|Print | Back||October 16, 2012|
African VoiceAn Outing Day and a Drumstick
by Imo Eshiet
My boarding school set aside a day for students to pour into town for supplies or to just air themselves. Like a carnival, this special day enabled us to enjoy unaccustomed liberties. The rest of the time we were corralled off by an impregnable fence and strict regulations.
Excitement over the outing was dizzying as everyone savored the opportunity to get away from the tedium of a highly regimented school life. Even those who had no one to visit or anything to shop for in the town gladly roamed the streets just to catch a whiff of freedom. Since there were no public parks or places of interest to go, many of us simply strolled, kicked up dirt in open fields and, later, romped in a nearby river before returning to the school in time to beat the curfew.
Swimming in the river was fun, especially because it was so cooling after our rough and tumble games in the blazing and pounding sun. Occasionally, though, someone got overpowered by the swift currents and drowned. There were no lifeguards, even when the tragic incidents regularly happened on days when the school released its students to go to town. That, of course, did not stop many students from going on dates and picnics by the river.
Because my circumstances were tough and my parents sternly warned me against messing with that river, I duly avoided places that could spell trouble. Since reading was my hobby, I made the town’s derelict public library my haunt.
The library held mostly outdated and miserable-looking books the departing British colonial administrators had no use for when they left. The books were dog-eared and their fraying pages dusty and perforated by worms. Some of these pages were either missing or so worn out it was impossible to read even with a magnifying glass. The library was startlingly squalid and, like our other facilities that were in pernicious decline, belied the fact that our nation pumped two million barrels of crude oil daily. To be so mineral-rich yet lead the world in reeling poverty was a conundrum that addled the mind.
The books reeked with decay and oozed with noxious chemicals that had been used in a halfhearted attempt at binding the disintegrating pages. Though these fumes choked readers each time they pulled books out of the sagging shelves, they did not keep me away from the books. The seedy library helped catapult me out of a virulent reality and remained my main source of mental contact with the outside world. I gleaned whatever information I could from them, the irksome conditions notwithstanding. I read with driving passion books on geography, history and government.
I was fascinated by the American Revolution, especially how the Americans rallied and threw off the corruption and tyranny of the empire. The valor of Crispus Attucks, who was killed in a 1770 conflict in Boston and reputed as the first martyr of the revolution, loomed in my memory for a long time. I even fancied taking that name as my nickname.
African American leaders in the period following the revolution arrested my imagination, challenged and inspired me inexorably. I respected the odds Booker T. Washington overcame to get education, but the man who really captured my interest was Frederick Douglass.
He never ceased to amaze me. To escape from slavery, learn to read and write all by himself and rise to become an ambassador and an adviser to the president, was no mean feat. A saying attributed to him that, “If you learn how to read you will always be free,” stuck in my heart like a burr.
I always yearned for freedom from an atmosphere diminished by ignorance, poverty and superstition, all of which were never on short leash in my community. All — adversities both man-made and natural — were seen as the result of some evil machination. Crop failure, death by natural causes, the outbreak of disease due to fetid sanitary conditions and even storms were considered as the handiwork of some sinister, diabolical forces. Even when local leaders cynically exploited the people and ruthlessly impoverished them, it was accepted as the will of the gods.
The cluelessness and denial were appalling.
It sickened me to see the way runaway poverty put our lives on hold, yet our leadership’s priorities were too skewered to bother with slowing down the affront. Food fights and squabbles were common in families. A large family of more than twelve would, on festive occasions like Easter or Christmas, share one chicken.
The poor bird would be chopped into crumbs so that everyone could at least sniff its flesh or bone. Nothing was wasted. From the head through the intestines to the feet of the chicken, everything was consumed. What we couldn’t eat, such as the feathers, we used to make headgears for our masks.
My father used to tell the story of a man from such a family. Enabled by a scholarship to travel for studies in Britain, the impoverished fellow visited a restaurant where he sat eating a chicken and grinding all its bones provocatively with his teeth.
A scandalized customer beside him asked, “What do folks feed dogs in your country?” Annoyed by the intruder’s interest in his table manners, the man kept chewing irately at the bones in his plates. When he was finished, he replied, “Ice cream!”
To drive the lesson home, Father always stressed that while we could rip bones and savor the marrow at home, when dining outside we shouldn’t forget Goethe’s warning that, “Behavior is a mirror in which everyone displays his own image.”
At the time, I had no idea how deeply my difficult environment scripted itself on me. But one day as I was stepping out of the library, I ran into the sister of an uncle’s wife. She worked in the local hospital as a matron and knew me well. Looking at me she could tell I was grimly famished and invited me home in her car.
Getting home she served a meal of rice and stew, which I gobbled up like a starving wolf. I however did not touch the big drumstick in the stew because I was not accustomed to such bounty. When she noticed I did not eat the meat she asked if I had anything against chicken. I told her I hadn’t, but just couldn’t believe it possible for a boy my age to eat a drumstick all by himself!
As my response drew a reassuring laughter from her, I went from disbelief to exhilaration when she ordered me to cut out the foolishness and eat the chicken. It felt too good to be true.
From the aroma caressing my nostrils I could sense the meat was well seasoned with curry powder, oregano, onions, ginger and nutmeg, all of which were spices that made my mouth water like Pavlov’s dog. The stew in which it sat was made from olive oil and plenty of fresh and canned tomatoes. Taking time to savor the stew, I then gingerly caressed the meat, nibbling it with relish and taking time to clean off all the flesh before ravenously crunching its bone. To this day, that woman and her gesture sit pretty in my memory. When I eventually returned to school, I felt like royalty.
It was my first drumstick!
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