Friday, 12 February 2016

Christmas in Bakin Ciyawa

I am a village boy! Okay before I became a city boy, I was basically a village boy at heart (Laughing). I find village life very intriguing! The raw beauty of nature is so alluring and I marvel at the sense of community and solidarity that exudes around so effortlessly. There appears to be an unwritten law that everyone is their brother's keeper if not watcher. "Nobody should mind their own business" it seems to declare. And so as day breaks, as if to put this code of conduct to practice, the ritual of neighbourly salutations can be observed as people move from house to house exchanging pleasantries and getting updated on happenings. Native intelligence and practical wisdom are in no small supply as you listen to the threads of discussions among villagers.

Bakin Ciyawa is a vibrant village of the Goemai (Ankwai) speaking people of Qua'anpan local government area of Plateau State situated in the lowlands of southern Plateau. Oral tradition has it that the first settlers there came from Shendam and were mesmerised by the fertility of this land whose name translates to "Gateway to Grassland". Bakin Ciyawans are a farming community. Yam growing is a major preoccupation among them. Naturally, eating pounded yam or "sakwora" is a much enjoyed pastime. The soup accompaniment can go from "miyan kubewa" (dry okra soup) to "kai da kado" (fresh okra soup) to "miyan kuka" (moringa soup) to "miyan karkashi" (slimy soup) with garden eggs to "miyan yakuwa" (zoboroto soup)! The goemai people are tuwo (grain flour mash) or "shat" (in local parlance) lovers. A variety of cereal and legume grains such as maize, guinea corn, millet, rice, beans, groundnuts and the synonymous to goemailand 'Amora' plant thrive there. Mango and palm trees can also be seen around. Piggery, goat rearing, and chicken, duck and pigeon poultry are some of the livestock production activities almost every household is engaged in.

Growing up, we had a family tradition of going "home" for the Christmas and New Year holidays. Usually our "homecoming" is timed to happen a week or a couple of days to Christmas. Depending on where we are coming from, the journey is mostly uneventful until we get to Kwande town (No relation to Benue state). Kwande is the northern neighbour of Bakin Ciyawa and serves as the only access to the Lafiya-Shendam road. The bumpy ride from Kwande tells us our journey is almost drawing to an end. What now takes fifteen minutes used to be a journey of about an hour. Seated in the Police LandRover van my Dad usually assigns to us for the journey, our eyes are on the look out for the first glimpses of the Catholic Church and the giant mango tree infront of it to confirm our arrival at Bakin Ciyawa. English Catholic missionaries were the first to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the Goemai people. They built churches, schools and hospitals across goemailand. This explains why most goemai people are staunch Catholics. As we drive past the Catholic Church, we head towards the village mini market located under a tree shade, continue past the Chief's palace, then turn left and there we are at the Kwalmi's family compound! At the sight of our LandRover van, choruses of "Hongwen, hongwen o" ("you are welcome, welcome o") fill the air. And almost immediately an elderly woman appears on the scene in a "musicless", joyful dance, her hands raised to the sky and in a celebratory chant goes "Aiyiriririiiiiiiiii! Ngode Na'an, Ngode Na'an" ( "I thank You God, I thank You God") upon seeing her grandchildren. She takes turns welcoming us individually as she calls us by our native names.... "Ho Homsuk" (welcome Homsuk....referring to me), "Ho Dongnoe", "Ho Naanshep", "Ho Longshal", "Ho Yenvel", "Ho Naanpoe".... That's my Granny, Ladi, for you! Ever jovial, graceful and accommodating and one to make you feel you are the only person that matters in the whole wide world! As we get seated on the wooden stools and mats provided us, refreshments are hurriedly served to us. Once rested from the journey and refreshed, the boys proceed to my Auntie's house where we will be staying until we depart.

