Chineye Ikweme: Where the earth was brown and mango trees many

by Chineye Ikwueme

The first time I felt connected to literature, it was like feeling blood run through my veins. I was six, and Uncle Matthew worked at Enugu State Library. During his weekend visits, which were mostly on Saturdays, he drove his white Volkswagen beetle from the roads of Enugu down to Abakaliki where I lived with my grandparents. His visits were always worthwhile not for the only reason that he bought fried aki na ukwa, bread, mi-mi and okpa, he also brought books with shiny covers, glittery with gaily colors and animated pictures that charmed the mind of every girl my age were plastered all over the pages – front to back. I loved the feel of the books in my hands, my fingers strumming the covers that felt hard and thick.

I carried them carefully like eggs and stacked them underneath the pillow case sheet of my single bunk spring bed for the simple fact that I did not want to lose them. In the evenings, when the euphoria of the visit had worn off like the sun wears off the sky and makes way for the moon, Granny would read me the stories pronouncing each word carefully, so that nothing was lost in her voice. Her English was Queens, polished and impeccable and the sound of it, sounded crunchy in my ears. As she read gesturing her hands in the air, I would close my eyes and drift off…to that footpath were Red Riding Hood met the wolf on her way home after her grandmother had cautioned her not to talk to strangers. I stood behind, warning her that it wasn’t a sick old woman rather it was a wolf – or on the farm where Jack and Gill had planted the magic bean seed, I could feel it sprouting out from the earth until it grew and grew, sticking its abnormal overgrown stem and branches into the clouds – or on that hill where a certain Humpty-Dumpty, an egg like man stood on the hill with his battalion of soldiers, ten thousand of them watching him spiral like a ball falling off the mountain till he came crashing at the tip like an egg and it was impossible to piece him back together. I often wondered if they succeeded or he remained like the tortoise in the folktales that had to live with the plaque of a cracked shell.

The books grew in numbers with every visit and when it got so much that I could no longer stack them underneath my pillow, Granny stalked them in a brown carton and the word library was labeled boldly at the top left of the carton. That was how I learnt the word,  L for library, it sounded like a short grinding sound from within my throat. I stuck on the tip of my tongue in-between the opening of my teeth at first, then opened wide my mouth and pronounced. It sounded fluttering at first then I pronounced more and more, slowly and steadily until my stomach was full of it. I made it a habit of staring at the library before bedtime and I can remember gloating while I memorized in a hush tone Uzo’s library with a grin lining the corners of my face. This would later become my most prized possessions before the frilly pink dresses that Granny helped zipped  me in and knotted the belts into a firm bow at my back.

At 9, I wasn’t just blossoming  into adolescence, I could read my own stories and had passed the common entrance examinations into Secondary School. Mum bought me books from Chike and The River, The Bottled Leopard, Passport of Mallam Iliya, Wives Revolt, Drummer Boy, Joys of Motherhood, An African Nights Entertainment…it was a long list of novellas. The more I read, the more I got creative with my imaginations. My imaginations this time didn’t feel so alien or foreign. I didn’t have to stray too far – the streets where Akin the blind Drummer Boy played his drum seemed like a familiar road where I would walk by every day and listen to his serenading drumming and marvel at the talent of a blind black boy – or the village where wives revolted due to the obnoxious treatments meted out on them by their selfish husbands thereby starting a strike. I could imagine the men, most of them big bellied,  having to do feminine chores which have always been considered a taboo for men, like strapping babies to their backs while fetching water and pounding yam. I liked this sort of punishment for the men, honestly, it seemed deserving as I chuckled under my breath.

My literature teacher in Junior Secondary was a thin woman that hovered her body like a sack of dry bones. she always furrowed her brows to a frown which I came to understand later as her face. she spent more time making us kneel than reading to the class. The sound of her clumsy footsteps behind the creaking door was always a nightmare but still I read because that was the only escape of surviving school and all I wanted to do was read and read until eyes melted into the books.

The literature syllabus was narrow and soon I ran out of reading texts. I took solace in the school library, a sturdy building with thick iron shelves and narrow paths filled with books and books – too many to count, unlike my cartooned library at five. It was there I discovered Animal Farm, the fabled story (as I perceived it be then, because I could not comprehend it was a satire or an allegory) that drove me to the brim of my imaginations. I marveled at a story of animals versus humans, and afterwards I stared at chickens, goats and dogs that roamed the school compound awkwardly, somehow believing they had the power to revolt against humans for eating chicken eggs, enjoying roasted goat meat or pepper soup and selling puppies to make money.

It was also on those library trips I discovered Gulliver’s travel, Ernest Hemingway, some collection of African Writers Series and a good number of Shakespearian books whose English at the time seemed very weird and funny in my tongue. The books were many but there was never enough time, the free periods were scarce due to the regimented routine. And soon I began dodging classes I certified unnecessary to seek the library – Igbo classes: I deemed myself a guru already, I could speak, read and write fluently; Wood Work- I didn’t exactly see the point of this, what were the chances of a girl cutting wood in the future?; Music- those musical notes were tiresome to understand plus the music lab was devoid of any musical instrument; PHE (Physical Health Education)- I thought this to be more physical than theoretical but we spent more time copying lengthy boring notes on sports in the classroom. I could have dodged mathematics class as well, but it was almost impossible even though I struggled a lot with calculations.

