"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
November 11, 2014
Growing Up a Country Bumpkin
by Imo Eshiet

I 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.

It 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.

I 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.

Soon 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.

We 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.

When the plane took off we wiped our eyes and went back to drain our drinks.

One 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.

Our chief was quite a guy. Apart from overseeing village affairs, he doubled as a secretary of the local chapter of the ruling political party.

Sometimes 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.

I 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 through it.

With 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.

I 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 on.

The 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.

We 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.

Of 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.

The 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.

Sometimes 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.

Once 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.

After frying, we settled down to the crunchy treat all the while praying for another windfall.

My 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.

My 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.

Other than these there were little or no other modern gadgets I knew of. Newspapers were unheard of. So were televisions and telephones.

I 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.”

Done 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.”

He 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.

Calling 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 marriage.”

The 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.

Life 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.

Many 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.

Though villagers raised goats, they never milked them. Perhaps they feared goat milk would end up making people stupid!

Though 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.

I 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 airs.

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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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