Friday 12 September 2008

Childhood: My aunts saw red

They were with us

As we settled down in Nigeria we never were a nuclear family, we always had relations most especially paternal relations staying with us as my father was somewhat a patriarch and pioneer of sorts, later on, it was friends and cousins.

When we were in Jos, my uncle affectionately called Unculu had moved with us from Kaduna, then my aunt, my father’s kid sister and his niece who was much older than my aunt.

The deluge of ridiculous names

One interesting Yoruba culture that probably still persists is that when a wife is brought into a family, the wife never refers to any of the younger ones she meets in the new host family by name.

As a sign of respect or deference for being a new inductee which probably paints the wife as a rank outsider, each person gets a name or nickname they cannot refuse and are known by for the lifetime of the marriage in most cases.

My uncle who we affectionately called Unculu and I think I came up with that name for him was called Eyin Afe (Which I think translates to having the teeth for a good life of enjoyment), my aunt was Modesty; I thought that was after Modesty Blaise and the father’s niece was Idi Ileke (Connoting ideas of Nubian beauty with a waistline of strings of beads).

The more people the wife had to name, the more ridiculous the names became, in fact, for names given in Yorubaland, they were probably the most trivial and meaningless set aside for traditional purposes separating blood relations of the feminine sex from those who had become relations through marriage.

Catching up

I remember a conversation I had with Unculu when he was 22 and I was 8, always playful, friendly and giving me lots of his time – I asked if he could wait from me to catch up to him at 22 – I suppose, it was just a sign of how much I adored my uncle.

Elopement from terror

The girls, my aunts had a tougher time; there was always the fear that girls might get involved in all sorts of unspeakable activity that they were given the impression that their lives would become unliveable if they got entangled in anything of a sexual nature.

My father, gave them the strictest upbringing and he was a disciplinarian of the order of a sadist to my little mind – in all the time I have incurred his wrath, I have never experienced any of the punishments those girls had.

Idi Ileke was well passed puberty and was put into vocational training to become a seamtress, I would suppose whilst she was busy sewing zippers to dresses someone took her fancy and in one of the most distressing times for the adults in my family she eloped with the man.

It probably took a few days to find her, at which time, my father had had enough and he sent her back down south.

I cannot say if she eventually married the man, but we never did see much of her after that.

A mattress ripped apart

Modesty was the younger, I think she was just about 7 or so years older than I, saw her eldest brother in shades of light that would represent terror, fear, anger, violence and control.

Again, in Nigeria, these shades of light were supposed to be read as signs of respect from the protégé and the mentor saw this fear as deference and exacted control as a sign of love – bizarre as it sounds.

When she first tried learning Hausa, it was so funny to hear her completely off accent as she started counting from one – diya, biu, uku, hudu and so on.

But the most tarrying times for her were when somehow my father found that her mattress had been ripped probably by using a blade and he could not get to the truth about how it had happened.

The Spanish Inquisition was visited upon her with tortuous punishments and my father never got any closer to the truth of what really happened – we all heard the cries, the noise, the howling and so on, we were just as terrified and dreaded any circumstance where my father would ever have to be so un-nice to us.

The sweet fruit of tattoos

The cashew fruit tree on grounds was a tree that grew into some sort of shapeless both artful natural thing, we could sit on its splayed out branches and it never grew into anything tall. In season, its fruit were low-hanging; I could just reach out and pluck the fruit.

Versatility of the fruit was revealed when I found out that pod-casing on the succulent fruit could be harvested and dried out for cashew-nuts, however, before the pods were dried out, there was a sap that could be applied to the skin which was used for tribal marks.

Modesty then applied some to her thigh that spelt out her name – over the first few days it blistered, it became septic and then it dried up, healed, leaving an indelible black mark representing the letters of her name.

A whisker away from death

It was then that my father found out and all hell broke loose for her – I saw her lay face down in an incline, her feet on the side of the cupboard and her hands on the floor. She was flogged in that position till I think my father was exhausted.

Could men be so capable of dishing out discipline in that way and still be human with the excuse of preventing the child from having a life less ordinary?

But these are the kinds of rights and authority our elders and seniors in school had the liberty to exercise on us without being accountable to anyone for their actions.

In fact, people were lauded for being this sadistic in the name of discipline and I have read many obituaries where part of the eulogy included a phrase like “strict disciplinarian”, a euphemism for be a brutal brute with a merciless streak all couched under the impression that it was all for the good.

Between discipline and torture

In all, I suppose, there were always a fine line between discipline and brutalisation, in many cases, I have seen parents seriously brutalise their children whilst believing it was just maintaining order through discipline.

The fact that the grown up children still bear physical scars that the parents were probably too ashamed visit the hospital and seek treatment for belies the feeling that parents sometimes never think they can inflict grievous bodily harm on their kids because they love their kids too much to see them devoid of punishment.

This is where I would sometimes agree with the lobby against hitting children because the few times I have been struck across the face in anger when it would have been better parenting to smack me or ask me to do some mean task just shows many parents are confused about discipline, order and control.

They did what they knew

Again, on the whole, my parents did their best, and parenting does not come with manuals or certificates – I am still proud of my upbringing though hindsight does indicate that maybe some things could have been done better.

My uncle and aunts went on to live their own fulfilled lives, sometimes fearful of big brother, sometimes in awe of big brother and over time, big brother has become cuddlier, lovelier and well fatherly-er? Modesty stayed with us till she got married some 8 years later, Unculu had left 6 years before.

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