The Fall season, with its attendant cool winds, reminds me of the beginning of the harmattan season in the land of my fathers, which also heralds the onset of my favourite season- Christmas. The deep sense of nostalgia that I get, at this time of the year, is not really about the Nnewi of today, the one that is currently being visited by a multitude of problems like overcrowding and ubiquitous presence of cars and buildings. It is not about the current Nnewi that sees high-rise buildings, instead of trees, springing up in all nooks and crannies, blocking the course of natural drainage and culminating in the disaster that is erosion (mbize). My nostalgic feeling does not dwell on the Nnewi of today, where plumes of black smoke sometimes ooze out from the chimneys of cottage industries located inside residential areas, threatening the existence of the very people that worked hard to give the town the glorious name it has in industrial circles. My nostalgic feeling is certainly not for the Nnewi of today, where the freedom to move around and mingle with friends, families and neighbours, in the eventide, has all but become an illusion because of the evil machinations of men of the underworld, some of who come from far away from towns and cities, terrorizing peace-loving people of the one-time serene and bucolic land.
Nostalgia takes me down memory lane, through the Nnewi of yesteryears, the hometown I knew as a little boy; the one I grew up in as a teenager and then a man. That’s it; the quaint town of decades past, with pristine surroundings dotted by refreshingly inviting landscape of greenery and trees of assorted nature- udala, ube, ube okpoko, ugili, oji, okwe, usuke, mangolo oyibo and mangolo igbo. In the stable land that I once knew, the problem of erosion (mbize) was few and far in-between because our forebears were full of insight and foresight and built earthen drainage ditches (swales), at strategic locations, to channel rainwater into the many miniature catch basins (umi) that existed solely for that purpose. They never built structures over swales and they jealously guarded the catch basins because their blockage would spell disasters of flood proportions.
Then, Nnewi was serene and inviting; the people were very friendly and welcoming. If you visited friends or relatives, even if the visit was unannounced, you still got the utmost of receptions – roasted maize and pear (oka na ube), afufa, oji, ose oji and okwa ose. Those were the days when elders welcomed friends with ite otu or ekwekpu, filled with original and home-brewed palm wine (ngwo) devoid of chemical additives (saccharine) that have now soiled the innocence of the home brew. Then, the kids would go down our village spring- Okpuani, not just to fetch water, but to mingle and socialize with other kids, especially those on the opposite side of the human spectrum -oops. Descending the hills that led down to Okpuani spring, we could easily see other kids, with buckets and jerry cans balanced carefully on their heads, with aju as the cushion between their heads and the water containers. They would equally be descending or ascending the hills of the springs in their villages like Obiakoloma, Nnenkisi and mmile eze. We would stop and jokingly holler, “ndi nnenkisi-o-o, otolo gbagbue unu-o-o, ndi Obiakoloma-o-o, otolo gbagbue unu-o-o, ndi mmili eze-o-o, otolo gbagbue unu-o-o”. As much as otolo, in this context, is a form of curse, we said it light-heartedly, with no malicious intent and the other kids understood it as such; they would also respond in kind, “ndi Okpuani-o-o, otolo gbagbue unu-o-o…” Life was good or so it seemed; it was all, hakuna matata, to borrow from the movie, Lion King. The kids actually had no worries. There were no competitions; kids were satisfied and proud of what they and their families had. As a result, serious robbery and get-rich-quick schemes were practically alien to the town. The villages were safe; neighbors looked after one another and the kids freely roamed the dusty pathways and every time it rained, they indulged in the rain dance we called igba ogogo mmili.
I would set out, on foot, from our house in Okpunoeze, Uruagu and head to Umuezena in Umudim, with my little brother Nnamdi in tow, to a funeral ceremony (akwam ozu) just to behold the “magnificence” of Odogwu Izeji, Nwansi ndi Umuezena, Odogwu Bob Ike, Ikedinaodogwu Nde Ngbu Otolo, okpoka ndi Edoji, Ozokwamkpo and Ajukwu. The funeral ceremony grounds were always dusty and it seemed like every time we went to one of those, one would go home with a cold (azuzu). We did not mind the effects of the cold because it was always fleeting but the general precaution, to minimize it, was to cover our nostrils with handkerchiefs while watching the masquerades do their thing inside the dancing arena (ogbo egwu). As kids, we were not always allowed into the dancing arena for fear of being stomped on by the more manly and imposing adults, dancing to the melody of the masquerade songs. Mmodile, the charismatic World War II veteran, from Uruagu, who was always invited to funeral ceremonies to keep the peace and maintain order, was always on hand to show the kids out of the dancing arenas. Part of his charge was to ensure that masquerades did not stay in the dancing arena past their allotted time. I have heard him, on one occasion, say that he fought during the Second World War in Burma; he called it agha Burma (the Burma war), I guess he served in Burma. Aside from the display by the many masquerades that grace such funeral ceremonies, umu okpu, of the bereaved family, were always on hand to sing the praises of the deceased through a performance called “itu ukwe”. Nnamo-o, they would say, as they firmly stamp their feet on the dusty ground and with the picture of the deceased picture firmly held in one hand, they would gracefully gyrate their waists, while moving their hands and feet in a synchronized and elegant fashion. Nnam oyoyo, others would say while stretching out the picture in their hands for further viewing by curious visitors. Guests would sometimes drop some money in the plates they carry, in appreciation of the mini entertainment. It was fun to watch, we loved life and were very happy indeed.
The end of the school year, at the St Mary’s school, used to be in December. There was a short song that kids sang in reference to the end of the school season. It went something like, “December, ndi n’ochi, ndi n’akwa”. It meant that during the December period, some kids would be happy and smiling while others would be unhappy and crying. We got our final report cards for the year in December and in January; those who passed would go on to the next class. It was always emotional as we would gather in the assembly hall, excitedly awaiting the slow but majestic entrance of the school headmaster. He would walk into the hall and after the necessary end of year announcements, begin calling out the names, by class, of the top three students in each class. Subsequently, others would go to their various teachers to get their report cards. Successful ones would be all smiles (ndi n’ochi) while those who failed would be crying (ndi n’akwa). Getting a good result means that one would have a good and happy Christmas season; we always raced home to break the good news about doing well in school for the year and then begin to ask for Christmas clothes, shoes, hats and knockouts (firecrackers).