First published in 2006 Copyright belongs to Olapeju Alatise 2006 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval system or transmitted in any way by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. email@example.com Photography: Afeez Owolabi Design Layout: Sola Kuti All artwork and images done by Peju Alatise
Dedication To disprove the unfortunate words â€œwomen are their own worst enemiesâ€?, women have been my channel for growth, support and strength. These women whose sincere love and concern have made me this tall. I dedicate these stories to them for without them, where is my brown skin? To My Mother, The blessed woman amongst all women To my mothers, Mrs. Feyi George, Mrs. Hariat Balogun, Mrs. Halimat Oke, Chief Justice Sotuminu, Justice Abdullahi To my sisters, Abisola Ajene, Modupeola Alatise, Anne Duke, Oluwatoyosi Olujobi To my friend that stays closer than a brother, Yetunde K. Owoseje (ata wewe) To all mothers, sisters and friends who offer their lives as a path to follow to a life worth living.
Growing up is hard to do Becoming independent causes a separation He that has known me from time past When I was so little and fearful Does not seem as big and as fearsome He remains a friend with little help from me You have always had my heart Tomorrow, when I walk another thousand miles Away from You, You still follow It is You You will always have my heart. Amen.
O R I TA M E TA THE CROSSROAD
Prologue Crossroads She was born with a string of gold beads around her waist. Who is he that says all are born naked? In her navel on the day that she was born was a pip-less olive fruit. She would never lack oil. Trapped in-between her toes were diamonds and on both her ankles were bands bearing silver bells to announce her arrival. In her hair were precious stones of every kind and the henna shrub grew amongst them. In her mouth, she had many tongues and they all proclaimed praises of the Creator of her being. And upon her, the All-knowing placed the stars to govern her. There was night and there was day as it was said by the Good Book. She was the secret of the earth, watched over by they that governed her till she was grown to maturity. Her buttocks fattened and her hips broadened. She acquired more beads to her waist. Her breast testified to the ability of motherhood. The sun gave light and her skin blacked in its intensity and its clarity gave her enlightenment. Many times had past and many more times to come, she would begin a journey to her destiny. It was along her journey she encountered the crossroads. There, she met the devil of the crossroads. He refused her continuity of her journey until he had read the left palm of her hand. She offered him her hand and he spat in it. He took a handful of earth and slowly let it loose into her hand. 1
He asked her to take a look at the image formed in her palm. She looked and in it she saw young women, dancing in uniformity. They danced in a circle around another young woman dressed differently from the rest in regal attire. They sang and the song, she had never heard. The tongue was new to her. In a short while, she began to sing along with them. Does not the devil appear as a tall striking man? With his strong, commanding but convincing tone of voice, he asked her if she understood the words they spoke. On her denial, he then said, “you see the girl in the middle?” pointing her out, “she is to wed.” He smiled, she smiled. She liked what she saw; she too wished to be wed. “So what does the song mean?” He spoke the words in the song and gave a translation after every phrase; “A girl, beautiful and young, attends her wedding, all she sees is evil!” As though awaken from a trance by what she had heard, she snatched her hand from the grip of the devil and shook off the spittle and sand rigorously but the words she had heard remained. They could do her no harm as the stars gave her reassurance. He laughed at her and bid her farewell, they will meet again and again. She continued her procession until she found a place suitable as abode. It was here she was wed and it was here she bore to herself many nations in sons. They were thoroughly blessed. The stars still governed and there was night and there was day. The day still held clarity and enlightenment. The night gave rest and there was no darkness found in the night. 2
More days passed and many more yet to come, her grown sons summoned about her. They too were ready to embark on their own journey in search of their destiny. “All shall be well,” they convinced their mother. She counselled her sons and sent them off to their different explorations. It was from this moment, a self of individuality happened upon them. It was good as they consoled themselves as children of the same mother. With this individuality, they also encountered the devil at the crossroads of their journey. From the crossroads, some took the path of the north, east, west and south. Each with the prophecy of a bride and her dancers awaiting them in the path they had chosen. The devil’s deception was in the faces of the brides he had prophesied. To a son, the bride was a stranger from foreign lands. Unknown to him, she would seduce him to surrender his inheritance to her brothers. To a son, she was a bride without the governance of light that his mother is. She would cloud his judgment with ignorance. To a son, the bride’s regality was false as she was accursed to dedicate her sons to servitude. And to another son, she was a bride with gargantuan appetite for all things; her gluttonous mouth cannot be fed enough. But to all sons, she was beautiful, even more beautiful than their mother. They all settled in their allotment and sought after the bride revealed to them at the crossroads, the bride of their heart. It was at this time the heavens mourned the folly of sons of the earth. 3
If you understand, you will know that the mother is called my Africa and the bride with her dancers could be the desire of the soul or the lust of the flesh. If you looked at the palm of your hand, will you not see your ability to do and your ability to become? It is the weakness of man that substitutes the desires of the soul for the lust of the flesh. Do not be confused. So I challenged myself to verbalize the gracefulness and regality of my Africa. Can one do this without the grievances of injustice? If I praised the gold beads around her waist, I remember they are plundered. Her breasts that fed milk and honey are cut off from the children meant to suckle. Her head is shaven and she grows henna no more. Her sons have ripped her of her virtue but by the heavens, she remains strong. So I point fingers at her sons who took away the governance from the heavens and put disorder to what had order. They make the night govern the day to prolong their rest. But it is not rest; it is slumber. Darkness befalls them all as they see with closed eyes. The Father of Creation sees what has become of my Africa and HE sends her bearers of light. They are children born to her with a lit torch. They come teaching, living a life of example as it was once lived by their mother Africa, each one doing what he or she must do to overcome the dark. To Africa, three daughters were born.
Seyi fi tan A child with a story The bowl of water was passed to her at her request. Her husband had given a name for their new child but she also had a name to give. She dropped her coins in the water and gave her the name “Oluwaremilekun”. Eight days before today, she laid on her side to rest even though it was her back that hurt, ignoring the voice of anxiety. Her hand rubbed against her belly sternly, pacifying her child to stay alive but her body tired. The baby remained too still. Her soul was drawn into an unwelcoming rest. Even the voices of her mother and midwife faded out. Soon her new reality became vivid and light. Reckless freedom became cautioned by the image of the elderly woman. They became friends, even closer than she could remember. They greeted each other with familiarity and they comforted each other with an embrace. “Mama Remi, E ma wo le, you are welcome but not for long.” The older said to the younger. “Iya Remi, very well done! Today you are without tears, Oluwa ti re e le kun. Yes, HE has wiped your tears.” The older woman in a multitude of words began to sing praises and together they rejoiced. There was a swift kick in her womb and she rolled onto her back and with renewed strength she bore to herself a female child. This child stayed alive and unlike the six 7
others before her, she filled her lungs with air. This little person is not uncommon. She is one of them that come from heaven with their life script in their hands, ‘Seyi fi tan’, born to become a story, many would tell her story. The offerings were laid before every one and blessings flowed like the wind. The offerings were made to touch the infant’s tongue and then passed to the parents then to everyone else to participate by tasting of the offering. A bowl of palm oil the ailment softener, a small dish of salt the measure of value of life, a cup of water the thirst quencher, a bottle of honey the life sweetener, four wraps of kola nuts and bitter kola, a dish of aadun melon seeds with palm oil, sugar cane, smoked fish and the all-important bottle of schnapps for libation completed the symbolic elements for fertility, good health, favour and prayers. She stood before their families and friends and they stood up with her. It was a naming ceremony unlike any other. They had genuine reason to rejoice with her. “Oluwaremilekun, it is true that the Lord had put a rest to my tears.”
