blessed mary of ubomiri

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
against the harsh traditions of her rural people at the turn of the 20th century in nigeria, mary nwanyiafor survives. how is her life related to the biblical virgin mary, and the historical mary slessor? this is a story of extreme perseverance and ultimate victory.

Submitted: October 25, 2016

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Submitted: October 25, 2016

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BLESSED MARY OF UBOMIRI

 

This year’s Mother’s Day (some months ago) would have gone the way of most of the previous ones for me – plain and ordinary- but for my remembrance of an event which happened about a year earlier, on Saturday 2nd May, 2015. Actually, this event can be traced to another which took place a very long time ago- in 1905.The setting was Umuabali, a quiet village in Ubomiri, which is a town in present day Imo State of Nigeria. As at that time, Ubomiri was still under the Old Owerri Zone.

It was the day that tiny Nwanyiafor, a girl child, was born. This would have passed as any other ordinary birth but for the ‘unfortunate’ fact that Nwanyiafor was a twin child. In those days in much of southern Nigeria, the birth of twins was regarded as a calamity certain to befall any community. This calamity could only be averted by – yes, you guessed it - the immediate destruction of those demon children. The mother of the twins was also made to go through a period of painful isolation and ‘cleansing’, for bringing into this world ‘the curse of the devil’.

And so to save at least one of their twins, some husbands who suspected their wives of carrying more than a baby (by the size of the bellies) would steal such wives into the forest many days before labour was due, to a pre-arranged spot where a discreet native midwife would come to take delivery of the babies. It would thereafter be the sad duty of the father to decide which of his twins (if they eventually came) to save, and later present to his community as his wife’s only delivery. What happened to the unfortunate twin is anybody’s guess.

Even though Nwanyiafor was lucky to be saved at birth by such intervention, her luck soon ran out as her parents’ closely guarded secret was revealed to their community by one of their relatives. When the elders of the community later sought to correct this grave mistake, Nwanyiafor’s parents had no option than to seek refuge with her maternal people in the nearby village of Umuogboi. In the dead of the night therefore, somewhat like the Biblical Joseph and Mary smuggling baby Jesus away to Egypt, they made their way through the bush parts until they arrived at her uncle’s house in her mother’s village. However, unknown to them, the news of their evil luck had already preceded them to this village. Hence, without any hesitation, the uncle (a titled man) immediately turned them away as demanded by tradition.

What were they to do next?

The Igbo have a saying that; when a person is driven out by his kinsmen, his next option is to seek refuge in his maternal home. There were no ‘cosmopolitan’ cities available at that time to hide runaway fugitives. Having failed to obtain asylum in this place therefore, Nwanyiafor’s parents headed with her into the inviting arms of the forest. This action may today seem totally inconceivable to our ‘modern’ minds, with all the creature-comforts of our present existence. However, in those days the forest was the last resort for outcasts and fugitives who could no longer be tolerated in the midst of a closely-knit community.

The fugitive family quickly settled down as best as it could in the new environment, and made cautious contact with the outside world only for the most vital things which the forest did not provide.Perhaps the story of Nwanyiafor would have ended in this forest if another event had not taken place soon after.

The Intervention of the Catholic Church

Years before the coming of the Catholic Mission to Emekuku (about 15km  from Ubomiri), rumour already had it that a certain ‘white witch’ was courageously moving through the thick communities of the country’s far east (today’s Calabar and Uyo areas), and saving twins as well as abandoned babies from the collective death sentence passed on them by local tradition. This ‘witch’ was connected to a foreign religion (Christianity) which was not bound by the dictates of the local customs. The presence of the church within reach therefore presented an array of hope for Nwanyiafor and her parents.

Soon after making secret contacts with the Emekuku Church, Nwanyiafor’s parents arranged to hand her over to the Missionary Sisters for adoption and protection. Thus, fate led Nwanyiafor into the church to prepare her for the great challenges ahead. She went on to spend fifteen years in this protective environment and was subsequently baptized in the year 1920. She was given the privilege, as was common in those days, to choose a baptismal name for herself. She chose the name Mary, after the biblical Virgin Mary.

Again, Mary’s story might have ended happily-ever-after in the Catholic Mission, if she had not returned back to her parents in Umuabali soon after her baptism, when her life was no longer in danger. 

While no longer living under threat, Mary could not entirely shake off the lingering stigma over the circumstances of her birth. Thus, while girls of her age were happily getting married to ready young men, suitors from her town and around kept their distances from her. Mary endured this neglect until the ‘advanced’ age of twenty five when finally a young and relatively liberated man named Ukachi Ekeocha, from the nearby Umuogbaka village came to ask her hand in marriage. You can imagine the speed with which her parents gave their consent.

