Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

A Challenge Question and an Igbo Market

I have been wrestling with the question of how often to post. It shouldn’t be so often that you, my readers, are overwhelmed. But often enough that you remember what you read and you don’t forget me totally! Once a week didn’t seem like enough. Every other day including weekends was probably too much, for you and for me! Could I keep up with a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule? Every third day?

Finally it hit me this morning. I know a natural rhythm – I will post every four days, with today the first of the cycle.

Why four? I challenge you to guess. If you were a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria, especially in the East, you probably know. If you are Igbo, you surely know the answer. If you have read or heard my manuscript, like my friends in my memoir writing class at Westport Writers Workshop, you may remember the significance of a four day pattern.

Do you know? Who can answer in the comment section below before the next post in four days (on April 23)?

There’s a big clue in today’s post about going to an Igbo market.

wares in the market

Fruits and vegetables displayed in the market

An Igbo market is colorful, busy, hot and noisy. The market women are hard at work, eager to maximize their profit during the day and not have wares left over that they have to take home again. The buyers are focused on what they need for the next few days, seeking the best prices, freshest produce, and well displayed goods.

But the market is also a social event. Whenever I go to the market in my husband’s home town, I see many women I know. We exchange greetings and inquire about each other’s families. Even more women know me or at least know where I belong, what family I am part of. I couldn’t hide if I wanted to. I have never seen another white woman in the market except my sister who came with me when she visited in 1966.

Household goods for sale in the market

Typcial stall in the covered part of the market

I write about going to market in my memoir. This is from the chapter after the start of the Biafran War when we had fled Enugu because of bombing, and gone to Nanka, my husband’s village. I went to the market with Georgina, my niece-in-law.

Nanka, 1967: We stepped around the mounds of yam and cassava and headed into the market. I was overpowered by the rich, fruity smell of palm oil. No wonder. Beyond the yam sellers were three palm oil presses. At each, three men turned a six-foot cylinder to extract the oil from the palm kernels. The matted reddish-brown fiber residue covered the ground. I copied Georgina as she greeted the workers, “Dalu unu.” This phrase, I’d learned, means thank you to more than one person. But it’s used to greet people at work, to say something like, “More grease to your elbow.”

The market women nearby greeted and welcomed me as we made our way to the stalls of vegetable sellers, where tomatoes and onions were piled neatly. “OyInbo, white person,” I heard all around me, “Nno. Welcome.” I was an object of interest and curiosity. “O bu onye be Onyemelukwe. She’s from the Onyemelukwe family,” I overheard a couple of people say.

I nodded and smiled. I hoped I would see Obele, my nearest neighbor. “Nno, Mama Chinaku. Welcome.” It wasn’t Obele but seemed to be someone who knew me as more than the strange white woman. I turned to see a familiar face. “Do you know me?” she said in English.

“Yes, but please remind me who you are.”

“I am Irene, Edwin’s sister.” Now I recalled meeting her at our son’s naming ceremony and during our Christmas holidays in the village. She was charming and warm, and smiled often. She was my height, 5’7. Her face resembled Edwin’s with even features and a nose that was narrow for an Igbo. I remembered that she was married and lived near the market.

She wore a blue and green wrapper with matching blouse and head tie. We exchanged greetings in a mix of Igbo and English. Her tomatoes and onions looked better than those of the other market women. Even if they hadn’t, I would have bought what I needed from her.

I asked for directions to the meat sellers, though I could almost have followed my nose. As we approached I was assaulted by the fleshy scent of newly butchered animals. There were eight or ten butchers, each standing behind a wooden table where his meat was arranged. Behind the butchers were the live cows and goats, ready to be slaughtered if needed. The ground between was covered in blood.

I looked around for the stand with the fewest flies and approached the Hausa seller who had come from the North with his cattle. I recognized beef fillets, but otherwise the cuts were a mystery. I was pretty sure he would not speak Igbo, so I addressed him in English.

“How much for this?” I said, pointing to a hunk of beef.

“Two pounds.”

Hubba,” I said, employing a wonderful Hausa sound that indicates shock or surprise. “I’ll give you one pound.”

“Pay one pound, ten shilling.”

After more back and forth, I told the butcher to wrap the meat and handed over one pound, six shillings of Nigerian currency, still in use in Biafra. Did this Hausa man feel as out of place as I did, surrounded by Igbos, most of whom did not speak my native language?

 

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.

5 Comments

  1. Eke, Orie, Afor, Nkwo: the four Igbo market days are the answer to your challenge. My name is David Koren, a FON member who will be attending Nashville. Is your memoir out yet? Mine is “Far Away in the Sky.” I hope to see you in Nashville and swap stories.

  2. Your comment page does not want to accept my email, C.