Recap: In the PROLOGUE, we read about a soldier who ‘trained’ his infant son in a way that would today be regarded as child abuse. The story continues.
PART 1: In the beginning
‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’ This is a question that children are usually asked and the most popular answers, perhaps until recently were; a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or one of those other ‘prestigious’ professions. No matter what you wanted to be, what you became, for some, was a function of their families or backgrounds. It was common therefore, and to a certain extent still is, that you would find one or two children of a lawyer becoming lawyers, ditto medical doctors, accountants, engineers, teachers, artisans or even farmers. And here I’m talking about subsistence farmers, one of whom I probably would have turned out to be but for a proactive father (God bless his soul) who decided that since he did not go to school, his son must go to school.
My father once told me how he missed out on school. He was born into a polygamous family where, as the practice was then, the children were considered an asset during the farming season. The more the children were, the bigger the farm of their father or guardian. Also, the stronger a child was, the lesser his chances of going to school. Children sent off to school, in the countless illiterate households, were mostly those considered too weak to contribute meaningfully to the hectic tasks of clearing the bush, tilling the earth, planting whatever needed to be planted and weeding the farm when necessary until harvest time. On the side, these children learnt to set traps and to hunt down bush animals for food and sometimes for sale when the catch was ample enough.
My father had the misfortune of being a strong lad. Therefore, his fate was tied to the bushes of his village. He once told me about one of his age mates who would always complain when taken to the farm. In anger his father sent him off to school and he later became a teacher. By the time the teacher became a headmaster, he was one of the very few in that category who could afford a Renault saloon car. It was said that the government gave him a loan to buy the car. But what did that matter? Nobody was giving any farmer in my village any loan to buy anything then. By that time, my father had managed to change his aging black bicycle for a brand new ‘white’ Raleigh bicycle, which was a status symbol in its own class then. But that was long after he had liberated himself from the drudgery of farm work and escaped to the ‘town’.
It happened that there was this man, Aroboinosen, who used to come to farm in the village camp where my father’s family also farmed. His regular job was tailoring – what today is known as fashion design. His business was in the town. My father got acquainted with him and got interested in his line of business. One thing led to another and my father left the village to become his apprentice in the town. Our town, Uromi, was, and still is, cosmopolitan in nature. Back then, before the civil war, the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria constituted the largest number of ‘non-indigenes’ in the town. Known for their entrepreneurial nature, they were essentially businessmen who ran bakeries, pharmacy shops (known locally as chemists), petrol stations, transport and textile businesses, bukas (restaurants), cinemas and different retail shops. They settled in a section of the town, off Old Agbor Road, that came to be known as Ag’igbo (Igbo quarters). With time, indigenes that were apprenticed to them or were their business partners lived among them. Aroboinosen was one of them. Through him, my father’s first abode when he got to the town from the village was in Ag’igbo. That was where he was living with my mother when my three elder sisters were born.
Living among the Igbos, no doubt, rubbed off on my father’s world view. As a fatherless young man he knew he had to work extra hard. He learnt tailoring from his master and learnt trading from his neighbours. He began trading in textile materials along with his tailoring and learnt to follow Igbo traders to Onitsha in the East to buy his stock. I remember how excited we were to welcome him back from those business trips; not necessarily because we missed him but mainly because of the loaves of Uncle Ben’s bread he usually returned with. That was our first encounter with sliced bread and it always seemed to taste better than Sylvanus and Rose Vero bread that were ‘locally’ produced even though it probably actually wasn’t.
With time my father was able to raise enough money to buy a plot of land somewhere off Convent Road where he built our family house. That was where myself and my eight other surviving siblings were born. The story of how the mud house was built, as it was told to me, is a story for another day. But suffice it to say that my mother and my eldest sister, who was just a little girl, formed part of the labourers on site when the house was being built.
My father had succumbed to cultural pressure and married a second wife after my mother was only able to bear him three daughters and no son. In our culture, as in most African cultures, a man without a son is not yet a man no matter how many daughters he had. Of course, education has changed that orientation but back then, no explanation of X and Y chromosomes and the fact that the man is actually responsible for the gender of the baby would have made sense to him. Even today, it still doesn’t make sense to a large number of traditional men. So it was that my father married my step mother when my mother was pregnant with her fourth baby. That baby turned out to be me and I’m sure you know my gender. As it turned out too, my step mother’s first child who came shortly after me was also a boy. The experience accounted for my being named Akhabue (Endurance). I was also named Anthony, like quite a number of male children of my generation, after the renowned nationalist Chief Anthony Enahoro who was one of Nigeria’s foremost anti-colonial and pro-democracy activists and the most famous Uromi citizen at the time.
Chief Anthony Enahoro, the youngest editor ever of a Nigerian newspaper, was the first to move the motion (in 1953) for Nigeria’s independence, when some fellow ‘nationalists’ from other parts of the country said Nigeria was not mature enough for independence until seven years later.
Our parents believed that by naming us after him, we would grow up to be famous just like him. (I’m still working very hard on that expectation, as I told the icon many years later when I interviewed him at the Presidential Villa, Abuja.)
The relief my mother must have felt at my birth can only be imagined. She went on to give my father another two surviving sons while my step- mother bore him another four boys and two girls.
