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March 31, 2015
African Voice
Every Good Gift
by Imo Eshiet

My country of birth is a loosely knitted collection of more than three hundred tribes, each with unique culture, language, and traditions. Cobbled together by the British, it became independent of the empire shortly before my birth.

Growth centers in the emerging nation attracted people with diverse talents. My father, for example, being an auto mechanic, had skills needed where modern transportation was popular.

My parents were mobile in their search for lucrative jobs and a conducive place to raise children. They exposed us to a variety of local customs, languages, values, and habits.

Shortly after I was born at Port Harcourt City, my parents moved to our village and worked at our county council, currently known in Nigeria as local government area. Two years following the siting of the University of Nigeria at Nsukka, and the consequent need for intellectuals and skilled workers at the nascent college, Father relocated there.

Settling down in the dusty and hilly town, he moved his family over in 1965. A laidback place with locals working bare-bodied as they tilled the earth with sticks and hoes, Nsukka quickly transformed into a cosmopolitan town. It attracted Nigerians from different tribes and aliens from around the globe. Natives spoke Wawa, a dialect of Ibo language.

The town was a potpourri of the modern and the traditional. Round huts made of mud and thatch ringed the glittering and upscale university campus. The unpaved village roads that stirred with dust storms when a vehicle drove by contrasted sharply with the finely curated and well-manicured lanes of the university.

While locals drew from water streaming from crevices in rocks and relieved themselves in the bush or outhouses, the university community lived in houses with running water and plumbing.

The university town looked like a page torn from science fiction against a drab and gray landscape. On the outskirts of the university, goats, fowls, dogs, humans, masked dancers, rusty bicycles, and gleaming cars shared common space.

Here if you listened carefully, you could hear Ibo, Ibibio, Annang, Efik, Ijaw, Hausa, Tiv, Eket, and the ubiquitous pidgin, a form of creolized English spoken exuberantly at the flea market and in dust-laden surroundings.

The urbane university setting contrasted sharply with its rustic neighborhoods. Here you could hear spoken, although in a muffled way, English, French, Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and other languages that sounded way out of this world to us.

In this rainbow coalition of peoples, cultures, and languages, my excitement at speaking languages other than English and my native Annang was fired. Speaking the predominant Ibo helped me to adjust to my new setting, spared me from the heckling of bullies at school and on the streets, and broadened my outlook.

The university had a primary but no high school at the time for the wards of its faculty and staff. This was not enough to admit everyone. Those of us who had just arrived poured into the few other schools in town, such St. Johnís at Enugu Road and St. Paulís C.M.S. Odenigbo ó both of which I attended in 1965 and 1967.

The nearest high school to where we lived at Onuiyi, beside the residence of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of our country, was St. Theresaís.

As is standard practice in eastern Nigeria, the language of instruction at school was English. My siblings and I picked up Ibo at playgrounds and on the streets as well as from the yards where we lived. With it we helped our parents get by at market, church, or wherever they needed help, for they least understood the language and spoke it awkwardly.

Thinking them slow, we laughed at them. Hardly did we realize we had wider exposure at school and at play than our parents and hence the ease of our facility with the language.

I had one year of schooling before moving to the village. Before I started school, my sisters and cousins who were ahead of me taught me whatever they learned at school. That put me on advantage over other village kids who had no such privilege at home.

When eventually I made it to school, I was so well ahead of my mates that at the end of that school year my teachers recommended I skipped the next class to the third. They thought I would be a nuisance if I did not have something to challenge me.

Even when I moved, they sent a recommendation that was accepted at my new school. I had no idea that the faith my teachers had in me required hard work to justify it. I was so besotted by the sights and sounds of the city I became distracted.

My new friends, seeing I was good at tree-climbing, routinely took me on a tour of clumps of mango and cashew trees. As I walked back from school I would sometimes fancy myself a traffic policeman and stepped on the road to direct vehicles the way I saw the officers do. One day, an irate driver pounced on me and beat me an inch from death.

At the end of the first term, I failed my exams woefully. Though I improved on my grades the remaining two terms, one of my uncles, afraid I was being spoiled and well on my way to a career in insurgency in the future, convinced my parents to let me live with him at Umuahia, another Ibo city.

There the Ibo I had learned a year earlier was reinforced. As a civil war was about to break out, I was reunited with my parents, my uncle being satisfied he had corrected my misguided steps. After the war we lived at Etebi where I added Eket, Oron, and Ibibio to my fund of languages. Later while living for more than two decades at Calabar, I learned Efik too.

These languages would come in handy in life. When I went to ask my dateís parents for their daughter, the mother took a swipe at my tribe. I had arrived with smoked fish, prawns, and lobsters as presents, these being common among us riverine people. My prospective mother-in-law, while seemingly happy, asked in Ibo to the daughter if the fish was all that attracted her to me.

My folks, she observed, were lazy and good for nothing. So what exactly did her daughter want from such shiftless people, she asked? When my visibly shaken date warned her I understood all she said, she changed gear and we flowed along.

The most important work I would do with some of these languages came more than five thousand miles from where I learned them. Soon as I moved to the United States, my wife and I were called to interpret and translate General Conference talks into Efik and Ibo. Being fluent in both, I doubled as a resource person.

Before long, I was convinced every good gift is divine and my long preparation had a purpose I hardly knew.

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