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I am a graduate of Criminology and Security studies. I am very passionate about writing (especially screenwriting) and filmmaking. It's my dream to make my mark as one of the greatest storytellers who ever walked this earth.
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Surugede is a story of a young couple who find love but due to unfortunate circumstances they and their entire clan are caught in the middle of the dance of death.
Aninta is one of the notable clans located far east of the river Niger. Contrary to its name it is a very large clan with fifteen villages. It is bordered by neighbouring clans such as Elumelu, Mbaukwu, Umueze and Umuogwugwu. In the days before the coming of the Whiteman, farming was the main occupation of the people of Aninta. The lands were fertile and crops such as yam, cocoyam, cassava, and vegetable crops like bitter leaf, water leaf, pumpkin leaf, tomatoes, red pepper and several others thrived in their seasons. Even fruits could also be found in abundance throughout the clan. When it came to farming, Aninta was envied and respected by all her neighbours. It was therefore no surprise that the great market in Aninta was always filled with buyers who came from distant lands and paddled across several waters to purchase the bounties that were on display. On all four market days; Afor, Eke, Nkwo and Orie, it would seem the whole world was gathered at the market square in Aninta from dawn till dusk.
The clan also had hunters, fishermen, palm wine tappers, and musicians who played the ekwe, oja, udu, and the calabash. But these were considered leisure activities and not real occupations. Without a big farm and barns filled with yams and cocoyams, one was afforded little or no respect.
The people worshipped several deities which had their various specialties. However, the most feared among them was Ani the earth goddess whose goodwill members of the clan sought at all times. It was Ani who gave fertility to women and who nourished the earth that brought forth the crops that had given Aninta the wealth and fame that made her the envy of all. The clansmen and women understood that without the earth goddess they would be nothing. Offences against Ani were swiftly and severely dealt with. Tributes and sacrifices were sent to her priest before the planting season and after the harvest; just in time for the new yam festival. Any farmers who refused to do this stood the risk of having a cursed farmland.
In those days before the Whiteman, Aninta like other neighbouring clans had no king. Every man ruled his home in accordance with the culture and traditions passed down from the ancestors. The only form of central leadership was the gathering of the titled men of the clan when the situation called for it. They resolved matters such as disputes or wars with another clan. These esteemed men were those who had taken at least one of the three traditional titles of Ozo, Nze, and Idemili. These titles carried with them very lavish ceremonies and only the wealthy could afford to attain them.
Aninta was a great and prosperous clan until the darkness set in and changed everything.
Ogbuefi Udoka was one of the richest men in Aninta and one of only two men who had acquired all three titles of the clan. With five wives and twenty sons, his was a very large household. He was wealthy enough to initiate his three eldest sons into the Ozo society even before they were married. Like their father, his sons were prosperous with vast amounts of farmlands, all but one; his youngest son Nnanna.
Nnanna was his only source of unhappiness. As a boy he never liked farming and would often sneak out of the house during the planting seasons. His usual spots were the wrestling grounds, feasts and indeed all festive gatherings. Music was the thing he loved and could play any of the ekwe, oja, udu, opi, cowrie-stringed calabashes and pots, and even a wooden device with strings given to him by a traveller who claimed he got it from a land far north where people rode on animals. Whatever music instrument he laid his hands on; he found a way to produce melodious sounds with it.
Unfortunately for Ogbuefi Udoka, the beatings, deprivation of food, and all other forms of punishment didn't faze the young lad. Nothing could take away his love for music. By the time Nnanna was a young man his fame had spread throughout the clan and beyond. He and his merry little band of musicians who brought shame to their fathers were present at every feast whether or not they were invited. During wrestling matches they played tunes that charged the atmosphere and made exceedingly brave the hearts of the wrestlers. At feasts, their tunes and songs made the maidens dance and wriggle their bottoms much to the pleasure of the men who relished such moments. If it was a funeral they sang dirges using the departed heroes' names and if the dead man was a well-known coward, they sought refuge in singing praises of the man's ancestors.
Nnanna and his friends never charged their patrons much. All they needed was food to eat, wine to drink, and if they were going far from home, bamboo beds to pass the night on and a few manilas to spend on the way home. In the unlikely event that they weren't playing at any occasion, they would gather in front of Nnanna's hut in his father's compound where they treated the little children to their music. Of course they would eat and drink to their fill courtesy of Nneka, Nnanna's mother. Ogbuefi Udoka would recline on his chair in his Obi and curse away bitterly.