If there is anything I will never forget about my childhood, it is the love and the ‘hate’ that characterized our polygamous family. We were taught to love one another and share whatever we had. It was a rule that we ate dinner together; the males with our father and the females with our mothers. The women also took turns to cook dinner for the family. My father continued with farming on the side as his earnings were not sufficient to support his expanding family. He would provide yams for our mothers who planted and harvested cassava that was processed into garri or fermented to make akpu; both of which formed essential parts of our staple meals – eba and pounded yam.
I recall how I would perch on the pole of my father’s bicycle and feel the cool early morning breeze against my face as we rode down the slopes on the way to our Unohio farm, some ten kilometers from the town. That was a privilege, as most other times we trekked to and from the farm with bundles of yam, bowls of cassava tubers or stacks of firewood on our heads.
We ‘hated’, fought and made up over such mundane issues as who was eating too much and not working hard enough. We fought over toys that were mainly spinners made of snail shells; damaged bicycle wheels and car tyres, catapults, felele soccer balls, toy guns made from bicycle spokes; toy cars made from supple cocoyam stems and planks with damaged car bearings; kites made from old newspapers; soft drink and beer bottle covers, bubble gum cards with photos of cowboys like Roy Rogers and Michael Landon; and other odds and bits that children played with in those days. I often had scuffles with my bossy immediate elder sister who made it her duty to ensure that I was not a ‘spoilt’ child, and would drag me into doing such ‘menial’ chores as sweeping, cooking and plate washing that we considered to be the responsibility of women. The way she went about it, it was clear to me that her motive was more to prove that I was not a man than to mould me. Whatever her motive was, it served me well in the end, as those essential skills that I learnt from her bossiness helped me when I became a bachelor living alone and having to cook and do other domestic chores for myself.
The polygamous spirit permeated our entire neighbourhood, as every child belonged to every mother or father in the neighbourhood, and it was everyone’s responsibility to scold or discipline an errant child when occasion called for it. I got a raw deal from this goodwill one evening. I returned from playing soccer with my friends and my father called me to get something for him from the cupboard in his bedroom. He had a pet tortoise in the sitting room that was on a short leash behind the door. When I entered the room, my father was bent over the tortoise and I thought he was feeding it as he used to do. Suddenly, he straightened up and locked the door. By the time I realised I had walked into an ambush, he was already all over me with his cane. In my pain I tried to figure out what I had done wrong that day but found no clue. All I kept saying while the siege lasted was, “papa what have I done?” and each question was answered with another stroke of the cane.
My mother heard the commotion and came from the kitchen to start knocking on the door and pleading with papa to spare me. No way. By the time he was done and opened the door to let me out, some neighbours attracted by my cry and entreaties were gathered in our compound. Among them was this woman who used to sell cooked rice behind our house. My mother was asking my father what my offence was but rather than answer, he directed her to ask the neighbour. She told my mother that I cursed her – apparently the same thing she had told my father. “Me? When did I curse you?!” I shouted. “You see how he’s shouting? Now he wants to beat me as well,” she said, and addressing my mother, added, “Ask your son whether he greeted me when he saw me coming from the market.” It was then I knew my crime though I couldn’t recall seeing her that evening on my way to the field to play. She obviously had seen me and concluded I deliberately avoided her in order not to greet her. My mother apologized to her and made me to do the same. Such was the premium placed on good behavior and respect for elders in those days.
These days, an elder would walk into a room full of young boys and girls and they would all be glued to their favourite programmes or games on TV without bothering to acknowledge his presence with a greeting; the same TV that we could only watch from the window of kind neighbours through a narrow space created by drawing the curtains of the window slightly apart. But that was then and this is now. Then, respect for elders and obedience of orders were non-negotiable. For instance, there was a standing order in almost every home that a child must return from wherever he/she was playing before supper time. Not that anyone really needed any prompting to obey this order in a polygamous home. If you did not return home before supper you automatically forfeited your ration. And there were many eager mouths praying silently that this should happen often as it meant there would be a little bit more to share.
A whole lot of other things happened then that would seem ‘weird’ to the NOW generation, as we shall see as the story progresses….
Watch out for part 2
Excerpt: According to Chinua Achebe, Eneke the bird learned to fly without perching when the hunter mastered the art of shooting without missing. In like manner, some habitual latecomers soon learned to load their buttocks with one or two shorts underneath the school knickers to reduce the impact of the headmaster’s cane. But that did not fool the headmaster for too long as those who overdid it gave the scam away. The headmaster undressed a particular bully before the whole school one morning to reveal a set of dirty tattered underpants, to the delight of his victims. What the headmaster did next got everyone, including the unremorseful bully laughing, at least for a while. He told the bully to put his knickers back on and invited the general monitor (head boy) to give him six strokes of the cane on the buttocks. Each stroke landed with a ‘puaa!’ sound. At the end of the head boy’s flogging, there was a sneer on the bully’s face. Then, in a dramatic twist, the headmaster instructed the bully to undress to his last underwear. He took the cane from the head boy and administered six mean doses of it on the bully’s buttocks. This time, the ‘puaa!’ sound changed to ‘tuaa!’ and the sneer on his face turned to tears.
What could possibly be worse than this headmaster’s flogging? Find out in Part 2
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