Where the Palm Nut Grows
by Hannah Onoguwe
JOHN KIRK’S HEAD swivelled along with those of the other men when she stepped into view. He had been interviewing some of the Nembe chiefs, his third meeting with them. Seated outside, they took full advantage of the balmy breeze which licked his face gently and provided scarce relief from the insistent humidity. For a brief moment he had wondered what Alice would do if transplanted here. Without her job at the postmasters, her book club, she would certainly demand she leave at once. Not because she didn’t see his work as important, but because she, like him, found inactivity draining. If she didn’t have the familiar around her, the activities she enjoyed, then she was bound to wilt.
Already he had suffered sunburn, bites from various insects including the dreaded mosquito, a stomach made tender after trying one of the local native soups, which was almost a meal on its own without the accompanying foofoo. It had been delicious, with the fish, periwinkles still in their shells, clams, and plump shrimps, but it had ignited his tongue with the intensities of the fires of Hades. More cautious now, he looked askance at the gourd of palm wine before him. Not wanting to offend as it was the first time he’d been offered a drink, he had lifted it to his mouth, the cloudy liquid lapping his moustache.
“Excellent,” he had declared at the yeastiness infused with sweet undertones, and the chiefs who had been watching him with the fixedness of men seeking news of their money turning a profit, erupted in grins of approval. He was glad he had not needed to lie.
John Kirk had been dispatched by the Crown to get to the bottom of the war between the Royal Niger Company and the Nembe people. In response to The Royal Niger Company’s monopolization of the trade on palm oil and other staples which the indigenes had been trading in since the slave trade had been abolished, King Koko of Nembe had stirred up the hearts and minds of his people to take action. On January 29, 1895, in a move that took the British by surprise, he mobilised over a thousand men and twenty-two war canoes and attacked the headquarters at Akassa, burning down the depot and destroying the warehouses and offices. After vandalizing industrial machines, they had taken 70 of the RNC men hostage. The number of those who were killed right away was given as twenty-five, while others were killed the following day. The news which reached the Crown was that the Nembe had, after killing them in some absurd ceremony, eaten their flesh. With King Koko being at large, the only recourse available was to talk to the chiefs and anyone else who had been involved in some way.
John swallowed, the lingering taste of the palm wine replaced by one tainted by bile. He didn’t want to believe, after interacting with the people personally, that they would deliberately engage in cannibalism. Enraged, the retaliation by British troops had been carnage. After fighting for days with the Nembe warriors and taking over Akassa town, they had moved on to those of Ogbolomabiri, Bassambiri, and Okpoama, leaving over 2,000 people dead. This massacre had resulted in an outcry by fellow European countries, galvanizing the British Government into action to save face. All this had led John back to the continent he hadn’t imagined he would set foot on again, although a different part, the West. That the Nembe agreed to meet with him at all, after having some of their villages razed to the ground and losing many of their brothers, mothers, friends—no matter how distantly connected—said something about the spirit of the people of this land.
It was about that time that she came into view on the dirt path not far away, a tall woman with gleaming skin and limbs that played a symphony. The conversation stalled as eyes swung to her. She strode unhurriedly, perfectly balancing the basket of palm fruits on her head, their orange-red flesh catching and releasing the fading sunlight. The woman met their gazes in turn, unfazed by their regard, flicking over the pale-skinned one in their midst with a look that said, I know your kind. She paused to lower her knee as she spoke the expected greeting to the chiefs.
There was a murmur of response and then one man said, “Sere inetubo.” He was rather wizened, and John surmised that he might be the oldest of the chiefs.
“Ebiemi,” she said before continuing down the path, the eyes of the group an appendage on her departing figure. And it was only then that John noticed the two young girls who, almost eclipsed by far more towering baskets on their heads, followed in her wake. A collective sigh seemed to escape the men as the trio disappeared from view.
John asked in what he hoped was nonchalance, “That woman seems quite bold, doesn’t she?”
The men glanced at each other, laughed. John looked at the young man beside him whose head was also thrown back in mirth. Over this past week since John arrived, Seigha had accompanied him everywhere. He had proved useful as a go-between. He had attended the missionary school, so he translated where necessary. Catching his gaze, Seigha touched John’s knee briefly as if to assure him they meant well.
“All Nembe-Brass women are,” Seigha said.
John nodded. Of course he’d seen a number of their women, but this one carried herself like a daughter of the gods, as if she knew where each foot would fall before she deigned to lift it. But when Seigha spoke swift Kumoni to the chiefs, and they replied in a discordant rumble of voices, he looked at them expectantly.
