By Tunde Asaju
It’s almost 9.00 a.m in Ottawa. My youngest daughter promised to cook lamb for Christmas and I am sitting in front of my computer waiting for the smell of burning meat to waft through the entire kitchen and dinning area. I know I will be waiting for a long time. Most coffee shops would be closed today and so, all I am left with are reminiscences.
Christmas in Okeagi, Kogi State, would be different. By 6:00 a.m. this morning, most households would have received their first share of food. It could be rice garnished with peppered iru and the wing or thigh of an unfortunate open fire fried chicken. It could also be a hot plate of pounded yam and lumped egunsi soup with assorted meat. You cannot think of that and not salivate. Just beware that it could never be anything else…not eba, not amala, not anything else. It’s like an unwritten code – either rice or poundy. God bless my dear hearts and gentle people of Ok-City.
Another given for this holiday is the fact that, whether you are native, visitor or sojourner – this is one day you are guaranteed not to experience hunger. As your gift of food arrives, so are you sending same to others. As kids, we used to enjoy the exchange of food. You get to know which home cooked better than the other. For me, Mama Titilayo Maria Asaju cooks better than anyone else on mother earth – except Grandma Arupe.
But here I am waiting for my Christmas food to be prepared. If I had known, I would have not endorsed my daughter’s plan to cook on Christmas day – I knew it would almost be a disappointment because she’ll still be snoring by mid-day.
Christmas remains the most celebrated holiday around the world – not because it is the birth of the son of Mary, but perhaps because it marks the last week before the new year on the Gregorian Calendar.
In Ok-City, the preparation for Christmas usually began six months earlier. Between June and August, we children would sharpen our cutlasses, venture into the bush and start to chop down trees – readers beware!
We would chop down the trees in trunks and lay them out to dry, because by the first week of December, those chunks of trees would be making their way to the back of the house. While that is gowing on, we would have cut straw in huge mounds.
A week to the D-Day, we would be busy putting pegs in place for building a hut, usually behind our parent’s homes. Every household with a male child allows this. Looking back now, it is evident that this could be our right of passage to adulthood. For the artistry of every child comes to play here. Some build just a simple shack, but others, as far as I remember it would build several rooms into their shacks. Then we would make mounds and cover them either with rags – for bed or even more straw.
On Christmas eve, half of the women and children in Okeagi would either be at Oyi River or any adjoining one – Oyilagba, Afa etc. We would go with huge loads of our clothes. It was as if there is an unwritten law that the old dirty clothes must be baptised on this day. And before the advent of Surf, Omo and Elephant blue de-sergeant (detergent), we had soda and ose dudu (black soap). We would wash and clean the clothes and dry them by the riverside while making a barbecue of roasted yam and hand-pressed palm oil sediment – ekete.
When the clothes are dry, our mothers and sisters would fold them neatly and we would make the long but joyous trek back home in time for dinner and of course, the preparation for the Christmas eve.
Although schools were closed by now, our teachers had total control of our lives. We had rehearsed a nativity play that is scheduled to be staged on the school playground. We would have to return to the school that evening at the agreed time to bring out our stools for our honoured guests – our parents and any visitors.
We would stage the play of the birth of Jesus with fanfare adding as much humour to it as we could muster without being offensive to the sensitivities of everyone. I guess if there was war, the best time to attack would have been on this night, because the entire town was at this ‘concert’ as it was called.
Once dispersed, the two churches (as it then was) which had agreed on how to hold a joint service would ring their bells and the churchgoers among our parents would troop there. (Sorry, yours truly was born into a Jehovah’s Witness home).
By the time the church service was over, every household was lit by huge bonfire either in front or beside their home. We, the younger ones who had helped our parents for the yam harvest would have had those little round yams which we roasted with relish in these cauldron of fire. Our older siblings on the other hand had better plans – to raid the fireplace.
I do remember that with time, we kids had learnt to come with stones – yes, stones of similar sizes. Because these elders had the audacity to steal our ebo, as those yams were called by just dipping their hands into the smouldering fire and disappearing (just fun), we placed stones in. When stone is heated, it took on the appearance of roasted yam.
I don’t recall any scalding as a result, but there were near tragedies for a town that is almost ten kilometers to the nearest health facility. All these was fun. Of course, in our shacks we did try other infantile shenanigans that I would leave to your imaginations.
The thing is, we all loved to sleep in our shacks on Christmas eve, but our parents wanted us in. It usually was a thug of war that our parents usually won with a threat to exclude you from the next day’s festivities.
No child I know wanted to be excluded from the festivities, for the entire year has been spent saving money for our Christmas dress and assurance that the tailor (yes tailors – no be today) did not disappoint.
Early morning before the sun bathed the town with its allure of brightness, our mothers would line us up one after the other for a proper scrub usually with a fresh sponge! The last time I had this scrub was when I was eight years old and my mother made sure it was done in front of the house – not at our ajatu or the small outlet from where we bathed and also threw all water waste.
Then we would have palm kernel oil rubbed on our exfoliated skin shinning like the oil itself. Now, they would deck us in our Christmas dress that would soon be washed and stowed away for the next celebration or occasion.
So, it is almost 10.00 a.m. and there is no stir from upstairs where my two youngest are either snoring or perhaps texting their friends. I am Googling which coffee shop is open this morning just to kill time. Ottawa is bathed in snow white and the temperature is minus 7 according to my telephone weather monitor. The entirety of Royalton Private is as silent as a graveyard. My neighbours would definitely not knock on my door with a plate of rice or pounded yam.
As a matter of fact, there has only been two cars zooming past the estate since I started writing this piece. Traffic here would be very light and if Canadian children are awake already, they’d be scurrying through the base of their Christmas tree for what Santa has left in their socks if they were good.
For the parents who had spent the last couple of weeks shopping until they drop just to meet the culture of exchange of gifts, January would be a great month when banks send you notification to pay your minimum due on your credit card. At least, except you have little ones in creches or kindergartens, or older ones in higher institutions, you don’t have to worry about paying fees.
Wherever you’re reading this long and boring piece – just take this reminiscence as my goodwill wish for you to have a glorious Christmas and please whatever you do, do it responsibly and remember to share love! And to children in OK-City, here is wishing you the best of your own times. We had fun during ours and we hope you’re having fun wherever you are. As for the acts and deeds of your parents, they are safe with me! I won’t tell.
*Tunde Asaju, multilingual journalist and public affairs analyst, writes from Ottawa, Canada