The masquerades came towards the market square. Drums pealed through the air, gongs of different sizes boomed, the flute sang their praise as they proceeded. In the green and brown of the jungle their bright feathered costumes and baubles flashed like gaudy birds of paradise. The wrestlers were home from a competition in the neighbouring village. They had represented well proving Umuaka’s superiority to the neighbouring kingdom of Okwudo.
Women and girls hid in doors and cooked. There would be a feast later. The masquerades after dancing in the square would visit the homes of titled men and had to be offered presents and refreshments befitting of spirits. Special treats that only they and the titled men were allowed to eat on fear of instant death or madness.
The hustle and bustle of trade and commerce in the market was absent. In the clearing in from of the market shrine the lords of the land, the titled ozo men sat on stools their pouches slung over knees and backs of their tripod seats brought for them from home by a juvenile male of their homestead. Their bodies twitched to the rhythm.
Only Agwubuo stood out. His pouch was hung from his walking stave which was suspended in thin air. His magic was legendary and he was feared in all the four kingdoms on banks of the Njaba River. He had acquired magic at a young age and had built a fearsome reputation for himself. When he got angry he would cross his ankles and strike the offender dead with lightning. Nobody made him angry if they could help it.
Opposite the lords the wrestlers and their coterie of friends and hangers on danced in the sun. Goats bleated and chickens squawked near the entrance of the shrine. There would be a barbecue after the animals had been ritually sacrificed and the men would eat meat, a rare commodity that only men ate regularly. The head of all four legged animals sacrificed in the shrine hung from its thatch roof above the two carved deities, one male and one female.
There was also at least one human head from the days long ago when the Aro dedicated the shrine and ensured a steady supply of slaves that they sold down the coast. After decades of slave raiding the kingdoms had fortified their borders and their armies and it became increasingly difficult to get the usual quota of fit slaves.
The Aro, who controlled access to the interior by the coastal tribes and held inland tribes spell bound with the magic of their Long Juju, dedicated local shrines that administered justice and spiritual cleansing through the dedication of people as slaves, or Osu. When the slave ships docked in Kalabar or Bonny the shrine priest would predict the need for some sacrifice or other, round up some Osu and send them to Aro with an escort.
The local escort, mostly simple minded folk that followed orders, would be bedazzled by all sorts of magic illusions and tricks. They would report they had heard the voice of the deity accept their ‘gifts’, and the screams of the sacrifices and saw their blood flowing downstream from where they were killed. But all the Aros killed was a chicken and trotted the slaves off to the ships.
As the masquerades came into the square they lunged at the assembled lords and started singing the praise names of each of them accompanied by the flute. Each lord came out and danced to his praises before sitting down again. They were praised in order of their seniority, the oldest first. When Agwubuo’s turn came he got up and his staff and pouch followed him jerking as if in a dance too. Everybody was in awe.
He knew the magic of the Aro, they had not fooled him.