Memoir of a Boyhood in Cameroon and Nigeria
“A man can only tell where it started raining on him, but not where he’ll get dry.”
Chapter 1. Mbenge Mboka
We lived in many houses in the years of my boyhood, but the plank house on the street of Mbenge Mboka, in Mbonge, located in Southern Cameroons, in the Republic of Cameroon, is the most memorable to me. The slim chopped planks of the house, or karabot as it is locally called in the town of Mbonge, tugged on one another with termite-infested ribs. It was a big house, with rough lumps of earth that clumped in every nook and cranny, like mottled tree bark, or the swellings in the stomach of a sickle cell victim. They were hardened by the fire rack — located at the far left corner of the house when one entered through the front door — such that each time I hit my toe against any of the lumps, it bled with red open flesh that was peppery.
I was five years old and always barefooted. I loitered that way in the family compound, and sometimes even followed Grandma on bare feet to the market to sell plantain. Mamma was tired of buying me flip-flops because I always returned home without them, and I couldn’t recall where I left them.
“I won’t buy you any more flip-flops because you always throw them away. Do you think I harvest money from a tree?” Mamma demanded.
I didn’t know what to make of her ranting. It didn’t strike me that I had done something wrong. So I went barefooted, and all my toes had their share of flesh ripped open by the clumps of earth in the house, which left me hopping like a bullfrog each time it happened.
I was the second of three sons (coming after Keburu, and followed by Sakanitua). Tirie, our sister, was the eldest of my parents’ children. On many rainy evenings, we sat under the fire rack, suspended on four wooden pillars, to warm ourselves. Grandma would tell stories that made Mamma either laugh or jerk in surprise. We laughed too, mimicking Mamma’s outbursts.
I remember especially the story about Namondo, a stubborn little girl, who ran away from home and was kidnapped by chimpanzees. While they were dancing around her in celebration of their catch, which would serve as their breakfast, Kombe the hawk flew down and snatched her away up into the sky. Kombe warned her while flying with her not to look into its anus. But she did, and exclaimed that Kombe had made a fart. The hawk warned her again, but she disobeyed a second time. The third time she disobeyed, Kombe threw her into the sea, where she was eaten by fishes.
Then Grandma asked us, “What did you learn from this story?” I told her that Namondo was stubborn. Grandma corrected me by saying Namondo was a disobedient child, and she cautioned us against disobedience. She ended by saying we should remember what happened to Namondo.
Another evening, the heavy falling rain stole through the leaky roof, and stray mysterious fireballs from under the fire rack filled the house with excitement. We argued over who owned the fireballs. “That’s mine! No, they’re mine!”
It ended with Sakanitua, the youngest, the shrinking violet, complaining to Mamma that we were trying to take his fireballs. Mamma warned us not to take his fireballs, and assured him that they were his. Dissatisfied, he put his right hand into the fire to rake and loosen more fireballs, and then withdrew it quickly with a sharp cry of pain. His palm was burnt, and bubbled like a roughly burnt ripe plantain. Grandma threw water on the ground, dug out the soft clay, and rubbed it all over his right hand, as a potter does to a clay pot. I was scared that it was my fault because I was always blamed each time he cried.
The rain stopped falling. Insects began to whistle wildly in the bushes around the compound. Night birds ushered in serenades to invite their lovers. I began to doze off, my head falling at intervals to my chest, like the agama lizard. Mamma carried me to bed.
Women in numbers I couldn’t keep track of filled the house, crying and sprawling on the ground. I was excited about the scene at first, that our house was filled with throngs of people, and even those who never visited. But then I saw Mamma sprawled out, and women were trying to stop her from doing something I didn’t understand. I fearfully watched the scene with rapt attention.
Grandma came from the backyard with a few women of about her age carrying Tirie, our older and only sister. She was naked and silent. Her mouth was open, but her eyes were closed. Grandma laid her on a mat on the bare ground, and the other woman rubbed her entire body with the secretion of a leaf that filled the house with an offensive smell.
More people came, and I felt lonely because no one noticed me. Sakanitua was strapped to the back of Mamma’s friend. He shook uncontrollably on the back of the woman, sometimes cried, deeply troubled by the tumult that took away his mother. She wasn’t tending him and calling him Bobo ’m — the pet name she would call him by to appease him when he cried. It means “my handsome” in the local parlance.
