THE LITTLE MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE:
A MOTHER’S FEARS
Namee did not have any other children after the birth of her first and only child, Nadike. It was not for want of trying or for lack of the wish to have more children. It was more of a case of secondary infertility.
Namee often called Nadike by the added name of Nkemakolam, which meant, “Let me not be denied my own share.” Namee’s “own share,” of course, implied her own share of babies. Her own lone share in the circumstance was Nadike. The latter was a lone share but Namee considered him an adequate share nonetheless.
Nadike grew up with much attachment to both parents. Even though his father Emenike had an earlier son through his senior wife, Nkoca who had two earlier daughters, that son had died as a baby. Nkoca did not conceive again thereafter.
Emenike attended most village meetings and other events with Nadike even when the latter was still a tiny, little five year old boy. Nadike would carry Emenike’s little raffia bag as was the custom between a father and his favorite son. The bag often contained a cup made from fruited pumpkin. A few cowries and sometimes a few coins, one or two kola nuts, some sticks of white chalk called nzu, a chewing stick called atu inu, and a small face towel made up the other contents of the bag. Two or three akara balls (bean cakes) were invariably tucked into the little bag to serve as snacks for the little bag carrier if he should get hungry before the close of the meetings. Sometimes when Emenike was in a hurry, he would have to carry both the little boy Nadike and the bag on his back so that he would walk faster.
Nadike was Emenike’s pride, and the latter always felt lonely without his little son.
At the venue of village meetings, which he often attended accompanied by Nadike, Emenike would leave Nadike outside with other young bag-carriers while the parents discussed inside. Invariably, all the other bag-carriers would be boys much older than
Nadike. But Emenike wanted always to showcase Nadike as evidence that in spite of what a few earlier cynics might have said about his virility or otherwise, that he, Emenike, was capable of having a strong and healthy son who could carry a bag at a very young age. Indeed the name Nadike meant “a man’s strength” in the native language and was deliberately chosen by Emenike as a way of orchestrating his strength and proving cynics wrong. Every name in Umunta had a meaning or, occasionally, implied meanings.
The subjects for discussion during most Umunta village meetings would range from security matters in the village to settlement of disputes between neighboring families. On a few instances, inter-village feuds especially matters relating to land would be discussed. Intra-family problems were usually not discussed in such meetings as they were handled by a meeting of in-laws.
Nadike was the pride of his mother. As he grew up, he resembled his father more and more both in facial appearances and even in mannerisms, proving wrong any cynics and critics who had earlier teased Emenike about possible infertility. Nadike was very serviceable in the house and would often be seen doing not just the boys’ chores but also even those chores usually reserved for girls like scrubbing of the floors and going on little errands for the mother while the latter cooked. He would also often offer to perform the duties usually performed by bigger boys like thrashing and collecting the palm fruits, gathering of little sticks for firewood, and going to the stream with the bigger boys and girls.
Much as Namee took pride in the activities of her son, she always lived in fear of the possibility of any harm coming to Nadike, her only child. She always shuddered at the thought of the latter getting very sick and dying from childhood malaria, a disease which was very rampant among children and adults alike in Umunta. She was even more afraid of the possibility of her only child one day being killed by the enemies of the family, or being kidnapped and sold into slavery by the dreaded “nto Mmadu” (marauders and kidnappers) who occasionally raided defenseless villages and captured adults and children alike, selling the captives either for human sacrifice in some surrounding more primitive societies or into slavery.
Even when the incident of kidnapping was extremely rare in Umunta, whenever there was a new story of a child missing somewhere around Umunta, Namee would not eat well for many days thereafter. She would insist on Nadike staying indoors for the day.
If Nadike had to go to the stream or be sent on an errand by his father, Namee would trail him behind from a distance. She also always advised Nadike that if he was ever going on a lonely road and he observed any unknown person or people coming fast behind him, that he should run fast into the bush to get out of sight of the unknown passersby.
Nadike was advised that he should not reappear on the track road until the strangers were well out of sight.
It was getting to the festive season, the time of the year when every son or daughter of Umunta, Emenike’s home village, who lived abroad was expected to come home for the traditional Ikeji festival, often known as Iriji festival by surrounding villages and towns.
The Ikeji festival was an occasion for friends and in-laws to congregate and celebrate the harvesting of the new yam, the staple food and the main agricultural product of Umunta and environs. The other staple food in the community, cassava, had been introduced from South America by the Portuguese traders and was also gaining wide popularity and acceptance as the staple foodstuff.
During the Ikeji festival, every head of a household was expected to slaughter a cock before the family’s deities, agwu and ndi-ichie. The agwu were wooden carvings which were regarded as minor deities while the ndi-ichie were carvings which represented the
family’s ancestors. A large percentage of the population of Umunta were traditionalists.
The agwu were sometimes represented by a set of planted onugbu (bitter leaf ) shrubs, which were often located close to the entrance of the compound wall in front of each family residence. The onugbu plants were usually trimmed and any overgrown grasses around them were cleared a market day before the main Ikeji day which usually fell on Orie market day. Orie was one of the four market days of the native week. The other three market days—Nkwo, Eke, and Afor, following the first Ikeji day—were also days of festivity.
