The Exchange

by Favour Ogbue

“Ndunne Ugonwa!”

“Father!”

As the little boy who had responded to his father’s call came running towards him, Udoka (Ndunne’s father), could not help but admire the features of his son’s narrow face – beady eyes that always spoke of his optimism, a curved nose attached like an arrow head that pointed to the floor, a small mouth that said little and simple ears. These features also described Ndunne’s mother, Ugonwa, the reason Udoka was always lost in thoughts whenever he set eyes on his son every morning, every single day since the child was born.

Rumours had it that Ugonwa, the last of seven children, was transformed into a girl at the last minute when her mother cried out to the gods to compensate her with a female child after having borne six sons. Ugonwa was everything a female child was not expected to be. She wrestled better than any of her brothers, tilled the ground and most daring of all, hunted game at Ajoofia – a feat the only person who had successfully done same was tagged a legend. Ugonwa believed that no harm could come her way unless she willed it to. She always said that she was special to the gods and they had sent her to the land for a purpose, one she was yet to accomplish.

There, however, was one person who did not think so: Akwanga. Akwanga was believed to be a witch and she lived at the mouth of Ajoofia, the evil forest. She often contended with Ugonwa about her hunting expenditure in Ajoofia:

“Ugonwa, you’re looking for my trouble. Leave my animals alone! Leave my territory!” Akwanga bellowed.

“It is not your territory, Akwanga. It belongs to the gods. Whoever they have invited to their dining does not leave empty-handed.”

“If you come here again, you’d have yourself to blame.”

Try as hard as she may, Akwanga could not stop Ugonwa from hunting in Ajoofia. All her schemes against Ugonwa failed. When she saw that nothing was working, she resorted to threatening Ugonwa:

“No child will live from your womb!”

The threat did not deter Ugonwa from what she had set her mind to do.

Word spread through the community about Akwanga’s threat; while some pleaded with Ugonwa to beg the witch and obey her instruction, others believed that Ugonwa was untouchable. She had dared Akwanga and gotten away with it anyway. Ugonwa soon fell in love with Udoka, a calm and gentle young man who minded his business. His mother was strongly opposed to their relationship, but she was sorely afraid of Ugonwa to voice it out. When Udoka went ahead to ‘carry wine’ to Ugonwa’s father as a sign of betrothal, the tongues began to wag:

“What if she doesn’t bear him children?”

“That’s true. What if she can’t have a child? Remember what Akwanga had said to her. Don’t forget who Akwanga is. She is the same one who ate up all her children and got drunk from the blood of new born babes.”

” The same one that held this kingdom bound with epidemic for four full moons and turned Amadi into a rock for saying that she has no right over her late husband’s land. Is the rock not still behind her house at the opening of Ajoofia?”

“Ugonwa has gambled too much. Udoka should not put himself at risk by marrying her.”

On and on the tales went. Udoka carried on with his plans reassuring himself that Ugonwa’s claims of solidarity with the gods were valid. On the night that she became his wife, she conceived. Her pregnancy was uneventful and it did not deter her from hunting. Words once more flew around about how Akwanga’s powers had failed. Udoka’s mother was elated, her fear had given way to hope. Ugonwa’s contractions started when she was on her way to visit her mother-in-law for a few days. Moments later, she was in the hut of the village midwife. And like her period of pregnancy, her delivery was hitch-free. In no time she had delivered a beautiful, baby boy.

But, it was stillborn.

The tears poured. Udoka’s and Ugonwa’s mothers wailed. Udoka was heartbroken. Ugonwa was enraged. The false wailing and words of consolation coming from the women who had gathered outside the hut, making snide remarks about how younger powers ought not to challenge the older ones, made her blood to boil over.

She asked for the body of her dead child and when it was brought to her, she stared at it long and hard. She cuddled it as she would cuddle a newborn and nursed him. With a loud cry and hot tears streaming down her face to the baby’s, she said, “Ndum dili gi!” (“Let my life be exchanged for yours!”).

And she gave up the ghost. Thick darkness enveloped the room such that it was impossible to tell if someone was standing next to you. The infant started with a loud cry and the darkness dissipated in the same manner it came.

“Father, you called me.”

Ndunne’s voice joggled Udoka out of his thoughts. The boy had grown quickly and he minded his business just like his father contrary to people’s expectations. Instead of hunting, he enjoyed fishing. He would rather climb palms in an attempt to tap them than till the ground. And as young as he was, he was already enlarging his father’s barn by bone setting for wrestlers of his village. He hardly spoke, except where totally necessary. But his gait and confidence did not change. They were his mother’s.

“Yes, my son. You said you have something to tell me this morning. What is it?” Udoka asked nervously.

“Father, the gods have invited me to a feast today and I have requested for Akwanga’s life and body as my gift. It is time.”

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