Nwanyi Enwe Eze (The Women Have No King)
by Jonathan Edelstein
"Would you prefer to be sworn on the Bible or the sword?"
For a moment, Mary Ejiofor didn't answer. Oaths taken on iron were ancient and
powerful; Mary would never have been where she was had she not taken one. But the Bible was
powerful too--Mrs. Carter the missionary's wife had taught her that--and God's protection had
also brought her to this place. And in the end, she shared the Bible, not iron, with the men who
sat before her.
The bailiff held out the book, and she put her hand on it and took oath. After, she walked
to the table that did duty as a witness stand--the Native Court building still hadn't been
reconstructed from last year's burning--and regarded the eight men at the dais.
"Good morning, Miss Ejiofor," said one of them--Mr. Blackall, the Crown Counsel. "As
you know, this commission has been empaneled to investigate the recent riots--"
"What was that, Miss Ejiofor?"
"The war," she repeated. "The ogu umunwanyi--the Women's War. That's what we call
it." And to call it anything else, she didn't say, would dishonor the dead.
"The war, the riots," said Commissioner Osborne impatiently. "What they're called
doesn't matter. We want to know about them. How they started."
"Well, when Mr. Emeruwa from the district officer's staff took inventory of women's
property, we believed there would be a tax on women in addition to the hut-tax that families
already paid. . ."
Commissioner Osborne held up his hand. "We've had plenty of witnesses to that. Mr.
Emeruwa testified here yesterday. We want to know the real beginning."
The real beginning? Mary thought. Where does anything really begin? Do I start with the
Nwaobiala five years ago, when the women danced against the warrant chiefs to protest water
rates and cassava? Do I start with God, who created the world?
"It began with a palm leaf," she said instead.
"A palm leaf?" asked Barrister Aderemi. He was one of the two Nigerians on the
commission, the radical one--the other, Sir Kitoye Ajasa, took the British side more often than
not--and in the two hours that Mary had waited to testify, he'd been the most active. "Isn't that a
"It is," Mary answered. "But it's also many other things. With the right charms cast by the
right person, it's a summons." She thought of Nneoma and Caroline and Martha, all the people
whose testimony she would be giving, and most of all, she remembered Adanna. "And last
December it summoned all of us."
When Paul Okere, the warrant chief of Ulakwo, came out of his compound, the women
were there, dancing. They danced close, following him as he went, waving their arms in front of
his face. They danced. . . firmly, thought Mary: a dance that, translated to speech, would be a
lecture. And as they danced, they sang.
"You are thief for the thieves," old Nneoma chanted, "and you beg crumbs from their
table." She reached out to slap Paul's red cap, the symbol of his authority, and pulled back only at
the last second. "Crumbs from table, crumbs from table. . ."
Those around her took up the song, but Adanna, her pestle and clothing wrapped in palm
leaves, had another. She made a lewd gesture with a palm leaf, singing that Okere's penis was
small and shriveled and that he would give his wives no sons. Adanna was small and withered
herself--she was more than seventy years old--but she had the laughter of a much younger
woman, and when others, even Sarah with her baby in her arms, joined her in mocking Okere's
prowess, he seemed to shrink just like she said his manhood had.
Mary didn't sing along with Adanna, and her laughter had a touch of disquiet. Songs like
that were for the married women, for those who knew more of men than teasing and stolen
caresses and hurried encounters under the bushes. These weren't words she would have used in
her classes with Mrs. Carter, or even with her friends--not yet.
Caroline, next to her, didn't sing either, but her presence was enough. She was the
youngest of Paul's wives, and seeing her among the dancing women shamed him even more than
Mary knew Caroline, and she knew that Caroline loved her husband. At home, she would
never dream of eating before he did or speaking harshly to him. But she'd received Adanna's
palm-leaf summons like the other women had, and would march even against him when there was
a call to war.
Ahead of them, Adanna had stopped singing but hadn't fallen silent. "Why you say women
should pay tax?" she said. "Our husbands pay last year, we have to give them the money. If we
both pay tax, what we have left?"
"I haven't heard anything about that," said Okere. He was still in the center of a milling
crowd of women, but he seemed almost relieved to be given the chance to speak. "The poll tax
will be on each house, as it was before."
"Then why you come to count women and women's things?"
"The district officer's orders. . ."
"Then why he order it? So we all pay tax, and we all get taken for hard labor if we don't
"I haven't heard anything like that," Okere repeated, but Adanna was on another subject
now, and she pointed to the thatched roofs that were visible over the earthen wall of the
compound. "In May you say you need ten pounds to build the district officer a house," she said.
"We gave you the ten pounds: where is the house?" She twisted and whirled in her dance, putting
a hand above her eyebrows and looking high and low. "Don't see it, don't see it anywhere." The
other women, even Caroline, began singing with her: "Don't see it, don't see it. . ."
"The house will be built."
"How long it take to build a house, Okere? Shouldn't take long, when the district officer
doesn't live here. Na so, you keep the money."
"The money is accounted for," Paul said, and Mary suddenly felt his words take on a
weight they hadn't had before. He was speaking through the red cap, and Mary heard her
mother's and father's voice and her aunties and grandparents echoing behind them. "You should
go home and stop this nonsense," he said, and she felt a compulsion to obey more powerful than
any she'd felt in her life. Almost absently, she realized why: when the British gave Okere his
warrant, they'd made him more absolute than chiefs had been before, so the magic of his cap was
The thought was in her mind a moment only, and then it fled as she reached into herself
and fought the compulsion to obey. "Freedom for ourselves and freedom for our sons," she
murmured, "and failing freedom, War," and felt a fleeting amusement that that poem was the one
from which she drew strength this time.