Young Ukachi was already a thriving second generation herbalist in his village to whom many of the sick came for a cure. His area of specialization was child care which, in today’s modern world, would have made him a pediatrician. His love for Mary, regardless of her birth status, was the only thing he treasured above his medical practice. And so Ukachi (the herbalist) and Mary (the Rosary girl) were ready to take on their world together.

It was not long after living together as a couple that Mary took in for the first time. As the months rapidly went by, Ukachi could not hide his apprehension as his wife’s tummy extended to a suspiciously large size. On the day Mary went into labour, Ukachi and his relatives waited anxiously outside his mud house while the native midwife and other women attended to Mary inside. It wasn’t long before the shrill voice of a new born baby was heard- to the relief of all.

As happy prayers started pouring out of the lips of the people gathered outside however, a scream from within the house soon cut into the evening breeze - sending chills down everyone’s spine. The unthinkable had happened. Mary had just had a set of twins!

Mary and her new born babies, together with Ukachi, were immediately taken by the chief priest of the community and his assistants into the ‘evil’ forest reserved for such desecrators of the land. Here the babies were both buried alive, and Mary banished for three weeks into a hut put up in this forest for the cleansing purpose. Ukachi was the only one permitted to visit his wife and provide food for her throughout this period. He consoled her as much as he could. She would give him a strong son the next time, he predicted confidently.

Sure enough, after about a year, Mary was pregnant again. This time, Ukachi consulted all the gods of his ancestors to solicit for his wife’s safe delivery of that single boy child he was so looking forward to. Not to be outdone by her husband, Mary continually recited all the Catholic prayers and supplications which had been part of her every-day life as a Covent child. There was no room for the ‘devil’ this time.

Soon, the nine months were over and again Mary was inside Ukachi’s hut with the midwife and others, to await her fate. Unlike the first time when he paced endlessly outside his hut; Ukachi had decided to share his suspense this second time with his two best friends- and a calabash of palm wine, under a shed some distance away. He had left instructions with his little nephew to come quickly with news, as soon as the midwife gave it. The drinking thereafter started smoothly.

It was not until two hours later, with no appearance of the little nephew- and after their third calabash- that the three friends came to the conclusion that something was not right. Minutes later, walking as quickly as possible- without running, they arrived at Ukachi’s compound to see a crowd outside his hut. One look at people’s faces confirmed his worst fears. Rushing inside, he saw his dejected wife sobbing quietly on the floor at a corner. She was surrounded by three other weeping women. They were inconsolable.

A passage in the Bible aptly captures the scene:

“In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning.   Rachael weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not”. Matt. 2: 18 (KJV)

Mary went through the same cleansing ritual as the first time. It was not easy for her. For the next six months she was in the land of the living dead, slipping frequently in and out of delirium. Many times in this state of mind people heard her talking to her imaginary twin babies and reaching out to cuddle their ‘ghost’. Mary also prayed openly for God to end her miserable life rather than put her through such anguish and disappointment again. It was therefore not surprising that Ukachi soon came under intense pressure from his extended family members to send away his ‘possessed’ wife and marry another while still young.

Ukachi was however a man ahead of his time and did not bow to this pressure. What he did rather was to throw himself fully into his medical practice which was flourishing, even as his sorrow heightened. It remains unclear whether it was by choice or by chance, but his wife did not take in again for the next three years. Thus, after more than five years of marriage, the couple still had no living children of their own. This was unimaginable.

When Mary finally missed her period again after the years, she was not ready to make it known to her husband at first. Her immediate feelings were a mixture of fear and hope. Fear as she constantly relived her two previous ordeals in her mind, and hope that her past might be over finally.

It is said that a very bad experience in life is nothing but happenstance. A similar experience the next time may be nothing more than a coincidence. What if the same terrible experience occurs to the same person for the third time in a row? Enemy action, or a curse?

When Mary had her third set of twins in a row, the entire community was dumbfounded. This level of misfortune had never befallen any other woman in their living memory. “A curse”- they all agreed. Therefore, for an incredible third time, her new born children were taken away from her, never to be seen again. Ukachi, her husband, was too entrenched in the native tradition and custom to seek the protection of the Catholic Mission which by then had spread its presence to Ubomiri, unlike his father-in-law many years before. Nor were there any ‘Mary Slessors’ in Ubomiri at this time to take a combatant stand (beyond the early church’s passive opposition) against this ignorant practice. And so Mary, the victim, died many times all over- and came back to life again. Finally, she resolved to die first rather than let anyone take her children from her the next time.

