Ado absently kicked along a small stone, then a tin can, a plastic bottle, and any sizeable object on his path as he walked home. He had many questions he could not resolve. That Tuesday at school, Teacher had told them something that got Ado’s attention.
“A few days from now, there will be an eclipse of the moon,” he said.
His teacher’s name was Mr Johnson Adeko but pupils called him Teacher because he taught every subject, from Math to Sports to Nature Studies to Hygiene. He was one of only four teachers that the primary school at Old Wussa had. Sometimes, he combined Ado’s Standard Four class with pupils of Standard Three in order to teach Sports or Arithmetic. Then, at other times he taught Handwriting to Standards Four and Five together. Teacher was a learned man.
“What is an eclipse?” a boy asked. Teacher tried as best he could to explain to his pupils.
Mr Adeko was not sure when exactly the eclipse would happen. A friend of his in the big town had told him it would take place in about a week’s time.
Thoughts of the eclipse preoccupied Ado. What would happen to daybreak if the moon became damaged as a result of the event? What schemes of adventure could he and his friends plot around the eclipse?
He wanted to find out more about this strange new habit of the moon but the only textbooks he had were for Arithmetic and English; no information about eclipses could be found in them. The school’s library was not much help either; not many books were in there.
The library mostly held a few old magazines and two trophies, dulled by age and locked away in a glass cabinet. The trophies were recycled yearly as awards for the winners of the Inter-House Sports meet which always featured football matches as main events. Often, the library served as a detention room for badly behaved pupils who spent a half hour either giving the two goblets a shine or wiping dust off the magazines.
Soon it was Saturday but Ado, whose weekends were habitually spent in diverse outdoor exploits, had managed to stay home this time. Usually, he would have gone to the lake with his friends. The Niger River meandered in its course and bordered Old Wussa on the east. Although there were lots of rapids, Ado liked to play on the ledges close to the river bank.
Recently, however, certain unusual activities in his village had made everyone stick close to one another. For about a week now, not many people had been going to their farms, or to hunt or fish. Ado assumed that some unexpected communal rite was being organised. Sometimes the deities demanded these rites for the protection and prosperity of the Wussawas.
More than once, he had witnessed the appeasement of the mighty rainbow which often stretched beautifully across the River Niger. The locals believed that the great rainbow prevented accidents from happening especially during the rainy season and also at the yearly boating festival in Wussa. Anyhow, Ado loved the ceremonies because there was always plenty of food and fruits to eat.
That Saturday night, the reason for the anxiety in Wussa became clear. It all began shortly after midnight. Ado could tell because the jackals that howled at midnight to their circadian timer had just done so. This alert of nature turned out to be the umpire’s whistle.
From their corners the warriors drew into closer view. Glistening all over in the near darkness they looked ready, if permitted, to battle to the end. The already charged ambiance grew tenser. It had been rumoured that this would be the determining encounter; the very destiny of the village hung on it. Awash with anxiety in the heat of the imminent combat, everyone waited with bated breath for the outcome.
The next evening, Ado visited the village griot in his court. Children gathered around him once every week for a serving of tales by moonlight. The court was abuzz over the events of the previous night in Wussa. Sagely Ofege sat amidst squirming children who were eager to hear what he had to say. The griot was noted for his unlimited memory and for his ability to carve exciting stories out of any incident of note.
Every child in the village appeared to be present. The hooting of nocturnal birds and the chirpings of crickets in the surrounding woods cast a drone over the chatter of the children. At the precise moment, Ofege tapped on his little drum to draw attention to himself.
“Battles are fought all the time—in our realm today as was done in the worlds of the ages past. Last night witnessed one of the rarest fights; many of you may never see such again.” His weathered skin shone in the moonlight as he spoke.
“Wussa was the elect of the gods, yet again, to mediate in the clash.” He paused to measure the effect his words had on his listeners. Ado counted himself lucky to live at such a time as this; a time when his village negotiated the future of the whole world.
Ofege the griot enlightened them further, his every word sinking deep into the developing psyche of the young children.
“Once before, when my father was about your age, the deities had sent the sun’s fiercer double to fight the moon. Of course, the moon stood no chance; but Wussa’s wise men of yore successfully placated the night sun. For two generations thereafter, there was no recurrence. Until last night, that is.”
He said that the sins of the world had grown so gross that the spirits were disgusted with humanity. The encounter at midnight was a purging process meant to correct a people that had gone astray. First, the moon would have been destroyed; then the night sun would have prevented day from breaking, thus bringing calamity upon creation!
“Our own Wussa was selected because we are a holy remnant for the world. Each time the rulers of the spirit places thought to destroy creation, it was for Wussa’s sake that they changed their minds.”
As Ofege spoke, Ado’s conflicted little mind wandered on its own path. How could the people of Wussa be a holy stock when one of them, Afuya, was the village thief who stole from people’s farms at night; when his son, set in the ways of his father, stole goats and chickens to sell in neighbouring villages? His thoughts were numerous.
He looked around the circle of entranced children and saw Yanda. How could Wussa be a hallowed place when Yanda’s father was so loose with the village women? Adults say that a number of children in Wussa looked like him.
Yanda did not often mix with other children of the village because of the depravity of his father. Even now, as Ofege the griot talked about the iniquity of the world that brought the ire of the divinities upon it, Yanda receded deeper into the shadows of the two children between whom he sat. His father must be in the bad books of the spirits.
