"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
June 30, 2015
Speaking Freedom to Bondage
by Imo Eshiet

I choked for words when she popped the question. A close relative and his wife had taken me on tour of Charlotte, North Carolina’s own Big Apple. After visiting places of interest, we ended at a buffet restaurant, which to me was the main attraction. I filled every available space in my stomach, waited for the food to settle down and then ate some more.

By the time we were ready to go I staggered out, my stomach distended like a bag of beans abandoned in the rain for days. It reminded me of my childhood days.

At Christmas and other holidays there was so much food we ate like epicureans. I remember that sometimes my stomach would choke out the space between it and my lungs so that it was difficult to breathe after eating so much.

As my ribs ached, Mother would reach for freshly milled oil palm fiber and use it to massage my taut belly so that I could breathe easily. The massage was greasy business but it worked like magic, for soon after I usually found myself sleeping soundly. Now, however, I had to deal with it.

I took the front seat and tried to buckle the seat belt but soon found that was more like trying to hang myself. Instead of a safety device the belt felt more like it was designed to impale.

Worse, gas was so furiously building up in me I actually heard it rumbling like frustrated thunder. The damning gas was one thing I just could not cope with food here.

In Nigeria mostly all I ate was organic, so I had no issues with gas. The chicken I ate in Nigeria never was anything younger than three to four years; here it was at most two weeks. While I ate stuff straight from the farm and free from fertilizers, here everything was raised with accelerated growth.

I recall that the beef back home came from cattle that trekked over a thousand miles from the fringes of the Sahara desert in the North to the shores of the Atlantic in the South.

During that long trek the animals made do with grass along the way and arrived looking lean like the cows in Pharaoh’s dream. After that torturous trek the meat was just as lean. Here food was loaded with chemicals that, when passed on, made many obese from infancy.

Making these asinine comparisons did little to ease my mind from the constant pressure to burp and fart. I twisted and wriggled in a frenzy to control matters, to no avail. So I hit on an idea. My relative’s car had run out of AC juice so the windows were down. I reckoned that with some luck and a well-timed release of the fart I could get away with no one picking up any offensive evidence.

To put my plan into action I raised myself as one with abscess on both sides of the buttocks and then tried my best to make things as absolutely noiseless as possible. Up to that moment I thought my plan was foolproof, but just as I was about to act on it, I felt a tap on my shoulders. I was mortified my relative’s wife had noticed what I was angling at, so I braced up shamefacedly for a don’t-even-think-of-it warning.

I was wrong.

What followed was so jolting I cringed. It actually had nothing to do with my situation. Suddenly my bowels were forgotten as I was plunged into a conversation for which I was ill-prepared.

“Do you know my mother was a prostitute?” she suddenly asked. I froze and pretended I didn’t hear.

In Africa, speaking about one’s mother so irreverently, no matter how wayward her character, was taboo. The easiest way to provoke a fight was to insult someone’s mother. I had seen guys nearly claw out the eyes of others for such outrage.

The grossest insult was to call one’s mother a prostitute, for folks extended that to mean her kids were rootless. This in folk values, was more contemptible than being called a thief.

While trying to get my inhibitions to cooperate with my circumstance, the lady tapped my shoulders again and repeated the question. I nodded while surreptitiously asking my relative in our language if he heard what the wife had said.

Since the wife was not Nigerian, I asked the question in my language to seal her off my embarrassment. My relative kept a straight face and said, “Folks here have no secrets, so just say anything to comfort her.”

While I processed that, she added some more information. The mother, she remarked, was at a home for the elderly and the last time she visited her all the mother regretted was being unable to meet with men. If I was stabbed at that very moment, I doubt if a single drop of blood would have dropped from my body.

My relative, seeing me look as stiff as a corpse, nudged me to say something. “It must have been tough for you growing up,” I said, still trying to recover from the shock.

I had by nurture and experience been trained to speak with respect and deference about mothers and never to impugn their authority. Such was the censorship by tradition that we Africans grew up inhibited on some abuses that should better have been aired if tradition did not block communication.

On reflection I saw how taboo could become an addiction. As a professor in Nigeria I was told many times by soldiers in power that I was teaching discourses that were off-limits. Since I taught literature I wondered how a subject like that could be taught without the openness of free-ranging imagination and association.

I understood the threat, but how could we pretend to join the global train for progress while being so tongue-tied and unwilling to question a culture of silence?

That young woman’s willingness to share her trauma with me forced me to rethink so much about our complacency back in home. I remember what Mother used to say when creditors called for the money my parents had borrowed to pay our school fees.

At such times she would open up and talk with the sort of persuasion we never knew she possessed. When the angry fellow had gone we would remark how aptly she handled the situation. Mother would calmly say she couldn’t be blessed with a mouth but sat dumbly while a creditor jailed her for failure to pay her debt.

As my relative’s wife unburdened her mind in that stifling car, I related her story to my mother’s quip and in the end, my shock gave way to admiration for her courage to speak freedom to bondage.

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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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