cultures thrive on word of mouth. In the absence of recording media,
much is put into the spoken word. An oral culture language is
evocative and resonant with metaphors so that one hardly needs much
prodding to remember what one had heard long ago.
was born into one such culture. In it, every child learns early to
appreciate the power of spoken language. Since information is stored
in memory, one learns to listen attentively. In the process, one also
learns how to make effective verbal communication and to use the
imagination creatively and positively.
my childhood, the only means of recording was writing. This was a
time where we transitioned from a tradition where interaction was
essentially based on the word of mouth to one based on modern means
of storing and retrieving information.
information such as dates of birth and death were carved on
tombstones. Also, occurrences in nature such as eclipses, floods,
famine, wars, or storms served as reference points for remembering
births, deaths, coronations of kings, or whatever was worth
had neither television nor film. The number of folks who owned radios
could be counted off the fingertips. Occasionally Western
missionaries, health workers or city dwellers festooned with cameras
would visit us. Kids would run after them, waving tiny palms like
flags dancing in the wind.
first to see the visitors would holler, “Mbakara! Mbakara!
Mbakara!” The call was a signal that White folks were
either around or passing by.
kid would then take up the shout and before long several kids would
be streaming out from their homes. Shouts of “hello, hello,
hello” — about the only English word of welcome that we
knew — would rend the air. We would stand akimbo or posed with
various other postures for pictures to be taken.
the tourists bent or kneeled to snap pictures, some among us who
managed to overcome shyness or timidity would rub our fingers on
their skin to see if the whiteness could rub off. If we got close
enough, we would run our fingers through their hair, the texture of
which was soft and silky like corn plume. Then we would talk about
this all day.
word of mouth was the medium for conversation and the transmission of
news. As folks trekked to markets or distant farms, they interacted
and passed on information.
huge drums or wooden slit gongs mounted on very tall trees
transmitted urgent messages to far out places. These gongs and drums
mimicked the tonal cadences of our speech patterns. Folks familiar
with the code would understand whatever messages were telegraphed.
expressions were reinforced by gestures, gesticulations, pantomime,
facial expressions and other forms of nonverbal communication.
Sometimes if one was too young to understand metaphors, other
imaginative ways were used to make communication vivid and memorable.
language was embellished with proverbs, wisecracks, incantations,
invocations, chants, stories, songs, dances, and pantomime, it had
special appeal. As a kid, all these forms of expression flooded my
imagination with excitement. There was nothing uncreative in our
counsels, even banal talks, were spoken in invigorating metaphors. A
headstrong child that caused the parents to do a lot of yelling might
be described as “the pestle that widens the mouth of the
mortar.” A chronic bachelor or spinster was “a lone
partridge that leaves no path behind when it flies.”
one kept putting off what one ought to do, the fellow was warned
that, “A man who goes to the farm late in the day rides on the
back of the sun.”
folks were discussing about achievers and someone interjected with
the tale of a failure, the retort was, “When fleshy animals are
the subject of a story, no one mentions the crab.” To emphasize
continuity and tradition, elders would urge that, “The hind
legs of a goat step into the footprints of its forelegs.”
a person of integrity was falsely accused of wrongdoing, folks
shrugged off with the comment that, “No one becomes left handed
at old age.” To remark checks and balances in nature, folks
said, “Abasi inogho diok unam nuk” — “God
does not give horns to dangerous animals.”
remember an aunt disapproving something I had done with this saying,
“Ekpe uman afo abied ebot” — “The lion cub
never resembles a goat.” I had acted in a way that seemed to
suggest lack of courage, and she was telling me her disapproval.
king cobra had slithered across a plot I was clearing for her to
plant a garden. Surprised by the fearsome, quick-twisting and curving
beast, I had thrown away my machete and run for safety. After the old
woman had picked up the knife, run after and dealt the venomous snake
a deadly blow, she berated me for betraying the fighting spirit of
my tribal Annang culture, valor in the face of danger and the skilful
use of knives to repel attacks by humans or beasts are seen as manly.
The proverb she used to scold me was so succinct it outrightly
slapped cowardice out of me. Every time I feel like turning tail, I
remember that, “The lion cub never resembles a goat.”
I visited another aunt. She invited me to sit beside her, but being a
restless kid I preferred standing. After a while the wise woman sent
me on a shadow-chasing errand. She sent me to her neighbor to ask her
to return the “Eto Idagha” the neighbor borrowed the week
before. Instantly I darted off like a mosquito that had just dodged
being whacked to death.
Mimi, as kids called her neighbor (for in our culture it’s
disrespectful for kids to call elders by their names), sent me
bolting off to another neighbor.
I got to Eka Saisa, as we called Silas’ mother, she too
regretted that another neighbor borrowed my aunt’s stick from
her. “Go to Eka Usen and tell her your aunt sent you to get
back her stick.” Wafting off on my tiny legs like the sound of
a bamboo flute tossed about the village by a rustling breeze, I went
to Usen’s mother, who in turn dribbled me with excuses.
the time I had done the rounds in the village and shuffled back to my
aunt empty-handed and leaden-legged, I was so exhausted I collapsed
on the very mat she had invited me to sit on in the first place. She
had played a practical prank on me.
had used drama to teach me how to do her bidding. It was much later I
learned eto idagha, a nonexistent staff that rambunctious kids
were, in order to ride them of excess energy, sent to fetch.
should have known there was no such stick, for as soon as I drifted
away from each neighbor’s house, laughter exploded behind my
back. I even overheard some making comments on how my knees were
knocking against each other like bamboo braches shaken by the wind.
whispered something about restless kids and how to rid them of
headstrong energy. But being a mindless kid, I allowed my folks to
take me for a ride. The positive flipside of the joke was that I
learned that day I could sometimes sit still rather than hang around
like a piece of cotton in a swirling eddy of smoke.
was, however, through stories that I connected with the values, mores
and acceptable conduct in my village. I remember how often Mother
used stories to instruct us. Her stories buoyed us when we made bad
decisions and became dispirited as a result of our poor choices.
day when hardship hung over our heads like a nimbus threatening to
choke off the sun, she narrated a story that even now as an adult, I
still use as a mantra to keep going against all odds.
now, this cultural heritage pulses in my veins and echoes in my bones
same way as blood courses without any conscious effort, through my
heart. Although the culture has obvious limitations, yet it was
excitement at the spontaneity, creativity, and other possibilities of
oral culture that inspired in me a lifelong love for the study of
poetry and drama.
is impossible to overstate the importance of the spoken word in my
traditional culture. Storytelling, so important to us, was often
orally narrated. Through word of mouth we built communities and
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