I can’t exactly remember when I started seeing her but it’s sure been a long while. Five years or so probably.
She was a neighbour, then she decided to get busy by selling commodities, then it evolved to selling bread. My husband would refer to her as Onibread which I guess means bread seller in Yoruba language.
She was warm and always open to small talk. She spoke with Benin accent and was either up early or staying up late displaying her wares in a protected space in front of the compound inside which she lived with her elder brother and his family. She wasn’t young, no, probably in her mid fifties.
I remember we got talking recently about her children, some of who are already done with university and are gainfully employed. I could sense the joy in her as she spoke about her daughter.
I remember the excitement on the street when she started frying Akara, properly fried bean cakes are always a welcome delicacy and the crowd around her stall gradually increased. She partnered with another younger woman and together they delivered to their growing clientele, Mondays to Saturdays.
She was very good friends with my younger son Okem and would refer to me as Mama Okem every time we saw. The truth is that Okem originally refused to say hello to her and would declare that she was not his friend. She persisted with talking to him and stopping to greet him until they became « bestest friends »…
I had become accustomed to seeing her outside her premises when walking down to mine or when entering or alighting from the Car and most times a wave or hello would suffice until recently I got the news that she was no more… Just like that.
That Saturday morning, just like other mornings, people were already queuing up to order for their Akara. Her partner was on her way to blend the beans as usual but stopped by to pick up something and that was when she heard… It had happened suddenly and swiftly. The night before, they had parted ways, full of plans for the next day. The next morning, the story was an entirely different one.
I’m choosing to write because I want to remember her for the warmth and cheer she brought to our street and for the courage to start up little businesses that made a difference. She would be greatly missed, the bread seller on my street.
She would have been 62 years today; my Mum and today, I choose to reflect on her memories with joy rather than sadness.
Today also being Easter, I remember clearly my Mum’s kitchen activities, not just during the festive period but when she has to do major food preparations. Like most women in her generation, my Mum had a large kitchen, not only in size but in operations, sometimes catering to about 15 people or more on a daily basis.
“A luo m ofu uzo olu”, she would usually exclaim after a hard days work in the kitchen or maybe when she’s done some major clean up in the house.
My Mum paid great attention to the ingredients that went into her food, making sure they were sourced from the best, she paid even greater attention to the cooking process. When she’s in the kitchen, her theatrics could be major, especially on those days she would be cooking three different pots of soup at once; “Uzo ofe ito”. A pot of Egusi soup on one gas burner, a pot of Bitter leaf soup on the other burner and then we would be lined up somewhere slicing Okro for the upcoming Okro soup, my Mum was an “uchu!”; a term referring to someone working really hard at something.
Vegetables were hallowed things in my Mum’s kitchen. We were made to wash the Ugu or Spinach countless times just to make sure that there was not a tiny bit of the tiniest grain logged in somewhere.
“Gbanye mmili, gbanye mmili” she would say with every sense of seriousness instructing you to add enough water to the veggies. “tinye e nnu”; would follow, a reminder that you should add salt. And if she perceived you weren’t washing them hard enough, she would intervene, saying “chee ka m bia”, and take over the washing, shaking the leaves with her two hands in the water with the instructions to observe her “na ene m anya”.
It was clear to us that having sand in the soup was a taboo. I grew up imagining what it would be like to have the dreaded “sand in the soup” experience. Any movement in the kitchen at key points when my Mum cooked her numerous delicacies would probably be met with hushed exclamations of “Aja!”, Sand! as though mentioning it loudly might actually introduce the sand into the soup. If someone was pounding in the mortar and another person walked past; she would caution against sand “Aja! Aja!”
If cut vegetables or other prepared foodstuff queued up for addition to the soup, were placed on the work surface and you probably opened an overhead cupboard; my Mum would go like; “Hey! Aja oooo!!!” Till date, I inwardly duck when I open my overhead kitchen cupboard if there’s cut foodstuff on my work surface with thoughts of “Aja!” on my mind.
