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A ACTS OF RESPECT

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Esan people are very polite ethnic group and as would be expected from a people wedded to kinship in all their activities, and the constant fear of causing the ire of the departed spirits, they are very constitutional and have a great respect for old age and traditions.

(i) CHILDREN TO PARENTS: Children with good manners never called their parents by their names; the father was ABA or BABA while the mother went by INENEN or IYIONMIN or INEN.

(¡i) WIFE TO HUSBAND: Wives never referred to their husbands by name. Esan did not have the Yoruba or Ibo custom of calling a man by a name derived from a combination of the first child’s name and the word father in the native tongue, for example, a man whose first child was ITUA would be called BABITUA. In Esan if a wife was asked to call the husband she would walk up to him and say, ‘you are called, rather than shout at his name. She invariably referred to the husband as OLE (Him).

Similarly, juniors, particularly children, if well bred, never referred to their elders by name; it would be the height of rudeness for a young man to ask an older man for his name, whether the young person intended to call the name or not. I very well remember an incident which made this custom indelible in my mind. It was at the Out-patient Department of the Zuma Memorial Hospital. The nurse in attendance was a very intelligent girl of 17. As patients came she asked for their names which she wrote on their cards - quite a routine affair. But one morning in trotted an old man of about seventy (70) propped up on his help-mate, the Okpo. “Give me paper, my child”, he said fatherly. ‘Where do you come from?” demanded the nurse.

“Eilu, my child” “What is your name?” went on the nurse innocently. The old man took one long look at the girl, shuddered and exclaimed, ‘O - O - O - O!  Is that your way here?” He then told the bewildered girl that the name was Ehizojie. The next question brought a reaction which to the onlookers could have been produced by the girl landing a blow on the old man’s hairless head. The question was logically the next that should follow if the nurse were to write the man’s full name, but to the old man it was the last straw in the series of rude questions by a mere ‘child’. The question the innocent girl asked ignorant of Esan custom was “And your father’s name.”

“A MIEN OBHEBHE!” (This another), exclaimed the exasperated aged man. You asked for my name which was bad enough; I told you and now you want to know the name of my father. Can’t remember when I had that relative” So saying he went out in a huff.

(iii) ON DRINKING WATER: When an elder, a chief or a father was drinking water or wine, the junior onlookers rubbed their hands together saying ‘GBE SE SE, GBE SE SE’ if they were female, but the male members of the gathering, using the right hand on the left, flipped the left little finger against the palm to produce a snapping noise. A wife knelt down to give water and drinks to the husband.

A big man or an elder did not take his cup of palm wine straight from the server - a junior had to ‘mouth’ it first! Sometimes, as a result of many juniors ‘anxious’ to show their respect having ‘mouthed it’ round, the cup was as good as empty, by the time he handed it Yet he never complained since in Esan custom it was a big disgrace for an elder or a big man to grumble or show greed as regards food.

(iv) SNEEZING: Sneezing was believed to be due to some distant person having called the name of the sneezers, most probably, for bad. When a person sneezed therefore, those around cried out Not You! Some greeted him with “Welcome!” If it was a junior who sneezed, he gave the general greeting to those around, according to the sneezers’ sex. All this is akin to the Whiteman’s “bless you!”

(v) KOLANUTS: You might later give a man even a wife, but there was one thing in Esan custom the host must first do to show the guest that he was welcome to the house: that was the presentation of kola nuts. There were customary ways of doing this; after repeated OBOKHIAN (welcome) the host apologized for the scarcity of kola nuts, and almost immediately, a boy or a wife came along with the nuts, just said to be so rare as to be unavailable. As soon as this happened a gathering which hither-to might have been well behaved or shy, was suddenly animated; there was bound to be some argument, however the host or members in the gathering might know the custom. Often the arguments were noisy enough to make a stranger to Esan wonder if the people in the gathering had not been thirsty for one another’s blood! The reason was to be found in Esan custom: if the people in the gathering were natives of the same district, the oldest had the prerogative of breaking the nuts; of course he had to be a man; a woman however old would not attempt to break these nuts before men. Everybody knew these provisions but what most people did not know, particularly if the people came from different villages of the same district, was how to tell who the oldest man in the gathering was. Since there was no registration of birth, it took a long time and much shaking of clenched fists to go through the wars fought or the forests farmed when each member was born. Any wonder at the acrimonious arguments.

