View from the porch
A View from the Porch By Martin R. Wong, Ph.D. (5) 62-64
A View from the porch
Evenings in Ebem, Ohafia, are not for thrill seekers. The somewhat weathered wooden porch that makes up the totality of Kalu’s Stylish Bar overlooks Ebem’s main street, the only paved street, on the way from Umuahia to Arochukwu. Off to the left side of the porch is the kerosene fired beer cooler. I think I can remember it actually being turned on once. On the right side was a wooden bench that would seat five in a pinch. Men in Nigeria don’t shrink from sitting hip-to-hip even when the temperature is 90 plus. A chair where Kalu usually sits completes the furniture. After two hours of tennis in the hot West African sun, Kalu’s Stylish Bar was irresistible. It was there I learned what transplanted German beer will do to your head when it comes to you at 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Sometimes when finances were tight, a little palm wine was in order. At other times I could even get a little “illicit” white lightning distilled from palm wine.
The porch was a great observation post for watching people. Ebemers mostly walked since the town was not that spread out and bicycles were for long-distance travel. Just as with Times Square, sooner or later everyone you wanted to see would walk by. Across the street was “Stay Young” photo studios run by Uduma Okala who usually spent more time on the tennis court down the street, and on the porch, than actually in his “studio” since business was not that good. He was perhaps the most sophisticated of the porch devotees since he had lived for a short while in Lagos and knew the ins and outs of diplomacy and trade. Unfortunately his several “wives” and 23 children had kept him somewhat tied down of late to Ebem.
Kalu owned the Stylish Bar. It was his house and his porch after all. He was a large affable man with a broad voice, an onye Ohafia in the old tradition - a warrior without a battle since time had taken the edge off his aggression as well as his need to prove anything to anyone other than it was nice to sit awhile over a warm beer. He frequently wore a wrapper and sometimes a striped wool stocking cap that had seen many campaigns. When tanked up a little, he was known to jump to his feet and yell, “A bu onye Ohafia”, a kind of Ohafia uber alles chant.
The other regular devotees of the porch numbered two or sometimes three but there were always drop-bys who stayed awhile to soak up atmosphere. Kalu’s was the only place in town where one could honestly come by a beer, or just conversation, if you happened to be down on your luck. Conversation - whether in Igbo or English - was an Ohafia delicacy and the art of it was not taken lightly. Everyone enjoyed a well-spoken phrase even if the content was not very relevant.
For several days that summer the conversation was all about the money doubler. An old Hausa man had taken to sitting on the football field with a basket in front of him. He just sat there most of the day and apparently slept there. Food magically appeared for him to eat.
It soon became known that he was a money doubler with contact to the spirits. He could double your money just by praying over it. Nobody questioned this in any real sense nor did they question why he looked so thin, malnourished, and impoverished himself if he could double money. When I finally begged the question I was told the obvious: it was spirit money that was doubled. He, as the progenitor of the money, couldn’t spend it. I had finally come across a true idealistic spreader of good will for all. On any other occasion than this Hausas were seen as good “watchnights” but generally lacking the motivation and drive seen to be inherited in the blood of Igbos.
For a few days some of the non-porch dwellers were trying out the money doubler with a ten Naira note or perhaps even a little more - nothing that couldn’t be done without. Denizens of the porch were far too sophisticated to go for anything like that. The word spread like wildfire. It was true. When someone gave the money to the old Hausa man and put it in his basket and he prayed over it all night, the money doubled. When he opened the basket in the morning, there was 20 Naira, handed over to the owners for their inspection.
Conversation on the porch was heating up. Most Ohafians have a little money stashed away somewhere for a rainy day; and heck, the prospect of doubling it sounded quite good. Nobody on the porch would admit to it, but brewing inside a few minds was the possibility of getting richer.
I think it was a Wednesday night when the money doubler really made his haul. Emboldened by the early successes, many Ohafians (including a few of the porch devotees) secretly took during the night what they had to the doubler for praying over. In the morning, the old Hausa man with his basket was gone. The fact of his disappearance with a considerable amount of Ohafia money was predictable to anyone who has been around the block a few times. Nevertheless the conversation on the porch for the next few days was all about the story, the money that no one on the porch would admit to losing, and how it all had taken place. What was more interesting was that no one actually saw the Hausa man as a thief, a grifter, a con man or any of the other terms that might be applied to the typical Nigerian scammer. They didn’t even seem angry. The money was gone, but the conversation was all about spirits, and why the man had left before completing his promises. He had to do it, they suggested. It was getting to be too much, the stakes were too high, the spirits could not convert so much cash. It just wasn’t reasonable to think that it would happen the way they had hoped. He was a Hausa man after all. They shouldn’t have expected so much. Suddenly their own brand of logic was being applied to the spirit world.