Then the process of washing dried fish; you had to first soak them in brine to extract the first layer of dirt/sand, then wash them delicately with a soft sponge to extract the remaining and then rinse them as many times as it would take to get all the sand out.
What do we now say to the washing of offals? The cow intestine also known as afo anu or roundabout, the rough part of the meat which we called “towel anu” but known as shaki in Lagos. Truth is, I rarely eat roundabout meat outside home and I can’t remember the last time I cooked with it either. You see, my Mum would sit down and strip that meat of every interior fat and dirt irrespective of the quantity she cooked, leaving it very clean and that’s the taste I’m used to, sometimes in ordering outside food, that care is not taken because it’s a time consuming process.
It is said that repetition is the law of deep and lasting impression and that’s how my Mum taught us to make some complicated Igbo soups in addition to the observation process. She would chant the steps over and over again so that it would sink in your mind and if you were at a loss on the next step to take, just repeat the chant. For Bitter leaf soup, she would go;
“I tinye ede, ede ghee, i tinye mmanu, mmanu suo, i tinye ogili, ogili ghee, i kwako nyi e ife nni”.
“Put the cocoyam, when it’s done, add the palm oil, when it boils, add the locust bean, when it’s done, then add the spices.”
While we loved to cook with Mum in the kitchen (did i really?) It was always great when my Aunties visited because they simply hung out in the kitchen with her and took over whatever it was we were doing in a very casual but firm manner and who are we to say no to such marvelous help?
The passing on of a Mum is something you never really get used to, some of my friends lost their Mother’s recently and I can just imagine the many memories flooding there hearts on a daily. We are grateful for the hope of the resurrection that Easter brings and we look forward to the rapture morning when the dead in Christ will rise up first and we’ll all ascend to meet the Lord.
Keep resting Fashion Mazi o, till we meet again.
In Ever Loving Memory of Lady Benedette Ugwunwa Ezeanya (4th April 1959-29th June 2019)
As a child, the story of the Biafra war never struck me as a tragedy or a very sad tale.
I guess my mind was never able to grasp the full import of the war or what really happened in Biafra.
My Mum was rather young when the war was fought; 8 years when it started and 11 years when it ended but she was old enough to have experienced the terribleness and would always say: agha ajoka, wars are bad.
She would describe the bombings, imitating the sounds of the planes called “fighter na bomber” gbum gbum gbum gbum.
She also talked about Bunkers, the underground escape houses where they usually ran in to hide when the bombings started.
The houses were like wells, dug into the ground and the top covered with palms branches scattered all over such that it looked like a farm. My maternal grandpa had one of those in his house.
But the best part of her stories was the song, the song they sang during the war. It captured a bit of the sufferings of the people while conveying a bit of their sentiments at that time.
The first four lines of the song talks about eating stockfish and corn meal, while asking that cassava leaves be included in the soup to help prevent Kwashiorkor; a protein deficiency disease prevalent during the war. The Nigerian soldiers had blocked the food supplies of the Biafrans hence a lot of the children had protruded bellies, big heads and very skinny bodies, all signs of the illness.
The 5th line was a cry against Red Cross, the society was said to have worked with Nigeria against Biafra during the war, though they were treating Biafran wounded soldiers.
The sixth line referred to the long trips to Aba to bring food items like Garri. I remember stories of my Dad trekking from Anambra to Nsukka, a journey of several thousand miles to get beans and then resell.
The 7th, 8th & 9th lines convey prophetic doom on the Hausa soldiers from Nigeria, Gowon and his wife, declaring solemnly that she would get pregnant from Kwashiorkor and give birth to Fighter and Bomber jets that would be used to destroy Nigeria.
Unu elisigo Okporoko
Unu elisigo corn mealu
Welu abuba akpu sielu anyi ofe
Maka Kwashiorkor emee tu anyi o!