The deities probably didn’t see everything. Otherwise, how could Wussa be their elect when children harboured infatuations that they secretly talked about amongst themselves out of earshot of adults?
He shook off his contemplations in time to hear the great griot saying that their village was fortunate to have Batiga the seer. It was he who had got wind of the impending battle. It was to old Batiga, who lived on the brinks of the village, that they all owed a huge debt of gratitude.
“Had he not divined the portentous encounter down to the week, it could have taken us unawares. The consequences, my little ones, are too dire to imagine,” Ofege said. His assertions made Ado shiver.
When Batiga rushed to tell the king about the looming battle, the elaborate curtsies of royal court were cut short owing to the urgency of his mission.
“Your highness, we don’t have time. It has to be done today,” the seer told King Shefule of Wussa, urging him to play his part in averting the coming doom.
“Very well, Great One. You have done well. The chiefs will set up at the village square tonight,” the king assured Batiga the seer.
Ofege told the children that it was a good thing that Batiga lived in worldly privation on the outskirts of their village; away from interfering civilization and besetting sins. “People who live in towns don’t get adequate cosmic vibes which warn of impending danger,” he explained.
Ado’s respect for the seer grew exponentially. Batiga was not an ordinary man; he communed with gods and conferred with the elements. His holiness alone expiated the wrong of the whole sinful world. Even the talkative drunk of the village, Mr Thomas, knew his place with the prodigious seer and never spoke ill of him. Obviously, Mr Thomas was one of those whose ways soiled Wussa’s holy standing.
Ever since Mr Thomas returned from his sojourn in the big city, he had been nothing but trouble. He always opposed the customs of the people. How could anybody claim to know better than the ways and practices that the infallible ancestors of Wussa had set in stone for all time?
Kabiru raised his hand to speak as they all gathered around the storyteller.
“Great Ofege, Ado and I overheard Mr Thomas telling people at the wine joint earlier tonight that the battle was only a natural occurrence.”
The circle of children gasped in surprise. The griot was quiet for a while. When he spoke, his voice was grave and his words measured.
“You must never allow the kind of insanity from which Thomas suffers to take hold of your mind; it is hard to cure, very hard,” he said.
Ado blanched at the impudence of Mr Thomas. What would the gods think if they heard him speak in such a disdainful manner? He shuddered voluntarily as he tried to stamp out the dreadful possibilities that filled his mind.
He tried to recall the happenings of the past few days. The elders had kept vigil at the village square for three nights. Now he understood why. They were awaiting the grand battle. Women had set up quarters a respectful distance away, baking masa—millet flour mixed with honey—and brewing scented tea. Teenage children helped to serve the aged men who sat in council and mumbled endlessly.
On the fourth night of the watch, the fighters slowly glided out from their corners. Promptly, the vigilant elders began to beat their drums to accompany a song. The public square brimmed over with hushed nervousness as the drumbeats drew out the whole village.
Prodded by the ceaseless songs and drumming, the fighters locked in combat. Wizened men besieged the celestial planes with pleas for a timely intervention. The dirges they sang told of the ominous fate that would befall mankind if the fighters could not be stopped.
In the subdued brightness of night time, spectators could just make out unmistakable crimson splattered across the face of one warrior. Ado had quaked with fear as the wailing of the singers, in response, rose a full register in near hysteria.
The fight could have gone on all night. However, yielding to entreaties from humans and spirits alike, the fighters disengaged and backed away from each other. As silently as they had come, they slid away on their different paths. Uproar of jubilation rent the air. The tune of drumbeats changed as the village heads praised the gods of their ancestors for rescuing Wussa—as always.
Throughout the next day, the elders visited the palace to congratulate King Shefule on conquering immortality to win a battle. Old Batiga was at the palace all day long. He received as much praise as the king received visitors.
On the Monday morning following the incident, Teacher was visibly animated. Although he resided in Wussa during the week, every Friday he returned to his family in the big town called Wauwa. On this Monday morning he came to school very early.
“How many of you were awake Saturday night to witness the eclipse?” Mr Johnson Adeko asked his pupils. He moved around the room excitedly as he talked about the lunar eclipse and the blood moon and what caused them.
“Did you hear Teacher saying that a similar occurrence had taken place before, even in broad daylight, in the big cities of the world?” a classmate of Ado’s asked his friends during playtime.
“Teacher is an educated man; he knows everything there is to know,” another child pointed out.
“I heard that he has travelled far and wide to many regions of the world,” Ado added.
In the eye of his pupils, Mr Adeko was a man of towering dimensions. Ado thought Teacher and Ofege could not be wrong even if their views were different, yet, he remembered Mr Thomas’s words that night as he walked with Kabiru to the griot’s.
“You bunch of ignoramuses; it was only an occurrence of nature,” he had said. Speaking with fervour, Mr Thomas explained that the sun, earth and moon lined up to create the effect.
“‘Your learning has gone to your head!’ ‘Don’t insult the gods with your crazy claims!’” his companions shouted him down.
As he walked home after school on Monday, Ado ruminated on the eclipse. Mr Thomas’s argument was similar to what Teacher said would happen. Both Teacher and Mr Thomas were knowledgeable about many things; they were probably right about the lunar eclipse, Ado concluded. But how would they explain the fact that the moon was nearly lost because of the eclipse? Certainly, the wickedness of the world, even the badness of little boys like himself who frequently got into trouble, had almost cost his village the moon. According to Ofege the griot, had Wussa failed in its duty, mankind would have had to endure nights of the blackest darkness forever more.