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UP-COUNTRY GIRLA PERSONAL JOURNEY AND TRUTHFUL PORTRAYAL OF AFRICAN CULTURE
By Phebean Ajibla Ogundip
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Phebean Ajibla Ogundip
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOlden days
I did not own a pair of shoes until I was a secondary school pupil and nearly thirteen years old.
This was not the result of poverty. Although I was a farmer's daughter, my father was a prosperous farmer in my little hometown of Esa Oke. Also, even though they were living in a rural community, my parents could not have been described as rural in any derogatory sense of that word.
By the standards of their time, my parents were enlightened folk. Far from being illiterates, or people who had never stepped outside the confines of their hometown, both John Folami Itayemi and his wife Rachel Ilori were educated and literate. They were well versed in the reading of Yoruba, especially the Bible and Hymnbooks, and in addition had a smattering of English.
Both had spent some part of their lives outside the rural confines of Esa Oke. My father, in his youth, had embarked on the adventure of working for the oyinbo [White Man] when they were building the earliest railways on the West Coast of Africa. He had gone as far as the Gold Coast, now Ghana, perhaps attracted by what sounded like incredibly high wages to a farmer's ears. I still remember the melodious tune, which had been brought home by him and his co-travelers, in their report of their far-away adventure. It was a verbal rendition of what must have been a drum-song.
Drum-song? In those days, communal labor was a regular feature of village life. It varied in scale, starting from a small group of friends banding together, having set aside an agreed day, to work on a project of one of them, such as building the walls of his new house, or roofing it. The largest scale was when it was decided that a big job, such as improving the roads of the village, or building a house for the chief, needed to be done by all the males of a section of the village, or even all the males of the entire village. Some members who were drummers would bring their drums along, and their drumming while others worked was regarded as their own contribution to the communal labor.
This was because the people believed that work would be more easily done if it could be made livelier by being accompanied by drumming. The drumming was used to get the workers to work to a rhythm which coordinated their physical movements, and also made everyone work as a team, with no one slacking behind the others, and with all of them working efficiently and without complaining of tiredness, until the time for a break, or the approach of sunset, signaled the end of the day's work.
As late as the nineteen-fifties, I myself was witness to the fact that the use of this rhythmic assistance to communal labor had not yet disappeared from our culture. I was an Education Officer in Ibadan, and was driving past in Agodi when I saw a group of prisoners cutting grass near the governor's mansion. The beautiful lawns in Agodi were maintained in those days by gangs of prisoners who did this work as part of their prison sentence, under the watchful eyes of their warders. It was easy to recognize the prisoners in their uniform attire of cotton shorts and short-sleeved bubas. As I passed, I heard them singing as they worked, led by two of them with simple drumming instruments. They all swung down at the same time to cut the grass, following the rhythm of the accompanying song, which went thus:
Sinsi morning [wham!] Ah never chopu [wham!]
Sinsi morning [wham!] Ah never drinki [wham!]
Bend down k'o sanko Oba!
Bend down k'o sanko Oba!
I understood this song, in Pidgin English and Yoruba, was saying,
"Since morning, I have not eaten;
Since morning, I have not had a drink;
Bend down, cut government grass!
Bend down, cut government grass!"
The [wham!] in the first and second lines indicated the moments when they all bent down together and swung their grass cutters; on the third and fourth lines, the syncopated action was at the point where they sang the command "Bend!"
I was so fascinated by this spectacle that I made the mistake of stopping to watch. They noticed me watching, and called a stop to change their song to one they were sure would send me running:
"E wa wo 'yawo lwn o,
Aya t'o duro o, aya wa ni;
Aya t'o duro o, aya wa
Aya t'o duro o, aya wa ni;
E wa wo 'yawo lwn o,
Aya t'o duro o, aya wa ni"
This song, as they continued to swing their grass cutters, meant,
"Come and see a prisoner's wife;
This woman stopping here is a wife of ours...."
If being a prisoner was considered a public disgrace, being called a prisoner's wife was even more disgraceful for an innocent bystander. I fled.
It is surprising how well the drums, named "talking drums" by foreigners, actually mimic the speech rhythms and patterns and tones of Yoruba (and most likely of some other African languages). The mimicry is so good that those who know the drum rhythms and the particular language well can recognize the words the drums are saying, even if the workers are not accompanying the drums by singing the words of the song.
The drum-song to which my father must have swung his railway-building implements was composed to reflect the rhythmic sound of the railway engine:
"Sile meji l'owo ojum ni Sekondi, Sekondi, Sekondi,
l'owo ojum ni Sekondi......"
