She arrived in style and caused a splash right from infancy. My sister, that is. Tall, slim, erect, with an eternally polished and unblemished skin from childhood all through teenage years.
The young men used to call her Itiri, a local word for darkness. They called her Itiri because her skin was unusually dark, surpassing the blackness of a moonless night. Being darker than midnight, her figure remained outlined in a visible silhouette long after everyone else’s had blended with the West African nightfall. When the nightly story sessions were over and the moon and stars had retired, and there arrived that burnished darkness that was darker and more polished than ebony, and the other youths had merged with the darkness, her continued visibility became the stuff of legend with a splash of eerie magic. The young men, with an overdose of envious desire, therefore, called her darkness; and she enjoyed every minute of the attention.
The young women used to call her Onwa, which means moon. They called her Onwa because when she smiled, which she did very generously, her entire face projected a general sense of warmth, ease and friendliness, which in turn reminded them of the brilliant glow of the moon chasing away the gloom of nightfall. And so they called her Onwa, for in all the surrounding towns and villages, the African moon was a symbol of serene comfort, a soothing contrast to the scorching midday sun.
The elders used to call her Ikuku, which means wind. They called her the wind because, as far back as their memories went, they could not remember any young woman whose physical presence was more difficult to ignore and yet impossible to fathom. She was like a full-blown African wind in the dry season whose biting presence everyone felt but no one could capture. It was good that she remained a windy enigma, for if one could capture and examine the wind more closely, the elders reasoned, perhaps its magic would begin to fade. And so the elders analogized this profound failure to capture and hold down the wind to their failure to grasp the bearing of this young woman. She, therefore, had to be called Ikuku, the evasive one.
She answered to any name they called her, Itiri, Onwa, or Ikuku.
A thing of beauty, our people say, is a sister to the eyes. All creatures big and small feasted their eyes. In fact, when she walked down the road, to the farm or to the river, to the market or to school, the squirrels and other tree-climbing creatures appeared to climb the tallest trees to get a better glimpse of her; the butterflies and the song birds seemed to fly above her head with jealousy, nursing secret wishes of beauty; and the unleashed boys in the town uncontrollably scampered behind her as if to guard and protect her from unseen forces.
The suitors came in large numbers. Among them was the town’s best-known lawyer, called Nonye. Barrister Nonye had a reputation among his colleagues for strict compliance with both substance and procedure in the practice of his trade. Unmarried at thirty five, some secondhand story tellers reported that the barrister went to bed at night wearing his professional gown and wig in order to be faithful to his only love – his British legal training. But other local gossips insisted that he wore the gown and wigs to bed only because he had grown so attached to them that he felt naked wearing anything else. Now, these allegations were not based on eyewitness accounts because no one ever saw him go to bed; and there were some townsfolk who swore that the man never even went to sleep simply because lawyers, who by profession had too many enemies, were afraid to close their eyes.
The barrister was a man, nonetheless, of great knowledge and influence, arguing just as effectively for the criminal as well as for the complainant, the mighty and the low alike, in court, depending on who secured his services first. People went to court to watch the relish with which he argued down his less gifted and less prepared opponents. His penchant for argument was matched only by his obsessive attachment to his gown and wig. His penchant for passionate and flowery oratory in English language, a skill admired and envied by other lawyers and litigants who crossed his part, proved to be his downfall the day he showed up to speak to my grandfather about his interest in my sister.
Wearing his full court regalia, and sitting in our palour, he spoke in English and
grandpa listened. He spoke and spoke and spoke and grandpa listened some more. He spoke for what seemed like an eternity and grandpa listened with the rapture of an entranced schoolboy in the presence of a magician. We wondered why grandpa was so attentive when he neither spoke nor understood English.
When the honorable barrister was done presenting his case, grandpa, very slowly, in the local language, waived him away. “My son, I did not understand a word you spoke. Please come back when you have learned our language.” And with that, grandpa hurried into the inner room and never came out again. I was heartbroken for losing a potential famous in-law. To this day, my sister still wonders what might have been because the barrister, thoroughly embarrassed, never returned.