On tribal stereotypes

Being born on the campus of a Federal University in the ’80s, I grew up in what was a cultural multi-verse. On my street alone, one was as likely to run into a Pakistani anthropologist as a Cameroonian linguist, or a Scottish librarian for that matter. Over the course of growing up, these seemingly distinct cultures all bled into each other, till there was almost a multi-cultural sweet spot at the centre of it all.

At the top of my street lived a family of Bini people – if children from multiple wives each keen to advance the cause of their own mother could be termed a family. The middle son – a stocky bow-legged bloke we called Osas (short for a much longer name, seemingly cobbled together from an assortment of successive vowels) – was a classmate, and in time we grew close enough to pit our burgeoning table soccer skills against each other from time to time. Our table soccer sessions were often punctuated with half time entertainment – dodo fried from plantains pilfered from his mother’s pantry. On the day I failed to wipe oil from my mouth in a bid to beat RustGeek Snr home, I learned a most important lesson – delivered to the rhythm of Mother’s pankere on my backside – about relating with Bini people – they can ‘jazz’ you. Clearly, that we both ate the dodo paled in significance next to the fact that his father’s academic speciality was ‘African traditional religion’ and that from time to time white chalk and ogbono soup turned up at the junction of fifth and eighth streets!

A few houses away lived an unmarried Yoruba woman who I imagine was in her late thirties at the time. Legend had it, that she kept food for months in her freezer, and that she ate only out of saucers so small none of her little relatives lasted longer than a couple of months with her. She also happened to serve on the same chapel committee as did my parents, so this was one neighbour’s house Mother was willing to allow us play in. Each time, before we vanished out of her door headed to the Yoruba woman’s house, Mother would reiterate that by no means were we to eat in her house. On the odd occasion when a relative showed up to spend an extended holiday, we soon would get an earful of insults of all sorts delivered in rapid fire with her whiny, nasal voice. Whenever the tirade would start, Mother would smile knowingly and shake her head. Our neighbour was only behaving true to character; Mother believed that the Yoruba person’s gift of the garb expressed itself primarily in colourful, inventive cursing.

The Idoma woman who lived on 3rd street quickly garnered a reputation for being a sharp shooter. She held a PhD in biochemistry (I think) and was married to some Professor whose speciality was ceramic engineering. She had kept her maiden name, drank beer at the staff club and smoked like a chimney, becoming in the process a byword for the damage an overly liberal worldview wrought on young women. All three of her degrees were earned in Russia; it was claimed that she publicly averred that there was no God, something which was definitely not de-rigeur at that time. When the upturned lips and smiles of condescension were shared, word was that Idoma women took too much to beer.

Mother truly believed that no Ibo person could be trusted, and that they were cold hearted, cruel and were masters of deception on a scale beyond her comprehension. Her strong distaste was acquired after a particularly nasty smear campaign run by one of the Professors to unseat one of her allies as PTA chairman. The way the operation was run – almost like a CIA black op in its secrecy and ultimate success left my mother scarred for life. It also didn’t help that my Uncle Fred’s Ibo wife purportedly locked out her mother in-law over a minor dispute. Said mother in-law was reported to have said reconciliation with her would be over her dead body.

Laila lived on Sixth Street, all the way across the quarters and she was only in town for three years. Her last act was to headline the school’s end of year presentation with a dance so sensual and pliant in its execution that the consensus was that she was either mammy water in the flesh or possessed of some serpentine deity. My friend K whose father owned the Kurt Koch book ‘Demons and demonology’ swore by his dead grandmother that a whole chapter in the book was devoted to that very dance routine.

In retrospect, these stereotypes were merely an instinctive coping mechanism my mother evolved as a means of keeping her brood of overly inquisitive children, and quite a few cousins together.  I suspect there were quite a few stereotypes around my mother too; after all she had a reputation for being hard as nails.