"Two shillings is the daily wage in Sekondi,
.... the daily wage in Sekondi..."
announcing that the daily wage for workers in Sekondi (a town in Ghana) was a whopping two shillings!
Two shillings was a lot of money at the time, when one realizes that, fifteen or more years later, when I started elementary school, the school fees for a whole term was only three pence, one-eighth of two shillings, as twelve pence made one shilling. And the same three pence was enough to pay for a small bag of ballam rice. This bag was six inches by six inches square, and enough for one special meal for a family of four or five.
In addition to the attractive wages, or perhaps more important than the wages, my father was probably driven by the adventurous spirit of youth, to find more interesting employment away from the farming known to his fathers. At that time, it was the gbajums, dashing young men with the spirit of adventure, who traveled to the outside world for employment, and returned to the village with travelers' tales of the wonders to be seen in the strange new world of the cities, with all the new facilities brought by the oyinbos (the white people).
I never knew for sure why he had returned to Esa Oke to settle down to the farming life of his people. I never thought to ask him, because our culture demands an awesome amount of respect for one's parents, especially fathers, and especially when one is still a dependent youngster. To get any really concrete information I would have needed to ask direct questions. But such questions, from a child to an elder, for no purpose other than to satisfy the youngster's curiosity, would have been considered impertinent.
I had to be extra careful because I was a most inquisitive child, and in a community where the well-bred child is expected to be seen, not heard, I got into enough trouble speaking out of turn. "Jibola, shut your mouth!" or "Who put your mouth into that matter?" or "Why in the first place are you tagging after adults listening to their conversation?" was what I was told often enough, usually with the addition of the scolding term "Elenu bebe-le" [owner of a mouth which goes clap! clap! clap!].
I can't have enjoyed the scolding I got for being so forward; but it was never serious enough to make me think I was a bad girl. A bit of a nuisance at times, maybe, but okay. Actually, more than just okay. I knew I had the love of my parents and other relatives, and the approval of neighbors. Although tiny in size, I was a willing runner of errands, who could be counted on not to lag by the wayside.
Also, I seemed to be a particular favorite with those neighbors who went round the neighborhood to hawk goods.
What did people hawk, in a farming community that was almost completely self-sufficient? Perhaps some fresh farm vegetables, surplus to what they needed for feeding their own family. Or maybe some cooked foodstuff, such as eko or moin-moin, which a woman had made and wanted to sell to raise some cash for family spending. Even in our small, relatively self-sufficient community, there was still a certain amount of job specialization. It was convenient for the average housewife, that things like breakfast foods in the form of eko and moin-moin should be prepared in bulk by one particular person, who sold in smaller quantities to housewives who had other jobs to do with their time.
This was the African village equivalent of the European or American fast food. Moin-moin, for instance, takes a lot of time to prepare. The maker must first soak and then skin the beans, grind them smooth, mix the ground beans with oil, salt, pepper and other condiments, make a special cup of wrapped leaves, put measures of the bean mixture in them, and then steam the wrapped mixture for nearly one hour.
Eko takes even more time and labor to make. The ingredient for eko is only dried maize, or corn, and, in the village in those days, the first item of the preparation would be to take the cobs of corn, and remove the individual grains of corn from the cob by hand, a process known as shelling. Nowadays, corn can be found, ready shelled, in the market, for sale, but in a farming community like Esa Oke, the corn would have been grown, and harvested, by each farmer, just as each farmer grew the yams, vegetables and other foodstuff, which would be cooked as food for his household.
The iya eleko [woman who makes and sells eko] takes the shelled corn, and, first, has to leave the grains soaking in water for two or three days, until it is soft enough to grind. The grinding is done by using a small stone (called daughter stone) to crush the corn grains in a back-and-forth movement on a larger – mother – stone. This grinding movement is repeated until the grains have been reduced to a smooth pulp. This pulp must be rid of the tough skin of the grains before a really smooth flour-like substance can be produced. The next job is therefore to mix the ground corn with plenty of water, and then use a fine sieve to separate the husk from the paste of the corn. The sieved mixture is then left for some time so that the paste will settle, and most of the water can be drained off to leave behind the wet paste.
It is the initial soaking period of three days which, in addition to making the corn soft enough to grind, serves as time for the corn to ferment, and to develop the sour taste that characterizes eko. Nothing short of this sourness is acceptable to the eko eaters of my generation. But, like all acquired tastes, not all strangers appreciate or like it! In fact, and this is a sign of the changing of the times, some of our own children, and most of our grandchildren, who have developed a liking for imported sugar and sweetened foods, insist on adding sugar to pap, as eko is called when cooked for eating in a liquid form like porridge.