Seigha said, “She is one of the biggest traders in these parts. In fact, she was one of the women who were molested by workers from the Royal Niger Company.”
John’s head jerked up. Some women had been stripped naked and rubbed with coal, an act which had further fired up the resentment that culminated in the raid. “That means I should speak to her also,” he said. Was that anticipation curling in his belly? No matter. This would further his progress, he assured himself. It wasn’t about the eagerness he suddenly felt to see what she was like at close range.
The men hummed with assent, but one warned, “Take care with that one, Mistah Kek.”
He didn’t want to ask why. He only nodded.
* * *
IN THE TEPID dawn light, the river was a cockeyed bracken mess and there were no lifejackets. The boy who took them across was barely thirteen, his hair not a dense rug but a wilting cloud in the mist.
“His name is King James,” Seigha told John.
When these people converted to Christianity, it seemed they went all out, John thought. King James’ skin was like a slice of bread, lightly toasted, testimony of copulations of the whites with the native women. In the youth’s case, his swarthiness and bold bone structure was proof of a South American sire. John had witnessed similar replications all over Africa and on British soil. Here, though, it seemed they were regarded a little more highly. He had never approved of it, as many women were taken advantage of. But after setting his eyes on Kuro, the banked embers in her eyes and the symmetry of bone, flesh and movement, he found he was more forgiving of such men. To make allowances for those dalliances that resulted because the woman in question possessed the compulsion of a card game or the smoothness of a mouthful of aged cognac as it travelled down the throat to nestle warmly in the belly.
King James paddled them competently across the river, and he and Seigha soon struck up a lively conversation in their language, lilting words parried from one to the other and teeth gleaming intermittently.
As the sky lightened, John’s eyes sharpened. After another uncomfortable night spent with his clothes clinging to his flesh, he couldn’t return to the base in Brass soon enough. Tunisia had never been as humid; and in fact, the only similarity the Niger Delta had with Britain was the propensity for the heavens to open without warning. Even September, which was supposed to be the dry season, would herald the short-lived harmattan winds. Because of the settlements’ proximity to the Rivers Nun and Ramos and Taylor Creek, John imagined whatever dry season they had would be largely nominal. But this was no time to moan. He had a job to do and the sooner he was done with it, the better. They came across a few other boats on their journey, their passive occupants hunched over in the morning chill with raised hands in greeting.
“King James says he has been doing this for five years,” Seigha volunteered.
John’s brows shot up. “He’s only a boy,” he said with a searching look at the youth in question, who nodded with a grin as if he knew what John had said. Of course, he did. Their interaction with foreigners exposed them to a variety of languages.
“Yes,” Seigha said, “but it’s a family business. Even in England, I am sure fathers and uncles teach children, especially boys, early.”
Not without life jackets, John’s mind snarled. Africa was a version of home to him, although he wouldn’t go so far as to say he loved it. But many of his best years had been spent here doing what he loved most; besides championing the cause against the slave trade, he’d had some time to interact with nature and learn about species new to him. His mind was stumped by the vastness of the land, its lushness on the one hand and its aridity on the other. It was like trying to court identical triplets. What he could never get used to was the equal parts veneration and condescension with which the natives meted him. Not him in particular, of course, only it felt that way sometimes.
John was jolted at a shout that suddenly came from a boat ahead. At King James’ strangled sound, he glanced in time to see the boy begin to paddle furiously, the muscles in his long arms straining. He appeared to be attempting to turn the boat around.
“What are you— What’s he doing?” John turned to Seigha. Seigha’s normally pleasant face was tense with concentration as he spoke what sounded like a reprimand to the boy who tossed back a reply that made Seigha’s back stiffen.
“Woyengi,” Seigha exclaimed under his breath. “I have heard stories but I never imagined I would one day—”
The wildness in the other man’s eyes rippling through him, John’s voice was sharp. “For God’s sake, man, stop speaking in riddles.”
“Look!” Seigha cried, pointing at the river ahead. What John saw caused the warmth to leach from his skin. Metres ahead where the other boat fought to stay afloat, the water bubbled and writhed, before stretching up from the surface into crystalline shapes that danced and leapt in their eerie solidity. First a baby, the glassy eyes prominent in its bulbous head. Then a pair of arms, well defined and moving as if to an unheard beat as the hands dipped and flowed towards and away from each other. And then, a woman’s face in profile, swaying and regal, its lines drawn in a pained grimace for a moment just before the mouth widened and a tapered finger shot out and flipped the boat into the air and into the gaping mouth that swallowed it whole. Its occupants and all disappeared beneath the surface. For a few more moments the water frothed furiously, and then with a loud sound that sounded curiously like a belch, the bubbles ceased as the surface quietened dramatically.