Red Cross gbakwa oku
K’anyi jee n’Aba bute nni garri bunye ndi Kwashiorkor
Ogbunigwe chuba ndi Hausa, Gowon agba kpuo na Bunker
Bunker zedo Gowon
Nwunye Gowon atua ime Kwashiorkor
Ife o ga amu fighter na bomber
A ga-eji tugbu ndi Nigeria
Aha ya anti-kwashiokor
Not the kind of song you would want to sing but this showed the predominant thoughts of the oppressed Biafrans during the war and beyond and I’m certain that anyone who lived through or heard stories of that Civil war or any war at that would not desire another.
Don’t ask me the meaning of what I’m about to write next. Truth is, I don’t know. They must be some carefully stringed Onomatoepic words passed from one generation to the next but then, it must have stopped with my Grandma, because I never heard my Mum use them.
Or maybe, my Grandma composed them entirely, in the ingenuity of women going for Omugwo; the compulsory duty of African mothers or mothers-in-law as the case may be when their daughter gives birth to a new born.
The images are still very clear, GrandMa sitting in a corner in my Mum’s room, the door was left open so we would watch from the dining room. She would sit with her legs spread aside and the baby’s bath tub inbetween them and when she was done bathing the baby, she would throw him or her up singing;
“Ti ngwe ngwe, ti ti gwe ngwe
Ti ngwe ngwe, ti ti gwe ngwe
Änd we would just sing along and giggle. We never asked for the meaning or origin of the songs. For the most part of the omugwo period Grandma would have this powder plastered across her forehead, the baby’s powder. Then she would meticulously hand out Cabin biscuits or Anyara na Ose Oji – Garden egg and local peanut butter, the staple snacks for every Omugwo visitor. This was usually accompanied by a bottle of Fanta or any other soft drink. It must have been an unspoken taboo to serve alcohol around a new born. LOL
We generally enjoyed Grandma’s visit and we were always sad to see her leave at the end of every Omugwo. My Mum took over the bathing of the baby and she would sing her own songs. Again, some parts of it were just onomatoepic while some others celebrated the baby and some actual milestones. When she was done bathing the baby, she would hold him or her up and sing:
Kworokwo kwo kwoto
Kworokwo kwo kwoto
A na-agba agu mgba?
A na-agba agu mgba?
The last two lines were rhetorical questions asking if someone can wrestle with a Lion. The babies loved the songs and would usually laugh as she sang.
When a baby was about to reach the standing milestone, that would be accompanied by a song;
O kwulu, O kwulu, O kwulu
Ka m na-enene
The song was more of a chant acknowledging that the baby is now standing “for the person to watch/admire” and sometimes all of us would gather to see the baby hitting that milestone.
My Mum’s youngest sister, Aunty Rita took the music for babies to another level. She virtually composed a hit single for my cousin Kosisochukwu when he was born and he created his own dance steps to it, it was pure joy to watch. Again, the music was mostly chants with some onomatoepic words and a few lines acknowledging God as the giver of children.
Koko gbam gbam Koko (2ce)
Ina bem bem ina (2ce)
Ami mi koko
So nwa so Chukuw na-enye
Nwa Chukwu nyere m Kosi
Ina bem bem ina
Ina bem bem so nwa
Then came my marriage and pregnancy and first baby. I simply adopted a song from the bible for Ikem, LOL. No time to start composing like the people before me. My Mum didn’t do much theatrics either, she just kept thanking God for the baby. Chukwu aluka! Then she would pronounce his name in a sing-song voice: Ike mu si na chi o for about four times, forming it into a kind of chant.
Then the numerous phone calls to her friends, telling them why she was away;
“A no m Lagos, nwa m muu nwa” (I’m at Lagos, my child had a baby)
Then, in response to the person’s questions on which of her kids, she would explain further;
“Mba, nwa m nke ise, nke na-eje Eziowelle” (no, my fifth child, the one being married at Eziowelle).
