By Ernest Kunde (Cameroon)
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The six elders of the Wameh family in Babessi sat in a semi circle under a mango tree at the centre of a three-house-compound; as they looked forward to witnessing the arrival of their son Tiove, from Nigeria where he had been for more than a year. It was a sunny- day, and the elders dressed in Cameroon traditional grassland regalia of elders; they all had carved staffs with human and tiger faces on them. There was a twenty litre jug of palm wine at the centre from which all the elders drank as they conversed. Time was fast dying down, when they started to lose patience.
“What time is it now?” asked Nche. “Was the letter not written by him?”
“Yes it was”, answered Kunde-Tiove’s father. “I still have the letter here with me,” said he as he passed over his drinking horn to the left hand. He searched the pocket of his khaki trousers and with the tip of his fingers he pulled out the letter.
“Here is it”, he said, stretching his hand to Ntoh-Lang the eldest in the group. Ntoh-Lang took the letter. It was written in black ink on a square sheet of dirty paper. After looking at it, he passed it to Nche who had arrived thirty minutes late to join the group. He had just returned from the “coast” where he had lived for the past twenty years. The elders believed Nche to be educated since he was always dressed in denims. So too did the entire village considered him to be learned. There was silence as everybody waited attentively to share the message in the missive. Nche holding the letter in an up-side-down position unfolded it and scrutinized it carefully. He could hardly make out any sense from it at all.
“Emmh” he gasped; “Elders”, he continued, “our eyes have become so large with age that we can no longer see small things. Permit me to say this to you. The wisdom of reading and writing is of the Whiteman. They put this wisdom in you when you are young for you to transfer it to the younger ones when you are old. That is why the Whiteman retires people from service when they are old. That is also the duty of some specialist called Teachers, Doctors and Professors. I want to use this opportunity to ask the elders to organise an occasion if the village is willing to fulfil some conditions!, then I shall transfer my own wisdom of reading and writing which is inactive in me due to age; to any child of my choice. If this is not done, I shall die with my wisdom and this family and the entire village shall not benefit from it”. He concluded.
Some of the elders who had children and cherished the wisdom of reading and writing began to disrupt the meeting and occasionally inviting Nche to a talk in private. Ntoh-Lang the eldest had no child and had never been married because he spent most of his life time in the palace worshiping Ngwerong ,(the traditional secret society) in order to win the title of ‘Ntoh’to become Ntoh- Lang.
“So he cannot also read like us”, observed Ntoh-Lang. “It was my fault” he added; “that I chose to serve the Ngwerong rather than going to the coast where the wisdom of reading and writing are acquired. It is also the fault of our parents who considered hunting, farming and caring for babies more important than going to the coast to gain wisdom. We shall inform the chief and other elders of the village about the wisdom transfer ceremony when all shall be ready. Our expected guest shall add more light on this when he arrives from where he went in search of wisdom. Could someone call for us Nindah the clever boy to help us see what these scribbling actually mean?”
Nindah with an aged of about fifteen; one metre tall and fair in complexion, was dressed in jean shorts and slippers with an unbuttoned green shirt. He was the son of Nche and was the only who could read and write in the village because he attended elementary education at the coast while his father was still in active service. He interpreted letters to most of the families in the village who had and received mails from relatives in the cities. He held the letter forward for the second time as he read and explained to the elders. Nothing was new in the content. Nche jumped up before the boy finished.
“Stop repeating to us what we already know. Tell us at what time he said he would be here!”
Nindah scanned through the letter and said; “The letter says, before midday on Ntalah; (Native Sunday).
“Before Midday?” questioned Nche.
“Yes”, Nindah replied.
“Is any thing the matter?” Ntoh-Lang asked.
“Emmh, I guess it is getting late”, observed Nche in an uncertain tone. “Look at the length of the shadow, we are far into the second half of the day”, he added pointing at the long shadow of the tree in the open yard before them. "The sun is already going to bed and he hasn’t arrived! ; He wondered.