Life went on for the couple, and they tried as much as possible to ignore the scarcely veiled hostility of the community towards them. Their social status was little more than that of outcasts. Mary, though only in her early-thirties, was already considered an aged witch without children; at a time when most women were done with child bearing before turning twenty five. As a result of this state of affairs, Ukachi’s practice suffered so much that he could no longer rely on it to sustain his family. He was therefore forced to concentrate more on the commonest profession of the day - subsistence farming. Mary combined her own farm work with petty trading to make ends meet.

The years rolled by very quickly.

And so it was that at the mature age of thirty four years Mary became pregnant for the fourth time. Before this time most people had written her chances of ever having any more children off, preferring to believe that the gods had finally shut off her womb for polluting the land with so many twin births. Ukachi’s concern however had more to do with the physical ability of his wife to carry another set of twins (most likely), for nine months at such an advanced age, without any help from the ladies of the village who all kept away from them. He therefore resolved to be her constant companion throughout this trying period. Much of their time was spent between their home and the farm where, like most other villagers, they had a small resting shed.

It was on one cool morning (after trekking at their usual snail’s pace) that Mary arrived at the farm with her husband to discover to her amazement that her water had broken. This wasn’t supposed to happen until the next fortnight, she cried! Quickly, Ukachi laid her down on a wrapper he hurriedly spread on the floor of their farm shed, as he screamed for help from anyone in the surrounding farms. After a few minutes that seemed more like hours to him, a village woman emerged from the brushes to be greeted by a sight she least expected. Mary was in the early stages of labour right there on the farm ground. At that very moment, this woman forgot all the negative thoughts she had accumulated over the past years about Mary, and let her natural feminine instincts take over.

Without any hesitation, the woman went into the midwifery mode even as her own screams for more help overtook Ukachi’s. Gradually, a few other women and men appeared from the corners of the farmland to assist. The women formed a screen around Mary with their outer wrappers, while the men had Ukachi sit down on a tree branch some meters away. The waiting game was on!

The minutes passed very slowly.

When the first scream of a baby rent the air some fifteen minutes later, not one person there jumped up in ecstasy. They all knew Mary’s routine too well to start jubilating too soon. Surely, the second baby would follow in the next few minutes. In accord with their collective thinking, the emergency midwife gently started feeling Mary’s still swollen belly with her hands to confirm the existence of another baby. The space under was hollow. She did that several times over before bursting into a local song of joy. Mary only had a baby girl this time! The few men and women in the farm on that fateful day destroyed not a small amount of cassava plants, as they pranced about in total abandonment!

The news was all over the village before the party of singing men and women, which was quickly growing into a crowd, finally made it back to Ukachi’s compound. Not surprisingly therefore, the elders of the village named the baby Adaoha meaning; ‘daughter of all’. Adaoha became Mary’s redemption.With the coming of Adaoha, life gradually returned to normal for her parents, and Ukachi was able to resume his abandoned medical practice all over.

Once again, Mary’s story might have ended at this point just like any other village woman with a very sad past, in the early 20th Century Eastern Nigeria, had fate not played yet another trick on her.

Mary became pregnant for the fifth time, five years after having Adaoha Ekeocha, at the unthinkable age of forty years. Ukachi quickly got ready for his next baby or babies (whichever it might be). He wasn’t taking any chances with what he very much suspected to be his wife’s last pregnancy. He desperately needed to have a boy! He therefore sent Mary and his daughter to stay with her close relatives in Umuabali, away from the prying eyes of his own people.

For decades to come, some of Ukachi’s kinsmen would still swear that Mary had only a boy from this last pregnancy while in Umuabali, as announced to them by him. They had good reason to believe this after all. Had she not had a single girl in their own village before this time? Uzoma, as the boy was later named, was however born a twin in the secrecy of his mother’s family. His other twin did not live to contradict the family’s story.

Ukachi was determined to secure his son’s life as much as possible. Times had changed quite a bit by then, especially with the steady conversion of more indigenes to Christianity. The church however could not yet actively prohibit the continued slaughtering of twins in the name of tradition, all over such a vast area. He knew that as long as there remained a significant portion of his community still steeped in this ignorant tradition, he could not guarantee the safety of the boy, should the truth become known.

He therefore let Mary remain in Umuabali with his son, while he moved his daughter, Adaoha, to Umuna, to stay with a distant uncle. The children were not to be reunited with their parents in their own village of Umuogbaka again for the next ten long years.

What do you tell a woman who has had nine successful births from five pregnancies, but is now left with only two surviving children- who even at that, must live in exile for many years to come? Especially when she knows very well that her ordeal was brought about entirely by the very people she calls her own?

