The University of Ibadan has been on strike for the past three weeks. And times like these are when you promise yourself that in your next life, if you mistakenly hear ‘NIGERIA’ while in your mother’s womb, you’ll choke yourself with umbilical cord…yes, someone actually tweeted that.
Every morning, I pack my books and walk down to the library beside my hostel. I always take a novel with me to escape the pain that is Jurisprudence and Law of Business Association etc. I have finished two novels since the strike: MEASURING TIMES AND SECRET LIVES OF BABA SEGI’S WIVES. I had only started reading FISHERMAN BY CHIGOZIE OBIOMA when something happened.
Last week while in the library, I came across a beautiful book; EQUIANO’S TRAVELS. The first time I heard about EQUIANO, I was in my second year and in the third month of an Academic Union Strike that lasted for Six months – Six Months of my precious life! I remember sitting on the bed at home and for want of something to do; I picked up my phone and went straight to Google where I typed: THE IGBO PEOPLE. That was the day I first heard about OLAUDAH EQUIANO.
I forgot about FISHERMAN and quickly began EQUIANO’S TRAVEL. Sadly, I can’t take it out of the library and so I have devoted my time to reading two chapters each day and putting it up on my blog – for you all. Remember, no knowledge is a waste.
About this Little Treasure:
I know most of you haven’t heard about OLAUDAH EQUIANO. This book, EQUIANO’S TRAVELS is an autobiography written by Equiano himself – The interesting narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African. Paul Edwards, a Senior Lecturer, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh abridged and edited this version. The book was first published in the year 1789; and according to the editor, the last edition to appear was an American one of 1837, and today, in Nigeria as elsewhere, Equiano’s book is not well known except to historians…AND ME!
This book is his very own account of his varied and adventurous life in the years between. At the age of 10 he was captured by slave traders and taken to the southern states of America. He was sold to a planter in the West Indies and worked there and aboard slave ships sailing between the Caribbean and England. Afterwards he worked aboard naval and merchant ships, including slave ships, before he saved enough money to buy his freedom at the age of twenty-one. He visited the Mediterranean, and took part in Phipps’ expedition to the Arctic (1773), as well as crossing the Atlantic several times. As an ardent member of the Anti-slavery movement he came to know several of the leaders of the movement such as Granville Sharp. He was appointed Commissary of Stores for the freed slaves returning to Sierra Leone.
His book was famous in its time. Between 1789 and 1827 it ran into seventeen editions in Britain and the United States, as well as translations into Dutch and German. For a long time it has been unobtainable but it is of great literary and historical importance in the context of African writing.
It has 14 Chapters in all and some miscellaneous verses. I’ll do my best to summarize each chapter.
CHAPTER ONE: MY EARLY LIFE IN EBOE
He begins by telling us of a part of Africa known by the name of Guinea which includes a variety of Kingdoms. One of the most considerable is the kingdom of Benin, both as to extent and wealth, the richness and cultivation of the soil, the power of its king, and the number and warlike disposition of the inhabitants. This kingdom is divided into many provinces or districts, in one of the most remote and fertile of which, called Eboe.
He was born in the year 1745, situated in a charming fruitful vale, named Essaka. EBOE is actually IGBO and though the village of Essaka can’t be located with any certainty it seems to have been somewhere to the south-east of Onitsha and north of Owerri. In this chapter he talked about growing up in the village. My God! I felt like I was in one African Magic Igbo movie.
Now, you should know that his account of his early life was vague seeing as he wrote this book 30years after his kidnap. He could only put down the little memories he had left of his people into this chapter.
The account he gives of Igbo society is generally very close to modern Igbo life. The few words he gives are recognizable as modern Ibo, particularly the word for ‘year’ (Ah-affoe, modern Ibo afo), and for men with ritual scars, (Embrenche, modern Igbo mgburichi). Names similar to Equiano can still be found in the probable region of Equiano’s home: Chinua Achebe tells the editor that he knew of two people called EKWEANO, which probably means ‘if they agree I shall stay’, a name implying someone unhappy with his companions. The editor also mentioned that he has also been told of the name EKWUANO meaning ‘when they speak others attend’. Olaudah is more of a problem; but sine he says that his name meant ‘having a loud voice, and well spoken’, the second element is likely to be a modern Igbo ODA, resonance…a combination of OLA – ORNAMENT and UDE – FAME could imply ‘FORTUNATE…FAVOURED ONE’…but Igbo names are often difficult to interpret, even in modern times…(are they?)
