SUNDAY UDE OBETEN 1969 - EKORI
SEVEN-year-old Sunday Ude Obeten chopped his machete into a bamboo stalk. Shining blue dragonflies danced between cattail reeds swaying in the Cross River. They were as free as Sunday was since the civil war had closed the schools in Nigeria.
Sunday’s clever fingers tied a large tarpaulin onto crossed poles. With two ends secured, he stepped back to admire his giant kite. Yes, it was turning out to be a very fine kite. Very fine indeed. And certainly big enough to carry him into the air. That was his plan.
Staying out of school was boring, and there was no one to play with but his sister, Mary. So Sunday put all his attention into this grand project. Boys needed to invent things, and to go on great adventures. They weren’t like girls, who were happy sitting under the thatching all day.
Sunday had made good kites before, like the yellow cloth one that shimmied above the water as though it was alive. But he’d never made a giant kite—one big enough to lift him up, and carry him to the other side of the river. Maybe over there, in another state, he’d get away from the fighting and hunger.
The tarpaulin was too long and the wrong shape. It needed to be cut. But did he dare cut his father’s tarpaulin? His father wouldn’t care—he’d been in heaven for two years, according to Mum.
But maybe his spirit will bewitch me for ruining his tarpaulin?
Sunday stood back and studied the problem. Bewitched or not, it had to be done—otherwise the kite would never work. His tongue poked out from the corner of his mouth while he sawed the plastic tarpaulin with the machete.
Voices floated down the river from behind the cattails. Sunday tossed the knife into the bush, locked his hands behind his back, and muttered his greeting to the women passing in their canoe.
The serious rains seemed finished for the year, and the December sun made the green landscape sticky hot. The cassava plants and banana trees loved the heat. In every spare patch of land around the village, clusters of green bananas reached for the sun beneath the shade of wide leaves.
Beads of sweat covered Sunday’s forehead as he worked. It was time for a swim. He pulled off his T shirt and scanned the river for crocodiles.
Downriver, on his bank, a row of dark bumps stuck out of the surface.
That could be a croc. Or a log.
Sunday squinted, then knelt in the wet sand. He held a thumb in the air to gauge if the bumps moved at all.
Nope. Has to be a log.
He concluded that if it was a crocodile, it was far enough away for a quick dip. In and out.
Sunday plunged into the cool swirl.
Ahh, the water gave new energy. He swam a few strokes out, then made a wide turn before the deep moving current could take hold of him.
It was good to be a boy, and dive into the river whenever you wanted. Mary always asked permission first.
More often than not, the answer was, “No. And do your chores.”
So why ask? That was Sunday Obeten’s general rule.
Another of his rules was to work out of sight of Mum. She would most certainly have something else for him to do, like chop firewood, or practice his figures.
Mum and Mary didn’t understand that boys should invent and explore. Dad understood, but he was with the ancestors in heaven, or something like that. So better to hide down by the river.
Sunday practiced his newest talent—he whistled a few breathy notes.
The unstoppable flood of green water floated by. Sunday pulled in a big breath until his chest poked out, and held it in, enjoying the muddy tang of the river.
He would get over there, to the other side.
Taking stock of the bumpy log, he noted it was missing.
Hum, might have been a croc after all.
He pulled his kite a bit further onto the safety of the beach. Leaving his shirt on the ground for the moment, he would let the sun dry him. Nothing felt as nice as hot sunshine meeting cool water on his skin.
It was time to bend the cross member, and then attach a tail.
The tail was important. It had to be heavy enough to keep the bottom of the kite pointing down, and light enough that the kite could climb into the air.
Sunday looked about, then considered his red and blue shirt.
Sure, why not?
He carefully tied the shirt to the bottom pole with a creeper vine. It added a nice bit of color.
A breeze stirred up ripples on the river. Sunday hurriedly pushed the giant kite above his head and felt it struggle against him. It was huge, much taller than him. It had to be if it was going to carry him over the river. The kite blew flat, and slammed its face on the ground.
For his second test, Sunday stood behind his creation with the tail end on the ground. But the wind died out.
He turned in every direction. Nothing.
No matter. He wasn’t ready anyway. He still needed a string. The cord had to be strong enough to pull him up and not break while he was in reach of the crocodiles.
On the other side of Cross River, he hoped to find a place without any soldiers. A place with lots of food.
His stomach growled. They’d had nothing to eat the day before or today.
After he explored the other side, he would take Mum and Mary across until the war was over. They would praise him as the family hero. He would trap bush animals for meat, and dig up giant cassava tubers for Mum to make garri. He would learn how to make huts from bamboo, mud, and palm leaves—everything free from the jungle. It was time he took over the leadership of the family for his late father.
