Part 1: The Funeral
“What’s that noise?” asked Russell.
It was dark. In rural Nigeria, the moon is the main source of light, and this was a particularly cloudy evening.
“I don’t know. Let’s go and find out,” I replied.
I switched on my flashlight for a few seconds until I got my bearings and walked out onto the rustic dirt track, which served as the main artery of the small village of Unwana. I then turned it off again and flicked it on at five-second intervals as I walked, rationing the power from the already half-drained batteries.
“I think we’re getting close,” said Russell. As I flashed on the torch I saw the tips of his fingers rubbing together as he walked. I had noticed this nervous idiosyncrasy on more than one occasion since we had met. “It sounds like drumming”, he whispered. Indeed it did.
When we heard the noise, we were sitting at camp. It was the first time we’d heard anything at night other than the sounds of exotic nocturnal creatures. Russell and I had been passing the time by discussing how to fend off the hordes of Malaria-spreading mosquitoes; that were gorging on our pale white flesh. Candles, clothing, and spray on insect repellent seemed to be the most effective combination we could muster.
We had also written a series of songs, borrowing inspiration from some products that we had in our bags. One of the better songs we made was inspired by Russell’s canned mosquito spray, which we unanimously entitled ‘Death in a Can’. Bringing along my acoustic guitar proved to be one of my most inspired decisions. There was not much to do in the evenings in Unwana other than have a few beers at ‘Mike’s bar’, and we had already done that.
“Sounds like a party,” said Russell getting excited, his eyes familiarly rolling back in his head after he spoke. “I think it’s this way, through these trees”.
Russell and I were two of the volunteers who had signed up to go to Nigeria to volunteer in schools throughout Ebonyi State. Our work had not yet begun as we were having a week of ‘cultural orientation’ in Unwana to help us to adapt to the Nigeria way of living. So far, we had our thumbs twiddling too much to enjoy the orientation, and we were keen to get started. However, there would be lots of time for work. We would be in Ebonyi for the next two months.
“Jesus, flick your torch back on, man. There’s something crawling up my leg.”
“Sorry. You okay?”
“Yeah, come on. I can see some people dancing”
We walked through some trees into a clearing to find some fifty or more locals dancing, playing traditional hand drums, and singing in their native tongue. It was great to finally find some life in the village in the evening time. A party at last!
The Nigerians seemed fairly happy to see us and a couple of glasses of palm wine were promptly thrust into our hands. We were kindly shown a place to sit down on some conveniently placed tree stumps. The singing and dancing continued unabated and we watched for a while, enjoying the atmosphere, but not the yeasty free drink, which tasted of vomit and seemed to be something of an acquired local taste.
“What’s that big bastard looking at?” asked Russell. I looked to where his eyes fleetingly pointed and there was a huge muscular man, thirty-something, sternly watching us from the shadows.
“Don’t know. Maybe we’re on his stump”
“Yeah,” said Russell, tentatively sipping his wine. “Maybe”.
After a while we began to dismiss our observations as mere paranoia and promptly enjoyed the celebrations once more. We had a few more drinks, and the wine seemed to improve with each glass. Contrarily my eyesight diminished.
About an hour later, the constant energy stoking rhythm of the bongos proved too much for Russell and he joined the ‘dance floor’; strutting and bouncing around with a cigarette in one hand and his wine in the other. The dancers parted abruptly as Russell span and whirled around, unaware of the increasingly quietening atmosphere. At this point, the big man who we’d noticed earlier began to usher us both to one side to speak privately with us. He took us to the shadows, his white eyes gleaming and intense.
“You must go,” the muscular Nigerian said and we were not about to argue with him. He looked like he could go ten rounds with Lennox Lewis. But for some reason, maybe the yeasty alcohol or a lack of vitamin intake during the past few days, instead of just finding our way back to the main road and returning to base camp; we tried to smooth things over.
“But we don’t mean any trouble. We just want to have some fun,” I said, looking up at the looming figure standing before me, impressed with my own confidence.
“You should not be here,” he said again, this time more sternly and commanding, like a huge sentinel guarding the sparsely attended dance floor.
“But why? What’s the problem?” chipped in Russell, suddenly feeling brave and blowing smoke in the man’s abdomen. The Unwanian remained emotionless and continued his speech in a deep guttural monotone.
“Someone die,” he said abruptly. We froze — anxiously awaiting his next words. We could barely see his expression in the shadows, just his bright white scrutinising eyes. All the fight had gone out of us now. He seemed to be chewing on something.
“Three day, on street, we remember. You should go.” Insight hit us much like the big man’s fist might have if we had continued our argument.
“Oh shit. It’s a bloody funeral—” I whispered to Russell with sudden bright, lucid clarity. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Agreed,” said Russell, snatching the torch from my hand and recklessly using up what was left of the battery as we exited the wake, apologising on our way.
So off we went, back to our base and the mosquitoes and the darkness. ‘Mike’s bar’ was already closed for the evening. Our cultural orientation was not going well; and the batteries died before we even got back to camp.
Click here to continue reading Part 2 of this story...
By Jason J.R. Gaskell, Msc.