“Chioma! Chioma! Chioma…! Bring the spoon here!” Mama shouted above every voice from the kitchen into the house. Her voice was mighty, thunderous, and sounded very urgent. It had priority over other voices, over the bleating of goats and lambs, barking of dogs, gossips, chirruping of birds, cackling of fowls, cries of babies, cantankerous arguments, chitchats, and the announcement gongs of town-criers in the fading distance.
The clouds roared in the skies, signalling their intent to water the earth, as the day gradually disappeared. Ushering in a night of feast, merriment, jubilation, a night of send-off.
Breeze from the south, from the boisterous waters of the Atlantic Ocean viciously slapped the walls of our compound, as if it was vexed our massive compound stood on its path towards the north; the desolate part of the country.
Harmattan was paving the way for the raining season. It was good for the community, for the farmers, our palm trees, our yams, cocoyam, “anara” garden eggs, paw-paw, “ube” native pear, cashew and “ukwa” butter fruits. The scorching heat dried our earth, our hopes. It dried our water tankers, our earthenwares, and our mud houses. It made us trek long distances into the forest, to fetch water from streams and lakes. We fetched water from the foot of rocks that fed the forest, plants, trees and animals with an unending supply of natural water. The heat wave roasted the dust particles and the tornadoes that came from the north, the Sahara desert, during the harmattan season. The dust always carpeted our village in a fog of darkness. It made the high priest offer oblations to our ancestors. Appealing to them to appease the gods on our behalf, to send the rain.
Although the kitchen wasn’t in the main house, her voice brought the main house, the kitchen, yam barn, goat shelter, latrine, bathroom and the storeroom together. She spoke to the wind instructing it to take her voice to Chioma wherever she was within the compound. It obeyed and created a silhouette of her in every room, from where it amplified her voice with alacrity, audacity, authority, into every space, into the sky, into the water tanker that trapped dripping water from the zinc roof when it rained, and into every eardrum within our four-walls. Even the chickens and goats looked perturbed, pausing momentarily, wondering if that was an order to prepare them, marinate and get them seasoned for the evening feast.
Since the day eze decided that the feast had to be held in our house they began to act strange and obedient. They appeared very serious minded. Not wanting any acquaintance. Lest in their minds we construed them to be useless, skiving, and therefore, apportioned for slaughter, for eating. They went about their business seriously, less bleating and crowing in the early hours of dawn.
For a moment everything was called Chioma. My name changed from Okeke to Chioma. The animals became Chioma, the food, drinks, guests, trees, plants, clouds, bicycles and the highlife song by Oriental Brothers International Band that entertained the ever-increasing guests that had come to celebrate the departure. Our thoughts became Chioma, we imagined ourselves looking like Chioma, twenty-one years, tall, short hair, dimple smiles, wearing a rose patterned blouse, with slippers, helpful, swift, beautiful and courted by numerous suitors within and outside the village. We imagined being called “nwa oma” meaning “good child” by the villagers. We imagined being brought tubers of yams, bags of rice, wrapper garments, “ojị” kola nuts, bracelets, rings, necklaces, goats and chickens to ask for our hands in marriage. We imagined turning them down, claiming they weren’t our heart desire, claiming “I don’t like him”, that “his is not my type”, “not my cup of tea”; waiting for the right person, “Mr Right”. We imagined mama constantly nudging her to make up her mind and “marry quickly”. “Your mates are already married”. “I was much younger than you when I gave birth to your brother”.
We imagined being mute on this matter like papa. It was all about Chioma. Mama’s voice interrupted our thoughts, our imaginations, our stream of thoughts, our dreams, our lives and concentration on the savoury aroma that polluted the compound. We thought we were Chioma and briefly in our subconsciousness advanced to get the spoon, the catalyst that had ignited the gong.
We imagined ourselves travelling with the sound of her voice, with the pronunciation of SPOON, through its rhythm, and fuelled with the urgency of her tune. Into every nook and cranny in the compound. Into the farms. Into the trees. Into the lakes. Mosquito breeding ponds. Rivers. Waterfalls and streams. She shouted as if there was no tomorrow, as if the meals were running away, as if the trees, their leaves and roots wanted to snatch the cooking pots away. To feed the animal kingdom. The birds perching on its branches, their nestling. The monkeys swinging from one branch to another. Ants in their barks and trunks. The squirrels, tree kangaroos and the resting leopards. To feed internally displaced refugees displaced by senseless civil wars. Harassed by the madness of men, and displaced by political instability and social unrest. To feed and fatten the belly of forests, the Amazon forest, the Virunga National Park, for future deforestation, erosion, food insecurity, climate change and poaching of wildlife.