In those days, he said that adultery was sometimes punished with slavery or death. So sacred among them is the honour of the marriage bed and so jealous are they of the fidelity of their wives. The men however do not preserve the same constancy to their wives which they expect from them, for they indulge in a plurality, though seldom in more than two.
He wrote about the mode of marriage and how married women wore cotton strings, the thickness of goose-quill around their waist. He said that his people were a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets. Thus, every great event such as a triumphant return from battle or other cause of public rejoicing was celebrated in public dances, which are accompanied with songs and music suited to the occasion. He said the dances had spirits and varieties which he had scarcely seen elsewhere.
Dresses of both sexes are nearly the same. A long piece of calico or muslin, wrapped loosely round the body somewhat in the form of a highland plaid – usually dyed blue.
Because of their simple manners, their luxuries were few. Their principle luxuries were in perfumes; one sort of these is an odoriferous wood of delicious fragment, the other a kind of earth, a small portion of which thrown into the fire diffuses a more powerful odour.
He wrote; ‘We beat this wood into powder and mix it with palm oil, with which both men and women perfume themselves.’
The composition for the mud walls were mixed with cow dung to keep of the different insects which annoyed them at night.
Usual seats were few logs of wood, but they had benches, which were generally perfumed to accommodate strangers: they composed the greater part of household furniture.
In a state where nature was prodigal of her favours, wants were few and easily supplied…money was of little use.
Everyone contributed to the common stock and as they were unacquainted with idleness they had no beggars. The benefits of such were obvious. The west India planters preferred the slaves of Benin or Eboe to those of any other part of Guinea for their hardiness, intelligence, integrity and zeal.
‘Our women too, were in my eyes at least uncommonly graceful, alert and modest to a degree of bashfulness; nor do I remember to have ever heard of an instance of incontinence amongst them before marriage. They are also remarkably cheerful. Indeed cheerfulness and affability are two of the leading characteristics of our nation.’
During wars, even women marched boldly to fight along with the men because everyone was taught the use of these weapons – fire arms, bows and arrows, broad two-edged sword and javelins. Once during a war, a virgin of note among his enemies has been slain in the battle, and her arm was exposed in our market place where our trophies were always exhibited.
There is an Igbo legend which tells that God decided not to allow their women fight the wars, since they were so fierce that they might have wiped out the world.
‘For religion, the natives believe that there is one creator of all things and that he lives in the sun and is girded round with a belt that he may never eat or drink; but according to some, he smokes a pipe, which is our favourite luxury. They believe he governs events on earth, especially our deaths or captivity, but as for the doctrine of eternity, I do not remember to have heard of it; some however believe in the transmigration of souls in a certain degree.’
Like the Jews, he said, they practiced circumcision and made offerings and feasts on that occasion in the same manner as they did.
‘The necessary habit of being clean was part of religion, and therefore we had many purification and washings. Just like the Jews, those that touched the dead at any time were obliged to wash and purify themselves before they could enter a dwelling-house. Every woman too at certain times, was forbidden to come into a dwelling house or touch any person or anything we ate. I was so fond of my mother I could not keep from her or avoid touching her at some of those periods…I was obliged to be kept out with her in a little house made for that purpose till offering was made, and then we were purified.’
‘Though we had no places of public worship, we had priests and magicians and wise men. Magicians were also doctors or physicians. They practiced bleeding by cupping and were very successful in healing wounds and expelling poisons.’
A virgin had been poisoned but it was not known by whom : the doctors ordered the corpse to be taken up by some persons, and carried to the grave. As soon as the bearers had raided it on their shoulders they seemed with some sudden impulse, and ran to and fro unable to stop themselves. At last, after having passed through a number of thorns and prickly bushes unhurt, the corpse fell from them close to a house and defaced it in the fall, and the owner being taken up, he immediately confessed the poisoning.
He talked about the snakes and said there were of different kinds, some which are esteemed ominous when they appeared in their houses, and these they never molested…
‘Once, one which was as thick as the calf of a man’s leg crept at different times into my mother’s night-house where I always lay with their and coiled themselves into folds, and each time they crowed like a cock. Some of our snakes, however, were poisonous. One of them crossed the road one day when I was standing on it and passed between my feet without offering to touch me, to the great surprise of many who saw it; and these incidents were accounted by the wise men, likewise by my mother and the rest of the people as remarkable omens in my favour.’
Certain snakes, particularly the python EKE are reverenced amongst the Igbos and the harmless snake here was more likely to be a python than the ‘crowing snake’ – UBI, which is poisonous.
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I love you for doing just that…
(P/S : I’m done with FISHERMAN will give you all the review soon).