Each time Mamma called him Bobo ’m, she tickled him around his ribs, strumming them like a guitarist on his instrument’s strings. Limme, limme — “leave me, leave me” — he would say. Bobooooo ’m, Mamma would tease on until he cheered up again.
One of the old women stepped forward. Her nostrils were deep and dark, like the holes of a bush mouse. Her head was covered with a dirty head tie. She brought out an old sharp knife and cut deep on both sides of Tirie’s cheeks and on her forehead. Tirie did not cry out. Her body remained still.
Another old woman stepped forward with a snuff-like box. She emptied the deep dark powder from the box into the cuts on Tirie’s face, and gave her stern instructions. “Return as a good child and stay. If you will not stay, don’t return.”
Still another old woman stepped forward and wrapped away her body in a bed sheet. It was the sheet that Mamma covered her with at night when she lay on her sleeping mat. They took her to the cocoa farm behind the house, and returned after a while without her. Women gathered around Mamma for several days. Eventually, they departed, but would visit again with a bounty of food for us. They brought so many delicacies. I was happy and ate almost everything that was given to me.
It was customary for me to take Sakanitua to the karabot wall to see whether our stomachs could touch the wall when we stood close to it. If they didn’t, I took it that we had not eaten well enough. My stomach never touched the wall, no matter how gluttonous I had been.
Mamma gradually became scarce to us. She woke up early every morning and swept the compound with a broom made from a little palm tree branch which spread out like a girl’s bushy Afro. She cooked and sold koki — bean pulp that is smeared with palm oil, folded with a leaf, and cooked until it fully pulps and hardens a little. It is best eaten with boiled plantain. She also sold palm wine at a local palm wine bar. This bar was built with palm branches, and benches were arranged in a circle for people to sit on and drink together. These activities took up all of her time.
Sakanitua strayed unchecked. He sometimes fell on his face and got badly bruised. He would cry until he was exhausted. Sometimes I begged him to stop crying, and gradually he sought comfort and security from me. I felt I owed him care and succor, and tried to be there for him. I sympathized with him and learned not to hit him. I was his protector.
One time he was beaten by our neighbor’s son. I went to fight for him and got beaten too by the same boy. We sat together in the cocoa farm in the backyard (where Tirie was taken and from where she was never brought back), and we cried for a long time. I still remembered and wondered about Grandma and those old women who took Tirie away and didn’t return her. One evening, when we were all sitting under the fire rack with Mamma and Grandma, I asked Mamma, “When will Tirie return? Where was she taken to?” The sudden unexpected question caused hot tears to roll down Mama’s eyes.
CHAPTER 2. The White Man
“The masquerade that would dance well begins from the shrine.”
— Oroko proverb
Mamma’s business expanded. She began a bilateral trade between Cameroon and Nigeria, buying bales of used clothes, locally called okrika, as well as household items, and then selling them at the local market. Eager customers came often to our house to check for her return, so that they’d have the opportunity to make their selections first before the clothes were taken to the market. She also traded footwear for both semesters.
During her business hours, she’d wobble the bell she took to the market, danced like an elated masquerade, and sang songs that lacked any perceptible rhythm: “One-one hundred francs, one-one hundred francs, pick one, pick two, mother of all children is here.”
She’d take a break when she felt uninspired, and then reignite her enthusiasm with more songs. This new path became so engaging to her that she became completely immersed in it. Sometimes Mamma traveled and didn’t return for months, so that, gradually, she became a shadow in my mind. I was scared that something wasn’t right. Otherwise, why would Grandma be crying in the dead of the night?
My younger brother Sakanitua and I often went to school without eating, and Grandma would pull me by my ear and sternly remind me to come with Sakanitua after school to her at Grandpa’s farm in the forest. She said our food would be ready before we reached the farm.
We returned home from school one day during lunch break and there was no food. We were hungry. I decided to light a fire under the rack to boil some cocoyam (a root vegetable) to eat with palm oil. All my attempts to make a fire were futile. Sakanitua began to cry. I sat close to him and we cried together, changing gear after gear, with varying pitch, until finally we were subdued like a drone. I stood up, took him by the hand, and we began trekking to Grandma’s farm.
The road passed through the grounds of the Roman Catholic Church, where there were fruit trees of all sorts, and a statue of a woman carrying a child in front of the church. I didn’t understand why everyone who wanted to enter the church paused before her first, chanted something to her (inaudible to my ears), and performed a certain hand gesture to their faces and chests. There was also a statue of a nearly naked man nailed on a tree.
