Sentinel Literary Quarterly   

Vol. 1 No. 1, September 2007. ISSN 1753-6499 (Online). www.sentinelquarterly.com


 

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EGWU NWA: SONGS CELEBRATING CHILDBIRTH

 

By Nnorom Azuonye

 

Egwu Nwa which translates directly as ‘child song’ refers to songs sung in celebration of childbirth in Nigerian Igbo communities. Localised in the Mgbelu Umunnekwu community of Isuikwuato, Nigeria, this narrative presents a typical Egwu Nwa session which can be broken down into three parts; Invitation, Party Time, and Prayer. The themes and meanings of songs performed in each part and how they relate to the socio-cosmic milieu of the people are also explained.

 

Invitation

 

There is nothing more looked-forward to in any community of the world than the birth of a child. The arrival of a new baby is a reassurance of some kind of continuity. The overall fortunes of a family or a society at large may be dependent on how well or how poorly a child turns out in his or her spirit of industry, moral values, and or spiritual and material balance.

 

At Mgbelu Umunnekwu community of Isuikwuato in the South-Eastern Nigerian Abia State, as soon as word arrives that a pregnant woman has given birth to a child, the first woman that learns of this immediately raises her voice in ululation. Her chanting and joyful noise would attract every lover of good news within earshot to the source of the call.

 

If the new-born is male, the call would be this:

 

        A la la la la la la ooooooooh,

        Oke o! Oke o!

 

If the new-born is female, the chant would be:

 

        A la la la la la la ooooooooh,

        Etiti uzo o! Etiti uzo o!

 

‘Oke’ means ‘male’. Female should have been ‘nne’ or ‘inyom’, however in the wisdom of the ancients of the community, they chose ‘etiti uzo’ for female. Etiti Uzo means literally ‘middle of the road’, which on the surface does not make any sense for ‘female.’ Incidentally, no elder of the land has been able to give a good reason why ‘etiti uzo’ is used for females. The only logical explanation may be that the reference to middle of the road is a good wish, a wish that the female child may not walk to the end of the road of her life in the community, but should rather detour, at some point off that road to a husband’s home.

 

As the call rings through the village, anyone who hears it would  respond in equally loud voice, ‘tisie ya ike oooo!’ which means ‘shout it louder’. That response is also an acceptance of the invitation to come and celebrate the beginning of new life. Generally, most people who respond to the call would immediately abandon whatever they are doing and head towards the house of joy.

 

When the visitors arrive, the nuclear or extended family to which the child has been born, the ones in the village at the time, present Nzu (Kaolin chalk) to them. Most people would snap off a few pieces and throw them into their mouths, and then mark their necks, faces and hands with the rest. Others would melt the chalk in water making a nice tasty smoothie of some sort.

 

In surprisingly little time, a small crowd gathers. Everyone in the crowd is ready to party. A child is always welcomed with a party of songs and dance, but only women tend do the dance. Any men that happen along would simply watch and accept some wine if on offer.

 

Party Time

 

The party of songs and dance always begins with “Onye nuru akwa nwa” - a song that further calls on people to come out and celebrate.  The song is suitably punctuated by more ululation:

 

        Onye nuru akwa nwa eeeeh

        Onye nuru akwa nwa mee ngwa ngwa

        O bu nu otu onye nwe nwa?

 

        Whoever hears the cry of a baby eeeeh

        whoever hears the cry of a baby, hurry

        does a child belong to one person?

       

        A la la la la la la ooooooooh,

        Oke o! Oke o! (or Etiti uzo o! as appropriate)

 

        Onye nuru akwa nwa eeeeh

        Onye nuru akwa nwa mee ngwa ngwa

        O bu nu otu onye nwe nwa?

 

This is perhaps the most universal Child Song in Igbo land. This is also a song that most stresses the importance of a child in the community and the civic responsibility of every person in the society to take care of and protect a child. ‘The cry of a baby’ may simply be the normal cry of a baby, afterall, cry is what babies do. Still, the cry may be a result of hunger, pain, injury or loneliness. This song asks everyone who hears the cry of a baby to rush to the scene, and if the child is hungry, to feed it, if the child is in pain or injured, to assist in anyway to soothe that child, or if the child is simply lonely, to provide company. The child does not belong only to his or her parents, but to everyone that responds appropriately to the cry.

Things are changing rapidly of course. But there was actually a time any man or woman that witnesses a child misbehave in the community would right on the spot discipline the child, even flogging the child with a cane. As long as the act of discipline was administered without malice, and within reason, and corrects the child, the natural parents would not get upset at all.

 

After the party has kicked off in full swing with that song, it is promptly followed by “Onye bisa aka n’ala” - the first real song of celebration. It is a call to enjoy the blessing, with fun and energy:

 

Solo:         Onye bisa aka n’ala

                Biara ihe oma biaru nga ya

Response:  Iya O!

Solo:         Everyone touch the ground with your hand

                touch the good thing that has come to her home.

Response:  Yes O!

Solo:         Onye bisa aka n’ala

                Biara ihe oma biaru nga ya

Response:  Iya O!

 

A beautiful and energetic song. It is enjoyed by the women dancing in a circular formation, they bend over, touch the ground, rise, touch their hearts, and then raise their hands to the heavens.  This song is particularly interesting and ties in neatly with the first song. The soloist asks all the women dancing to touch the ground, but instructs them to touch the good thing that has come to their homes and not necessarily to the home of the celebrating family. This is because the child belongs to each and every one of those women. The birth of that child has increased every one of them.