As fast as Mary's will gathered, she felt it drain from her, but now it was going not to
Okere but to Adanna. The old woman was drawing power from those around her as they did in
the otu omu, the queen's sorority, and with a burst of strength that belied her age, she swung her
pestle and knocked the cap from the warrant chief's head. All at once his words were as any other
man's, and a moment later, Nneoma flourished the cap in the air.
"I put it on?" Adanna asked. "Maybe I become warrant chief in place of you?"
"No," said Paul. His voice was strong--stronger than Mary would have expected from
someone whose will had been defeated--and he wasn't afraid of Adanna wearing the cap, because
he knew its sorcery wouldn't work for her. But she could see that he was afraid of not getting it
"Give back the ten pounds, then."
The warrant chief's lips moved as he thought, but he thought for only a moment: he knew
that on this, unlike taxes, he wouldn't have the district officer's backing. "I'll give it back."
"Make sure you do, or we'll come again every day."
"Do that and the district officer will arrest you," Okere said. "You witches won't like
prison." His hand was in his pocket, though, and he gave Adanna eight shillings as an earnest of
"And no tax for women this year," Adanna said, but she and the women were already
moving on down the road to Owerri.
The next morning at the women's camp, Mary used her pestle to pound yams. There was
a revolution, but people still needed to eat breakfast.
She sat cross-legged on the ground behind the Owerri market stalls, a copy of Kim just
behind the mortar, and paused her work every now and then to turn the page. This chapter was
hard reading: there were many Hindi words in it, and the English spoken by the Indian characters
was deliberately archaic. "There are more thees and thous in Kipling than the Bible," she
murmured, and as she reached to turn the page again, she heard laughter behind her.
"I knew it was you even without seeing your face," said Caroline. "Always reading when
you should be working. You think a man would pay his cowries for you, he saw you like that?"
"I'll just have to make sure he doesn't see me, then." Mary raised her right hand, which
still held the pestle. "And I was working. One thing for the hands to do, one for the eyes."
"It slows you down," Caroline said. Mary made an indignant denial, but privately had to
concede the point: when her mind was occupied, she sometimes had to make a conscious effort to
keep her hands to the work. "Your nose is always in a book--what good that do you?"
"How else can we understand the British?" Mary answered, as she did whenever Caroline
or Nneoma asked that question. That wasn't a lie, but it also wasn't all of the truth: just as when
Mrs. Carter had first taught her to read, her fascination also had to do with . . . fascination. There
was a magic there, she thought, like the nsibidi symbols the Efik used, but taking in the whole
Caroline looked skeptical, but didn't pursue the subject further. "Adanna says come see
her when you finish," she said instead.
"Did she send a palm leaf?"
"No, she just said come."
"All right, just wait a few minutes."
Mary closed the book and her hands quickened their pace; without a palm-leaf summons it
wasn't an urgent matter, but Adanna still wasn't someone you kept waiting too long. In a few
minutes the yams were ready; she gave them to Martha, the youngest of the Ulakwo women, to
serve, and then she put the pestle in the folds of her dress and took Caroline's hand to stand up.
Adanna's stall was at the other end of the market, and crowds filled all the spaces in
between. It might have been a market day like any other if not for the conversation: Mary heard
only a few words here and a few others there, but nearly all of them were about taxes and protests
and the petty oppressions of the warrant chiefs. The market-women spoke of little else and the
men cheered them on. The men's magic had failed in 1902 and 1911--enchanted swords and
oaths taken on iron hadn't stopped British bullets--but if the women's magic could succeed, they
were all for it.
But what did they want that magic to do? The men had tried to throw the British out; the
women didn't dream so grandly. When Mary had touched the palm-leaf summons that had come
to her village, it had told her instantly of its sender's grievances: the head-tax that the British were
said to be planning to put on women as well as men, doubling families' burdens even as the
factories offered less for palm oil. A victory would be no small thing, but for the men, little would
Of course, it wasn't only about taxes anymore. That had been where the protests started,
but not where they would finish. What the market-women and their customers talked about now
was theft, flogging, arbitrary justice--and the burned prison and razed Native Court building
outside the market stood testament to all those. They were calling this the Women's War now,
and the fight was against the district officers and warrant chiefs, the men who the British had
made all-powerful and who had displaced the old councils by which the men had governed the
villages and the women and the markets.
"It's never about only one thing," Mary said to no one in particular, and the thought
carried her to the far end near the market shrine where Adanna was standing. In the morning light,
the gray of the old woman's hair was luminous, and she held her pestle like a marshal's baton. She
gave orders like a general, too, dispatching these women to block the road to the palm-oil factory
and those to surround the office where the district officer kept his records.
"Ah, you," she said when she saw Mary and Caroline. "You go join the others at
Nwachukwu's house. You stay till noon--when someone takes your place, come back here and
I'll send you to take over a stall. And don't get lost in some book on the way."
"Yes, nne." Mary bowed from the waist and went where she was told, down the market
road past the gutted prison to the iron-gated compound where hundreds of other women were
besieging the warrant-chief's compound. No one came to relieve her at noon, so she was still
there when it happened.
At two o'clock, the iron gate opened and Nwachukwu, dwarrant chief of Owerri, strode
out with a dozen henchmen close behind. He didn't wait for the dancing women to surround him:
he came right out to confront them instead, his guards taking places around him and looking eager
for a fight.
He didn't unleash the guards right away. "Go home," he said. "Disperse. You are breaking
The warrant-chief's voice was calm, but Mary once again felt the compulsion she'd felt in
front of Paul Okere's compound: he was speaking through the red cap, and it lent his voice the
authority of a hundred generations of ancestors. Nwachukwu was a young man and he was facing
more than a hundred women, but none of his wives were here to shame him, and more than that,
he was a bigger chief than Okere in both influence and physical size. Nor was Adanna there to
focus the women's will in opposition to his. Without realizing she had done so, Mary turned to go
and took two steps away from the compound, and she had to use every ounce of will to turn back
and hold her ground.
