I do not suppose that any one will ever accuse the Nkorseh of having invented comedy in any form or even dabbling in the thing. But , ah, you say, we have some of the best story tellers of any time and from time immemorial, and some of these stories, designed to actually be funny or intentionally slanted for levity have been told with much gusto and alacrity for centuries. Some of us even grew up in the villages with family members and friends who, given the right exposure would give Eddy Murphy, Bob Hope or John Stewart a run for their money. True true but for the most part though, the Nkorseh is stoic, resolute, austere and stern. In fact rarely does a “strong Nkorseh” allow himself a wanton smile or “foolish laughter” in public. A giggly personality is frowned upon as simple mindedness, weakness and worse. For women, the interpretation is worse. Tt is seen as loose, unbecoming, and even lascivious.
That hard imagery however conveniently gels into congenial bonhomie when the appropriate occasion calls for it. There is of course no stage or platform from which our people deadpan, deliver one liners, barbs and zingers. We however manage to weave a great measure of fun into evening family and friendship gatherings around the fireplace, occasions like birth or even death celebrations, marriage or any form of Ngandu or “celebration”. Singing and dancing are to be found a plenty but the purpose of my write up will focus on the Mbwe’en which actually means expression of joy.
This formal expression of joy is so fixed in tradition, delivery and substance that only a few daring citizens manage to engage in the enterprise any time n their life time. For those who become proficient in the exercise, special adulation, reverence, honor and no small measure of celebrity is fostered upon them.
Like many things steeped in cultural delivery and style, men and women perform mbwe’en differently as they are so designed. For men especially, you have to get into the mindset of coming out of the almost natural Ekorseh nature of public deservedness, simplicity, even shyness and disdain for truculent self aggrandizement. This means that you must almost engage or even challenge another equally willing and able man already known to be able to stand his ground in this shameless exercise in self approbation boastfulness and wise cracking. You may not challenge just any one. You must know that the person you invite to the Mbwe’en is already willing and able to be proficient in the cultural iconoclastic endeavor.
The men so engaged are given an entire floor or the whole village as their stage. The entire length and breath of the area is then allocated to the two who then go on to sing praises to themselves and or one another, in such a manner as to invite attention, admiration, happiness and in the grand scheme of things, a wonderful celebration of the very best in our culture. All names, tittles, and accomplishments great and small, ever earned or even just pulled out of thin air, in childhood or adulthood are dug from the deep and pronounced with great fan fare upon one another. Some of it may even be a little self deprecation, but you must deliver the lines with songlike fluidity and craftsmanship.
You recite your lines while ever so frequently whacking the air with your traditional broom, for imaginary bothersome flies. You strut around the designated grounds occasionally adjusting your traditional loin cloth, (senzeh), and traditional bag or (ebam) as though it was loaded down with pieces of eight ostridge eggs and gold nuggets.
You may go around the village or designated hall as many times as it would take to finish what ever you have to recite. However, each time you meet the other man, you must acknowledge one another with the traditional handshake in its entire cultural splendor before moving on, continuing your recitation as though you were never interrupted. The whole exercise ends when both men have exhausted their recitations in almost songlike fashion, meet again, repeat the handshake and this time raise each other’s hands as though in victory. Usually this whole thing is greeted with a well deserved even spontaneous cheers and great applause, especially in today’s Bekorseh communities in the Diaspora.
As a Nkorseh boy grew up (I do not know about today), time was, an older brother, an uncle or even dad himself would tell you about the dreaded event of yourcircumcision, the birds and the bees and prepare your mind for the whole thing. How Mbwe’en is not taken that seriously probably speaks to the Nkorseh’s almost natural proclivity for the austere. For many who must eek out a living under the harshest of circumstances, Mbwe’en may wrongly be relegated to the back as a needless exercisein worthless frivolity. In reality it may more qualify as a regrettable error and parental dereliction of duty. So few today are any good at this, even in the village, that this cultural icon is in active danger of extinction. That would be a shame.
The female Mbwe’en usually begins with the formal delivery of great news. During a Ngandu, or even a gathering, there may be an announcement that there is a special favor granted to all women for instance. That a long awaited birth has been reported, or that a child has done well in this or that great endeavor. The call then goes for “a beloboh Nso’oooooooooooooohhhhhh”, followed by a response of oh nsoh oh nsoh oh nsoh oh nsoh oh! In the great excitement of the moment, two women call on one another and take off on a ceremonial run, runningdown the village or hall reciting praises, extollingjoyful incantations related to the good news persons and or celebration at hand. Other women may join in and do another end run to a given destination and back, but invariably, they all return to the gathering and there a chorus of “oh nso oh nso oh nsoh oh” is heard, ending with great laughter and or applause. These days, it seems that the women mbwe’en is even less visible in occasions, possibly because our women are even more reserved than our men. Generally speaking too, in Ekorseh today, there is an almost superfluous report of deaths through out the land, a matter that deserves its own write up. There is hardly time for “joyful celebration” as death and hardship are far too rampant.
The opposite of mbwe’en of course is Nsellan or quarrel. Nsellan also can and has been raised to a delirious art form. The Nkorseh has generally never been a violent type and while there is plenty of folklore that gives wrestling great prominence in our culture, violent fights even today are an unwelcome rarity. Nsellan in its art form involves no fisticuffs or even pushing and shoving. Two grown men, most times friends, just start out in a low key disagreement during a conversation. They gradually up the ante in tone, get into each other’s craw, and rise to their feet. The whole thing degenerates into barking, just like dogs do. They get out of the original setting, for minutes on end, walking side by side, and yelling and gesticulating towards one another. They bark out insults, grudges, debts owed and never repaid failures real and imagined, ugly names that lay dormant since childhood, and any form of disgrace ever suffered or just imagined is recounted to the entertainment of the whole village. In the end, the two simply part ways and Sumter off in opposite directions, murmuring under their breaths. There are no crowds but all villagers pay attention in their homes. And if one did not hear it then, no sooner do they return from the farm or market, than the whole episode is recounted to them with more detail and alacrity than even the initial serving.
A visitor to Ekorseh even today will find a generally friendly, pleasant and peaceful if poor people. A once fertile black volcanic soil now yields less and less in agriculture. Most people eek out a living growing cocoa and coffee for cash along side food crops like cocoyams, plantains, bananas, and assorted roots and vegetables. Meet and fish are scarce as excessive poaching and uncontrolled hunting has depleted the forest of once easily harvestable “bush meat” in all its rich variety. The few streams and rivers or lakes, never really the source of much fish, Frogs and tad poles are now polluted. The effects of global warming are visible everywhere as small rivers dry out right before our eyes, living only empty valleys. Stories of real hunger now abound in the once great land of plenty. Lack of a viable road infrastructure migration of youths away from the villages, an aging population and the ravages of decease have left the land quite desolate. Ekosseh is today hardly a place where folks are known to crack jokes, and have a great time with any real ease or frequency. These however are some of the hardiest folk on earth as people are still able to live off the land in relative ease compared to many a place as rural as the land of our ancestors, Ekorseh. It remains for many of us paradise on earth, no matter what. It’s still the place where old stories are told with rib cracking delivery and where friends and family still have the best of times. It will be home sweet home for ever, the land where I for one hope to spend my eternity.
By Joel E. Kalle