The dark indigo night Oils burned in coconut shells and clay pots with their golden flames flirting with the dark indigo night. Everyone came out with their lamps directed towards the focal point creating a brightness that put all attendants in a trance. It was the most exciting affair of my childhood. The community elementary school had its first cultural performance. The headmistress was a white woman, of which origin, I did not know. In my child mind all white people came from the other side of the river. She planned this ceremony with the intent to encourage the villagers to send their children to school and erase any misconception that education was a brain washing, stealing their childrenâ€™s mind of their heritage. The excitement was so intense that it possessed the spirit of the community year after year, for generations, to observe the indigo night. I must have been eleven or twelve, I think. All people gathered at the community centre, in the open field. The drama began. Thirty little children made their way to the centre of the land, dancing and singing. Silence seized the observers, the palm trees far off held their fronds from movement and leaned closer to listen to the children. And even the winds held their breath. Their little bodies gyrating to the echoes of their singing. And the song; 9
Make way, make way The great and the mighty approaches The grasses and the earth are honoured To have him stride upon their backs He that possesses the finger that can do and undo Is coming. Only the inconceivable fool is jealous His might and majesty is far beyond match Highly exalted by his subjects Subjects of every creation Make way, make way. The kabiyesi, king, a young fat boy dressed in the most stupendous regalia, made his entrance surrounded by a council of elders, boys in long robes and cotton woolbeards. He danced around the girls who sang his praises, blessing them with his irukere and they made way to his throne. He seated himself and all his subjects bowed before his throne. This was a story of a king, kabiyesi, powerful and wealthy and loved so much by his people. He had sent word through his town crier to all his people that he was going to embark on a grand expedition. He required brave, wise and able men as ambassadors to accompany him on his journey. These men chosen, on their return from the expedition will be honoured with royalty and power of governance. Seven nights prior to the departure, men of skill and wisdom and great strength gathered to contest the ambassadorship before his majesty. The olode (hunters), 10
warriors, farmers, diviners, alawo (spiritualists), even cooks; all and any vocation would be represented. Within this kingdom was an insignificant young man of humble birth, Aremu, played by Olalekan, a boy three classes my senior. Aremu was in love with the king’s youngest prettiest daughter, Olurombi, played by my humble self, Remi. Aremu was a servant boy in care of Olurombi’s father. They shared a secret affair in the loneliest of places away from any possible spectators. On the days that Aremu was not in attendance to the royal court, he would hide in the bushes and call on Olurombi with his talking drum. He would play on and on until Olurombi answered with her presence. They would talk and dream of a near-impossible future together. They would remind each other of how much they loved one another and Aremu would swear that the near impossible would come to pass. Being of humble circumstance, he was not eligible to contest for a princess’s hand in marriage. And a day came, when Aremu was certain he had a chance after all. He overheard a discussion the king had with the elders. He heard about the seven days of competition. He heard about the gift of royalty and governance. He was not a man of intelligent words; neither did he possess any peculiar skill. He knew how to wrestle and he had a month to prepare himself to beat the kingdom’s greatest wrestlers. He related his plan to Olurombi and they agreed to separate until the battle was won. He retreated into a world of
wrestling and she immersed her soul in prayers. The day was at hand and all contestants wrestled their match. Olurombi sat at her fatherâ€™s feet and tried to watch. Her heart beat too hard to have her open her eyes. Kabiyesi noticed his court attendant and was surprised to see him as a participant. He thought Aremu to be either strong willed or outright foolish, being much smaller than the average wrestler. When he realized Aremu lasted five rounds out of ten, he began to cheer the brave young man. Aremuâ€™s spirit was so full of energy but his body became weary on the eighth round. It had become a David and Goliath scenario. Aremu thought of a witty and fast way to disarm his opponent but his body would not respond to his quick thinking. His back was to the floor. It was over for Aremu. Olurombi knew it was over when her father sighed and she excused herself. She locked herself in her chamber and prayed to die if the heavens did not favour Aremu before dawn. Aremu saw her exit, saw her disappointment and saw her tears because she saw his failure. He regressed into the forest late that night and vexed with his talking drum. The heavens have always known the tongue of the drums and this night it bothered them. Aremu played like the earth was in empathy with him. He consoled Olurombi with it, telling her that if she were given to another, he would keep playing for her. Aremu never expected Olurombi to come out to him; neither did he expect an audience. He was seized by the 12
king’s guards and brought to the king’s presence. Kabiyesi was surprised to see Aremu involved in this mysterious incident and required of him an ode from his drum to prove he indeed was the drummer he heard all night and Aremu played. The beat soon had his majesty in an enchantment. He pulled off his robes and danced. This had the audience applauding and dancing as well. Kabiyesi then said to Aremu, “My son, you are welcome!” The last scene had Aremu and Olurombi presented before the king and audience as man and wife. Olalekan had to embrace and kiss me and it was so embarrassing but beautiful. The truth be told, I had never seen a couple kiss at this time but I knew what a kiss was. I was almost certain that the white man invented the kiss but the headmistress told me otherwise in Sunday school. God himself invented the kiss to give life to Adam. I wondered if my grandmother had ever been kissed. Asking her was difficult because the word kiss is non-existent in my native language. I doubt very much that kissing was a part of my ancestral culture. I was teased during practice and I begged to have that part cut out. I liked Olalekan but I was afraid to let it show. It was my first kiss and the dark indigo night became unforgettable.
Good luck to you “Do not whistle in the house!” you will invite both angels and demons in from outside. “A pregnant woman should not buy yams any time past 4pm,” certain spirits would make sure she gives birth to one. “Do not roll your eye balls at any time,” they just might stay that way. “Never leave your discharge uncovered,” if a fly perches on it, you will develop inflamed organs. “Never sweep the floors with a broom late at night.” When asked why? My mother’s reply reeked of uncertainty, “you might sweep away the feet of pleasant unseen helpers who visit at such times.” Although I preferred to do my chores before going to bed, I had to delay these chores till dawn. I was always almost late for school. Sweeping the yard every morning was taking too much time out of too little time. Many times, as often as everyday, I had wished for a thief of any kind to pay our home a visit. Yes, even the ones with machetes. Above the lintels of our front door and backyard door, which led to the kitchen, hung small brooms. My sisters and I called them the juju-brooms. The ropes used to secure the broomsticks into a bunch were replaced with red and black cloth. Within the folds of this cloth are mysteries I am not sure of. They supposedly have the power to stop a
thief from plundering any item; be it a piece of meat from maamiâ€™s stew pot or valuables untold. Rather than steal, they would reach for the brooms and sweep till dawn. They would sweep the floors until the brooms wore short and their thieving hands bled. This is true; Abeke once told me the burglars caught in her family house, swept their house clean till morning. Lucky for her, their house sparkled for weeks. In my house, I have had no such luck! This may be because my mother hung too many juju-brooms not only on the doors but windows as well. They were too obvious to anyone visiting the house. Listing a few of my motherâ€™s superstitious beliefs is easy to do, I lived by them growing up. Before my younger sisters where tall enough and could stretch their left arms over their heads to touch their right ear, the ultimate physical examination to enrol into primary school education, my mother would massage holy olive oil into their limbs, pulling and stretching them till they gave a snapping sound. I do remember once she gave my sisters special pens and pencils to write with during their first days in grammar school. They were special because they had been dipped in the holy sem-sem water from Mecca. No, they were not geniuses and no, my sisters did not excel above all other pupils; they were simply too young to be enrolled into grammar school. She once gave me a lucky charm bracelet to wear on my right wrist; she explained it would bring me favour. 15
I was going to school far away from our community for my secondary school education. I was going to a people she believed ate other people. In the locket of my bracelet was a talisman of a Quran verse for favour. This, she was certain would keep me safe. No, no, no my mother is not fetishist, she prays to God...so earnestly dedicated. She just does these things to verify her faith, even though she had began attending the new Missionary Baptist church. Well, the bracelet did not stop me from getting into trouble, did not save me from punishments, did not improve my grades in school, did not make the wicked senior students like me and it certainly did not make me feel lucky. I was just like any other regular junior, just like the bracelet was like any other bracelet. Eventually, the headmistress confiscated it from me, saying no form of jewellery was allowed in the boarding school. My life was the same with it as without it. When I got home, I related my experience to my mother. She said it did not work because I did not believe in it. ALO O! STORY!! Each time I got into trouble I shook my wrist wearing the bracelet so hard that not only did I sprain my wrist at most times, I developed some muscles making one arm bigger than the other. From then on I decided to revert all my belief solely into prayers; this later became faith. I learned that it worked always and if I did not get what I wanted at least I had no physical changes nor damages. Praying was always safe, with nothing to lose. Now, this time, I felt blessed. If you ask me, Iâ€™ll tell you; Iâ€™d rather be blessed than lucky. 16
The dream, the vision and the prophesy The river of dreams I dreamed a dream of the river of dreams. At the brink of the river I stood, the river that could not be passed over for the waters was deep. It came to pass that every thing that lived which moved where so ever the river flowed had renewed life for they were healed and everything shall live wherever the river comes. The heavens above me opened and His voice called me by name, â€œRemi, fetch thereof from the river your desires with a vessel. This vessel, which contains your desires, you will carry to a place I have chosen to establish you that like a tree, you will branch out and you will be evergreen. All the birds of the heavens will nest in your boughs and under your branches, all the beasts of the fields will give birth.â€? Hurriedly, I made for myself an earthen vessel to fetch. Halfway to my destination the water had leaked through, leaving the vessel empty. Again I made another vessel and fetched but even then the vessel broke for it was too weak to make the journey. I purchased vessels but even they would not do to convey my dreams. There I was, watching my dreams go by but I could not contain it. I sat on my broken vessels and wept like one with and without reason. 17
At this time, He sat with me to console me. From the dream, I thought I awoke, it seemed so real but I could not comprehend the ways of the spirit. I asked for understanding and this He said, “Remi, the river is a gift that I freely, with all gladness, give to all and any that ask, to give hope and life. But as important as the river is, so is the vessel to contain it. For you have heard to make thyself a vessel unto honour to be tried and tested. “But in time and with much understanding you will learn what dream to pursue. When that time comes, you will possess the vessel genuine to convey your purpose. Then the journey begins. “I do assure you your journey will not be cut short, neither will it be aimless.”
