have always loved books. That love affair has brought me so much joy,
taken me to so many way-out places I never imagined were there, and
opened my eyes to a life I had no idea existed anywhere.
mother and sister were some of the first to notice my romance with
books, and they actively encouraged it. Mother was really the first
to pry into this affair. I remember she used to say I loved books the
way some people loved money. She never got tired of telling the story
of a man who loved money more than anything else in life.
poor man was an itinerant tailor. Many such tailors are common in
eastern Nigeria. They carry their hand sewing machine on their
shoulders and walk the streets in search of patrons. These folks are
so talented they could give back a rag its glory. I know because I
saw them perform such miracles.
a point after the war in Nigeria, there was a time when what many
people wore on their backs had so many holes it was difficult to tell
the difference between their clothes and a fishing net.
tailors went about shouting, “Ukimkpo! Ukimkpo! Ukimkpo!
[meaning tailors] are Obioama! Obioama!” “Obiama”
meant “community lovers” or “those loved by the
community,” depending on how one inflected the word. They did
wonders to keep the folks in the villages from walking around naked.
often carried along with their sewing machine, a bundle of rags. They
would rummage through the bundle to find a piece and join it to the
miserable, threadbare shirt or pants they were repairing, making
quite a patchwork out of it to the appreciation of their
only problem was that after repeated patching, if one was caught in
the rain the decrepit cloth simply fell apart for in our tropics,
rain hurtled in torrents like a waterfalls.
character in Mother’s tale was one such tailor. He would leave
home on the first cockcrow and return late evening after making
several rounds around the community and neighboring villages. Every
man, woman, and child knew him not merely because of his hard work,
but because surviving on bread crumbs and water made him scrawny.
was so gawky his skin looked like a filmy hide stretched over a
one day the man failed to get up from bed. Alarmed, neighbors broke
into his room and found his lifeless body. Nothing they did could get
him up. They then scoured the room to see if he had any money for a
coffin. What they found shocked them.
under his pillow was a stash of money. They soon agreed that the man
was not as poor as everyone assumed. Rather he made quite a fortune
on his job, but loved and hugged his money so tight he had no wish to
raise a family so no one would mess with his beloved money.
the neighbors tried to decide if the miserly man was truly dead or
not, someone hit on an idea. A joker cupped his palms with coins in
it and shook it over the ears of the stricken man. He said if the
tailor did not wake up at the sound of the coins, he indeed was gone
enough, at the practical joke, the tailor sprang up, reached under
his pillow, and not seeing his hidden money started screaming that
thieves had broken into his home and carted away his life! The
bemused neighbors quietly told him all was well and left the penny
who used to narrate the story as if she witnessed the incident, went
away with a thing or two. Like many in my community after the war had
treaded us in the dust, we ran a poverty budget. There was no money
for medicine or books. But if I came down with malaria, burned with
fever, and lost appetite, my alarmed mother knew what to do.
would squeeze some money out of her tight budget, rush to a flea
market and buy a book that still retained some scent of freshness.
She would place this close to my nostril while giving me a cold water
compress to bring down the vile fever.
as I picked the scent and managed to force open my eyelids before now
glued by the fever, I would pick up the book and caress it fondly.
Once her trick worked, she would swing into more action: cook an
appetizing meal, search for herbs, and serve me both. Before long, I
would be back on my feet.
sister, Imeh, in turn learned much from her. The war was barely over
when we streamed out of the bush back to school. Just two year older than
I, she seemed to know me more than I knew myself. We would gather
firewood in the evening for sale in the morning in a nearby small
town before we passed on to school. On our way, I would retrieve
from the mud some discarded newspaper or magazine, wipe away the muck
and start reading while balancing the bunch of firewood on my head.
The primary school. The contrast between the lush vegetation and the dreary school building speaks volumes about lack of government presence in the village. The pictures are by Ofonimeh Offem.
leaving home, Mother would instruct that the money from the firewood sales we
made should be handed over to Imeh. Since we often left without food,
I would heckle my sister to at least buy some snacks, especially when
the aroma of fried plantain and bean cake we locally called akara
wafted powerfully through the air and caused the worms in my empty
stomach to riot.
the trusted family treasurer that she was, Imeh, of course would turn
a deaf ear. If I grumbled too loud, she got smart and asked me to
choose between books and food. I would prefer the former and
suppress my hunger. She would buy me a text or notebook and I would
use the old newspaper as added cover to the books so that my sweaty
palms would not ruin their spine.
The sign at the primary school where all my education started.
when I became a college teacher and Mother would visit, she would
smile broadly like a full moon when she noticed books were choking
every space in the house and crowding me out of my bedroom. Sometimes
she would wistfully wonder if she had not lost her son to books.
her death bed, she held my hands and said, “Too much of every
good thing…” She did not have time enough to complete
the sentence, thus leaving me to wonder if she meant I should not be
like the tailor she maligned so much.
she meant, I was lucky to have a mother who, despite lean resources
and having meager schooling herself, encouraged me in the words of
modern day scriptures, to “seek … out of the best books…
seek learning even by study and also by faith.”
Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at
several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a
detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from
childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the
University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.
Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North