The real love affair I think began at 13, Junior WAEC had wounded up and the long August break was over. My coffee brown pinafore uniform had been transformed into a coffee brown skirt and with a china white blouse as a senior student. It was no surprise I was placed in Art class, I did not have the head to cram formulas for lengthy calculations outside General Mathematics. In Art Class, we had a double period for literature which stretched to almost an hour unlike in junior class where it was just appendix of English language that was barely a twenty minutes single period. The syllabus was broad – Swinse Bansi is Dead, Beggar’s Strike, Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again, Last Duty, Black Boy, Farewell to Arms, Hamlet, A Man for All Seasons, Galileo…it was a fine blend of home groomed and foreign literature together. There I read and grinned, read and puzzled, read and laughed and read again and felt sad- literature was always an unpredictable whirlwind blowing many emotions within.

Mr Onuche my literature teacher who reminded me a lot of what I imagined  Humpty-Dumpty to be, made literature more magical than it was. For every book we dissected or devoured, he transformed it into a space sojourn, a tale of within its own existence. I learnt poetry as well, short and concise. It was astounding that poets said so much in short compressed rhyming lines. It was in the lines of poetry that I learnt that less could be more – To An Athlete Dying Young, An African Thunderstorm, to His Coy Mistress, and my favorite classic of all times- The Road Not Taken. I learnt that literature surpassed just diction, they were forms of literature as well, genres, figures of speech and a whole lot of other technicalities, that accounted for what good literature should be. Literature was life and I thought, anyone who did not read could possibly not live.

And just like that, 16 came swiftly and I stopped living. I got into the University, discovered boys, sex, alcohol, fashion, parties, shishas and the harsh realities of adulthood was slowly and gradually crawling in and enclosing me in its walls. Somewhere outside, the flames of literature withered out like the green leafs did during harmatan. Four whole years passed and I couldn’t really remember reading – except for,  No Greater Love, which I sauntered on, for almost an entire session.

At 21, the Clarion’s Call called and it was time to serve my fatherland and I still couldn’t remember the taste of literature. I was posted to local Secondary School of a shanty town in Nassarwa State. The principal whose grey hairs peeked out of his cap took one stern look at me wringing and tottering in his office and asked angrily like I had upset him before my arrival,  young lady what can you teach? Am tired of you corpers, especially the female ones, lazy and full of excuses, he added. I can teach Literature, Sir! I replied without giving it an afterthought. So it came to pass that I, stood in a class as a teacher, reading aloud Drummer Boy, the same book I had read as a girl, to a bunch of excited fidgety kids wearing oversized uniforms, who were enthusiastic about reading and it set me on a nostalgic path. I set up a reading club where the kids exchanged books with their classmates after reading and during our club meetings, two of the books were selected and discussed.

Somewhere in-between my Youth Service Year, Granny gave up her long battle with cancer and it meant going back to where it all started- to the rusty once white gate of No. 35 Ezza Road Abakaliki, where the earth was brown and the mango trees were many, to pick up the memories of a six year old me. After the burial, in the midst of packing, I found two cartons swaddled in dust and cobwebs. Library 1 and Library 2 were the labels they bore respectively. Library 1 I discovered were books that once belonged to my mother – So Long a Letter, Girls at War, Expo 77, The African Child, Petals of Blood, Efuru, Things Fall Apart…most I had not read despite my once promiscuous reading habit. While Library 2 were mine – still stacked with my old books. I took back both libraries with me. Discovering my mother’s library spurred me into a revival- the task was simple, I had to live again and that meant remembering how to read.

I began the long road to reading again after Youth Service wounded up. In-between callbacks for job exams and  interviews I had applied for, I shut the blinds of the window and shut out the world around and read. I read for the four years of my life I wasted not reading, read because I missed Granny a lot, read because I wanted to taste literature again, read because at six I had once felt literature like blood in my veins.

I have long merged both libraries (my mother’s and mine) and labelled it two generations, with the thought that someday my daughter would have it in a world where this may be considered outdated. But they say, good books are like fine wine, they only get better with every reading. Am hoping she would have the luxury of enjoying an old hard copy book like I did, in a world where I imagine, soft copies would have taken over.

Every Fridays, I attend Abuja Literary Society(ALS), a fast growing book club to either discuss a selected book of the month or listen to good African stories written by upcoming writers wearing Dasuki or Ankra printed attires and afro puffed natural hairs or dread locks. I tell my friend’s when they bug me with their incessant phone calls that I would rather be here, at the book club than be anywhere else, but they don’t understand and sometimes they laugh mawkishly. I’m making my own contemporary library with every book I buy once a week at the craft village in a Cassava Republic book store commuting back from work. I will call this library an African library because I have made some reading adjustments to come back home, to the basis, to good contemporary African writing- where else would charity begin like they say if not at home.

Every second Saturdays of the month, I make it a duty to treat myself at Salamander Café where you would find soothing jazz music, sizzling cuisines, fine red wine and a whole loads of African books. I buy myself a bottle of wine and a good spiced chicken wings, seat at the corner stacked with books and read to myself in a hushed almost inaudible voice. Sometimes I sigh, chuckle or just laugh really hard depending on the tone of the book am reading.

Am hoping that one of these days during my Saturday trips to the Café, a stranger, preferably male would ask me to recommend an African book suitable for a good read, for the obvious reason that he would think me an avid reader or book lover. I would definitely recommend the Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives for a start, and afterwards, I would hope that we could talk about the books we’ve both read, sip on some fine wine and laugh so loud until our voices bounced off the walls and echoes into the night.

This entry was submitted as part of the Nigerian Voices competition organized by

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