 

Usually after these come a series of songs that are very much tipped towards sex and fun and in some cases could be quite rude in their celebration of life and fun. An example of this is the song, “Oku ekwe na-aku m ekwe”. This song is usually quite funny to listen to and says a lot by what it does not say.

 

        Oku ekwe na-aku m ekwe

        N’ike n’ike n’ike

        Oku ekwe na-aku m ekwe

        N’ike n’ike n’ike

        Agadi nwoke, agadi nwanyi

        N’agbara m akwukwo

        N’ihe nwanchoronwu

Oku ekwe na-aku m ekwe

        N’ike n’ike n’ike

 

        The gong beater is beating me like a gong

        With power, with power, with power

        The gong beater is beating me like a gong

        With power, with power, with power

        Old man, old woman,

        They are suing me

        Because of ‘Nwanchoronwu’

        The gong beater is beating me like a gong

        With power, with power, with power

 

To the confessor, the sexual act is like a musical performance with a powerful rhythm. The beauty of this congress is that the woman sees herself almost like a musical instrument, not just because the man beats away in such great rhythm, but because she gets vocal in the process, groaning and moaning and keeping the neighbours awake or simply disturbing their peace – hence the lawsuit. Nwanchoronwu is a slang for the vagina or lovemaking, depending on the context of its use. It might have been a totally nonsensical slang since the nearest translation of that expression is ‘a little bit of death’. Perhaps relating this expression to Roberta Flack’s song “Killing Me Softly” it may indicate a killing pleasure.

 

Then there is another song, “Ayon Beedi”. This song is equally hilarious and may be accused of pandering to some kind of colonial mentality. The song goes:

 

          Solo:         Ayon beedi o merele any nma

Chorus:      Ehe eh!

Solo:         Ayon beedi o merele any nma

Chorus:      Ehe eh!

Solo:         Isi njin, o sughariwala

                O bu ya bu okwu bekee?

Chorus:      O yesu!

 

Solo:          Iron bed, it has done us good

Chorus:      Ehe eh!

Solo:         Iron bed, it has done us good

Chorus:      Ehe eh!

Solo:         Engine head, it is boiling and roaring

                Is that English Language?

Chorus:      O yes!

 

Iron bed being the field on which the game was played has produced a great result; a child. This song was introduced later on in the community after the arrival of the colonial regime and introduction of metal-framed beds as against the traditional bamboo and straw beds. There is a sense in the way the Iron Bed is celebrated that suggests the event was more sublime on it than on the bamboo and straw beds. Then imagine the description of the male orgasm, with reference to the normal increased speed and power towards the end as ‘engine head, it is boiling and roaring’ and then the question that praises the poetry of that moment as having the smooth intensity of English language, with an affirmative “O yes!”

 

Prayer

 

The birth of a child is a momentous and wonderful event in the life of anyone. It is also something that makes a lot of demand on the time and resources of parents. One of the songs that is regularly sung at Mgbelu Umunnekwu during the celebration of childbirth is “Chukwu Nyezuo Anyi Nwa”, that is “God give every one of us a child”. Initially, this song comes across as a prayer, and it is, especially with a title like that. But there is a story behind it. Here is the song first of all:

 

        Solo:        Chukwu, nyezuo nu anyi nwa

        Chorus:     eeeh eeeh

        Solo:        Chukwu, nna, nyezuo nu anyi nwa

        Chorus:     eeeh eeeh, eeeh eeeh

        Solo:        Na onye la-adughu nke oji n’aka o

        Chorus:     odughu aga l’ukwu ede,

              Agba ya hiom, agba ya hiororom.

 

        Solo:       God, give every one of us a child

        Chorus:    eeeh eeeh

        Solo:        God, father, give every one of us a child

        Chorus:    eeeh eeeh, eeeh eeeh

        Solo:       that she who has none in hand

        Chorus:    she does not go to the cocoyam root

             twisting it hiom, twisting it hiororom

 

‘Hiom’, and ‘Hiororom’ are onomatopoeic expressions referring to the sound of attempting to harvest an ill-matured cocoyam tuber. The story behind this song is that there were once two co-wives in a polygamous family. One of the wives had many children, while the other had none. The two women would plant their cocoyams and soon after, even before the tubers had time to mature, the woman with many children would be harvesting them to feed her crowd. This earned her a lot of criticism from her co-wife who taunted her, saying, ‘woman, allow your cocoyam tubers to mature, please’. The woman with many children felt that the woman’s taunts were not worth dignifying with a response, instead she prayed to God to give the woman a child, and let them see if she too would not harvest ill-matured tubers to feed her child if need be.

 

Whenever this song rises, it is performed thoughtfully and with sensitivity to the feelings of the women among them who have no children of their own. It is performed with sincerity, for God to bless them with children too, for it is considered far better to have a child and suffer to raise it than to be childless.

 

Whatever Igbo community anyone come from, celebrations like these would generally be recognisable, although the songs performed may be different, but usually they would raise the communal sensibilities in such a way that all the people attending the joyful occasion are reminded of their collective and individual responsibilities towards children – the future of their communities.   

 

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