HIS Royal Highness Eze Philemon Nkwo II, the traditional chief of Ukpuru, was in a gloomy mood. That morning he had instructed his favourite daughter to make a tour of his yam barns and assess how many tubers were remaining since the last harvest. The news was not reassuring. If only those lazy sons-in-law of his were not so greedy. And if only he did not feel compelled to provide for his kin at a consideration way below what was now being charged in the market.
The drought had driven the price of yams so high that on market days the women came back crying. It went against all their instincts to pay such a price. And he, the Eze, the father of his people, could not refuse to help them. The women must have food for their children, many of whom were his own grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
The Eze bad sent for the rainmaker a few days ago and asked him to summon all his magic. Last night he had woken excitedly to hear the machine-gun rattle of rain on the tin roof of the palace. But the shower was no more than that and even if those sons-in-law strained their buttocks and planted now, it would be many months before the first crop. In the meantime the price ot’ food would continue to soar. And now his own stocks were running loss.
The Eze felt pained. The impoverishment of his people was like a disease which invaded not just the leaves and the branches, but even the trunk of the tree.
The visitor occupying the best armchair in the royal parlour was oblivious to the Eze’s thunderous expression, which she took for regal disdain. His Highness had temporarily forgotten her presence. She was an official from an organisation in the city who had arrived unannounced, bowing and displaying exaggerated courtesy. In return he had given her the traditional hospitality - kola-nut - which she appeared to expect but only pretended to enjoy. Amid he had given her entourage of government servants, interpreters, drivers and hangers-on, beers and minerals’ which they drank at a rate which was quite a drain on the palace’s budget.
The visitor proceeded to talk about the ‘project’. To the old Eze, ‘project’ sounded like many other things that people had come to discuss with him over the years in tones of earnest enthusiasm. He could even remember such talk back in colonial times, when many of the ancestral lands of Ukpuru had been made into plantations and his people left to languish.
In those days it was the white fathers who cast such ideas around. Later, when his own countrymen joined in, they talked of ‘freedom’. After the war the word had changed again. The new men, the politicians, had talked about ‘development’. They had come round making extravagant promises. But once in power, they spent everything on the people they knew could keep them there, which did not include men like Eze Philemon Nwko, whose sphere of influence consisted of a handful of villages set in a landscape of yam mounds and palm trees.
When he was a younger man, the Eze had enjoyed these discussions. They renewed his hope that the remote and much neglected land of Ukpuru would finally attract the attention of the big man behind the desk in town, whose influence alone could bring the services and installations that materialised in the ancestral lands of other peoples: the roads, clinics, power plants, sewage works, boreholes, paved markets, brick factories and credit unions.
But through all the changes the face of Ukpuru had remained constant: yams and palms, palms and yams. Other things did change, sometimes for the worse. As time passed, for example, coins bought less, no matter whose face was on them. It seemed to make no difference whether he was a teacher, a priest or a civil servant: the man in town who sat behind the big desk, with the national flag at his elbow and a policeman outside, sat there as if there were no kingdom called Ukpuru.
The people became disillusioned. If they voted or if they did not vote, if they petitioned or they did not petition, if there was drought or flood, things were the same. The four market days came and went in their cycle and people were as satisfied or as unsatisfied as they might he.
Now’, at the moment, they were not satisfied. The price of yams was not a satisfactory price. It was not even a thinkable price. And he, their Eze, was at a loss to know how any ‘project’ would bring it down.
The visitor was now talking about ‘community participation’. This was something the new breed of visitors often mentioned in tones of awe. The old Eze did not understand why it was so remarkable that when he told his people to do something, they actually obeyed. She wanted the community to choose someone to send for training. This training, it seemed, was a vital preliminary to ‘project’. The Eze agreed to her request. He would send Chuks, the laziest of his layabout sons-in-law. At least Chuks would fill his stomach with someone else’s yams for a month or two. The old man thanked the visitor and she left.
Chuks set off for the town a few days later. He was delighted to escape the onerous digging of the planting season. The other sons-in-law’ muttered for a few days: they had to share out the digging of Chuks’ am mounds between them, for his wife must be able to plant her plot. But soon they stopped, for the rains ceased to fall. The best efforts of the rainmaker had done no more than dampen the surface of the drought.
By imposing all his authority, Eze managed to make the remaining yam tubers last his kin until the harvest, with the loss of only one small child - a weakling he had never expected to see alive in 12 months’ time. But his yam barns were exhausted in a way that left him feeling half a man and the look of the new crop was not encouraging.
