Part 2 of the letter to my father ended with the question: What are the special skills needed to negotiate with elders on traditional matters? Let’s find out the answer.
DEAR FATHER: Part 3
Let me rewind a bit. When you passed on, I couldn’t immediately come home for reasons I mentioned earlier. But I did manage to send some money to fund the initial burial rites, which of course included informing the elders of our village, and observing a seven-day social vigil during which sympathisers and guests, including the village elders, were entertained with music, food and drinks.
About a year later, when I had sufficiently gathered myself to perform the elaborate final burial ceremony, as required of the eldest son, I travelled home with my wife. Having not really lived in the village, and with very little knowledge of the ways of our people concerning such things, I enlisted the help of my maternal uncle.
First on the programme that he put together for me was to go to the eldest man in our village, one Pa Okogun (not his real name), to officially announce my intention to perform the ceremony. We arrived at his house to be told that he was presiding over a meeting of elders in the village hall (a modern version of the village square). So we waited for him.
We didn’t have to wait for too long however as, about forty-five minutes later, he returned. For the eldest man in the village, he looked quite strong. This was immediately confirmed by his firm handshake as I bowed to greet him. Aside from the veins standing out on his arms which had rather flaky skin, the wrinkles on his wizened light-complexioned face, and a slight stoop, you wouldn’t suspect that he was well on his way to being a centenarian.
We were still on our feet after the greetings. He told us to sit down after he had himself taken the only cushioned chair in the room. It was a wooden chair with arm rests and two square, about three-inch-thick foam cushions; one on the base of the chair to sit on, and the other to serve as back rest. The cushions had in their early days apparently been covered with multi-coloured poly cotton material that was now torn at the seams, exposing the foam which had parts of it cut off either by playful children or mischievous rats.
The only other furniture in the room were two long wooden benches placed parallel to two sides of the mud walls. Each of the benches was long enough to accommodate six pairs of buttocks. We sat on one of them. The room was obviously an extension of the village hall, given the mediation and arbitration duties of the village head.
“Nothing to offer you my children,” he said, as our buttocks hit the bench.
Before either of us could respond, he called out, “Victor!”
One of the children, most likely his great grandson, who had been playing outside with other children with discarded car tyres answered, “Papa!” and ran in.
My uncle had with him a black plastic bag containing a bottle of Seaman’s Aromatic Schnapps, the variant of whisky popular with village elders. I never would have thought of arming myself with that if I had come alone. But then my uncle knew better.
“Baba, don’t worry. We are the ones that should be bringing food for you.” He pulled the bottle out of the plastic bag and placed it on the floor in front of Pa Okogun.
The old man looked at the bottle with an undisguised twinkle in his eyes, which indicated to me that we had scored a point with that already. Nevertheless, he instructed Victor to go and get kolanuts for his visitors. As Victor departed, he proceeded to pronounce blessings upon us:
“Thank you my children. Our God, the owner of the day and the night will continue to remember you as you have remembered to bring me this food (liquid food?) today. The pocket from which you brought out the money to buy this drink will never run dry. You will go out peacefully and return peacefully. The mouth that ate your food will not turn around to castigate you. It is where the python lies that food comes to meet it. Wherever you are, favour will come and find you. It will be well with you in the morning and well with you in the evening….”
At each pronouncement, we chorused ‘Iseee’ (Amen). What a nice old man, I thought.
Victor had returned almost immediately to the room but had the sense to keep quiet while Baba was blessing us. Now he turned to him.
“Where is the kola?”
“Kola is finished.”
The way Victor said it sounded rehearsed to me and gave the impression that Baba already knew there was no kola in the house.
“Who finished it? Are you children now eating kolanuts…?”
“Unhm, Unhm!” My uncle cleared his throat, “It’s okay Baba, we really do not eat kolanuts as such,” he said unconvincingly.
If there was anything my uncle did not eat, it was surely not kolanuts. Kolanuts are usually customary items for entertaining guests as a sign of welcome and acceptance of their visits. For him, they seemed to serve an extra purpose as snacks that you could have at any time of the day or even night. The evidence was there in the colour of his teeth which were off-white due to the stain of the bitter-sweet nuts. I was busy looking at the floor and trying hard to suppress a chuckle as he made that claim. Then he proceeded to broach the subject of our visit.
“Baba, this young man is the eldest son of Odion of the Ekata clan, who passed on to the unforbidden land about a year ago.”
“Odion…Odion….” Pa Okogun was looking at the rafters of the ceiling-less roof of his hut in pensive meditation, as if trying hard to recall who bore that name.
“Yes!” my uncle interjected, trying to help him remember “the one who settled in Garage (as Uromi town is known in the village); the younger brother of Umhonkpon whose compound is not far from here.”
“So your father is dead, young man?” Pa Okogun turned to me.
I was not expecting the question. I looked from my uncle to Pa Okogun.
“Actually….” I began, but my uncle cut in:
“You remember we came with Aikhelumele, his father’s cousin last year…..”
“I don’t remember anything, but I can see that the young man has a mouth, so why don’t you let him answer for himself?”
His tone was suddenly not that of a genial old man anymore.
