By Steve Ogah (Nigeria)
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Ubalu made a desperate move for the head of the rodent. It had suddenly appeared on the farm road, entangled in a bamboo trap. He raised the cutlass into the sky. One great strike and the weapon missed the target. Not entirely, though. The tail had been hit.
Ubalu was enraged. He cursed several times when he saw the short tail shaking vigorously. It was on the edge of the elephant grass the animal had dashed into. The dark and lanky farmer reached over. He bent blades of grass with the edge of the bloodied cutlass. He was hopeful that he would see injured bush meat, bleeding helplessly. His hope was as tiny as the almost invisible virgin web of a spider. And it soon broke. There was nothing to excite his mind. He saw just grass, earth and grasshoppers. He closed the grass and kicked the cut tail into it. He sighed and said under his breath, “What luck you have.”
He sheathed his cutlass and picked up his hoe. Once the implement was hung over his left shoulder, he resumed his lonely journey home, still cursing his fate with a long face and hot breath. His strides were sad like his long and high-cheeked face. He craved home more than he had ever done before. He would take comfort in his family’s waiting embrace. The extreme event on his farm left him wishing the empty basket under his armpit had been harvest-green and full. But now, with the misfortune of missing bush meat, he thought he had encountered enough bad fate under a climate he was having difficulty understanding. What in the world had happened to the crops on his farm?
The chickens had returned to settle down for the night when Ubalu reached home. A beautiful priceless twilight lit up the Mbube village sky while birds flew hurriedly to their nests. As Ayeha saw his father setting foot into their compound, he abandoned the fishing nets he had been fixing and dashed towards the tired figure. The little boy was unlike his father, rather stocky with brown and kinky hair. He was more in the shape of his mother.
“Where is your mother?” Ubalu asked, and then added, “Are your younger ones home yet?”
“Mama has just returned from the market and she is in the kitchen.” The boy began, “Nina and Adim have gone to the stream.”
“Very well; have this,” Ubalu said, passing his son the cutlass. “It is very sharp. Don’t toy with it,” he warned.
As Ayeha disappeared into the darkness of his father’s thatched hut, Nina and Adim appeared in the distance of the path that led to their house. And, seeing their father seated on a stump of an Usho tree, they quickened their strides as though they were rushing to pick fruits from the dead pear tree.
“Good evening Papa” they both said, brown earthen water pots still on their heads.
“Welcome my children,” Ubalu said, still occupied with a pot of snuff that he held on his left palm while the right fore and middle fingers slapped the pot’s lid. “Tell your mother that I am back and hungry.”
“Yes Papa,” Nina, the older of the two girls said. They both made for their mother’s hut, the pots resting delicately on their all-back plaits. Ubalu watched them with a suppressed fatherly delight. He was excited that his girls had grown into puberty and not a few notable men had expressed interest in asking for their hands in marriage. He let a tiny smile rest on his lips. He would place high bride prices on his two pretty girls. He stuffed a finger laid with snuff into his hairy nostril. The stuff was strong. Quickly, he tapped his feet on the ground and slapped the side of his head. He was certain that would reduce the harshness of the drug tearing through his senses. But his wife had heard his discomfort. So she hurried to his presence.
“I greet you my lord,” she said. “I didn’t know you were back until the children came with the message.”
“Mefema,” Chief Ubalu cried. “Ah! Today’s snuff is different.” He confessed.
“Should I fetch water?”
Ubalu said nothing.
“Nina, bring water quickly,” she cried to her daughter. In an instant a bowl of water materialized. Then the girl returned as humbly as she had come. Ubalu swallowed a mouthful. He was relieved.\
His wife spoke, “You returned with the harvest basket empty. Whatever happened to the crops on the farm?”
“The crops have failed us,” Ubalu said with somber grace.
“Ah!” His wife began, “That is not good news for the ears. Our household and the entire village will be in trouble soon.”
“Yam and Cassava roots have remained buried in the womb of the soil. What ever shall I do when even Cocoyam and Okra have not found us worthy of their gifts?”
“My lord, many people in our village also depend on our harvest. But now, with this tragedy, what shall we do? What are we going to feed on?”
Ubalu saw that his wife of many years was being overwhelmed by the inability of the land to produce bountifully. He did not wish to see her overwhelmed with tears. His own ancestors had told him few stories of bad harvest seasons. And, remembering that his time was not the only extreme season in the history of the Mbube people, he collected his strength and sought to be the courageous man and warrior that he really was.
Suddenly he became ruthless, “Enough. Hold it woman. This is no time for unnecessary tears that will not bring anything but swollen eyes and stuffy nostrils.”