Fai- Kerpseng; a fortune teller who had been unconcerned so far, asked in a low tone; "have you people forgotten he is an African like us?"
"What do you mean by that?” questioned Nche.
“I mean that we Africans don’t respect time. We are always late for meetings. In a nutshell, we do sell after the market or run after the wind;” he concluded
This explanation annoyed Nche who angrily rose from his seat. Holding his cow horn filled with palm wine in the left hand, while pointing at Fai-Kerpseng, he vented his anger on the gathering. “I hate people who talk like you” he barked angrily. “Is that why he has to keep elders like us waiting for long just because of African time. “No Fai no!” he shouted. “If we are here now, it is not because we don’t have other things to do. Only people like you will accept the insults of a Whiteman, or look at them to be superior to blacks thereby acknowledging the concept of African time.” He was still standing on his feet when he concluded; “I tell you, if we don’t change this attitude, we shall always be left behind in every aspect of!” He could not finish, as Fai- kerpseng got up from his seat and in the twinkle of an eye splashed a cup of palm wine on Niche’s face. “God forbid”, he exclaimed. “You have gravel in your eye and you want to remove dust from others eyes?” he spoke violently. “Look at the time you arrived here! Have you been waiting here longer than any of us?” Nche was quiet as he felt the shock of guilt run down his nerves .Fai continued; “It should therefore not be surprising to you that Tiove is going to arrive here late.”
The two men had over-shadowed the argument with insult and the elders struggled to persuade them as they were almost at the point of exchanging blows. Ntoh-Lang succeeded separating them and pushed them back to their seats. The group became divided into factions with two major speakers.
“You people should stop behaving like women and children who don’t have sense”, said Ntoh-Lang frowningly. There was dead silence, “I don’t think we gathered here for evil,” Everybody was attentive to what he was saying. Nche sat with his head down, as if he was meditating on what to do. Fai who had attempted to leave the group and was ordered to come back, sat with his eyes fixed on Nche like a dog ready to grip its prey.
“The almighty” continued Ntoh-Lang; “who created heaven and earth never named time as the Whiteman or the Blackman’s time. It is the layman’s conception which came about with the fact that, we Africans did not have instruments for reading time. As such we determined our time using the position of the sun, the length of shadows and songs of birds. These are not very effective, because the sun changes its direction-this, the white man has proven. During raining and cloudy days, it is difficult to tell time when there is no sun-shine. Birds also change their habits or migrate with the change in the seasons. Secondly, we Africans are being controlled by sorcerers and fortune tellers, who sometimes advice some of us to postpone our appointments or arrive late or last at public gatherings so as to avoid the effect of charms used on us by others. So with instruments like the clock today, we all be it the blacks or whites, read the same time. « African time » therefore, is used today to refer to unpunctuality. I tell you my brothers let us not misunderstand the two cultures and create enneimies amongst our selves. Apologise and forgive each other and let us continue in peace”.
After some few minutes of hesitation Nche stood up; “It is often said that, the anus of a fowl can only be seen when the wind blows and to that I agree. It’s therefore normal that this kind of misunderstanding did arise when I did make a point of correction. If I did hurt anybody, please you should all forgive me and allow me commune with you elders, since it’s said in our culture that, if a child commits a crime, we should beat and send him or her under the bed, and not outside”. The elders unanimously acknowledged with their heads and turned to listen to Fai.
He stood up reluctantly and cleared his throat and said; “Elders what an old man can see sitting down a young man cannot see standing up. This is a child”, he said pointing at Nche. “But the question is”, he continued; “for how long will children learn to become reasonable? I have no case against my brother and my heart is clean against him”. He rounded up before sitting down.
Ntoh-Langtook two pieces of bamboo and gave to each one of them. He ordered them to clean their tongues with the piece before throwing them behind them. He again ordered for a bowl to be brought. He filled it with palm wine, drank passed it on to Fai who drank and handed it to Nche; after which the bowl went from hand to hand as a sign of reconciliation. The two shook hands once more smiling. More palm wine was ordered.