My uncle had warned me that some of the elders could prove difficult and the way to soften them was to let some naira notes speak for me. He had advised me to get some notes in various denominations ready for that eventuality and to let prevailing circumstances dictate what denomination to tender. I had therefore put a wad of one hundred naira notes in the breast pocket of my shirt, two hundred naira notes in the left back pocket, and five hundred naira notes in the right back pocket of my trousers. I decided one hundred naira was not likely to change the tone of the old man’s voice and reached into my right back pocket to squeeze out a two hundred naira note, forgetting that the two hundreds were in the left back pocket. In my hand was a five hundred naira note and, as Baba’s eyes had travelled with my hand into the pocket and back, there was no way I could send it back and get a two hundred note from the other side. It was just as well. I doubt whether a two hundred naira note would have elicited the same reaction; Baba was already smiling.
Before I reached where he was seated to hand over the note, Pa Okogun was saying, “Oh, Oh, Oh! I remember now. So this is his eldest son; the one who was a teacher and later worked in the President’s office in Abuja before he went overseas to represent Nigeria. Aah! He has grown into a big man. Welcome my son. How are your wife and children? Your father was such a good man. I wish he had stayed on longer to enjoy the fruits of his labour.”
Indeed! But you didn’t remember just now that he was dead, I thought, but said, ‘Thank you Baba for everything you did to make the preliminary funeral ceremony a smooth one. I was told of all that you did’
“You are welcome my son. We couldn’t have done otherwise. Your father was a very good man. Although he did not live here in the village, he never forgot us.”
It was the right time for my uncle to chip in the purpose of our visit.
He looked at me briefly with a faint smile on his face, as if to say, “What did I tell you?”
“That is why he has come to do what is required of him – to give his father a befitting final burial. He was given only two weeks’ leave by his employers and he would like to do it on the market day after the next one, which is like seven days’ time,” he said.
Pa Okogun rearranged his buttocks, shifting forward in the chair as if he wanted to stand up.
“You mean you people have fixed the date for the ceremony already?”
The acerbic tone was back in his voice and I hoped my uncle had not unwittingly ignited a fire that would take another five hundred naira note to quench.
“No; not at all! We are only suggesting. Of course we can’t do anything without your approval, he tried frantically to steer the conversation back to amiable grounds.
“I see!” Pa Okogun said. “Well, you know I am an old man. There is a committee that oversees such affairs and Oduma (not his real name) is the chairman of that committee. He will be the one to tell you the requirements for this ceremony and to determine, with his committee members, whether your proposed date is convenient or not.”
Luckily, or so I thought, my uncle said he knew Oduma and that we would stop over at his house on our way home to put our request to him. So we left Pa Okogun for Oduma’s house, after thanking the old man profusely for his hospitality.
Oduma was just returning from the farm when we arrived at his house. He was carrying off his Suzuki 100 motorcycle a basket loaded with tubers of yam. We greeted him and from the way he answered, you could tell that he was either very tired or very hungry or both.
Three little children ran out of the house to welcome him. They were closely followed by two women who were obviously his wives. The younger woman had a cup of water which she passed to the man as they both welcomed him. They then greeted my uncle in a way that suggested to me that he was no stranger to them; asking after members of his family by their names.
Oduma proceeded to sort the tubers of yam into two heaps while we all stood aside and watched. When he finished, the younger woman and the three children packed the bigger heap while the other woman took the smaller heap that seemed to be half the size of the other one. My uncle was later to explain to me that the younger woman was the mother of the three children while the older one was childless.
If the childless woman was unhappy about their husband’s sharing formula, she did not reflect it. But I recall we had a neighbour whose wives always fought over anything their husband shared between them – be it yam, cassava, bush meat – anything, as he was accused by one or the other of favouring her mate for reasons they never explained.
As it turned out, it was the woman with the smaller share that brought Oduma his supper after he had washed and returned to the parlour where he left us to wait for him. He invited us to join him and I promptly said we had just eaten. Papa, that was part of the training you and Mama gave us as children. Never accept food from strangers!
But, even before I had finished responding to the man’s offer, my uncle was already pulling his chair toward the table.
“If we don’t eat with you now you will think we are angry,” he said.
Angry about what? I thought, but kept the thought to myself. My uncle took a few morsels of the pounded yam and thanked him for the meal. Clearly, he did it out of courtesy because it was also considered rude to turn down an invitation to share a meal with a kinsman. Some even took it as an indication that you either did not consider their food good enough for you or you were afraid of being poisoned by them. That impression was definitely not going to help our mission, so my uncle’s concession to the invitation was a smart move indeed.
After the meal, he introduced me and declared the purpose of our visit. He relayed our discussion with Pa Okogun and stressed the need for the ceremony to be conducted as soon as possible to enable me return to my base overseas.
That seemed to be the cue Oduma had been waiting for. He cleared his throat, used his forefinger to probe his mouth as if searching for a hidden shred of meat between his teeth and said to me, without bothering to look at me:
“You these children living abroad, you forget village people like us until something like this brings you home……”
To be continued.
Did the encounter with Oduma produce any positive result? Find out in Part 4!
Meanwhile, you may follow the link below to see other aspects of my sojourn, captured in the recently published book OLD SCHOOL.
Order your copy from the location closest to you via this link: http://www.newsplus.ng/old-school-now-available-near/
Or get a soft copy at: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07PGRB14Y/ref=mp_s_a_1_6…
GOD BLESS YOU.