My hard-wired brain thought a lot about superstition and juju and the hold it has on people and I wondered about the Nigerian mind. Two years after I got home my son was telling me about how he had had money doubled on a real estate transaction. I resisted his urging to invest. His experience with the money doubler in America was a reenactment of the visit of the Hausa man. He lost his ass.
Palm wine stories
Some would say that alcohol is alcohol and the vehicle one uses to get it into one’s veins - whether that be beer, wine, whiskey or whatever - doesn’t matter. It’s not true. Palm wine tastes something like a kind of juice you’ve never tasted before and because it is like food, it takes awhile to sneak up behind you and loosen the tethers of the tongue. A more descriptive name for it might be “story elixir” or perhaps “liquid Maryanne”, but certainly not “truth serum”. It has two effects on the human psyche: (1) to tell stories to an appreciative audience who love everything you have to say; and (2) to insert a drummer into your head who doesn’t begin drumming on the inside of your skull until the next morning. In this case, however, the going up is usually worth the coming down.
Ohafians are story tellers anyway, but give them a few glasses of palm wine and the technique is tweaked to perfection. Tales of the bush, tales of times past, tales of basic human foibles gone amuck, tales of the spirit world and most certainly, true tales of the power and results of juju victimization are automatic. One such victim was the coach of the Ohafia High School soccer team, an intense man with a furrowed brow. He was not a porch regular but dropped by occasionally to let off steam. His team had had very little success in its season, games were lost at the last moment by free kicks, and other sure shots had gone awry.
One day after a close loss to a nearby team, he showed up while we happened to be working on a gallon jar of the grey bubbly liquid that had been sitting on the porch for a few days. The wine in his belly combined with the anger in his mind and he suddenly declared loudly,“If you want to win you have to have means!”
“Absolutely,” I agreed, thinking that he meant practice facilities, time, balls, money, and so forth. He didn’t. It seems the final free kick that was to win the game for our side had started out unerringly for the upper-right corner of the goal. Just before it got there it swerved and took a right-hand slice of the kind any golfer has experienced. The other coach had been seen visiting one of the suspected juju men in the area and this was irrefutable proof that the other coach had means. “How can we win?” he sputtered. The ball didn’t just slice, it was pushed by the notorious means. Full stop. He declared that if we wanted to win, we had better be prepared to cough up for some means of our own. Everyone on the porch nodded in assent and commiserated with the beleaguered coach. Vince Lombardi truly was a man who had means!
A sense of privacy
One day, the street was more crowded than usual. People were standing idly, or haggling with the street-side vendors when suddenly about twelve women strode purposefully by, their long wrappers waving to uncharacteristically firm strides. They looked fierce. The man who stood in front of the tank during the Tien An Mun shootout in Beijing would not have dared to stand in front of this phalanx. They were shouting about something that I couldn’t make out. They were truly a sight. “What’s it all about?” I asked to nobody in particular. I figured one of the five or six men gathered there would give me an answer.
At first there was no answer. Then Uduma Okala spoke up, a slight tremor in his voice. As the story unfolded, it seemed that some male person had been seen peering out through the underbrush at the women’s public toilet. The women were enraged.
Uduma’s comments unzipped the mouths of some of the other men and conversation ensued about the event. Apparently it had been a topic of discussion for a day or two unbeknownst to me. These women were the heads of the women’s counsel and they were out to avenge their spied-upon sister. They were shouting something but what they were saying went far beyond any rudimentary Igbo I knew. “They say that if this person wants to see so badly let him come out,” someone said. They were threatening to surround the person and unwind their wrappers en masse, the better to shame him. No man in town was ready to stand up against 12 angry women willing to bare themselves seeking justice.
Clothes that went beyond the hundreds of beads that young women used to wear had been brought to Ohafia long ago, and with it came a sense of privacy that was not to be trifled with. Women in this patriarchcal society, in addition to the cooking and child rearing, did most of the other laborious work. They didn’t have a whole lot of clout in the town counsel, but the further indignity of someone spying on their private moments was more than they were about to bear. As they strode purposefully by, a chill went up my spine. I never found out what actually happened nor whether the man was caught, but my imagination went wild.
One evening the towne crier stopped on the corner beating on his bells, bleating out the day’s news in a kind of sing-song Igbo that was completely unintelligible to me. The news was not good. Among other things, a young girl had been discovered to be pregnant. She was not married.
After the crier had moved on to his next corner, the boys on the porch were murmuring amongst themselves about the event. It was not good for the girl, it was not good for the girl’s mama, and it was not good for the town. The virginity of a young girl of marriageable age was still worth something in Ebem, Ohafia. Morals had to have loosened up in the town for something like this to happen. The men on the porch were not moralists, but (Continued on page 14) they somehow knew that this did not bode well. Free love had to lead to something worse, like television.
