Ugwumba was so unusually late in returning from market that his three children abandoned their mother in the kitchen where she was busy preparing supper for the family and sat along a felled tree in front of the house from which their father occasionally chopped off pieces of wood for their mother’s use.
While they sat there, they sang dirges with faces up for occasional glances towards the road leading to their house to see if their father was coming. It was the belief among children there that if their parents were away and they wanted them back, all that was required was to sing the popular ‘come home1 song which would then be picked up by some message birds as they flew over. These birds would then carry the message to their parents wherever they were and deliver it to their parents’ spirits inside them which would then urge them to come home quick. It was then understandable why they threw their faces up in search of the message birds. Whenever one was insight, they sang louder until it flew out of vision. Occasionally they forgot what they were out for and diverted to some other issues. They were either arguing over whether or not their mother had any meat for the soup she was making (any day they had meat was regarded as a special day) or they were discussing where to go to after supper for the ‘moon play’. The ‘moon play1 refers to the special occasion organized by children each time there is full moon during which they entertain themselves with tales, songs and dancing.
“Papa!” shouted one of them. “O-o-o-o-oh” he sighed, as he heaved out all the air he took in before the shout of ‘Papa’. He had seen a man very much like their father. When they all looked forward and discovered that he was not their father, they remembered their song and started again:
Whoever saw Papa
Tell Papa to hurry back home
For his food is ready
The little child is crying
Message-bird, message bird
Fly to my father
And tell him to come home.
It was getting dark, and they still sat there singing. “Ebele shouted their mother, as she stood in front of the house some few meters from where they were. “Ehh!” answered the eldest of the children almost immediately she heard her name. She quietly told her to come in with the others promising them that their father would soon be back. They all came in and saw that supper was ready. They ate and left his own share for him. They stayed on full of anxiety expecting at every minute to hear his foot-steps. It was now getting far into the night and Ugwumba was yet not seen. One of the children started crying. The rest soon joined. Their mother became so worried and frightened that she became restless. She took the three children out to a neighbour’s house and complained about the long absence of her husband. They spent a short time there and returned to their own house to see if he was back in their absence. Their neighbours who were all equally worried came and stayed with them and tried to console the children. They soon cried themselves to sleep. Their neighbours soon left for their various homes leaving her alone. She sat up all night, unable to sleep till it was morning. ft was just beginning to dawn, and a few voices could now be heard of people going to their distant farms. There was a tap at the door. Mgboli sprang to her feet and opened the door immediately. In walked Ajagu, one of their closest neighbours. She locked back the door.
“Didn’t Ugwumba return in the night?” he asked. “We have not seen him yet”, was the reply. Ajagu became very worried. He wondered why Ugwumba should decide to sleep out of his house. He remarked that he was not used to sleeping out and believed strongly something very serious must have kept him away. He was not able to suspect anything which could likely be responsible for his absence from home. Mgboli was almost beginning to weep when a voice called, “Mgboli!” She quickly recognized it as her husband’s and unlocked the door quickly. Ugwumba walked in with anger clearly written on his face. “Welcome” greeted Mgboli. He gave no reply, but walked straight into the inner room to keep his load.
He was still frowning and Ajagu became curious. “Friend, what happened? What brought about all these? Did anything or anybody disturb you on your way home yesterday?” he asked in quick succession. These ‘Carpenter’ tax people block road”, he answered. Once in a while officials of the Internal Revenue went out into the villages to collect Capitation Rate from every grown adult. Some of these officials confronted Ugwumba as he was returning from market and demanded his receipt for the payment of this rate or pay his on the spot. Not being able to produce one, he was forced to stay in a temporary cell till the next morning when he would be taken to court. There were other people with whom Ugwumba was held. Late in the night, Ugwumba and a few others found their way out of this ceil. He travelled on foot throughout the early hours of the morning and arrived home and met his wife inside with Ajagu.
