“Chopu!” His mother called from their compound.
She had returned from the farm carrying a basket full of yams on her head with his youngest sibling wrapped sound asleep on her back. Her hands were filled with firewood which they would later use to make dinner. He always wondered where his mother’s never-ending strength came from. It was like she had the strength of three able-bodied men. Usually their father would have helped her with the load but he was no longer with them as he had disappeared into the forbidden forest the previous year. No one has ever entered into the forest and returned.
“Welcome Mama!”, Chopu greeted as he helped his mother put down the firewood and assisted her with the basket of yams.
“Where is your sister?” She asked.
“She is sleeping.” He replied, as he started arranging the firewood in preparation for dinner.
“Go and wake her up. I need both of you to go to back to the farm and bring back the gourd I left by the entrance.” She instructed.
“Yes Ma.” He responded.
It was always difficult to wake his sister from a nap. It was like approaching a bee hive and trying to get a drop of honey. His sister, Ekele, was only five years old and she was the splitting image of their father. Chopu shook her gently by the arms but she wouldn’t budge. He then shook her much harder which did the trick because seconds later he found himself being chased around the bedroom by a screaming Ekele.
“Chopu! Ekele!” His mother yelled as they froze in their steps. “Stop that nonsense right now and hurry now to the farm. I want you to be back before dinner.”
“Yes, Mama”. They chorused and left the house.
They strolled down the path leading to the farm as it was only a ten minute walk from the house.
“Chopu,” Ekele asked as she skipped down the path ahead of him, “do you think that father will be back in time for the festival?”
“I do not think so Ekele.” He sadly responded. Nobody had yet to explain to his sister that their father was probably dead and never coming back. She was always waiting and hoping to see him and would ask often when he would be returning. It wasn’t a topic he liked to talk about. “We are almost at the farm so please slow down.” He said to distract her.
As they approached the farm entrance, there were three older boys playing with the gourd. They were tossing it like a ball from one person to another.
“Hey! Stop that!” Chopu shouted as he ran towards them.
When they heard him, they threw the gourd to the ground and ran away laughing. The gourd shattered into pieces which caused Ekele to start crying.
“But why did they do that?” She asked between sobs.
Chopu was very upset with the three boys. He vowed in his heart to find them one day and make them pay for what they did. However, for now he focused on comforting his little sister. “Do not worry,” he said to her,”We will try and look for another one to replace it but if we do not find one soon, we have to go home for dinner”.
“Okay,” She smiled, “but I want to be the one to choose which gourd we take home.”
He agreed and they set out into the neighbouring bushes to look for a new gourd. They walked for one hour and Ekele could not find any gourd which she wanted. He begged her to choose one but she was never pleased with its size. “I want the biggest one!” She would complain, so they would keep on searching.
It was getting quite late and Chopu felt a strange stillness in the air. There was something familiar about the trees with the white chalk marks. The fact that he could no longer hear any birds or insects. He started to wonder just how far they had wandered because he could hear the sound of rushing water in the distance but he knew that the village stream was at the other side of the village.
“Chopu, Look!” Ekele exclaimed excitedly as she pointed at a stream.
He immediately recognised where they were. They had wandered so far into the forest that they were standing at the entrance of the forbidden forest. He recalled all the stories told by the old men in the village, of the trees marked with a white chalk to warn people of the forest, and they were standing right at it’s entrance. They had been warned to never cross the stream.
“Ekele, Ekele we have to go now!” he grabbed her hand, pulling her in the opposite direction.
“No Chopu!” She resisted. “We have to find a gourd for mama!”
He had absolutely no intentions of entering the forest. In fact, they had already come too close to it and needed to return home before dark. “No!” He yelled at her, “this is the forbidden forest. We cannot go there! Let’s go back!”
Her eyes instantly lit up.”Papa!…Papa is there!”
It all happened so fast that Chopu hadn’t noticed when his little sister’s hand slipped out of his. She was already half way across the stream by the time he turned around. It was no longer a question…he knew he had to cross…