“Shall I not weep that there shall not be yam tubers in the barn for the next planting season? That there shall be hunger in our once prosperous land deserves tears, my lord.”
“No. We need not waste energies on what should have been,” he said. “The deed is already done and there is very little we can do as ordinary villagers. The future is coming .We shall prepare for it.” He dragged his own ear for emphasis. “Do you hear me woman?” he added.
“I hear you my lord. My two ears are still good.”
“They had better be excellent.”
And, with that, the poor old woman collected herself. She didn’t understand the things that were happening on the farm. They had planted all through the months of March, April and May; with Mefema preferring to plant Cocoyam because that was seen as a woman’s crop in the village. The wet months of June to August were marginally wet. And this shocked the entire village. When the harvest started in September, very little had come out of the soil. And no one understood exactly what had taken place. They only knew the weather was not the same any longer. The weather had always been kind to them, as Mefema could remember. The rains had come early in the year. And they had planted the crops on their forest farm the way they knew best. Then all of a sudden, without any hint in the sky, the rains ceased to fall in the usual way. But somehow, they still had a tiny hope that the thing would change in their favor. It was this positive thought that that propelled her husband to the farm earlier in the day. He had a farmer’s faith that he would meet a good fate on the farm. But that had not been the case. What could he do anyway?
“You see, my woman, let me have my food. A man must eat if he is to have the strength to think like he is expected to.”
“I shall return soon with your favorite,” Mefema said, walking into the tiny soot-covered hut that was the kitchen, a luminous crescent just above it. There she had kept the Fufu and Uforb soup, safe in earthen brown bowls. The chief ate in silence. The rest of the night finished without many activities.
Ubalu’s large red earth compound and the rest of the village were covered in mist when dawn broke. Roosters on thatched huts crowed in sharp and penetrating voices which tore through the village’s cocoon of tranquility. Just as night packed its baggage and reclined into its regenerative shell, morning came and, with it, a visitor.
Ubalu was the biggest framer of this village. He was a chief of high standing, so a new visitor in the village always paid him homage. So, when the local government council sent an officer to the village, it was his home that was visited first.
Ayeha ran to his father’s hut and registered a rap on the wooden door. “Good morning father,” he said, trembling in the morning cold.
“Who is that?”
“Father, there is a stranger here to see you.”
His father spoke, still out of sight, “Let him wait. I shall be out soon.”
“Yes father.” he said, running back to the visitor. Ayeha dashed into the kitchen and fetched a stool for the sprucely dressed man, who had been taking in the misty compound. He wore a white shirt with a broad collar, over brown trousers. He was fair and handsome. He accepted the stool Ayeha had fetched and sat, crossing his left leg over the right one, his striped tie resting on the face of his black leather belt. He looked into a white office file with interest. He looked no older than thirty.
As Ubalu emerged from his hut, a wrapper round his waist and a chewing stick stuck in his mouth; Mr. John stood and bowed in regards to the chief.
“Welcome my son,” Ubalu said. “What brings you here so early in the day,” he asked, gushing mashed wood from his mouth. The chewing stick was doing a good job, he thought to himself. He was now seated on his stump of tree. John told him his name and added, “I am an extension officer with the Ogoja Local Council Development Authority.”
“Let some refreshments be brought for you then, since you come as a man of government,” Ubalu said. He called out, “Ayeha, bring some garden egg fruits and water for the council official.”
He threw out more dirt from his mouth. John was finding his manners uncomfortable in the morning breeze.
But he didn’t say a word.
“You are a good man. What words do you have for us?”
“News of your village’s poor harvest has reached the council and I have been sent to help out.”
Ayeha came onto the scene carrying a bowl of white garden eggs, which he served. He dashed away only to return in a twinkle with a bowl of water and an aluminum cup.
“You have come at the right time. This year’s harvest has been the poorest we have ever seen. The fields are suddenly barren and the rains have deserted us. If you walk with me, I will show you our empty barns. I do not know the magic you have for us,” Ubalu said, a strain of anticipation forming on his face.
John cleared his throat and made to speak. Ubalu broke his thoughts. “Famine is imminent, hunger is already here,” he prophesied.
John smiled. “Papa, it is no magic. I bring improved farming methods and inputs which the universities and research stations have developed. It is my duty to communicate these innovations to your people so that you can have better crop yields.”
“Is that what will save us?”
“If you apply these methods carefully, you shall surely see positive results because they have been tested elsewhere. We also have improved varieties of cassava from the International Research Institute in Ibadan.”
The chief showed his bad manners again. The council official tilted backwards just to save his fine shirt, just in case the wind changed direction.
“We are bringing the cassava variety, IME 419. It’s one of the high yielding types.”
