I was a very good houseboy

FADE Weekly Column

I take this opportunity to extend my seasonal compliments to my readers all over the country and beyond and to thank all those that extended birthday wishes to me on the 1st of January. You have all been a source of inspiration.

As was stated, I turned 81 a few days ago and in a simple open house ceremony, I was joined by my entire family, some extended family members and friends of the family, I was also joined by friends of the environment, friends of the arts and artists in Nigeria.

Before the ceremony as is my usual custom, I took time to reflect on my 81 years on this beautiful planet, the only planet in the universe that has life. This led me to also reflect on my beloved country Nigeria, a country that is about to make a leap in the dark but the only place known as Home as it is where I have lived most of my life. In reflecting on some memorable events in the last few years, I remembered once again the lecture I gave in a Paris University which I had mentioned in my previous writings. What continued to baffle me about the question and answer segment with the students after the lecture was that the students were not that much interested in all my achievements as were read and dramatized during the citation, instead they were more interested in my early life and my beginning. That made so much sense to me because they were graduating, some first degree, some second degree and a few, PHD. They were about to face a difficult world and as beginners they needed to know and learn the ropes as it were and the difficulties that lie ahead.

For those reasons I have decided to tell story of my upbringing culled from a chapter in my latest book and autobiography ‘’Hunger for Power’’. The title of the chapter is ‘’I was a very good houseboy’’ which is why today’s article has been named likewise. In this story, you will read about my very interesting though difficult beginning that in many ways contributed to the person I am today.

Thinking back now, I reckon that I must have been a very good houseboy. When I lived with my uncle, I set his table, waited on him while he ate, made his bed and ran sundry errands for him and his many women. But all that didn’t guarantee me enough food.

My uncle must have taken note of how good I was when it came to housekeeping, because at a stage, when it became apparent that I would never get along with his wives, he decided to give me away as house boy to the younger brother of a Vicar stationed in our village. He wasn’t getting rid of me; he was in many ways, ensuring that I had a better life and lived in a place where I would be free from his wives and where I would at least have enough to eat.

At this point, I want to say that I take responsibility, mostly, for not being liked. Looking back now with the benefit of hindsight, I believe that it must have been my fault on some of those occasions, when my uncle’s wives did not give me food.

I mean, four women could not just have decided to hate one boy; surely, it must have been the boy’s fault. Thinking back now, I must confess that I liked food and I must have been very naughty.

I stayed with Ukadike for two years at Igbo-Ukwu before returning to my uncle’s house.

Before I proceed, let me dwell a little on my uncle Abel and the complex relationship I had with him. I had, in many ways, two fathers. My real father, Samuel Jibunoh, and my uncle, Abel Jibunoh, who took over my care after my mother and father died months apart.

As I have already mentioned, to ensure that I was well catered for, my uncle was prevailed upon to marry my mother’s sister, Aunt Naomi, in the hope that she would become the mother I never had.

While Aunt Naomi became a thorn in my flesh, my uncle Abel remained a true father to me. He was always torn between keeping the peace with his wives while ensuring I was well taken care of by these women because I just could not stop getting into trouble with them.

My uncle’s home was a polygamous household and polygamy is trouble all the way. You wake up in the morning, it is trouble you meet; and when you go to bed at night, it’s with one trouble hovering over your head. My uncle was, however, able to navigate the terrain with care. He tried to find a balance despite all odds.

But my uncle had a wife who did not live with him. We called her Mama; and she was, in all honesty, in a different class from the rest of my uncle’s wives. He had four wives living with him but she lived away from my uncle and never came to his house. He always went to her. She was quite independent and was amongst the elites of those days in Agbor where she lived.

My cousin was her only child, a son, and he was treated very much like an only child. You can imagine how pampered the only child of a wealthy woman would be.

Anyway, she tolerated me for a while, for about a year or so but soon got tired of my stubbornness. Thinking back, I believe I did everything I could to get it right, I did my best not to get into trouble. I did all I knew to do at that time, such that my uncle even took sides with me.

When he visited Agbor and found out that I wasn’t being treated well, he withdrew me and took me back; which is why I think that maybe I wasn’t so bad. But the question has always dogged my thoughts; why was I always getting into trouble with these women? Even with my own aunt, Auntie Naomi, my late mother’s sister.

Now, Mama made the very best akara and moin moin. Her food was so good that many people knew hers to be different from the rest. Living with her, I naturally became a part of the akara and moin moin making process.

Hers was specially made with crayfish and all kinds of condiments. The taste was so good that whenever I took them to the garage or market place to sell, it sold out fast.

But even though her food was the flavour of the market and sold out fast, I still got late to school every day; never mind the fact that I used to wake up very early, say about 3 am or 4 am every day, to start the process of steaming the moin moin that had been prepared the night before.

I would pour the blended bean paste into the leaves to steam on the fire and while the moin moin was on the fire, I would be frying the akara as well.  Once done, I would take them to the garage and in 10 to 15 minutes, I would be done, because by the time I arrived, there would be a lot of people waiting for me. They would scream and call out to each other: “Mama’s moin moin and akara is here o.”

When I got back from selling the moin moin and akara, I would go to the stream to take a bath. The stream flowing from the Boji-boji river was not very far from the house. I would take my bath then fetch water for use in the house.

Many times on my way to the stream, I would pass by my school mates who were already on their way to school and I always hurried to catch up. What this meant was that, there was hardly any time to have my breakfast and I couldn’t take some akara or moin moin from the batch I had been given to sell, because Mama would have counted the number of moin moin and akara I took to the market, and I had to come back and render accurate accounts. Remember also that because her food was good, there was hardly ever any left overs. I usually sold out my wares except on Saturdays and Sundays, when I would have one or two unsold and she’d then ask me to eat those.

So one day, I decided to take care of myself. I devised a means of ensuring that I added some extra bean paste for myself. What I did was not genius, it was just hunger induced. In order to ensure that I had breakfast, I would pour some of the bean paste into the whorls of the leaves. This was easy since I was in charge of pouring and steaming. I would pour in more than the required measure into some leaves then on my way to the garage, I would stop in a corner and eat off the extra parts I had poured into the leaves. You know at that time of the morning it would still be dark, so very few people would see me.

But my plan wasn’t too clever because I should have realized that the top part of the moin moin was where the real ingredients were. So after I kept eating that portion off, the customers began to grumble that Mama’s moin moin was getting smaller and there wasn’t much to it.

At the beginning, I didn’t pay much attention to their grumblings. But when it looked like they were going to report to her that her food was getting smaller, I stopped.

She never found out. I just stopped of my own volition after three weeks of feeding myself properly albeit illegally.

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