"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
March 18, 2014
Calabar
by Imo Eshiet

I lived in Calabar for 30 years and loved it. I chose my career and spouse and raised all but one of my children there. There I got much of my college education.

The city tugs at my heartstrings with a force similar to my ancestral village. Booted out of high in school at Oku Abak for protesting against student-unfriendly administration, I looked to Calabar for refuge. Then the city had a visionary librarian, an Efik princess who used books to uplift her people.

Ms. Eke was different from the crowd who pocketed public funds. An innovative librarian, she found novel ways to reach her readers. Turning trucks and vans into mobile libraries, she had them driven to people who could not reach the municipal libraries.

I took advantage of the resources she offered to home teach myself. Her foresight prepared me for some important exams. After these I qualified for public employment and later, admission into the city university.

I first worked as an information assistant in the state department for Information. My work involved running around with the ruling soldiers and writing and proofreading stories about projects they planned but hardly executed! The work gave me privileged view into how leaders routinely loot public funds.

Of course any mention of the fraud in my report was dutifully edited out by superiors scared of being fired by the soldiers. Frustrated, I quit for college.

Upon graduation I went to Lagos, stomping for employment. For months I roamed the city unsuccessfully. Unknown to me, my professors at the University of Calabar had put me up for hire as a graduate assistant. For over three months they kept sending letters to my last known address for me to report back to them immediately.

By the time I got wind of the development, I had also received job offers from an international school in Lagos to teach English. Another offer came from a brewery with the incentives of taking home several free cartons of beer weekly. Since some of my uncles were already problem drinkers, my mother thought the job would be my ruin. I would, she swore, only take it up over her dead body!

Since Dad had died of dehydration a year earlier, I had no wish for another death in the family, so I declined the offer. As for the Lagos job, I was too much a country fellow to even consider it. The intractable congestion of Lagos apart, there was also the persistent, stomach-churning stink of many neighborhoods there that I couldn’t stand. Furthermore, the crime rate in that city was too scary.

So I went back to Calabar to work out my life passion.

Its folk call the city Ediye Canaan. Calabar is a city with compelling mythologies. So its prideful moniker, “beautiful Canaan flourishing with fruits and honey,” is not without substance. Long before Columbus set foot on the Americas, other European explorers were already scouring the coast of Calabar.

According to legend, the name Calabar comes from the phrase coined by Europeans when they first contacted the place. As the myth goes, the explorers were astonished at how calm and peaceful its coast was. The happy contrast between it and the turbulence they survived in the Atlantic caused them to call the land “Calm Bars.” With time, it became Calabar for short.

Another legend claims that the city’s name is an acronym meaning, “Come And Live And Be At Rest.”

Thus to locals Calabar is a paradise. It was in this sense that its most celebrated musician, the late Etubom Inyang Henshaw, sang in praise of his city charms when he crooned that Calabar is one city where visitors are so charmed they never want to go back home.

Calabar, which sits by the Atlantic, is like Jamaica, a land of many rivers. She is hugged by the Great Qua and Calabar Rivers, both of which are ancient, fast, deep and long-flowing. Close by is the Cross River, whose creeks combine with an all year round rainfall to ensure the city is perpetually leafy and lush.

On the banks of these rivers, canopies of mangrove trees thrive with aquatic life. The city has the added advantage of being situated atop a cliff. Since the city is constantly awash with tropical monsoon rains, litter that chokes most other cities in the country, drains away to the sea. Thus unlike other cities with festering, disagreeable odors, Calabar is frequently clean and its air filtered and wholesome.

The elevation also opens up arresting vistas. From where I lived, eight miles away from the city center, one could on clear days see the tops of Cameroun Mountains, the highest peaks in West Africa. On a good night, too, one could see the lights of Equatorial Guinea far down in the ocean.

Most weekends I would carefully climb down the cliff to get to the Nsidung waterfront to buy fresh fish. I knew most of the fishy folk by name. I would get into their dugout with my kids and listen to their river lore while haggling over the price of fish.

Sometimes, when I underpriced their fish, they would hand me the paddle to their canoe and dare me to get into the river to see just how difficult and dangerous fishing is. I would take the challenge. When I paddled ham-handedly, they would explode in laughter. From them I learned a lot about tides, sea creatures and even how to survive in the event of a mishap at sea.

They taught me how the elements act retributively at sea. If I tried to outwit them and someone else came forward and put me in my place, they would say, “Ofum inyang akan inyang, inyang akan ubom.” I could connect with that: “When storms overpower the sea, the sea overpowers the boats.”

Their thoughts offered so many insights into our political situation. “Iyak esi to ibout oburuode,” a fisherman told me one day as I tried to verify the fish I was buying was fresh. “A fish begins to rot from its head,” was his remark.

He showed me that looking at the gills of a fish one could tell if it was rotting. That made sense more so in relation to our political culture where decay flows from top down in a miasma that smears the rest of society.

After research, teaching and conferences, bargaining and bantering with the food vendors at Urua Watt, the city’s major flea market, was a quirk that puzzled my wife Livina. I would, holding hands, drag her along the humming the city’s major flea market, much to the scandal of the market women.

Public display of affection is not one of the hallmarks of our culture. Although we hug a lot, kissing in public or holding hands attracts stares and verbal barbs. The vendors would shout mock insults at us and I would respond in kind. Some would call out, “Hmmm, mbok nso idie emi? Sese mbakara oh,” meaning, “What are we seeing? Look at White folks!” Others would shout, “ima afiop,” or “sizzling love!”

I would hit back, noting I was never jealous when held their husband’s hands. I would throw my hands around Livina’s neck. The gesture always drew uproarious laughter from the vendors.

I remember an old woman staggering up from her stall and wiggling her backside in imitation of my spouse. She waddled up to me and put her wrinkled arms around my waist in a mock attempt to incite Livina’s jealousy. At the same time she was dragging me to buy her vegetables, periwinkles, shellfish and mussels.

When I playfully offered to pay less than her items were worth, she turned on me and instantly made up with Livina. “Some men are so tight-fisted,” she complained. She wondered aloud what such a beautiful woman like Livina saw to marry in a money hugger like me.

Joining in to chew me up, her neighbors decided men who accompany their wives to the market were crafty. Such men, they added, do so just to find out food prices just so they could miserly adjust their budget.

They would tease me, saying my bald head was a sign of miserliness. As the women jabbed with mock jibes, we kept tearing with laughter. The market helped me to simplify and connect with the soul of the city. Its vendors along with the fisher folk were enlivening experiences in the city I love.


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About Imo Eshiet

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 Carolina Stake.

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