Unknown to his folks, something had changed for Nnanna. He had seen a girl who struck in him a chord no music instrument could. He first saw her when his band played at her brother's Ozo ceremony a few moons ago and took a liking to her which he was sure she reciprocated. Her name was Adaku the only daughter of Mba the late champion wrestler.
Adaku was the last child of Ogbuefi Mba and his only daughter. She was loved by her father, brothers and even her father's other wives. Respectful and dutiful, she was also strong-willed and could be hard-headed at times. Just as she was entering womanhood, a sickness took her father. The fifteen villages had gathered to bury this illustrious man who had brought them pride in the days of his youth.
To the dismay of her family, she kept rejecting suitors who came for her hand in marriage, her brothers' friends among them. Young, old, poor, rich, famous, unknown, she turned down every one of them. Many said pride had gotten into her head and accused her of being a spoilt child.
Like most young maidens, she danced at ceremonies and wrestling bouts. It was at such a ceremony; her brother Izu's Ozo ceremony that she first met Nnanna. He was the leader of the musicians who played there. Sometimes he played the oja, and then he would switch over to the drums, at times he even sang and with such soothing voice. All these he did excellently and with great passion. It was the passion that fascinated her. Even while dancing with her fellow maidens, she still tried to keep him in view and when she saw him smile, she believed he was smiling at her.
All day and night she could think of little else other than Nnanna. She had found out his name from her brother Izu and not when told about his carefree life could she stop thinking about him. One morning she had gone with her cousins to fetch water from the stream. On their way back through the woods they heard some whistling behind them and stopped. They were about scampering off when they heard the sound of the oja. Adaku listened close; she was sure she knew the flutist. No other person could play this way. Just then, Nnanna emerged from the bushes with the oja pressed to his mouth. He played until the girls put down their water pots.
At a point he stopped playing and sang the words of the tune. He sang of a man who was disillusioned with the ways of his people and how he would often retreat to himself to get away from them. He sang of a young girl who wanted more from life, a girl who wanted more than her parents or the gods could give. He stopped singing and resumed playing the oja. By this time the tears were flowing freely down Adaku's cheeks. As he played the flute, he gradually retreated into the bush and soon was out of sight. Adaku cleaned her face and picked up her water pot. If she was longing to see him again before, now she was dying to see him.
Her father being dead, the responsibility of giving her away in marriage fell to her eldest brother Idigo. To prove his worthiness and ability to take care of a wife, Nnanna collected seed yams from his brothers and planted yams that season like every other man. By the time he called on Idigo again six moons to the harvest, he readily consented to the union. The bride price was agreed and a date was fixed for the marriage ceremony.
During the new yam festival that harvest season, Nnanna’s three closest friends and members of his band; Ike, Okudo and Maduka called on him. In the aftermath of the feast, the four of them sat down in Nnanna’s Obi and shared memories. They also discussed their current state of affairs and that was how Nnanna got to know how much his friends had been suffering. Since he got married he had stopped playing at occasions with them. They used to be eight in number but four had gone back to their various clans when invitations to play stopped coming. Without Nnanna among them they had lacked any form of cohesion in their performances and soon fell out of work. Being paupers with no farmlands to fall back to, life had become very tough. The men emptied their cups of palm wine, thanked him for the feast and left. Nnanna was short of words to speak as he escorted them out of the compound. What had started as a very bright day for him had turned into a quite gloomy one.
That night, Nnanna could hardly sleep. After much thought he resolved to ask his elder brother Egonwanne for seed yams and farm land to loan to his friends. He only hoped they wouldn’t be too proud to accept it.
The next morning, Nnanna was returning from Egonwanne’s house when the town crier’s voice was heard. There would be a meeting for all adult males of Aninta clan that very night. There was something eerie about the way the town crier sounded. Surely some trouble was brewing somewhere, maybe even war.
Later that night Nnanna went along with his brother Nnanyelugo and his cousin Uduma to the village square. By the time they arrived there was hardly any room for them to stand. Egonwanne stood up from his seat and looked round before uttering the salute; 'Aninta kwenu!' "Yaa" came the thunderous response of nearly three hundred men. Nnanna's heart warmed with pride as he watched his brother kick off the meeting. Egonwanne was one of the few orators in Aninta. Again he called; 'Kwenu!' "Yaa!" 'Aninta kwezuenu!' "Yaaaa!" This time Nnanna was sure the response would be heard all the way to the banks of the great river.