As she had before, Mary reached for a poem, a saying to rally around, and this time it was
a proverb she'd learned in childhood rather than something from Kipling or Psalms: "All that is
secret will be known in the marketplace." Yes, Nwachukwu, you have secrets, and we who guard
the gods of the market will expose them all.
A scream broke her concentration, and she saw that the warrant-chief's men had drawn
machetes and attacked the women who hadn't fled. They wore palm-leaves, so they weren't hurt
as badly as they might have been, but iron had a sorcery of its own, so the blades bit and women
shrieked and bled.
Mary was in the second line, a few steps behind, and rage burned through the compulsion
of the red cap. She and dozens of others surged forward, hoping to overwhelm the chief's
henchmen with numbers, pinion their arms, keep them from bringing the machetes to bear. One of
them swung his weapon at her; she ducked, feeling the wind as it cut the air above her head, and
dived at his legs to tackle him. They went down together and she called out for help, knowing that
she could never beat him if it came to a grapple. She saw someone--one of the women from
Ihiagwa--jump on the guard, and tried to find his machete arm amid the confusion.
A sharp pain shot through her hip, and she heard screaming again. She felt where the pain
was and realized that the men behind the fence were shooting arrows at the women who'd
gathered so obligingly into a knot. The arrowheads, too, were iron, and the palm leaves gave only
partial protection. The woman from Ihiagwa clutched at her stomach and Mary could see that she
was seriously hurt. Others echoed her cry and fell back in consternation.
There was another, deeper shout as an archer hit one of Nwachukwu's own men, but that
only added to the chaos, and amid it all, the warrant-chief spoke again. Mary couldn't make out
the words, but it made no difference: all that mattered was that he was speaking through the red
cap. She went to pick up the wounded Ihiagwa woman by the shoulders and take her away from
the fighting, and had to fight Nwachukwu's compulsion to go even that far forward. The
beginning of rage stirred again: what kind of chief would command even enemies to leave their
If I knew how to shoot a bow or a gun, she thought, I could take the cap right off your
head. But there were no guns to be had, and she made her way to her injured comrade an inch at
It was another woman, one wearing the patterns of Orogwe under her palm leaves, who
realized that Nwachukwu was still close enough that she didn't need a gun. Mary saw the rock
arc through the air, ignoring the arrows still coming the other way, and miss the chief's head by
inches. Her own scrabbling fingers found another rock in the dirt and flung it. Her throw also
missed, but others saw and followed, and even as they retreated before the machetes and arrows,
the chief clutched his hat in sudden concern.
One of the rocks--not Mary's--struck the cap, and though Nwachukwu managed to keep
it on, his hand was hurt and his will was shaken. He advanced no farther into the space the women
had cleared, and after a moment, he gathered his guards around him and took shelter behind the
Mary didn't see his retreat; she was still finishing her own, dragging the woman from
Ihiagwa clear and laying her down where others could attend to her. When she did look back, the
scene had returned to stalemate. The women who had fled were returning, and although they
stayed out of bowshot from the compound, the siege continued and Nwachukwu didn't come out
That evening, Mary ate egusi soup with eggs and tried to read another chapter of Kim, but
the words seemed to swim in front of her. She would never admit it, but she was still shaken by
the fight in front of the compound. On the road to Owerri, the Women's War had seemed like a
force of nature, an unstoppable wave of holy rage, but now it was a real battle, and there had been
many injured and one killed. She had never before seen casualties of war, and she tried to imagine
what it had been like for the men who'd faced the British soldiers or for those who'd marched
into the Cameroons against the Germans when she was two years old. The older women were
talking loudly of revenge, but she couldn't bring herself to agree.
There was more bad news to come. A man had come into the camp and was speaking
urgently with Adanna by the cookfire; Mary couldn't hear him from where she was, but it was
clear from the movement of his arms that it was nothing good.
She pulled urgently on Caroline's arm, and they hurried over to where the conversation
was taking place. "Nwachukwu is going to make magic against you," the man was saying. "I
heard him talking with the assistant district officer, and he said he'd break the siege. He sent his
men to dig up the soil where you women. . . took your ease"--Mary could see, even in the
firelight, that the man was embarrassed--"and he'll use it to make magic, poison you with iron."
"We have charms against iron," Adanna said.
"He told his men to mix rust into the soil. It's poisoned iron, and he said it would kill
The old woman's face took on a sudden pallor, and at just that moment, Mary felt a
stabbing pain in her stomach. They did have charms against iron, but who would think to make a
charm against rust?
"The ADO told him not to do it, but he said he'd poison you anyway, and his men
"Why would they obey him and not the ADO?" Caroline asked.
"He has the red cap."
In spite of herself, Mary had to stifle a laugh. The British had given Nwachukwu his red
cap, and in doing so, given him sorcery that their own men didn't have. But the pain in her
stomach was growing worse, and she could see that the others around her were also becoming
sick. Women three and four fires away, people who couldn't possibly have heard the man's news,
were on hands and knees retching into the bushes.
"We need to dig latrines and guard them," said Nneoma, whose husband had been in the
army that invaded the Cameroons and who thought more like a soldier than even Adanna.
"Tomorrow," Adanna said. "But what do we do now?"
At Mary's side, Caroline stood open-mouthed. Adanna was asking what to do? Mary
feared that her own surprise was as evident, but she tried not to think about it as her mind raced.
"A whisk! Someone get me a whisk!"
The request was so bizarre that no one even thought of questioning it. Seconds later, a
whisk was pressed into Mary's hand. She took an iron kitchen knife, held it up in the firelight and
began brushing it with the whisk, breaking into a chant as she did so.
The chant, at least, was something Adanna recognized. "A cleaning charm? What good is.
"She's cleaning the iron," Nneoma said, suddenly realizing what Mary had in mind.
