NIGHTS FULL OF CRICKETS
(Reminiscences of holidays in the village)
Dedicated to my mother of blessed memory, Abu Prudentia Azi Mbah nee Tamo
By TIKUM MBAH AZONGA
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD
This story is set in Baforkum in Tubah Sub Division (Mezam). Baforkum is a small `Baforchu` village that came from Santa Mbei and settled in Bambui over a century ago. Baforkum is hemmed in between Bambui proper and the Agric Farm (today IRAD Bambui), more or less. Baforkum is one of three sub villages in Tubah Sub Division, the other two being Finge (still in Bambui) and Sabga which is in Kejom Ketingoh (Babanki Tungoh). We of Baforkum speak our own language, have our own Ngumba Juju, and our own Chief, HRH Boma who fought in the World War for Britain and still has memorabilia of that golden period adorning the walls of his palace to this day. For the record, the other villages of the Baforchu family include Banjah which shares Bamenda III Sub Division with Nkwen, Ngyen Mbo in Mbengwi Sub Division, Santa Mbei, Baba II and Mbu (the Mother Village of the entire Baforchu clan), the last three all falling under Santa Sub Division. My parents moved from Mbu in 1940 and settled in Baforkum when my father was employed at the Agric Farm. We have a large compound in Baforkum where I was born and bred and where my parents lie buried. But I belong to both Baforkum and Mbu.
THE NAME OF THE GAME
I wonder which part of the long vacation when you were in secondary school you would say is the one you miss most. For me, the answer is unequivocal. It isn’t `back to school` as you may be thinking. No, it’s rather the last two weeks of August and the first two of September, just before I packed my bags to start another term at my cherished boarding school, Sacred Heart College, Mankon. In those days, that period was the peak one for nocturnal crickets. I mean those small insects which wear the glisteningly black pairs of wings and sometimes deliberately raise them and make them rattle a piercing piece of music. The said crickets use bored earth holes for their natural habitat. Wikipedia has a more graphic description of their physical features (or morphology): “Brown to black , front wing varying in length, covering half to entire abdomen; antennae about as long as distance from head to end of abdomen; wings held flat over body; hind wings folded and hidden under leathery front wings .” For the science-inclined, the phylum of crickets is Arthropoda; its class, Insecta; and its order, Orthoptera.
THE NOCTURNAL JOURNEY BEGINS
Once darkness fell, a host of crickets leapt into action. They would scamper out of their holes, I suppose backwards, and once they felt their body was just about out of the hole, they would stop and raise their famous wings and let out the music which could be heard from a considerable distance. Usually, many of them came out for this ritual. So it was like some chorus; no, a choir, a whole choir. The `rattle and hum` could go on interrupted for hours. Yet, I always wondered whether the poor creatures never grew tired. Then again I thought they were probably created and destined to sing themselves to death like the ill-fated birds in Australia’s Colleen McCullough’s award-winning novel, The Thorn Birds. But perhaps for the crickets the non-stop hissing was copulation language used to woo the opposite sex.
The crickets` song which keeps coming to me even today as I write, like The Ancient Mariner’s memories of the tough life at sea, served as my wake-call for the night’s catch, or better still, kill. I knew it was time to go out, to venture out in the dark, to take a bold leap in the dark, and catch as many crickets as possible. The more, the merrier, and besides, there’s safety in numbers, as the saying goes. After all, my mother was waiting for them in order to cook the following day’s meal.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
These were simple: a bush lamp, a knife or cutlass and a container for holding captured crickets. A bottle was the most appropriate container on this occasion because its walls were slippery and therefore unsafe for a cricket to stage a surprise escape by crawling out. Another advantageous aspect of the bottle was its narrow neck, which limited the potential escape route.