As if the spoon held answers to our issues and matters. As if they were poems. As if it could rig elections, jail corrupt police officers, jail corrupt judges, release political prisoners, bring back to life those killed unjustly, find a cure for cancer, and reduce the government’s tax burden on its citizenry. She turned the spoon into a myth, folklore and into a unicorn. It galloped into the skies and mutated into a currency. We could buy anything we wanted, anything we desired. We didn’t have to work anymore in our lives. She turned it into the future, it knew the next lottery number, the next president. The next war. Into our hopes. Into unending questions that gave birth to more questions. Why didn’t it rain throughout the year so that our crops would yield perpetually? Why were people still living in abject poverty in spite of their abundant resources? Why was slavery still prevalent in this day and age? William Cowper told them;
“We have no slaves at home – Then why abroad? Slaves cannot breathe in England; if their lungs receive our air, that moment they are free. They touch our country, and their shackles fall. That’s noble, and bespeaks a nation proud. And jealous of the blessing. Spread it then, And let it circulate through every vein.”
Why did the eze and his cabinet chiefs have more wives, more animals and more lands? Why did the chief priest still require human sacrifice, osu and strangers, even though Mary Slessor had vehemently fought against it, telling him?
“Thou shall not kill”
Why were the “osu” outcasts segregated and despised? Why weren’t we allowed to marry them? Befriend them? Why did the same eze and his cohorts insist that twins must still be killed? Why did they seek to forcefully kill all the abandoned twins in her care? Unlike other missionaries she was the only one who chose to live in our village and learn our language. Our dialect. When she died of malaria, miles away from Dundee, why wasn’t she buried in our village? We mourned her greatly. She saved us. She brought Christianity. She fought against fetish rituals. She was a true mother. Our mother. In awe we watched, as every question gave birth to mysteries, to legends and idioms.
“I am coming mama… I have seen the spoon!” Chioma replied firmly, piercing our imaginations, bringing us back to reality. She replied instantaneously, loud enough for her to hear, to create reassurance of urgency, but humbly tuned to dissipate confrontation.
At least ten gigantic pots were simultaneously on fire, on wooden stoves, simmering with different delicacies, attended by other women, other mothers. They shouted their instructions too, and entered from one conversation to another. Conversations that were intermittently interrupted with bursts of laughter and melodious choruses that uplifted their moods. They cooked joyfully, for their husbands, their wives, and for their sons and daughters. And for the animals; the goats that ate almost anything, and for the chickens that swept the earth with their becks. They cooked for the village, the people. They cooked for the future, our future, our independence, for our constitution, for our ancestors, our forefathers. And for their great grand children who would engineer the future civil wars, political instability and social unrest. Engineer “credit crunches”, religious wars, sectarian conflicts and bring poverty and tears to many. For our prosperity gods and for Mary Slessor’s God.
It must be told,
Announced far and wide,
With the voice of town-criers,
And the urgency of a cheetah in pursuit,
That come tomorrow,
An illustrious son of the soil
Was going to Buckingham Palace!
To speak on behalf of the people!
To declare our great culture!
Our ancestors were right. As direct descendants of Eri, “we were born for great things”, to feed nations. This was our calling, our opportunity.
Some of those in our compound were relatives, others were neighbours. Even the eze‘s wife, the king’s wife, participated in this mass cooking. A horde of teenagers fed the devouring stoves with firewood piled at the left entrance of the kitchen. It wasn’t to be allowed to burn out, to die, to quench our hungry expectations, for great hopes were laid on them. As soon as one dish was completed another was started.