"Sweeping all the rust away."
All at once everyone was shouting, "Sweep the rust!" Some of them joined the chant, and
Mary could feel her spell growing stronger. Others, seeing the shape of the knife and noting that it
pointed straight upward, made ribald jokes about what Mary must be doing with the whisk, and
that too seemed to give her strength even as she was mortified. She felt the pain begin to grow
Still, she was tiring quickly. Even with the other women aiding, making all the iron
impurities in Owerri vanish was a monumental task, and she feared that if she became exhausted,
Nwachukwu could continue with his magic. If she could find the specific rust he was using. . .
Finding things is men's magic, she told herself, but then, we're fighting a man, aren't
we? Faced with poison and death, the notion of using magic to cast about was suddenly more
thinkable than it would have been in the cold light of day.
Could I do it? I've seen men do their divining and I've read about it in books. Maybe,
with everyone's strength behind me. . .
She wove a divining-song into her chant, something she'd heard the men use in their
rituals. Its purpose was to find spirits, not things, but rust used to make magic might be close
enough, and even as she formed the thought, she felt her mind casting through the town, coming
to rest inexorably on an evil-smelling iron cauldron that the warrant-chief's men were stirring.
"There!" she cried, and with a sweep of the whisk, the rust inside was cleaned from the earth and
sent to wherever things went when they disappeared.
Mary swayed on her feet, utterly drained, and hardly noticed that the pain inside was gone.
Someone handed her a cup of tea, and as she drank and her vision cleared, she noticed that
Adanna was looking at her appraisingly.
At dawn, Mary borrowed a bicycle from one of the market women and rode the six miles
back to Ulakwo. The road could charitably be described as rough, but she'd traveled its length
many times before. She threaded between the palm-oil lorries and farmers' carts as if she'd been
born to it, and she navigated the potholes and the narrow places where the forest was already
starting to reclaim its own.
The village was as she had left it two days before: thatched houses with cement and stone
walls painted in geometric patterns and laid out around an open square. The new churches and the
old mbari--the gods' house--were at opposite ends of the main street, with the store and Paul
Okere's compound between them, and to one side was a small bungalow that the village families
had built for the resident missionary. It was against the walls of this house that Mary leaned the
Mrs. Carter was inside, using an Igbo-language Bible to teach a circle of children how to
read; Mary noted with satisfaction that two of the children were girls. At Mary's entrance, the
older woman looked up and her face brightened.
"Some tea, Mary?"
"Yes, thank you, Mrs. Carter. But don't get up--I can wait until you finish."
The missionary's wife nodded and offered a chair, but Mary didn't take it. Instead, she
took the bundle of palm leaves she carried and began fixing them around the doorways and
windows, praying over them as she did. As she completed the network of leaves around each
opening, she murmured "no evil will enter this way."
As she did, one of the children in the circle finished reading his Bible passage--correctly,
to Mary's discerning ear. "Very good, George," said Mrs. Carter. "Now why don't you. . . . What
are you doing, Mary? You're distracting the children."
"I'm protecting the house. It's getting bad in Owerri--there was blood yesterday and
there will be more. If the fighting comes here, I don't want you hurt."
The older woman started to say something but stopped short. "We shouldn't talk in front
of the children, I should think. Excuse me a moment, children--I need to talk to Mary in the
A moment later, both women stood in the kitchen with fresh cups of tea. "Is it really that
bad?" Mrs. Carter asked as she poured.
"Yes, ma'am. One killed yesterday in front of the warrant-chief's house."
Mrs. Carter bowed her head in prayer. "And it might come here?"
"The warrant-chiefs and the women are fighting all over. The police will come too, and
people will fight."
"So you're putting a charm on the house." It wasn't a question. "Is it one that you've told
"No, Mrs. Carter. It's. . . one you wouldn't care for."
The missionary's wife nodded her understanding. In truth, Mary had prayed to Jesus as
well as Ala when she affixed the palm leaves, but she knew that wouldn't make a difference, and
she'd hoped to avoid the subject entirely. She sipped her tea silently, watching as the older
woman pursed her lips and considered.
"There's great danger?" Mrs. Carter asked at last.
"I wouldn't be here else."
"Finish your charm, then. But don't teach it to me, I think."
Mary nodded gratefully. She'd been surprised, when the Carters first came to Nigeria, at
how little such an educated woman knew of magic. "English magic is like Igbo magic--it lives on
handiwork and growing things and nature spirits," Mrs. Carter had explained. "Most British
people don't do those things anymore. A farmer might cast a spell for a good harvest, and
housewives have charms for small things, but other than that. . . . And the church would rather we
didn't use it at all, although I sometimes say a cleaning spell when Mr. Carter isn't looking."
Still, she'd shown Mary the few housekeeping charms she knew that didn't require English
plants, and she'd let Mary teach her Igbo spells in exchange for reading lessons. And when danger
threatened, it seemed, she was willing to accept protection.
Mary finished her work quickly and made her farewell. She politely declined Mrs. Carter's
offer of a sandwich, and as she rode back to the Owerri road, she scattered her remaining leaves
on the village street.
When she returned, the market was in a stir. "Mary!" Caroline called, waving a palm leaf.
"Everyone's been looking for you. There's a meeting at the district officer's, and Adanna wants
"I'm one of her otu omu now?"
Caroline looked scandalized, and after a moment, Mary understood why. Adanna was old
and respected, but she wasn't rich and she'd never had a high title. To Caroline, who was titled,
calling Adanna an omu or her council a royal sorority verged on blasphemy. But to the women
from Ulakwo who'd joined the war, an omu was what she was. The notion didn't seem strange to
Mary--far less so, certainly, than the idea that she, just turned eighteen, would be part of that
She hurried to the district office anyway, waving Caroline's leaf to clear a path through
the crowd of dancing women outside and making her breathless way in. Adanna was there along
with the old women from other villages, and all of them were glaring at her.