“Come, let us go and stone down mangoes and apples,” I said to Sakanitua. He followed behind me as we passed through sweet fragrant flowers into the orchard. Chirping birds chirped tunefully on the trees. I tossed stones at the ripe fruits while Sakanitua waited anxiously to pick any that would fall, but my weak hand failed to budge any of my targets. Nonetheless, I kept on trying.
“Look there!” Sakanitua suddenly cried to me. A white figure, dressed in a white cassock and wearing small, finely fitted, transparent eyeglasses, stood before a building a little distance from us. He beckoned us to come to him.
“Ruuuuuuuun!” I shouted to Sakanitua, while bolting away down the steep hill towards the football field, owned by the mission school. When I reached the main road, I remembered I was with my brother. I heard his voice back from where I’d run, crying and calling on me to come and take him. I knew I was done for. “Grandma will kill me today. Oh, I am finished!” I began to weep.
I gallivanted nervously around the football field until it was almost nightfall. Farmers were returning from their labors along the main road. I was certain that my brother had been eaten by dogs. [?] I wanted to die, but lacked the courage to do so. Lost in my worries and frustration, I suddenly heard footsteps behind me that made me writhe in fear. I turned and saw that it was Sakanitua and the White Man, holding hands like friends do, and walking towards me.
“I didn’t pluck any mango! I didn’t!” I pleaded in my great panic.
He kept walking towards me with an assuring smile on his face. He offered me his hand to shake. I nervously took it. He asked me some questions I couldn’t understand because it seemed the words were falling from his nose. I couldn’t make out a thing. But I grew confident that he was friendly.
He took us back to his house and the cook there brought me rice and stew with a big slice of chicken on it. My brother refused to eat with me because he was already overfed. I ate and drank absolutely chilled water, such as I had never drunk before.
He brought out his car, opened the doors, and told us to get in. He drove us home while I showed him the way. When we reached our compound and alighted, he got out too. Suddenly the compound was crowded with children and adults. Children were chanting: “White Man, I want to get into your motor too! Come and carry me!” When he turned to look at them, they all ran away.
He went with us to the backyard where Grandma was sitting. When she saw him, she stood up and brought him a chair to sit. Grandma told him that her husband was a hose-boy to the Whites at Victoria, Cameroon (renamed Limbe in 1982 ). She said that she and her husband had served them for more than twenty years, until they returned to their own country.
It was the first time I heard any of this. I began to wonder about why we didn’t have chickens and fruit trees, and beautiful houses like the White Man? I also couldn’t understand why Grandpa always went to the farm with torn and dirty clothes? Did the White Man not give him decent clothes? I no” had many unanswered questions.
That night when we sat by the fireside, with Grandma roasting corn, I asked, “What did the White Man give you and Grandpa?”
“Where do you think that the wall clock with the big knob, that rings every day in the parlor, came from?” she responded.
- The Death of My Friend Pappy
Death is a thief,
Death is a thief,
It steals and runs away.
— Igbo proverb
“Get up and bathe! You are late for school already,” Grandma said.
I was languid, the morning sleep in me as sweet as fresh palm wine. I staggered up, a sleepy-eyed child with drooping eyelids, wishing Grandma would allow me to return to bed.
She reacted with a hard slap on my back with her palm that was as hard as sun-baked mud. I ran wildly into the back yard, mumbling rude utterances with a contorted face.
I hated morning baths with everything in me because the weather was often cold. I hated bathing as a must-do routine. It made me unhappy, and Grandma knew I was pretending to be sleepy and unaware that it was time to prepare for school.
“If you don’t go to school today, you’ll not sleep nor eat in this house. I will ask Teacher Nanje if you were in class.”
She knew most times I stayed away from class and instead wandered in the palm plantation with my friend Pappy, picking ripe palm nuts, because my school uniform was usually dappled with palm oil like a leopard’s stripes, and particles of palm kernel chaff often hung between my teeth.
I hurriedly washed my face and legs, cleaned up, and rubbed palm kernel oil, which is called manyanga in the local parlance. My face glistened in the early morning sun. My shin bones glittered too, like piercing osiers. I left for school, barefoot as usual.
“I knew I’d meet you here,” I said to Pappy.
“Yes, when I couldn’t find you here, I knew you were on your way. So I decided to wait for you like you did for me.”
