After surviving the Nigerian Civil War and losing two children to the war, octogenarian Madam Patricia Nworgu shares her experience with JULIET KUYET BULUS
When and where were you born?
I was born in year 1931.
How are you able to tell the exact year?
By right of age, I should be 87 years old. The age is determined by the age of my younger brother, though not accurately calculated. It was figured out during baptism, when Christianity came. I went as a child old enough to be in school and was baptised and given an age from that day on, forgetting that I had been in existence even before baptism. My brother was baptised in 1929, he was a child and I was old enough for primary education. Those days, one would have to put their hands across the head to determine if they were old enough to be baptised or for formal education. From history, I remember that I was born in August which is the month of the annual Yam Festival in my place, which is why I am called the child of the Yam Festival. Nworgu means my father was a warrior (child of war). So according to the age I was given at baptism, I am 87 years old but if the years I lived before baptism is added, it turns up that I am older that.
How was life growing up?
We lived in peace with our parents and we felt safe with them because they shielded us. In my community, we were mainly into agriculture. We associated with our peers especially fellow women, and accompanied our parents to the farm when necessary. Young girls were cautioned to stay away from their male counterparts except during moonlight play when elders were present to supervise.
Moonlight play was all about telling stories, singing and dancing. In my days, we had trade by barter, cowries, shillings, penny and kobo for our transactions and when the British came, we began to use the pounds; money had value at the time. To strike a balance at every transaction, since some people would usually have one or two things of more value than what they were being offered in exchange, barter was used to augment.
We learnt the ropes of trading from our parents as we traded on farm produce. Unlike what we have today, not all were eligible to go to the market because we had the belief that only matured maidens or women could go to the market. It was usually a great celebration having a maiden go to the market for the first time because it meant she was old enough to get married. At the age of maturity, which is the first time of monthly flow, they were taken into camps in the bushes which could last six months or a year (the camping of virgins) it is called Mgbe. During this period, maidens equipped themselves with various trades such as weaving of hair, local tattooing and they felt safe in the bushes because they had hunters guarding the pathways to ensure there was no intrusion by people from neighbouring villages or by wild animals. Traps were set at strategic places and anyone found within that vicinity who wasn’t supposed to be there was in for strict discipline. Fence was built with palm fronds to safe guard the place as well. The hunters were also restricted from crossing the fence as it was seen as a virgin land and desecration attracted punishment. It was always announced for people to stay away when the maidens were to go to the river and failure to do so was met with punishment. Some chiefs were allowed to select a maiden as wife when they come out of camp as it was also an occasion of acrobatic display.
While in seclusion, maidens were fed well and looked after. It was usually a joyful moment that young girls and their mothers looked forward to. At this stage, the maidens were old enough to wear cloths known as Akwute (a small wrapper tied around the waist) and beads. The wearing of cloth meant covering the chest and privates but for a royals, it meant total covering. Royalty was treated differently in and outside the camp. Maidens who had royalty in their midst usually enjoyed more because they got to eat bush meat early in the morning, yam and other goodies. Hunters were usually cautious when they were in the bushes especially when they saw smoke which signified the presence of maidens camping. In those days, most maidens preferred marrying hunters because they were hardworking and were also seen as great people with a bright future. Some hunters would intentionally sing to attract a maiden with their voice. Next preferred group were farmers then goldsmiths.
Growing up in a riverine area, we learnt how to paddle canoes and I could swim. We went on errands in peers, learnt everything we needed to know about money when we became matured. Every mother knew her child’s virginity status because they monitored them and when anyone was found wanting, they could not be married off because it amounted to being a disgrace to the family. This gave room for respect for the women and no one dared to sexually molest a maiden.
Speaking about royalty, I am from a royal home and the last child of the king. My father had a large farm, and slaves. Shoes were bought from the market according to one’s level. No one dared to buy a shoe made with leopard skin as it was strictly for the king. We also had people who were gossips, they usually monitored families to see if they were living beyond their means of livelihood and when they observed for some time, they reported to the palace and investigations were carried out. We used to feed on lizards, frogs, rats, termites even bats and never saw anything wrong with it.
How did the so-called slaves become slaves?
