• ‘I’m still on the errand my brother sent me’, she says
At 100 years, Mrs. Aniefi Agnes Nweke is widely regarded as the oldest woman in Ozalla (Igbo: Ozara), a prominent community in Nkanu West LGA, Enugu State of Nigeria. But this is hardly noticeable from her looks, gait and clarity of speech, until she launches into reminiscences of personal experiences and how much the world has changed since the 1920s. Ahead of the celebration of her centenary birthday by her community on December 27, 2015, The Easterner editor, Dan Nwomeh sought for an interview with her. She tells the amazing story of her abduction into marriage and portrays life in a tribal society without drugs, hospitals, modern roads, clothes and other things we take for granted today. Excerpts:
Q: Can you identify yourself and also tell me about your parents and family.
My name is Nwankwo Aniefuani. I was born on Nkwo day. But now as a Christian, my name is Agnes Nweke. My father was Chukwuonyia-Nwugaa of Umuohaanee Ozara
Q. Who was your mother and where was she from?
My mother’s name was Owoo-Odo Aguigwe. She was from Obuofia Akegbe. I had three siblings, one male and two female.
Q: What was your husband’s name and how did you meet him?
My late husband’s name was Nweke Odionu of Umuoha Umuokorouba.
Q: How did you meet your husband? How was the marriage contracted?
The man saw me and liked me. He said he would like to marry me but I declined his overtures. I was already married. My half-brother Okoro Onyia sent for me. He sent a message to me at my husband’s place saying we the daughters of the kindred were wanted back home. It was normal to recall married daughters from their husbands’ places if need be. When I came back he sent me to go and fetch bathwater for his wife’s newborn baby. He told me to wait for him at a certain place on the way to the stream. As I stayed there wondering why he was late in coming, I saw some young men advancing towards my direction. I thought they were passing by until they grabbed me. I did not know that Nweke Odionu had sent them to abduct me. Unbeknown to me, Nweke Odionu had conspired with my brother. My family said he was rich enough to afford a cow for the second burial ceremony of my father. And when the time came, Nweke Odionu indeed brought the heftiest of all the animals presented for the ceremony. It was a horse and it was so big that the Igede dance group insisted on going home with that particular one. Before then I was married to one young man but he was poor.
Q: You were married before then? I don’t understand. Were you forced into another marriage while still married to your first husband? Or was it after you divorced your first husband?
I was still married. But I was tricked home. Some young men kidnapped me. I was heart-broken. For days I continued to weep in lamentation, ‘Okoro Onyia ihe imeru mu!’ (Okoro Onyia what a terrible thing you did to me!’) It is only your blood relation that can kill or save you. But it was the norm then. Women were seized like that and forced into marriage, though usually with the secret connivance of their kinfolk. There was no money then. Farm work was used to settle the dowry. I lived in peace with my first husband. I would have wished to go back to him.
Q: Who was this man? You mean he accepted the forcible separation without a fight?
His name was Okorie Nwufiu of Umuekwe Enugwu-Egu. He actually protested but because justice was in the hands of Chief Chukwuani, there was nothing he could do. Chukwuani and Onyeama – both of them were in charge of the administration of justice. Chukwuani’s mother was a daughter of Umuoha. Chukwuani could not have told his maternal relative not to marry a woman of his choice. So the man felt intimidated. It was not as if Chukwuani had even done anything. My former husband was simply frightened. When my first child was born, there was a problem as my breast milk did not run. My father’s kinsmen went and forcibly brought the man to their place. He was accused of using some magic to block my breast milk from running.
Q: It must have been mere suspicion. Or did the man deactivate his magic then?
Yes, after threatening the man, he complied and did whatever he did and my breast milk started flowing. He was further compelled to surrender his claims over me. He took my hands and handed me over to Nweke saying he was no longer my husband, that I now belonged to his rival. “She is now yours”. Can such a thing happen today? Can this be done to any man of this age? If it were today he would have called the police. But at that time, Chukwuani was the ruler, there was no police. He was also made to take an oath called “igba mee” with my new husband, with the two of them vowing never to see any evil against each other.
Q: So how did you take the whole thing? Did anyone ever consider how you felt and which of them you loved?
I never agreed to stay here. I never knew I would stay. But at a stage I accepted my fate and resigned to destiny because a seer had foretold that I shall cross the stream to get to my husband’s place. The stream I crossed was Ufam. I saw it as the fulfillment of that prophesy. In our time marriages were arranged. A father chose a spouse for his child. If a man asked a young woman to marry him and she was interested, her usual response would be, “I agree if my father agrees”. And once a woman got married she began to learn how to respect and love her new husband.
Q: I want to know your age. How old are you?
I don’t know. In our time we did not count the passing of the years like that. We did not count people’s ages. The order of seniority according to age was known by all. But among us the married women, seniority was not ranked by age but on who was married first. This was important in sharing things within the family or lineage.
Q: Did you know Chief Chukwuani Nwangwu? (Editor’s Note: Chief Chukwuani was appointed as Warrant Chief of Ozalla by the British colonial administration in c.1908. In 1916, he was promoted to ‘Paramount Chief of Nkanus’ and invested with near-dictatorial powers over the vast area. Following a reversal of policy, however, he was demoted in 1922 but continued to exercise considerable powers and influence until his death on 9th February, 1930. His death was such an earthshaking occurrence that for decades it was the major milestone for dating future events in the community.)
I lived with Chukwuani before my father died. We were close relatives. I was named after Chukwuani’s sister named Aniefi. I was living with them when my father died. I then returned home.
Q: So you knew Chukwuani in person?
Yes of course.
Q: You also knew when he died.