John was unaware of the words that streamed from his mouth, prayers from his catechism when he was a boy, panicked pleas that had little to do with the situation at hand. And even as his heart thrummed, he was aware that he had never witnessed anything so chillingly glorious, a tragedy that seized his heartbeat so that he knew no one at home would ever believe his story.
Their boat bobbed in place, the water curiously void of current. King James, who had paddled to no profit, was now still, his face wet with tears. Seigha’s expression was a mixture of fright and wonder, and John imagined it mirrored his. Their breaths were laboured, cutting the silence that cocooned them and filtering out the sounds of other boats, the alarm of those onboard. There had been quite an audience, John realized, and the fact that what he had seen was not a figment of his restless mind turned his bones to water.
“What was that?” he asked, unable to recognize his voice in the whisper that ensued.
Seigha’s chest heaved, his gaze fixed to the spot ahead. John was thinking he might have to repeat the question when the answer filtered out reverentially. “That was Owuamapu.”
“Mermaids?” he managed, even though John was certain that the beings he had just seen, if indeed they could be called that, bore not the slightest resemblance to any human-fish medley.
King James appeared half-frozen, staring straight ahead, so that when Seigha put a hand on his shoulder, the boy jerked. After a few quiet words from the older man, King James seemed to slowly collect himself and resumed paddling with hands that trembled on the oar. They took a course that veered widely from the spot where the boat had been swallowed up, and in that same awe-filled tone, Seigha told John about the spirits who ruled the water. Spirits they believed to be ancestors, how they came and went at will taking whatever shape they desired, appearing in different spots each time except the very shallow portions of the river.
“And you people are still here?” John wondered, a seed of rage beginning to heat his belly at the thought of being at the mercy of such deities. Slavery took different forms.
It was King James that responded, his broken English weighted with a fatalistic note too advanced for his years. “How we go leave everything we don know? Dem be part of us, dem senior us.”
“No innocent person is touched by the Owuamapu,” Seigha said with conviction. “They know best who have gone against them, spoken against them. Or who have harmed their brother. Not much different from your Christian God,” he added with a challenging look at John.
And as the boat sliced through the water, John reflected that it would do no good to tell the younger man that he wasn’t always sure it was his God.
* * *
THE WEAK SUN had begun to peek out when they arrived at the hut set in a clearing. It was larger than many John had seen in the area and smaller huts sat in a semicircle some meters away, as if in deference. The compound was swept clean, the half crescent marks left by a raffia broom prominent in the packed dirt. On the waves of the wind floated the heady scent of spices, the inviting aroma of huge white-fleshed fish rubbed with salt and pepper and allowed to smoke over a half-banked fire for hours until their skin turned to a chewy crust. Not for the first time, John wished he was seeing the Niger Delta absent the burdensomeness of duty.
Through the wide entrance to the outdoor kitchen they could see a middle-aged woman with a patterned cloth tied across her breasts taking apart a fire. With her toe, she nudged the last bit of firewood away and came out, the cloud of smoke a backdrop to her ample form.
She used the corner of her wrapper to wipe her face as they approached, then fixed reddened eyes on them.
“Badei,” Seigha said with a deep nod. John mirrored his greeting and the woman seemed to accept as a given this white-skinned man’s attempt at her language.
“Nua oo,” she said. “Wetin you want?”
So to the point, John thought, even as he coaxed an agreeable smile to his lips. He kept it in place as Seigha engaged her in conversation, gesturing to John every now and then. Through it all, she kept her gaze on John as if he would do something questionable otherwise.
She made a succinct retort that seemed to take Seigha aback, but just as he was about to give some sort of response, a voice called from the main hut.
Kuro—for that was what he had discovered her name to be—sauntered towards them dressed for the day in a blouse and wrapper in matching wax fabric that stopped at her ankles. The mild rebuke in the gaze she shot the older woman was short-lived, and with a terse response, the older woman left them.
“Badei,” Kuro said. She smelled of wood smoke and palm kernel oil and audacity. And although there was the suggestion of a smile on her dark lips as John returned the greeting, her eyes remained unflinching.