At last order was restored and someone was finally agreed to be the oldest and to him the kola nuts were taken. He, amidst blessings first for the host, then for those in the gathering and finally for himself, broke one of the nuts, usually two to five in each nut broken. A piece was given to the host first before everybody took his piece according to seniority; the man to whom fell the honour of breaking the kola nuts pocketed or ‘bagged’ the unbroken nut (ODION KHA VA  O KOKOLO) a nice way of saying he must have a reward for his labour.

But if the gathering was made up of men from different districts, the order of breaking was known to two ‘degrees’: if a Bini was present he automatically had to break the kola nuts. If no such person was present and an Irrua man was present, he had the undisputed right to deal with the gift. This right came to every Irrua man irrespective of his age by virtue of the Ojirrua being the Okaijesan, leader of Esan Enijie, when they assembled, here in Esan and at the Palace in Benin City.

I have striven without success to find out what was the order when in a gathering of Esan there were no Bini or Irrua people. What ¡ have found to obtain is confused and selfish. The answer I got to the question, who came next to Irrua, told me the identity of the man answering the question. All Uromi men invariably told me it was Uromi, while Ekpoma swore it was Ekpoma. Frankly I found in-conclusive evidence to be able to place the order of merit, as it were, amongst Uromi, Ekpoma and Ewohimi. Suffice it to say that the order after Irrua, depended upon the strength of the ruling Onojie in each of these towns, and hence it would be correct to say that no such order of precedence existed. (See cutting of kola-nut tree).

(vi) PALM WINE: This had to be served in a gathering strictly according to age, and with the same cup, of course. If a man was given a cup for fear of offending the departed spirits he carefully checked around to be sure he was not drinking before those who were his seniors. Elders often asked a loved junior to have a sip before he drank what was left. The last cup from the calabash (the server strove to be able to have just a full cup at the end) was brought to the most elderly of the gathering, with the announcement that everything was now in order. The server was then blessed and asked to have a mouthful before the old man drank off the remaining with the debris. Really the last few drops were for the departed spirits.

There was a custom which regulated what to do with the empty calabash of wine. The empty calabash had to be ‘downed’, that is, it must be placed on its side as soon as it was empty. It must never he left standing, empty! This arose from the hospitality of Esan people. If a gathering was sitting over a keg of palm wine and visitors who might be total strangers came in they had to be served. If the calabash had been emptied and was left standing, late comers might think there was something still left and that the people were just downright inhospitable. That would hurt the kind spirit of the Esan man; therefore no room must be left for such a mistake and so custom decreed that all empty calabashes must be placed flat.

(vii) THE PIPE: The well known Esan pipe was the Pipe of Friendship, the long pipe called OBO - ODO. It was a communal affair for after it had been fired, a job usually done by the youngest in the gathering or a small boy in the house it was smoked starting from the senior and working down the scale. Each man limited his enjoyment to one long pull Spread of infection? - Diseases were the evil work of witches and angry departed spirits! A word of caution about the ‘one long pull’ - Osemen a bune re ighoho obodo gbe oria (since you. know you are allowed only one pull if you try to cheat - the smoke will choke you).

(viii) PRESENTS: Non-Esan are often caught by these. If an Esan brought you presents for example, yams, or palm wine, he expected some thanks in the form of money or in kind. It would be the duty of the man to whom the presents were brought to quietly assess the value of the presents and show ‘YOUR APPRECIATION’ by giving something higher when the visitor was Leaving. In most cases it was a form of trade.

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