by Ian McCall

Chapter 35 - LUVVIES

A calabash is the dried and hollowed out shell of the bottle pumpkin and other types of gourd trees. They come in different sizes but are still used for particular purposes irrespective of how big or small they are. They are used as containers and as vessels for food and drink. The shape is imitated in the manufacture of clay pots. I have seen big ones balanced on the heads of women carrying water and other loads for long distances, small ones by a potter when water was needed in the process of throwing a pot, in the kitchen for adding water to a culinary creation, in the process of starching and ironing clothes (by taking water from it into the mouth and spitting it out as required on to the garment), and for adding liquid to achieve the right consistency in the making of indigo dyes. On a sadder and exceptional note, calabashes were used to dispose of newly born twins less than a hundred years ago because they were supposed to be the result of malign witchcraft. Again, on a practical note, I have seen a hardened clay pot-bottom turned upright on top of a calabash full of loose earth and the sides of the pot built downwards in coils before being smoothed off following the sides of the calabash and then rimmed.

The prime use of the calabash is a social and celebratory one. It is for holding palm wine which is the liquid that betokens hospitality, lubricates friendships and serves to bond groups on occasions of significance like weddings and funerals. It is the fermented sap of the raffia palm made by tapping the tree at its crown and letting the sap drain slowly into the calabash, or more frequently these days, into glass bottles. In a couple of days it is ready for imbibing, a milky, frothy, strong liquid with a unique, yeasty taste. Unlike whisky, it does not improve with keeping and indeed loses its attractiveness after a few days. The calabash can be decorated with line drawings or paints, or sometimes a combination of both and with carving. The artistic aspect is appreciated as well as the practical, particularly for more important occasions. One of these occasions occurred on a visit to the lower Cross River stations.

Outside of the educated elite, weddings in Nigeria were noticeably different from those in the United Kingdom. Brides like to look their best wherever they are. It goes without saying that different countries will have different ideas about how to dress for the occasion, how to do the hair and what rituals are to be observed. We do not always think of marriages elsewhere as being differentiated by what constitutes the body beautiful. But this concept also varies with where you are. The pencil-slim figures who parade the catwalks of Western Europe would have no appeal in parts of Nigeria. When I was in the eastern part of the country in Ibibio territory, I was invited with another expatriate whose local popularity was the reason for the invitation, to visit a wedding celebration near Okopedi where the bride had just come out of the fattening house in which she had spent some time to enhance her beauty. To me she seemed gross but there was little doubt about the dignity with which she carried herself. In this peasant society the man who could afford a fat wife was a man of wealth. The longer a girl remained in the fattening house the wealthier her father appeared, the fatter the girl became and the more flattered was the husband-to-be. So the fattening houses of south-east Nigeria were like the expensive finishing schools of Europe - the higher the cost, the greater the father’s reflected glory and the more equipped the girl to find a well-heeled husband. As part of the celebrations we took palm wine poured into glasses on this occasion from a large and highly decorated calabash. We drank the wine in honour of the the bride-to-be and felt the warmth of collective joy. The spirit of the water goddess was invoked to look favourably on the life of the young woman. We made our contribution to the assortment of gifts given by well-wishers as a token of our appreciation of the invitation and took our leave at what we felt was an appropriate moment .

Like any other fermented drink, palm wine can be taken to excess. When my assistant director was on a tour of inspection to Warri, he dined with me. His steward, who accompanied him, was given hospitality by Richard. He over-imbibed and was subsequently unable to stand.
‘I’m less than pleased, Ian, that your steward plied mine with drink’ Jack Fleming complained the following day, ‘he was absolutely drunk and incapable of carrying out his duties later.’ Jack was a fellow Scot originally from Glasgow. Until then I had assumed that he was able to cope with such a condition even if he disapproved. ‘I hope’, he went on, ‘that you will ensure that it doesn’t happen again.’
I was furious. He had sat in my house and drunk my whisky and could have had much more if he had wanted. He had the good sense not to. ‘Jack sir,’ I said, trying to put some respect into my words, ‘you had exactly the same kind of temptation as Justin (I think that was his steward’s name) but you knew when to call a halt’
Jack looked at me with his blue eyes that always seemed to go right through you.
‘You have a responsibility as an employer to ensure that hospitality isn’t overdone by your servants. You know how excessive hospitality can be here. As your senior officer I feel you could have done better’.
When I inquired of Richard how it had happened and recounted the bare bones of my deputy director`s complaint, he merely said ‘Every peson know how much palm wine he fit take for belly’. For me that said it all.