"Where were you?" Adanna demanded. "You're late. You have sense last night--did it go
away this morning? You keep everyone waiting."
"I'm sorry, nne," said Mary, bowing deeply, and she repeated the words in English to
Saunders the district officer. As she did, her eyes took in the men behind him: Mark Emeruwa,
one of the assistant district officers; another ADO from Okigwe; two British men who she'd never
seen before. The warrant-chief was nowhere to be found.
"Now that we can get started," Saunders said, "I called you here to offer you a chance to
disperse peacefully before we are required to use force to put down your riot. To show our good
faith, I've brought documents proving that there will be no change in the Nigerian Government's
poll-tax policy this year, and that none is contemplated in the future." He withdrew the papers
from a folder on his desk. "I can assure you, in other words, that there's no plan to put a head tax
on women beyond the one already assessed on households, and that there never was one."
"Give it to this one," Adanna said, motioning. "She can read well."
Mary accepted the papers and began scanning the first one, which was titled, "Procedures
for Implementation of the Native Revenue (Amendment) Act 1927 for Fiscal 1929 and 1930."
The English was technical and difficult, but as she made her way through it, the meaning was clear
"Is Mr. Saunders telling the truth?" Adanna asked. "Is he lying to us?"
Mary read a few minutes more, until she was sure. "It's true."
Adanna and Saunders glared at each other. "If you'd just told us. . ." Mary read in
Adanna's eyes, and, "If you'd just asked us. . ." was written in the district officer's.
"In any event, that's water under the bridge now," Saunders said. "Mr. Emeruwa was
being overzealous in taking account of women's property, and he was wrong to let the warrant
chiefs think he was doing so on my orders. But now that you ladies know you've run riot over a
false rumor, it might be best if you went home. If you do, you'll find that His Majesty's
Government is prepared to be lenient."
Mary, the youngest in the room by far, didn't dare answer; she held the papers and waited
for Adanna to fill the silence. Two weeks ago, the district officer's words would have stopped the
war, but as she'd learned in the marketplace, the struggle was about much more now.
"What about everything else?" the old woman asked. "The warrant-chiefs who steal? The
Native Courts? Mr. Emeruwa telling us our dances are plays and need licenses?"
"We can talk about those things later. My door is always open, and I can recommend that
the Government empanel a commission."
"You'll be making another India if you give them that," muttered one of the Englishmen,
and Saunders gave him a quelling glance. Mary's hand reached instinctively for the copy of Kim in
her pocket, and another verse came to her, written by the part of Kipling that she didn't love.
New-caught, sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child…
She wished, just once, that there was a spell to let her see into others' minds. Was the
district officer lying? If he were telling the truth, then what he offered was the best the women
could expect to get without more killing.
Then, suddenly, the matter was taken out of everyone's hands.
Mary was looking out the window when it happened--a car pulled out of the hospital yard
next door with the Medical Officer and another doctor in the front seat and an Englishwoman in
back. The Medical Officer saw the women outside, many more than the day before, all of them
dancing and holding palm leaves and pestles in the air. They were in his way, and though none of
them moved toward him, he suddenly panicked. The car leaped forward, striking two of the
women; the others, disbelieving, scattered before it.
Adanna and Nneoma ran outside--Nneoma had trained as an assistant nurse--and Mary
hurried after. The women who'd been hit weren't badly hurt, but the crowd around them was
getting angrier by the instant. "He was a doctor and he didn't stop to help," someone shouted,
seeming more enraged by that than by the fact that he'd driven through them in the first place.
The district officer had also come out and was trying in vain to calm the crowd, offering
apologies and promising an inquiry. None of it worked, and he finally said, "In the name of the
King, go home!"
For a moment there was silence, and then Nneoma shouted "Igbo enwe eze"--the Igbo
have no king. "Igbo enwe eze!" others chanted, and in a moment they all joined.
Mary had heard the phrase many times before, but always as a proverb, never as a slogan.
But now she called out with the others: "Igbo enwe eze!" "Nwanyi enwe eze!" she added--the
women have no king.
"On your heads be it," Saunders said and retreated into his office. Emeruwa looked
chagrined, but the Englishman who'd mentioned India simply nodded his head.
"Igbo enwe eze! Nwanyi enwe eze!" the women shouted, and Mary wondered whether it
was a promise of liberation or one of doom.
They gathered at midnight at the marketplace shrine, all the young women from Ulakwo:
the unmarried and the newly married, girls just past their first blood and nursing mothers with
babies. They stood among the masks and statutes of the market-gods, obedient to Mary's palm-leaf summons, the first she had ever sent.
"None of you were followed?" Mary asked.
She held up a sword bayonet that her father had brought back from the Cameroons and
laid it on the altar. "Then we must all swear on the sword to tell no one that we were here tonight,
and to tell no one of what will happen here."
Mary touched the sword and made her oath, and one by one, the others came to the altar
and did the same. She stood and watched, not quite able to believe that they were doing this at
her order. It was still hard, at her age, to conceive of having authority, of commanding other
women. But the very fact that the others of her age-grade were here was proof enough. Had they
not seen her as a person with authority--had her defeat of the warrant-chief's spell and her
presence at Adanna's council not made them see her as someone to listen to--her palm leaf would
have had no sorcerous force over them.
"So what's such a secret?" asked Caroline when they were done. Mary raised a hand to
her mouth to cover a laugh; the others might obey her, but they certainly wouldn't do so without
question. That had never been the Igbo way, had it?
"I want to find out what the British will do now," she said. "This was never a real war to
them before, but after what happened at the district officer's, it is now. Will they send police?
Soldiers? What route will they come?"
"Will they shoot?" Martha asked, a quaver in her voice. That was to be expected: she was
fifteen, and if the thought of facing soldiers could scare a grown man, it could certainly frighten a
girl of her years.
