Mgbe Ezi Di n’Ukwu Ukwa: Retrospective Look at 20th Century Nwilo Family – by Dr. Okenwa Nwosu
The Igbo expression “mgbe ezi di n’ukwu ukwa” literally translates “when the footpath passed by the ukwa (breadfruit) tree”. This popular saying is a metaphor for “in times gone by”, “in olden times” and “in times of yore”. This expression is often used in nostalgic sense. Another Igbo expression that conveys same sense is “mgbe elu bu ala osa”. The literal Igbo translation of this expression is “when treetops used to be chipmunk’s playground”. Both Igbo expressions are used to put spotlight on the halcyon days when things used to be peaceful, serene and relatively uncorrupted by exigencies of “modernity”. I shall use this metaphor here to refer to my childhood years growing up in Akama Village with my widowed mother in the 1950’s. Looking back, a lot of things have changed; the livelihood, domiciliary pattern, socioeconomic environment, societal expectations, social norms etc. Change has happened. Whether these changes have been for good or bad shall be the object of discourse in this article.
Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” novel was cast in the backdrop of Alaigbo of the early colonial era – around the turn of the 20th Century. This era corresponds to the time when my father, Jeremiah (Jerry), was still a young child. Some describe this era as the twilight zone between the “old” and “modern” ways of living for the indigenous communities inhabiting the Igbo heartland. My childhood upbringing in Igboukwu was half century later than the circumstances that prevailed in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart novel. The bestselling novel’s leading character, Okonkwo, could have been age mate of my grandfather, Nwosu.
Igbo metaphors are derived from routine occurrences in people’s activities of daily living. Careful observation is the key in deriving them. Igbo metaphors are truisms that are best captured through careful observation. Let me briefly expatiate further on the mgbe ezi di n’ukwu ukwa metaphor featured here as an example. In typical precolonial Akama homestead, the ukwa tree is highly valued. The fruits’ nuts are usually pitted and the leftover is fed to cows, goats and sheep. The nuts are later processed for food. Ukwa leaves can also be harvested directly for feeding livestock. Ukwa tree has soft wood which burns smoothly and is preferred for space heating in traditional fireplaces. The preceding underscore the importance of the ukwa plant for the archetypal homesteader in bucolic setting of Akama village in the 1950’s.
As important as the ukwa plant might be, the tree is only allowed to grow to its full size if it had sprouted close to the margins of a typical homestead. The large expanse of homesteader’s land is cleared of trees with dense canopies like the ukwa tree and is usually reserved for planting valuable food crops to support the subsistent lifestyle which I lived through in my childhood years. Footpaths are preferentially not allowed in plots of land set aside for food crops. Access routes and thoroughfares were situated along neighboring compounds’ boundary line. Whenever possible, the footpaths also doubled as drainage channels (ogboli) which come in handy during rainstorms or in the peak rainy season when there is significant runoff from contiguous farmlands. So, in the olden times, footpaths and thoroughfares were located along the homestead’s periphery where big-sized economic trees like ukwa also grew.
Fast forward to the present. With the arrival of mechanized transportation, footpaths are no longer as relevant as they used to be. They are now replaced by much wider access routes such as streets, roads and even highways. To make way for these modern routes and at same time conserve as much farm land as possible, the new streets and roadways are built by expanding the pre-existing footpaths. This demands that all the nearby vegetation is cleared, including ukwa trees and sundry plants with which the traditional homesteader property was hedged over the generations. So, today, we have passageways (footpaths) passing through locations with no ukwa trees in sight. With the current upsurge in rural electrification, even wider areas are cleared of vegetation, including economic trees like ukwa, so as to provide access for provision of the amenities of modernity. In modern times, footpaths no longer pass by the ukwa tree.
