EJIME UTOMI: An Embodiment of Oral Tradition

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Late Ejime Utomi

Ejime Utomi, traditional ruler of Aboh-Umuokwe, Ogwashi, Anioma, Delta, who died at the age of 101, has been described as a quintessential encyclopedia of wisdom, knowledge and intelligence

By Paul Ejime  |

AS a little boy in a moderately large family, I remember always sitting close to my father’s outstretched legs as he received a stream of visitors, among them his kinsmen and women, old and young. Papa, ever conspicuous on his easy chair would bid everyone welcome and proceed to offer them kola nuts and an assortment of drinks, palm wine, beer, spirits and soft drink.

“Hold the keg or bottle with your left hand and pour the drink in the glass on your right,” my father will admonish, driving home the point that, as a sign of respect, you served people with your right hand.

An unassuming but courageous man, my father did not only teach his off-spring discipline and respect, he lived them, among the many virtues he epitomised and imparted in generations that survived him. From that my sitting position and at other times serving the army of people that visited our compound where my father held court, adjudicating in matters ranging from environmental sanitation in the community to settlement of land disputes and domestic disagreements, I grew up under Papa’s tutelage to perform other functions that prepared me for future life.

One of my ad-hoc duties then was serving as a town crier. Public address system was rare, so to summon a community meeting, the wooden or iron gong was the preferred mode of traditional communication which was as equally effective given the context then.

Papa was a richly endowed orator. Very persuasive, he used gesticulations and the pointed gaze of his large eyeballs to drive home his points. A quintessential encyclopedia of wisdom, knowledge and intelligence, my father oozed proverbs illustrating Chinua Achebe’s Igbo adage in his epic novel Things Fall Apart that proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten.

But using proverbs can be tricky though, because they must fit the context and content of the stories being told. Papa was a master in synchronising his narratives and stories to bring home teachable life lessons.

I remember one occasion very vividly. To illustrate the many benefits of unity and importance of sticking together as a family, my father brought some broom sticks from the bundle and asked one of my siblings and I to break them. We did so with ease. He then gave one of us the bunch to break. This was of course, difficult if not impossible. The morale, according to my father, is that someone standing alone is very vulnerable, but in unity a family will be very difficult to penetrate or defeat.

Papa was an embodiment of oral tradition and history and with him there was never a dull moment. From him, I learnt the history of my Anioma people, particularly Ogwashi Kingdom. My father narrated how a young and brave Eboka, the founder of my community Aboh-Umuokwe, saved the then Ogwashi Obi (King) from an apparent embarrassment after a renegade warrior had desecrated the King’s Palace and made away with a priceless symbol of authority. The warrior lived in the thick of a dangerous forest and getting to his enclave posed more than enough risk let alone retrieving the priced object.

Eboka volunteered to go where many feared to thread and succeeded in bringing back the item. As a reward, the relieved Obi gave Eboka a wife and countless other gifts. But perhaps, more out of fear of having such a man of valour around him, the Obi, instead, put Eboka in charge of a vast land on the outskirts of Ogwashi Kingdom, along its eastern border with Asaba. The idea was for Eboka to channel his energy and gallantry in defence of Ogwashi Kingdom from invaders on the eastern flank. Eboka and his Aboh-Umuokwe descendants have accomplished this task with distinction and the rest is now history as they say.

I also remember with very fond memory the ceremony on that fateful evening in 1963 when my father was installed the Okwabani, Aboh-Umuokwe Ogwanshi. It was the turn of our family to produce the next occupant of the throne, rotated between the Dumme and Utomi families and the lot had fallen on my father. It was probably the first time I saw and heard the sound of a Dane gun fired as the installation ceremony picked up. Papa’s body was dabbed with white chalk and I saw him lifted high by a man I later identified as Nweke Dumme, in a circle formed by elders and the king makers. The ceremony over, my father assumed the throne and until his last breath, as a true Eboka descendant, he sacrificed for and defended his community, dispensing justice in truth and without fear or favour.

