|By Obi. O. Akwani
Uzuakoli is a strategic town in this part of Nigeria; and it has been so for centuries. Before the arrival of European colonists in the 19th century, it was the major market centre for that part of West Africa. The old Agbagwu Market which attracted traders from further than Arochukwu to the east, Onitsha to the west, Okrika to the south and Igala to the north, is still there. Even the old Slave Route remains, though used today only by farmers going to and from their plots. In the old days — till well after the European powers had put a ban on the African slave trade — it was the route through which those unlucky souls who had been sold into slavery by their kin were brought to and taken from the Uzuakoli market, in a traffic that flowed between Uzuakoli, Bende, Arochukwu and Calabar via Biapkan in present-day Akwa Ibom State of Nigeria.
Slavery is a horrible thing. However I tried to rationalize the practice — whether in the pre-European period, during the period of first European trade contact with West Africa and thereafter — slavery always emerges, in my view, as a most horrible and anti-human practice.
Indeed it used to be a form of penal system through which miscreants were punished. Oral history establishes as much; but the thing I can not ascertain today by this method, is whether slavery had always been a part of the African society or whether it accompanied the European influence. I believe the former may have been the case.
Before the commercialization of the slave trade through European demand, the institution was indeed partly a penal system. Parents and relatives used it to get rid of undesirable members of the family. Three kinds of people were often regarded as undesirables — kleptomaniacs, extreme or incorrigible sexual miscreants and people who would not allow social taboos to modify their personal behaviors and so terrorized society through indiscriminate violent behavior. Getting rid of such people was often done quietly without violence. Usually the victim was unaware of the fate that had been chosen for him or her. There was usually a cover story built around a normal activity such as a journey in which the victim is accompanied by others.
The most heart-wrenching form of slavery, even for its proponents, is that in which otherwise normal people must be sold. This would happen when a poor parent with many children decides to sell one of those children into “soft” slavery in order to gain payment (the existence of this form of slavery points to high social tolerance for the practice). Individuals may also be given away in ransom to another, offended, community. This happened when there occurred an accidental or deliberate killing of a member of one community by another. These are the only two occasions when people may be reluctantly sold into slavery. Hard slavery, on the other hand, is when the unfortunates are sold with the intention of making sure they never returned. Such people were sold to others who intended to use them for human sacrifice or they may be sold to such far-away places that it is virtually impossible for them to find their way home. But it is certain that When Europeans first took interest in the terrible trade, the practice became indiscriminate. Both good, upstanding citizens and common criminals were as likely as not to be sold into slavery. With European commercialization, the practice also became violent even as far as war being waged in order to capture victims.
Incidentally or not, slavery remains part of the African society even in the 21st century. From the Sudan Republic to Nigeria, media reports are showing, people are still being enslaved and used in inhumane ways. I have often thought that the persistence of this phenomenon is the result of societies that have refused to allow real self-examination. Some societies it seems are content to hurtle along without any attempt to independently evaluate the conditions of life. As a result, these societies live in declining moral environments. In the case of Nigeria, the new slavery is being driven by those who seek by any means necessary to become rich and powerful. Many such people are powerful or influential politicians, businessmen and women and careerists of other types. To satisfy them, there has arisen a crop of voodoo witch doctors who sell to these men and women of evil ambition the idea that they must obtain certain human parts to be used to make-up the voodoo concoctions that would give them their hearts’ desires. The new slave trade is being spuned by the demand for such human body parts. Many cases of missing persons in Nigeria today are the result of people being abducted by agents of the new slave trade. Read accounts of recent escapees of the dens of modern slavery. Unfortunately, the Nigerian government seems blasé about the whole issue.
Uzuakoli is my home town or more precisely, my ancestral home town, where my paternal ancestors settled a millennium or more ago. I was actually born further north in Abakiliki, now in Ebonyi State and by another reckoning, this may be considered my hometown, especially as my family still owns land there. But the claim to a homeland is more than just land ownership or even birth. It has more to do with filial connections, the connections of kinship and tenured residence. It has to do with the remembrances of time, call it memory and history, and the habits that these call fourth — call that customs and traditions. Having a home town is to be remembered and welcomed and recognized in these things by kin, and to remember in turn, and be able to walk in familiarity without strangeness among them.
Uzuakoli is all of these things to me. Here I am known and accepted and accorded the respect that one deserves by simply remaining a good law abiding member and a contributor to the well-being of society. Here I have come home for the Christmas holidays.
I arrived to a full house. My brother and his family arrived a few days ahead of us. My wife, a registered nurse by profession, was still on duty at the hospital in Abuja. She would be joining us after the Christmas holidays, but before the New Year. Some of our nieces and nephews had also arrived. They are the children of my sisters, all but two of whom are married outside Uzuakoli. The presence of these kids has added to the thrill of the holidays. Ours has always been a large family. There were eleven of us when we were growing up as kids and that made for a boisterous house, especially during the holidays. But as everyone has married and moved away, those of us who have to return home now and again must feel the difference. I do, at least. Whenever I have had occasion to return home in the off-season over the last few years, I have found the empty rooms and quiet around the family home rather disquieting. This is the first time, since my father’s funeral in 2004, when so many family members are coming together at the same time. Most of my sisters are around as well. They drop in with their spouses for the afternoon. Sometimes they sleep over. I made it a point to visit each one of them in their marital homes during the Christmas season.