"Yes, will they shoot?"
"Why aren't you asking Adanna?" said Caroline as a murmur spread through the
gathering. "Why us?"
Mary gave Caroline a look of gratitude; for the time being, they were safely past the
subject of shooting. "Because the warrant-chief is spying on Adanna. He won't fight us any
more--he'll let the British do it for him--but his diviners' eyes are on all the leaders, and if I went
to them, he'd find out and tell the district officer. Besides, we're all from the same village, and
you can help me in what I plan to do."
"Maybe I can ask Paul? He's a chief, but I know he doesn't want shooting. He's said so.
He'd tell us if the soldiers were coming."
"Your husband took an oath," Mary said firmly. "Do you want him to violate it? And
we've taken an oath as well. No one must know, because if the British learn that we've learned
their plan, they can change it." She looked directly at Caroline, and the other woman's face
suddenly changed as she realized the gravity of the situation.
"Then what will you do?" asked Sarah, her newborn son at her breast. "Divining is men's
learning." She looked puzzled for a moment. "But they say you found the rust the warrant-chief
was doing to make magic. Can you see the future too?"
"No. The men do that at the oracles. I've never seen them do it and I don't know how.
But I know someone who can go there."
She held her pestle, the symbol of everything powerful in a woman. "We can invoke the
first mother of our village with this. I've seen the omu do it. She lived hundreds of years ago, and
if she can come all this way, surely she can go a few days farther."
The others looked amazed, as if Mary had just said something inconceivable, but she had
already started to sing her charm. Some of the women had taken part in the omu's rituals or other
rites of their age-grade, and they joined in; those who didn't know lent their will.
At length, a ghostly form emerged above the bayonet. It was the form of a woman--that
was plain from her hands and feet--but she didn't wear the clothing that the young women wore
or even the clothes that their grandmothers did. She was clad in a robe of raffia leaves that
covered every other part of her body, and she wore a wooden mask with a small head and arms
emerging from a large one: the mask they called eze nwanyi, the Queen of Women.
Mary laid a yam and a pinch of tobacco on the altar, and suddenly they weren't there.
From behind the mask, there was a sound as if of a throat clearing, and then a voice.
"This is no holy day, and you are no omu. What do you want of Ebele?"
"I am Mary of. . ." Of what? Of nothing, an inner voice mocked, but she pushed it aside.
"Mary of the Women's War, a member of the otu omu of Grandmother Adanna. And I call you
because the women of Ulakwo, your grandchildren, are in danger. I call you to go to the Owerri
marketplace tomorrow and the days after, and tell us what will happen."
"Though you are a child, I will go where there is danger to my grandchildren," Ebele said.
There was a hint of reluctance in her voice, but she vanished in an instant, and in no more than
another instant, she reappeared.
"I have been to the marketplace," she said. "I have been there tomorrow. I saw soldiers
with sticks that spat fire. . ."
"Why didn't she say guns?" whispered Martha.
"They didn't have guns in her day," Caroline answered. "Now quiet."
"There were women in the marketplace, a thousand of them, dancing, chanting. The
soldiers stood in line and shot on command. The fire pierced the palm leaves and there were many
dead, many dead. . ." Ebele's voice was shaking as if she had truly seen the death of her
grandchildren, and could the sounds coming from behind the mask really be crying?
"Thank you, Grandmother," said Mary.
"You will stop this?"
"If I can."
"Then do so. And now, child who speaks like an omu, send me back to where I will not
see such things."
Mary took the bayonet from the altar and stabbed it through Ebele's image, and as the
iron touched it, the spectral form vanished with a thunderclap.
Utter silence fell as the thunder died away, and the women's faces were ashen. The news
was worse than even Mary had expected, and each of them wondered whether she would be
among the ones to die.
"I never thought they'd shoot us," whispered Caroline.
"You thought they wouldn't shoot women?" said Sarah sharply. "We're not women to
Mary thought of Mrs. Carter, and even the district officer, and wanted to disagree. But
then she thought of the man who'd muttered about making another India and knew that Sarah
wasn't wrong. She wasn't right about all the British, but she only had to be right about a few of
"So what do we do?" asked Martha.
"We know protective charms don't stop bullets," Mary said, hoping that if she explained,
an idea would come to her. "They tried that during the British wars. Bullets aren't doing any harm
until the gun shoots them, so the charm won't stop them then, and once the gun fires, they're too
fast to stop. So. . ."--and suddenly it came to her--we need to stop what makes them fire."
"What about the powder in the cartridges?" asked Caroline. "Can you sweep it away like
you did with the rust?"
Mary considered. "No, I don't think so. Gunpowder isn't an impurity like rust. A cleaning
charm won't get rid of it. We need to cook up something that will work on the guns themselves.
Cook up! Sarah, I need your bicycle," she said, and without another word, she was out of the
shrine at a run.
The six miles to Ulakwo took much longer at night, and it was past two in the morning
when she knocked on the Carters' door. The sound brought Mrs. Carter to the door in her
nightdress, her husband close behind, and she started to say something in anger but then caught
sight of Mary's face.
"The soldiers are coming tomorrow," she said breathlessly. "There will be shooting. I'm
so sorry to be here at night, but I need to look at Mr. Carter's books. . . please."
"You'd better come in then," said Mrs. Carter. In a moment, she was at the kitchen table
with a cup of tea, and the Reverend Carter had gone to get the military manuals he'd acquired in
the days before he became a pastor.
"I've said before that I wished there were a secondary school for girls here, so you could
go," said Mrs. Carter while they waited. "I really wish that now. You'd be there and safe instead
of facing the guns. Mr. Carter and I had a son, you know--he turned nineteen years old in 1917,
and he never turned twenty."
Mary looked across the table at the missionary's wife and saw how drawn her face was.