After the displacement of the Nigerian civil war, Papa was the first to return to Aboh Umuokwe, at a time many still considered it unsafe. He was vindicated in his decision.

Like Abraham Lincoln, my father subscribed to the philosophy that one’s life is not defined by what his grandfather was but what his grand children will become.

After I missed out on writing the Common Entrance examination in 1971 for entry into the Secondary School, Papa saw to it that I take the late Entrance Examination, resulting in my gaining admission the same year into Central Academy, later renamed Nshiagu College.

Given the distance between my community and the school, Papa volunteered his Raleigh bicycle, but with an unwritten demand that I must join him in the farm after school.  We both respected that accord and as part of her contribution, my mother Cecilia Adaeke Utomi, who passed on in July 2007, ensured that I never missed breakfast as a day student. In my final year, when I moved into the school dormitory, Nne sometimes trekked a long distance to visit me, especially on Afor, market day. I looked forward to each visit with tremendous joy, because it meant restocking of my provision, especially with Geisha, sardine, sugar, Bournvita drink and Gari (Cassava flour), the students’ favourite combination during our time.

My father taught me and my sibling honesty, integrity and generosity. He never allowed his position as a respected traditional ruler to interfere with his huge appetite for hard work so much so that each year his large acreage of farmland and produce stood him out in the community. Farmhands fell head over heels, to work in Papa’s farmland because he and Nne took special care of the workers providing them with three square meals in additional to handsome daily wages.

Although the only child of his mother, Papa treated every other member of his closely knit polygamous family with great respect and equality and was loved in return.

Still as a child, I recollect how a young lady from a far flung Ogwashi community was brought into Papa’s house one day. Several rounds of ammunition were fired from the Dane gun as the lady subbed. Soon a crowd had gathered celebrating the marriage of the lady to one of my uncles. That was the tradition in those days. After the necessary background check would have been done, a woman can be literally lured to her would-be suitor’s house and from that day marriage is contracted. Indeed, some of that my uncle’s children and grand children, might only be learning something new about their parents’ marriage from this tribute!

My father was a great influencer and social mobiliser. When he led his delegation to the Obi’s Palace during the annual Ine Festival in his resplendent regalia, Papa was a beauty to behold.

In many ways, Papa illustrated Albert Einstein’s saying that setting examples is not the main means of influencing another; it is the only means. Although my father superintended over vast acres of land, he never succumbed to the modern day craze for land grab or selling of land. He considered land a God-given asset that should benefit even unborn children of any community.

As a man destined for leadership Papa left many indelible footprints on the sands of time. He taught current and generations yet unborn that “we make a living by what we get; (while) we make a life by what we give” as aptly summed up by John London.

From Papa’s evergreen rich repertoire of teachable proverbs and stories, I have shared and will continue to propagate life lessons to immortalize his name. The most popular ones relate to the Baby snake and Baby Lizard, the Ant and the Palm nut, the Sick Lion in the Animal Kingdom and the Foolish man who chooses to cut the Plantain/Banana stem with an axe instead of a machete.

Papa, you gave your all. No wonder God blessed you with 101 years on this earth. With our beloved Mother, Nne London, you both blessed the world in turn with 10 children including three sets of twins and many grand and great grand children, who have enriched and enlarged an ever growing generational family tree.

My father will be remembered for his many good deeds and most importantly his legacy of truth, justice, integrity, generosity and humanitarianism. His qualitative and impactful life can only place him in the Lord’s Bosom.

Okwabani Aboh-Umuokwe Ogwashi – Omogwu!!!

Papa, as you go home on 29th December 2014, Ije Awele. Nodu Ofuma!!!

*Ejime, an international journalist is a Media/Communication Consultant with ECOWAS

— Dec. 29, 2014 @ 01:00 GMT

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