By Chukwuemerie Udekwe
The aged man with white hair was saying, with pain-stained lips and a disappointed heart. “It isn't a must to give masquerade money.” Except for his facial expression that curried pity, there was nothing else convincing about him. He looked unkempt, of a dishevelled hair, and heavily tattered shirt. Illiteracy was apparent and one only needed to seek refuge in the supposed wisdom of his age. Let it be said again that what an elderly man sees, sitting, children cannot see, standing.
But he was becoming more convincing, like one who was sure he needed not be literate to appraise socio-cultural issues. “Eziokwu, oburo iwu na-aga eme muonwu. It's a thing of choice,” he added, letting out his first English. Then, to remind us he was neither a master in the language nor cared about it, he mindlessly continued. “Those boys are very wickedness. You would have been there to see how they flogged that old papa. They are very wickedness set of people.”
“Exactly, no lespect for erdels,” interrupted the passenger sitting right beside me. His palpable lallation was disturbing. “Mmuonwu bu when he comes and dances or plaises you, you give him money if you want to appleciate. Now, they will just forcing you like him give you money to hole for him.” The 'hole was standing for 'hold' but he either did not deem the 'd' necessary or was totally oblivious of it. Then they continued to berate the ugly development rearing its head.
I never joined conversations in public transport. No matter how comic, irritating or exciting the topic. The only exception I can recur happened months ago in a bus heading from Agulu to Awka. A young man had told his partner at the other end of the phone that he was just arriving Lagos, and would call him back whenever he returned to Anambra. While others ignored the blatant lie, a young lady beside me could not.
“That is uncalled for,” she rebuked in well-cooked English. “When will people learn to stop lying over the phone but stand their grounds in truth?” But since the young man was convinced of the necessity of lies, especially in business dealings, an argument ensued with the other passengers taking sides. Then just as the argument was about to tilt in favour of the lady, the young man gave a witty remark that left everyone toppling out of laughter.
“Will you reach Eke Awka?” the man asked, leaving the young lady somewhat offended. She had thought that the man was unnecessarily trying to take advantage of the argument. But having being convinced that it was just a harmless question that would not lead to asking for her number or a date, she answered.
“Ok. Fine.” The young man continued. “To show you the importance of lying in business, when you get to Eke Awka you do see some people offering Glo sim cards free of charge. Go to them, and see if money won't come out of your purse in the end.”
At this, I could not hold myself. I laughed so boisterously. shaking all over and wanting to fall. But all those too were in my mind since I did not let a sound or any external movement.
But today, I was reacting to the discussion, not because of its comic but pertinent and realistic nature. While masquerading is becoming synonymous to the quiddity of Igbo, say African culture, it is also becoming a perennial problem, fanned by the embers of fanaticism, hoodlums and societal miscreants.
When the driver spoke for the first time, he seemed to be picking his words from my mind's lips. “Ndi na eme mmuonwu kita are mainly tobacco boys. They take tobacco and Tramadol before wearing their masks. Nonsense people. Let the proverbial anthills kill them there. They say that is where they come from, right?”
I was touched. Contrary to a man mocking the myths of his culture, the driver had the smear of guilt, shame and regret in his heart. Like one helplessly watching the shreds of whatever he held so dear being taken away from him with murderous insouciance.
I was touched because just three days ago, I had been ignominiously flogged myself by a lad who felt he was dedicatedly celebrating the Imo Awka festival. Having alighted at Aroma Junction and paid the driver with the fulfilment of a man who just completed a business transaction, no matter how slight it was, a young lad rushed towards me with a big stick. Then before his weapon hit the upper part of my right leg, he said, “o ka inwe ihe iga ako ma ina.”
He wanted me to have a story for my people at home.
With feelings steaming more of shame than pain, I continued with my journey. That was not the kind of story I would love to tell. Stories of a culture that inflicts pain and impede human right and freedom. Stories of a culture that forcefully stifle economic activities for days, whereas, at the very heart of an Igbo man, are tufts of several economic ambitions, waiting to be explored.
But my people seem to have left hoodlumswho do not know where the rains started to beat them nor the times when the air was land for the squirrel to snatch our culture from us, and tear every piece of it that binds us together. Today, Achebe's Okonkwo would not have to battle the European Missionaries, but his very own kinsmen.
About the stories I would like to tell, I would not like to include the many unfortunate young men who claim to celebrate our culture with bottles of beer clung to their hands, along the major roads, incessantly causing havoc and harassing passers-by.
When did our culture become a dance one performs with snuff in the hand?
Miscreants who have forgotten that a fundamental part of ndi Igbo is love for foreigners. Foreigners who they now flog and extort money from. Are they still brothers in a foreign land?
Nwanne o ka dikwa na mba?
But these are the stories I am forced to tell today. My offensive friend with the big stick has succeeded. I still see him hitting me again and again in my dreams, with mockery in his voice, and glee in his eyes.
But for how long?
How long must it take for us to realize that culture na eto eto - that it grows, and then do the needful? If I long to experience the Calabar festival, the Argungu festival; if people travel from afar only to witness them, but cringe at Imo Awka festival, and people refrain from ambling the Awka axes and those of other towns when my own kinsmen celebrate theirs, then something is wrong. Then, we must act quickly. Lest, our precious culture a na ka nayi. Lest, we end up empty handed like Aaron.
We do not want to be part of a culture that is alien to life, inflicts pain and celebrates it. We do not.
Oh, we do.
What do I know?