The vision and the Orita-meta The road to the elementary school was long, dusty and red. This was the only way that led most of the locals in the community to the schools, church, general market and other settlements. Remilekun and her friends took off their sandals and buried their feet in the red soil. School was over and they could be careless with their appearance. They walked up to the part where the orita-meta intersection laid, a place where three major paths meet. Right at the centre of orita-meta, some anonymous person had served a sacrifice of a black pot covered with red cloth and young palm fronds to appease his god to increase his fortune. This was a common occurrence at the junction, as most people believe that at a crossroad like this, one path could either lead to destruction or great fortune. A sacrifice here could appease the gods to make one fortunate at his lifeâ€™s crossroad. Also at the crossroads, the traditional worshippers of Esu, the devil, placed offerings often for the curse of other people to come to harm or suffer tragedies. Some passers-by pretentiously frowned at the practice, as the traditional sacrifices are always a controversial topic of discussion for those that dare discuss its practice and these young women own the courage to, in all naivety, with some common sense.
“The bible condemns its practice, God is the only giver of prosperity.” “People get so rich doing this.” “It is only an illusion.” “This is no ordinary illusion, if you can spend its money, then it is real.” “What about the consequences? This has after-effects; people die meddling with spiritual things, there are stories of evil that comes from evil practices.” “What makes it evil? This has been passed down from generation to generation; it was good then, it worked. Now, it is the missionary religion that is questionable. And consequences? Life itself is consequences! If you indulge, you bear the consequences, if you do not you still face consequences.” “As far as the bible goes, anything outside Christ is evil. It’s as simple as that.” “But I recognize the principle of the orita-meta, I was born to defy it.” “Remilekun, the big talker!” “Seriously, I will challenge it with a greater principle, the principle of purpose. It is certain that this orita-meta is a point of confusion, one is not sure whether to go left or right yet you cannot turn back. “I will approach this point with people following behind me and I will meet with a certain people from the left and a certain people from the right and we will converge here. “I saw this place in a dream and God said He would establish me here. People from everywhere will meet with me here, He promised me.” 20
Their discussion ended in silence with each one wondering what the future would be like with the choices they thought they would make. One of them would make her choice in blind faith, the other, with precautions of a sacrifice and the third refusing to go either way. It was obvious that the other two thought Remi was too full of herself and her choice just did not make sense at all. No one reaches a crossroad and remains there. Remilekun knew better than to explain further, she never had friends that could tolerate her ideologies. This was not about making a left or a right turn, this is about knowing, recognizing and focusing on ones destination and the left or right turn becomes insignificant. Her friends hastened their pace, leaving her behind to drag her feet playfully in the red soil. Oluwaremilekun smiled with a deep sigh, a part of her journey she would walk alone.
The true or false Prophecy “Your mother said you do not want to see me, I have been here four times now. Why have you decided to see me now?” “I did not make that decision to see you, maami forced me to come.” “Why don’t you want to see me?” “I do not believe in what you do, I think you are a fraud.” “You don’t believe I have special powers to see into the future?” “Well you may have, but it does not concern me. I do not trust the source of your ability if indeed you possess anything tangible.” “You don’t think God can give me this special gift to help people?” “I do not need your help.” At this moment, Remilekun’s mother gave her a smack on the cheek, “you are being rude!” Eager to prove some point, the white garment prophet said, “kneel down, lets pray. What do you want to know?” “Nothing!” “Let me tell you something about yourself that you cannot see. Your aura says you are like the moon star. You will be seen wherever you go. You will shine in the darkest of circumstances. You will walk into a room full of people and you will be seen. It is not because you have a pretty face but your aura demands it. People want to know you, 22
to get close to you because you will shed light on them. “There are two buckets before you. One of them is the bucket of your training; it has money in it but is not entirely full. Then there is the bucket of your calling; it is full and pouring over. There are the foreign currencies; you have places to go, places to be. “No man will share in your glory but only God has that honour. It is your blessing and it is your curse. You have a long road before you and there will be no one to make you but God. You must take courage.” “What is this calling? She does so well in school, if she gets her scholarship, she will go to the big colleges but she does not concentrate hard enough. She is obsessed with making pottery. Pottery she calls vessels, it is disturbing,” Remi’s mother laments. Ignoring the woman he continues, “Do you understand the things I have said to you? Do you believe me?” “You do not need affirmation from me. If you are certain of your special gifts, you should not be bothered if I believe you or not. But I must tell you this, whatever I decide to become I will be successful in it. Irrespective of training or calling, I will be good at whatever I do, even if it is to be a house wife.” He smiles and says, “you are strong headed and stubborn but you are a good learner. You will learn in time.” “What about her marriage? When will it be? She is seeing a boy in school, should she marry him?” “It is aright, I have said all she needs to know.”
