EARLY years in the Village

It was 1897 morning in Mbutu Ngwa. The dawn finally came, after pitch darkness and chilly cold fog, that precede the sharp swords, of the early morning sun.

Through their high hanging foliage, the giant iroko trees poked the earth below, with spades of the early morning rays. Birds and insects filled the air with familiar shrills and hisses which sum to a different sense of silence.

On the pathways, leaves of little shrubs held out their palms, laden with blisters of the cold morning dew. These awakeners slapped the bodies and faces of men, shocking them to full life, after their drowsy rise.

The secrets of manhood, would forbid a man to be caught on his agida; the bamboo bed, after the early rays of dawn have struck.

While men left early, mothers saw that their kitchens crackled with fire, making ready the morning food. They also made sure the places were swept and that their children were provisioned for the day. Women farmed food crops while men farmed cash crops.

Children played in the open, around the entrance and the centre of the family compound. Mothers determine which of their younger daughters would stay back to play and to look after the younger children.

With their tummies filled with the morning food, they would run to the uga-ama; the far end of compound’s entrance. In gleeful wonder and amazement, they would settle to the sticks, and sand dunes swept by the elements the nights before. These play toys were strangely varied and surprisingly different every morning.

As the mornings wore thin, and their tummies flattened, they would instinctively relocate, to the compound in unison. Into the compound, every child had brought their hand made toys of everything from transformed sticks to folded green and brown leaves. The play would now go on, but in measured slower pace.

On the lintel, between the thatch and the mud wall, Nkechi would be the first to sight the first lizard; the redhead one.

“Nnenne ngwere, chi ikete ogbala?” meaning “Grand lizard, is it afternoon now?”

This sudden and discordant screaming, transfixes the lizard to a point. When the least of them had asked and the shouting has stopped, the baffled lizard would nod its head in quick successions before continuing on its journey. At this point, the children would let out, a triumphant cheer and in a quick dash; they would scatter in different directions, towards their respective mother’s huts to pull out their lunches.

At the second shading of the midday sun, the rustling noise of dried leaves and nearing voices of the returning mothers would bring the village back, to its ambient buzz.

Among the nearby cassava plots, protruding arcs of brown human backs, swayed and glistered in the sun. When they stood, their sagging shoulders carried human faces, lined in sweat and earth.

When they made their way to their huts, each child would run back to the playground, after an exalted dash to greet their mothers;

Welcome! nno! iilola? inotago!?

The rest of the activities would range from play cooking, running around, climbing and mounting all accessible heights.

Things hadn’t changed much for children in Mbutu Ngwa in 1965, when Dedenne joined his grandmother, Mama Jenni, from Port Harcourt. He was only three years then and had fitted in fairly well.

Mama Jenni, unlike the other women traded in earthen pots and wares. She would not be home just yet, but Dedenne would preserve his invented toys of the day, to show his grandmother, whom he had noticed, that his giftedness, meant the world to her.

Leonard Chintua-Chigbu
Listening and Creative Communication Artist
BA Fine Art (Painting) University of Benin 1986

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