Soon after Ajagu left, Ugwumba called Mgboli and asked her what it was she did with Ajagu all through the night in his absence that caused Ajagu to still remain in the house till he came in. Mgboli had hardly composed herself to explain herself when he slapped her all over the face with such force that she fell over the children who were still sleeping. She gave such a loud cry that woke the children from sleep and dashed into her kitchen and got hold of a short pestle which she normally used for grinding in the kitchen. She charged back at him with the pestle up in the air and dealt him a heavy blow on the left arm. He tried to rush back at her for another onslaught and collided with Uche, his youngest son who fell with such force that he tumbled. Ugwumba took him up immediately in his arms and rubbed his palm over the child’s head. The shrill cry from Uche amidst that of his mother produced such a blast that their neighbours started trooping in to find out what was happening. Many had heard of Ugwumba’s disappearance from home and had become highly suspicious of bereavement as the cause of the loud cry from his house. With their palm over their chests, as if they were trying to prevent their hearts from exploding from the shocking story they were highly suspicious of, they trotted to the house. On seeing Ugwumba in the house, they heaved sighs of relief before they sought to know what was wrong in the family.
With great difficulty, Mgboli narrated to all the entire story of how she stayed awake all night watching out for the return of her husband. She told how Ajagu had come in, a few minutes before Ugwumba returned, to ask if he did return during the night. Deep sobs choked her up several times as she spoke, and Ugwumba realized that she was innocent and regretted his action. He expressed his regret and apologized.
The whole day was a very gloomy one in Ugwumba’s house. Mgboli sat quietly on the floor of the house and spoke very little. She did not find any grounds to pardon Ugwumba for what he did.
Mgboli’s sadness appeared to have gone with the supper, for after the family had had their usual supper which was rather early that day, they were gathered as usual to listen to Ugwumba’s tales. The children were often very delighted to listen to their father’s stories. They never forgot to obey all the rules. For example, if the mention of a snake was ever made in the course of the story, the children were expected to throw a piece of glowing charcoal outside to appease the snakes. If this was not done, they believed, the snake would visit them that night when they would be sleeping.
It was bed-time, and Mgboli had spread the mat for her children very close to their parents’ wooden bed. Under the bed a collection of charcoal was kept glowing to provide some warmth.
Early the next morning, Mgboli and Ugwumba left for their farm some six kilometers away, taking Ebele along with them. She made sure she kept enough food for both breakfast and lunch for the little ones. It was usually cassava fufu with a soup of bitter leaves which was usually preserved for them in a small pot of clay kept on a shelf built directly above the cooking tripod. An elderly woman living nearby was often begged to bring down the food at mid day for the children. Goats and other pets roamed about the compound daily and would devour any food not properly secured.
Before sunrise, they were at the farm. They soon set to work. They tilled the soil and planted cassava stems. It was a very tedious work. The heat of the sun was scorching. At midday, they made some fire and roasted a few small-sized yams which they had taken with them. This was all they had for lunch. All day long they worked until they were tired. Just before sunset, they collected their tools and left for home.
Ugwumba’s village occasionally saw a menace of wild animate from a nearby bush. As Ugwumba got nearer home, news of a menace by a lion got to them. Mgboli expressed some fear over the safety of her children. But Ugwumba assured her that their children must be safe since they were in the habit of staying indoors.
Ugwumba’s house was now in sight and a crowd was gathered there with bewilderment on their faces. As Ugwumba and wife were sighted , an outburst of lamentation ensued. Mgboli quickly threw off the load on her head and threw herself on the ground, screaming at the top of her voice. Their neighbours came to her rescue, but she could not be comforted. She had not got the message. Her youngest child ran into a lion in an attempt to play outside the house.
The lion pounced on him and took him away in between its upper and lower teeth and dashed into the bush. A hunter upon seeing the Lion with the child crying and wriggling in-between the Lion’s jaw, decided to take the risk of shooting at the Lion. He reasoned that there was no need to fear that the child might be hit by the bullet, since the Lion was sure to eat up the child if he did not make any attempt at all. He then fired a shot at the Lion, and got it at the chest, It quickly fell down releasing its grip on the child. The hunter quickly rushed forward and rescued the child, who was still bleeding. He rushed it to the village medicine man who commenced treatment immediately. He applied some herbs to the bleeding wounds and the bleeding stopped. Meanwhile the child was returned to the parents who continued visiting the medicine man for continued treatment until the baby was fully restored to life.