From egusi soup to oha soup, pounded yam, jollof rice, ‘isi ewu‘ goat head, to porridge yam and breadfruit meals. The aroma of the food, the burning charcoals and the joy in the air intertwined to uplift our spirits and salivate our hunger. It reassured us of good things to come. It made us forget our pain, and the painful agony of losing twenty-three children from our village to slavery. We often heard of slave merchants tales, how they would invade one village after another, kidnapping as many fit people as possible. They came armed and always left trails of agony. Usually they would try to negotiate with the village eze who would in exchange of sugar, mirrors and chocolate bars voluntarily authorize them to take anyone labelled osu. These were outcasts segregated from the people. We believed these outcasts were abominations and carried with them “bad luck”. But when the eze refused exchange or demanded more for the exchange, and even started to defend themselves ferociously the slave merchants resorted to ambushing and kidnapping the people. However, we never experienced their activities either did we hear about them in neighboring villages.
The slave merchants came on Eke, a popular weekly market day. It was popular because of the diversity and richness of the farm produce that were on display. Unlike other market days it attracted more farmers, hunters and traders from every village. Everybody went there to either buy or sell something. On this day parents would leave their children to the care of the eldest teenager in the village. He or she would watch over them and feed them with meals already prepared by their parents. Sometimes up to fifty children was left in the person’s care. Children loved this day because it was always an opportunity to play and play and play. Sometimes we played so much we forgot we had to eat. Very often we played till our parents came back in the evening. Because the market was a bit far from our village parents would leave early in the morning as a group and would usually come back together in the evening.
On that unfortunate day, few years ago, Nkechi was in charge of us. She was the most senior teenager in the village. Everyone loved her. And she loved taking care of the younger ones. Parents loved her. They considered that she was well mannered and responsible. They were always eager to commit their children to her trust. But on this day, no one would have predicted this calamity.
Like every other day we played and played and played. It was always joyful to play hide and seek with others. Everyone played with their age group. Afterwards, we gathered at Nkechi’s house to eat our afternoon food. It was very sunny. We sang as Nkechi and some other teenagers served us from the bowls of food left by our parents. As we sat down eating, suddenly, from every corner leading to her hut, these men pounced on us ferociously. They were countless, huge and wielded machetes. They swooped on us like a hungry hawk on chicks. They came prepared and in haste to accomplish their evil task. In panic we scattered into every direction. Introduction was unnecessary. Some gathered behind Nkechi for protection. In a twinkle of an eye they grabbed as many of us, tied our hands, blindfolded and gagged us. We screamed our heads out but it was of no use. Help was faraway. Anyone they caught was straightaway led into the bush from where they came from. Nkechi was brave. She tried to fight them. She challenged them. Shouted and demanded they stop. She tried but it was futile. One of them made a dash to capture her. She was captured along with those that sought protection around. I was longed captured and led into the bush to join another party holding victims from other village sieges. Eventually they captured almost everyone one of us. We couldn’t even cry because they gagged us with pieces of cloths each slave trafficker had in his pocket. We cried in our hearts not because of the pain but because we weren’t going to see our parents again. We were the last group to be led into the bush to the unknown world. The first and second group had probably joined the waiting parties.
As fate would have it, the traffickers thought they heard the voices of an incoming group. They thought they heard them speaking English. In fright they abandoned some of us and took another route. I was one of those that was left. We stayed in the bush till we were found by the village search group in the midnight. We never saw Nkechi since then. In memory of her many families named their daughters Nkechi.
Nevertheless, the joy of the food made us hungrier, made us talk too much, too excited, very patient and tempted to say;
“Please, sir, I want some more”
Even though we hadn’t any yet. We couldn’t because the chief priest had to first bless it. It was customary for him to bless communal feasts before we ate. We could only swallow our saliva and feed on the sweet smelling savour. Even the Igwu had a speech to make too.
It added melody to the songs playing from the gramophone, songs of our ancestors, how they conquered villages, the might of the new god introduced by missionary Christians from obodo oyibo, Scotland, of the strong iroko tree, of the priest, of the Igwe. Of the night, of masquerades, of proverbs and adages, the mysterious Isi river which legend holds gave birth to our first ancestor, of good harvest, plenty rain and of the future to come. Our hungry bellies danced in unison with the drumbeats of the songs. Then I remembered the words of Shakespeare, of Duke Orsino;
“If music be the food of love, play on”
We waited. I waited. Wait. Waited. The villagers, the guests waited. We waited with hope, with enthusiasm. We waited for the meals, the meat, and for the king’s speech, as villagers continued to pour into the compound as if they had a “dream” that one day our compound would be called hope.