In the case of wrapped eko, which, unlike pap, is eaten cold with an accompanying dish such as stew, for it to be well prepared, the corn paste has to be mixed with the right amount of water, and must be stirred constantly during the cooking process so as not to develop lumps. The mixture must be cooked long enough to ensure that when cool, it will solidify. This is then measured into special wraps of gbodogi leaves, and left to become completely cold, when it can be unwrapped for eating.
Obviously, it made sense to have a moin-moin or eko seller, who made enough for forty families, rather than have forty housewives each spending the same amount of time making the smaller amount needed for their individual families. The makers of such items usually made a regular round of a selected part of the village, hawking their food items. Once they were known as suppliers of these items, prospective buyers waited in their houses until the sellers came around.
So, some neighbors used to hawk various items, and, I don't know how this originated, but they had got the impression that I was a kind of good-luck mascot. Therefore, it was customary for someone about to go round hawking to say, "Call me Jibola". When I went to her, she would say something like, "Jibola, I just want to see you before going on my selling round. I know it will bring me luck and my goods will sell fast." I was then free to go back to our own house. I therefore grew up with this idea of being an "alaje", someone who somehow attracts wealth to those around her.
Although I was this happy, well-loved child, the distance created between parent and child by the respect demanded by Yoruba culture made it impossible for me, even as an inquisitive child, to find out from my father why he had returned to the rural life of Esa Oke, after experiencing the wonders of the new life brought by the white men. These strangers were bringing to Africa, among many other things, new methods of transportation, the most marvelous of which was the railways which he had gone to the Gold Coast to help build.
If I had grown old enough to earn my father's respect for an independent, educated adult, it would have been acceptable for me to ask what had taken him to the Gold Coast, and why he had returned home at the time he did. I would have got answers to my questions, and most likely also would have been regaled with the details of his life as a railway worker so far away from home. But he died before I could reach that age, and it never occurred to me to ask my mother, who lived thirty years after him, and with whom I achieved the loving, but still respectful, relationship of an adult, independent daughter.
* * *
We children never for a moment doubted that we had the love of our parents - how could we, when we saw how hard they worked to give their children a comfortable life, which enabled us to hold our heads high among our peers.
In the case of my family, our prosperity was symbolized by our nice house, which was roofed with corrugated iron sheets, had a smooth cement floor, thin cement plastering over the clay walls, wooden doors with locks, and windows with wooden shutters. The kitchen was a separate building a few yards at the back, an airy building with low walls, and with a roof of thatched gbodogi leaves. It was a better kitchen than the so-called modern kitchen, which is built as a unit inside the main house. It was a more practical place in which to sweat at the fire, grind corn or condiments like pepper on the grinding stone, or pound yam in the wooden mortar. The smell of food, and any cooking smells, wafted away in this cool, airy, building. This, in my view, shows the superiority of its design to that of the modern house, where the smell of cooking is a torture to hungry stomachs when the food is not yet ready for eating; is an irritating assault on the nostrils of visitors, and an annoying give-away in the opinion of the housewife, who would rather keep the details of the meal to the family for whom it was cooked. In addition, water for drinking and household use also kept nice and cool in a big clay pot in a corner of the airy kitchen.
Our house was big enough for us to have a spacious parlor (as the sitting room was then called), and enough rooms for sleeping, plus one that was set aside as a store, and another, larger one, called iyara alejo [the strangers' room]. We had a special room for strangers, because our house was the first house one reached as one entered Esa Oke when coming from Imesi-Odo (now called Okemesi).
Those were the days when traveling by lorry was a luxury. Not a luxury in the sense that it was comfortable; on the contrary, the typical lorry was a noisy, rickety vehicle, a cage-on-wheels with narrow planks placed inside for passengers to sit on. These planks, only about four inches wide, were placed across the inside of the lorry, supported on the lorry's two sides. The passengers not only had to balance on these simple seats, but also often had to cling to them with both hands, to save themselves from being jolted off the plank when the vehicle hit a bump, or dipped into a pothole in the road. Sometimes, a really bad jolt would lift the plank off the wooden side of the lorry on which it rested, and if, on descending, it missed the side from which it had lifted, it would crash-land on the floor of the lorry, sometimes on the feet of a passenger. The force with which the plank, still carrying the weight of the people sitting on it, landed on a limb, would probably have the poor passenger limping for days after the journey.
Excerpted from UP-COUNTRY GIRL by Phebean Ajibla Ogundip Copyright © 2012 by Phebean Ajibla Ogundip. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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