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February 17, 2015
African Voice
Book Lover
by Imo Eshiet

I have always loved books. That love affair has brought me so much joy, taken me to so many way-out places I never imagined were there, and opened my eyes to a life I had no idea existed anywhere.

My mother and sister were some of the first to notice my romance with books, and they actively encouraged it. Mother was really the first to pry into this affair. I remember she used to say I loved books the way some people loved money. She never got tired of telling the story of a man who loved money more than anything else in life.

The poor man was an itinerant tailor. Many such tailors are common in eastern Nigeria. They carry their hand sewing machine on their shoulders and walk the streets in search of patrons. These folks are so talented they could give back a rag its glory. I know because I saw them perform such miracles.

At a point after the war in Nigeria, there was a time when what many people wore on their backs had so many holes it was difficult to tell the difference between their clothes and a fishing net.

These tailors went about shouting, “Ukimkpo! Ukimkpo! Ukimkpo! [meaning tailors] are Obioama! Obioama!” “Obiama” meant “community lovers” or “those loved by the community,” depending on how one inflected the word. They did wonders to keep the folks in the villages from walking around naked.

They often carried along with their sewing machine, a bundle of rags. They would rummage through the bundle to find a piece and join it to the miserable, threadbare shirt or pants they were repairing, making quite a patchwork out of it to the appreciation of their poverty-bitten customers.

The only problem was that after repeated patching, if one was caught in the rain the decrepit cloth simply fell apart for in our tropics, rain hurtled in torrents like a waterfalls.

The character in Mother’s tale was one such tailor. He would leave home on the first cockcrow and return late evening after making several rounds around the community and neighboring villages. Every man, woman, and child knew him not merely because of his hard work, but because surviving on bread crumbs and water made him scrawny.

He was so gawky his skin looked like a filmy hide stretched over a skeleton.

Then one day the man failed to get up from bed. Alarmed, neighbors broke into his room and found his lifeless body. Nothing they did could get him up. They then scoured the room to see if he had any money for a coffin. What they found shocked them.

Right under his pillow was a stash of money. They soon agreed that the man was not as poor as everyone assumed. Rather he made quite a fortune on his job, but loved and hugged his money so tight he had no wish to raise a family so no one would mess with his beloved money.

While the neighbors tried to decide if the miserly man was truly dead or not, someone hit on an idea. A joker cupped his palms with coins in it and shook it over the ears of the stricken man. He said if the tailor did not wake up at the sound of the coins, he indeed was gone for good.

Sure enough, at the practical joke, the tailor sprang up, reached under his pillow, and not seeing his hidden money started screaming that thieves had broken into his home and carted away his life! The bemused neighbors quietly told him all was well and left the penny pincher alone.

Mother, who used to narrate the story as if she witnessed the incident, went away with a thing or two. Like many in my community after the war had treaded us in the dust, we ran a poverty budget. There was no money for medicine or books. But if I came down with malaria, burned with fever, and lost appetite, my alarmed mother knew what to do.

She would squeeze some money out of her tight budget, rush to a flea market and buy a book that still retained some scent of freshness. She would place this close to my nostril while giving me a cold water compress to bring down the vile fever.

Soon as I picked the scent and managed to force open my eyelids before now glued by the fever, I would pick up the book and caress it fondly. Once her trick worked, she would swing into more action: cook an appetizing meal, search for herbs, and serve me both. Before long, I would be back on my feet.

My sister, Imeh, in turn learned much from her. The war was barely over when we streamed out of the bush back to school. Just two year older than I, she seemed to know me more than I knew myself. We would gather firewood in the evening for sale in the morning in a nearby small town before we passed on to school. On our way, I would retrieve from the mud some discarded newspaper or magazine, wipe away the muck and start reading while balancing the bunch of firewood on my head.

The primary school. The contrast between the lush vegetation and the dreary school building speaks volumes about lack of government presence in the village. The pictures are by Ofonimeh Offem.

Before leaving home, Mother would instruct that the money from the firewood sales we made should be handed over to Imeh. Since we often left without food, I would heckle my sister to at least buy some snacks, especially when the aroma of fried plantain and bean cake we locally called akara wafted powerfully through the air and caused the worms in my empty stomach to riot.

Being the trusted family treasurer that she was, Imeh, of course would turn a deaf ear. If I grumbled too loud, she got smart and asked me to choose between books and food. I would prefer the former and suppress my hunger. She would buy me a text or notebook and I would use the old newspaper as added cover to the books so that my sweaty palms would not ruin their spine.

The sign at the primary school where all my education started.

Later, when I became a college teacher and Mother would visit, she would smile broadly like a full moon when she noticed books were choking every space in the house and crowding me out of my bedroom. Sometimes she would wistfully wonder if she had not lost her son to books.

On her death bed, she held my hands and said, “Too much of every good thing…” She did not have time enough to complete the sentence, thus leaving me to wonder if she meant I should not be like the tailor she maligned so much.

Whatever she meant, I was lucky to have a mother who, despite lean resources and having meager schooling herself, encouraged me in the words of modern day scriptures, to “seek … out of the best books… seek learning even by study and also by faith.”

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