Egonwanne shook his head sadly as he spoke. 'Before the cocks crowed this morning, some thieves went to the shrine of the earth goddess, tied up her priest and made away with all the sacrifices of the harvest season.' He paused to let the men ponder on it. Everyone seemed to be talking to somebody else. The sentiment shared by all was the same; who would be so stupid as to try such a thing? Who in their right senses would choose to invite the wrath of the earth goddess in such a brazen manner? 'Aninta kwenu!' Egonwanne hailed again, raising a hand to indicate he wanted silence. "Yaa" the men replied and fell silent. 'No sane person could have done these. But as our fathers taught us; when a finger is stained with oil, it affects other fingers. If any man here knows the people who did this unspeakable act, let him speak up now or suffer the wrath of the goddess.
A thousand thoughts flooded Nnanna's mind as he walked back with his brother. He couldn't even tell where he was going; only walking beside Nnanyelugo in whichever direction he went. A lot of other people had spoken at the meeting, Nnanyelugo and Idigo his brother-in-law among them. Some insisted on forming search parties to go round every home in the fifteen villages. Others were certain it was the work of outsiders from another clan, a bold few pointing fingers at Elumelu. Ifejindu the priest had the final say. He said there was no need to form any search party. It was a fight between the thieves and the goddess and no one should get involved unless they wanted to receive the blows intended for the culprits. Despite the heaviness of the night, Nnanna managed to sleep soundly.
As soon as the first cock crowed Nnanna jumped out of bed. He rinsed his mouth with salt, washed his face and set for Maduka's house. His disappointment on not meeting him at home was compounded by Okudo and Ike's absences as well. Where had they gone to? A dark thought came to his mind and hard as he tried to expel it, there was no casting it off. What if the trio had done the unthinkable and stolen from the earth goddess? For their sakes he hoped that wasn't the case as even though the gods were often slow to judge, the severity of their blows were best told than experienced. The air was thick with anxiety and uncertainty. Only one thing was certain; the earth goddess would not remain silent for long.
Before long, it became clear that Nnanna's friends had done the evil deed. Maduka had fallen from a palm tree, breaking his neck. He died a few days later. Ike had been struck by Amadiora it was presumed as his corpse had been found in the forest after a mysterious rain in the dry season, charred like he was set on fire. Okudo the only one alive roamed the entire clan and beyond, stark naked. The gods had cursed him with an ailment some considered worse than death; madness.
The clan was however, worried by the strange things that kept happening daily. There’d been some other deaths. At first the people ascribed the dead to being conspirators but it became clear that something else was at play when people like Idigo started dying in the same mysterious circumstances. Egonwanne also came down with a terrible disease but eventually survived it. These were two of the richest men in Aninta. They were men whose individual barns contained more yams than all the yams offered to the earth goddess. There was no way they could have conspired to steal what they already had in excess. People who went to the stream early in the morning swore they saw strange creatures in the water. All the priests and priestesses kept mute, leaving everyone to their imaginations.
Nnanna was dealt a huge blow when Adaku his wife gave birth to twins. It was an abomination in Aninta as well as in the neighbouring clans. It was a misfortune one never wished to befall even his enemies. As was the custom, the mother and her babies would be taken to the evil forest and left for dead. However, Adaku had eloped before she could be carried away, taking with her the twins.
It had never happened before in the history of the clan. Never had the gods been denied their due by any mortal. Not long after sunrise, the news of Adaku's eloping had spread like wild fire throughout the fifteen villages. The delegation that was to lead her to the evil forest had arrived only to meet her absence. A search had been conducted but turned out fruitless. The mood in the air now was fear as they wondered what next would happen. In the minds of the people, whatever the gods did now, they would be justified.
Nnanna had gone to the market. He didn't really have to go but was just looking for a way to escape the tensed and seemingly haunted atmosphere at home. But even that couldn't take the load off his mind. He wasn't even noticing the looks of revulsion people gave him as he made his way past the stalls. Then he saw a sight that made him momentarily forget his own problems. There was his friend Okudo, naked and dancing to the taunts of little children. He had changed considerably these past few moons. His hair was now shaggy and his frame so lean you could see his ribs and bones. Even from a distance he oozed from several market weeks of not having a bath. He was indeed a pathetic sight to behold; dancing in a strange fashion while picking up the crumbs the children threw at him. Death was truly better than living this way. Then the town crier's gong sounded, taking Nnanna’s attention away from Okudo. He wondered what it was this time around.