I used to be amazed at the planning put in by my Auntie's husband, Kunguni, in building his "mansion". The entrance to his house consists of an entry chamber adjacent to which is a room with two doors, front and back. As you walk past the chamber, a walled wide passageway leads you into another entrance ahead. An interesting scenery of zinc and thatched roofs adorning the skyline catches your attention. This turns out to be a circular formation of five buildings. The first of these to the left of this second entrance is a big thatch-roofed rectangular shaped hall that serves as a storeroom of some sorts. Bundles of millet and guinea corn stalks can be seen piled up. Also stacked up are tubers of yams. Directly facing this second entrance, the whole length of this storeroom away, is the thatched hut that is used as the kitchen. This connects by the side to a front facing two room zinc-roofed building. One of these rooms will serve as room for the boys. A doorway separates the zinc-roofed building from another thatched roof hut which also connects to another one by the side to complete the circular formation of the five buildings as you go clockwise from the second entrance. My Auntie Lami is a bundle of energy. Besides being the Zumuntan Mata (Women fellowship) leader, she runs a successful burkutu local brew business. Her husband Kunguni is not only a farmer but a highly sought after native doctor who specialises in treatment of bone fractures. It is common to see patients come from places as far as Benue State for treatment of fracture cases. The patient and his care providers are usually accommodated in one of the thatched huts. Kunguni seems to know what to do for every case. Often a patient is brought in in agony. After running his hands over the area of fracture, he would use a brand new razor blade to make several cuts over the swollen area. I learned this is to get rid of the bad blood accumulated there. He then pounds some ginger and garlic and applies the paste over the cuts. Kidney fat from a chicken is then smeared over the area. The fractured area is then set in a pad of equal length sticks interwoven across by threads of rope which is only taken off during the morning and evening hot water massages. After every massage session, the ginger garlic paste is applied and chicken kidney fat smeared again before the pad of sticks is tied back. I have observed the patients begin to have walk exercises after three to four weeks and not long after that they are discharged and depart.

The Kunguni's compound is usually a beehive of activities. While uncle Kunguni is attending to bone fracture patients, my aunt is seeing to her local brew production. Goemai people enjoy drinking burkutu or "mu-es" as they call it. Millet or guinea corn burkutu are the two popular brew types. My aunt seems to prefer the millet mu-es. It usually takes her a week to prepare it. She starts by soaking the millet in three large water basins and leaving it to soften for three days. The water is then poured away and the soft millet rinsed and taken to the grain milling machine. At the same time, rice grain is socked in water and spread on a surface inside the kitchen to germinate before being taken for milling. This is used as a sweetener and fermenting agent. After milling, the millet paste is generously diluted with water and sifted. The same is done with the rice paste. At the centre of the buildings are set two or three giant spherical stainless steel pots each with three protruding legs over burning fireword. The liquid millet paste is poured into the giant pots and mixed with the rice sweetening and fermenting agent and left to boil through the night, Aunt Lami stirring periodically. The boiled millet beverage is transferred into big clay pots set in the kitchen hut and left for about three days to brew and is ready for dispensing.

Christmas this particular homecoming happens to fall on a Wednesday, the village market day. My Auntie had been up awake for a while preparing the traditional Christmas rice and stew. The aroma of fried chicken can be perceived from our rooms as we struggle into full wakefulness. We could hear a conversation unfolding outside between my aunt and one of the early greeters: "Ta gi puet a?", (Did you fall and get up?) she asked. "Nta puet"(I fell and got up), he responded. "Kiop kut a?" (Are you fine?), she continued. "Kiop kut" (I am fine), was his response. This is the Goemai way of exchanging morning greetings. A period of silence ensued and our room was beginning to brighten up as dawn breaks into full glow. The sound of the voice of the village Catechist was the boost we needed to get us out of our room. On his way to Church to prepare for Christmas Mass, he had stopped by to say "Hapi Krismus" to my Aunt. He is a likable Ngas (a friendly tribal group) gentleman with a catchy afro hairstyle slanted to one side.

