My mother's Mbaraezi (or simply ezi) -- the physical space and symbol of her being entitled to the resources of the larger family, indeed a territory allocated to her to sweep and maintain on daily basis -- that provided the initial geography for my development as a child. Every child grew up in an ezi and this ezi was one major force that shaped the child's life, relationship with other people, both those of the ime ezi (the insiders of the ezi) and those of the other ezi. Ezi nne m, my mother's ezi, was the first territory I explored as a crawling baby, sometimes eating sand, sometimes mixing the sand with my urine and tasting it, before the elderly ones noticed and ran to remove me from what they considered a child's foolish thinking that everything is for the mouth. But they didn't know that by tasting the sands of the ezi, I become one with my mother's ezi, a communion only the grannies understood -- maybe because their old age placed them very close to the borders of the human and spirit worlds. And later when I advanced in childhood, I turned the Mbaraezi to a canvas of my art studio. With a stick I traced the outlines of many objects on that canvas, making sure no invader destroyed my art. Indeed, I mounted guard, or made sure I had an eye on my artwork, if I had other tasks on my hand. That way, my Mbaraezi artworks stayed for some hours, even days, except it rained and they got wiped out. But even the rain provided another cleaner canvas and desire for me to "draw." And I drew and drew and drew, until I almost covered the entire ezi with my unique art.
From the drawing of single objects, I moved on to the drawing of longer narratives -- I told stories in a set of connected diagrams. If it was not about the tortoise going to marry the King's daughter and what happened later, it was about automobiles driving on a road and how some of them collided and caused deaths, while some passengers grew wings and flew away. Sometimes it was about the Biafran anti-aircraft guns dealing with the menacing Nigerian war planes, or about Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu flogging Yakubu Gowon our enemy and the latter crying and begging for mercy. There were always stories to be told on the canvas of the Mbaraezi, stories from the mouths of the elders or stories we made up as children. The mbaraezi art seemed to call for more and more stories.
Mbaraezi art indeed symbolically narrates the cultural relevance of the ezi in the politics of a family and the village. How could a wife be a wife if she has no ezi and no obubo? What she sweeps from her fireplace and from her ezi she scatters in her obubo, her garden, to make it more and more fertile. She needs to make her obubo more and more fertile as she makes other things fertile in the household, including the fertility of the mind that scribbles and sketches on her ezi.
As I grew older, I understood that the ezi on which I scribbled and sketched was not just the symbol of my mother's space in the household but indeed my mother's presence. She was the presence of my childhood art. She was its vitality, its becoming, its potentials that were renewed day after day as I scribbled and sketched.
Yes, the poor standing of the family's finances and lack of full access to modernity meant that we, the children growing up, did not have the luxury of sheets of paper, pens and pencils, not to talk of real drawing boards and canvasses. The stationery we had were exclusively reserved for formal school work and could not have been squandered on what was then considered by the adults as part of the foolishness we needed to enjoy as children. As children, we were free to imagine such sketches on the ezi and other odds and ends we gathered as our property, but if we grew older, we would understand that there are other art forms, other forms of wealth that mattered, and put away our childish possessions. That was the logic. No one really took our mbaraezi art seriously. No one saw our childhood art as our science. Every adult saw what we were doing in the sands as imu umunwa, roughly translated as "learning the thrill that occupies a child's mind."
There is something about children's enjoyment of the space of the ezi in the context of their development that parents of today need to understand. Provide adequate drawing materials to children but imprison them in their rooms or in the sitting room and the urge to use a wide space would still push them to scribble and draw on the walls, the chairs, clothes, and so on. Don't keep scolding them, saying this and that psychologist told you such "defacing" is a disorder from which you have to deliver the child. You and your psychologist are joking! The child needs the ezi, not just the modern stationery, even if that ezi is a different kind of space where the child can move around and develop narrative imagination on paper and other physical objects. Is it not interesting that a child sees art in every object or thinks that every object should be a medium for artistic expression?
Indeed, not many people take interest in observing children at work or try to understand how an intimacy develops between the space of the child's work and the exploring mind of the child. I could not have found intimacy with my mother's ezi on any drawing paper or board offered to me as a child artist. As I found an intimacy with my mother's ezi, I found an intimacy with my mother as a source and context of my creativity. Indeed, as an adult, I still have that maternal canvas on my mind and recognize its tremendous narrative powers.