Nigeria as a coat of many colours – Part 1
My first encounter with the beautiful phrase a ‘coat of many colours’ was in Sunday School way back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when our teacher the late Bro. Moses Owivri drummed the biblical story into our rascally naïve heads. It was a powerful image, this coat which had many colours, which accommodated a lot and which was a symbol of paternal love for a special child. It was the story of Joseph the Dreamer so beloved by his father that he gave him a coat of many colours. The coat of many colours as a symbol of love was one of the things which drew jealousy from Joseph’s brothers that made them sell him into slavery. The contradiction was not lost on us, as young as were. A beautiful thing, though diffuse in character and complexion could express love and also cause jealousy. The brothers were jealous because they also thought that with Joseph being given a ‘coat of many colours,’ he would be on the shine, to their disadvantage. His dreams which he naively related to his brothers did not help matters!
There was one of us in the Sunday School class who had an old multi-coloured coat, the type of coat my Udu mother would describe in Urhobo as ‘ikotu orherhe’, that is, ‘cricket coat’, the type of coat that gives the wearer the image of the wings of a cricket ready to fly, to take off. We made jest of him to no end. He had a great sense of humour; he never fought back even though he never liked this joke which our teacher assured us with the backing of the bible as ‘foolish jesting.’ This was a saving grace for him. As we all knew anybody who made a lot of fuss about a ‘yabis’ would simply make the name more popular; ‘foolish jesting or no.’
It was the days of ‘warding’, ‘yabis’, an art which we Sapele boys created, developed and practised with ease. It has now been appropriated by the Warri boys and popularised in Nigeria. The Warri boys learnt a lot of things, good and bad, from Sapele; sad thing is that the current rulers of comedy do not pay enough tributes to the original owners of standup comedy, the Sapele boys! Ali Baba and Gordons should take note!
My second encounter with a ‘coat of many colours’ was through the music of Dolly Parton, the inimitable country music singer who caught our sweet imagination with the boundless possibilities of love. Who else could sing ‘Love is a like a butterfly’ the way she did and make us really feel that love was special? In the song with the same title, she tells the story of a young girl whose mother made a coat of many colours for from the rags that had been given to them. It was the sign of extreme poverty yet she was proud because of the ‘love my mama sewed in every stitch.’ She sang further; ‘although we had no money/ I was rich as I could be/ in my coat of many colours/ that my mama made for me.’
A coat of many colours! I grew up in Sapele to know Nigeria as a country in which ‘though tongue and tribe may differ in brotherhood we stand.’ We learnt about and saw Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Igbira, Kukuruku, Tiv, Calabar and Bini people. There were Igbo teachers in the school. There was one Mrs. Nwop, a lady who loved long skirts sewn in the colour of our school uniform; she was from Calabar! In the map of Nigeria that was displayed in the class, we saw people from different backgrounds. In school we met persons of different backgrounds too and temper. There were Itsekiri and a few Izon boys in the class. We had some boys and girls from Auchi. One Habila Jonah a northerner, son of a military officer joined us in Form Three; he was a terror on the field when we played football. He ran like a bulldozer and kicked the ball as he pleased. I don’t want to remember the day I withstood his bulldozing attack and I landed on the ground with stars blazing from all corners! I maintained my lane after that experience! Although we knew where different people came from largely because of their names, it never created a barrier. Pidgin English was a unifier. We were a coat of many colours, a tapestry of sorts, and we loved the coat like Dolly Parton’s character!
So it was until 1967 when the civil war broke out. The Nigeria propaganda machinery taught us to hate ‘Rebel Leader Odumewgu Ojukwu’ the bearded devil and the Igbo people. The anti-Igbo campaign was intense particularly after the federal troops invaded Mid-West and expelled the rebel soldiers. Gowon became ‘Go On With One Nigeria’. The coat of many colours became an embarrassment, a source of friction. In spite of the propaganda of ‘hate’ we were also taught that ‘to keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done.’ The coat of many colours had to be retained, somewhat. During the Biafran occupation of Mid-West all the adult males would huddle around a transistor radio secretly listening to broadcasts from ‘Nigeria’. If the ‘rebel soldiers’ caught anyone listening to the ‘Nigerian vandals’, it meant big trouble. The coat of many colours had been torn into two by two raging lions and we were the grass that suffered.
I remember clearly how people who had been neighbours, businessmen and friends suddenly became enemies. Excited ‘Nigerians’ led ‘Federal troops’ to home of erstwhile friends. After a burst of machine gun fire, the crowd would burst into the house or the shop and loot property with glee. It was madness, sheer madness. Some Nigerians stood their ground and hid Igbo neighbours in their ceiling during the day. If a nosey scoundrel as much as mentioned that act of kindness to the federal authorities the man of charity would become ‘sabo’, for saboteur! It is not a story to be told! Such ‘saboteurs’ often faced death by public execution! If I have used the ‘coat of many colours’ to describe the Nigeria I grew up in, it is because at different levels the expressions functions as a metaphor for the nation’s experience.
To be continued next week.
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