It’s the first few days of December. Cold northern winds scour the land bringing with them the unfriendly friend- harmattan.
Cracked lips, dry, whitish skin, it’s a perpetual struggle to stay warm. Moisture seems to be nothing but a fevered dream. Water dries off like there’s a meeting in heaven it just cannot afford to be late to.
Anything left in a spot for a long while is covered with a thin film of dust.
The sandy footpaths are filled with that same earthy brownish-orange dust. Even as it rises in small clouds, pummeled under the feet of hasty villagers going about their daily business. There is no time to wait and exchange more than the barest pleasantries. Stay still for more than a few minutes and the cold begins to take little nips at your exposed flesh and if you still wait like a rabbit frozen in a bright beam of light, it gets into your very bones.
It is in this harmattan period however, that UzoChukwu, a young, virile boy from a clan of warriors, one who had braved seventeen harmattans successfully, must attain his manhood or be shamed forever among his clansmen. Armed with just a loincloth, a thick fur blanket, a spear and some rations, he must spend a week in the thick forest at the boundary, alone and without help.
On the day set aside, UzoChukwu and several other boys of his age grade meet at the agreed upon meeting place, the huge palm tree in the market square. They shake hands and trade insults. If they prove their courage in their different places of assignment, they would meet in exactly one week as men. Those who failed would have to pay a steep fine, to be set by those who passed. And then, the next harmattan, they would be opportuned to take the test again with their younger ones. Every boy present wears a grim face. They know what is at stake.
Footsteps echo from a footpath leading through a thick forest, the forest of men. Instantly, the boys hush. Only strong men who had proven their worth in the clan, great warriors, orators or experts in their chosen fields could walk this path. Men like this were not seen everyday, one only caught glimpses of them if he woke up early enough to see them as they made their way to their massive farmlands, or when they gathered to deliberate on issues affecting the village.
But everyone knows their names.
The leaves covering the end of the path shake and part and Ozonna, the village medicine man comes out. He is a huge, barrel-chested man, with arms like tree trunks. He was said to be able to wrestle with leopards and win. He looks at one as though he sees your every secret. He is one of those who are even harder to see than their peers, and his one distinguishing mark is the staff he always carries, a long, strong wooden staff topped with a pale bleached human skull.
Immediately the boys fall to their knees in respect. To look Ozonna in the eye is to incur his wrath, and the wrath of the spirits.
This us well known. He peers at them intently, checking to see that all his charges are present. Then he nods to himself, grunting and fetching a small object from a satchel dangling on his shoulder, he blows on a bone whistle.
The boys stand up and run off, each to his own task.
Ozonna watches them run, little clouds of dust puffing up in their wake, and tries to shake off the sense of foreboding he feels, watching the boys leave. It has been a long long time since they had lost a boy to his test of virility and he feels that at the end of the week their numbers would decrease.
He makes up his mind to sacrifice a few pure animals to ward off the evil omen and turns his back on the children, who have become specks in the distance, as he begins his return journey.