The Family as a Survival Unit
The Nwilo family of my boyhood era lived together at home in contiguous homesteads clustered around “igba be Uzoeghelu”, “igba be Osuokwu” and along the “new road” bordering Godfrey’s, Jerry’s, Alfred’s and Gabriel’s homesteads. Residents of each homestead cultivated the relatively small parcel of land associated with the residential compounds. There is no piece of soil that was not tilled for food in those days. For many planting seasons, I had to accompany my mother to trek to distant locations where she was able to lease land for the year’s crops. Once the crops were harvested, the land reverted to the benevolent owner. Day-to-day survival required a careful stitching together of what can be harvested from the surrounding farmlands and what can be procured at Nkwo Igbo Market from proceeds derived from selling of livestock and yields from economic trees like palm nuts, bananas and other local fruits.
There were many chores related to construction and maintenance of the homestead, tilling farmlands in readiness for planting and preparing big meals for a large group which usually required the support of the extended family and on special occasions, even the whole of Akama village might be invited to help. I recollect that, during my late adolescent and early teenage years, my age mates in the Nwilo family and Akama village were “invited” to join the work crew preparing mud mortar (izo aja) for building houses and compound walls. Same thing applied during the peak planting season when all crops must be planted within matter of only several weeks. It was not only that my mother and I had to take care of own farm plots by ourselves, but I was often required to join others in working in their respective compounds – mostly in clearing and plowing the soil for planting. Between 1956 through 1958, Dr. Sunday and I had the routine of using our afterschool hours to work, in rotation, to assist in the tilling of farm plots in all Nwilo homesteads and also for the Nwilo daughters married out elsewhere within Igboukwu and in neighboring Ichida and Amichi towns as the need arose. Dr. Sunday, others and I had worked severally for Aunties Nono Orieji, Ugorie (Ichida), Akudu, Gloria, Eunice etc. All we expected for our effort was a full stomach before trudging back home exhausted with our hoes hanging on our fatigued shoulders.
Dr. Sunday had an edge over me as far as climbing tall palm trees were concerned. For this, he was in great demand by many in the neighborhood who sought his help in harvesting ripe palm nuts or in fetching palm fronds as fodder for feeding their livestock. In good days, he got paid a pittance of threepence for each head of palm nuts cut off the tree. I truly admired Sunday’s feat in scaling heights more than 60-70 feet with a mere sling (ete) to harvest ripe palm nuts for the neighborhood folks. I can still visualize him hanging precariously at great heights and swinging away at the palm-fronds with the machete clutched in his left hand. My daring in palm-tree climbing never exceeded 20 feet in height, but just as a last resort.
Pulling Each Other Up by the Bootstraps
In those days, the Nwilo family members were indeed our brothers’ keepers. The late Elder Bernard was the first in the Nwilo family to leave home as an apprentice trader when he served my elder sister’s husband, late Mr. Lazarus Uche, in Ikare (in today’s Ondo state). When Bernard was settled and started his own business, he returned home to fetch Godfrey, and the late Christopher and David (Dennis’ dad). Years later, late Moses also joined the crew. Thus, started the gradual outward migration of our kinsfolk from Akama to distant places in search of the coveted greener pastures and better economic opportunities. It used to be quite exciting, especially for young ones at home during the Christmas period, when everyone living abroad returned home with usual goodies, including edibles purchased from afar.
This spirit of being our brothers’ keepers manifested spectacularly in the immediate post-civil war period when things were looking awfully bleak because of the devastation and economic ruination which the 30-month mayhem brought in its wake throughout the Eastern Region. Unsure what next to do when the war stopped abruptly following the sudden collapse of Biafran military resistance, it was a God-sent relief that Odenigbo was able to throw an unanticipated lifeline when he sent an uplifting letter informing us that college admissions have been secured for his younger sister, Ngozi, Sunday and I in the US to resume our educational pursuits. Off we went to Lagos during the confusion of immediate aftermath of the Civil War to fight for our Nigerian passports and American visas which came after only three months’ wait, despite the challenging nature of the times. The Civil War ended in January, 1970 and by end of November of same year, Ngozi, Sunday, Chudi (Odenigbo’s boyhood friend) and I partook in our first US Thanksgiving turkey feast in Irving Street, Philadelphia, PA as guests of Odenigbo, Nono Linda and their toddler daughter, Ulioma.