Come harvest time, the Eze’s spirits remained gloomy. But everyone else appeared reborn. For something extra was to be celebrated at the feast of the new yam: the coming of ‘project’.
Chuks had returned to the fold a changed man, with light in his eyes and fire in his mouth. He had gone around addressing all the different age groups - ‘mobilising them’, he called it - giving each a task. One group brought sand, another collected levies, a third went all over Ukpuru distributing books and leaflets. The mason had been peremptorily instructed to stop the work on the new palace guttering which Eze was having attached and told to start laying bricks for a community centre.
There was more activity in the length and breadth of Ukpuru than Eze Philemon Nkwo could ever remember. A wild fire of enthusiasm for ‘project’ had overtaken the people. Even the big man from behind the desk in town had come to inspect, exhort and encourage, bringing a new truck from his own fleet of vehicles. The woman visitor had returned with a camera on three legs. Eze took part whenever his position as king of all Ukpuru demanded that he must, hut he could not escape a feeling of unreality, of make-believe.
Chuks, now the hero, chided the old man for his detachment. And truly, Eze Philemon Nkwo did feel resentful that his son-in-law gave himself such airs before his time. Nowadays, he felt, the people only tolerated the ceremonies he performed, holding their roar of approval for Chuks and his announcements about earth-moving machines, drilling rigs, concrete mixers, solar driers, movie cameras and other mirades of the modern world. Some of these were sighted like strange monsters on a distant horizon, plying their noisy business in other lands, before - Chuks promised - arriving in Ukpuru to finish off what ‘mobilisation’ had begun.
Meanwhile the dry season had again begun to take its toll. Old Eze knew without asking that the rainmaker scarcely had the will to work his best magic. People were ignoring the sacrifices, caught up in the fever of modernity, convinced that the magic of Chuks and ‘project’ would provide. But the price of yams rose in the market just as it had the year before. And Eze no longer sent his favourite daughter to count the yams in his barns. He dreaded the answer.
Far away in the city, portents were brewing unknown to His Highness the father of all Ukpuru. Chuks, who knew everything these days, may have had wind of them but if so he kept his knowledge to himself. While the Eze watched the storm clouds gather and disperse without releasing their burden and nightly yearned for the sound of the rain, Chuks looked only at the newspaper cuttings sent him by the big man behind the desk in town. His expression looked pinched. But many expressions looked pinched in days when planting should be done but could not be done because there was no rain.
One day a new kind of visitor came, a kind not seen in Ukpuru since ‘freedom’, a man in an army uniform. He took Chuks away in a truck, an ugly gun pressed to his ribs. The Eze was unprepared for any such happening. The people were angry. And they blamed their king. What else could this be hut a betrayal? But the Eze had no control over this event, nor any other.
More soldiers came. They towed away the machines, they dismembered the drilling rig, they smashed the solar drier, they barred up the community centre. It was said that the big man behind the desk in town had been slain by his own police officer. The new word was ‘coup’. ‘Coup’ seemed to be the opposite of ‘project’. Only the Eze saw that ‘coup’ might yet turn out to he another ‘project’ in disguise.
The woman visitor from the city came again. She seemed to be immune to ‘coup’. She sat in the fraying armchair in the royal parlour and she accepted kolanut as before. The Eze waited for her explanation.
The politicians, she said, had been overthrown. When they had squandered so much of the nation’s resources that there was almost nothing left, the soldiers had replaced them. Now’ they were running campaigns against indiscipline and corruption, purging the country of anti-social elements who fed like parasites upon the people. There was another man, a military man, who now occupied the seat behind the big desk in town. According to this man, Chuks was one of the parasites. He had been in league with the politician and he had taken the people’s wealth and spent it on great fleets of vehicles. Chuks had mobilised the people to create indiscipline. ‘Project’ was temporarily at a halt until ‘coup’ had completed its inquiries.
But there was one piece of good news, very good news, for the Eze of Ukpuru and his people. The price of yams in the market had fallen. The soldiers had found the price unsatisfactory, even unthinkable. They had passed a decree against it.
That night, as the Eze heard the storm tear at the palace roof and listened to the rain pour from the palace guttering and saw’ the palmtrees with their hair on end silhouetted against the crystal white sky, he felt easy again. Now everything had returned to normal. When the day broke he saw his favourite daughter take her hoe and set off singing to begin the planting. Today he would declare a ceremony and sacrifices would be made. The children would eat and none even among the weakest would be hungry. Yams and palms, palms and yams. All of life was there.