Amos Tutuola, a Nigerian writer, drew on his Yoruba tradition to write a book called ‘The Palm Wine Drinkard (sic)’. It had appeared a year or so before the incident with Jack’s steward. It is an unsophisticated fantasy untouched by the creativity-inhibiting process of much higher education. In it, the principal character is searching for his dead palm wine tapster before he gets to heaven (there is an intermediate stage which is of this world). It takes the reader through devilishness and cruelty, macabre humour and imagery, possession by the spirits and jousts with the harbingers of death to provide a picture of the writer’s mind and origins in all its grisliness and grotesque inventiveness. And all this is done on the memory of three hundred and seventy kegs of palm wine drunk every day. Such a compelling tale of unbridled imagination is it that the ‘willing suspension of disbelief for the moment that constitutes poetic faith’ is a state of mind that is easily induced.

The clay pots which are copies of the shape of a calabash are usually made in sizes to which the natural calabash cannot grow. Instead of a calabash the pot makers often use metal formers round which they coil the clay. Some sizes are used for the storage and carriage of various items, but their principal function is for the transport of liquids. No need for the women who carried calabashes on their heads to have exercises in deportment. They would be a fine example to many European women today and to women in some other countries to whom dignity and elegance are strangers. Sometimes the laws of gravity seemed to be defied as the women still managed to proceed graciously with a pot tilted to one side while observers like me waited with bated breath for it to fall.

The calabash has given rise to miniaturisation of the species to be grown as a decorative plant with all manner of variants in terms of the shapes of the fruits. Maybe the god responsible for palm wine in all its facets has sent the message that ‘everything in moderation’ should be the watchword and that the miniaturisation of the calabash is a first symbolic act on his part to encourage all his followers to a more abstemious behaviour. Then the inspiration might be lost that begat the talent of Tutuola.

I still have a painting I bought from the artist himself when he called at my house selling his productions. It is a typical creek scene in the Delta portraying a canoe propelled by a lone paddler in a forest of mangrove rising out of the mud and water. The dug-out canoe and its sole occupant - who is probably a fisherman - are somehow in stark contrast to the apparent stillness of the encompassing water and land because of the sense of movement they together convey. The artist has captured in oils the essence of the creek in all its loneliness; he has imparted the ubiquity of the vegetation once it has been able to sprout leaves from the gnarled and unpromising roots that sustain it. There is just a suggestion of hidden dangers lurking in the brackish waters. It is high tide evidenced by the apparently endless water out of which the mangrove grows. One expects something resembling a floating log to appear at any moment, in reality a crocodile in its least aggressive mode (as far as humans are concerned) as this is its time for fishing. It highlights the difference from low tide when the water level drops and the mangrove looks for all the world like it is sprouting from stilts. There is a shoreline on which the water oozes rather than laps but it is a shore you don’t step on. Any weight sinks in the mud unless it can be spread across an area. The stench is horrendous. This is where the crocodile feels most at home with its tail securely in the mud and may attack anything that comes within its domain provided it is not sleeping as it often is, with its jaws open which should in itself should be a warning to travellers, albeit going about their daily business, to be circumspect in their actions. The so-called ‘crocodile tears’ which the reptile sheds results from the squeezing of the tear ducts when it opens its mouth. The artist has drawn on the intimacy of his own upbringing and experience to interpret a scene that might be repeated hundreds of times at that moment throughout these sluggish waterways. He has chosen to paint a familiar subject based on a traditional activity - God knows how this activity will be affected when there are the inevitable oil spills from the growing number of oilfields being identified in the delta. Yet he has used modern materials to produce this very acceptable and evocative painting. Is there, one might ask, an indigenous Nigerian art form that draws on local sources for its production as well as its inspiration?

We have to go back to the discovery of the Ife bronzes in 1911 to give us a clue to significant indigenous productions. The first was unearthed in a sacred grove by a team of German archaeologists and is reputed to be the head of the sea-god Olokun. In parallel were found a number of terra cotta heads. The find caused great excitement in art circles in Europe because of their classical form which gave rise to widespread speculation on links with the ancient world. Interest was revived in 1938 when more bronze heads were uncovered when foundations were being dug out for a new house near the palace of the Oni of Ife. More speculation followed. If indeed it was a local flowering of the art of cire-perdue, that is, where the cast is made of wax and then melted away just as the metal has hardened, then it was not something that was handed down as a result of generations of its practice and development. While cire-perdue bronze working was known to the people of Ife, the style of the bronze heads was not. In this respect it was high noon without dawn with an equally sudden sunset. There were still badly weathered terra cotta figures to be seen in some of the shrines around Ife in the 1950s, each of them sacred to a demi-god or orisha. It was the claimed birthplace of the Yoruba nation; indeed in Yoruba mythology the birthplace of the world too. There was an oracle known as the Ifa whose priests would divine the oracle’s wishes, on behalf of a person seeking its guidance, whether for preferment or revenge, by scattering sixteen palm kernels on a board and reciting a story from the appropriate permutation from the 1,680 possibilities determined by the way the nuts fell on the board. One can only imagine the years of apprenticeship needed for a priest to understand and memorise that number of stories. The carving on the cups used for this and the board itself represented the very best in Yoruba art, but this craft is no longer practised either. Other Ife productions included the making of decorative beads.