Dishonoured “Should I have been there?” “Could I have screamed any louder?” “Could I have fought any harder?” “Why didn’t I just stay home?” “Why didn’t I know what was coming?” “Why did this happen to me?” With every thought came a motion to wash clean. With every tear came a thousand raindrops, she and the heavens wept alike. His smell still lingered and her thoughts sank deeper. “Yes, at the old Cathedral.” “No, your screaming got lost in the thundering rain.” “No, he was stronger than you.” “Home was with Lekan at eight.” “No, you could never have known.” “FATE!” The winds replied but not to Oluwaremilekun’s comprehension. “Eight?” he asked. “Eight,” she replied. “Behind the old Cathedral?” “Behind the old Cathedral.” But Remilekun was early and Lalekan was late. It was not the first time they would meet behind the old Cathedral to go swimming after dark. Tonight was different because the rains let out. She had to go into the abandoned Cathedral for shelter. She heard footsteps approach and though it was too dark too see, she was certain it was Lekan. 24
The sudden grasp for her neck proved she was mistaken. It all happened too quickly. The drunken slob from the landowner’s yard had taken advantage of her stature, her strength and her virtue. She began her walk back home with tears stolen by the rain. No one has to know; it is too much stigma to bear if she tells. Reassuring herself no conception will ensue. God forbid it. “Lalekan, where is he?” “He could have saved me.” “We could have chosen a better place.” “I thought I saw him. Maybe I thought I should have.” The aimless conversation remained unuttered. “He is twenty yards away behind the bushes.” “He was late.” “You always meet behind the old Cathedral.” “You saw him.” Lalekan thought he heard screaming then he thought it was the thundering but still he quickened his pace, he was already late. He saw the drunken man with his pants around his ankle about a hundred yards away from the Cathedral. Instinctively he knew something was wrong and took to his heels. No one comes to this part of the road being too close to the cemetery, not at this time of the day. He saw Remilekun pulling her clothing together and he was certain something went wrong. The intoxicated fool! Not sure Remi saw him, he retreated in fury in search of the man who dishonoured his bride to be. His search would take forever to rest. 25
5 sparrows for 2 cents A child is born But what does it matter? A child is born Life it must suffer And what good is the life given If death is earnestly sorted after? Time as a taskmaster Every minute, every second, a gift of hard labour Why should life be celebrated, if a child is raped? Why should breath be given, if innocence is exploited? To be hungry, filthy, made filthy Rejected, clothed a scorn! Do you shake your head in objection? A sardonic smile on my face Do you deny it? You are too sheltered! I raise my fist to Him it seems Trust you? “Five sparrows for two cents” “Beloved, you are worth more.”
Lines on her face “Can this be lunacy? Am I going insane? My moaning sounded like laughter and my tears all ran dry. I was hysterical and apprehensive. Truly there is a thin line between insanity and a broken heart. There is nothing more malicious than to love and get scoffed in return. You see Oluwaremi, that heart break left a line on my face.” I sat there, staring at my grandmother, listening to the stories behind the wrinkles of her face. “Every wrinkle, my dear,” she says to me, “has a story to tell.” “These ones here,” she points out to a couple of wrinkles replacing the once rounded cheeks that became more visible when she smiles, “I got them when your mother was born. Your mother, oh! She is a gift from God.” “The bags beneath my eyes? They are tears I never shed. They sagged when my eyes saw too much.” “What do you mean, saw too much?” “Yes, they saw my sister in bed with your grandfather. From that day the faucets of my eyes shut. No amount of tears could cleanse them from what they had seen.” It was no news that my mother was a product of the affair that sagged my old woman’s eyes. She was as barren as Sheol and her only inheritance was a child given to her when her sister died in the hands of midwives. “How the good Lord blessed me in my curse! Oluwaremi, He will do the same for you.” 27
These stories she told me were not to dissuade me from love neither to scorn me for my history, no, far be it. She tells me as a way of sharing her life, her experiences, letting me know what life had to offer her. She was the only one I could trust with my grave secret. It has been twenty-two weeks and I am beginning to show. Maami would never understand but Maama has embraced me through it all. Olalekan I feared would leave me but for some reason he did not contest my long visit to maama even though our wedding is within the year. “FATE!” Maama says, “is dangerous when Grace has not been granted to you.” When she says these things, she laughs and she rues. Never did she seem to have withered in recollection. So I take a good look at her face, searching the depths of her eyes and there I see the glint. How they shone with life, I am comforted but still I wondered. Conversing with the thoughts in my head, like she could read my mind, she replies, “that my dear is when I see your pretty face.” Reminding me that time does not heal wounds but only the good Lord can.
A new life He was handed over to Remilekun. His tiny fingers curled round her littlest finger. His hair was golden and his lips were red petals. His eyes were as clear as blue skies. His skin was much too pale. He was a beautiful child, a little helpless being, too helpless to save his origin, too helpless to resist hate. He was washed and placed on her breast. Remi was no less confused now that he had been born. After nine months, she was even more anxious. She thought she would hate his existence as she hated the drunken, foreign traveller. This mystery of creation with its little blue eyes stole her reasoning. Her eyes welled up and Maama warned her, “Remi, Oluwaremi, do not hold him for too long or you will hold him forever.” “Maama, I cannot give him away. He has no sin.” Remilekun began to weep. She knew she had to; Olalekan was waiting for her back at home. They would be married in a few weeks if he would still have her after this. He would certainly notice she has become a lot fuller in flesh than she had ever been. She could easily blame it on her grandmother’s porridge. She had thought well of how to remedy her misfortune and secret but now, she did not care if the whole world mocked her. Her baby gave a gentle sigh and she felt a tingle in her breasts. There was an unavoidable bond between them.
She had always felt it all through her pregnancy but she denied herself the joy of such an experience. She remembered the first kick she felt when his place was within her. She remembered how she ran to her grandmother and they both shared the moment with quiet smiles but it was bitter sweet. Many days when she was depressed, the baby would tickle her inside till she laughed and forgot to cry. Now, he gave another sigh and again she felt the tingly sensation in her breasts. Not once did she wish bad for her child but once she had hoped there will be no attachment between them. She had heard of women who did not want their babies after they had been born. She had heard of a woman whom after twelve years of childlessness finally put to bed a baby boy and would not touch it. She said the baby was not worth her trials and travails. The baby was not worth the twelve years of abuse she received from her husband and his family. She asked her husband to take his child because she wanted neither of them. But Remilekun held nothing against her son. She had options to stay with her grandmother, forget about Lalekan or any other man as a matter of fact but keep her son; or give the little boy away and pretend nothing ever happened. She told her grandmother that a good woman would never pick any man over her child but Maama reminded her that this was not any man but Olalekan and this was not any child but a child of unusual circumstance.
“Things should not always be black and white Remi, paths should not always be straight either.” If she came back home with this fair-skinned child, life would be unbearable not only for her. Her family, her friends and more than any other, her new son would suffer indignity. She would rather give him up than have him called ‘omo ale’, the bastard child. A good mother will protect her son. She opened her arms and the other woman picked him up. One woman’s despondency was another’s gladness. “Would you call him Toluwani? If I can’t have him, let the Lord.” “Yes.” But it was not a promise.
Words unspoken Dear Remi, The rains pour heavy, two days before we wed. It is a good omen. It is a sign of cleansing and of new growth. I look forward to a new life with you. I must let you know that as happy as I feel about us, I am also afraid, afraid that I might not be enough for you, afraid that I may not serve you as I should. So help me God. You avoid me but I understand, I understand more than I should. I have not had the opportunity to speak with you alone since you got back, now I do not get to see you until the wedding day. These things I write you, I must. Dear Remi, you must forgive me two things. My tardiness. If I had kept to time that day, that misdeed would never have happened, things would not go wrong today. I should never have kept you waiting. I promise you as long as I live, I will be a mace of Godâ€™s safeguarding to you. My cowardice. I know you cry bitter tears even though you wipe your face dry in pretence. Forgive my silence; I do not know what to say. I thought I should let you speak of the occurrence at your own time but it seems that time may never pass. I know what happened. I should have been man enough to care for you, console you, promise you to find the bastard that violated you. I could not face you. I thought it would be better to pretend it never happened but unspoken words breathe anxiety to a weak heart. My unspoken words give life to a coward within me. Dear Remi, I am so sorry but the word sorry is not sad enough. If you never want to talk about this, I would understand. But know this, I do love you. You are a dear friend and sister. We have come a long way; we will always make a great team. With love in all sincerity, Olalekan 32
Olalekan reread the letter the third time, folded it and handed it to the little boy with specific instructions. â€œIf Remi is not at home, wait and give it to her. Do not give it to anyone else. If you wait too long, bring it back to me. Make sure no one else sees this letter.â€? Five bean cakes accompanied this letter and the little boy put the letter in his pocket and ate on his way. Remi was not home but there was plenty of time to wait. He joined the neighbourhood children in a game of soccer until the rain let loose again. The little boy was soaking wet before he could reach the front balcony of Remiâ€™s family house. This time Remi was home. He gave her the letter saying it was from uncle Lekan. Remi offered the boy a dry wrapper and a bowl of hot corn pap. Remi held out the wet paper now turned blue by the blotting ink. All that was left of the letter were a few words that did not make much sense. She kept the letter where she keeps all the other letters; someday it might be full of words again.
