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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Village Memories (1) – By Uzoma Chukwuocha



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The game was to start by 4:00 PM, which in the village would end up being 5 PM on a good day. It was 2:45 PM, and my father was already under the cashew tree in the village primary school close to the football field, reading an old Guardian newspaper I had bought him a week ago. His black Raleigh bicycle was leaning on the other side of the same tree. It was a Saturday, and there was no other soul on the school premises. “Abro, Palè don already mount o”. That was Yubi, my friend. We; him, Reginald, and I, were walking home from the market square. Yubi spent most of his childhood in the city of Port Harcourt and was wont to use words like Abro and Palè, as well as exclamations like O’boy ye. Papa had also seen us, so we sauntered over to greet him before heading home. Ikedi, who are you playing today, he asked after we had exchanged pleasantries. His use of the words ‘you’ and ‘today’ would need a little contextual clarification. By you, he meant my village, Ikenga, and/or just me. Me, because sometimes other villages hired me to play for them. So, who are you playing today? “He meant, who is Ikenga playing today, or which other village are you playing for today, and against whom is that? I caught all his meanings and answered him accordingly. I am playing for Umunnebia today against Umuhu. He had a coquettish smile on his face, and all he said was ‘Hmm’.

Umuhu is my maternal home, the village of his wife, my mother, so his ‘hmm’ was pregnant with meanings, too; how could you do that? Please be careful. I can’t wait to see how it will go. All these were wrapped up in that humming sound in his throat and a smile on his face. I could feel the excitement he was trying to hide as he returned to his old newspaper. That was our subtle dismissal. He comes out early and reads his papers to manage his own excitement. I took walks with my friends to dissipate my own pregame tension, so we walked home.

He would later be joined by his friends De Joe and De Olibe and a few orders under the cashew tree, where they would sit and discuss the game before it started. They would ask him if his son would be playing today and for whom he would be playing. He would happily relay all he had got from me a few moments ago. He would also tell them the latest news in the country that he had read from his one-week-old newspaper.

At home, my mother never understood why I would never eat within two hours of a game. She firmly believed in feeding a child well, and to her, I was still a child and, as such, needed constant good food, game or no game.

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Dede bia, have you eaten this afternoon? She would ask. Yes, Mama. Where? When? She would ask where because she knew I had three options for eating. At Da Rose’s (Yubi’s mother) or Da Elene’s ( Ibe and Reginald’s mother). My mother had no problems with that because she often fed four of us, too. “Earlier at Da Rose’s”, I answered as I went about, gathering my football boots, socks, and bandages. Your maternal uncle, Degi Cele, came by. He said there is a rumour you might be playing for another village against them today, is that true? She wanted to know. It is not a rumour, mama, Umunnebia hired me to play for them against Umuhu, I said, smiling at her. She still has a soft spot for her maiden village, Umuhu. The ambivalent plight of a woman. Please be careful, she said, ruffling my hair. Which also meant, please be gentle on them today if you can.

Umuhu was not a team to sniff at. They had very good players, and top on their list was their goalkeeper, Chidi, AKA Onyije. I had never scored against him all the time I had come up against him. He let me know that at every chance he got. In the last nine matches I had played, I had scored a total of 13 goals, but none was against Onyije. It had started becoming a thing in the village, and I did not like it.

The school arena was now packed, and the crowd roared with applause as we filed out from one of the classrooms. I always stayed at the back of the line to take it all in. The crowd was alive, and that always set my heart racing and my feet tangling. Umunnebia, for whom I was to play, equally had a good team. On this particular day, however, they were a bit unsure for two reasons. One, they were facing a formidable force in Umuhu. Two, their best player, Ugochukwu, AKA Pele, was unavailable for some reason. A lot was riding on my presence for them that day.

As the players shook hands one last time before kickoff, Onyije reminded me again of our little history. I did not respond to him.

Umuhu drew the first blood within the first 10 minutes through Chidubem, who rose high to nod home an in-swinging corner kick. He was a force of nature, Chidubem. We tried to stay calm, but they were already under our skin.

A little after their goal, Amuzienwa put me through on goal. I was running with the ball at full speed towards their 18-yard box, with two defenders bearing down on either side of me. I looked up and saw the goalkeeper rushing forward and narrowing my angle. I fired with my right foot to his right, but he twisted like a big cat and parried the ball to his defender on my left, who cleared it out of danger. As I turned to return to play, I could hear his jeering voice behind me. “Not today, Uzor”.

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This breach of their defence, though, did not lead to a goal, but it seemed to have buoyed my teammates’ resolve. We became more resolute in defence and bolder in attack. Both sides of the game I could see fairly clearly as an attacking midfielder. It was not long before I came face-to-face with Onyije again. This time, within his 6-yard box. The ball was bouncing as I approached his goalpost. We were within four feet of each other as I feigned a shot like the previous one. He jumped to block it, but I just tapped the ball into the little space underneath his feet. I could almost hear it as his breath sucked in. Time almost stood still as the ball bounced once, and with the second bounce, crossed his goal line. I did not look back as I ran to the left corner flag to do my goal dance. The cheer from the crowd was deafening.

The game ended three goals to one in our favour. I defied him two more times in the second half. It was my first village hattrick, and it could not have come against a better opponent and rival.

As is almost customary, most village matches end in a fight. This one was no exception. My maternal cousin, Ezenwa, AKA Bumfy, lived with us at the time, and he didn’t need much to start a fight or join one. By his judgments, my last goal was from an offside position, and he needed to let the referee know that up close, face to face. My village and Umunnebia boys ran over to stop him, which was enough reason for him to slap someone. While the melee that followed unfolded, I quietly made my way, flanked by my three friends, towards the cashew tree and the school entrance. “Ikedi, you did well”. Thank you, Papa, I responded, hugging him with all the sweat on my body. Your mother said to come home with your friends for dinner. OK, Papa.

To the memory of my parents and the sweetness of a time past.


Uzoma Chukwuocha is the author of ABOUT US (Essays And Poems Coloured By An African Experience). He is working on his second book, a historical fiction novel.

Twitter: @uzorcentric

Instagram: Uzoma Chukwuocha

Facebook: Uzoma Chukwuocha

Email: uzchuks11@gmail.com, uzchuks2005@yahoo.com,

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