grew up in an obscure village in eastern Nigeria. Occasionally a
single engine plane droned over the towering canopies of our jungle.
At such moments kids and adults stopped whatever they were doing and
using the palms of their hands as shield against the fierce sun,
squinted and peeped at the flying wonder.
would be a year later in 1965, at age 6, that I would have an
opportunity to see an airplane up close taking off. I was among
family members that escorted an uncle to board a British Overseas
Airways Corporation plane at Enugu on the first leg of his trip to
East Lansing, Michigan, for an advanced degree in agriculture.
remember the propeller plane standing huge in my childhood eyes, and
the consuming admiration I had for it. Before he emplaned, we sat at
the reception hall boisterously sipping Mirinda and Tango, both the
most popular sodas in the region. I took my time pulling the drink up
the straw and letting it fall back as I eyed what was left of the
content in my siblings’ and cousins’ bottles.
he walked up to the plane, for there was no jet bridge, and emplaned.
The mood changed instantly. Suddenly his wife started crying. The
rest of us kids took the cue and exploded into wailing. Some of us
threw ourselves on the floor and bawled our eyes out. We made so much
din our cries must have drowned out the propellers.
watched the plane taxi off and waved frantically when we saw hands
waving from the plane’s windows. We had no idea where our uncle
sat but knew he must be one of those waving.
the plane took off we wiped our eyes and went back to drain our
of my uncles had a car and another a motor bike. Our village head had
a Volkswagen Beetle. To us, the vehicles belonged to all of us and so
we took collective pride in their ownership.
chief was quite a guy. Apart from overseeing village affairs, he
doubled as a secretary of the local chapter of the ruling political
when he returned from meetings at night, he left his headlamps on so
kids could play in his sprawling compound. That was the nearest to a
street light I ever saw at the time.
was awed as the powerful light pushed back the darkness the way
snakes slough off old skins. Usually all we had for illumination at
night were the moon and stars, kerosene lamps, and bush lanterns made
from punching a hole on the lid of a can and pushing a piece of rag
kerosene in the can, the rag became a wick and lighted our way. The
improvised lantern smoked like a chimney and left a long trail of
thick smoke interweaving with the surrounding shadows.
often wondered what magic captured two suns and placed them in front
of our chief’s car to provide so much illumination in the
night. There was no electricity anywhere around and of course no
plumbing. I don’t know now if he kept a spare battery, but the
one in the car never seemed to run down no matter how long he left it
real fun thing about those lucky nights was that we swarmed like
moths around the car and took the opportunity to run our tiny scrawny
fingers on its body, its grill, windows and fenders. We bragged about
our feelings the next day at school especially to kids who missed out
on the fun.
were like the blind men and the elephant. To some the body of the car
was like the petals of the hibiscus flower so abundant in our school
and so cool to touch. Those who ran their fingers on the tires
thought it was as rough as the back of a gator.
course the vent windows were like butterflies or one half of a bird’s
wing. Others saw in its triangular shape, the very image of locally
straw-woven hand fans. To others the fenders had the fine feel of
unfried cassava flour. Those who felt around the windshield said it
was as smooth as a mirror.
real deal was on damp nights when flying termites flocked like us to
the light beamed by the car. We
fell over ourselves snatching the insects off the air and drowning
them into a basin of water. The water made their wings so wet they
could not escape.
we caught basins full. The next day at school we barely learned
anything as our minds were at home and our imagination flush with
mouthwatering excitement at the feast awaiting us.
the bell announcing the end of the school day rang out, we literally
flew home. Quickly, we picked the wings off the termites. Then we
drained out the water and dried the insects before frying. In between
we snacked on some of them raw.
frying, we settled down to the crunchy treat all the while praying
for another windfall.
father and few other villagers had bicycles. He also had a transistor
radio almost always tuned to BBC or Eastern Nigerian Broadcasting
Corporation. The latter served him with naked government propaganda
and outright lies honed with stories about our feisty local politics.
interest in the radio was in the disembodied voice that made the
broadcast and in the local highlife and jazz music to which I
responded with dance moves that delight my parents no end.
than these there were little or no other modern gadgets I knew of.
Newspapers were unheard of. So were televisions and telephones.
recall once an elderly chief stopped by our house one early morning.
Father was having a breakfast of tea and bread. Announcing he met us
well, he reached out and helped himself to the food. It did not
matter he was not invited. It was the custom to join your host at
meal or at work. We even had a wise saying about it. “If you
visit the toad and find him squatting; squat with him.”
eating, the visitor remarked that the “yam,” meaning the
bread, was overcooked and hence too soft. The tea which he called
soup, was “too sweet.” My mother, he said, “had
perhaps over seasoned it with ground crayfish and worse, she had
forgotten to spice the soup with pepper.”
eyed me and shook his head as I gobbled an egg. Kids were not
supposed to eat eggs. As far as folk belief went, such luxury
predisposed them to stealing. The old man wagged a finger bent almost
double by arthritis before my father.
him by name only close family members did, he said, “Udom,
you’re really spoiling these children. Remember that it is the
habit that a child forms at home, that follows them to their
old man was apparently suggesting that Father was out of touch with
the grim realities ravaging the people. To him, if I got used to soft
living at home I might have difficulties adjusting to hardship later
on. Father smiled and assured him he would brace up.
in the village was pretty much hardscrabble. Despite physical work
and backbreaking struggle many were desperately poor. Sometimes too,
moribund traditions stood in the way of improving lives.
kids had no idea what chocolate was. Most never tasted milk apart
from the one from their mother’s breast. Often after suckling
over a dozen children, most of whom passed at infancy having
succumbed to deadly diseases so virulent in the village, the mothers
had nothing left but flabby breasts with little or no milk in them.
villagers raised goats, they never milked them. Perhaps they feared
goat milk would end up making people stupid!
I was too young to make the conclusion, I was almost sure it was the
first time our early morning caller had a breakfast of tea and bread.
A giggle started forming in my throat. As if anticipating it, Father
looked up just in time with a stern look in his eyes.
dried up knowing I couldn’t away with any puffed-up feeling our
visitor was more bumpkin than the rest of us. Father and Mother had
lived in cities before returning to the village briefly. While
Father especially discouraged the inky ignorance and superstition so
real and tangible among our folk, he wouldn’t let us assume
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