"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
November 10, 2015
Where Did We Lose It?
by Imo Eshiet

“One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life. That word is Love.” - Socrates

My choice memories go back to my early boyhood in an obscure eastern Nigerian village. Given the amenities in the homes I now live in, it is easy to understand the ignorant attitude of folks who call us savages and our dwellings huts.

True, our hut had no plumbing, no electricity, and the heating came from firewood that sometimes smoked out an entire colony of ants — so many, in fact, lizards not only came jostling for a harvest but actually set up shop.

Yet our mud and thatch hut brimmed not only with bugs but with hugs. The cries of newborn babies were never wanting and so were lullabies. Basic as our life was, no one ever abandoned his or her family.

As for stories and soaring songs, well, my numberless uncles, aunts, parents, distant cousins, hangers-on and even total strangers who passed the night with us to be on their way the next day or next or next until they never left, had quivers-full of them.

I slept with these stories and songs, heard them repeated and improvised so often they throb in my head even now. They stalked, instructed, shaped and molded my life, my attitude and my aptitude. Our little hut of a home was a community within a community; it had its magic and seduction.

Though poor by outside standards, yet folk retained their dignity. Besides moonshine and tobacco, I never heard of drugs, food stamps, or people living in shelters.

In our hut, one hand spanked me for bad behavior while the other drew me close for a tight and warm embrace. A cooing voice always re-assured all was well. Tenderness and love made up for all its meager facilities. Suicide was taboo and anything that ever got shot was wild game.

The Haitian poet and novelist, Rene Philoctete’s, succinct remark rings true of where I was raised. “Home is a seed planted in the earth. It must be whole to grow, to bear fruit.”

Most folks walked barefoot, their heels cracked and broken, their skin scaly from harsh weather and hard, backbreaking work under a sun powerful enough to cause heatstroke and hallucination among those not used to it. Painful as these feet were, folks still walked long distances on tracks beaten into paths by those same hurting legs.

In the jungle, there were no drugstores, so folks made do with herbs, roots, and barks. We had no restaurants either. Any villager who patronized any in the town five miles away was scorned as prodigal. Most walked with their upper bodies naked. What use was clothing anyway in our intense, moist heat?

Folks were folks not because of finery but because they watched out for others. If a neighbor or relation returned from a long journey those left behind trooped out to welcome him or her. Sometimes the traveler brought back peanuts and bread and shared among the people who accepted and ate happy that the traveler returned safe from ambush-minded roads.

Just as we celebrated the birth of babies, we also mourned when people died, for the death of one was the death of the community. Of course people died, often from treatable diseases. Mourners who threw themselves on dirt in sorrow were promptly lifted up by sympathizers. Some who threatened to leap into the graves of their dear departed were restrained by able-bodied men.

Our community was pretty much isolated. Apart from American Peace Corp doctors who sometimes visited my primary school to deworm kids and give shots against communicable diseases, visitors were rare.

Close-knit, our small village was made up of families who traced their origins to a common ancestor. The only strangers still vivid even now in my mind’s eyes were Muslim itinerant traders who floated in and out of the village every once in a while in grubby, shroud-like gowns. They hawked anything from high potency herbs and roots to wristwatches, trinkets to Arabian perfumes the scent of which was so strong it masked the smell of decaying corpses.

As they approached our home they hailed us with a friendly greeting, “Sannu!” (probably meaning hello) and our parents who had previously lived in cities and perhaps familiar with diverse folks shouted back “Sannu da zuwa” (possibly meaning welcome). As they got closer they said, “Salaam alaikum” or simply “Salaam,” Muslim phrases which our parents said meant “peace be unto you” or just, “peace.”

To my ears, though the language sounded attractively unusual, it was musical and incantatory. The way they said or rather chanted their greetings was something I could relate to, for it sounded very like oral poetry so common among us.

In our oral traditions, incantations and chants were very much part of our speech and song culture. In rendition, these were pretty much a performance so when we heard the strangers speak the way they did, it appealed as familial. To their greetings our parents responded “Amalaikun salaam” or something that sounded close to that.

I admired my parents that they could speak a language different from ours. It did not matter all they knew were merely phrases of these languages, for after the greetings all other business was conducted by gestures, a language everyone understood though no words were spoken.

It wasn’t just the greetings that I could connect with. The way they did business was also similar to what I was used to seeing my mother do at our local markets. The two sides, the seller and the buyer, haggled over the cost of items they were bargaining for. The negotiation was persistent, often starting from a high side until it was beaten down to the lowest price or something agreeable to both sides.

No insults were ever exchanged, only respect and humor.

Also, although their way of worship was curious, we showed respect for their ablutions and prayers because our parents taught us that our way of ritual cleansing would seem strange to others too. They always carried on their shoulders a rolled-up mat, a walking stick upon which hung a kettle and water bottle.

At prayer times they brought down their mat, unrolled and spread it, washed their faces, hands, and feet with water from the kettle, and swished their mouths and facing the east, bowed until their foreheads touched the mat and stood back up again. While repeating this mode of worship several times, they counted beads and chanted their prayer in much the same way our elders intoned incantations while pouring libation.

Because they prayed every so often and with strange gestures, village wags taunted that if wellbeing was based on prayers alone they would have been the wealthiest on earth. By this the clowns meant if the traders’ prayers were answered as often as they prayed they would not be trekking in the blistering sun from north to south selling their wares. But that was just how far the jokes went.

When a few years later these same men became crazed suicide bombers, I shuddered and asked what went wrong? When our leaders turned rogue and built palaces with stolen public funds, I asked which was better — the inclusive huts or the gated mansions? When backwoods towns roared into impersonal and unplanned cities ringed by inglorious slums, I wondered, where did we lose it?

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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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