We quickly take our bath and are served some rice and stew for breakfast, get dressed up in our new Christmas clothes and head out for Mass. As we draw near the church building several trucks loaded with various commodities pass us by as they head towards the main market to set up shop. The warehouse shaped church building can sit about 200 worshipers. As you approach the main entrance a large cross can be seen standing on the rooftop welcoming you. We arrived church as a drama sketch depicting the virgin birth of Jesus was rounding up. It was now time for a special rendition by the Zumuntan Mata (Women fellowship). I just love watching them minister. Dressed in their uniform, I can pick out Aunt Lami in the group. Their ministration usually begins with them humming and at the issuance of a hand signal by the conductress, they all rise up. Seated in the front are row the various percussionists. Their range of instruments include a metal gong, a calabash covered in a mesh of beads, water pots sitted on ring support, a hollow log of wood with smoothened surface. As I watched and listened, I was blown away at the beautiful harmony their voices and the rhythm from these instruments produced. I guess because everyone was in a joyous and celebratory mood, time seemed to fly hearing the priest giving the closing Mass benediction "the Lord be with you" and the congregation chorused "And also with your spirit". "May the Lord keep and bless you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Go in peace". And the congregation responds "Thanks be to God." Mass ended we head to my Grandma's to spend the afternoon with her.

The constant stream of greeters and well wishers at my Grandma's speaks of the goodwill she enjoys. Sharing the joy of Christmas were those who brought food to her. Some brought live chicken. Others brought kegs of the local brew "mu-es". We get to taste freshly tapped palm wine as we are told it is not intoxicating.

Wanting to see more of the village, we set out on a late afternoon stroll. As we move around, one's attention can't but be drawn to the various fashion styles and statements. Often it's a statement of underdressing, overdressing, color riot or absence of dress sense but who cares. It's Christmas! As we strolled, we head to what unofficially is the village square. It is an open area with a cluster of giant mango trees. The shade under them are a popular relaxation point. You can see mats spread out and groups of people chatting or just lying down with their keg of mu-es and saucer-shaped calabash cups beside them. Not far away a meat seller is adding spicies and overturning his pork barbecue.

Our attention was drawn to where a game of snail shell spinning was taking place. Snail season is usually during the rainy season. However, this game is played all season. When the snail is removed from its shell, the shell is trimmed into a cone and its tip firmly coated with hardened chewing gum. It is then held as in a finger snapping position. As you snap to spin it, you release it into a bowl shaped hole dug out of the ground. As It spins round the hole like cyclist in a velodrome, you are expected to maneuver it to overturn and rest on it base directing a bust of air towards it by a quick jerk of your hand as you do when about to slap someone. Several players as can be accommodated can play the game at a time. Each one spins and releases their shell into the bowl. Any shell that falls to its side on its own or after being hit by another is out. It's a survival of the strongest, skillful and smartest kind of game. Often participation in the game is by monetary deposit. The last shell to overturn on its base is the winner.

The kalangu (talking drum) dance is the highlight of the Christmas celebration. This usually takes place infront of the Chief's palace. As evening sets in all roads lead there. The kalangu is a two-piece, one-above-the-other and armpit-held type of drums. The lower one is usually smaller than the one above it. The drummer usually places them across his left armpit and by squeezing in and out with his arm as he beats the drum heads with the curved drumstick, he produces the desired sound and rhythm. His left fingers tapping over the drum heads also add to his rich repertoire of sounds. There is a third drum accompaniment that goes with the talking drum. This short bongo-like drum is suspended at the waist of the second drummer and produces a consistent sound as he beats them with leather-covered drumsticks from both hands.

The kalangu dance is a circle dance. The dancers go round the drummers in middle of the dance circle. As the beat goes into a crescendo, the male dancers bend down, slide their left foot forward and double tap the ground with the foot as both hands are slightly stretched in that direction then they slide their right foot forward, double tap as their hands now point in the direction of their right foot and so and so it goes. As the crescendo dies down, the male dancers rise and continue with the foot sliding and double tapping. For the female dancers, a crescendo gets them into wave like body movement as they bend downwards, their heads leading the wave like movement. This sweet dance goes on and on into the night.

We get back home tired but satisfied about witnessing an eventful Bakin Ciyawa Christmas celebration. Lying there on my bed, scenes from the drama sketch depicting the birth of Jesus Christ lull me to sleep.

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