O lite nwa nwoke, Chukwu aluka (She had a baby boy, God has done us well) (She would say the same if it was a baby girl)
The person might then remind her of one meeting or the other from one of her numerous Church associations and she would scream and ask the person to kindly take permission for her “biko naalu m order” and let them know that she went for Omugwo.
She would manage to stay for like one month but by the end of 3 weeks, she would start announcing her departure with goodnews;
“Obiamaka, aru di gi, aru di nwa gi. Ife m nwee ime eme ka nku” Obiamaka, you’re healthy and your child is healthy too, I have a lot of things to do [at home].
She would repeat this for many more days and also to people calling her on the phone just to prepare your mind for her departure before she would finally announce her departure date.
I remember our many quarrels, one of which was my insistence on exclusively breastfeeding my first son. She felt it was too tedious being that I had him via Ceasarean section. She believed I should do both breast and bottle feeding (she rasied eight kids that way!) and couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t just hand her the baby, hand her the bottles and baby milk plus the full sterilizing unit and enjoy my omugwo while she did that work. By the time she came for the second omugwo, she didn’t bother. Amaka a da ekwe-ekwe; Amaka would not agree, she would say while explaining to another person.
We always fed fat during omugwo, it usually took extra work to loose the weight. Mum made sure of that; the specially cooked soup with carefully dried Chicken or smoked fish bought from the best vendors in Onitsha. She always arrived in grand style with enough food supply to last beyond her departure. I remember her complaining about “Ji ndi Lagos”, the quality of the Lagos yam to her elder sister who in turn asked her if Lagosians cultivate yam, implying that most yams in Lagos were brought in from outside Lagos. LOL. Mum was that particular about foodstuffs.
“So therefore, what I’m trying to say is that”; another of my Mum’s lines as she passionately explained a point to my husband, probably on Anambra politics. And I’ll round up this story by saying that it’s nearly two years on and we still miss her like it was yesterday.
A smile that must mirror that of my Mum when she talked about her Dad.
Now the smile gets even broader.
You see, I didn’t get to meet my GrandFather, Chief James Enechukwu, but I heard so much about him and ofcourse saw his pictures and if I must say, he was quite handsome and my Mum has some resemblance to him.
My GrandFather must have been a good man, not because he’s my GrandPa, no, not at all but like my Mum would say; 40 years and more after his death, his name was still opening doors for them.
We grew up hearing my Mum and her sisters refer to themselves as “Umu James Enechukwu”, they were proud to be his children, this is not withstanding the fact that he passed on quite early; when my Mum was about 12 years old.
Chief James Enechukwu was not only a devout Christian and a wealthy businessman, he also had the renowned position of being the Treasurer of St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in my hometown; Uke, Idemili North Local Government Area, Anambra State.
I remember one day, in a conversation with my husband in our sitting room, my Mum would talk about how good their Dad was to their Mum, his godly attitude and she would add with this proud look on her face; i makwa na Papa m bu treasurer? Did you know my Father was the Church treasurer?
Being a treasurer these days would mainly be a book keeping role as monies are expected to be deposited in the bank but this was not so in the 60’s. This meant that my GrandDad had access to Church funds and must have kept such a good account of it that he earned quite a reputation.
Moreso, he was a key player in the construction of the Church building in my hometown. About 50 years after his passing, as the Church dedicated it’s renovated building, Pa James Enechukwu’s name was listed in the Church brochure for his exemplary role. My Aunty, Mrs. Virginia Obi narrated this with mixed feelings as this was shortly after my Mum’s passing.
Back in the days, when there were no well written books on how to be a good Dad, my GrandPa chose to live right and modeled same to his children; those who were old enough to understand. This goes to say that being a good parent is more in the way you live your life, how you treat people, including your spouse and ofcourse your children.