ANIMAL INSTINCTS AT WORK
When the choir was on in full swing, I would advance “gingerly” as James Hadley Chase would put it. As there were so many crickets screaming at the same time, I would select one, perhaps the nearest, or the one at the safest distance, and go for it. With the knife in my right hand and the lamp in the left, I would move forward on tip toe, ensuring that I didn’t abruptly scare the target away by stepping on the grass. This was taking place in the compound farmyard on which my father grew coffee, plantains and bananas, and my mother farmed groundnuts, corn, yams, Irish potatoes, cocoyams and beans. Sometimes some of the crickets were too close to each other for my liking. When that did not happen, it was therefore good news for me. For the untrained ear, the noise they made could be deafening and disconcerting. Not for us the adept. Our kinds were no novices or neophytes. Far from it! This was an exercise we had repeated year in year out. So when these adversaries attempted to blow up our ear drums with their din, we knew exactly how to resist and put up the good fight. We knew just how to shut off all other crickets and concentrate on the particular one that interested us at that moment. So at such times, we heard only one of those multitudes of sounds.
The best way to approach the beast was to hold the lamp forward and already raise the knife or cutlass before getting closing in.
BEATING EXPERTS AT THEIR OWN GAME
Typically, once as I approached and spotted the cricket’s raised black wings, I held my breath so that the insect would not speed back into its fissure. At close range, I would quietly raise my weapon even higher, in order to gain momentum, and then at the speed of lightening, strike a wall between the crickets head and the entrance into the hole. As it responded to the stimulus, it found itself blocked by the heavy and cold knife. At once I would hand the knife to one of my junior brothers and reaching out with the skill of an expert, grab it by the scruff of the neck. The first thing to do was break its neck. It was necessary to do so in order to incapacitate it, for, it had claws that could injure human flesh and in the process, cause grief and even put an undue end to the hunt. This was my happiest moment, one of victory, which I immediately turned round and shared with the junior brother who was with me at the time. It could be Eva, Muma, Eric or Festus, usually.
Despite the merry catch, this was so far, only a single cricket. To boast that we had caught enough, we needed to fill the bottle. On a not-so-good night, filling it three quarters was tolerable, But if we did less, we grew disappointed with ourselves and probably started crying before returning home, so that our mother would pity us and not rebuke, or worse still, beat us. This was a trick we always played if we were sent to the stream and to fetch water and we inadvertently broke the calabash we went with and had to return home with no water and no calabash. The trick always worked for me. But if on the other hand, on being sent to the stream I expressed reluctance and then later broke the calabash, there was no way I would escape retribution because my mother would conclude that I broke “her” calabash deliberately because I did not want to go in the first place.
If it was a good night, we would catch more and more crickets and feed them into the bottle. It was always interesting to watch then as they struggled for dear life in the bottle. I often wondered how they could still be alive when “living conditions” in there were so untenable. But somehow or other, they survived and none would die before we handed the bottle to our mother.
DURATION OF AN ORDEAL
How long could it take for us to start and finish a hunting session? Well, hours. Perhaps, four or so. However, since there must always be an end to anything that has a start (except God, the Alpha and the Omega. of course); there had to be a dividing line with the hunting exercise. My mother always knew when to blow the final whistle of the match: “Children, come back to the house! It’s late! Come home with the little you may have!” Back at home, we handed her the booty. We had finished our job. Now it was time for hers. One thing we knew and relished was that the following day our mother would cook a large pot of fufu corn and cricket soup. Her `cricket soup` was made with egusi, and I liked it thick. In that way, I could transport a large quantity of it on my lump of fufu corn into my eager and waiting mouth.
After I had eaten my share and my father returned from work (he was a Night watchman at the Agric Farm) and was eating his, I would pass by him several times, pretending to be busy looking for something. He was one man who understood me very well and knew my intentions at every moment. So he would look at me and with a smile, say: “Would you like to eat with me?” Being the biggest of the boys, I suppose that was my right, my privilege and my prerogative, although the others thought my father “favored’ me. But to be fair to the old man, when we were all present, he would let us all finish his food. On such an occasion, it was never given to me alone.
This story is part of current research I am carrying out on a relatively new branch of journalism called LITERARY JOURNALISM. This is in a nutshell, a combination of journalistic expertise with literary techniques (my definition). Lan J.To (2005) cited in Hester (2005:112)puts it this way: "The literary journalist is the writer who is sufficiently journalistic to sense the swiftly changing aspects of the dynamic era of our times, and sufficiently literary to gather and shape his material with the eye and hand of the artist"
Lan J. To (2005), `Beyond Reporting`, in Handbook for Third World Journalists, The Centre for International Mass Communication Training and Research, Georgia, pp 112.