It was 3:30 am, and the first cockcrow had just been heard some hundred meters away from late Mr. lloka’s house, and people were still trickling in and out of the house. Almost everyone who came out of this house was intercepted on the way by some other person coming in the opposite direction and asked the same question: “Is he still alive?”
In the inner room of Mr. lloka’s house sat Mrs. Iloka on a low stool, gazing helplessly on her only son, Elochukwu (now in his tenth year), seated on her laps tike a baby being suckled. Underneath Mrs. lloka’s laps was a small pot containing a dark-coloured oily fluid which was occasionally rubbed over Elochukwu’s body until he looked like a polished wooden statue. Beside this pot was a pan containing pieces of charcoal discharging black smoke with a peculiar odour. Around mother and child stood a handful of sympathizers with folded hands gazing downwards at the sick child lying stiffly on his mother’s taps. No one appeared to know what to say. They all stood there in dead silence as if ordered not to make any noise. Occasionally, the silence was broken by Nnalue who would heave out air from his lungs like a blacksmith’s bellows. Nnalue was Mr. lloka’s younger brother who since the death of his elder brother had taken it upon himself to look after this family.. Each time Nnaiue’s deep sigh was heard, Mrs. lloka would look up at him as if expecting to be told something. After gazing at him for a couple of seconds, she would bend over her child again in an endless gaze that seemed to be pleading for mercy.
Young Elochukwu lay almost motionless on his mother’s thighs. His tummy had swollen tremendously. His lips were clenched like a pair of clippers. His eyes were wide open and hardly blinked. Now and again one of the women standing around would stoop over to have a grip at one of the legs, usually at the lower portion.
Who has an idea of what the clock says now?, asked Nnalue. “Apas four1, snapped a young man with a wrist watch who sat on a chair near the entrance. “Ohoo! One and half hours more”, concluded Nnalue. After a long pause, as if he had been trying to work out what one and a half hours on top of half past four would come to, the young man asked, “what is going to happen at 6a.m.?” “They say the hospital opens at 6a.m.”, answered Nnalue.” I want to take this child to St. Jude’s Hospital”.
“Eeeh! “Eeeh” mewed a voice from a fat elderly woman who sat close to Mrs. lloka. “This sickness is not the type they can cure in the hospital. Uche my son suffered this disease at the age of eight, and we only had to apply all these measures now being applied here, and within a few days he recovered. Hospital? Ha! Dimgba is not a thing for English medicine. Are you not aware of that fact”? she asked.
A loud tap was heard. All eyes were steered towards the entrance. In walked a very elderly man with a thin walking stick in his right hand. Soon his wrinkled face showed up in the light. It was Mazi Okoli who was highly respected in the area.
“Ndubulu Afifia! Ndubulu Afifia!,” saluted everyone almost simultaneously. “Fa eroo! Faga eronuo!” came his response. ‘Ndubulu afifia, meaning’if life were grass” is what was used as a form of greeting for Mazi Okoli who always responded with ‘fa eroo’ or fa garonuo’ which means’ they will uproot! They here referred to ‘the enemy.’ “My wife has just come back to report that the condition of this child was getting worse/1 complained Mazi Okoli. “What are you planning to do now?” he asked. His question was not answered. Nobody appeared to know what to say, for the dead silence came back, interrupted only by the noise from mosquitoes and claps from one person or the other in an attempt to kill any which flew across.
In the midst of this silence a sharp whistling sound was heard from a bird which just flew past. They looked at each other with raised eye-brows but no one uttered a word. It was the common belief in the village that whenever that particular sound was heard, it showed that someone was going to die. The bird which had that sound was known as the ‘spirit’s bird1. Mrs. lloka herself did not know anything about this nor the other customs and beliefs of the people. She had lived in Kaduna almost all her life. She had only to come home after the death of her husband to fulfill the obligations of a widow.
Mazi Okoli stamping his walking stick on the ground commanded in a harsh tone that Elochukwu should be taken immediately to a medicine man who lived in a village some eight kilometers away. Everybody saw with Mazi Okoli and preparations for the journey began.
It was 5 a.m., and Mrs. lloka with Elochukwu tucked inside a heavy blanket on her left shoulder found herself on a long journey to the man on whom lay all hope for the survival of her only son.
It was a moonless night. Cocks were crowing here and there. The road was rough and narrow. Nnalue walked in front with a burning stick of light (made out of the oily outer covering of palm nuts) in the right hand. With the left hand holding one end, and the other end secured under the left armpit was a bunch of about ten similar inflammable sticks. Mrs, lioka trodded wearily behind. The dawn was misty and chilly.
Soon, it was daylight, and several people, hoes over their shoulders, were going to their farms. Some women were hurrying to the big market of Eke with their baskets of goods. Now and again they would be stopped by one of the market women to ask what the child was suffering from. Mrs. lloka’s reply was always, “They say it is Dimgba (convulsion) as if she herself did not believe it was.
