An isolated incident under a village mango tree evolves into a story that spreads its branches across time and nations to capture the joys and sorrows of the protagonists, the customs and traditions of diverse peoples, and the virtues and peccadilloes of human nature. Where will it end?
UNDER THE MANGO TREE
NOTE: All the characters in this story are products of the imagination of the author and have no connection whatsoever with anyone bearing the same names. All the incidents are pure invention.
“What is the matter?” he asked the crying girl as he walked towards them.
She neither answered, nor did she stop crying. But she managed to point in the direction of three fleeing boys. He looked at her friend (or was she her sister?) who began to explain what had happened while also pointing in the direction of the boys.
It was a mercilessly hot June afternoon. A strong wind had started blowing when he left the stream earlier. It seemed as if it was going to rain and he did not want to be caught in the rain, if he could help it. He pedalled his bicycle uphill with renewed vigour, as the giant mango tree that marked the crest of the hill came into view.
The giant tree served as a resting place and shelter for those plying that road from the stream or the farm. It was a resting place that everyone in Ofure village looked forward to for two reasons. When mangoes were in season, those who could climb the tree to pluck the ripe fruits from the top branches did so with relish. Usually, the low hanging fruits were the first casualties of passersby, as both ripe and unripe fruits were hurled down in the acquisition competition.
Sometimes, some very ripe fruits dropped on their own and those who were lucky to be around when that happened got free mangoes. Otherwise, it took kinship, friendship or sheer benevolence for someone to benefit from the harvest of ripe mangoes from anyone who was able to climb high up, bag slung over the shoulder, to pluck the sweet juicy fruits or shake down those out of reach.
It was a special variety called ‘Julie mango’; the type that retained its green colour even when ripe. It took a trained eye or a quick press of the fruit to establish its ripeness, which accounted for why many were stoned down prematurely with different types of missiles.
There were different stories about who planted the giant mango tree that was older than most youths in the village. One version had it that a certain catechist from Asaba, who had served in the local church decades ago, introduced the fruit to the village and planted many seeds from which this particular one survived and flourished. Another version had it that it was the headmaster of the village primary school, situated a short distance away, who had actually introduced the fruit to the village. With time, some other mango trees sprang up around the parent tree, creating a semi-circle and a wider area of shade from the sun. There was no argument, however, as to the owner of the mango trees. They belonged to no one and they belonged to everyone.
Another reason people looked forward to that spot on the way from the stream or the farm was the fact that the road sloped downwards from that point, and for the rest of the distance to the village. Therefore, it was an easy walk or ride home from there.
Ose (as Osemudiamen was fondly called), was soaked in sweat as he finally arrived at the spot. But he was unmindful of the sweat. He rested his bicycle, with a blue 20-litre jerrycan of water on its carrier, against the trunk of one of the smaller trees, his attention on the scene before him.
Leaning her back against the giant tree, one half-raised foot resting on it, was the crying little girl not more than ten or eleven years old. The other girl, about her age was urging her to stop crying. They were both in school uniform and it was clear to Ose that they were pupils of Ofure Primary School. Three small boys, also in uniform, were fast retreating from the scene, their laughter audible as they scurried away like little mischievous rats when they saw Ose approaching.
“They took my sister’s mangoes,” the girl that was not crying said, providing answers to both the asked and unasked question. She was her sister and not a friend, he noted.
“We got here when the wind was blowing, so some mangoes fell down from the tree, so Clara picked two ripe mangoes, so the boys now came and took the mangoes from her, so she started crying,” Clara’s sister added, volunteering the name of the crying girl in the process of her “so-so” explanation.
By now, the boys were too far away for Ose to attempt to retrieve the mangoes from them. Their little legs had carried them quickly down the slope as their triumphant laughter died in the distance.
“Stop crying, I’ll get you other mangoes,” he said to Clara who looked at him with doubtful teary eyes.
Ose went to the roadside to get a full view of the top of the mango trees. The ripe fruits were far from the ground and it was useless trying to stone them down. The better option for him, if he was to keep his promise, was to climb one of the trees. It took him little time and effort to get to the top of one of the trees and was soon shaking down ripe mango fruits to the delight of Clara and her sister.
“Thank you very much,” they both said to him as he climbed down from the tree. Clara had stopped crying as soon as the first fruit hit the ground.
“Jane says she knows your sister, Auntie Omonye,” she said to Ose before he could respond to their thanks.
So, Jane was Clara’s sister’s name. He was now getting answers to questions on his mind even before asking.
“Really!” he said, a pinch of surprise in his voice.
“Yes. Our mummy used to go to her shop to make her dresses. So, I’m going to tell mummy that her tailor’s brother plucked mangoes for us.”
Now he understood. His elder sister Omonye was the village seamstress, or at least the most popular one. She had learned the trade in Benin City after her primary school education. Their father could not send her to secondary school. She had been apprenticed to her maternal auntie who lived in Benin City with her husband. As fate would have it, her auntie’s husband, who was a driver at the University of Benin, died in an accident soon after Omonye got her ‘freedom’. Freedom was the term used to describe graduation from learning a trade. It did not take long for Omonye to return to the village, since her auntie could no longer feed her along with her four fatherless children.
Omonye hated the idea of returning to the village. But she had no other option as she had no money to rent a place of her own in the city. Neither their father nor their mother could help. They could barely raise enough money to pay the school fees of Ose, who was in his final year at secondary school, along with two of his younger male siblings in junior classes; not to mention the many hungry mouths that needed to be fed.
But she had a lucky break. About the time she returned to the village, one Christmas ago, one of the teachers in the village primary school had been transferred and was relocating with his family to his new station. His wife was a seamstress and had a shop next to the market square. Mr Atuka, her husband, was a close friend to the Irabor family; Ose’s family. In all the five years that they had lived in the village, Mrs Atuka hardly bought garri, one of the local staples. Ose’s mother always supplied her family with some quantity from the one she processed regularly for sale and for consumption.
It didn’t take long before Mrs Atuka invited Omonye to join her at the shop to help in making the several outfits that she had on order that festive season. During the six months that they worked together, she learnt quite a few styles from the city-trained girl who herself got to meet and strike acquaintances with many of Mrs Atuka’s clients. She was quite impressed by Omonye’s diligence, honesty and friendliness. Her clients never ceased commending those same qualities in her. She would even take some time off on some weekends to help with doing Mrs Atuka’s family’s laundry.
Then the transfer came. It was with joy and without hesitation, therefore, that Mrs Atuka surrendered her shop, the rent of which she had just renewed for another year, to Omonye along with one of her old sewing machines. With some clients inherited from Mrs Atuka, her reputation of being city-trained and her friendly nature, Omonye soon became the toast of the village and already had two young girls apprenticed to her.
In his reverie, Ose had momentarily forgotten about Clara and Jane. Now, he saw them staring at him and laughing. And they were laughing at him.
He was undoing the buttons of his shirt, which he quickly removed, flinging one arm over his shoulder and reaching for the middle of his back where he had been stung by a brown-coloured tailor ant. Unknown to him, the ant had crept under his shirt while he was on top of the mango tree. Now he had to brush the attacking ant off his back and make sure there were none others inside his shirt, or trousers for that matter!
He recalled an occasion when an ant had stung him inside his underwear while on his bicycle and in panic he had ridden the bicycle straight into the bush. The memory left him laughing and that triggered more laughter from the girls, who at the same time were struggling to tell him “sorry”. He was glad that at least Clara was not only no longer crying but was now laughing – even if they were laughing at him. He set them on their way home as other passersby were arriving at the resting place, and rode off on his bicycle.
The story is about to begin. Watch out for Episode 1
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