ESAN SOCIAL ETIQUETTE


By DR. CHRISTOPHER G. OKOJIE, OPR:

A.   ACTS OF RESPECT:

Esan people are very polite ethnic group and as would be expected from a people wedded to kinship in all their activities, and the constant fear of causing the ire of the departed spirits, they are very constitutional and have a great respect for old age and traditions.

(1) CHILDREN TO PARENTS:

Children with good manners never called their parents by their names; the father was ABA or BABA while the mother went by INENEN or IYIONMEN or INEN. 

(2) WIFE TO HUSBAND:

Wives never referred to their husbands by name. Esan did not have the Yoruba or Ibo custom of calling a man by a name derived from a combination of the first child's name and the word father in the native tongue, for example, a man whose first child was ITUA would be called BABITUA. In Esan if a wife was asked to call the husband she would walk up to him and say, “you are called”, rather than shout at his name. She invariably referred to the husband as OLE (Him).

Similarly, juniors, particularly children, if well bred, never referred to their elders by name; it would be the height of rudeness for a young man to ask an older man for his name, whether the young person intended to call the name or not. I very well remember an incident which made this custom indelible in my mind. It was at the Out-patient Department of the Zuma Memorial Hospital. The nurse in attendance was a very intelligent girl of 17. As patients came she asked for their names which she wrote on their cards - quite a routine affair. But one morning in trotted an old man of about seventy (70) propped up on his help-mate, the Okpo. “Give me paper, my child”, he said fatherly. “Where do you come from?” demanded the nurse.

“Eilu, my child”

“What is your name?” went on the nurse innocently.

The old man took one long look at the girl, shuddered and exclaimed, ‘O - O - O - O! Is that your way here?” He then told the bewildered girl that the name was Ehizojie. The next question brought a reaction which to the onlookers could have been produced by the girl landing a blow on the old man's hairless head. The question was logically the next-that should follow if the nurse were to write the man's full name, but to the old man it was the last straw in the series of rude questions by a mere ‘child’! The question the innocent girl asked ignorant of Esan custom was “And your father's name?”

“A MIEN OBHEBHE!” (This's another!), exclaimed the exasperated aged man. You asked for my name which was bad enough; I told you and now you want to know the name of my father! I can't remember when I had that relative!” So saying he went out in a huff!

(3) ON DRINKING WATER:

When an elder, a chief or a father was drinking water or wine, the junior onlookers rubbed their hands together saying ‘GBE SE SE, GBE SE SE!’ if they were female, but the male members of the gathering, using the right hand on the left, flipped the left little finger against the palm to produce a snapping noise. A wife knelt down to give water and drinks to the husband.

A big man or an elder did not take his cup of palm wine straight from the server - a junior had to mouth, it first! Sometimes, as a result of many juniors anxious, to show their respect having 'mouthed it' round, the cup was as good as empty, by the time he handled it! Yet he never complained since in Esan custom it was a big disgrace for an elder or a big man to grumble or show greed as regards food:

(4) SNEEZING:

Sneezing was believed to be due to some distant person having called the name of the sneezer, most probably, for bad. When a person sneezed therefore, those around cried out “Not You!” Some greeted him with “Welcome” If it was a junior who sneezed, he gave the general greeting to those around, according to the sneezer's sex.
All this is akin to the Whiteman’s “bless you!”

(5) KOLANUTS:

You might later give a man even a wife, but there was one thing in Esan custom the host must first do to show the guest that he was welcome to the house: that was the presentation of kolanuts. There were customary ways of doing this; after repeated OBOKHIAN (welcome) the host apologized for the scarcity of kolanuts, and almost immediately, a boy or a wife came along with the nuts, just said to be so rare as to be unavailable! As soon as this happened a gathering which hither-to might have been well behaved or shy, was suddenly animated; there was bound to be some argument, however the host or members in the gathering might know the custom. Often the arguments were noisy enough to make a stranger to Esan wonder if the people in the gathering had not been thirsty for one another's blood! The reason was to be found in Esan custom: if the people in the gathering were natives of the same district, the oldest had the prerogative of breaking the nuts; of course he had to be a man; a woman however old would not attempt to break these nuts before men! Everybody knew these provisions but what most people did not know, particularly if the people came from different villages of the same district, was how to tell who was the oldest man in the gathering. Since there was no registration of birth, it took: a long time and much shaking of clenched fists to go through the wars fought or the forests farmed when each member was born! Any wonder at the acrimonious arguments!

