Not wanting anything to do with the laziness of the other children, Chijioke decided to go into the bush. It was a small yam bush behind the backyard wall of his family house. Had his parents, especially his father Idoh, seen him they would have rebuked him or even used the long whip, which Idoh loved to hide behind his broad back, for threatening the lives of the newly planted yam tubers. But when Chijioke made up his mind, nobody could find him to stop him.
What did he go in the bush for, the other kids asked one another? Idoh would weep his butt if he found him trampling through the mounds of soil from which yams would sprout in a few months. The kids suspected Chijioke would come out with something. He had a way with the bush. He could come out with an aged brown wingless grasshopper or a fat cheesy cricket or a green long-armed praying mantis. Since none of the kids were in a hurry, they waited.
Chijioke could stay in that bush until night falls, the kid who stammered said. Before others could digest the dire prediction made by the stutterer, another child, the one called Otubo (because he had a big umbilical hernia) glimpsed Chijioke at the edge of the bush. His gaze fell on the creature that Chijioke held between his right fingers. “Lizard, a baby lizard!” Otubo cried for all to hear. On the announcement of the capture every child paid close attention. From the nearby houses, many more children came, even those who were too young to do more than crawl.
“There is no escape,” one of the children said to the lizard as it twisted in the air. Chijioke held it with a little firm grip. At the open space in the front yard of the family house, the children, eleven in all, including a couple of crawlers, went on their knees and formed a circle.
Gently, Chijioke placed the baby lizard on the sandy ground. All the kids stared at it with both sympathy and excitement. It was a grey-skinned lizard, with a flat belly and a triangular shaped head, which it held half an inch above the ground. “Chijioke took you away from your mom,” a voice managed to say, but the other kids did not hearken or respond.
Hours ago the sun had set, and though the ground was hot, it was not unbearably so, which made the flat belly of the lizard a little warm – just enough for irritation, but without causing harm. None of the children wanted the little creature to suffer. They considered it as vulnerable as the two infant crawlers in their midst. If their bare knees could handle the gentle heat of the sandy soil, so could the baby lizard, they thought.
For a while, seeing all these children, the lizard was in shock and couldn’t move. Then it recovered some confidence and began to watch them, no doubt judging whether they were distracted.
“Watch what it is going to do,” said a boy, three years of age. “It’s getting ready to escape,” predicted another. “Let’s pretend we are not here,” said a third child. Then there was silence among the children. There would be no fun if the lizard did not run. The children wanted it to run so that they could apprehend it and bring it back to the center of the circle.
They were getting ready to grumble, to condemn the baby lizard as a weak, infirm creature, when all of a sudden it ran across the ring, under the leg of one of the crawlers. Some of the kids flew to get away from it. Others attempted to grab it with their hands. Zigzagging, the lizard went under the legs of several of the kids, and behind Otubo. A quick turn and a short run by Chijioke captured the lizard, and he placed it back in the center of the circle.
A song broke out, “Clap for the baby lizard, — errente— put your hands together for the young lizard, errente— the baby lizard who skipped walking, but instead became an expert runner, errente—pee pee, errente, pee-haaa, errente, haaa pee, errente.”
During the song, some kids got up from kneeling to dance, hopping on one leg, and on alternating legs, and hoisting their body into the air, while another group of kids watched the lizard to make sure it did not escape, only make attempts to do so, so that they could catch it and sing the song and dance and play, over and over again.
We did not know why we played so much, but we did; lots of play growing up as kids in my home village of Akokwa, Nigeria. Now we know. Playing during childhood is evolutionary in origin and essential for adequate mind and body development (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2000).
Bjorklund, D. F., & Pellegrini, A. D. (2000). Child development and evolutionary psychology. Child Development, 71(6), 1687-1708. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.00258.