by J. U. Tagbo Nzeako
This little story is so packed with so many proverbs that I was often tempted to give up on understanding it. Yet it held my interest because of the picture it gives of pre-colonial village life. The book was purchased in Nigeria in November, 1983.
Chapter 1 -- When the World Was Blind
Families were afflicted by evil spirits. Fear was everywhere. People were being sold every week. Children born to widows were vulnerable, because the fruit in the forest is free for anyone to pluck and take for himself. [Implies survival of the fittest.] That made the children of widows refrain from joining the others in going out to play games in the compound.
This affected all villages, because a man cannot deny his own dwarfishness when he sees someone using a long stick to pick peppers. [Peppers grow low to the ground, so normally you do not need a stick to pick them. If you are at that eye level, you must be very short yourself!]
All widows tried, like it or not, to give themselves and their children to wealthy people and their spirits and their kith and kin, because one who wants to fully harvest the topmost fruits of his oil bean tree cannot climb down at the same place where he climbed up.
Those people oversaw them the way a chicken guards its chicks so that hawks might not carry them off, and they were barely able to breathe [worked to death like slaves], and the elders said that one who performed in-law duties in the lizard's house must surely hear running, because see-it-and-hold-it-for-me is a spear aimed at the stomach.
Life-threatening conditions were everywhere. There was not much thievery, because a thief would be grabbed as soon as he was spotted. Christianity had not yet reached Igboland, and school was something that people did not even dream about. Traditional practices and spirit-worship were everywhere. People threw away any child who came out of his mother's womb feet first. Akakpo people used to take away any children who sprouted upper teeth first. Twins were killed, and their mother banished to a house that would be built for her in the forest.
Burial of those who died of swollen stomach [ascites] consisted of laying them down in the forest to be eaten by vultures, but the bodies of leprosy and smallpox victims were just thrown into the bush. Human beings were used in burials. All these bad things held people back, because one who is owned by others has nothing.
There was no clothing, except the loincloth that adult men wore, and the short cloth that women wrapped around their waists. Those who had ogo-enwe-ute cloth were the rich people.
At that time, all young girls went naked. When the girl matured, she wore brass spiral leg rings, necklaces, and waist beads; drew body-markings; rubbed on camwood; marked her body with indigo juice designs; wore a cotton cloth around her waist; shaved her head completely; then went everywhere naked. The men who did not have loincloths made them from aji [locally woven coarse cloth].
None of these things made them ashamed, because an ignorant person is like a blind person who is being led. They did not know that there were other ways to enjoy life, besides meeting at the sacred tree in the village square telling folktales, trading insults, telling stories, and wrestling.
There was no court, because a powerful man would rule; and he alone was respected, because the elders say that the young cock does not display its strength where a stronger cock is concerned, because one who surpasses another person surpasses his personal god.
The way to tell those who had become wealthy was that they had many large palm trees, breadfruit trees, yam farms, and raffia palm lands in abundance.
Everyone built houses of mud and akanya [thatching from raffia palm leaves]. Many of these houses were round, and had one opening for entrance. There were not many chairs inside the houses. Planks, boards, branches of coconut trees, and earthen beds were customarily used for sitting.
People's occupations were fishing, farming, raising pigs, goats, and sheep, and being specialists in divining, in offering sacrifices, and in herbal medicine.
A young man thought only about how to get the money to take a title, build a mud house, carry a masquerade, and get married, because if a man did not conform to societal expectations, he was as good as dead.
The money used for trading at that time was cowries, that and bartering for market goods, like when someone who wanted to buy yams saw someone who wanted to buy snuff and they would exchange their market items.
Market exchanges did not always go well, because sometimes a person would take his sale items and not find anyone to trade with. Sometimes greedy people tried to cheat their fellows, who would then say that rather than a pot of wine cause in-laws to quarrel, let the pot of wine break in the road. [A bad bargain accepted for the sake of peace.]
Women wore certain undergarments, hip ornaments, waist beads, wrist ornaments, necklaces, camwood, indigo dye, and ivory bracelets for dressing up. Adult men slung on their cowhide bags, marked their eyebrows with chalk, carried walking-sticks made of iroko or bamboo, and traveled on foot both far and near.
There were no coffins. Woven mats were used for burying corpses. The midribs of oil palm leaves were peeled off into string and used to weave the mat. It was like an Igbo mat. [As opposed to a Hausa mat of other materials.]
If someone died, they put his corpse in the mat and tied it firmly. If he was someone they hated when he was alive, or an evildoer, they would have no sympathy for him and would tie him very tightly [presumably to keep his evil spirit from escaping], because if they searched thoroughly for a way to treat a sick person and could not find it, he would be burnt to cinders.
Kidnapping and selling people, indentured servitude and slavery, were the order of the day, and caused confusion in all the towns. Servants and slaves did not have the same privileges as did those who were not servants and slaves. They did not intermarry, the slaves did not farm, nor did they take titles. These things really hampered them, because there is no knowing which vehicle-riders are lame until the vehicle has stopped.
Life was like this in the old days, when there was no church. These things will be like folktales to our children today, because one who is not there when a corpse is buried digs it up from the foot.Now, the sacrifice has been made, let the blame be on the children of the spirits, and now let me crack nuts and let the corn go "tom tom" in the fire. [Let me get down to brass tacks.]