you know better.’ Mary smiled, circumspectly gauging the thickness of the porridge.
Mary’s relationship with her mother was one that exceeded that of mutual friendship. She was now a grown girl and set for womanhood unlike the younger siblings still treated as toddlers. She was her mother’s only female child. Unlike what had been a deplorable state for most of the women, Mary had reached her sixth birthday before her brother was born. It was a wait too long. From their discussions, the things they do or share together, it was easy to think that Mary and her mother were sisters and friends.