There were always people to serve the king and the slaves, at the time, were people who had committed one offence or the other and run away from their village to the next to avoid punishment. They usually went before the king/chief of another village, state where they were from and why they needed refuge, and it was always about a crime they committed. So they became slaves as punishment for their crime. The king would have to get in touch with the slave’s village to inform them of the culprit’s whereabouts and tell them he/she would serve as a slave for a period of one or two years. Most times, such communities issued strict pronouncement on the offender to serve as a slave forever. Stealing was not common and could attract death. Slaves were also acquired during war with other communities.
What were some of the challenges you faced growing up?
Life with my parents was a good one but the only thing missing was education. I was trained with the fear of God. There was formal education but many did not consider it because they had the fear of their parents, we were trained to respect them. In the present day, the lack of respect makes it easy for children to do whatever they want. Back then, when a parent did not see the need for education, one was expected to obey their opinion because it was their way of shielding their child. With this belief, they succeeded in life. Besides, it is someone who knows about education that can tell of its value and that was the case, they felt that they could not offer what they had no clear picture of. I had so many challenges but the one I can’t forget is the civil war because I lost two children. We survived the cold with camp fire to keep warm and eventually blankets, when the whites came.
What was your experience during the Civil War?
It was not an experience anyone should go through. I was traumatised just seeing abandoned children by the roadside. Parents left children behind because they could not survive with a child drawing the attention of the army and they also needed to be able to run/hide easily. Children were seen crying in the bushes. But after the war, those who did not have children, who were God fearing and had sympathy, saw it as an opportunity to hold on to them. During the war people who valued property dropped it aside because they would not survive holding on to it. While some other persons might see it and pick it, they eventually ended up dropping it when exhausted.
My daughter was full-grown when she died. There was no food and starvation was the order. Horrible things happened; one’s child could be raped without anything done about it. A child could be exchanged for salt just so you could cook. To cross the boundary to where soldiers were, salt was required as exchange and this was for those who had it. Kwashiorkor and so many diseases plagued people because there was no food and people could not farm. But with the intervention of the whites, we had hospitals. There was no choice as to what to eat and what not to eat. We even ate mushrooms to stay alive.
How would you compare life in your time with the present day?
Life has changed, what I see today was not there in the past. There was utmost secrecy, we moved about naked and were not immoral, unlike what we have today. It was like the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible when they lived in the garden of Eden not knowing they were naked. Respect was given to everyone and at a young age, we were groomed to respect all and hardly would we have people falling short of the standards. Some wore clothes, some just pants and beads, and the beads determined one’s maturity. Beads were given according to age and with this, one’s level of maturity is known. For a young woman, pant was worn and given on the first day of monthly flow and despite all these, there was respect. No man looked at a woman lustfully even when she was naked. No female child discussed with a male counterpart while she was being called upon by parents or when they were there because it was considered wrong. When the young ones saw an elder, they stood up and asked what they could do. There was also respect for siblings so that one’s age would be longer. Unlike now when some children are summoned and they don’t respond or grumble when they are sent on errands. The value of training children has been watered down with arrogance, and some don’t even train at all. One who respects parents, respects all. It is with respect that we were able to survive the war. Respect for custom, norm, Church is important and without respect there is no love.
What did you do as a means of livelihood?
I was into farming and trading, and with the proceeds, I trained my children. I rode my bicycle as a means of transportation too. I cultivated, took my produce to sell on my bicycle. During the war, we loosened the bicycle and when the war ended we picked it up and repaired it. At this stage I already knew the value of education, so I was determined to train all my children.
What are your thoughts on the agitation of Biafra by some individuals?
After the war, there was chanting, there was a road block and when one was out and told ‘One Nigeria,’ the response was ‘No Trouble’. The civil war made us encounter life at home and life in the bush. Now we are living and experiencing life at home and the majority have not experienced life in the bush. With life in the bush, there is no excuse for mosquito, snakebite. Life during the civil war is an experience no one should want to have because I know what I went through and would advise they desist from making request for Biafra. We should remember the language we used at the time, ‘One Nigeria, No Trouble.’ They should not go back on their words. Peace only comes with unity, let us stick together and tolerate our differences.
Do you have any regrets?
In life, one should stop counting regrets because when they do, it means they are still living in the past. To live long one must forget about regrets and think, work towards amendment. Having regrets is going anti-clockwise. I do not have regrets.
If you were given an opportunity what would you have done differently?