I’m the only man in the house now. So I’ll get a rope from the storage hut. I’ll sneak in from the backside, and return here before the winds start to really blow.
Sunday dragged the kite into a stand of bamboo and covered it with crunchy, brown leaves. A breeze made the tall stalks sway and clatter. He rubbed his warm arms and smiled at the hidden kite.
I will do it. I will fly over the river, and the crocs won’t be able to get me.
Sunday Obeten galloped like he was riding a horse toward the storage hut at his home.
* * *
Lying in the thick sword grass, Sunday spied out the home front. A rusty tin roof over the main house kept the orange mud from washing out of the bamboo wall frames. Smoke billowed from under the thatching of the unwalled kitchen hut.
I’m a soldier on a secret mission. Got to be invisible.
He crawled a bit closer on his belly. There was Mary, squatting next to a metal bowl nestled atop a volcano-shaped fire ring made of the same orange mud. To make the garri flour roast without burning, she scooped it with a broken dinner plate, then poured it like a waterfall back into the pot, over and over again.
Good, it looks like the troops will eat today.
That enemy has no idea she’s being watched. Her General must be inside.
Sunday stayed low, and worked his way to the back of the storage hut. There was a small hole where the rats had already dug through the wall. Sunday pulled out more crumbling mud until he found the bamboo frames on either side of the hole. He laid on his side and wriggled through the opening.
Mum will think the rats have been at it again.
He pulled his legs inside the darkness, and found himself pressed between split bamboo fishing baskets and broken traps. There was a heap of feed sacks that should have been overstuffed with ground cassava. Instead, they laid deflated, empty of every last grain.
Reaching for a dusty clay pot, Sunday bumped a scrap of tin roofing. It echoed like a metal drum. He froze.
Mary stopped humming.
A long silence.
A rock thumped against the thatched roof.
“Ha, get,” Mary yelled from the kitchen.
“What’s wrong, Mary?” Mum said.
Sunday pulled feed sacks over himself and curled into a fetal ball.
“You little demons, go away, or we’ll make you into dinner,” Mum shouted into the storage hut.
A handful of rocks pelted the fish traps and struck the feed sacks at Sunday’s back.
“Cursed devils. I can see another hole at the back. Something else to fix. Where is that useless brother of yours?”
Sunday waited until he heard Mum’s voice move away before he breathed normally again. Very slowly, he had a peek out the doorway, then continued his search for a rope.
* * *
Hemp cord in hand, Sunday grinned, thinking how he’d outwitted Mum and Mary.
Mission to get a rope, accomplished, sir. He snapped off a salute.
But the rope was nowhere near long enough to carry him all the way across the river. No matter, it would work for a test flight, and he’d find more later.
Singing to himself, Sunday recovered his giant kite from the bamboo trees. There was a steady wind blowing up river. Small whitecaps began further out that left rows of brown valleys on the water.
This really was the best place to fly kites.
He tied one end of the rope to a tree. The other end was knotted onto the string that went to the top and bottom of his kite. He knew all the tricks for flying kites.
Now for the important part.
Sunday experimented with a loop around his waist. It had to carry his weight.
“Hey, boy, what are you up to there?” A man from Ekori village paddled up river, keeping his dugout canoe—heaped with fish traps—close to the shore and out of the current. He was one of the several chiefs. A war chief, or some such. The man nodded at the kite and raised a disapproving brow.
“Nothing, sir.” Sunday pulled the cord off his shoulder. He stepped onto the scrap of tarpaulin that somehow felt like the skin of a poached animal.
“Is that a kite? Mind the crocs out here, Sunday Obeten. I saw two, only a bit downriver. You don’t want to end up like old Josiah.” He gave a raspy laugh.
Josiah was an old man in the village who only had one leg. He told the boys a giant crocodile swallowed him whole, then spit him out, but kept his leg.
Sunday bowed his head in respect, and didn’t answer. The chief clicked his tongue, and paddled beyond the rushes. Sunday exhaled in relief.
Just then, a terrific wind gusted. Sunday was anxious to see if his creation would fly. He would sort out the harness and a longer rope later.
Maybe he’d go across after he went home and ate garri and herbs. He was miserably hungry.
First, a short test flight.
Holding the bottom of the kite in one hand and the hemp rope in the other, he faced it into the wind. The blue tarpaulin puckered and lifted. It wanted to take off.
Sunday let go of the tail as the rope slid through his hand. There was no running needed to launch in this wind.
Like an eager rocket, the kite rose as fast as he could let out the line. Then, at fifty feet, it hooked hard right and shot head down. It struck the muddy riverbank, then fell on its face.
