by Ian McCall

Chapter 14 - ONYECHA

The Port Harcourt area took in much of the Ibo country and had a principally Ibo population with a fair scattering of other tribal groups concentrated in the delta of the Niger. The Ibo are found in the forests of south-east Nigeria where the population densities are high and the soil debased as a result of intensive working without the luxury of being able to leave plots fallow on a regular basis to allow them to recover their original fertility. They cleared the forest and put it to work in the cultivation of their crops which they husbanded as a subsistence economy. They lived in ‘village democracies’, that is, they lived in a society without hierarchy where the extended family was the basic social unit. It could comprise twenty families or more. Sometimes it took on a more complex form which embraced all the descendants of a particular ancestor who occupied the same territory or village. The eldest living male was head of this social unit. Some villages might consist of several of these patrilineal groups, one of whom was recognised as senior and he was the figurehead in whose name a village council took its decisions. There was no hierarchy and this seemed to promote an outward-looking attitude. It was reflected in competition among villages to build schools and carry out other community projects. The Ibo are a hard-working, thrifty people who have gained the reputation of being good traders, good technicians and administrators. Their lack of hierarchy meant that that they were never inhibited in making known their point of view and some people found them difficult to work with. Some officers whose work had previously been confined to the North where there was a more hierarchic social structure and where people when given an instruction would normally comply without demur, found the Ibo hard to adjust to and longed to be posted back to the North for which they claimed a superior mode of living by which they meant a more gentlemanly tenour of life. That was certainly the case as far as the climate was concerned; the dry heat of the north being much more tolerable than the sweatbox of the oil palm belt. We saw it as the soft option. The Ibo women shared the tendency of their men to put their views forward with the utmost cogency as I had found among the women of the Ngwa clan in Mbawsi. Sometimes people from other ethnic groups found the Ibo arrogant, aggressive and grasping and regarded with disfavour the noisy exhibitionism and the brash disregard for humility of some when they had become successful. I was to come to realise that once an Ibo trusted you, you had a friend for life.

The pressure of population had created an Ibo diaspora with many of their number seeking work with government or commercial organisations outside Ibo territory. The special areas designated for those not of the faith outside cities of the Muslim north were largely populated by the Ibo and a smaller Yoruba minority who were indispensable to the running of the administration there. Many of them had embraced Christianity as a consequence of the activities of missions of different denominations from the second half of the nineteenth century and had achieved under the tutelage of the missions a standard of education that left all other tribes behind in the acquisition of the skills needed for advancement in a colonial or any other situation requiring clerical and intellectual skills. A significant number of the population were not Christian but animists who attributed soul - spirit is probably a more appropriate word - to natural objects and phenomena. They had a close relationship with the natural world, with the world of spirits, of the arts, and the ancestors. Such people were previously called by the more negative name of pagans. They believed that everything in the universe was a manifestation of deity and therefore sacred, that the world of the spirits is a deep source of wisdom, healing and inspiration. Many of those who had embraced the Christian religions, particularly in the remoter regions, still propitiated the spirits with suitable offerings which acted in effect as a kind of double indemnity. They had many gods but there was a boss-god in charge, Chuku, to whom the other gods were subservient. They appeared to have had little difficulty in embracing the Christian God as Number One in the hierarchy as long as they were not forced to abandon the worship of their own spirits. The Ibo is noted for his ability to adjust his behaviour to circumstances.

My steward Richard was an Ibo, so I always had an interpreter to translate the culture and the language for me. This made life a lot easier than it would otherwise have been. Soon I got to know some of the customs that I would almost certainly have had trouble with in the beginning. When we entered a new place and someone raised a clenched fist, that was not a threat but a greeting. It was almost invariably accompanied by Onyecha meaning ‘white man’. Without Richard’s mediation the whole atmosphere could have seemed menacing and unfriendly except that the smiles were never all that far away. Onyoji (‘black man’) was an acceptable response but had to be accompanied by a smile.

Later, when we would move to other parts where other languages were spoken or people were itinerant like the Hausa traders, there would be different customs but always ‘white man’ whether oyibo in Yoruba, baturi in Hausa or mbakara in Efik. There is a Jamaican slang word ‘backra’ meaning ‘a white man’ which suggests to me that the Efik and Ibibio country (the two tribes shared the same language) was the source of many of the slaves shipped to the West Indies in the 17th and 18th centuries. I began to realise that wherever we went in the bush, we were the cinema, the jugglers and the passing show all rolled into one. If people crowded round it was out of interest and curiosity rather than bad manners which is very much a concept that is value-laden and varies from country to country and indeed from region to region.

On one occasion when I was in a part of the country that had, as I later found out, been providing a slight political problem as far as the administration was concerned, my car broke down. As I was lying under it trying to find out what was wrong, a crowd of villagers offered to help on behalf of the mechanics among their number - almost half the men in Nigeria, it seemed, claimed to be mechanics - a gesture much appreciated but in the event unnecessary in this case as it was a familiar problem. Shortly afterwards, a police lorry rolled up and a squad of policemen got down fitted out in full riot gear and wielding their kobokos. Never was there a greater incongruity between my perception of the gesture that had just been made to me and the impression given of the people by the police action. When I recounted this to the Resident, he admonished me for not keeping him informed of my movements so that I could have been warned of a possible explosive situation. Thereafter I made sure he received a copy of my proposed itinerary but reserved my judgment about the ‘explosiveness’ of the situation I had witnessed which was presumptuous of me, I suppose, but a natural reaction or so I tell myself.

Richard had a habit of making his own judgments about the actions of drivers and cyclists, particularly where in his judgment they had erred. If he perceived a very bad breach of his traffic code, he would push his head out of the window and call ‘You bloody fool’. This trait led me to wonder where it was that he had heard this expression and it did not take me long to hazard a guess. It connoted in his book severe displeasure on the part of the utterer and one wondered whether there had been a former employer whose fuse was too short for long survival in the tropics. If the person to whom Richard’s comment was directed showed the least inclination to challenge what he had said - and his fellow Ibos were unlikely to take such a comment without a vociferous reply - he would immediately extend his arm out of the window turning the open palm of his hand towards the person concerned who would be behind us by this time, in a final gesture of contemptuous dismissal. This was, I established early on in our relationship, the ultimate curse. Richard was on safe ground so to speak, conveying his malediction to the recipient from the safety of a moving vehicle. Another of his salient characteristics, which he shared with many of his countrymen, was to indicate direction with his lips - never with a finger. If he was pointing out someone who had contravened his code, this was done with an exaggerated action. He would open his lips and nod vigorously in the direction of the person saying ‘Dat man dere’, indicating the direction with rounded lips and a final nod on the last syllable.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003