Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Calabash Child

Gourd transforming into toddler
Inspired by, but not claiming to be an authentic representation of, the Igbo folktale The Calabash Child, retold by Buchi Offodile in The Orphan Girl and Other Stories, West African Folk Tales.

The industrious wife of a childless Igbo king (Eze) managed a farm. One day, she met a little girl among the calabashes that she cultivated. Before the queen's eyes, the child changed into a calabash and back again to a child. Delighted that her prayers for a child had been answered, the royal wife persuaded the child to go home with her and become the king's daughter.

The child agreed on one condition: no one should ever call her a calabash child. The king was very pleased to have an heir. He warned everyone, on pain of death, not to call the new princess a calabash child. The people celebrated the royal adoption; the king named his daughter Onunaeliaku (born to consume wealth) and doted on her.

But one day, the king and queen had to go on a trip. They left their child in the care of the servants, who quickly revealed their disrespect for Onunaeliaku, first refusing to serve her, then mocking her, and finally calling her the forbidden epithet of 'calabash child'. Saddened and offended, Onunaeliaku left the king's compound and headed towards to the farms where her mother had once found her.

The king and queen, upon returning home, could not find their daughter. After questioning their servants, they pursued Onunaeliaku and finally caught up with her. When the king learned that the servants had betrayed Onunaeliaku's trust and insulted the princess, he promised to punish the offenders. But Onunaeliaku could not be moved from her decision to return to her "roots".

Knowing that he had lost his child, the king wept bitterly. Onunaeliaku saw that the Eze had chosen to respect a little child's wishes despite his power and status. Moved by her father's love for her, she returned home with her parents. The king was true to his word and dealt with the offending servants in the manner that he had promised.

Onunaeliaku grew up to be the Eze Nwanyi of the village, starting a new tradition of female leadership.
For an interesting look at the political power and economic autonomy of women in pre-colonial traditional Igbo society, check out The Way People Live - Life Among the Ibo Women of Nigeria

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