Seigha began what John imagined was a rehash of what he had told her mother. But Kuro shook her head.
“I know what he wants,” she said. “Only a man who don go to de ancestors has not hard about de bekebo who ees asking queshions so he can report back to dia queen.” The sneer in her voice was unmistakable, but her face was expressionless as she added, “Let us siddon.” She swivelled smoothly in a move that would certainly have got her drafted into the British army. John Kirk twisted his lips self-deprecatingly; if he could see fit to jest, even in his mind, then he was not quite in form. The two men followed her to a spot beside the main hut and Kuro called out for someone.
In a minute, a boy with a thin but corded chest appeared with a bench which he set on the ground. Looking at the surface of the crudely carved piece of furniture which was dark with latent moisture, John first doubted it could take the weight of three adults. His second thought was that it might stain the light-coloured fabric of his breeches but he discarded the thought the minute it alighted. He had never been a fastidious person, and the fact that he had entertained that notion at all was very telling.
The boy returned with a three-legged stool for Kuro and when she saw that John waited for her to be seated before taking his, she frowned. Seigha had already settled on the bench, rubbing the backs of his arms.
“My boys dey wait for me. We go travel to de inna village to prepare for de market day,” Kuro opened without extending further courtesies.
“Of course,” John finally spoke, emboldened by the fact that Seigha would not need to interpret much, if at all. “I won’t take too much of your time, then.” He brought out his notebook from his satchel. “I hear you were one of the women who the officials from the Royal Niger Company molested? I would like to know how that incident took place.”
“Mistah John Kek. We been trading wit’ oda villages and de bekebo tey-tey before those people come. They wanted to, how you say…” she snagged Seigha’s gaze impatiently as she rattled off a word in vernacular and when it was supplied, said, “humiliate. I was not de fest woman ya people disgrace like this, but na me be de last.”
John looked up at the smugness in her voice. “That was the final straw for King William Koko?” What had gone on between King Koko and Kuro, at least before he had gone into hiding? Had they been lovers? He was so drawn to this woman that he didn’t know if he liked the idea, but it would make some kind of sense. She was striking, magnificent. Who else but the king? Wives, mistresses, John knew in these parts that most men who had one were only just beginning.
“I no know what you mean by dis… straw. But our Amanayanbo say no more.”
The emphasis on the word confused John until Seigha said in an aside, “That’s King Koko’s title. You must know once he became a chief he renounced Christianity and stopped using his English names?”
John nodded, but this was the first time he was hearing of it. Something Sir MacDonald apparently left out during the briefing. “And the nature of the molestation,” John read from his notes, “was that the RNC officials… rubbed coal tar all over—”
“Dem fest comot my cloth,” Kuro hissed. She was leaning forward now, chest heaving. “Dem touch me all over”—and her hands swept her body from breasts to graze the junction at her thighs.
“They didn’t…” John couldn’t voice the words but she seemed to follow his thought processes and shook her head sharply. His relief, he realized in a brief moment of introspection, had little to do with her and more to do with his fellow Englishmen.
“The men that King Frederick William—”
“Ah, yes, Amanayanbo. So the men that he took were sacrificed? When Koko refused to release them, the word we got was that the men were killed and eaten?” He squinted at his notes as he said this, even though he didn’t need them. Not for this.
Kuro snarled in her throat, half-rising without warning so that he actually jerked back. “Why we go eat dem? Dem body sweet pass our fish and isam for dia?” She jabbed a finger in the direction of the river. She was so angry she began to tremble with it, her words choppy. John caught a movement from the corner of his eye and glanced back to the hut. Kuro’s mother had come out, likely from hearing her daughter’s raised voice. Behind her was the boy who had brought the bench. He held a little girl of about three by the hand.
“How you go—” She stopped, then suddenly shouted, “We! We, eat dem.”
So surprised was John by this contradiction that he only stared, his frown concealing a very real disappointment. Why would these people stoop to the inhumane practice of cannibalism? He had heard of ancient practices where the eating of the flesh of an enemy, besides striking fear and respect in every heart that heard of it, endued the warriors with special powers—or so it was claimed. But this…?
“Na we chop dem. We!”
John was forced to abandon the clamour in his head when Kuro danced around, feet tapping the bare ground a few times before she whirled again, arms thrown out and quivering, a rush of words issuing from her mouth. He had just noted the starkness in her eyes when he saw water gush down from her hair suddenly, like a full basin of it had been upturned over her head. The liquid ran over her face and down her limbs, from her ears and her open mouth, plastering the thin fabric of her clothes to her lithe body and splashing onto the ground. Still she spoke, still she shook. And whirled again and again, faster, faster, feet tapping, movements a blur until she collapsed to the muddy ground and her agitation came to rest.
