“Azuanima, the kind of fear wey I feel for una that day no be small one oh”.
Mama (my grandmother) said this to me on a cold evening in December, while sharpening the blade of her hoe. My siblings and I had visited her from Port Harcourt and we –alongside some of our friends from Port Harcourt- were getting okra seeds ready for planting at her backyard. The humidity hung like a cloud above us, and when we smacked our lips, we could taste the dust of the harmattan on them. It was that time of the year again, the time we looked forward to as children – the Abua holiday.
“Mama tell me what happened again, please na! Chimanma and Chibuotu have not heard the story.”
Mama pretended not to have heard, as she wiped her hand on the wrapper hanging around her waist. Sand flies had begun to fill the evening with their presence, and mama motioned for my friends and I to come inside her hut and leave our okra seeds outside. We sat on the elevated raffia bed and she cleared her throat, an act that necessitated silence from all of us.
“I bin dey cut tapioca that evening when them enter the kitchen…” and mama began the story of how the armed robbers attacked our home, a story that has been told so many times, but with each telling, assumed a new wave of horror.
My grandmother taught me about selfless giving, not necessarily of monetary gifts, but of personal services; the idea that one could use their talents for the benefit of others, and not expect anything in return. That day, as all nine of us listened to her tell the tale, I remember wishing to stay in that room forever (although in retrospect, my concept of forever at that time would be equivalent to a few hours now).
Abua has a way of calling strangers into its bosom, and making indigenes of them. Every December, crowds of people would return to Okoboh (my mother’s village within Abua) for the end of year festivities. There were friends I only saw once a year, even when we all lived in the same city. Somehow, the ritual of seeing ourselves only in December made our bonds stronger, as we would gather the stories from January till November, wrap them up in our tiny hearts and excitedly exchange them as souvenirs in the dry harmattan heat every December.
Abua made me realise that bicycles were not just objects of play, but also pivotal to commerce. I once had a friend in the village that rode past my grandmother’s house everyday on her bicycle, with firewood fastened to its rear. She would call me by my Abua name, Azuanima, and offer to show me around the village. Our bond was never really symbiotic, as she was more of the giver. For even when her garments were dulled from constant wear, and her eyes were tainted from constant exposure the sting of charcoal flames, she still exuded the kind of brightness that made her company feel like home. She died a few years ago, but her remembrance stays fresh on the surface of my mind.
Mama liked us to eat with other children in the village. She would heap white rice into a large circular metal tray, scoop red stew on top, and place spoons within the mound, all around its circumference. My younger siblings and I would then sit cross-legged and watch her call any child who was available at that time, to share our meal. We would subsequently bond with them over the meal, letting out genuine laughter that reached places where neither superiority nor inferiority complexes could find – places that later became home.
My grandfather (Papa) lived on the opposite end of the village. During his heydays as Chief, he married a number of wives and as such bore a lot of children. His concrete house stood firmly in the centre of a yard, and his brother lived directly opposite his home. My memories of Papa include him asking for a fowl to be slaughtered, to make a meal for his grandchildren. Papa was a handsome man, and even with advancement in age, he still managed to appear younger than his contemporaries.
He would speak to me in pidgin, and ask me to join him in eating his plantain dish. It was within his house that I learned one could eat large maggots whilst they were still moving, by holding the black head and biting the black flesh. It was within his mini-courtyard that I saw a headless chicken jump out of hot water, attempt to run, and subsequently slump. Papa’s last daughter is a year younger than I am. Growing up, I always wondered if I would ever be required to call her “Aunty” someday; the thought of it was hilarious.
In Abua, hospitality is considered to be a mandatory virtue which when displayed, could herald an abundance of kind gestures. When I was 7, I sat outside my great grand mother’s house one evening and held my “butter biscuit” in one hand. A middle-aged lady approached the house, and I took a keen interest in her. Family legend has it that I offered her my biscuit, and said we would be the best of friends from then onwards. We still are. Her name is Tobili, and even in the years where I progressed from chirpy child to silent teenager, she still greeted me with sweets and ‘knock-outs’ from her shop. I hope to see her sometime soon.
In Abua, some villages are more centralised than the others. The villages close to the central of Abua are more commercialised and have an almost similar vibe to the city. Okoboh is not one of the villages… at least it wasn’t, when I still used to visit. In the course of my teenage years, I watched Okoboh transform into a shadow of its previous self. In the places where loose earth once served as roads, coal tar now existed. The mud houses became fewer each passing year, and luxury apartments sprung up in every corner. A family member would return from the city and tear down several huts to raise a giant concrete structure. Another family would give out their daughter in marriage, and a concrete structure would be erected as part of the preparations. Politicians would – as part of their campaign – offer to create roads where houses once stood. Fewer children roamed the streets, and more children were keen to introduce themselves in English. The wells that once housed water gave way for large boreholes, and the once eerie night shared its stillness with the sound of generators.
The last time I visited Abua, there was no farm work involved. My second cousin and I sat within his father’s parlour hiding from visitors. He was studying for his SSCEs, and I for my mock examinations. From his Nokia phone came the sound of Flavour Nabania’s chorus
“African rapper number one e ye,
M.I the microphone magician eh…”
As with all the other years before, the smell of food clung to every wall in each home. The December friends visited. The visitors stayed and got drunk on palm wine. The city boys enticed village girls with whatever they could. The old women rubbed my shoulders, pointed to my breasts and commented on how mature I had become. The sandflies still left marks in my skin. Everything seemed the same, but nothing was the same.
Later that evening, we went to the opposite end of the village where a relative had opened a restaurant that doubled as a party hub. I heard the sound from ‘Salt and Pepper’ before I saw it. The place was alive with food and dance. Deep down, I could feel my childhood disintegrating before my very eyes.
Papa is no more, and neither are some of my relatives that served as monuments in human form. The teenagers of my childhood now reside in the city, and some of the children of my childhood are now parents themselves. My December friends matured too, and we visited each other in Port Harcourt instead.
Nonetheless, Abua is home. Abua is where I love. The Abua of my childhood is the subject of every utopian daydream I have.
Thank you for stopping by. Unfortunately my post for last week was withheld due to circumstances beyond my control. Story for another day.
I hope you enjoyed this memoir, as much as I enjoyed writing it.
See you again next week.
Till next time,
PS: Photo by my younger sister, taken a year ago in Okoboh.