Sunday knew the problem. This had happened with other kites. He needed more weight on the tail to keep the kite upright.
Wow, it’s strong.
He squealed in joy.
It just needs some fine tuning.
Sunday pumped his arms and made a little dance.
I can fix this.
For his second launch, he used a bit of creeper vine to lash a ten-inch section of bamboo to the end of the tail. The green tube swung in the air by the kite tail made from his shirt.
* * *
An hour, and many adjustments later, the young inventor watched his mighty kite dance in the air. It hovered against puffy clouds like a happy kingfisher bird—like a very big, giant kingfisher bird. Sunday laughed in excitement.
His bare feet jigged in place on the riverbank. Yes, he was chuffed to be an adventurer, free of school. He grinned, very pleased with himself.
The only problem was that the kite flew up river, not across. Still, it was a great test flight.
The wind pulled incredibly hard. It was all Sunday could do to hold on. It felt like a game of tug of war against a whole team from his school days.
A mighty gust made the kite rise. Sunday leaned all his weight back against the rope as both of his feet dragged across the sand toward the water. Looking at the white caps, fear pounded in his chest.
“Sunday Ude Obeten, what on earth are you doing? You stupid, stupid boy,” his mother screamed.
She sprang out of the sword grass like a lioness on the hunt.
“I have a monkey for a child, that’s what I have!” Her voice was in that high-pitched screech reserved for all loss of control. “Mr. Ngozi was in the top of a palm tree. He saw you about to kill yourself. I didn’t believe him. But sure enough, here you are.
“What’s to keep you from drowning? There are crocodiles out there. Bloody hell, they are just waiting for a boy your size for supper.”
She raised a hand like it would crash down.
Sunday backpedaled wildly to keep the kite from pulling him into the river. He was torn over which was more dangerous, Mum behind him or the crocodiles ahead.
At that moment the kite was winning, dragging him up to his knees into the water.
Mum took hold of the rope. Together they pulled the kite back. The huge diamond seemed afraid of coming down. It jitterbugged side to side.
“Is that your father’s tarpaulin? What on … and that’s your shirt out there?” Mom let an animal growl fly.
“How did I end up with such a stupid, wasteful child? I am going to thrash you, Sunday Ude. You think because I haven’t got a husband you can dream and play all day. You and your useless inventions.”
When the kite was closer to shore, and no longer pulling Sunday into the water, Mum left him to reel in the last bit.
He looked over his shoulder to see her march toward the bamboo forest, machete in hand. She was probably after a flogging stick. And she was as mad as he’d ever seen her.
Sunday ran backward to bring the kite over dry land.
I should run away from her. But I can’t leave my kite.
The giant kite finally released its pull and floated down.
Mum slashed the back of his legs with a stick. It was small—about as thick as a finger—and the worst kind. Instant pain made his calves feel like fire had burned them.
“You ruined a perfectly good tarpaulin. I hope your father curses you from the grave, you worthless child.”
As she yelled, she anchored him with one hand, and whacked him on the thighs and bum with the stick in the other hand. He didn’t dare turn around and expose his front side.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I only wanted to rescue you and Mary.” His words were lost in her shrieks.
“First your father.”
She whacked his bum.
“Then the war.”
The cane caught his head.
“And now you run wild. How many witches have cursed me?”
She slapped the bamboo across his bare back.
Pain burned his whole body. He shrank at her feet.
She was in a frenzy and wouldn’t stop the flogging.
“You’re nothing but a lazy, useless fool. You do nothing to help. Playing and pretending all day. That ends today. Your father’s ghost will not catch me going soft because there is no man around.”
She continued to strike him, over and over. The bamboo stick was red from his blood. Sunday hunkered into a ball and wailed. He no longer even winced under the blows that brought whole body pain.
Mum stepped back and panted. She raised the weapon again, let it hover, then threw it into the river with a whoosh through the air.
The nearby bamboo trees moaned in the wind.
Sunday refused to look at Mum. Hot anger boiled with shame inside his head.
After a silence of only the wind making leaves flutter, Mum said, “Wash. Then get this mess home. Garri is waiting.”
The savage lioness stomped away.
Sunday gasped a few times to stop his wailing, then he raised to a sitting position. He couldn’t move beyond that.
Straining to see his own backside, his fingers explored welts that crisscrossed his shoulder and legs. He still had marks from the last flogging of a few weeks before. This time, sticky red blood smeared his skin.
He let out a long, unrestrained roar at the top of his lungs.
Then he hung his head and whimpered. Cries tumbled out, and covered the noise of the wind and waves of the Cross River.
I’m not the family hero. I’m not.
Just the family baby. And everybody hates me.
I’ll go over the river. I’ll find another way across.