How many of us know the name Ceyda Sungur? How about Mohamed Bouazizi?
In every era and epoch, something happens to throw up an individual or personage who becomes, always, the face of change.
If you follow the news, you will recall that it took the self immolation of a Tunisian street trader named Mohamed Bouazizi to spark the Arab spring, a revolution that swept the Arab world and toppled several dictators.
In the past week as riots roiled the streets of Ankara and Instanbul, one picture of a young woman dressed in red and carrying a bag has become the face of the Turkish revolution. That young woman, a university lecturer, is Ceyda Sungur
For the twins of the Nigerian rain forest, it was Mary Slessor and for slaves, it was William Wilberforce.
Because fiction often mimics reality, we also have fictional characters whose actions and portrayal in works of fiction have led to significant changes by drawing attention to injustice. We have Hester Prynne, the female protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s, The Scarlet Letter. Caught in adultery, she was forced to wear the letter A written in red.
Okey Ngene’s novel, Freeborn (Owhornda Company Limited, Lagos, 2013), even though set in the provincial locale of Umuani, in pre-colonial Igboland, presents us with such a character. This novel tells a heart-wrenching story of alienation and ejection, of naming and shaming and ultimately of heroism and selflessness.
It also casts a harsh light on the vexatious issue of the Osu caste system which continues to blight us as Ndigbo.
We read at the beginning: “People started making way for her as if a ghost had entered the market. It didn’t take her much time to spot Nwanyi-Oji, the woman selling kola nuts. Immediately she saw Anielo making her way towards her, without saying a word, she threw the kola nuts on the floor close to Anielo’s feet and Anielo did same with the money in her hand. She picked up the kola nuts and left. So was the tradition. So was the humiliation. No freeborn was allowed to touch an osu, body contact was strictly forbidden.”
The story is simple. A young woman who is taken advantage of by her slave master’s son is sold off with her pregnancy. The child who results from that pregnancy is Anielo, a head strong beauty dedicated to the Ala deity of Umuani.
As Okey Ngene writes: “Anielo was six years old when she realized that the mothers of the other children in Umuani didn’t want their children to play with her. They treated her as if she were poison.”
The priest of Ala, Ije Nwigide, is very fond of this child and allows her liberties he is not supposed to despite aspersions that are cast on his character.
An elder who is filled with wonder queries the old priest directly.
‘If I may ask.’ The voice of Ogbuefi Omemma brought him back to reality. ‘Ije-Nwigide, how come she is not like the others-her kind? You allow her hair to be made like a freeborn and she wears the jigida on her waist. Mention one village in the six villages apart from Umunta that treats an osu like a freeborn?’
Ije-Nwigide looked at the elders and smiled. Showing off a set of kola nut stained teeth. Then the smile disappeared as soon it came.
‘It was Ala’s wish that she be treated as such.’
What is not immediately obvious to everyone is that this wise and wizened old man has seen what those without the eyes of the wise ones cannot see. Anielo is special.
He tells Anielo that “Water and oil do not mix but when the time is right, your destiny shall be fulfilled.”
Anielo might be a slave but there are no chains strong enough to shackle her mind, her thoughts and her heart.
Ichi Ike describes her thus: ‘Yes, Anielo. She is a trouble maker and a nuisance to the entire village. I have heard so much about her. If she is not beating up people’s children, she’s going about seducing our sons.”
Anielo begins a forbidden affair with a strapping young man, Enujiofor. When they are discovered by Anu- Nchi, a hunter, the elders convene a council and are about to take drastic actions, when Anielo and Enujiofor are forced out of Umuani, into danger and then back as heroes.
“’I saw Ichie Ezedike’s nephew making love to the osu girl from the shrine of Ala in the forest right before my very eyes!’
“The murmuring stopped, the fly whisks stopped moving and the invisible flies stopped hovering. There was grave silence and opened jaws.” P.70
In literary theory, when a human being is reduced to a mere thing by circumstances of birth or culture, the term for it is reification, what Ola Rotimi playfully describes as “thingification”.
We find a god example of this where the hapless Ogbahala says to his wife Eziada,’Let me correct that. You have given me female children. Female children do not bear their father’s names when they go to another man’s house. They do not inherit their father’s properties when he goes to meet his ancestors.’
Anielo who is a female child and an Osu refuses to be “thingified.” But it is also instructive that this young woman, whom the village rejected and refused to accept, decides to help the self same people who have rejected her when the power is in her hands to do so.
That singular act does not only highlight her selflessness, it also points to her heroic qualities.
‘I recognised some of the women and children Enujiofor!’ she shouted ‘they are from Umuani, our kindred about to be sold into slavery.’
‘Our kindred?’ he laughed. ‘Would you call a snake like my uncle Ichie Ezedike your kindred? Are they not the reason why you are what you are? Are they not the same people who wanted you thrown out of the village? If you ask me Anielo, they are
paying the price of their wickedness. Listen to me, we know no osu in Umunta.
We also see that Ije Nwigide, is a true priest of Ala because he had already told Ozichi that “The birth of Anielo changed everything even more. Her birth signified the end of the osu caste system in Umuani. Ala would not accept any more.’
This is a book that speaks to the heart of the Igbo world view. It tackles a difficult subject with narrative aplomb but the many typos, grammatical errors and editing issues grate on the reader.
“In those days, girls her age were considered ripe for marriage and most are already in their husband’s houses”
‘I salute you. Our people said that a toad does not come out during the day for nothing.”
“For a while they stood there starring and smiling at each other not knowing what to say or what to do.” P.55
One hopes that the errors would be corrected through the help of a capable editor before the next printing.