"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
April 15, 2014
Life in an Oral Culture
by Imo Eshiet

Oral 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.

I 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.

In 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.

Important 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 remembering.

We 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.

The first to see the visitors would holler, “Mbakara! Mbakara! Mbakara!” The call was a signal that White folks were either around or passing by.

Every 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.

When 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.

The 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.

Sometimes 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.

Verbal 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.

When 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 conversations.

Conversations, 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.”

If 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.”

If 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.”

If 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.”

I 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.

A 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 the tribe.

In 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.”

Once 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.

Mama 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.

When 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.

By 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.

She 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.

I 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.

Others 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.

It 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.

One 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.

Even 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.

It 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 resolved conflict.

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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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