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Read: Memoir of a Boyhood in Cameroon and Nigeria

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“A man can only tell where it started raining on him, but not where he’ll get dried.”

—Igbo proverb

Chapter 1:

Mbenge Mboka

i.

We lived in many houses in the years of my boyhood, but the plank house on the street of Mbenge Mboka, in Mbonge, Southern Cameroons, Republic of Cameroon, is the most memorable to me. The slim chopped planks of the house, or karabot as it is locally called in the town of Mbonge, tugged on one another with termite-infested ribs. It was a big house, with rough lumps of earth that clumped in every nook and cranny, like mottled tree bark, or swellings on the stomach of a sickle cell victim. They were hardened by the fire rack—located at the far left corner of the house when you entered through the front door—such that each time I hit my toe against any of the lumps, it bled with red open flesh that was so peppery.

I was five years old and always barefooted. I loitered barefooted in the family compound, and sometimes even on bare feet followed Grandma to the market to sell plantain.

Mamma was tired of buying me flip-flops because I always returned home without them, and I couldn’t make out where I threw, forgot, or left them.

“I won’t buy you any more flip-flops because you always throw them away. Do you think I will harvest money from a tree?” Mamma demanded.

I didn’t know what to make of her ranting. It didn’t strike me that I had done something wrong. So I went barefooted, and all my toes had their share of ripped open flesh against the clumps of earth in the house that left me hopping like a bullfrog each time it happened.

I was the second of three sons (Keburu, myself, and Sakanitua) and a daughter, Tirie, the eldest of us. On rainy many evenings, we sat under the fire rack, suspended under four wooden pillars, to warm ourselves. Grandma would tell stories that made Mamma either laughed or jerked in surprise. We laughed too, mimicking Mamma’s outbursts.

I remember especially the story about Namondo, a stubborn little girl, who ran away from home and was kidnapped by chimpanzees. While they were dancing around her in celebration of their catch that will serve as their breakfast, Kombe the yawk flew down and snatched her away up into the sky. It warned her while flying with her not to look into its anus. But she did, and smelt its anus, and exclaimed that Kombe had a fart. It warned her again, but she disobeyed a second time. The third time she disobeyed Kombe, it threw her into the sea, where she was eaten by fishes.

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Then Grandma asked us, “what did you learn from this story?” I told her that Namondo was stubborn. Grandma corrected me by saying Namondo was a disobedient child, and she cautioned us against disobedience. She ended by saying we should remember what happened to Namondo.

Another evening, the heavy falling rain stole through the leaky roof, and stray mystical fireballs under the fire rack filled the house with excitement.

We argued over who owned the fireballs. “That’s mine! No, they’re mine!”

It ended with Sakanitua, our youngest son, the shrinking violet, complaining to Mamma that we were trying to take his fireballs. Mamma warned us not to take his fireballs, and assured him that they were his.

Dissatisfied, he put his right hand into the fire to rake and stray more fireballs, but withdrew it suddenly with a sharp cry of pain. His palm got burnt, and pilled like a roughly burnt ripe plantain. Grandma threw water on the ground, dug out the soft clay, and rubbed it all over his right hand, as a potter does to a clay pot. I was scared that it was my fault because I was always faulted each time he cried.

The rain stopped falling. Insects began to whistle wildly in the bushes around the compound. Night birds ushered in serenades to invite their lovers. I began to doze off, my head falling at intervals to my chest, like the agama lizard. Mamma carried me to bed.

ii.

Women in numbers I couldn’t figure filled the house, crying and sprawling on the ground. I was excited about the scene at first, that our house was filled with throngs of people, and even those who never visited. But then I saw Mamma sprawled out, and women were trying to stop her from doing something I didn’t understand. I fearfully watched the scene with rapt attention.

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Grandma came from the backyard with few women of about her age carrying Tirie, our first-born and only sister. She was naked and silent. Her mouth was open but her eyes were closed. Grandma laid her on a mat on the bare ground, and the other woman rubbed her entire body with the secretion of a leaf that filled the house with an offensive smell.

More people came and I felt lonely because no one noticed me. Sakanitua was strapped to the back of Mamma’s friend. He shook uncontrollably on the back of the woman, sometimes cried, deeply troubled by the tumult that took away his care. She wasn’t tending him and calling him bobo ’m—the pet name she would call him to appease him when he would cry. It means “my handsome” in the local parlance.

Each time Mamma called him bobo ’m, she tickled him around his ribs, strumming them like a guitarist on his instrument’s strings. Limme, limme—“leave me, leave me”—he would say, flirting and chuckling. Bobooooo ’m, Mamma would tease on until he cheered again.

One of the old women stepped forward. Her nostrils were deep and dark, like the holes of a bush mouse. Her head was covered with a dirty head tie. She brought out an old sharp knife and cut deep on both sides of Tirie’s cheeks and on her forehead. Tirie did not cry out. Her body remained still.

Another old woman stepped forward with a snuff-like box. She emptied the deep dark powder from the box into the cuts on Tirie’s face, and gave her stern instructions. “Return as a good child and stay. If you will not stay, don’t return.”

Still another old woman stepped forward and wrapped away her body in a bed sheet. It was the sheet that Mamma covered her with at night on her sleeping mat.

They took her to the cocoa farm behind the house, and returned after a while without her. Women gathered around Mamma for several days. Eventually, they departed, but would visit again with a bounty of food for us. So many varieties of delicacy. I was happy because I ate almost everything that was given to me.

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It was customary for me to take my Sakanitua to the karabot wall to find out if our stomachs would touch the wall when standing close to it. If they didn’t, I took it that we had not eaten well. My stomach never touched the wall, no matter how gluttonous I was.

iii.

Mamma gradually became scarce to us. She woke up early every morning and swept the compound with a broom made from a little palm tree branch which spread out like a girl’s bushy Afro. She cooked and sold koki—bean pulp that is smeared with palm oil, folded with a leaf, and cooked until it fully pulps and hardens a little. It is best eaten with boiled plantain. She also sold palm wine at a local palm wine bar. This bar was built with palm branches, and benches were arranged in a circle for people to sit and drink together. These activities took all of her time.

Sakanitua strayed unchecked and sometimes fell on his face and got visibly bruised. He would cry until he was exhausted. Sometimes I tried to beg him to stop crying and, gradually, he sought comfort and security in me. I felt I owed him care and assurance, and tried to be there for him. I sympathized with him and learned not to beat him. I was his protector.

One time he was beaten by our neighbor’s son. I went to fight for him and got beaten too by the same boy. We sat together in the cocoa farm in the backyard (where Tirie was taken to and never brought back), and we cried for a long time.

I still remembered and wondered about Grandma and those old women taking Tirie away and not bringing her back. One evening, we all sat under the fire rack with Mamma and Grandma, I asked Mamma, “When will Tirie return? Where was she taken to?”

The sudden unexpected question brought hot tears rolling down Mama’s eyes.

Echem John

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