John’s chest heaved as water streamed over his shoes, carrying away little bits of loose sand on its way to the river. What was this? He looked at Kuro’s sodden form lying prone, eyes as if waxed shut. Was she alright? He made to go over to her but her mother, the young man, even Seigha—with a constraining hand on his arm—halted his tracks with their alarmed voices. It appeared that they knew what not to do. This was not a new incident. The little girl was crying, a jagged piercing sound that rent the heart, and refused to be consoled by either Kuro’s mother or the young man.
John Kirk closed his eyes for a long moment, exhausted by the dearth of normalcy in his quest to discover the truth. When he opened them, Kuro had begun to stir, and only then did her mother rush to her with a dry cloth.
“What just happened, Seigha?”
The man sighed, a regretful sound that somehow annoyed John. “What Kuro just said. We do not eat people, no matter how they might have provoked us, disgraced us. Some of us might have the strength and training to kill during war, but no more.”
“But she just said—”
“The Owuamapu took them.”
John discovered a need to sit, as the recollection of the live display by the ancestors on their journey here jarred him afresh. The sounds, the expressions, the creativity of form, the yawning gulp that took a boat and its five occupants and subsided in a burp of satisfaction.
The Royal Niger Company men were responsible in some way, if not by deed, then certainly by affiliation, for the disgrace and molestation of the tradeswomen, for cheating the locals of their rightful trade with whomever they wished, of creating monopoly by cutting off access to the area by the Portuguese and French. And when King Koko had attacked with his men and, after destroying the depot, taken all those men hostage, when they were being transported over those waters, Owuamapu had struck. That was why King Koko could only send back the machinery he had taken, but not the bones of the men of the Royal Niger Company. Not that he was being stubborn, but that he could not because there was nothing to return. No innocent person is touched by the Owuamapu.
John looked at the scene before him, Kuro was being helped to her feet so she could change her clothing.
“You did not mention this ability of theirs this morning,” John said to Seigha, “even though you knew about this.” It was not a question.
He froze when the little girl, now calm, said with palpable relief,
“Nyengi,” before pushing her hand into Kuro’s.
Her child, John thought, and nearly laughed. Of course. Maybe the young man, too, who hovered solicitously about as they moved to the large hut. Both Koko’s? He did not know, and maybe he never would. Some things just were, no matter how different you wished them to be.
When Kuro returned, she had changed into a simple wax yard of cloth that she knotted over her breasts, her daughter balanced on one hip. She just looked at John, her expression still touched with a hint of that haughtiness. Her mind and body had been inhabited by water spirits but here she was. It was just another day in her life, a flash. She would still go as planned to prepare for the market day. Some other day, some time soon or some time distant, whenever the water spirits decided, she would again be the conduit for a message from the Owuamapu and when it was over she would rise from the floor once again, wash the dust off her body and change her clothing. No exorcism would be sought here. Kuro’s eyes, reddened from the water, bore into his and seemed to say, What for?
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me,” he said. The little girl had a small smear of food at the corner of her mouth, which moved in the last motions of chewing.
Kuro nodded, then said, “I no go see you again.”
Of course not, John thought. But he thought about her when he returned to Britain, after he had submitted his report with the story of the Owuamapu which every person he interviewed corroborated. The English officers, from MacDonald to Goldie, decried any such claims as fantastical and just a way of transferring the blame. So he was not surprised when he heard later that the report only carried the allegations by the British. And when John, after he had returned to Alice and reconverted to Christianity and become a grandfather for the first time, learned about King Koko’s death in exile, an apparent suicide, he wondered about the little girl who would not be as little anymore. And how Kuro was doing, and if this time, her body’s quivering, her eventual crying and folding of limbs to the ground had been in grief.
Hannah Onoguwe’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Adanna, BLACKBERRY: a magazine, Imagine Africa 500 and online in Litro, The Missing Slate, African Writer, The Kalahari Review, Lawino, The Stockholm Review, Brittle Paper, Persistent Visions, The Drum Lit Mag, Eleven Eleven and Omenana. Wine and Water, her collection of short romantic stories, is available on Amazon and the Okadabooks app. She lives in Yenagoa with her family where she often finds time to bake. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @HannahOnoguwe.
© 2019 Hannah Onoguwe