Nnanna ate silently, devouring the food like a hungry lion. It was his first meal in two days. His mother sat beside him with her chin in her hands. 'She's here to make sure I eat' he thought to himself. It wasn't yet nightfall but an uneasy silence had descended upon the entire clan. After the crier's message, the market went into pandemonium. Women screamed for their children who were even more terrified though they didn't understand what the fuss was all about. Everyone hurried to get out of there, some even abandoning their goods and manilas. Even strangers from other clans who had come to trade scampered off in haste with the rest of them. All because the crier uttered three words; 'Ubochi Surugede erugo' meaning 'the time for Surugede has come.'
Nneka joined him in the Obi after putting the dishes away. “Nnanna, you’re my son and I cannot hide anything from you.” She paused for a while and then continued. “Only the gods know what will happen in Aninta tonight.” ‘Mama, Adaku ran away and we didn't have any hand in it so there's nothing to fear from Surugede. Wherever she's hiding I just hope she's safe.’ Nneka studied his face carefully before speaking again. “But what happens after tonight? There's no way the clan will forget how you and your wife invited the wrath of the gods upon them. Even with our wealth, the Ozo society will never agree to let you join their ranks. No respectable maiden will agree to marry you for fear that you have been cursed by the gods.” Nnanna heaved a sigh and shrugged. ‘Mama, what do you want me to do? Should I hang myself? If it's the will of the gods that things have happened this way, then so be it.’ A silence ensued which Nneka broke moments later. “What if you could be somewhere else with your wife, somewhere away from Aninta?” Nnanna regarded her with a look of suspicion. 'Mama what exactly are you saying?' She stood up, looked around to see if anyone was lurking about and satisfied nobody was eavesdropping, she sat again. “I helped Adaku escape. She is on her way to Umuogwugwu now.” Nnanna's eyes nearly fell out with shock. He paced around agitatedly for a while and then stopped. A worried Nneka was relieved when she saw the smile form on his lips.
Nnanna was set with his machete and a small goatskin bag where he put his oja and some other effects. Nneka came out of her hut with a parcel wrapped in a rag and put it in his bag. It made some chinks as it landed. “That's all the manilas I have, it should be more than enough for you to start a trade in Umuru. My brother Nwakibie will receive the both of you.” She broke down in tears and embraced him. “Be careful my son, may the spirit of my mother guide you and Adaku.” Looking around him, he tiptoed toward the low fence and jumped over it.
He had seen no human being all the way from his house till he crossed the boundary between his own village Awka and Achi. Suddenly he heard strange drumming and stood for a moment to listen. This wasn't like any drumming he had heard before. It wasn't in anyway musical and the horrific sound seemed to suck the life out of his soul. It seemed a thousand hands played them and in a rhythm faster than was humanly possible. He was about continuing when he heard guttural voices laughing all around him. He looked but could see no one. It was dark and he had no light. He thought of his wife and hoped the darkness of Surugede wouldn't consume her before he got to her. He must save her from this dance of death. He drew out his machete from its sheath and slashed away at the air all around him; hoping one of them would show a face. The laughter intensified, growing louder and louder until the presence of evil choked him. He dropped the machete, yelled and covered his ears but it was no good. He found himself on his knees and closed his eyes for the earth looked like it was spinning around him. His lips parted and he started muttering in gibberish language. Whatever he was saying he didn't understand and at the same time he couldn't stop himself. Suddenly it all stopped and there was dead silence everywhere.
When he opened his eyes he could make out a figure walking towards him. He wanted to reach for his machete lying a few feet away from him but couldn't. Some sort of greater power prevented him from moving a muscle. The figure had come close enough for him to see the face; it was Okudo, red-eyed and still naked. He walked past without stopping to have as much as a look at Nnanna, only repeating the words; "it's only just beginning." When he had passed on, Nnanna regained his strength. The realization hit him. It was indeed Surugede and he was in the midst of it; exposed to all the fury the gods could pour. The strange drumming resumed and he became terrified. Then he thought of Adaku and the babies. There was no way they would have made it to Umuogwugwu by now. To avoid detection she would have taken the forest route through Awka, Achi, and finally Amawu the village that bordered Umuogwugwu clan. She was in danger of Surugede as well and he had to protect her. The guttural laughter started again. It weakened him but he fought it; he had to, for Adaku, for his children. He picked up his machete, sheathed it and started running, yelling as he ran towards the woods of Achi.
