I’ve been speaking to Tot in his mother tongue since he was a few weeks old.
So far, God has blessed this particular hustle because he understands Igbo quite well.
- He knows all the imperatives; Sit down, Stand up, Stay still, Shut up, Come here, Move back.
- The different types of foods; Plantains, Yams, Potatoes,Fish, Meat, Eggs.
- Objects in day-to-day life; Tree, Flower, Chair, Book – and will bring you whichever story you ask for, – Nappy, Wipes, Potty.
- And of course, parts of the body; hands. Head, Eyes, Nose, Mouth.
I cannot teach him ‘Penis’.
I’m not sure when I learned what penis was in Igbo, but I am sure it was in hush-hush conditions which is de rigueur for sharing all kinds of pseudo-sexual information. Before this, it was a thing that one pretended didn’t exist after they sat on their daddy’s lap, felt a bulge, poked it with an inquisitive forefinger and got told off in the sternest way possible so that one was sure daddy didn’t like them any more.
After I learned the word, everything changed. One minute I was minding my business, the next there was the word blazing a path through my consciousness, laying waste to the virgin forest of my mind. It’s still a post apocalyptic wasteland. ‘Penis’ as it turns out, is a gateway word.
Everything started making sense, even if I didn’t know the rudiments of things. In between studies and play I wondered about boys and girls and penis, penis, penis. I saw the word floating in the air above me, shimmering in heat waves, crawling like ants on my skin. Why was no one as restless as I was? Couldn’t they feel penis in the air?
It was if I was being tested. One morning, the driver was sent on an errand and decided he would drop my sister and I in school earlier than normal. She went off to her classroom and I to mine. I turned to the left in the shared, rectangular classroom, dropped my bag on one of the back benches and wondered what to do before everyone else arrived.
There it was, in black and white on the opposite wall/board belonging to Primary 2D in Igbo: ‘Okechukwu has a penis’.
I looked around the empty classroom, walked to both doorways before approaching the board. My eyes were not lying. It was still there. Okechukwu has a penis. Why was it there? Who wrote it? To what end? Of course he would have a penis, Okechukwu being a boy’s name; but which one was it? Did I know him? Was he showing people his penis? When? Where?
I walked the length of the board/wall and back, studying the letters. It was as if someone had written it in a hurry. Why was I still reading it, I knew what it said already? I closed my eyes and the words appeared in white against my eyelids. Was I going to hell?
I heard footfalls outside and hurried back to my part of the double classroom. The two boys who came in were not in my class. They were two of the kids who trekked up the hill from Nibo/Nise every morning. They sat down, rubbing at their feet with leaves to get rid of the dust. I couldn’t take the silence much longer.
“Are you in 2D?” I asked. One of them nodded. The other one kept scrubbing. “You people are going to get flogged today for writing that on your board.”
“Writing what? We didn’t do anything.” I knew they didn’t. I had a few of the Nibo/Nise kids in my class too. They could barely write.
“Well, somebody did. You had better clean it before your teacher gets here.”
“What is she saying?” the silent one asked. He turned to the board covered in squiggles. “There is nothing on the board. It’s just jaga-jaga.”
“There,” I stood up pointing. “Can’t you see?”
“No, no I can’t,” said the first. “Stop sighing and show us what you mean.”
“See? Here.” I traced the letters hidden under the squiggles with a finger.
“I see something there, but I can’t…I can’t…” The first boy squinted. “What does it say?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“I can’t see it properly. Just tell us.”
“Ok,” My heart was beating on the back of my tongue. “It says ‘Okechukwu nwere amu’.”
“What?” Silent-boy jumped up. “Where? Read it again.”
“Okechukwu nwere amu.” The boys clapped each other on the back, and jumped around. They looked at me as if I was the funniest, most intelligent person in the world. I felt ten feet tall. I said it! I said the word. I eyed the boys. They had better not tell anyone.
The next person to enter the classroom had a scapular and small cross on brown strings around her neck. She went straight to her place on one of the front benches and sat down. The boys huddled giggling and nodding. “Uju,” did you see what someone wrote on our board?” asked the first boy. Uju looked up. She left her seat and stood by the board. Then she bent down, picked up the rag used for the purpose and wiped the board clean. The boys stopped sniggering. Uju sat down and opened her books.
My face and neck were on fire.
My son knows other parts of the body too: Knees, fingers, toes, tongue, teeth. He can hear the tonal difference between ears (nti) and cheek (nti). But I still cannot tell him the Igbo word for penis.
So, I have settled on ‘Mammiri’ – ‘Urine’ – as a substitute. I think it is appropriate since that is what I need Tot to learn how to do in a potty right now.
As for the other thing, I am sure he will pick it up school, in the hush-hush way pseudo-sexual matters are revealed.