The ndi-ichie was a set of carved wooden structures resembling elderly male human beings. These structures were taken to represent the ancestors of the family. Usually the deceased grandfather of the eldest living male in the family was the person invoked in prayers during the sacrifice of the chicken. For the more affluent a goat or a ram was slaughtered during the first Ikeji day.
As the invocation proceeded, the blood of the slaughtered animal was sprinkled on the wooden carvings as a sign that the ancestors were welcome to participate in the celebrations. The ancestors were invoked to intercede for the celebrant and members of the family before the gods. Often there were carvings representing these lesser gods, but most importantly, there were two large carvings which usually had disproportionately large heads and which received the major blood sacrifice as well as a few feathers or hairs of the slaughtered animal. One of these two large carvings with disproportionately large heads represented the Ikenga, the source of individual and family strength. The other represented Amadioha, which was the leader god of the lesser gods, a kind of “chief god”. The Ikenga was vested with the power of wrecking havoc for any wrongs done to the gods or to the land. Amadioha was also sometimes invoked as a curse. Angry people would invoke Amadioha to deal with the people who had made them angry.
The main God as also recognized by Umunta people, the God of gods recognized as the Almighty God, was usually never represented by any symbols. It would be regarded as infra dignitatem, strongly below its dignity, some sort of a big insult, to represent with a symbol the Almighty God who was known as Olisa or Oseburuwa in Emenike’s culture.
Not all the celebrants of the Ikeji festival celebrated the occasion with slaughter of animals before the agwu and ndi-ichie. Some of the celebrants who belonged to one or the other of the emerging Christian church organizations in Umunta would simply slaughter chickens or goats during the celebrations without performing the ritual of sprinkling the blood on any carved or planted structures or images. Most would, however, still simply say that they were slaughtering the animals in memory of their forefathers without any symbols representing the said forefathers.
The latter group of celebrants must have been told in the churches to discard the wooden carvings of their forefathers since, according to the Ministers of the nascent churches, the practice of slaughtering of those animals before those wooden carvings represented idol worship and were performed only by “pagans”.
Emenike did not believe that pouring libations on wooden carvings representing his forefathers was tantamount to idol worship. He usually referred to the paintings and statues in the Christian churches and likened his wooden carvings to those statues and paintings. He had, in the past, periodically attended one of the Christian churches but had ceased participating in any activities of the group when he was told that he could not marry as many wives as he wished to marry. He also had a grouse with the church people over the demand by the group that he should destroy the statues of his ancestors.
Emenike’s three wives Nkoca, Amaka and Namee were however desirous of participating in some of the activities of the church people who were called Christians. At the end of the day, a compromise decision was arrived at by Emenike: he would continue with his reverence for his ancestors as well as the traditional reverence for the supreme being while not discouraging members of his household from practicing whatever religion they wanted to practice.
It was in the light of Emenike’s compromise decision that he did not interfere with the religious practices of members of his family. He allowed his wives to keep attending church services on Sundays if they wished to. The latter were, however, told by the church catechist that they would not be baptized because they were the wives of a polygamous man who did not come to church. These wives were told that for them to participate in, or benefit fully from church activities that two of them must have to be divorced from their husband who would thereafter formally wed the third in the church.
Ironically, while the conditions for participation in church activities were being spelled out to Emenike’s wives, Emenike himself was hatching plans to marry more wives if he got a good harvest. He was already diligently conserving the pennies which he collected from playing his flute. He hoped that as more people celebrated events, he would have the opportunity of playing more and announcing more names on his flute and thereby securing more appreciation money.
If Emenike’s collections could build up to ten shillings or perhaps one pound sterling, then certainly he could supplement with the little surplus from his primary yam-farming occupation for the bride price of a fourth wife. By the time he married his sixth wife, he would qualify for the highly respected title of Nze, a high chief. The attainment of the status of Nze was the ultimate wish of all progressive men in Umunta.
Emenike, with his three wives, was well on his way to attaining that goal of becoming an Nze, a status which a number of his friends like Okoye-nta had already attained.
Most of Emenike’s friends were also polygamists even when they had not attained the status of Nze. Indeed it was the ambition of virtually every adult male in Umunta to have as many wives as possible. Even the converts to the rapidly encroaching Christian religion often broke their vows when they got more affluent and stealthily married more wives often in defiance of the teachings of their new religion.
Most Umunta villagers practiced the African Traditional Religion. The rather uncoordinated religion recognized the existence of one supreme being who was variously known as Chukwu, Chineke, Olisa, or Oseburuwa. There also existed some lesser gods who did specific duties but who were all under the control of Oseburuwa or Chukwu or Chineke or Olisa. The lesser gods—Amadioha, Ikenga, and the rest of the dozen or so others—were not all-powerful but were limited to specific functions in the society. They could be invoked for good or evil but were hardly associated with general good deeds. Even the Christians sometimes, in unguarded moments, would invoke these lesser gods especially when they were quarreling with other people. They would, for instance, inadvertently shout to somebody who provoked them thus: “Amadioha magbuo gi!” The latter curse was a most damnable one as it was an invocation on Amadioha the god of thunder to strike dead an enemy or offending person. It was one of the ultimate curses and was never taken lightly.