The spotting of red Her heart raced so fast, she could taste its heat in her mouth. The time had come for show telling. Would today be her wedding day? She looked up at her supposed groom, taking her hand and leading the way to a room, where the intending groom tests the virginity of his maiden. She walked into the room and was overcome with fear as she stirred at the bridal quilt woven by her mother, laid neatly on the bed, white and spotless. Oluwaremilekun had heard so much about the spotting of red from other young women before her. They’d chat endlessly about their first time as they worked their chores by the riverside, every day. Today was her turn to dance to that tune. She thought of how proud her family would be when the quilt is taken outside, displayed to the entire village as evidence of a maiden’s virtue. Yet she knew it was not to be for she had already spotted but not on her quilt. She knew it was not time to recall her mishap. A terrible mistake of misfortune and mischief she had made, she had to pay. She set her mind ready for the disgrace and alienation for she would be a sneer to her family. “Remi,” she heard her name. She lowered her gaze for she knew she had let him down. Now they were alone, not 34
sure of what to do, should she let him know? No more time should be wasted on her. “How? Poor man, that I should anger him or break his heart. Let him find out himself.” She was deep in her thoughts. “Remi?” she closed her eyes, so full of shame and guilt. “Remi? Do not be afraid. Do relax. I’ll take care of you,” her beloved groom said. “In just a few more minutes, he will not be so soft spoken.” So he held her and loved her. When he was done, he pulled the quilt and in silence went out with it. Remilekun’s heart sank. She wept all through and was still weeping. She told herself that her greatest loss was her beloved. A scream was let out and some music followed. They were rejoicing. What a dream she thought she had. Still she could hear the merry making clearly. With all boldness, she went out to witness what seemed to confuse her. The quilt was on display and generously spotted. Oluwaremilekun was received with warmth. Her groom held her in an embrace, lips to ears they were and he whispered, “I pierced my thumb you see.” “Olalekan, I am ever so sorry,” was all she could say. “I said I’d take care of you.” Her love she owed him. She smiled to the heavens and said, “Today is my wedding day!”
The holy visitation A spiritual revival had come to this little town. The preacher promised a visitation of Godâ€™s goodness to all who believed. Lalekan could not be hot and bothered but Oluwaremilekun had enough faith for more than the both of them. She strapped her youngest son onto her back, Jayesimi in one hand and the other hand she used as a weapon of discipline for her eldest child whom was of an age prone to mischief. She sent her older children to the childrenâ€™s church and then seated her humble self in the middle of the congregation. Her list of prayer points was in her hands and she got on her knees in petition to the Almighty. Her list was short and precise. She prayed for Olalekanâ€™s salvation, good life to all her sons, even her secret child, the one she gave away, Toluwani. She prayed for her community; there was a rumour of a civil war. Her little town laid in the border between the crossfire. She prayed for strength and for wisdom and she also prayed for a sign. The Good Lord had to reassure her she was enlisted amongst the Grace obtainers. Soon the Preacher man proclaimed the time of miracles, signs and wonders. Anointing time. Members of the congregation began to fall under the anointing and speak in strange tongues. The shouting in strange tongues, falling, rolling and all the drama of this anointing was all new to Remilekun. It was her first time in the new-crave scriptural 36
union crusade church, being a Baptist herself. Maybe it was her naivety to the anointing service, or the glasses she wore or the answer to her prayer for a sign that got her noticed by the Preacher man who asked her to come out onto the podium. “Yes, you with the child on her back, with the blue scarf. Come up here now!” “What is your name?” shoving the microphone up her nose. “Oluwaremilekun.” “Why do you wear glasses? Are you Blind?” “I am short-sighted and astigmatic,” proud that she remembered the big words of the doctor and enjoying her short moment of attention. “ASTIG-WHATEVER-YOU-CALL-IT, I BIND YOU IN THE NAME OF JESUS!” He began his strange tongues and laid his hand heavily upon her head till she lost balance. “REMOVE HER GLASSES!” The usher yanked it of her face and Remilekun showed her displeasure in the rough handling of the eyewear given to her free of charge from the Baptist missionary healthcare services. She and nineteen others were given free eye check-ups for their diligence in service to the Lord’s house. “HOW MANY FINGERS AM I HOLDING UP?” “Three.” “HALLELUYAH! THE LORD HAS DONE IT AGAIN, SHE WAS ONCE BLIND BUT NOW SHE CAN SEE!” “HALLELUYAH!” The congregation replied in an uproar. The usher led her to another room where her testimony 37
of the preacher manâ€™s healing will be recorded. This was the same room that the children gathered in. She had had enough of the Anointing and wanted to leave. She gave them the testimony they wanted and they returned her eyewear to her warning her to believe she was healed and never to wear them again. As she walked away to pick her sons wondering what type of sign this demonstration she just experienced was, she saw a golden haired child. He looked well; he looked twelve years of age. It had been twelve years indeed. He is still a beautiful child. He lived in the community now. The miracles, signs and wonder had not been in vain. What type of sign is this? Could it be called a miracle? Jayesimi now had a new friend. His name is Nat, Nathaniel not Toluwani, but she was certain it was he. She had given up her rights on him but it would not stop her from appreciating him although he had to remain a secret. The Good Lord had heard her; she was amongst they that had His Grace.