Yes. That was after I had returned to my father’s house. Chukwuani attended the second burial ceremony of my father after his death. He came along with his wives. I was on that trip. That was how I returned home.
Q: I really want to establish your age. Were you already married when Chukwuani died?
I was not yet married. I was still living in my father’s house after returning from Chukwuani’s place following my father’s death.
Q. That means you were probably less than 15 years when Chukwuani died. I heard girls were given away in marriage before puberty.
You are correct. Some were betrothed to a man much older than them before the age of 10.
Q. Can you then estimate your age when you first got married?
I was very young. We did not count people’s ages like that. Once a girl’s breast began to develop, she was ripe for marriage.
Q. How long did you stay with your first husband?
I don’t know. We did not count the passing of the years.
Q. Let me explain something to you. Chukwuani is recorded to have died in 1930, that is 85 years ago. If we add your age at that, say 13, 14 or 15 years or more, it means you are at least 98, 99 or 100 years or more. I hope you understand me.
I really don’t understand your calculations. How will I know? We did not count people’s ages as people of this generation always do.
Q. There are few people who are up to your age in Ozara and they can no longer stand up fully erect. You don’t look your age. You are still strong and you walk around straight.
It is through the sheer grace of God. I have seen a lot in my life. It has been a long journey and I am so grateful to God for keeping me alive and healthy till now. He is the one that knows everything.
Q: Can you tell me about Chukwuani, what you remember about him?
Chukwuani was the ruler of these parts – him and Onyeama n’Eke. Every day in his compound different animals like goats and cows were slaughtered, prepared and served on guests in wooden trays. Meat was never in short supply in his compound. A corner of his compound was devoted to killing and grilling the meat. Chukwuani was a husband to countless women. No beautiful maiden ever escaped his attention. He married so many of them.
Q: Tell me about your growing up days.
Ufie was rubbed on the body as cream. There were no drugs. Herbs were used to heal ailments. People did not get sick like today. If two men died the same day in Obe and Ozara, a party was sent with a basket to consult the oracle at Agbaja. It is the assortment of sweet things that people consume today that is responsible for the prevalence of disease and sickness. People did not walk about like now. These days, people are so mobile and restless. We only ate pounded yam and cocoyam. There was no cassava. I do not recall how cassava came about. The plants were introduced at a point. When rice came, we did not know how to cook it. There was no soap then, no clothes, no money for a long time. There were no matches. Light was never allowed to extinguish in a compound. Men tied tiny clothes round the waist. Cow dung was used to paint mud houses. When my husband brought cement and used it to floor the entrance of his hut, he became the talk of the community. He was hailed as the richest man around.
Q: You said people did not walk about in your time. Why?
Yes, people did not travel or walk afar. People did not wander about freely, as they stood the risk of being killed for ritual or kidnapped and sold into slavery. There were no paved roads like today. We only had footpaths. In fact, I did not know the way back to my parent’s place. Women were particularly restricted. Marrying at the neighbouring towns was distant enough. Men monitored their women with vigilance. Young girls also faced the risk of being seized and forced into marriage. You can see how I ended up. I am still on that errand my brother sent me. I am still fetching that water. Also, if a married woman was seen chatting with a man, there was instant suspicion. Men were very jealous of their women. They monitored their movements. There was a day I needed to visit my parents place and my husband sent some boys to follow me. But along the road I stopped and ordered them to go back.
Q: I hear you are the oldest woman in Ozalla today.
That is what people say. Everything depends on destiny, akara eka. I am grateful to God for longevity. I have come a very long way. I do not live in every quarter of Ozara to know if there is any woman who is older than me. I no longer go far. But if what people are saying is true, then I am most grateful to God.
Q. Is any of your age mate still alive?
My age mates are no longer alive. I no longer see them. Maybe they went to live in the city with their children but I no longer see them.
Q: Can you compare life then and now?
It is a mixed grill, some good and some bad. Many things have changed. Then, children obeyed their parents without question. A mere rebuke was enough to keep a child compliant. In the past there were no hospitals. A woman opened her legs wide and delivered her baby. Everyone went about almost nude. There was nothing to be ashamed of because everyone was unclad. But today we have clothes, unlike then when all we knew was ufie, uri and jigida. I thank God for the gift of clothes. Also, there was no cement in the past; no zinc and all the modern things that make life more comfortable today. There was no footwear, bicycle, wheel barrow or modern roads. When wheel barrow came, people were rejoicing. Then bicycle came and became a prized item and symbol of wealth. Did we know then that the big one (automobile) was still coming? Then, one could swear for his child because children were very truthful. There were truthful people everywhere. Yes was yes and no was no. These days, only God can vouch for anyone. Doors were never locked in our days. The shout of “ookwa oshi oh!” was enough to send a thief on his heels. But these days, when you shout they will tell you to shut up and continue what they are doing. Things have spoilt a lot.
Q: Can you compare the fate of women then and now?
Then, no one trained women in school. The common wisdom them was: “nwaanyi bu obodo onyeozo”, a woman belongs to another man’s land. Our role was restricted to the home, keeping the house and raising children and engaging in farm work to support the family. I was a farmer. I planted yam and cocoyam to feed my children and also sold at markets. It was only during ceremonies that the husband went to his barn to bring out what to cook for guests. If you cooked soup, your husband went to the pot to take meat. If you put your hand into the pot first, he could beat you and of course nobody will support you. In fact you will have to bring a cock and four tubers of yam to seek for forgiveness. These days women are visible and participating in everything. In my time I saw girls going to school. I saw vehicles and so many other things. Things have changed a great deal.
* Dan Nwomeh can be reached on 0816 006 6350 or firstname.lastname@example.org