Authors: E.C. Osondu
In loving memory of my dearly beloved sister,
Felicia Maria Ezediuno Nwanze
hen we asked Grandpa how the house we all called the Family House came into existence, this was the story he told us.
A long, long time ago, before anybody alive today was born, a brave ancestor of ours who was also a respected and feared juju man woke up one day and told his family, friends, and neighbors that he had a dream. In the dream he saw a crown being placed on his head. He interpreted this dream as signifying that he was going to be crowned a king soon.
As was the custom in those days, a new king had to be crowned by a reigning king who would also hand him a scepter of office. This should not have been a problem but for a minor incident that had occurred in the palace many,
many years ago, before even those who were telling this story were born. You see, our ancestors had a bit of history with the palace.
We were told that my people once lived under the hegemony of an oppressive king in the distant past. Because they spoke a different language, and had two diagonal scarifications on each cheek, not much respect was accorded them. Not much was expected from them, either, other than the occasional payment of tributes to the king. They lived on the fringes of the society. They were neither full citizens nor bondsmen.
When a hunter among these ancestors of the family killed a wild boar he was expected to send the choicest part of the kill to the king.
When a girl child was born to them and it was seen by all eyes that she was indeed fair on the eyes and pretty, everyone began to refer to her as the king's prospective wife. When she grew up she would be taken to the palace so that the king would peek at her through a peephole. If she caught his fancy and he liked what he saw, she became one of his wives. If he didn't like her, she could then be married to someone else. It was said that some women who were pregnant in those days would eat bitter leaves, chew bitter kola nuts, and drink bitter fluids, putting themselves through all kinds of painful and bitter ordeals in order to ensure that their female offspring were born ugly.
The king had also mandated that the menfolk of the family should take part in the building of a large moat that was conceived
to go round the kingdom like the Great Wall of China. This was going to be the king's landmark achievement. It was in the nature of kings to build something that they would be remembered by. In later years court oral historians could then intone that during the reign of so and so king a great wall was erected around the kingdom to protect his subjects from invasion. To build a moat, mud was needed, and this mud had to be kneaded. This was a hard task. The digging out of the mud from a wide and deep hole and the fetching of water to knead it and the ferrying of the mud on baskets on the head. A rebellious ancestor complained about this humiliating task of mud kneading and moat building and had suggested they knead the mud with palm oil instead. This was done.
The next morning, the king's palace was overrun by soldier ants.
It was important that a king should be feared by his subjects as such, any form of or hint of rebellion must be punished and crushed. This king was no different, he knew this rule of kingship and decided to teach these ancestors a lesson that they will never forget.
The king was determined to kill my ancestors. They fled on foot and would have settled in a town close to where they eventually settled but they were repulsed by the sight of
. This mystery would be later explained. The men were not really pregnant. Their large protruding bellies were a result of consuming lots of palm wine.
It was to this palace that this ancestor wanted to return in order to be crowned king and to be handed a scepter of office.
When this ancestor was getting ready to go on the trip he invited some of his brothers and neighbors to come along with him, but they refused. They all knew that the unleashing of the soldier ants incident had not been forgiven or forgotten. Palaces tend to have a long memory. Yet this ancestor insisted that some people should come along with him. He knew that he needed to be crowned in the presence of witnesses. He eventually persuaded two of his friends to go with him after he had promised them official positions when he became king.
As expected, immediately they announced their presence, they were arrested and detained. The next morning one of them was brought out to the king's courtyard. In the words of the king it was important to teach those who thought they could question royal authority a lesson they would never forget. The king was incensed for two reasons. He could tell from the diagonal tribal scarifications on the faces of these men, one of whom wanted to be crowned king, that they were the same people who had refused to build the moat and had unleashed the soldier ants that overran the palace. And now they also wanted to be crowned king. Unless this was dealt with ruthlessly, who knew what other form of rebellion they could incite his loyal subjects into committing? All the men, women, and children in the kingdom were assembled to witness this interesting spectacle. The king gave an order for the two men to be tied up. The king ordered that the first man be beheaded. It was done.
The next day the second man also had his head cut off. It was now my ancestor's turn. He had spent the entire period of his detention red eyed and head bowed in sorrow over the loss
of his friends. His own safety did not concern him that much. He was the one who had persuaded his late friends to come along with him on the journey. It was for this fact alone that he felt some regret.
As he was tied up and the sword unsheathed from the scabbard to chop off his head as the king had ordered, a millipede crawled out from his thick mane of hair and emerged from the center of his head. It was dark brown.
“Halt,” the king ordered his executioner.
He was a king, he had seen many things, but he also knew and respected strong juju. This was no mere mortal. The millipede was a sign that this man was a strong juju man. The king's attitude changed.
“Untie the man,” the king commanded.
“Prepare him good food. Dress him in the best clothes and bring him into my presence tomorrow.”
It was done.
When the ancestor was brought to the king's presence the next day, the king sent all his courtiers away and sat alone with my ancestor. My ancestor looked the king in the eye and said to him, “I know what keeps you awake at night. You are worried that you will die young like your father and your great-grandfather and all your ancestors who have been kings before you.”
The king looked at my ancestor and nodded humbly.
“I will make you an amulet that will make you live to a ripe old age. You must go into the forest yourself and gather me some wild vines,” my ancestor said to the king.
“I have thousands of slaves and servants that can do it, I
will send one of them or even a dozen of them to pluck you this vine,” the king said.
“Yes, I know, but you must pick the wild vine yourself. It is important that you do this yourself because only you can extend your own life. No other hand can extend your life for you.”
So the king went into the forest and came back with the wild vine. My ancestor plucked the leaves off the vine and twisted the vine into a twine and hung it to dry on a rafter by the fireplace. Three days later he summoned the king and asked the king to bring down the now-dry twisted vine. The king did.
“Twist it and see if you can break it in two.”
The king twisted it, and the vine broke in two without much effort on the king's part.
“You must go into the forest once again and bring me the same vine,” he told the king. Once again, the king complained but went to the forest and got the vines. This time, my ancestor ordered that the vine was to be hung up in the rafters and the fires must be kept burning at low heat for seven days. After seven days the vine was given to the king to break in two, but no matter how much he tried he could not break it in two. My ancestor now pounded the dry creeping vine in a mortar and used it to prepare a longevity talisman for the king that was to be worn around the neck. He also told the king.
“From now going forward, decree that when you or any of your descendants dies, they be buried in an upright position while seated on their royal stool. Only commoners deserve to be buried on their backs, lying down. When you get to the world beyond, you'll discover there are also hierarchies as we have here on earth,
there are levels in the next world, you know. Over there, you'll also be counted among the royalty and accorded the deference and respect you deserve.” The king was delighted by this idea of reigning among the living and the dead and decreed that this would be the manner in which all kings, including him, would be buried from then on.
“How do I repay you?” the king asked.
“You should grant me my original request. Crown me king.”
“There cannot be two kings in the land,” the king said. “Here's what I'll do. I will give you a large parcel of land somewhere in the outskirts, and money and men to start life afresh. I will also build you a mansion where you will live. A mansion that befits a strong juju man like you.”
And that was how we acquired the land on which the Family House was built. The king also built this ancestor a mansion, but it was built out of mud. Many years later the son of the king was sent to visit the king of Portugal. When he came back, he described the kind of houses he saw in Portugal. As a final gift the king, who had now lived to a ripe old age, decided to build the Family House in the Portuguese architectural style for my ancestor. What my ancestor did not know was that the king had built him the house in order to keep an eye on him. He had instructed his soldiers to kill my ancestor if for any reason the king did not live to a ripe old age. This was how the Family House came to be.