She'd come to Mrs. Carter for lessons since childhood and for advice since her mother died of
fever, but the older woman had never said anything like this.
"If I were there and safe," she said, "what would have happened last night? And what
might happen tomorrow? Your son had a duty and I have one too."
Mrs. Carter sat in silence, but something changed in her eyes, as if she were looking at a
woman for the first time and not a child. And at that moment, her husband came in with the
Mary put her tea down and scanned them, looking carefully at the diagrams of the Lee-Enfield rifle. Could she cook off the gunpowder in the bullets? No, they were cased rounds; that
would take too much heat and too much time--but there!
"Pray for us," she said, and took her leave. She knew exactly what she had to do.
A thousand women, more than a thousand, stood in the marketplace facing the soldiers.
None of them danced and none sang. None of them taunted the warrant-chiefs or shouted about
taxes as they had done earlier: they knew that the war was now about other things. "Igbo enwe
eze!" they called. "Nwanyi enwe eze!" Some of the onlookers also did.
There were fifty soldiers in two lines: Hausa men from the north, many of them barely
Mary's age. From where she stood in the front of the crowd, she could see their eyes and see that
they were scared. They must have heard we were witches--evil sorcerers, she realized. She
wondered if, in spite of that, they could see her fear as she saw theirs.
The warrant chiefs were there too, at the district officer's orders--he'd insisted on trying
one last time to disperse the women without shooting. There were eight of them, all speaking
through the red cap at once. "Go home," they said. "Use your palm-leaves to protect your houses
and your pestles to pound yams. You will die here if you stay." There was only one discordant
note, a small voice whispering, "Come home, Caroline." Mary looked and saw Paul Okere in the
second rank of chiefs, tears standing in his eyes.
The force of will from eight red caps was far stronger than any one of them could have
been, but there were a thousand women opposing. A few did turn and make their way out of the
market, overcome by the chiefs' authority and their own fear, but no more than a few. Mary stood
firm, brandishing her pestle and, as always, recalling a verse. Now for a better country. Vain
presage! Who were the strugglers, what war did they wage.
The chiefs fell back at last, leaving nothing between the women and the men with guns. A
British officer commanded the women to disperse, and as he did, British sergeants ordered the
front rank to kneel and the soldiers to level their rifles. The Hausa men did what they were told.
It seemed to Mary that every one of the rifles was pointed at her. For a second, it felt like
she could see down the barrels to where the bullets lay waiting, and imagine them flying out to
take her life. What courage the men who faced the British must have had, she thought, and the
men who fought with them in the Cameroons. Did the Hausa men have that courage? Did she?
But the feeling passed as suddenly as it had come, and when the sergeants ordered,
"Ready," Mary was ready too.
Her face and hands were painted with ashes from the cookfire, and she began to chant a
cooking charm. There was no flame nearby to draw from, but with a thousand women in the
marketplace, the ashes would be enough. Slowly--too slowly--she unlocked the secret Adanna
had whispered to her that morning, the secret of drawing will from others even if they didn't
realize they were giving.
She had the will of a thousand women in her, and of the men who watched from the
outskirts of the market, and even, she realized, Paul Okere. He might be a warrant chief, but his
only thought now was for Caroline's safety, and because of that, his mind was open to hers.
She reached out to the rifles, to the place in each one where the firing pin was, and began
to heat them. She remembered the lesson years ago when Mrs. Carter had shown her that heating
a thing makes it grow. If the firing pins grew even a little, the rifles would jam.
Why didn't the men do this when they faced the British? she wondered. They make magic
with iron. But men's iron-magic required hammers and furnaces, and there were none of those on
a battlefield. Mary didn't need to make the pins furnace-hot; cookfire-hot would do.
"Fire!" the officer said.
In the Hausa lines, forty-six men pulled triggers and forty-six rifles failed to fire. But there
were four others. Maybe Mary hadn't heated their firing pins enough, or maybe she'd applied the
heat to the wrong part of the guns, but four bullets flew straight and true into the crowd of
None of them hit Mary. What happened instead was even worse. One second Adanna was
flourishing a pestle and palm leaf, calling defiance to the soldiers, and the next second she was
dead on the ground, a gaping hole in her head and blood running in rivers over her eyes.
Mary hardly noticed the forty-six soldiers shaking and hitting their rifles, trying to clear the
jam that had somehow afflicted all of them. She had eyes only for Adanna and for her own failure.
Her commander, her omu, was dead, and she was dead because Mary had failed to protect her.
Rage blazed in her, and she sent it out as heat to the four rifles that had fired. The ashes on
her face and hands grew hot, and the weapons became hotter: in one case, so hot that the soldier
threw it from him, screaming, just in time to avoid being injured when the chambered round
cooked off. None of the four got off a second shot, and with Mary keeping the heat on the other
rifles as well, none of the remainder could shoot at all.
"Fix bayonets!" one of the sergeants shouted, but the soldiers would have none of it.
"Witchcraft," one of them said, and in a moment, the others took up the call. "You brought us to
Mary never knew why she chose that moment to charge, or why the women behind her
followed. She was unarmed, holding only a pestle, but the soldiers fled, unwilling to face an
oncoming witch with ashes covering her face. Only two or three stayed to fight, and the women
overwhelmed them. And though the sergeants and officers would never admit to believing in
witchcraft, they fled too.
The women put the eze nwanyi mask on the white-haired ancient from Okohia who was
their omu now, and carried her on their shoulders in triumph. Mary stood in silence and looked at
the place where Adanna lay.
"And what happened after that?" asked the Crown Counsel.
"We learned that victory is a prelude to defeat."
"Is that an Igbo proverb?"
