By: Israel Umoh
The visiting harmattan season had the previous year afflicted heavy toll on human beings, trees and other living things alike in Nigeria’s South-South less busy community. By January, the Saharan wind was about dancing home. Hellish heat from smouldering sun crept in. Dusty wind blew and splashed hot air on parched ground, humans, trees and grasses and succeeded in turning mostly the evergreen to brownish Khati colour.
Defoliated leaves fell on the hard earth surface. Denuded trees made forested bush looked unkempt with twigs and twines that swirled around trees hanging helplessly for the butcher’s matchete. And on the bush clearing day, labourers joined in showing the once-evergreen but stripped bush cruelty. This was known as ntem.
This aptly mirrored a typical farming season in Ikot Anta, Ukanafun Local Government Area of Nigeria’s Akwa Ibom State in the late 70s. From January to April each year, the season peaked with every household in the half-throttled agrarian community busily tilled soil and buried seeds and stems in anticipation of harvest. It was a period full of excitements and apprehensions among the villagers. This depended on the financial standing and numerical strength of each household.
At the beginning of farming season, my father made adequate arrangements to ensure bountiful harvest. He put in so much, but he did not get commensurate result in the sweaty pastime called farming. Though we had relish in the harvested yields, it was not really seen as business but subsistence. Preparatory to bush clearing, James hired two or three labourers. ”Tomorrow, we will go for bush clearing. Sharpen your matchete,’’ he informed his household. On the D-day, the labourers arrived in our compound as early as 6 a.m.
My father and I joined as we all left for the bush in a location known as Edem Enin (elephant’s jungle). On arrival in the bush, the labourers armed with sharp matchetes changed their clothes and put on rag-like clothes and pair of trousers. By this time, the thick bush would look, hiss and smile at us. Rodents, wild animals, snakes and insects became jittery and in the process had to race to nearby bush for refuge.
They demarcated the thick bush among themselves for easy combing. My father waited to play a supervisory role, though he was actively involved in the work. I was not a bystander as I took turn in the clearing. Not long, work started. Tap, tap, tap, tap, ja, ja, ja, ja! Fiap, fiap, fiap, fiap! Eh, ih, eh, Ih, eh, ih, eh, ih, eh, ih. The labourers roared and the tree cutting sounded.
Defoliated tall trees and grass were falling down. Bush clearing in our local parlance was called ntem. They cleared the grass and mowed the trees. Big trees- njah, akiko, akpo ikut, mbum, asakaa, afid ekpu, utun ewa, and njatet, among others- that colonised and stood in columns were sawed down. Mkpatatat, akpo kpo, mfung, mba, among others were cleared without much ado. My father embarked on pruning down the trees, an activity known as utippe. I was busy in proper packing of leaves and trees for incineration.
By noon, my mother had brought foofoo or akpu in Igbo language or ukuduk in Annang dialect garnished with afang or atama soup depending on what she had in her disposal. She offloaded the items and brought water in a calabash. She dished the food. The labourers came out, sat in a ring and munched the food like hungry hynae. After voracious eating, they resumed clearing until the entire bush looked like ‘overcome’ open arena or football field. In the evening, we left for home.
After washing their faces, the labourers wore their trousers and shirts. The journey to our homes began. On reaching the house, they were served with a pail of water fetched from a distant well located near the village hall. They gulped much water and took bath later. After, they were treated to evening meal. My father paid them the remaining money and they retired to their different homes.
The cleared bush was kept for two or three weeks to allow pruned leaves and trees went dry up. The charred remnants were called anjiaa. ”Koko, we would go and set the bush ablaze. You will accompany me,’’ my father requested.
I and my father carried a box of matches and kerosene to set the bush ablaze. We fenced off the bush from another to avoid the inferno spewing anger to adjoining bush. The fire oozed out blaze and loop of smoke. No living thing was spared by the ferocious ‘visitor.’ It raged for more than one hour. Later, we left because our mission had been accomplished.
The next, I and my sister returned to the charcoal-turned bush called nkang atok. We scavenged on roasted rodents and snails. We packed firewood and carted them home. Some were thrown away or dumped at the four boundaries of the bush.
In evening, my father made another arrangement for planting in what we called utoo. He hired another set of labourers to undertake the burrowing of cassava stems, yams, sweet yams. We returned from clearing the land, cut cassava stems, sliced off sweet yams and yams.
My mother opened fluted pumpkin pods and yanked off the glued seeds. She sprayed them on the sun shade for a day for easy germination and fruiting. She also plucked maize seeds and dumped them in a can, ready for planting. Before the main day, she had gone alone and planted pumpkin and maize seeds, leaving available spaces for yams and others.
As early as 6 a.m. they all arrived and departed for the bush. Some labourers dug the soil. Others burrowed the stems and yams and covered the soil. It was local digging of soil: no bed, no ridge as we prepared in the primary school. Food came in the afternoon and the workers ate. We resembled masqueraders because of charcoal-dented bodies. But much water did the cleansing. We, therefore, parked our hoes, spades and machetes in baskets and headed home as the eventide zoomed in.
Another major phase was weeding. The rains had come down in torrents. And tall trees and grasses had grown to compete with the edible crops. Fluted pumpkin leaves that crawled on the ground were at the mercy of the tall weeds.
On the weeding day, I and my sister arrived early in the farm to fork out insects that lived in some dead trees. We cut bark of trees and pulled out maggot-like insects called mkpanifiak. Ekpelolok and ukokomkponiwuot had hard skin-cover were edible did not miss our prying eyes. We spared not crickets or eriang and others that inhabited the farm.
So, the labourers went into the farm. They pulled out the weeds with aggression. And the once-bushy farm was turned to a ‘tamed’ and accessible one. This was the first weeding session. In subsequent stanzas, my mother arranged with me to do the job. During holidays in April or on Saturday then, I went alone and weeded the farm. Thereafter, she went and removed tendrils of the fluted pumpkin and plucked the early pumpkin leaves and yams and maize and sweet yams for domestic use. The pace was set for the unannounced harvest on unexpected day. This phase was known as nnanga.
These were how our household put in enormous resources and energy-toils- to scout a bumper harvest. Unfortunately, the archaic farming techniques adopted in the village setting dashed the hope. No government assistance, but individual effort in farming. This farming method is still practised in most villages in the state. Mechanized farming practiced in other climes is like a novelty game to them. For our villagers in Akwa Ibom, it is still the traditional farming system- you work alone and you die or in our parlance afo akpa, afo aduoi idem nwong.