I never imagined the kitchen accommodating so many people until the cooks and helpers descended on our compound like a wave of angry bees. They came from every pathway leading to our compound; trudging in with much excitement. Fulfillment. They came as pilgrims, on a holy pilgrimage, with more pots, small pots, medium pots, gigantic pots. Spoons, basins, firewood, condiments, spices, chicken, rice, cassava, vegetables and stools. Everything. They populated the kitchen with chattering women and girls. Everyone engaged in a division of labour. Some sliced, washed, stirred the pots, mixed the ingredients, while other filled standby basins and coolers with ready meals. As they carried the prepared meals to the smaller kitchen inside the house we fed our eyes with hope. We looked at the basin of food as if they were the opposition party, as if they were taxes, bills and prices. We wished there were no prices, no limitation. That they read;
Live in me
Papa was discussing in the ‘Obi’ meeting house with other men and the elders. They talked about the favour of our ancestors, about the British empire, politics, about the strange prophecy of the chief priest that calamity was at the doorsteps of the village. What could it be? They pondered. About the upcoming yam festival. The “good old days”.
I could smell the aroma of mama’s stockfish, the unsalted dried cod, and its mouth-watering flavour. It exploded the deep natural tastes of the spices and ingredients in our imaginations. Thereby ensuring we always wanted more. Devouring it with other animals in a meal, with vegetables was a supreme satisfaction. It was her trade, her renown. She made and sold the best stockfish, smoked fish and fried fish in the village.
It looked like today was the final day; that tomorrow was today. That there was no tomorrow. But how? There had to be a tomorrow! Tomorrow was the reason for today? The reason for the evening feast. Celebration. Jubilation. Excitement. The journey was tomorrow. No one had made the journey before. No son of the soil had ever gone that far. Benin. Nor travelled to Lagos, the colonial capital. How much more going to heaven. The land we only imagined by looking at Mary Slessor and other Scottish missionaries. It was heaven hidden in allegories, lore, in literature. Before the Governor General, Sir Fredrick Lugard and his men arrived we thought our village boundary was the end of the world. That our ancestors had only created one skin colour, that any other must be of the gods.
Tomorrow was real. In our minds. In our dreams. We saw the royal letter. It was delivered by a royal chariot. How they rode into the village we still don’t know. The whole village assembled to see the letter. Men, women, children, servant, slaves and traders. The trees, animals, the lizards, our ancestors, everything and everybody. We saw the letter. It looked like an angel’s wing, like hope, light, assurance, a future, that all was well. We adorned our best attire, the best of our wardrobe, wrappers, sandals, trousers and shirts for the reading. Sir Fredrick was there. The reading gave us hope. The words, English, sounded like hymns, like chorus and rhythm of a choir. Akin to when Mary Slessor sang in the moonlight. She sang;
Songs of Praise the angels sang
Heaven with Allelulas rang
When creation was begun
When God spake and it was done
As the words were sang, they gave birth to moons, undiscovered stars, and galaxies. It made the stars dance choreographically and triumphantly in the heavens. As they pirouetted in the endless ballroom of space, we dreamed dreams, visited one another in dreams, in trances and in imaginations. We interloped from one person’s sleep to another congratulating one another that we were favoured by the god. Therefore, our crops would yield bountifully; the rain would fall. There would be less disease. For tranquillity. She would sing as if the village was her church, as if the croaking of frogs, creaking of crickets were her backup choir. Children longed for the night when she was back from evangelism and settled; for her songs. Voice. She sang with boldness, and unperturbed. As if she spoke to her god, to his angels, about his mighty works in Jerusalem, about his love and mercy. As if the darkness was a mirage, with dominion. The elders didn’t like her, lamenting “the gods must be mad”. Her songs changed our culture, our beliefs, our traditions and ways. They hated her. The more she sang the more we changed. We began to see the pen, paper, ships, planes, new clothes, shoes, other people, race, culture, the future. We began to see. And in spite of the antagonism against her, somehow they were powerless to harm her. To banish her. Her songs made us fear less of the night. They took away all the myth and legends of hellish creatures, of bad deities, and the night predators.
The royal letter energized us. It read our future. King George V, King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, and Emperor of India was hosting representatives from all the British colonies. Someone from every village, to commemorate the Day of Empire, to personally learn about the people, culture and norms of his colonies, and to set the tone for independence.
© Nonso Chukwunonye – August 2013
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