Presbyterianism and a goat sacrifice
One day the usual crowd on the porch was small. Time to clear and plant, I was told. That was the busiest time for men. Men cleared the bush, burned away the underbrush, tilled the soil, and planted the yams. The quotidian work, such as weeding and tending, was done by women. The men returned to the fields at the end of the planting season to harvest.
A week or two later was the ceremonial day for the “blessing” of the planting. Ohafia was nominally Presbyterian. I had been raised a Presbyterian and I knew what that meant - the proceedings would be kind of dry, low key, and dull. I was wrong.
We all went out to the edge of the bush where it appeared that everyone in town had gathered. Everyone was in a festival mood. But when the actual ceremony started, it was plain to me that this was serious. A bare-chested young man in traditional Ohafia warrior garb, carrying a machete, was being feted in a manner I knew nothing about. After the ceremony that involved a lot of speechifying and the laying on of hands, he was sent out to the bush with a goat, the cheers of the crowd following his every step. We waited. I was told that if we heard three drum beats it would mean that the head of the goat was severed completely with one cut and that the growing season would be good.
As I stood in the crowd, an old man in front of us turned and looked at me with what I thought to be more than curiosity. He then talked to his friend standing next to him in a fairly loud voice. Uduma explained that he was questioning why I, a Beke, was at the ceremony. He complained that it was the white people, after all, who had ruined the ceremony in the first place. After the missionaries had come, the traditional sacrifice of a member of the Udo - a sort of pariah class among the Igbo - had been stopped, and a goat had been introduced in their stead. The old man remembered with chagrin. This was Presbyterianism unlike any I had ever seen.
Dr.’s house on top of the hill
Dr. Ogbenna had built, in honor of his own success I suppose, a huge, walled compound just a half mile up the road on the cross street. One day the hot sticky peace of the afternoon was shattered when a huge Caterpillar rolled into town and immediately began its duties by knocking down the few remaining palms next to the dirt road and smoothing out the ground. It was bright yellow and moved lumberously but purposefully. Half the children in the town followed its every move laughing and shouting at this powerful godlike creature, “Ca Ta Pi Lo”. It was obvious; the road to Dr. Ogbenna’s house was to be paved. Everyone on the porch laughed uproariously at the corruption and influence that would allow one to have the government build a road to your house. Dr. Ogbenna, as a doctor, a “been to”, and a government official, was the most influential member of Ebem society. If he wanted a paved road to his house, he could damn well have it.
The second most influential man in town, Igwe Okaha Igwe, showed up one day. He was really just walking by and since everyone on the porch knew him, as principal and as a famous beer drinker, he was called up to the porch and a place was made for him. Mr. Okaha, as I called him because I was merely a teacher in his school, frequently wore a tie and was also perhaps the most distinguished looking man in town. He was one of two or three men in town who had been overseas to be educated. He could laugh and joke, but it was always with a serious, distinguished air. He nodded to me and made some kind of comment about finally understanding why my lectures were so obtuse and turned to the rest of the group. He started in with his usual conversation about how things are in Detroit where he had lived as a student. Everyone had heard it all before but listened politely until he moved over to what had happened at the faculty meeting that day. Miss Chineke, a math teacher, had disrupted the whole meeting when she called out to the other math teacher and said, “I don’t like what you did to me in my dream last night,” and further went on to demand that he stay out of her dreams in the future and what she was going to do if he didn’t. Much laughter erupted on the porch as Mr. Okaha described the momentary chaos in his faculty meeting.
I was told later in an aside that Mr. Ubamadu, the other math teacher, was well known for doing that kind of thing. After all, it was explained, she was 27 years old - well past the age of marriage for women - and for him to come visit her in her dreams was reasonable. (Mr. Okaha later wrote a book of memoirs. I got a nice mention on page 127, if you care to look.)
An airplane went over
One day a small airplane flew over at a fairly great height. You could hear the engine but the plane appeared to be very small - perhaps a Cessna. The porch emptied quickly as everyone went out into the street to catch a glimpse. An airplane flying over was an event worth emptying the porch for. After the small plane sputtered its way across the sky it was back to the porch for beer and talk about the wonders of technology. Kalu mentioned that he had once been to Lagos and had seen real airplanes up close. Nigeria Airlines had one 737 painted green on one side with “Nigeria Airlines” and on the other side was blue with “Pan American World Airways.” It was always parked with the green side toward the terminal. An airplane, flying or grounded, was still a grand sight.
We looked in the direction the plane had flown. It went off toward Arochukwu, another Ohafia town down the road where the pavement ended. Arochukwu was a town well known for two things, its warriors and its uncircumcised women. I wish I had something to say about the latter but I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. We were told we were ambassadors for America.