At last order was restored and someone was finally agreed to be the oldest and to him the kolanuts were taken. He, amidst blessings first for the host, then for those in the gathering and finally for himself, broke one of the nuts, usually two to five in each nut broken. A piece was given to the host first before everybody took his piece according to seniority; the man to whom fell the honour of breaking the kolanuts pocketed or ‘bagged’ the unbroken nut (ODION KHA VA O KOKOLO!) a nice way of saying he must have a reward for his labour.

 But if the gathering was made up of men from different districts, the order of breaking was known to two 'degrees': if a Bini was present he automatically had to break the kolanuts. If no such person was present and an Irrua man was present, he had the undisputed right to deal with the gift. This right came to every Irrua man irrespective of his age by virtue of the Ojirrua being the Okaijesan, leader of Esan Enijie, when they assembled, here in Esan and at the Palace in Benin City.

I have striven without success to find out what was the order when in a gathering of Esan there were no Bini or Irrua people. What I have found to obtain is confused and selfish. The answer I got to the question, who came next to Irrua, told me the identity of the man answering the question. All Uromi men invariably told me it was Uromi, while Ekpoma swore it was Ekpoma. Frankly I found in-conclusive evidence to be able to place the order of merit. As it were, amongst Uromi, Ekpoma and Ewohimi. Suffice it to say that the order after Irrua, depended upon the strength of the ruling Onojie in each of these towns, and hence it would be correct to say that no such order of precedence existed. (See cutting of kolanut tree).

(6) PALM WINE 

This had to be served in a gathering strictly according to age, and with the same cup, of course. If a man was given a cup for fear of offending the departed spirits he carefully checked around to be sure he was not drinking before those who were his seniors. Elders often asked a loved junior to have a sip before he drank what was left. The last cup from the calabash (the server strove to be able to have just a full cup at the end) was brought to the most elderly of the gathering, with the announcement that everything was now in order. The server was then blessed and asked to have a mouthful before the old man drank off the remaining with the debris! Really the last few drops were for the departed spirits.

 There was a custom which regulated what to do with the empty calabash of wine. The empty calabash had to be 'downed', that is, it must be placed on its side as soon as it was empty. It must never be left standing, empty! This arose from the hospitality of Esan people. If a gathering was sitting over a keg of palm wine and visitors who might be total strangers came in they had to be served. If the calabash had been emptied and was left standing, late comers might think there was something still left and that the people were just down right inhospitable. That would hurt the kind spirit of the Esan man; therefore no room must be left for such a mistake and so custom decreed that all empty calabashes must be placed flat.

(7) THE PIPE:

Benin Brass Smoking Pipe
The well known Esan pipe was the Pipe of Friendship, the long pipe called OBO - 000. It was a communal affair for after it had been fired', a job usually done by the youngest in the gathering or a small boy in the house it was smoked starting from the senior and working down the scale. Each man limited his enjoyment to one long pull! Spread of infection? - Diseases were the evil work of witches and angry departed spirits! A word of caution about the 'one long pull' - Osemen a bune re ighogho obodo gbe oria (since you know you are allowed only one pull, if you try to cheat - the smoke will choke you).

(8) PRESENTS:

Non – Esan are often caught by these. If an Esan brought you presents for example; yams, or palm wine, he expected some thanks in the form of money or in kind. It would be the duty of the man to whom the presents were brought to quietly assess the value of the presents and show ‘YOUR APPRECIATION’ by giving something higher, when the visitor was leaving. In most cases it was a form of trade!

B. GREETINGS:

The Esan people had forms of salutations to suit the morning or evening and according to sex. Juniors always greeted their seniors first. It was a mockery for an elder to greet erring junior first. Usually the women except the aged, greeted the men first.

The all hour greeting for men was KHARA which translated literarily was meaningless. The nearest translation is "Be a thief". From a prolonged research I found that though the Binis have a similar salutation for the Oba - "Ghara Omo!”, they have no translation for the GHARA, I am inclined to think that it was a corrupt form of the Yourba 'RORAO!' (Be careful!). To a strange Esan ear this might have sounded as RARA O! which is not too far from KHARA O! This is certainly more understandable than a junior, however mannerless, seeing his senior during the day advising him to please be a thief when as a matter of fact practically every Esan greeting is a form of blessing or praise; Khara could be used by a man any time of the day or night. But in places like Ekpoma, Irrua, Ugbegun, Opoji etc it was the salutation of choice by men after the evening meal, akin to the Bini 'KADA'.