Leo Frobenius, who led the 1910-11 German expedition which discovered the first Ife bronze, speculated that the number sixteen had significant implications for the Yoruba as in their mythology, Yemaya, the goddess of moisture, gave birth at the same time to sixteen divinities including Shango, the mighty god of thunder, who was reputed to have ridden across the heavens on the backs of goats and to have shown a preference for the ram as a food. He saw links with the Mediterranean, presumably through the connection with the Hausa states, with this god and Ammon, the ram-headed god of Egypt; he also connected Ife which was rebuilt in 16 wards in 1882 with the Etruscans who built their temples in sixteen different quarters and divided the horizon into sixteen parts for purposes of divination. While the link may be tenuous, the idea is seductive. The more mundane decorative bead-making was also still being practised in the area when I was there. The aggry bead of hard glass had apparently been made, from an early date, in the territory of the Yoruba.

The cire perdue process of casting bronze was also a mark of the brass workers of Benin. It is generally agreed that the Binis learnt this from the Yorubas with their connections through their Northern neighbours the Hausas and the old caravan trade routes with ancient Egypt whose influence is said to have been strong. It was earlier believed that the influence was Portuguese but, while themes were adopted from them, there is a good case made through the ornamentation with snakes, grotesque faces and lizards of an Assyrian or Phoenician connection and, more tenuously, a Graeco-Roman one. There was still a body of skill among the brass and bronze workers of Benin but it was dying out for the reason that Benin work was done for the glorification of the Oba and his barons who have been shorn of much of their power and who apply their wealth to other, more modern, attractions. Perhaps the applications of more recent skills is the way forward for the new generations and that the artist from whom I bought the painting and his like were in the vanguard of a new tradition. The old tradition had its own style based on roots very different from the European classical concept of proportion and perspective. In almost every imaginable situation - the houses, the towns, the farms, the markets, the sculpture and painting - the straight line is conspicuous by its absence. It is not a Nigerian concern. Proportion gives way to rhythm, Elspeth Huxley suggests to us in Four Guineas, and the ideal to the grotesque. The mental picture derives from different ways of thinking, influenced by the perceived world which in turn is influenced by the orisha of storm and war. Inevitably, this is reflected in art with its symbols of terror and revenge.

If the traditional arts were decaying, the performing arts seemed to be in good health. Not as a spectacle people paid to watch, but as an integral part of the social life of the people. The Urhobo stilt dancers were traditional and vital in their own communities. Drumming was a way of life in many communities of the south of the country and provided the rhythms and the cadences for the dance which sprang from their everyday activities. Its expression was uninhibited and left little to the imagination, the symbolic and the interpretative being conspicuous by their absence. Miming was in the same tradition; not the formalised mime taken to a fine art by artistes of the French school, but a sense of drama that drew on local people and events. It could have a spontaneity that provided an additional flavour for the audience who in a sense were also participants making responses to the cues as they emerged in a new situation.

As a consequence Nigerians had a highly developed ability to mimic and Europeans could be the butt of their plays. I was on the receiving end of this when I was mimicked by a local wit in a remote village. He had made grass into spectacles and tied plantain leaves round his legs to represent my knee hose and then proceeded to interpret my actions in a way bystanders thought excruciatingly funny. He was obviously castigating the palm kernel traders for the poor quality of what they had brought, the store buyer for not being more careful in what he accepted or in keeping records, the produce inspector for not ensuring the others brought produce of an acceptable quality and, through his playing the part of myself, the produce officer for his inability to control such a band of incompetents. An accompanying member of staff said he was a half-wit, presumably a polite way of taking any sting out of the performance, but such was the exaggerated emphasis of his portrayal that I was left in no doubt as to who it was meant to be. Those in the immediate vicinity found it good entertainment and tried without success to keep the smiles from their faces. If mimicry and intelligence have any correlation, then he was the brightest half-wit I have come across. I conclude that if the grass roots can produce such characters, then the theatre, if I may use the word in its widest sense, is not lacking in talent to draw upon.

But it is in the written word that Nigerians really distinguished themselves. An older writer like Amos Tutuola, drawing on his own traditions, had a tale to tell which caught the obsession with death and spirits and the macabre humour and grotesque imagery of the African mind. It was, however, younger and more educated writers like Wole Soyinka - much later to become a Nobel laureate, who were already making a name for themselves and developing a genre that would focus on well-crafted stories calling on the Nigerian present. Chinua Achebe and Ken Saro Wiwo would become icons who symbolised the freedom of thought that would be one of the few freedoms to exist in the later Nigeria under military government. Like the other modern arts they reflected the Nigeria of their times in all its vigour and enterprise and were to be a beacon for other aspiring writing talents in the land who would distinguish themselves in the years to come. Names like Ben Enwonwu in sculpture and Rotimi Fani-Kayode in painting would also inspire the next generation.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003