Takapa “It all started with a woman on her way to the marketplace, hoping to sell her merchandise of hand crafted leather purses, who happened on an open field. She implored her transporters to stop a while and permit her to stretch her legs and ease her feet, stiff and swollen from the inactivity of sitting down too long. She walked into this large field that bore nothing but tall, thin grass blades and many weed bushes that grew as tall as dwarf mango trees. “She squatted behind the bushes to relieve her bladder. In her posture she observed the grounds, as there was nothing else to focus her gaze. The soil was not dusty as she was accustomed to; it was neither red. The soil was good soil. A handful of its richness in her hands and she began to see visions of growth. She showed the richness of the soil to the transporters who saw nothing but a queer woman amused with dirt. They continued their procession to the marketplace. “This woman sold all her merchandise; that market day was a good day. She sold her necklace that adorned her neck, the glitter in her ear lobes, sandals on her feet and the wrapper around her waist. Rather than buying foodstuff for her household and more leather to work with as she had intended, she journeyed back to the open fields and purchased it. “In time her vision of green growth came to pass. The open fields became orchards of exotic fruits. The orchard served her, her family and many servants. Even years after her death, the orchard still fed many alike. 39
“One day, the workers of the orchard digging a well discovered treasures of precious elements deep in the soil. This treasure they named takapa. It was like nothing they had ever seen. Its lustre possessed its admirers. Takapa gave them power to trade. The fruits of the orchard became tasteless as takapa revealed its abilities and estimated worth.“ The blessings of takapa became the curse of takapa. It was an enabler of altercations. Altercations ensued between the sons of the woman and the servants that discovered the takapa. Even the former landowners of the fields wanted more than a piece of the discovery. The altercations became fierce. There was no longer room for negotiation or reasoning. All and almost anyone that set eyes on takapa became twisted in a romantic insanity with its power. This romantic insanity was an illness likened to gangrene. Everyone began searching and destroying fields and bushes to behold takapa if they were fortunate. “Brothers maimed and even killed each other. The gangrene spread all through the region and beyond. Fierce altercations over generations, became war and today, we still fight war.” Lalekan in the simplest of words, tried to explain the reasons for the current state of affairs in the region. Parents dared not send their children to school. Like hyenas to a kill, so where raider to a war stricken state. Children were being kidnapped and despicable atrocities were committed. “But I have seen takapa and I have no wish to kill Jayesimi or Olarotimi,” Bolu said, still confused. 40
“You are not of a weak mind,” his father told him, “many people have weak minds.” “What if they never found takapa?” “Takapa is destined to be discovered.” They were all afraid. They wanted to believe the worst was over but the worst was still on going. There was an uneasy calm hovering over this household. Twenty-four foreigners, officials of the colonial regime had been kidnapped at the start of the war. They were kidnapped by landowners that wanted compensation for the ruins of their community by those bulldozing their way in exploration of takapa. This was done after the colonial masters had decided to end the conflict between rival communities by decreeing a law owning alone, all rights to exploration of takapa in that region in honour of their queen. Now with a common enemy, the landowners wished to fight the foreigners by either killing them on sight or kidnapping them and demanding ransom. Communities fought against each other for supporting or opposing the colonials. The response of the colonials weakened them instantaneously with their powerful military hardware. Every day there was news of lost loved ones. Earlier that month, Remilekun went by her family’s compound. It was important that families stuck together at times like these. Her younger sister’s body laid close to her parents’ grave, which had been laid some years back by the front yard. People walk past the body as though it was a garbage bin. They walked around it with their hands over their noses and not their eyes. A middle-aged woman pulled the sandals off 41
the corpse’s feet. It bothered no one, not even the close neighbours. There were other bodies. Remi could not find tears, they stayed locked in her throat like sharp blades. Like most people, she saved her tears till the war was over. Her other sister had gone missing. This was the accent of war. She felt as senseless as the war. Like suspended tears, they spoke very few words. She and her husband would sit together for days and would hardly speak words to each other. They heard startling, rattling knocks on the door. Olalekan and Remilekun stared at each other with widened eyes that meant, “Get ready.” Remi sent her sons into the back room and asked Bolu to lock the door behind him and should on no account open the door unless she asked him to. Remilekun went into the kitchen. She had two choices, a carving knife or a yam-pounding pestle. She preferred the pestle, which was as long as she stood tall; she did not like the sight of blood. She joined her husband and they sat quietly in the dark. The rattling at the door continued. They remained silent. Rebels were known to go from house to house wrecking havoc on those that cared less about takapa exploration, even those that had never seen but have heard of it. The rattling went from desperate knocks on the door to very desperate knocks on the window. “Remi, Remi, are you there?” Lalekan and Remilekun gave each other the wide-eyedstare again. This time it meant, “do you know who that is?” Remi shuddered her shoulders to say, no. Lalekan went to 42
the window, inspecting the intruder without touching the window blinds. The dark figure was a silhouette of a woman. Lalekan finally asked, “Who is there?” without voicing any words but a response was heard. “Aduni!” There was a short sigh of relief from all three of them. Aduni was allowed in. She wore a rubber slipper on one foot, traces of dried tears in her eyes, some sand in her hair and nothing else. She smelled of smoke and billy goat. Aduni collapsed on the living room floor. Remilekun removed her wrapper and covered her sister’s trembling body. They did not ask questions. Merely looking at her, they could tell all that had happened to her without misguessing. That night, they kept vigil and remained quiet. Boluwatife was forgotten in the bedroom. He and his brothers were the only ones that slept. They slept off while Bolu recalled the story of the woman who should have kept making leather purses instead of buying a field.
Illicit sacrifice “Do not judge me, I beg you, I have already been judged and found guilty. “Do not curse me either, I have been cursed since the day your father, my dear foolish Olalekan, who instead of being a coward took a stance of bravery and fought back the Hausa raiders. Could one man and his dagger fight against another with the thundering weapon? I lost all but gained three hungry children. “Poverty beats the brain beyond function. Hunger starves the soul as it does the flesh. I was but a desperate fool. The good Lord was distant from my grasp. His mercy was stolen from my bosoms.” It has been many years and Oluwaremilekun still practices the words she would speak when she finds her Boluwatife, if that is still his name; her son she sold into slavery. During the days of the civil war, there was also famine and draught. Sacrifices were made; mothers sent their husbands and sons to fight for their homeland against the northerners. Their blood was the price for where they remained. When the war was won in their favour, they inherited a land cursed and made barren from all the blood shed. Remilekun like many other women resorted to selling their children to Europeans and some to Fulani nomads, Ibadan-Yoruba traders and merchants.
The week before the market day, she burnt her knife and needles red and cicatrises her son. She scars his chest and thighs with intricate designs of circular patterns. The same patterns she repeats on herself. Each time the boy squirmed under the needle she said to him, “You are omo ile Oduwa, no matter were you find yourself, to your home you shall return. You are your father’s son, son of this soil.” She also scarred his face with the family tribal marks. This usually discouraged the Europeans from buying, as they do not appreciate any body scarifications on their slaves. Although the slave trading had been abolished, there was still the black market in existence. Now she was certain that he would not be taken across the seas. She had given her first son away swearing it would never happen again. But this was a different circumstance. In exchange for her son, she received three young goats, one male and two females. In due time, their milk and cheese would sustain her and her other two children, in more time she could raise a herd of goats. With all her strength she told her son “You are Boluwatife, when you are a man you will remember and you will come home.” She watched him being chained with the other children. In fear and confusion he began to cry and call for his mother. She heard the whip crack his back and she also began to cry. The tears blinded her eyes but could not deafen her ears. She turned her back and walked away. The screaming and cracking whips got louder and louder, so she took to her heels. The farther and faster she ran the 45
louder the screaming and lashes. They chased after her with fury. It has been fifteen years and they still had not relented. They would remain with her till she holds Bolu once more. The illicit sacrifice to save the lives of four, not three but four, was it worth it? She rubs her thighs and answers YES! He will come home.