"It's a Mary Ejiofor proverb." That won Mary a smile from Commissioner Hunt and
Barrister Aderemi, and she took shelter in the silence as she recalled what had followed the battle
in the market. There had been a battle that day in Opobo too, and the women there hadn't
stopped the guns: some said forty died, some fifty, and afterward they'd taken their dead and
gone home. And hard on the arrival of that news, the British sent four thousand soldiers to Owerri
in place of fifty, and rather than shooting the women in the market, they'd simply picked them up
and carried them to a fenced field. Palm leaves didn't protect against that, because they guarded
against harm, and what harm was there in being picked up and carried?
Even then, it had been a stalemate--the women carried off during the day snuck out and
retook their positions each night--until Saunders had threatened them with artillery and airplanes.
Then there was no choice but to make terms: the women had gone home in exchange for amnesty,
no reprisals, and a promise that there would be a commission to listen to their grievances. It had
seemed a meager enough victory, but listening was more than the British had ever done before,
and she remembered how, at the end, Saunders had reached across to shake her hand.
"If you'll forgive me for going back over old ground," Mary realized that the Crown
Counsel was asking, "tell me again why learning the truth about the poll taxes didn't end the
"Because these women were already running riot, of course," Commissioner Osborne
interrupted. He'd made clear from the beginning that it was beneath him to examine native
women's grievances simply because they'd managed to jam a few rifles.
"She can answer your questions later," said Commissioner Hunt. "Let her answer Mr.
Blackall's question now."
"It was as Nne Adanna said to the district officer at the time: Taxes had started the war,
but it had grown to be about many other things." Mary felt a stab of memory as she recalled
washing Adanna's body after the battle and the marketplace funeral the following day. I am giving
your testimony now.
"What I'd like to hear," said Commissioner Hunt, "is a little more detail on what those
things were. It's clear that the system of administration got out of hand, so how do we stop it
happening again? You were at the meetings, Miss Ejiofor, and you seem more familiar with our
ways of thinking. . ."
And what does that mean? Mary didn't say, but she thought she knew. She'd chosen the
Bible over the sword, she spoke English like someone who'd been to school, she was wearing a
floral dress in the British style for the occasion--all things that obviously made Commissioner
Hunt take more account of her views, and that just as obviously made Osborne distrust them.
"You might start with the fact that the warrant chiefs and the Native Court judges were
appointed without any consultation. . ."
She spoke for twenty minutes more, with the Crown Counsel and the commissioners
interrupting as they pleased: the grilling she got from Hunt and Aderemi was as sharp as what
they'd given the ADO, and as sharp as she'd ever got in Mrs. Carter's lessons. At last, it seemed
that the subject was exhausted and the chairman began to dismiss her, but the Crown Counsel
held up his hand.
"Miss Ejiofor, one more question. We've asked some of the other witnesses to give their
summation of the causes of the trouble. Would you care to give yours?"
"Mr. Blackall, are you asking her if there's a moral to this?" said Osborne.
"I don't think he was, Mr. Osborne, but since you asked:
The teachers of the heathens:
How can they be so styled
When gentlemen from London
Act half-devil and half-child?
As she turned to go, she heard Barrister Aderemi stifle a laugh, and she even caught a
wink from Commissioner Hunt.
"It's right that we should have the ikwa ozu today," said Caroline.
"Yes," Mary answered. The two of them were in the midst of a crowd of hundreds
trooping to the graveyard where Adanna was buried. Her family was too poor to afford a
memorial service and it had taken all this time for the women of Ulakwo to raise the money, but it
was somehow fitting that the service was taking place the day after the commission finished its
"I've heard all kinds of things," Caroline said. "There will be an income tax instead of a
poll-tax, we'll have mayors and councils instead of warrant chiefs--they say there will even be
women on the Native Courts!"
"No one knows what will happen yet," said Mary. "The commission will have to issue a
report, and the legislative council will have to vote on it. Barrister Aderemi told me there will be
reforms, but no one's sure what."
"I guess we'll see, then." They followed the procession as it flowed off the village road
and through the graveyard, to a field that had been cleared and laid with many canopies and
tables. The air smelled of roasting beef, guinea fowl and fufu, and there were sounds of singing;
someone must have already got to the palm wine.
Someone called out for the people to gather. "For the trial?" asked Martha. Mary shook
her head: there would be no trial. The ikwa ozu often began with a mock trial to determine who
had killed the deceased, but with Adanna, that was no mystery.
Instead, when the gathering had completed, it was Mary who was called forward.
"Adanna has no living daughters," said Nneoma, "so we have decided--you are the ada,
the first daughter, and you may mourn first."
Slowly, Mary walked into the cleared area, the others of her age-grade following, and
slowly, as the drums beat, they began to dance. Their dance was a joyful one--an ikwa ozu was a
celebration of the dead--but it was the same joy that dancing in front of the warrant-chiefs'
houses had held: a fierce joy, the joy of fighting and conquering. There would be no trial for
Adanna's death, but this--this, thought Mary, was the verdict.
The drumbeat built toward a crescendo, and Mary's thoughts turned to the news she
hadn't given Caroline, to the letter in the folds of her dress telling her that she'd been accepted to
the new girls' secondary school in Umuahia. Mrs. Carter--no she'd said to call her Claire--had
persuaded them to let her take the qualifying exams even though she was over age, and told her
that with all the reading she'd done, she'd finish in a year or a year and a half.
It would be the fulfillment of a dream, but it would take Mary away from home, and if she
went to secondary, could she also dare dream of the university in London? She'd need more than
a cooking-charm if she hoped to make the British listen. She'd need to know them, and the
university could do that--but she was only now realizing how much she would have to change
along the way.
The dance was winding down and Mary savored the communion with the other
women--the women who had faced death with her but to whom she might soon be a stranger.
She would need iron for the coming journey, the iron that wasn't only men's magic, the iron that
Adanna had shown her could live in her soul.
"With your spirit, I will go," she said. "I swear on the sword."