Mother hated coming with us to the village for Christmas celebrations but preferred to visit Aunty Victoria, her elder sister who worked as a nurse in one of the General hospitals in Lokoja while we travelled to Ozuofia.
However, last year was totally different. She not only agreed to follow us home but made efforts to call our cousins and convinced them all to pack enough belongings to spend the Christmas in our family house. Although that sparked off some curiosity in me, I asked no questions.
We were fifteen in all and the house work was spread out in such a way that everyone had something doing during the day so that in the evenings, we toured the village with Father’s fifteen-seater Toyota Hiace commuter bus.
On Christmas Eve, Father brought home four large broilers for the Christmas celebration and told Rapuluchi, my cousin, and I to kill and defeather them and then, wait for him to return and cut them into smaller sizes. Neither Rapuluchi nor I had ever defeathered a chicken prior to this. We could not even ask the younger ones for help because they would merely laugh at us and leave us to deal with the situation.
Mother didn’t seem interested when we approached her. She was sitting on a low kitchen stool in the red mud hut, outside the main building, watching her pot of Oha soup which was cooking on Grandma’s rusted tripod stand, bubble.
Instead of helping us find a solution, She told Rapuluchi to fetch her some water from one of the 25-litre jerry cans in front of the house and I rushed to do it first. Rapuluchi chased after me and we came out, in a jiffy, holding the pail on each side while some of the water poured on our legs.
She murmured a ‘Thank you’ and poured some of it into a kettle, whose body was covered in soot and continued to whistle as she cooked as though she didn’t hear our complaint. We exchanged glances and tried to strike up a discussion but she hushed us away and we grumpily shifted towards a corner of the back yard to converse.
Rapuluchi suggested we boil a large pot of water and throw them in but I told her that I had once read that it was wrong to eat any meat together with its blood. We would need to let the blood out one way or another. But what we should have asked ourselves earlier was who was going to catch the chicken? We’ll see.
We even thought of stoning them to death but that would still keep the blood in. After some minutes of rubbing minds, we announced to Mother that we were going to call Uncle Nzube, one of our numerous extended relatives whom we only saw during Christmas, to lend us a helping hand. She nodded in approval and we zoomed off to his house, situated about half a pole from ours, shouting ‘Uncle Nzube’ ‘Uncle Nzube’.
With his wrapper loosely hugging his pelvis and a white-turned-brown singlet, he emerged from the door asking what the matter was. In unison, we greeted him ‘Good afternoon, Sir’ and smiling broadly, he replied, ‘Afunu umu m’. We explained the situation to him and he agreed to come along with us.
By the time we got to the back yard, Mother had finished cooking lunch and the tripod stand was then free for us to use. Mother had previously taught us how to fan the embers and add palm kernel shells to make a fire and so, the process was hassle-free. Thereafter, we poured some water into the kettle and set it on the tripod stand to boil.
Uncle Nzube showed us how to firmly grip the legs of the chicken and then hold their large wings together, just above their trunk, so that they couldn’t move. Rapuluchi got it the first time and Uncle Nzube applauded her while I kept trying. Finally, I was able to hold tightly the dry legs of mine but it kept resisting my hold on its wings until they were broken and it eventually stayed still. Uncle Nzube smiled and said that I had done well.
He took us to the back of the hut and dug two holes, one for each, and instructed us to secure the chicken wings by pinning them to the ground with our knees and pluck the feathers around the throat. When we had done this, he handed us two sharp knives to cut open their throat.
I yelled and almost let go when the blood sprinkled on my right foot but Uncle Nzube encouraged me to hold on for a little longer. He explained that the chicken was still alive and if I loosened my grip, it would smudge itself with sand and make it difficult to catch again. So, I held on until there were no more movements.
We killed the remaining two and put them into a basin of hot water and defeathered them, as Uncle Nzube guided us. Mother came in with a wide grin when we had almost finished and thanked Uncle Nzube for the helping us through the rite of passage into womanhood. Rapuluchi and I asked her what that meant and she answered that we were still too young to understand.
Father did not cut the chicken like he said but reserved it for the Umunna (elders of the kindred), who carried it to the house of the oldest man in the kindred, where I learnt that it was used to make pepper soup.
On the morning of Christmas, Father called Rapuluchi and I into the sitting room and told us how proud he was of us. Thereafter he bought more broilers from the market and invited some of my aunties to help mother with the preparation of assorted dishes while Grandma (who usually stayed indoors) decorated our bodies with beautiful coral beads and coloured chalks.
We were given tight-fitting gowns sewn from a brocade material to wear and directed to attend to the male visitors who thronged the sitting room all day. Rapuluchi seemed to enjoy the attention, some of the men showered on her, but I barely managed to wear a smile to avoid putting them off. Grandma had already warned us not to frown.
When the day was over, Grandma called us into her room and said, in almost a whisper, that the ceremony was to show that we were now ripe for marriage. If only they had said so earlier, I might have pointed out to them that my Yoruba boyfriend wasn’t invited. What a waste of my time!