On the first day after my arrival, after a good night’s rest, I arose late in the morning to begin my rounds of extended family visits. This is always part of the routine for me every time I am home. There are a number of people that I must see. There is my aunt Daa Titi whom I have known since I was a wee toddler. She is quite old now and frail, but she is still the same sharp and tough minded woman I have always known. I sit with her for about thirty minutes. These days she is full of complainst about old age. I cherish mostly the wisdom she imparts and the tales of her old exploits as a young society woman. I think my Daa Titi is one of the unsung Nigerian women suffragists. Next there is Daa Mmirinma. My earliest memory of her is that of a beautiful kind woman in Abakaliki. I remember enjoying her presence and attention as a toddler and she has told me surprising things about myself as a babbling toddler. I also drop in to see Koso, one of the mainstays of the community today. as a young man, Koso was a photographer, he took some very fine pictures of me during my initiation into the secret society of men in 1967. Before that he was mostly a disciplinary headache to his father. So it is nice to see the older man, Koso, as a wise leader of the community. Next I go down to see Chief Omengboji, a retired civil servant. We sit and chat. Others join us. Omengboji’s house is rarely lacking in visitors. People are always dropping bye for one reason or the other. Some come to lodge complaints about others or to gain one favor or another. We chat about his years in Abuja when that city was still being built. He has several game trophies hanging on his walls. Omengboji, a crack shot and an excellent hunter, had a terrific time in the game rich bushes of Abuja. Over the next three days I visited and commiserated with over a dozen people. One of the last persons I saw was Eze Ikpekogu, the traditional ruler of the community.
On the 26th of December, the whole clan gathered in Ngbe Ukwu, the clan meeting hall. This was actually the first time I was being a part of this gathering. Having been away from the clan most of my adult life I missed out on previous chances to participate in this annual gathering. I was pleasantly surprised to see Tee Kanu, the clan head looking fit as he sat in his place of honor at the meeting. After the death of my father in 2004, the clan headship had fallen upon Tee Kanu, as the oldest surviving member. Even in 2004, there were reports that he was ailing. He was not even able to attend my fathers funeral. So it was very good to see him looking so well during the clan meeting. Eze Ikpekogu was there too, but he did not sit on his throne. He is still by far a young man. The clan headship may not come to him for many years still. This event was Tee Kanu’s to preside over. Moreover, the traditional rulership is a relatively new institution more to do with colonial and post colonial politics than tradition.
The meeting commenced with hearings of vexing communal matters. Families and individuals with disputes brought them before the gathering to be arbitrated. Young people who were going astray were brought before the gathering to be cautioned or sanctioned. ‘Nwanyioma’ Alagboso was home from America. He came to Mgbe Ukwu with sundry gifts to the kindred. he came with his wife and children. It was all quite formal as these events usually are. He saluted beautifully and his presentation with a fine speech. Everyone applauded. He also presented his two teenage sons for the first time to the kindred. These American boys were visiting Nigeria and their father’s ancestral home for the first time. As they stood before the gathering with their father being urged to salute in the fine fashion that their sire had done, they eye each other and their new relatives warily. They stood shyly, tall teenagers both. But I could see that self-assured posture of the African American youngsters, a mixture of boldness and that wary caution in their environment. Suddenly it struck me that these American kids of African parents, these are the bridge to close the gap between cultures. The pressure was on the younger boy as every one, including his father, urged him to salute. Talk about instant cultural immersion! These kids couldn’t even speak Igbo, their parents’ native tongue. Finally the boy resolutely shook his head, “no.” He wasn’t about to embarrass himself before all these strangers. They were ushered back to their seats.
Two days before the New Year I had decided to do an “IKpo Oku.” I put out a call for the Ikpiripke group to come to my house. Tee Uchegbu is the head of the group. Tee Kanu was there too, as well as Koso. On that first day, Tee Kanu told us tales of the beginnings, of Imenyi and his great grandson Ozu. He told the tale all the way down to the present, giving each person’s lineage. Koso who was almost as knowledgeable put in a word here and there. Koso talked much about when he was a soldier in the Biafran army and his exploits under the leadership of Captain Ohiri. All the story telling were interspersed with bouts of ikpirikpe singing at appropriate junctures. The next day, it was the turn of the Okonko society. I invited them also to give their own narration of things. Tee Onu was there. He looked at me and commented on how thin I was. I never knew the man had an ironic sense of humor. And that was not the only thing that surprised me about him. I had always known Tee Onu to be a staid and disciplined individual, but it was evident that he had loosened up a lot in old age. I never thought that he was a drinking man, but now I saw that he could drink with the rest of them. A lot of things have changed. Some people whom I once knew as strong and able men were now subdued, weakened by age and poverty.
My holidays lasted for nearly three weeks. As I returned to Abuja, the holiday induced inflation in fuel prices remained unchanged in the east, but the fare for the return trip had dropped back to near normal. Back in Abuja, the pre-Christmas fuel line-ups were still there, though the pump price had not varied from the standard N65 per liter. As the line-ups persisted each new day, the official excuses piled up. Mr. Kupolokun, the NNPC boss, first blamed the scarcity on vandals who were sabotaging many of their trans-national pipelines. He actually begged the faceless ‘vandals’ to desist! Next he admitted that none of the three refineries in the country were functional. This had also been the state of affairs during the Abacha era! Kupolokun, who is head of the corporation responsible for the development and management of the country’s vast oil resources said Nigeria is 100 percent dependent on imported oil products!