When I was young, still wet behind the ears as I ran around the mahogany tree that grew in the middle of the village, my father used to tell me stories about his days as a warrior of our tribe. Back then, it made little sense to me, the stories. His eyes would water and his mind would wander about his glory days and how he wished he died a good death.
He was still a warrior during these retellings, though the grey in his hair contrasted against his ebony skin. It was a sign that he was growing in age.
Each retelling of his ‘glory days’ began with his return from the hunt. Every week, my father and a few of the other tribesmen would come together and go out into the forest to hunt for the tribe. Sometimes, the hunt would take days and the whole tribe would worry, waiting with bated breath.
And yet, the mornings of their returns always coincided with the rising sun and they would enter the village, bathed in the golden light of the sun god, their skin rippling as if dripping with Sango’s blessing. I used to believe that spirits walked with them whenever they returned but such is the mind of a youngling.
Still, the hunters would drop their kill at the center of the village, underneath the mahogany tree and our tribe’s shaman would come to separate it, with a portion reserved as a sacrifice for our gods. The elder would rest a hand on the hunters, whispering a prayer on them before dispersing them to their wives and loved ones.
On those days, my father would rush back to my mother first, carrying her off the floor and showering her with kisses before taking her inside to discuss. To discuss. That was what my mother called it. I know better now.
One day, after their ‘discussion’ was finished, my father sauntered out, sweat still dripping down his skin, and gathered us together. I was the third son of five children. All boys. We were the pride of my father and I could see that, even then when I knew of little.
My father took a seat on a small stool, just outside our hut, and my brothers and I sat around him, eager to hear what new stories he had to tell us. My mother came then, as she always did, to hand him a bowl of some ripened fruit punch and he emptied the bowl into his mouth before speaking.
“Have I ever told you this one story…” he began and we drew nearer almost subconsciously.
“Have I ever told you this one story about the time I first faced the Raga Tribe? I have told you about the skirmishes of Ogun and how all these smaller tribes sought to fight us and encroach on our lands. Those fights were easy. Not challenging in any way.
“So much so that even Ogun did not interfere or assist us. He let us fight on our own merits because he knew there was nothing the smaller tribes could do to hurt us. And he was right.”
My father’s hands went to the wooden beads linked around his neck and he fingered it gingerly. The beads were in different colors, ranging from red to dark blue that mirrored the endless sea.
The manner in which he began, made it seem like our fight with the Raga was completed but I knew different. Even now, in the comfort of our new home, stories of fights with the Raga were common. Still, as children, we were never told about who the Raga tribe were and what they wanted.
Now and then, a few warriors of the tribe would head out to assist another tribe in resisting the Raga’s invasion. We rarely saw the warriors return.
They were our enemies and eventually, we would have to fight them when we became men.
“But the Raga Tribe… There was something different about them,” he said solemnly.
Worry lines deepened on his face and for an instant, I stopped seeing my father, the warrior. Instead, I saw my father, the man. His face hardened as he stared into the distance, the scar on his right cheek catching the sun’s glint. He flared his nostrils as if taking in a lasting breath before taking time to look at each of us in turn.
I remember frowning then, unsure of why my father was acting unlike himself. In his retellings, there was usually a smile plastered on his face as he told his stories. Sometimes, he would get on his feet and show us the attack he used to win a fight, or how he positioned himself to catch his enemy by surprise but this time, he just sighed and continued.
“It was before you were born…” he said, nodding at my younger brother before pointing at me, “…and it was just after your first year.”
“We got word that some of our former enemies, the Fishing tribe to the south, had met an untimely end. Word of a stronger tribe moving along the coast in search of a new home. The Elder called a council and assembled the warriors together to tell us what we must do.”
He dropped the bowl to the floor, close to his feet and I glanced down to see my mother, sitting next to him, refilling his bowl. She flashed me a sad smile and I frowned.
“The elder said we must be ready to defend our tribe if the time comes. Which went without saying. But there was a tremble to his voice. Something was bothering him. Still, we answered that we will do what we must and he dismissed us.