Aduni â€œPerilous times will come when a woman with a womb unable to sustain life will rejoice over those that are fertile.â€? The words had come to pass in Aduniâ€™s lifetime. She was grateful her loss was little, as little as shelter, clothing, her workshop, and her womaness. She bore witness to her sister who sold her child for food. She also bore witness to women who lost their children and children who lost their mothers. It would have been the most painful if she lost a child. The fight had been long over and those whose lives had been spared searched for their dead. When the dead were buried, those that still had breath began to scavenge the leftovers of destruction. Aduni wondered why she had been spared death. She wondered why she had so struggled to stay alive. She wondered if death could be better or easier than her new savage life. She left Remilekun for the family house and chose to live in its ruins. She slept in her room that barely protected her from the elements. This time when death comes, she would wilfully give in to it. A few times she had ventured into the street to find fortune in food. She walked to the quarries and offered to break rocks with rocks for enough to feed with for two meals a day. She would have one meal a day. At the quarry, she met with women and children, most of them slept there with the rocks. There were many homeless children. She hardly spoke to anyone. She would break ten head pans of gravel each day. 47
The men who operated the quarry would sometimes call on her holding their crotches in one hand and some coins in the other hand believing she would understand their sign language. None of them really talked to her because they thought she had a touch of madness. Many, many times, she would laugh by herself. When she laughed, she laughed with such a loud shrill that gave all others an eerie feeling. The laughing episodes were times her thoughts played past encounters she had with the husband that sent her packing because she could not bear children. Whenever she saw the homeless children, she laughed because she never thought that she would be happy to be barren. She remembered once her mother-in-law had brought into her matrimonial home, a young girl as a new wife for her son. Aduni was asked to move into another bedroom so the young girl could perform duties she was unable to fulfil. The young girl got pregnant but had a stillborn. Aduni was blamed for this misfortune. They said it was her fault. She was thrown out of her husbandâ€™s house. Aduniâ€™s mother had comforted her when she moved back home, telling her that there was a reason why she was the way she was and with time all things would be made clear. Time had made things clear now. Aduni would still laugh. More children were streaming into the quarry for work and even those too young to lift stones just stood there staring with half-dead eyes. In time there was little to laugh about. Everyone thought she was getting better. 48
Once, the manger of the quarry had asked her to leave the quarry for more profitable work. He had said, “you are young, a bit too thin but a little easy on the eyes. Leave the rock breaking to the older women and learn the new trade of pleasure. Put some meat in your body.” He was smiling so hard; it appeared his facial muscles stretched past elastic limits. “Look at your hands, they are red with bean-sized blisters.” He showed Aduni her hands like she had never noticed the blisters before. She rubbed her hands on his face and then startled him with that shrill laughter of hers. Her thoughts had come into play again. She remembered the time she had left her husband and the life of servitude to him to become a woman of her own. She adopted the traditional occupation of the women, the hand crafted leather purses. She did well for herself. She enjoyed her freedom and cultivated her womaness. Many men wanted to court her, indigenes and foreigners alike. For most of them, it was enough to gaze upon her face to uplift their spirits. There was this man in particular, who would stand by her shop window in the morning, waiting for her to open her store. When he sees her, he would embrace himself and say, “Aduni, Aduni, you live up to your name. You are too sweet to have,” twisting his lips like he was sucking on lime-sugar toffee, “one man can not be enough for you.” “Aduni, Aduni, if I had you for a wife, I will be beside myself. But I am content to see your face every morning.” Sometimes Aduni would ignore him, a few times she would chase him away playfully with her broom and other times, Aduni would walk up to him and cup his face in her hands 49
and the man would dramatise an exaggerated shiver. They would all laugh, onlookers inclusive. He was already married. She wondered what had become of this man and all the other men. What would they think if they saw her now? She missed the admirers but not as much as she missed her shop. She was saving to buy leather. â€œToo sweet to have indeed!â€? She laughed and laughed and held her sides to stop her flanks from bursting. A little boy joined her in her outburst and they laughed together. The manager excused himself. She winked at the child and he smiled at her with a mouth full of gaps, milk teeth and harmattan-cracked lips. That day, she went back home with the child and they were never separated.
Earth to earth “How the Good Lord blessed me in my curse.” Maama used to say that so often but for the first time Oluwaremilekun hated those words. “The old woman had been hurt too often to see the Lord scorned her! Maama had gone mad! So have I!” “Today my soul has vexed for you my creator! Where is the Grace you promised me? Count my blessings? I am a widow, is that my blessing? I cannot feed my children; need I detail my curse? “You promised to be a husband to the widow and a father to the orphans but Your wife is baffled and Your children are hungry. We beg You to end this and give us death, but You are silent. “I hope You are listening? My soul wrestles with You tonight and then You will hate me enough to make me perish. “Olarotimi! Come here! Prostrate before God, tonight your father in heaven will take you! “Have You no pity on this boy with no sin? Jayesimi! I want you here as well. The Almighty wishes to have us for a laugh. He has written a comical script and we must perform for His majesty!” “My mother has gone mad again, her monologue with herself would end up with a lot of tears.” Jayesimi thought to himself, “tomorrow morning we will pray with her for an hour for forgiveness, just as always. I would rather sleep in the storeroom.” The storeroom seemed to hold more comfort and peace. 51
Jayesimi took the kerosene lantern into the storeroom and got careless. Within a few minutes the mud shack was alight. Jaye was in good health but the storeroom razed to the ground. Their grain was gone, their labour for the past six months burned to nothing. Remilekun was not moved, She had seen worse things. So they would not have anything to sell in the market, hunger would visit sooner than she expected. This was her good God’s reply. The last time they wrestled, He killed her chickens. “How petty could You be my dear Lord?” Nonchalantly, she walked over to inspect the damage; the charcoal would be worth something at least. All that was left was a stump of mud wall that remained standing. She leaned against the rubble and refused to cry. Her life was not to be like this. She was a woman of potential. Lekan’s death was her eye opener. She made decisions to the best of her ability. She made plans to move her and her children out of this sad lifestyle. The dream of opening her pottery factory was burned to ash with her storehouse. Her dreams were not selfish, it was a way to institute an industry for herself and the impoverished women in the community. She felt robbed of her dreams and a husband amongst other things. “Blame it on the civil war,” she reminded herself. As soon as the civil war began, Olalekan initiated the plans of moving his family away from town, deeper into the village. He sold his properties for cash, packed up his valuable belongings and settled off his creditors. He owned 52
a depot, which he closed down and began clearing his wholesale inventory. They had packed their belongings and gathered there at the depot. They had been discreet enough to make sure they had not been followed. It was at this time the Hausa raiders appeared. They were like ghost emerging from the sands. They had been notorious for stealing men, women and children as slaves. They raided market places and gloried in their thievery. All they had was plundered. Olalekan was shot in the neck. This transpired eight years ago. The stump of mud wall beckoned to be examined. It was a rather thick wall. She examined it and realized it sounded hollow. She kept thumping at it till the rubbles gave way. Something was definitely inside, and now she realized not all was plundered. The best things Olalekan kept here in the earthen wall. There was more money than she had ever and hoped to ever see, not at a time like this. “If only she had found this before she sold her son into slavery” “If only!” It was bitter sweet, this money she had found. She wished to give it up to have her husband and sons back with her. “Focus!” The energy that burned the store and drew her with all confidence to search the rubble further, spoke to her sternly. “Stay focused!” “Alewi Lese, He that is able to do what He says He will do. Maama was not crazy.”
Silifat Silifat was seventeen when her father gave her away as a gift to his friend, the chief Imam of the central Mosque. The Imam was seventy-three years old with the ‘not more than four wives’ limit exhausted. Silifat remained as she was intended to be, a gift and not a wife. She performed wifely duties as a real wife would but was without the benefits of a real wife. Benefits such as inheritance for her and her fouryear-old daughter she bore to the Imam at the time of the Imam’s expected death of natural cause. She was assisted with very little and was not expected to return to her father’s house. She sort assistance from one of the late Imam’s affluent friends. She had visited this affluent friend, Alhaji, several times while her beneficiary was still alive. On her first visit with her daughter, Alhaji with his wife had welcomed her. That Saturday she was given plenty of food to eat. She divided the plate of food into two. One half, she and her daughter ate, the other half, she emptied into a plastic bag. She had enough for the weekend. Alhaji said the little girl reminded him so much of his late friend, he gave the little girl money. The money was little cash to him but to Silifat, it was the most cash she had ever held in her hands. She made her visits a monthly duty for several years. During desperate times, her monthly visits became weekly. Her daughter was old enough to start primary school education. Alhaji’s wife agreed to sponsor the young girl. 54
Education had become a dire necessity. The girl did not perform well in school and the head teacher advised a home tutor to assist in the training of the girl. Her mother was of little help; she was as illiterate as a plain sheet of paper. Alhaji’s wife suggested they moved in with her and she would see to the upbringing of the girl herself. To make Silifat useful, she sent her to a workshop to learn a trade. Her first day at the workshop, she saw other women, plenty of them, wearing blue aprons, getting busy; very busy. She was not accustomed to work. She had never made use of her hands and never bothered with things that jolted the brain. She felt awkward. The women did not cover up their calves and arms. To her horror, some had the audacity to wear trousers. Some of them had hair with chemicals. She had little desire to associate with these women because they were not Islamic. Her tuition had been paid for. She was handed over to a woman called Remilekun, who took her on a quick tour of the warehouse. She followed behind, trying to match her steps with the other woman. With the humble clothes on her back and her broad nose in the air, she watched everyone. “Here you can learn to weave raffia,” she showed her products made from the material. “Here you can learn to make sleeping mats, brooms, baskets, here you can learn to make leather bags.” Remilekun called out to a woman who wore a different colour of apron, red, ”Aduni, we have a new ward.” She turned and spoke to Silifat quickly, “the teachers wear red aprons.”