They were now about a kilometer to their destination. They came to a road junction. To the left continued the rough and narrow road. The road to the right was smoothened and widened. It led to the house of the medicine man they were going to see. This man, having made much money from his profession had employed labourers to smoothen and widen the road for the convenience of those who drove into his house daily to seek one form of help or the other. This new development on this road confused Nnalue who continued the journey through the left track.
Kilometer upon kilometer they trekked and their destination was not in sight. Noon was approaching but the weather had not quite brightened.
The day was as dull as forgetfulness. The clouds were gathering. It was obvious it was going to rain. It was March and there had been no rainfall for the past six months. They were understandably not prepared for any rainfall. Soon, heavy winds set in and the trees bowed and danced. Nnalue tried to console Mrs. lloka by assuring her that it was not going to rain. Minutes later, it started dropping in singles, and later exploded into a heavy downpour. There was no house nearby. They desperately looked out for one but saw none. They ran and ran and got tired of running. Young Elochukwu wriggled in discomfort under his sheath of blanket. His mother bursting with sorrow kept patting him on the back with the right hand and calling him, “father! father!”
It rained cats and dogs. The flood was so much that they could scarcely walk.
The rain had now stopped. There was still no house insight. Not a single person was seen either. For the first time Nnalue became sure that they must have missed the right road. Fortunately, a small hut came in sight. Their hearts moved with that joy of a drowning man provided with a rescue. They were now heading towards the hut. As they approached, a little child ran out, and scuttled back like a frightened rat, almost immediately. Before they came to the main gate to the house, two people emerged. One, a short bow-legged man with dirty beards. The other was a slim long- necked woman who but for the small piece of cloth tied round her waist would have been described as naked. They received the trio very warmly and hurriedly made fire for them to dry their clothes.
Nnalue started to narrate their story. They listened with great sympathy. The short man whose name was Uko shouted when he understood that they were going to see the medicine man who knew how to cure Dimgba. “Okatigwe lives in Ugboko village some six kilometers away from here. This road does not lead to Ugboko at ail”. (Okatigwe is the name of the medicine man whom Mazi Okoli had advised that Elochukwu be taken to).
Uko then advised them to spend the night with them and set off the next morning since it was soon to get dark. He asked Mgboii his wife to prepare some food for them. They accepted to settle down for the night in Uko’s house.
The day broke and they prepared for the next phase of their long journey. Uko offered to accompany them to Okatigwe’s house. The morning was bright and the weather was very promising. They had breakfast together and set off.
Before noon they got to Ugboko village. Okatigwe lived a one in a remote part of this village. It was said that the villagers feared him and lived away from him. When they got to the house, Uko asked the rest to wait outside while he went in first to inform Okatigwe about their arrival. It was a large house with few small windows. The door at the entrance was so low that even Uko had to bend before he got in. Just in front of this house stood a miniature house inside which hung a small bell, A mound stood right at the centre of this small house. At the apex of this mound was a small hole, large enough for rats to live in. It was said that the bell was capable of ringing on its own. Whenever it rang, Okatigwe would crawl into this small house and bend one ear over this hole. It was also said that the spirits spoke to him through it.
Soon, Uko emerged and asked them in. They all squeezed themselves in through this small opening which served as a door.
Before them stood a tall and stout man with little red eyes which were sunk behind the protruding forehead and presented a picture of a chimpanzee. The two central incisor teeth were so long that the two lips were permanently denied the pleasure of contact. He wore a red cap with three pieces of black feathers sticking out on top.
“Welcome! He greeted. He removed his cap and carried Elochukwu who was fast asleep and laid him on a wooden bed nearby. He turned to the men showing them seats one after the other. Before he was through with them, Mrs. lloka had seated herself beside her sleeping child. She was stupefied with fear. Her eyes kept travelling all over the room. Her heart began to beat much faster. At a certain stage she preferred to close her eyes that she might stop seeing more frightful things. However, she managed to hold herself. Okatigwe had known all that was wrong with the child and did not need to ask any question. He immediately went into operation. He removed the lid of one small pot from which he took out a portion of some black substance and poured it on a burning fire in one corner. A pungent odour came off. He took this mass towards the sleeping child, placed it near the nostrils.
When he was sure a good deal of this had been inhaled, he removed it and threw it back into the container. Next he brought the leaf of a plant and stuck one end of it into Elochukwu’s mouth. He took a mouthful of a hot liquid in another container and sprayed it over the child’s body. He was still fast asleep. Next, he brought a very young chick and left it on top of the sick boy’s body. The chick walked about for some time on his body and settled quietly over his chest. After a few minutes it was removed and placed back in one black basket.
