|Print | Back||August 04, 2015|
African VoiceA Community's Search for Leaders
by Imo Eshiet
Some of the songs and lessons I learned on my first day at school still ring in my ears. My teacher was a mind-bending performer of history. I loved him and his art the moment he opened his mouth.
He never lectured. With him history came alive through song, chants, dance, mime, gestures, facial expressions, deft movements, or whatever mode of storytelling he fancied.
One day he taught us about a great American chief called George Washington. Everyone in the village knew America was the wonderland. She made and flew the planes that whined above our thatched roofs. Each time a plane flew by, we waved to the pilot and chanted songs praising his iron bird.
We cared nothing if the pilot saw or heard our performance. What mattered was the spectacle up there and our sense of wonder at it. We were lucky such moments were rare. If not, our unforgiving sun would simply have blinded us. We always looked up with our naked eyes against the fierce sun rays, at the silvery plane until it became one with the skies and faded in the distance.
Planes were not the only American wonder. Pontiac, Dodge, Chevrolet, and Chrysler among other choice cars used by politicians to terrorize us when they came for campaigns were all American made. Those huge and glossy cars could impress even the stone blind. They seemed to hover over the potholes in the craters we called roads.
The dust stirred up as they passed sometimes blocked off the sun for a whole day. Since quirky roads were too narrow even for our bicycles, we had to scamper into the bush at the approach of the outsized cars. Our parents said the law was a respecter of politicians, so anyone who was hit or crushed during the campaign was at fault.
If America made those gleaming wheels and wings as compared to the tortoise-looking German Volkswagen Beetles and the cramping British Morris Minor, then she was really a land of magic. Our teacher reinforced that point as he taught us about Chief Washington.
At the lesson, we sang, clapped and danced to the song, “George Washington! George Washington! He was a great leader. George Washington! George Washington! America is for you!”
Washington owned America, so our teacher said. He was so powerful that if he sneezed, America shuddered. To drive home the point, the teacher showed us what he called a map, which was actually a colorful paper on which many lines so zigzagged across it seemed someone had dipped a spider in an inkpot and let it crawl on the paper.
America was so big it was tucked in by two seas of the gods. The sea of the gods was our name for any sprawling body of water. Since the gods were all-powerful, anything of immense size belonged to them. The sky for example, was the skin of God because it stretched and stretched across the horizon.
Mighty Washington, our teacher said, kicked out the apparently invincible King of Britain from America. That stretched credulity. Revere America as we did for her stunning inventions, we couldn’t figure out how Chief Washington could boot out a king that bestrode our land like our fiery sun.
But if our teacher said so, who were we to doubt? Behind his back we bickered, though. One kid said we were dumb. If America built cars that glided over potholes, planes that flew over our jungle canopy, and as we heard, ships that sailed under water, why would it be so hard for her chief to sack the British king, he remonstrated.
That swayed us.
I could connect with the American chief. My ancestors on both sides of my parents were powerful men and women. My maternal grandmother fought with her brothers and uncles against the British at a time women were only good for child-bearing. Disguised as an old woman, she worked as armorer for the Man Leopard Society, a resistance cult against colonial Britain.
My father’s folks tamed jungles full of creepy spiders, lions, leopards, boa constrictors, and king cobras. They also reclaimed croc- and gator-infested swamps.
My oldest uncle became chief after he survived a night attack by a lion. On his way back from a tryst he encountered a lion on the railing of a bridge. He drew his machete and hit the iron railing to scare the beast.
The surprised lion sprang away, but later stalked and pounced on him. In the ensuing hair-raising fight, Uncle Uko chopped off one of its forelegs. Hunters later trailed and finished off the slinking lion. That plucky act marked Uko out.
Like Washington, Uko knew how to sneeze in style. Unlike others who sniffed ground tobacco with their thumbnails, Uko used a spoon to scoop that vile stuff into his huge nostrils. Then he sat still like a cat poised to strike. But as tears streamed down his eyes, he sneezed like a thunderclap and sent cats, goats, dogs, fowls, and us kids scampering for safety.
Age blinded but that did not stop him from making rounds in the village to make peace and perform rites. He lived with us and turned our home into a hub. Hunters brought him their kill and tappers, wine. He always had an earthen pot on the hearth.
In the simmering pot of fresh palm-wine, the old man brewed lemon grass, lemon, and the bark of mango tree, papaya leaves, and other herbs. When we came down with malaria, he coaxed or forced us to take the bitter stuff to sweat out the parasites. Mother loved him for that, for only he could get that concoction past our mouths.
He was a tricky old fellow. He would coo his way to us, but once in his grip, we had no option but to gulp his medicine. If we refused he would threaten to invoke his father’s spirit. No one, not even our headstrong mother who was not scared of anything, wanted that spine-chilling specter.
Grandfather, who died long before our parents married, had a fearsome reputation. Diviner and seer, his juju was so powerful he could chain down wild and forbidding spirits. When we had storms and the jungle howled, folks said those were the cries of evil spirits he locked up. So whenever Uko threatened to let those scary spirits loose, he pretty much had his way.
However, Mother, being a strong-willed woman, was bound to clash with him. Anytime he toured the village, he kept Mfon, my brother, from school, so he could lead him around. Since he was lavishly entertained everywhere he went, Mfon preferred hanging out with him to our tasking teachers. That shocked the living daylights out of Mother, but she couldn’t do anything for even father trembled before the old man.
Eventually she hit on an idea. She talked Father into moving with us to the city and work. That pried us free from our big chief uncle.
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