The advent of Christianity made it possible for people who could not afford more than one wife to remain monogamous with respectability. The monogamous Christians often tried to confer more respectability to their wives by use of the title Mrs. which they mispronounced as “missus”. This ordinary designation for a married woman, thus for the monogamous wedded woman in Umunta, turned out to be a status symbol. A married woman just did not become a missus in Umunta. She needed to be wedded in the church to earn that title. Where a man had wedded and had a “missus” and later derailed and married more wives, the initial wife would seek to maintain her superiority over the other wives by insisting that she alone was the “missus”. The newer wives would not be entitled, in the reckoning of the other church members, to the appellation of “missus”.
If a “missus” happened not to have children of her own, she would opt to marry another woman in her own capacity, for the husband. To ensure that the new wife did not assume the title of “missus”, the original “missus” would insist that the new wife that she married would be called Onyebe missus (missus’s property). The practice of a wife marrying another woman was fully recognized and accepted in Umunta. The church authorities in Umunta deliberately looked the other way. They probably needed to, otherwise they might lose a good number of their powerful followers. This age-long semblance of same-sex marriage even among practitioners of the nascent Christian religion was therefore well accepted in Umunta well before the hullabaloo which it appeared to have generated in some parts of the western world. It appeared, however, to have been limited to a woman marrying another woman and never involved the acceptable or unacceptable practice of a man marrying another man. But whether in part or in full, accepted or abhorred, it existed. Invariably, however, it was understood that the wife had married the new wife for her husband and therein lay the major difference with same sex marriage.
The “missus’s” wife would, of course, have children who would bear “missus’s” first name as their surname. If for instance, Nkoca was a “missus” and did not have any children, Namee’s son Nadike would have been known as and called Nadike Nkoca instead of Nadike Nnoli even when everybody knew that Emenike Nnoli was Nadike’s biological father. Those were subtle sacrifices that needed to be made to remain “onye uka” (a churchman) or for a “missus” to retain her title. But everybody understood. There were no limits to the number of women that a “missus” could marry. The “onye uka” could therefore, in disguise, be polygamous while remaining in the midst of the churchmen as a full member and a monogamous gentleman, since he would claim that the extra wives in his compound were his wife’s wives, the Onyebe missus.
The occupation of the average family in Umunta was farming. It was entirely peasant farming and many more hands were often needed. This therefore placed the polygamous families at an advantage since many more hands did the clearing, the plowing, the planting, the weeding, and the harvesting. It was usually a thing of joy for most families with greater numbers during the planting seasons. While the monogamous man struggled in the barn in relative loneliness with his missus alone, it was merriment at work for the polygamous man who had a horde of wives and many children.
Since the measurement of wealth in Umunta was done by estimation of the size of the yam barn, the polygamists were the ogaraya, that is, the acclaimed wealthy people with many wives. Hence, the polygamous men soon formed the “Ogaraya People Club.” The latter club countered the club of “missus” by organizing lavish parties and making themselves look as the group to beat, the group for any upcoming man to look up to.
Emenike had an older brother called Obiuku who was a trader. Trader was the term used for people who did buying and selling of goods. Obiuku also had three wives and eleven children. He did not live permanently in Umunta and indeed was not well-known by many younger people in the village.
Obiuku’s house in the village was occupied by his eldest wife while he lived with his two younger wives in a faraway village where he did his trading. He came home only during the Ikeji festivals or when there were very important social activities in the community.
Obiuku was often snubbed in the village as one who allowed his agwu and his wives’ chi (the planted symbols that represented the guardian angelsand gods), to be overgrown with bush. He cleared the bush around these planted symbols only once a year. He was also ridiculed as one who, despite his famed wealth from his trading, rarely sacrificed more than one chicken a year to his ancestors.
Obiuku had indeed abdicated his Akajiofor (family leadership) position to his younger brother Emenike especially as he Obiuku, had no son. Mischievous small boys would often ridicule and mimic Obiuku in his absence by shouting, “Bi-bi-bi-bia-a E-e-e-e-be-a-a!” (“Bia Ebea!”) which meant “come here!”
The children would stamp their feet on the ground when they passed by Obiuku’s house in the village. That was a close resemblance of how Obiuku, who stuttered (stammered) badly, would tell people, “Bia Ebea” (Come here), on those rare occasions that he would visit home. It was said that it was because Obiuku rarely made worthwhile sacrifices of chickens or goats to his ancestors that those ancestors abandoned him to the vicissitudes of agwu and the other treacherous lesser gods who wrecked havoc on him and diverted his attention from home.
The small children of the village also said that it was agwu (the mischievous gods) who twisted Obiuku’s tongue and vocal cords and made him stutter because he was very miserly and rarely appeased them. The older folks were even less sympathetic. They said that Obiuku’s stinginess made the gods decide to punish him by ensuring that he had eleven daughters and no son. They said that the gods would not want another tight-fisted male descendant of Obiuku who would not do as much as sacrifice good-sized chickens or goats to them.