The voices had stopped but he kept running. The silence was such that the only things he could hear were his footsteps and his own laboured breathing. He stopped to rest a while. He wasn't even sure he was in the right direction as everything was pitch-black out there. As he panted he recalled the stories he had heard from his father about the last Surugede. It had taken place before his grandfather was born. It had been a moonless night much like this one. It was a night when even the frogs, night owls and forest insects kept mute. The drumming of the undead echoed through the night as mere mortals took refuge in the safety of their huts. There they hid; shrieking in fear, their hearts quaking as the gentleness of the night was being shattered. During the darkest period of the night the gods and the spirits of the ancestors descended to walk upon the face of the earth. They were joined by the esteemed Egwugwu from the fifteen villages and Idika the ageless one who lived in the anthills. A fresh fear came upon Nnanna as he remembered his father's words while unconsciously voicing it from his own lips; '...no mortal dared come out for Surugede is the dance of death, the dance of fire, the dance of the divine, the dance of the deep darkness and only the immortals partake of it.' He slumped to the ground and passed out.
When he opened his eyes he was in a cage and outside a gathering of people had formed a semi-circle around him. He slowly recovered his wits and noticed they were trying to take a decision about him. They were the same people he interacted with every day; his father, brothers, cousins, kinsmen, and men of Aninta he could identify, some he even knew their names. He called out to them; 'Emenike, Nnanyelugo, Isiguzo, Egonwanne, Izu, Uduma, Idigo, Papa.' They continued deliberating, clearly not hearing him. They tried to decide whether to kill him or leave him chained to be undead for all time; neither dead nor alive. Agitated, he kept shouting their names but they didn't even as much as glance in his direction.
He heard laughter behind him, the same guttural laughter and turned. There was another cage much bigger than the one he was in and the undead were inside it. There were several scores of them. Their faces had become so disfigured that they looked no better than wild beasts. Some of them had drums. "They can't hear you" one said to him, "Surugede has claimed you and you'll remain here with us for all eternity." 'No' he said, almost like a whisper. By then the leader of the council was speaking. They had reached their decision which was to lock him with the other undead. The undead rejoiced and began drumming. Two men from the council opened his cage and took him out. He kept pleading for mercy but they didn't even look like they heard him. He had no power to resist as they moved him along with relative ease. They threw him in with the others and locked up.
His new inmates thronged about him, mocking him and pulling his hair. He felt like crying but the tears couldn't flow from his eyes. The drumming continued and the council dispersed. He reached into the goatskin bag and brought out the oja. When he started playing the drumming stopped and the undead moved some distance away from him. Even the departing council members turned back. He played and played and played till his hands became stiff and his mouth bruised, yet he kept playing. Everyone watched in silence, both the council and the undead. He kept playing until a teardrop from his eyes. He then stopped and wept profusely. He cleaned his eyes and tried playing again but couldn't. The leader of the council spoke at this point; ‘set him free.’
The moment he stepped outside the cage, he found himself in a thick forest. It was pitch-black again until someone approached with a burning torch. He saw his surroundings better now and noticed a figure lying underneath a tree. He noticed the light bearer was in the image of Okudo clothed this time so Nnanna knew it wasn't really him. “Take” he said in a rather lifeless voice, handing Nnanna the torch. Pointing to the figure lying under the tree, he said; “that's your wife and children. Wake them up and go.” Nnanna wasn't sure he heard right. “You danced the dance of the immortals from dusk to dawn. No one has ever done that. You have earned your freedom and theirs too.” ‘Where are we?’ he asked when he found his voice. “These are the woods of Amawu. Just beyond the banana tree there is the Ogbanelu land. Cross it and you've entered Nkanu village of Umuogwugwu. Go now.” Nnanna looked in the direction he had pointed and when he turned again, the man was gone.
Adaku's shock gradually turned to tears of joy as she embraced her husband. He wasn't too ashamed to cry along. Locating his maternal uncle Nwakibie was quite easy and not long after sunrise they were already at his compound. Seeing his mother’s bead around Adaku's neck, the old man knew where they were coming from. He welcomed them into his home and for the first time in three days, Nnanna and Adaku really slept.
They stayed in Nwakibie's house for one market week and after recovering from their travails, they got on a boat and set sail for Umuru.
GLOSSARY OF IBO WORDS
Oja - a type of flute
Opi - another type of flute
Ekwe - small drum
Udu - hollow drum
Uli - cam wood dye
Kwenu – a form of greeting
Erugo - has reached
Surugede - the dance of the immortals
Market week - refers to the four Ibo market days; Afor, Eke, Nkwo and Orie.
Manilas - currency