THE ILLUSION OF THE ‘HEALTHY IMMIGRANT’: A Note on Rudolf Ogoo Okwonko’s This American Life Sef

  • Title: This American Life Sef
    Author: Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo
    Publisher: Winepress Publishing
    Number of pages: 94
    Year of publication: 2016

You behold America the beautiful. The triple-decker burger and the giant cup of coke and cars that are wider than your village road and you wonder what took you so long to get here. You get on with schooling… you study the things people who came before you say brings money– the things Americans do not want to study– to prepare you for the job Americans do not want to do. You hear nursing, bloody, nursing. You say, bring it on (‘This American Life’, p 39) Continue reading “THE ILLUSION OF THE ‘HEALTHY IMMIGRANT’: A Note on Rudolf Ogoo Okwonko’s This American Life Sef”

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END OF YEAR IN BENDE AND BEYOND

This coming Christmas season may mean everything to you, but not to the people in Bende (and few other) Local Government Area(s) in Abia State. Not that Christmas doesn’t ring a bell, but Otu Omu (a celebration of old age and of the official retirement from active communal functions of the oldest Age Grade), rings a louder bell. Usually observed at the end of December, it is a time when the community celebrates and approves an Age-Grade assigned project(s) deemed to satisfy the needs of the community. On successful completion of said project(s) by the retiring age grade, a special day is set aside for presentation and handling over of the project(s) to the community headed by the “Ezie Ogo”. In certain circles, the Otu Omu ceremony is considered so important a rite of passage that some individuals would be heart-broken to die before their age grade got to perform theirs.

Dance troupes move from one compound to another, chief among which will be the War Dancers, to rival the DJ’s deafening loudspeakers. Inscriptions such as CONGRATS TO OUR DADDY/MOMMY or FINISHING STRONG take the place of SEASON’S GREETINGS or MERRY CHRISTMAS/ HAPPY NEW YEAR. Large photos of the smiling celebrants hang where those of Santa Claus’ ought to have, ordinarily. At one end of the courtyard stands a small booth covered all over with the costly and much valued George wrapper. Even the chair inside this booth is also enshrouded in George wrapper. The celebrant dresses in a flowing blouse, a George wrapper, a stately headgear, and a walking stick or some other symbol of office. In some cases two or three chairs are placed on each side of the celebrant’s, where dearest friends and relations can sit momentarily to share drinks with the celebrant. It is the time for even the lowliest of the pack, who had never rested from menial labour, to finally get a pinch of nobility; to understand how Emperors felt when they were surrounded by happy and loyal subjects. A desk stands at another corner of the courtyard for the notary, who is usually a trusted member of the family, for the purpose of collecting visitors’ names and cash gifts, the worth of which might determine the kind of souvenirs the donors might get. There have been cases where some wealthy visitors showed up with police escorts or some other armed private security who released occasional shots into the air as a deterrent to potential criminals and to also remind the other visitors that there were superhumans amongst them.

At dusk, the tired celebrant rises in a dignified manner and waltzes into the sitting room, which might still be crowded by family members and friends, to wave at, shake hands with, or even embrace one or two persons before retiring into his or her bedchamber.

Otu Omu is hardly 100% bliss. For one, it is the worst time to be the poor son or daughter who can’t make significant contributions towards your parent’s party. It is also a time for less privileged celebrants to embrace painful reality, seeing the superior gifts and personalities that flood some other celebrants’ booths.

Otu Omu is not an occasion for only the elderly, but also for the youths. It must delight the elders to see young men and women donning the traditional costume, even though some of the guys use jeans trousers in place of loin cloth. It is a time that city beauties come back home to mingle with other returnees. It is a time that successful guys in the diaspora visit home to be thrilled by home-based maidens, some of whom were still adolescents few years ago when the boys were leaving home for the city. It is a time for re-union and match-making.