“A week after that meeting, the eastern tribe… our Enemies, the Hanaya, were destroyed by this mysterious invader and it was then we understood that our time to fight was fast approaching. I was a warrior captain now so I made my men practice even as I laid traps in the village in preparation for the mysterious invaders.”
He paused and drank from the newly filled bowl before handing it back to my mother and gracing her with a smile. She smiled back at him in appreciation, the little indent in her cheek deepening.
“It was in the middle of my trap-laying that the elder called me and told me that we must attack the Hanaya village after sunset. I questioned the decision, finding no reason for why we had to be the aggressors until the elder told me what his scouts had seen.”
“What had they seen, Papa?” my eldest brother asked.
My father looked at him and leaned forward a little even as his voice went quieter.
“Monsters,” he replied.
We all flinched and he chuckled as if expecting our reaction. Still, he leaned in further as he began to describe them.
“The scouts saw monsters who stood on two feet as we did, but their skin had no color,” he explained.
“No color?!” my younger brother exclaimed.
“Not a drop. The monsters had pale skin, like goat’s milk. Their eyes shone with blue gems and the hair on their head was yellow, like a lasting sickness refusing to leave. The scouts said that they carried an unknown weapon in their hands, one that spat fire and hot metal.”
“A weapon that spits fire and metal? How did you beat them, Papa?” My elder brother asked.
My father looked at him and then at the rest of us. His face became grim as he took the bowl from his mother and emptied it into his mouth.
“We didn’t. Not in a straight fight. Like the elder suggested, I gathered a group of warriors and set out to do what must be done to stop their spread. At night, under the cover of the shadows, we made our way down to the Raga. We thought as they will be sleeping, we will just take them before they wake up. We were mistaken,” he explained.
“From the top of the hill, we could see the lights in the village, glowing like numerous fireflies in the distance. I should have turned back then. I knew in my heart that it was the right decision but I took it to be fear. So, we went down.”
My brothers and I drew in closer, our minds completely captured by the story. I glanced at my mother to see her grab my father by the leg and he looked at her, a flash of sadness crossing his features.
“You see, in the short time they stayed at the Hanaya tribe, they had built tall slim houses that stood as tall as trees in the forest. We were unaware the Raga had seen us before we even saw them,” he said, leaning closer to us and dropping his voice a little.
“We had lost before we even knew it. I lost the warriors with me that day. The men that I called ‘brothers’. I watched as their lives all got snuffed out like fire torches.”
The silence at that moment was oppressive. On normal days, when my father would retell his war stories, my brothers and I would be joking with him by now, laughing as he played out how he won against his enemies. We didn’t do that this time.
My father sat back straight and took another bowl of fruit punch from my mother and emptied it, before whispering a word of thanks to her. She smiled at him before refilling it, though she didn’t hand it over to him yet.
“None of you have asked me why they are called the Raga tribe,” he said in a solemn voice.
No one spoke for a moment. Then, I asked the question.
“Why are they called the Raga tribe?”
My father fixed his gaze on me intently as if he was looking into me.
“They are called Raga because when we faced them that day, we walked into a line of the monsters awaiting us with their metal weapons. And as soon as they saw us, there was a loud sound from their weapons. Their name is how I remembered the weapon sound.”
He stood up from the stool and crossed his arms as he regarded the five of us. For a moment, I saw a glint in his eyes that looked like tears but I thought I was seeing things. He extended his hand towards my mother without looking at her and she handed the bowl to him.
My father took a sip from the bowl this time around before handing it to my eldest brother, an act he had never done before.
“Drink. Today, you all become men,” he said.
My eldest brother, Sogo, looked at my father for a moment before drinking from the bowl, after which he passed it to Kunle and then to me. I drank it, feeling the heat in my throat as the taste of the fruit punch mixed with my senses. I could see why my father loved it. I could also see how much I didn’t.
After my youngest brother had drunk his share, my mother took the bowl from him even as my father commanded us to rise to our feet. He kept his gaze on us throughout and it’s only now that I think I understand what might have been going through his mind.
Perhaps he was trying to sear our faces in his mind so that he wouldn’t forget. Perhaps.