Odenigbo’s outreach to the family resumed on an even grander scale soon after the opening of Apex Hospital and the associated embalming services in 1981. Many job openings and careers were preferentially offered to whoever needed work in the Nwilo family. Today, the Nwilo family is sustaining multiple homesteads from income earned by working in the Apex establishment and its appurtenances.
Dispersal, Emigration & Implied Challenges to Family Cohesion
I recently called home from US to discuss an important matter with home-based elders on an issue which required input of grown-up males in the Nwilo family. I got a rude awakening when it was made clear to me that Michael (Ebighiebi) was the only one home. Really? Well, everyone else, including yours truly, have gone fishing far away from home with no hope of returning anytime soon. We have surely grown in numbers when compared to what obtained in the 1950’s. But male homesteaders, which had led the Nwilo family of my boyhood era, have migrated to all parts of Nigeria and the world together with their nuclear families to live, possibly on permanent basis. The paradox of our modern era is that we may have grown in numbers, but we are so out-of-reach to be able to maintain the age-old legacy of being our brothers’ keepers within the Nwilo family as our parents’ generation were capable of half century ago.
The common values shared effortlessly within the Nwilo family of my boyhood period are now a matter of history, for all practical purposes. Individuals’ existential realities tend not to have any practical bearing on other family members’ lives any more. Children are born and reared into adults without having firsthand contact with their next of kin. As the saying goes, out of sight is out of mind. With each passing year, the thread that binds the ancestral family is being stretched ever thinner, even to the point of snapping. Today, we grapple with a scenario where the Nwilo ancestral family homesteads still cluster together as has been the case for generations but their offspring now live a world apart.
Mass Returns & Reunions Provide the Answer
December of 2016 shall be the third Nwilo Quinquennial Reunion. Every member of the Nwilo family, wherever they are domiciled worldwide, are expected to return home to Akama Village every five years. The primary reason for creating this reunion is to renew our links and refresh our bond with the very foundation that defines who we are. It is indeed nearly impossible to sustain family identity and solidarity among relatives who hardly get to see one another face to face, at least, occasionally. Children grow quite fast. Five-year intervals provide the chance to keep up with the growth and progress of our young ones whose task it shall eventually be to keep the Nwilo family legacy going, long after our current generation is no more. The Nwilo Reunion has been expanded to include the extended family – married daughters are expected to bring all their offspring to their maternal ancestral homesteads and the mass return of relatives for family reunion amplifies the essence of this cultural practice.
Even more important than just returning to the ancestral nest to be seen is the need for brethren to find good works to do together as family for the benefit of everyone, particularly those who truly need assistance from rest of us to have basic livelihood. The Nwilo family of our modern era must relearn how to be our brothers’ keepers just as our parents and aging kinsmen had endeavored to do in unique ways in their era. The best means to accomplish this is by building a broad safety net and then establishing a funding structure to assure its sustainability in perpetuity. Every member of the Nwilo family, including the extended family of our married daughters, friends and associates, shall be asked regularly to contribute to this funding structure from whichever part of the world they happen to reside. The fund management should also explore veritable conduits for job-creating investments in the local economy in a manner which guarantees that our folks can access gainful employment close to home. Entertainment and tourism industry is destined to have a booming future within Igboukwu and environs soon for obvious reasons.
The 21st Century Nwilo Family has little resemblance to what it looked like only two generations ago in the 1950’s. First, there are many more of us today than have ever lived in the Nwilo homesteads in Akama. The median age has lessened, just like in other parts of the country, because of lowered infant mortality rates coupled with our people’s instinctual habit of having many children. The Nwilo family has never been so dispersed away from home as we are in this generation. On the positive side, the Nwilo extended family of the modern era can boast of having professors, doctors, engineers, lawyers, nurses, businessmen and women, business managers, teachers, technicians etc more than many other families of its size and depth. The Nwilo family is, therefore, blessed indeed.
The blessing endowed on the family can be amplified and managed with the philosophy of retaining the noble values on which our ancestral legacy was founded. Yes, passage of time does change everything. But what must remain constant is our predecessors’ value of being their brothers’ keepers in all that matter. We can recapture the spirit of family as our grandfathers’ generation lived it out in their daily lives on this same soil we are privileged to inherit today.