There was a hidden cove in the cocoa farm behind the school that was our rendezvous. We would always hide there until after Assembly for morning devotion, and the lengthy National Anthem that was sung routinely. Then we’d try to sneak into the class, but if the teachers on duty, especially Miss Ngole, were walking around the school compound, looking for truants like us, then we’d be done for the day. So we’d change directions, and instead head into the palm plantation on the other side of the school.
We hated Assembly because our legs were riddled with wounds that reeked and secreted unpleasant-smelling moisture. During the singing of the National Anthem, when everyone stood at attention, if any pupil mistakenly shook his body, they would be severely flogged.
There was no way my friend and I were going to manage to stand still because the malodorous smell from our wounds invited colonies of flies for a mammoth feast on our legs, and sometimes their proboscis drilled so deep into our bones that we twitched in paroxysm. We always succumbed due to the flies, and we were never pardoned because of our wounds. To escape from these guaranteed punishments from flies and our teachers, we stopped going to Assembly.
“Let us please go to the other side. We might find more palm fruits than these few we’ve gotten here,” Pappy implored.
We had rambled through the usual areas where we normally picked the palm fruits that served as our morning food. Sometimes we cracked out the nuts and sold them to other pupils for pencils and pens. We ventured deep into the other side of the plantation, picking more fruits and eating like hungry animals.
“Let’s play hide and seek,” I suggested.
“OK! I’ll go first while you’ll come searching for me,” my accomplice said with excitement.
After my count, I went after him. I searched for him everywhere I possibly could, but couldn’t find him. The sun was ripe in the sky. It put forth a bold face with streamers of flames on palm trees, amidst dry winds and the solemn and mournful music of the birds. Suddenly, I heard his moans from afar, calling out to me in grief and fear. I ran in his direction, calling out on him: “Papppeee . . .”
Then I heard his pitiful voice, still distant from me, underground. I was scared. I went further and saw him in an old water-soaked grave that sank with him and there was a termite-infested cross on his chest.
“Give me your hand, Pappy. Climb up!”
We struggled and cried. No one was there to help us until he inexplicably climbed out of the grave. He was so dirty, but before I could say a word, he bolted off.
“Wait for meee!” I cried, while I pursued hard after him.
I didn’t see him for two days because he didn’t come to school after that incident. I was unhappy and scared that he might have told his parents, and that they might show up in school to speak with our teachers. That would mean big trouble. It kept me restless and alarmed.
On the third day, all the pupils were brought out just after morning devotion. The headmaster instructed us that prayers should be said for Pappy because he was seriously sick. I became even more afraid. I was at my wits’ end.
On the fourth day, all the pupils were brought out in the afternoon. There were freshly plucked blushing roses here and there. I couldn’t understand what was going on. The pupils were arranged in lines, according to their classes. Primary Five pupils were given more flowers. I was called to stand at the front, and a red rose was given to me. The headmaster addressed us.
“We’re going for a condolence visit to the family of one of your friends and classmates, Orok Pappy, who was sick and died this morning.”
Most of the pupils began to weep. I was scared and felt I was going to die too. Thoughts about that day filled my mind.
We marched to the family compound of my friend, singing: “Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin….”
When we reached the house, we were instructed to enter single file. Each of the classes would enter the sitting room one by one where his remains were laid. When it was the turn of Primary Five, I began to shiver. Immediately his mother saw me, and she sprawled on the ground.
“Echem, look at your friend. He’s gone. Won’t you call him so that you two might go out to play football? Won’t you call him so that you two might go to school as usual?” She continued to cry and recounted many more of our adventures.
I impulsively stopped walking, stared at his body, and saw fresh blood trickling from his nose. The headmaster ordered me to continue moving for other classes to have their turn. We all left in a single file.
John Echem was born in 1982 at Mbonge Maroumba, Southern Cameroon to the family of Rose Namondo Sakwe, a native of Mbonge Maroumba, and the late inspector Aluu John Echem, a native of Amata-Amachi, Akpoha, Afikpo North L.G.A., Ebonyi State, Nigeria. John Echem lived and grew up in Mbonge, his maternal hometown, before moving to Nigeria in the late ‘90s to acclimatize with his father because his mother and father were apart. He lived at his paternal hometown, Akpoha, and got immersed in the culture of his people. He presently lives in Abak, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, where he teaches the English Language and Literature in English for local schools. His genre of specialization is poetry. He has not been officially published yet though there have been ghetto publishings of his poetry and stories in the U.S and on various social media poetry platforms.
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