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January 21, 2014
African Voice
In my Grandfather's House
by Imo Eshiet

According to an Annang proverb, "There's no music played in the home of a big chief that someone cannot step out to dance with skill and dexterity." And so it was in my grandfather's sprawling family. His empire of thirty-six wives and colony of children was a medley of characters, fun and incidents.

Grandpa was a diviner and local seer. He used traditional wisdom and discipline to keep drama and chaos at bay in his house. His favorite proverb was that though milk and honey differ in color and taste, yet they never play discordant tunes when placed together on the tongue. This principle inspired harmony in his household.

Since he had land and sufficient workforce, there were no food fights in his home. A strict but fair man, he ran his large family and the village he presided over in a way that hate, envies and squabbles usual to such groups were not virulent.

The entire village was one extended family. Sharing was norm. We shared cooking pots as well as what was cooked in them; we shared our living space including sleeping mats. We could not eat a fruit, corn cob, or sugar cane stalk without sharing. Everyone lived as Mark Twain dreamed when he suggested that, "To get the full value of joy you must have someone to divide it with."

The family consisted of seventy or more uncles and aunts, nephews, nieces, live-in in-laws and grandchildren. Others who could not trace themselves to my grandpa easily connected their ancestry to someone down the family tree.

Since everyone was a branch on the same tree, there were inevitable clashing and clanging, especially when the wind shook up things a bit roughly. Occasional jealousies notwithstanding, everyone managed to get along without bad blood. The family was one big playground constantly animated by plays, mock battles and the defense of family honor.

Bonding was so tight and close-knit that kids orphaned of their mothers had their grief cushioned by surviving co-wives. Dad was one such unfortunate child who lost his mother at birth. But he was adopted and integrated into the rest of the family by his father's other wives.

As might be expected, conditions were not exactly as being raised by one's mother. Often, he made do with wild fruits so abundant in our forest. At other times, especially when village politics and administration took his doting father away from the family, he depended on coconut juices and improvised meals.

But when the father was home, he buffered his young son's insecurity by turning his food over to him, much to the displeasure of the other wives who were jealous their husband gave choice food to his orphaned son at the expense of theirs.

My interest here is not the politics of grandpa's polygamous home. I am rather thinking of the character types in that family. For example, pressures in such a big family made some to seek comfort from alcohol that was abundantly available in the village. Others rebelled in more positive directions.

Long before a corrupted version of women's liberation seeped into our nation, some of my aunts rebelled against the exclusion imposed by men who didn't know any better than to make women cower before their chauvinistic traditions.

My aunts were accomplished storytellers who wove their experiences into songs and tales. Some of their stories were so memorable that even now I feel like Ernest Hemingway did when hunting in Africa. He wrote, "I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up that I was not happy."

Like the characters in their folktales, my aunts were a cocktail. Some were tricksters who easily charmed and electrified our imagination. Others were severe, scary or funny like Halloween masks. While some accepted the culture they grew up in, others were more expansive and open to questioning the labels branding them.

Either way, they were compelling. Though our society was structured on male authority, yet I remember some of my uncles doing the unexpected when their sisters visited. For example, at the approach of these women, the men hid the bottles of alcohol they loved so much.

Their sisters' tongues stung worse than scorpions, so the brothers never spoiled for a fight. Mary, their firstborn sister, was the most dreaded. She was tall, in fact so tall she was said to be long. Perhaps that added to her fierce and feisty personality, for among us descendants of the Bantus, being tall was not one of our weaknesses.

Also because of her height, she was said to have the soul of a king cobra. It did not help matters that she frequently spat out long streaks of saliva. In our animist culture that was a sure sign of her connection with that fearsome beast.

The myth about this aunt probably had to do with her stunning height and her bearing. Though graceful, she could just as easily chew up any brother who stepped out of line. I remember her encounter with an uncle who was such a problem drinker that after inflaming himself with alcohol, he hurled obscenities at women.

Occasionally his siblings cajoled him out of the rut, but before long he would regress to drinking himself into a vegetative condition as if to make up for his brief spell of abstinence.

One day Mary visited him unannounced. She met him not only hugging his beloved bottle, but also having a hilarious discussion and debate with it. "Yesterday, when I drank you what did you do to me," he repeatedly sang and danced in honor of the bottle of shame.

Incensed at her brother's miserable condition, Mary lashed out, "So this is what you do while flaming cockerels rule your roost?"

The jibe was a cruel reference to the fact that while her brother drank his manhood into impotence, others took over his family affairs. Powerlessness between the thighs was slight enough. To suggest that others were taking advantage of his self-imposed impoverishment to father his children was the ultimate insult.

Mad and in between hiccups, the uncle in turn launched his broadside. He might be a cuckold but he had never attempted to murder anyone, he said with venom darting from his eyes.

That legend had to do with Aunt Mary's first and only husband. She had married a much older man, as was our tradition in those days. Though the man's family had some pretensions to village royalty, grandfather was against the marriage. The man's family, he said, were bats that were neither birds nor animals.

His headstrong daughter, however, ignored his objections and went ahead with the marriage. In those days, it was our custom that a newly married wife should test her strength climbing a cliff-like hill. She would go to the river and fetch water with a big clay pot and tote it home up this steep incline.

Aunt Mary's ordeal happened during our tropical rainy season when the skies rumble like a battalion of tanks and shell the earth with a deluge. Drenched, the land becomes sodden and mudslides abound.

It was against such challenges that Aunt Mary struggled after two muscular men had hefted a large water pot on her head. She sank her bare toes into the soggy laterite, which was by now as slippery as rotting banana peelings.

Ordinarily, walking on such surfaces requires tenacity and grit, both of which Mary had (though she never dreamed she would need to use it as a rented mule). As she crested the hill, she slipped, fell and broke the pot. Her husband, who was whistling idly behind her, was enraged by her failure to live up his repugnant expectations, so he pulled an irate Taliban stunt.

He slapped and kicked her savagely. Pretending she was prostrating for forgiveness, Mary swept the unsuspecting man off his feet and together they rolled back to the river. Swiftly, she got on top of him, locked his neck in her powerful arms and submerged him in the muddy river.

No amount of yelling by onlookers or the sordid husband's splashing and thrashing like a fish pulled out of its elements would persuade Mary to release him from her chokehold. She only let him go after he had passed out. She then took a shortcut back to her father's house for good.

It was this to this incident that her drunken brother alluded.

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