Elochukwu was now awake. He had slept for about two hours in this house. Uko who was still waiting to see the outcome of his services sat loosely on his chair snoring with sleep. Mrs. lloka was still sitting beside her son, as he lay on his bed with face upwards. He opened his eyes slightly and closed them again slightly, then wider and wider until they looked bigger than his mother’s. Instead of the white ceiling boards he was used to seeing in his mother’s house, he saw black and smoky roof littered with a network of spiders’ webs. Here and there hung all sorts of things ranging from small calabashes to balls of stone-like materials wrapped all over with red and white bands of cloth.
He gasped. Mrs. lloka felt a little movement on the bed and looked back on him. She threw her arms over him and softly called, “Father! My Father!”. At once she reported to Okatigwe. He ordered her to leave the child alone yet. Okatigwe’s deep voice vibrated in Elochukwu’s ears and he became more frightened. He called out in a soft voice, “Mama!” “My father’’, she answered. His mother’s presence added some courage but other things kept increasing his fears. His mother became very worried. She was filled with fear and sympathy for her son because she knew he could not withstand the horrors of that house now that he was awake. She pleaded with the medicine man to allow her take him in her arms. He accepted her request. She then collected him from the wooden bed onto her thighs. He sank his head between her left arm and breast. From her, his eye balls moved about in their sockets as he took a survey of the house.
About two meters away from him stood a young boy carrying a pot on his head with both hands. His eyes were closed and at first the sick child wondered why this boy should be sleeping while standing with a pot on his head. A small lizard appeared from the roof, jumped on the left shoulder of this ‘young boy’: ran through the length of his body and disappeared under the bed.
As he was tracing the lizard with his eyes, he observed that this strange ‘boy’ who wore no clothes had lost his genital organs. It was a corpse. He shouted, “Mama o o!” and threw his hands over her, hiding his face between her breasts. His body trembled like a pulled guitar string.
“Elo, Elo! Do not be afraid! She encouraged. Okatigwe stood up and went closer to him. “Elo,” he grunted, stretching his two big arms. “Come!” The boy turned his neck to look at the caller. His eyes fell on the two stretched arms. He wondered at the concentration of long black hairs that made those hands look beast- like. His eyes travelled from these hands up to his face, and the boy’s lower lip dropped in amazement. He had never seen a man so ugly.
“Come here he called again. His mother whispered into his ear “father, go” with a melodic tone in her voice. She then tried to lift him away from her. Okatigwe received him, and sat him on his knees. He dipped his thumb inside the oily liquid and drew lines on the child’s back. He ground his teeth twice and stopped. The boy lifted his head and looked at his face. He grinned, showing his protruding incisor teeth. He threw his face away in fear.
For the first time since they came in, the door by the left made a crack-like noise and started opening gradually. All eyes were thrown towards it. The visitors were curious to know who it was that had been in that room and-bothered not to come out all that while. The angle of the door kept increasing centimeter by centimeter but nobody appeared. The whistling sound it made as it opened became sharper and sharper rising to a crescendo. They had all watched the door from the upper half down to the middle, expecting to see someone emerge. It was Mrs. lloka who first allowed her eyes to travel further downwards.
“A-a-a-”, she screamed with such a loud voice that Okatigwe himself was startled. “Mama mu o o o! Ma a a!, joined Elochukwu almost immediately. The two men roared with laughter as mother and child took to their heels. Mrs. I oka with youthful agility sprang to her feet and jumped on top of the bed. Her child had shot himself away from Okatigwe, falling over an assembly of bottles nearby; shouting and screaming as he struggled without success to get on to his feet again.
About one meter away from where Elochukwu lay was this repugnant new comer; a very large black snake of about two meters long. His master immediately gripped it by the portion just behind the head, pulled it close to himself until its mouth was just about six cm., away from his face. He muttered a few words as he shook the animal with both palms. He then let go his hands and the animal slapped the floor with the upper half and glided back into the room.
When all was over, Nnalue asked Okatigwe if he could not ask them to go since the child had apparently recovered. He nodded continuously for some time, and said, “you may go I will give you another medicine which you will rub over him as soon as you get home”. We shall do so, replied Mrs. lloka. He then added that four days after they had gone, he would be expecting one black goat, two white chickens and two tubers of yam from them. He ordered them not to leave his house until they heard the sound of a bell. He went into the inner room, spent about ten minutes there and came out. The visitors waited to hear the bell ring. In the one hand they were anxious to hear the bell. On the other hand, the thought of it sent a current of horror through them.
Elochukwu tried to imagine what kind of sound it was going to be. He remembered the sound of his school bell. He wanted to ask who it was that would ring that bell because Okatigwe had no bell with him. He was to frightened to say anything. It rang, they took hold of all they came with and left. They were happy and their faces brightened once more.
On reaching home, she thanked God and never went back there and nothing happened to her, and she swore never to enter that house again.