1.      MORNING SALUTATION

(a) MEN:

Morning salutation differed according to Esan Districts; men from Ekpoma, Opoji, Irrua, Ewu, Ugbegun, Ubiaja, Ewohimi and Ebelle greeted with AESAN! This was from LA ESAN meaning "Hail Esan"! Some people said that the word came from Benin salutation for and by the members of the Ezomo LAIJESAN. Some others said the salutation followed one Ezomo who did all he could to have a male child, he finally married an Esan woman who bore him a male child. In jubilation the entire Ezomo family decided to start greeting him with Laijesan - a blessing to Esan. Actually he came to have this specific salutation because he was the intermediary for many of the Esan Enijie, particularly those of Ewohimi District, thus he was more closely connected with Esan Enijie than most chiefs in Benin hence his salutation of Laijesan which was “may it please you, king of Esan!”

Men in Ugboha, Emu etc say Ranea or Aanea which was derived from the sentence UKHA SE EA which literally means "You will reach Three". Every Esan man prays to be quite old before he dies. In Esan old men were known by their dreaded Okpo. The very old ones could not walk or stand without this Okpo, thus it appeared as if they had three legs. So by praying for one that he will reach the age when he will need a THIRD leg one was giving him the best blessings possible.

(b) WOMEN:

Morning salutation for women varied a great deal throughout Esan depending also upon the derivation of the woman's family. Most of the greetings were brought down by the early immigrants from our city of origin, Benin where depending upon the family they greeted with Lagite, Latese, Layen, Lavbe, Lani, Lavbatue, Lahe, Lagiesan, Lavbieze, Lamogun, Lagbede, Laloke, Labo, Loani, Lagiewan, Laso etc. As the different people in one town could possibly hail from different parts of Benin, it is not surprising to see women from different quarters in an Esan village giving different morning salutations. The common one was DO EIJIE in Ekpoma, Irrua, Ewu and Uromi. Lamogun or Labhojie in Ugboha and Ubiaja areas. Laijesan in Ewohimi, LA-HO OMOGUN OR LA-HO OBHIOJIE meaning may it please you, Oba or Prince. These royalty salutations were used for and by those who descended from the Royal Family of Benin. Ebelle and Emu women greeted with LA-BO or 'please doctor' which shows that such families descended from native doctors. Uromi women apropos to the kind heart of Uromi people, with DIJIE, U WELE and go further with EBURE KO UHONMON WELE? (Greetings, did you sleep well?" and adding, "bid your pillow have a rest?").

Obviously a man who had a bad nightmarish night would be the man whose pillow would have suffered the greatest tossing and squeezing.

Many women use DOEJIE as a common all hour salutation even though the correct time was morning. Some, particularly amongst the older ones, greeted with just AIJIE missing out this common Esan salutation of "DO".

2.     AFTERNOON SALUTATIONS

To elders and acquaintances men greeted with KHARA while both sexes to other people gave the common greeting of 00-01 or merely OBOKHIAN (welcome) if the person was returning from anywhere- farm, market or from a walk. When a man was a stranger or a visitor to a compound an "0" was added, to the Common male greeting - KHARA O! If the person being greeted was an adult male, the visitor could say KHARA ABA.

3.     EVENING SALUTATIONS

After evening meal it was incumbent for all subordinates like children and women to salute. Boys stamped one foot on the ground and told their father KHARA without the O! The evening greeting for females varied a great deal. Girls said in Ugboha and Ubiaja DEKELE, all other females said Agbon Omon Ware! (You will be blessed with children!). In Igueben it is Airani, Riabo in Ewohimi for women in the evening. In Ebelle, after evening meal, women saluted with Usiomon Khi Sie! (May you be fruitful) while in Emu it was Ikhikhugbe-e which really is Uukhigbe-e (May death not kill you!). Though in most of Esan 'A' Boys greeted as above Khara! In Ugboha males, after evening meal, say Omonkhabho (May the children live!) Sometimes these greetings were varied; a question might replace the common and usual greetings as, We ele? (Did you sleep?) Since a junior should 'greet a senior first, an affectionate senior could help out an erring junior with this type of question. This was very common with parents and when so prompted, the erring junior realised his fault and immediately gave his greeting.

4. ENDING SENTENCES

This was another act of respect practiced in Esan. It consisted of repeating the end or helping to end sentences. Usually the speaker was' a person the-listener very much respected or was very shy before him. It is a trait of very timid and nervous people, always anxious to please.

C. EMERGENCY CRIES AND SIGNIFICANCE

In the olden Esan custom every member of the community, as has been seen, was like a finger of the hand, it gripped or loosened with the other fingers of the hand. One man's concern was every villager's matter. Death of one man in a quarter meant mourning and abstention from work or market by all members of the village.