I have seen so many women pass through a lot of ordeal. They need to be revived and respected. I believe agriculture should be held to the highest level at all sectors because with food, there would be no complain. I will ensure agriculture is priority as it eliminates greed. I would also preach gender sensitivity for the woman/ girl child. I will encourage the education of children irrespective of gender, adult education as it is never too late to be educated and women empowerment. I will also encourage peaceful co-existence between the North, South, East and West without discrimination just as it is in my family. It is possible to co-exist by inter-marriage without regrets. My son is married to a Fulani woman, my daughter to a Kaduna State indigene, some to Igbo and another to a Yoruba man. This is to show that it is achievable.
Where were you during the country’s independence in 1960?
It was freedom day and my most memorable day as I experienced freedom. I had my son Emeka, on the October 1, 1960. We sang, danced and composed a song.
Have your hopes at independence been met?
After the rigorous war, I was home, gave birth and the day smelled peace to me. Since then I believe peace had come to stay and nothing should be done to threaten co-existence. Customs and tradition were very rigid and there was no freedom. We saw independence as total liberation as many things were abolished. We saw independence as termination of any kind of war. Religion after independence brought about love because we did things not because we wanted to but out of fear. Independence changed a lot of things I am grateful for. Though women were given lesser work in the farms, we were no longer cheated with the advent of currency. We were exposed to places instead of being confined to the village and people could acquire formal education freely without seeing it as a taboo, without assuming school was for lazy people as they were not hardworking and deserved to serve the Whiteman. I did not see the need for school because I was the daughter of a king, was well fed, carried on the shoulder by at least four maids and they dare not drop me on the ground. I ate tails of stock fish while being carried. The emergence of independence opened our eyes and we noticed, for the first time, that we were being cheated as we felt freedom like never before, even freedom to eat whatever as a people because in those days, not everyone could eat eggs. We were no longer afraid of the military and became close to the government. We also got to know we had the right to vote and the era of imposing chiefs was over. We chose people to lead us based on their input to the community. It was a way of proving to the community they were capable of holding such positions. We were liberated from hunger.
When did you get married?
I cannot say. This is the importance of education because an educated person would keep records. Back then, weddings were done immediately, there was parental consent because there was no such thing as a ceremony.
How did you meet your spouse?
I went to visit my father’s sister who was married in another village. Coincidentally, I met my husband who told me he liked me and would want to marry me. I accepted with the intervention of my aunty and his family met with my parents and the marriage rites was performed.
What was the attraction?
He was a tall man, hardworking and a great farmer. It was with his assistance I started trading.
How many children do you have?
I had 10 children but lost two during the civil war. I ensured my children had formal education, though it was not easy. We could not train all at the same time but did our best educating them one after the other because if we were to educate them at once, it would not have been possible. Our goal was to ensure they were educated and we eventually achieved it. To the glory of God, my children are all educated and they are in a good place.
How is life as an octogenarian?
I’m no longer a farmer, even though I would love to work. My children are blessed and they have decided to take care of me by seeing to my every need. I trained my children who are all working class, in the army, navy, civil defence, nursing, air force and so on. They encourage me to exercise, take care of my grandchildren without assigning any heavy task to me. My children have insisted I should not work but I go down to my daughter’s farm and get vegetables to cook sometimes. I walk down to Church since it is close by as a form of exercise. I sleep when I want to. My children know how important Independence is to me, so every October 1, we celebrate and I have an attire for that day, a badge and a muffler. I have been given the name Mama Nigeria.
How did you unwind during your younger days?
We had this cultural dance called Abigolo and my husband was a musician who played the xylophone. We had these beautiful dance steps I danced to as I sang.
You look great, what do you eat to stay healthy?
Back then, we ate vegetables, akpu, pounded yam and did not eat much of garri. Coming from a riverine area, I ate fish quite often by smoking it. We did not keep left overs of the fish. We did not drink cold water because there was no refrigerator and that has helped me up till this day because I still do not drink cold water. Though I cannot cheat nature as age is telling on me, however, I do not have high blood pressure or diabetes.
Advice for the younger generation
I will keep insisting that the younger generation become gender sensitive, especially to women. Over civilisation has changed a lot of things. Respect should be given to everyone and that way, it would be reciprocated. They should avoid being idle, do whatever their hands find to do, well, and it must of course, be legal. Not everything depends on white-collar jobs. Discipline should be imbibed and civilisation should not be exaggerated. Let’s hold firm to our culture and stop destabilising the country by molesting the girl child. They should shun drug abuse and have the fear of God.