“But we have nothing to eat,” Chief Ubalu said.
“There is nothing to worry about. The council has procured food for your people. There is also a truck load of fertilizer at the council for your people.” John assured him with a gracious smile.
“That’s good news to the ears,” Ubalu said, swelling with joy. Then something struck him. And he was forced to words. “But what is this thing we hear on the BBC Radio Channel. They say there is a change in climate. What is the meaning of that, my son? Will the sky stop being blue and the clouds white with sun; or dark when full with rain?”
John smiled a confident smile of one who knew everything and was willing to give that knowledge out. “Chief, it is not exactly like that. Our environmental scientists are simply saying that the earth’s temperature is going up while we sleep and wake up.”
“Really, how do they know that?”
“It’s all about research. They are monitoring everything that happens around us. There are no regular patterns in temperature any longer.”
“What’s responsible for these strange changes, my son?” Chief Ubalu asked, still surprised.
The young extension agent cleared his throat. “Greenhouse gases,” he began. “Even Agriculture is not excluded on the list of offenders. Huge wastes from farming activities and the burning of farmlands are also contributing to the warming of the atmosphere,” he said.
“Green house…What, you call them?”
“They are heat-trapping gases like Carbon dioxide, Chlorofluorocarbons, Methane, Bromine, Sulphur dioxide and Nitrogen dioxide. These gases travel to the atmosphere and destroy the ozone layer,” he explained.
“You see, there is another one! I am not schooled in science and geography,” Ubalu confessed, then asked, “What is this layer you just mentioned?”
“The ozone is like a huge blanket of the earth. It protects the earth; all of us, plants and animals, against the very harsh rays of the sun. But the chlorofluorocarbons break up in the atmosphere and destroy our blanket - the ozone layer. The earth changes in weather patterns, for the worse, when this happens.”
There was a certain silence, heavy and dreadful, in the morning air. Chief Ubalu now began to make sense of all he had been hearing over the radio. He then understood why the land had refused to bless his community. It wasn’t due to some local gods of the elements as some of the people in the village had been forced to believe. It was all due to many reckless activities of man.
“The changing climate is leading to unfavorable farming and living conditions in Africa,” John said. “The climate is changing from east to west. We can see the signs.”
Chief Ubalu had to say what John had in mind, “It would seem we are already experiencing climate change here in Mbube village. Tell me my son, is this the case?”
John took a deep breath, “we are our own problems, chief,” he said. “We can also be the solution. It’s easy to begin to do this. If we reduce wastes that are harmful, we would be doing the earth some measure of good. We must begin to re-green our villages. It’s not difficult,” he assured.
He rose from his stool, adjusted his tie and said, “I shall be on my way. The council is very far off from here.”
“Not so soon, son. Let us make a feast for you. We have received glad tidings with the knowledge you have shared and the promise of help.”
“Perhaps, that shall be when I return with food items and instruct the villagers on improved farming methods. My journey is long. I must leave now,” John said and bowed his head in good wishes.
“Very well, let Ayeha walk you to the clearing that leads to the open road.”
Ubalu called out to his son. Ayeha appeared, filled with respect for his father’s call. And striding ahead of the extension officer, he led the way through the low bush behind the gathering of brown huts until they reached the clearing. Then he tottered back to his mother’s hut, breaking through the morning’s mist in adolescent innocence. There were dishes to be done in the kitchen. They had come from the previous night’s meal.
One day. Two days. Three days. The council extension officer was not seen in the village. Then a whole week passed. No one knew what had suddenly gone wrong at the local government council. Only conjectures were possible. Now, there were probable ways by which things could have ended wrongly for the people of Mbube village.
Perhaps, as a result of bureaucratic bottlenecks, John would never really return with the food so graciously promised. So, the people would gather at the large compound of chief Ubalu as though poised for a large village photograph. They would wait until they all fell asleep with starvation, one after another.
But it was also possible that, in a twist of events, John would return with a truck loaded with food and fertilizers, clutching a file, his face ebullient with a plump smile, pointing, “Here are bags of NPK and Urea fertilizers. They are the best quality fertilizers for your grains, root and tuber crops.” He would swallow deep and wait for his words to sink into the villagers. He would smile and then say; “Five tractors are on their way down here.”
And there would be merry making as the people would sing and dance with conga tom-tom and bamboo flutes under a luminous moonlight. There would be abundant crops for the next planting season. It is even possible that when the next harvest came, the villagers would return from the farms singing harvest songs with green baskets on their heads, because the council had helped the village with irrigation schemes and they had also learnt how to use the land wisely, spurred into action as a result of the changing climate. Perhaps, it would end like this. Just perhaps, it would.