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February 5, 2013
African Voice
Greegree: Metaphor for Voodoo Leadership
by Imo Eshiet

In my childhood wearing greegree as protection against witchcraft was common practice. We hung charms on farms for abundant yield and to scare thieves. We draped doorposts with amulets to ward off misfortune.

Many wore talisman to church as protection against the evil eyes of fellow church members! Despite loud avowals, these “Christian” faithful placed unreasoning devotion on fetish. As precaution against cheating, some men tied charms on their wives’ waists. Sports of any sort had to be won with the aid of charms. Success at any endeavor meant someone used some powerful ‘medicine’ concocted by juju priests.

I was targeted at school because mates thought I refused to share with them the source of my “book medicine”. There was a secret they did not know. Even before I started school, a new culture was opening up to me. I could string alphabets to form words and simple sentences and could read and write to the amazement and admiration of illiterate village folks.

I was lucky to be surrounded by sisters and cousins who used me as a sounding board to practice their studies. In the process, the lessons rubbed off as I soaked in the new world they opened up for me. Thus, much of what I learned that early was from play and learning skills like these.

My sisters and cousins would set up a chalkboard, stand in front of it, chalk in one hand and a whip in another mimicking their teacher while making me play the pupil. They would write the alphabet and together we would chant the letters. If I got mixed up, they would whack me or made me kneel down and put my hands up as some wacky teachers did to them in school.

If I got everything right, they would hand me a candy they kept to entice me to play along with them. Looking to these exciting school stories was a strong driving force which incited in me a strong passion for learning. An added incentive was an aunty who was a primary school teacher.

Aunty Christiana and her American trained husband were in the school business. They scoffed at the pervading duplicity and herded family members into schools to dispel the ignorance around us. I remember my aunty dragging me to school even when I was still wetting my pants. I had no diapers so she would from time to time take me outside to avoid accidents. Sometimes though, I would have to do what I had to do right there in class and she would have to take me out and clean me up.

Ordinarily taunts for such mess were merciless. But being “the teacher’s child” carried an advantage which kept bullies at bay. I grew up loving the power that teachers wielded and the respect they commanded. Raised under their shadows, as it were, their influence inevitably decided for me the career I would later pursue.

Getting there was not easy. I was denied the liberties that children my age enjoyed. I could not, for example, run wild playing soccer or loafing about as most of my mates did after school. If I was not being drilled by my sisters and cousins, I was under the watchful eyes of aunts or uncles. Any time I managed to escape their attention, I would get into some mischief that attracted some punishment to deter me.

However, since submitting to the study regime often came with some mouthwatering rewards, I did not often kick against it. Besides, I was getting the attention of the villagers. Finding that I could read and write, they soon made me their scribe.

In those days the work ethic left by the departing British colonial authorities had not yet waned. So we still had some functional mail delivery system in place. Once in a week or so a mailman would ride to our village with a mailbag hung in front of his bicycle. He would bring to the village chief mail written to folks by their city dwelling relatives. Sometimes he would deliver the mail directly to villagers, especially if he expected some moonshine from them. Our bridge to the city, the half literate fellow would regale the villagers with developments outside our village, much of which was, of course, exaggerated.

Either because they suspected the man could steal their mail or they had no faith in his reading ability, the villagers never asked the mailman to read mail for them. Perhaps they did not want to share their family secrets with a stranger. Whatever their reason, they often brought their mails to “our teacher” which was the nickname they gave me, and had me read and reply to the letters for them.

If the mail contained money, as it often did, they would give me some pennies, which I would turn down. My parents said to never accept such gifts. Sometimes I would look to my mother for assistance when I couldn’t figure out some awkwardly spelled word or when there were problems with clarity. Together with my not so much educated mother, we would tease out the message to the delight of the appreciative folks.

Often the letter writers began with, “I am very happy to write you this missive of mine to find out your present condition of health which is very dear and important to me. As for me I am in the hands of God”. Convoluted expressions made these letters hard to read. Other issues I sweated over turned out to be what my college professors in my later years would derisively call “grammatical curiosities”. We were products of a stiff colonial system and our writing was just as starchy!

Afraid I could be hurt by envious enemies, a blind uncle made me a talisman out of an elephant’s tusk. He said to tell my parents, who were Christian converts, it was not an amulet but a piece of jewelry. Only the two of us knew the secret. He taught me some magic chants to recite if I ever felt threatened.

At the end of one term, an uncle whose brand value was good performance at school was so impressed by my report he invited me to vacation with him in the city. He visited the village and took me in his car. No sooner had we left the village than I noticed that the brushwood beside the unpaved road seemed to be rushing creepily along the car. If the car hit a nasty pothole and slowed down, they gave us a break but soon spookily trailed us again when it picked up speed.

Freaked out, I tugged at my talisman. Fearing our enemies were trying to frustrate my trip, I shut my eyes and in silence, frenetically invoked the magic formula as the family patriarch had instructed. Soon, I fell into a deep sleep and by the time I awoke, we had safely done the five hundred mile trip.

The charm had worked and my blind uncle was ecstatic when he heard my narrative. With this childhood memory, I understand why democratic government and the free economy are so much voodoo. We make it through despite blind leadership and false traditions.

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