Childhood games: The games we played as children – Part 2
We had canary singing contest. Two cages were brought next to each other and the canaries would begin to chip, then singing in short burst and higher pitch. The piece d’ resistance is when the canaries screeched like an opera singer holding a long note non-stop. We counted each screech and staccato long song. The canary which screeched longest and highest was the winner. Of course, people kept canaries not only for this sport but to hear them singing early in the morning and also at dusk just before midnight – a very soothing experience.
Northern Nigeria sent plenty of food to the south but one of the best for children was the seasonal onslaught of guinea fowl and guinea fowl eggs. It is possible that some people fried or made guinea fowl eggs in some exotic way. The most normal way to eat them was to boil them. Hundreds of thousands of them were everywhere. A game was developed with the guinea fowl eggs known as Kwoi. The shell of the guinea fowl egg is tougher than that of the hens we kept at home. We all believed that we could tell how tough the egg was by knocking the eggs against our teeth and listening to the cadence and thereby determine the toughness of the egg. I held the egg in the ball of my hands in such a way that the top of the egg is peering out between my thumb and forefinger. My opponent is supposed to hold my hand steady and use his own egg to knock against my egg. If my egg cracks he takes it. If his cracks, I do likewise.
This game can be intense if the two players are from different support group systems. They are not gangs but nearly so and the eggs cracking can involve about 10 people. When one group has finished the other group’s eggs, sometimes fights occur or more energy spent in some other game. This is a technique in knowing how to crack the egg of your opponent. You try to hold his hand in such a way that more of his egg is revealed and you hit the side of his egg with the top of yours which is usually stronger. You can almost certainly crack his egg if you slightly turn his fist first at the point of contact so your egg hits the side of his egg.
On holidays when I went to Abonnema we met different challenges on the games we played. Every child was out looking for mud skippers to catch. It was not easy. We tried to build a basket which you put in the mud hoping that with tide the basket did not slip away. The mud skippers jumped from one hole to another. We hoped that in all this frenetic activity, some mud skippers may fall into our traps. We also had traps in front of holes which the crabs had dug. You set your trap with a palm fruit or whatever to attract the crab. As it goes to take the enticing fruit it springs the trap door which closes and there we have our crabs.
In the village there are large trees providing all kinds of fruits – guava, mangoes, pears, African plum, oranges, etc, but one tree produced a unique berry called belema (sweet), a fruit which if you eat it everything you taste is sweet. So instead of sugar we ate this fruit and drank Akamu (Corn flour) or Guinea flour. The sweetness last many hours but by lunch time it had disappeared from the mouth. (Incidentally, since I grew up I can never find this plant. I would have been a millionaire and driven artificial sweetness out of business).
We also played Ludo, snakes and ladders, draughts – which my father taught me. I loved to watch the elders play because when they do they lose all sense of inhibitions. Heaping abuse on their opponents. Obo – fool, monkey this is not a game for imbeciles or blind men do not play draughts: if you waste time thinking of your next move, your opponent affects that he is sleeping and snoring and asks the spectators to wake him up when you make a move!!
We also played monopoly although we had no idea why Bond Street and Park Lane were more valuable than Vauxhall. A young boy’s best toy was the hair less tennis ball which he gets after picking balls for elders at the local recreation club. We used their balls to play football otherwise we made do of locally made balls from raw African rubber whose bounce was more unpredictable than a rugby ball. The erratic bounce was the soul of the game.
The girls played Ten- Ten (with fingers and toes as you can’t wear shoes to play), Ifi –a juggler game; they also played suwe, ringa ringa roses. The dances; two girls – one facing each other would start clapping slowly and dance to a rhythm such as to see whether the steps synchronize. The idea was that the girl who started the dance and clap session would dance in such a way that her opponent would guess rightly all the moves. If she guesses wrong then she has lost. A slow clapping dance gathers in furious intensity and rhythm as the two girls clap in unison while displaying footsteps that one of them cannot anticipate. If anyone doubted why Africans can dance he has not watched young girls in Africa dance Ten Ten. (Ten – ten toes; Ten – ten fingers). There were clubs – masquerade; fancy dance clubs for Easter and Christmas. Learning how to do the bonsue and the Kokoma dances imported from Benin and Ghana. We tried to fly kites not very successfully. We used garri as gum on newspaper and the frame of the kite which did not seem to go very high or far.
My mother made most of my clothes. In making my school uniform she seemed to forget to put pockets: but would remember after the shirts or shorts have been sewn. She would then cut material and give me four patch pockets, two in front and two behind. It was not illegal but it made me conspicuous when all I wanted was to blend. Who is your tailor? My mother made it. Abajo, no wonder, ehi – mother`s boy. It stung. My mother was a nurse. A large woman. The nurses’ uniform was thick cotton, almost calico. She would make my leisure shirt and shorts from her old uniforms, with the inevitable patch pockets. You could not miss me!!! But I understand she was paying my school fees: to do that she had to sew, cater for events and dance in the recreation club, make cakes, etc all to make ends meet.
Because I was very good at playing draughts, on my way home from school, I would stop at the Colliery Men’s Club near the hospital to play draughts if my mother was on afternoon duty i.e. closes at 9 p.m. I horned my drafting skills there. Although I could not participate in the verbal jibes of the draft players, I learnt the art of repartee to quick barbs. If I have any wit and sharp tongue it may be because it had been horning for many years.
In my second year at secondary school I was caught fighting with another boy by a teacher who was also the sports master. He announced that there would be a boxing tournament at break that day. Most of the students gathered at break. My opponent and I were gloved up and the teacher rang the bell to begin. We fought until we could fight no more. Both of us fell, tired, one on the other within four minutes. I have never fought again in my life.