A call for help was answered by the whole able-bodied community. These calls were often peculiar to a particular district and only members of that area knew the significance. When such a call came the whole village acted with an uncanny understanding which would leave a stranger bewildered. This element of secret understanding was of vital significance for it enable the community to escape from an over-whelming enemy or repel an attacker, without the stranger knowing that the sounds being emitted connoted specific sentences for which there were specific group reactions. These cries were our own form of talking drum as it were!

There were some of these group calls that were universal in Esan and some were peculiar to some districts.

(1) GENERAL CALL OF ALERTNESS OR EMERGENCY:

The cry was OKHOKHO-OGO-O! Sometimes all the 'KH' were replaced with 'G' throughout. On hearing this sound all must stop and listen for the specific cries that would follow. This cry is in Esan described generally as OGBE EGOGO URULUA (He has opened the bell of the voice!). Irresponsible use of it was punished with a goat slaughtered against the alarmist.

(2) FIRE! OKHOKHO -.OGO –O! IRU!

On hearing this last part of the alarm every grown up male snatched his cutlass and must make for the direction from which the cries were coming; a fire must be put out!

(3) DANGER! EKHE HKE EKE - E!



(4) THIEVES! UGU - KHU -GU- U! OR EGE-KHE-GE - E!

The more excitable criers added GHE OYI! (It is a thief!). On bearing this cry all males must answer it and one answered it at once not by making for the direction from which the cries were coming but by snatching a sharp matchet or heavy cudgel and making a cut-through to the nearest road from the direction of the cries. Thus in a matter of minutes all possible roads to the site where the thief was seen were guarded. The reason for this is that the thief’s first reaction to an alarm is to put as much distance as possible between himself and the man raising the hue and cry! On hearing this cry therefore everybody knew that a thief was about the neighbourhood of the crier and since it was every good citizen's duty to help catch a thief the surest way was to make a bee-line for all the roads leading away from the alarmist an attempt to block the marauder's exit! Hence the correct way to answer this call was to go AWAY rather than TO the man crying.

(5) SUDDEN DEATH: OGOGO - KHOGO -O! HE-EHE! HEEHEI

This cry summoned everyone to the spot from which the cry came.

(6) SHOCKINGBAD NEWS: OGOGO-KHOGO- O! HEUI HEU!

And in Ekpoma area this alarm was heightened with OSE EWE –E On hearing this cry everybody made for the vicinity to demand what the news was about and to sympathize with the crier.

(7) SEVERE FIGHT: OGOGO - KHOGO – O! EA GBO NE EGBE –A!

This summoned all the he-men of the village to the spot to prevent the fighters from committing manslaughters!

(8) WIFE BEING BEATEN AT NIGHT! OGOGO OKHO – O!

All relatives had to go and save an unyielding woman at the hands of an irate husband.

(9) WAR! OGOGO - KHOGO O! OKHONLEN RELE! And in some places the word OKHONLEN (war) was never mentioned but people knew from the peculiar cry that they must put a safe distance between themselves and the alarmist. Yet another cry was ARAN - RAN - RAN AN! It needed urgent and imperative response from everybody.

(10) CALLING ALL EDION: OKHISEMENKHONLEN O!
This cry was ignored by the Igene and Egbonughelo but in a twinkle of an eye, wizened old men were seen tottering along from all directions of the village to the Okoughele or to the Odionwele's house: may be there was some goat flesh to be shared!

(11) CALLING THE HE-MEN OF THE VILLAGE:

OBOIGBAOTO - O!

On hearing this cry which might be given ' without actually pronouncing the words, all those above 60, if not already taking a long pull from their Obodo, reached for that pipe of peace, asked a small boy to load and light it, reclined on their beds and between puffs, ejaculated reminiscences "when the world WAS the world!" Meantime all the strong men of the village from thirty upward leapt like frogs to the village square!

(12) CALLING THE SCAVENGERS OF THE VILLAGE:

OKHISI - OBOMERIA O!

Knowing that theirs was to toil for the betterment of the village, each Egbonughele snatched his working clothes and armed with a matchet, made for the direction of the cry.

(13) CALL FOR WORK: U - KU – GHU!

(14) CALL FOR REJOICING: UKU - GHUGHU OR OKO GHOGHO!
All friends of the family in the neighbourhood of the cry went armed with chalk or prepared for an orgy of revelry or uninhibited debauchery.

(15) SUMMONING MEN FOR THE BURIAL OF THE DEAD:

EGEGE - KHE - EGE - E! which in words is ODEDE SO OTOLI DIA O! (A body has fallen!)

(16) CALLING EACH OTHER IN THE BUSH: U KU GHU?

Which in words is U VAE? (Have you come?)


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