But, perhaps, what matters the most is that Otu Omu is a moment of plenty: plenty food even for households that can’t feed two consecutive times in a day; plenty music for stiff joints to stretch in a dance; plenty opportunities for faces long wrinkled with frowns to get to smile again.

A SORTIE INTO OKPOSI, EBONYI STATE

Okposi is an agrarian society approximately 206km from Abakaliki, the capital of Ebonyi State of Nigeria. Nothing extraordinary from a regular small Nigerian town, apart from that it hosts of one of the very first three Federal Government Colleges in this country and also produced the First Minister of Education in the First Republic in the person of Onyiba Aja Nwachukwu (late) whose massive house lies along the way to the centre of town (Court Area). The southern part of Okposi looks like a large farmstead devoid of basic utilities (there seems to be fewer than five manual boreholes and a dozen wells), yet skeptics would agree that it would not be long before this trend is reversed. Already, a few modern buildings are challenging the dominance of mud houses while a good proportion of the youths are turning from subsistence farming to the university with the hope of transforming the land into Small London eventually. But one thing the average Okposi household seems to have in excess is hospitality.

Okposi might not be one among the two largest towns in Ebonyi State, but it gave the State the alias ‘The Salt of the Nation’. The town is most famed for her salt pool, which I couldn’t visit due to the contradicting information I got about the site. While some of the locals insisted that men and premenopausal women were forbidden from venturing anywhere close to this wonder pool, another account had it that anybody could visit the site but only postmenopausal women could draw from the pool with a special clay pot. Legend has it that a certain hunter, Enechi Okuma (some say two hunters) got very thirsty during one of his expeditions in the wild. Eventually, he stumbled upon a murky puddle which he thirsted and found very salty. Somehow, he chanced upon a diviner who insisted that the spirits of the puddle required a big offering in order to come fully alive. And this hunter, ever so gracious and curious, sacrificed his virgin daughter after which the puddle grew into a large pool. Even today, it is taboo to fish from this pool. One can only fetch the brine, which one boils until the water evapourates and leaves behind a pot full of salt.

I had the privilege of sighting the purely green snake, the totem of the land, sliding gently and gracefully into the bush. In the past, this green snake was revered and offered gifts but now that almost everyone profess Christianity and treat it with apathy, the poor creature has learned to fend for itself and to keep an arm’s length from humans. I was assured that even today nobody killed the snake since there was no account of it ever harming anyone whether indigene or stranger. Legend has it that when the patriarchs were migrating to the present location, it was this green snake that led them. They would stop where it stopped and continue when it moved on, the same way that the pillar of cloud and fire led the Israelites during their migration from Egypt.

Another remarkable landmark at the northern border of Okposi is the defunct Leper Colony in Uburu, Ebonyi State, founded by the Presbyterian Church and at some point funded by the Dutch government. I took the liberty of strolling down to the ruins of what is left of it and ran into one Pastor Kingsley at the top of a hillock which I had climbed for good view.

“All of this area used to be an evil forest before the missionaries came,” Pastor Kingsley told me, waving his hand over the undulating landscape dotted by colonial-style cottages with chimneys that have not pouted smoke in decades.

Back in the days the white staff of the institution lived in a quarters close by and would come out during the cool of the evening to play football with the locals at the open field beside the borehole built by UNICEF (God did that with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, remember?). The lepers and lungers were fed, clothed and sheltered while their children were given scholarships. It was strange that Pastor Kingsley had no signs of leprosy or tuberculosis because the way he talked about the ‘glorious’ past of the Leper Colony, you would think that he used to be a beneficiary. You would think that back then, it was enviable to be leprous.

But not long after the institution was handed over to the local personnel, the whole thing began to crumble. They began to bicker for offices and to misappropriate the monies meant for the institution. Workers began to get owed while the lepers and lungers were left to deteriorate and starve. Now even the dilapidating quarters are overgrown with weed. Now you needn’t be told that nobody longs to be leprous or tubercular anymore.