Ukachi continued his life quietly in Umuogbaka village, while Mary continued her petty trading to support her and her son in their self-imposed exile. When the last of the die-hard traditionalist passed away and the British colonial government had finally outlawed the heinous practice (under pressure from all the missionaries in the area), Ukachi was able to bring his family back home. The kids were virtually strangers to each other, having had very limited physical contact all through the past years. There was definitely a lot of bonding to be done in the years ahead.

While still living outside their village, the children had been fortunate to attend the new free schools set up by the churches for their host communities. It was not uncommon in those days to see a few mothers (who were still largely unconvinced about the future benefits of the white man’s education) pulling along their reluctant eight to ten year old children to these schools for registration. When they therefore returned home, Mary took them both to the village mission school to continue their education. They were also at about this time both baptized in the Catholic Church, with Adaoha given the English name Patricia while Uzoma was renamed Thomas.

Patricia, now a teenager, was later to leave the village for the big city of Lagos to stay with her Uncle Anthony (who was among the earliest from the whole of Ubomiri town to migrate to Lagos). There she continued her education while Thomas remained in the village.

Was Mary’s fate finally changing for the better?

In 1964, while still in Lagos, Adaoha met and married (with the blessing of her parents) a gentleman from Eziobodo, a town also in present day Imo State. Over the next thirteen years thereafter they went on to have seven children- four boys and three girls. None is a twin. Could it be that Mary’s silent prayers to God all through those early years of anguish – to permanently abolish the birth of twins in her family- was finally being answered? Surely Thomas, himself a twin, would not escape this fate.

Mary’s negative fate was definitely on the retreat; but it had one final blow in store for her.

In 1973, Mama Mary (as she had come to be known, being a grandmother and all) lost her pillar of support and husband, Ukachi Ekeocha. The major regret she had about his passing was that he didn’t live to see his dear son also give him grandsons- grandsons to guarantee the continuation of his direct lineage. After all, Patricia’s sons could never be considered to be from his village, Umuogbaka, under the tradition.

Thomas got married in 1984 to a girl from- of all places- also Eziobodo town. It was not a pure coincidence. He had met this girl on one of his numerous trips to his brother-in-law’s town. What was a coincidence however was that Mather, as she is named, turned out to be a twin also!  Their marriage evened up the scores for the two towns. Ubomiri had earlier given their daughter to Eziobodo, and Eziobodo now reciprocated with a daughter of theirs to Ubomiri. Fair deal.

Thomas has three sons as well as a daughter, and-you guessed it again- none is a twin. Statisticians know very well the near certainty of a couple (who are themselves separate twins) to have twin children of their own. But Thomas and Mather do not have any twins.

If we ended Mama Mary’s story here, we could say that her fate had eventually changed completely, and that God had finally rewarded her fully. But there is still a little more.

“And the angel came in unto her and said, Hail, thou art highly favoured, the Lord is with  thee: blessed art thou among women”. St. Luke 1:28 (KJV)

Mama Mary was nearly seventy years old when her husband passed on, but you could easily mistake her for a woman twenty years younger. She was at peace with herself and everyone around her, and little did anyone (not even her grand children) know what she had passed through in her early life. She bore no bitterness against anyone. On a regular basis, she was among the first to call on any new mother in Umuogbaka village and around, bearing precious gifts. For any birth of twins, Mama Mary went out of her way to provide for the new babies as much as she could. She would carry each twin in turn in her hands while blessing them through her tearful prayers. Only the occasional elderly person in such gatherings understood the depth of her emotions- and they would invariable echo her prayers.

Mama Mary rarely had to go to any hospitals for treatment, because she was hardly ever sick, and in her old age enjoyed nothing better than tending her vegetable garden. She was clean both inside and outside. She could not stand the presence of dirt or weed around her children’s houses, and had to be physically restrained from continually cleaning her environment.

Mama Mary lived long enough to see the progress of her two children, eleven grand children and fifteen great grand children.  It was therefore something of a carnival when the entire extended family decided in 2012 to celebrate her with a thanksgiving church service- in her beloved St. Mary Catholic Church Ubomiri- which was concluded with a feast.

Mama Mary continued to be an ambassador of peace and joy for the next three years after this celebration before finally slipping away peacefully in her sleep on April 3, 2015.  She had lived to be 110 years old. This was more than enough time to recover all that she had earlier lost during a very ignorant period of our history. 

And so, as I sat there in our family living room reflecting on this year’s Mother’s Day celebration, I also thought of the burial of my dear departed granny, Mama Mary, which had taken place last year on 2nd May, 2015.

 

Okey Chinedum Nnorom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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