Aduni took over the rest of the tour and the room that fascinated Silifat the most was the dressmaking classroom. She said she would like to learn how to make dresses. She was enrolled quickly. Alhaji’s wife bought her a brand new sewing machine. The electronic machine terrified her so much she traded it in for a simple manual machine and some cash against the advise of her teacher. Alhaji’s wife need not know. Workshops began and she learned too slowly. She was dissatisfied and moved over to the ceramics workshop. Irritated with wet clay on her hands, she moved to the raffia class, it was the least demanding. Within a short while, she realised she was not cut out for work. She was made to be a kept woman. She had little interest in anything. What she desired was a husband. Alhaji’s wife was not helping her the right way. She asked Alhaji’s wife to permit her to work for her, send her on errands and she was willing to do domestic chores. Alhaji’s wife did not refuse. Once she settled in with her daughter, she sensed a severe treatment of her and her daughter by Alhaji’s wife and older children. But she had reassured herself that it would not happen for long. She was accused of raising a spoiled child. Alhaji’s wife was no-nonsense. She never spared the rod nor spoiled the child. Many times, Alhaji’s wife had whipped the child for misdemeanours that made Silifat unhappy. There was this time the head teacher had sent a report home saying the little girl was fond of taking off her underpants in class and calling on other children to look into her privates. Alhaji’s 56
wife was horrified at this allegation made against the girl. When asked if it was true, she smiled nodding her head. Silifat defended her daughter saying it was the bad neighbourhood they once lived in that influenced her. Another report was sent yet again. This time Alhaji’s wife called on the little girl. Alhaji’s wife asked to see her bumbum the way she had shown the other children in class. Alhaji’s wife put a handful of dried pepper into the unsuspecting bum-bum. The girl screamed and ran about the place as her privates were on fire. Alhaji’s wife got a hold of her and whipped her severely, warning her that the next time she got a bad report from her teacher, she would pour in a bag of pepper into that bum-bum of hers, showing her the big plastic bag. Alhaji’s wife said to Silifat, “little children are like goat spirits trapped inside a human body, you have to beat the goat out of them.” Silifat was more depressed. She had to look for a way out. A few occasions she had helped serve Alhaji his meals. A few opportunities came when no one was looking, when she served Alhaji his meal, she would flaunt her braless breasts at him. Other times she would rob her buttocks in a way that Alhaji would notice. Alhaji would smile and wipe sweats of his face; his wife could be close by. The day she really got his attention, they were alone in the dining room; she had placed his dish before him and dropped her wrapper. She revealed her bare legs and black spongy overgrown triangle. She bent over to pick her fallen wrapper to reveal another part of her femininity, and Alhaji began to choke on his boiled yam. She left her wrapper to assist Alhaji with 57
a glass of water and her daughter walked in. Silifat sent her daughter back to her room. Everything seemed okay. Alhaji gave her little extras and life was almost the same as it had been with her late Imam, if not better. Her daughter was a good girl. There were no reports from school. Alhaji’s wife would reward her with toys, pretty dresses and other things that made little girls happy. The big Islamic festival was close. Many people did their shopping for the festival, buying big rams and fancy clothes. Alhaji’s wife bought lace for her household. Silifat and her daughter received theirs. When Alhaji’s wife handed them their lace, Silifat’s daughter said thank you, she said she had been good and Alhaji’s wife agreed with her. She said she deserved the lace but her mother did not. She said her mother always showed her bum-bum to Alhaji and should get a bag of pepper instead. Silifat and her daughter left Alhaji’s house that same day. With nowhere else to go to, she returned to the workshop place. Remilekun let her back in. She still had six months credit of tuition. She took her seat and learned to make raffia products.
Time, law and a covenant There is a time to live and a time to die. Death was at the threshold of Olalekan’s mother’s home as she sent for her only daughter inherited through her son’s marriage, Remilekun. There is a time to sow and a time to reap. There is a time to sacrifice and a time to reclaim. True but could one sow faithfulness at a time and reap at a time mistrust instead? Or give love and receive a lie? Sow dedication in service and receive betrayal? Could one give in a lifetime and not receive within that lifetime? “Certain laws should be respected in their trueness even though they are not readily believable. Whether one believes in the law of gravity or not, it must be respected, otherwise a great fall is experienced. If all trueness is searched for, the truth will be found. This is the promise of faith, faith, the heartbeat, the keeper of the soul.” Oluwaremilekun deliberated her situation. With all the love she had shown her late husband, why would he be so unfaithful to her? She gave room to honesty and to herself she had to be true. At a time, she sowed love but in halftruth, now she reaps as she had sown. Her mother-in-law called her to hand over to her, Lalekan’s illegitimate son whose mother also died in the war. He had been kept a secret until now that mama could not cope with his energy and she was ready to breathe her last breath. 59
Forgiveness comes easier when the one wronged is also guilty of the same wrongdoing. Remilekun accepted Olusoga as her son. She remembered Toluwani, she remembered Boulwatife, her lost boys. Olusoga would never replace either of them neither would she believe that he is the product of the laws she unconsciously observed. There were times she thought she wanted to die but it was extreme. She would sleep and then she will awake. She was told she had to be grateful, grateful to awake. Grateful in all sarcasm! But truly within her was a place where hope dwelled. The hope that humbled her to thankfulness and silenced her anger. The ever-so-contentious word, Hope. In her time, she had met they that obsessed life and they that escapism via death was at home. She struggled her way to balance. The way that kept the soul alive when the flesh was dead. She introduced Olusoga to his brothers, Jayesimi and Olarotimi. True to their human nature as Remilekun suspected, the once unrecognised would be in disputes with the ones identified. She had to be wise to manage this shortcoming. Just as one law supersedes another, human nature can be submissive to love. She would show it to all three equally to the best of her ability. She assembled all three to her room to bear her witness before â€˜The All Knowingâ€™. Her bridal quilt she cut in five as a sign of covenant to her Maker. Jayesimi, Olusoga and Olarotimi took one each. The other two pieces, her other two children would acquire at a time the Lord approved. Her soul was in conviction that this would come to pass as long as she loved equally. 60
Three lessons “Jayesimi, do pay attention.” “My dear son, I give you away tomorrow to be one with her. You will leave me to be your own man. I beg you to listen to me and have regard for my words. A lot I have to say to you but they are three. “I tell you, if I were one of the women in the holy Bible, I would be Mary, Mary that kissed His feet. “I am Mary not because I have a foot fetish but because in His presence my knees will tremble though I would eventually learn to stand before Him. “I am Mary not because I am humble by nature but who would not be made humble before Him? I would be closer to earth. Then I would weep my son. I could cry enough tears for you to wash in as big as you are. I would cry because of my fallen state. I do not see purity and innocence, not anymore; this is my pain. “Blessed as I am with a head full of hair; I would clean His feet with my spongy mane. I have a good collection of perfumes and would take my most exclusive wherever I go. I may not remember to use it, who knows, it might be instinctive. “My dear God, what a hypocrite I have become. How easy it is to love You yet so difficult to tolerate my fellow man. To be human is a great task and burden. “I am Mary, thank you because even though I forgot to kiss your feet all because I am too self-absorbed, my Lord
said to me, “Remi, your sins are forgiven.” “My dear young man, a good woman that is shown much love and compassion, will be humble to you. Remember that to whom ever has been forgiven much will show much love in return. “Jayesimi, Everybody is somebody. As the Lord honours you and knows you by name, respect all men. “Forgive those that trespass against you and He will forgive you too, for blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.” Jayesimi paid little attention.
Coconut oil and honey “Why do you force your eyebrows to meet? Are you surprised at what I say? My dear new daughter, do not be embarrassed. We are all women here. These women are my sisters who have come to receive you with me. Be happy my dear, we are here to rejoice but you will learn tonight.” “Do not frown because I talk about breasts. Your breasts are young and alive, if you use them well, they will keep your husband close to your heart even after they wither.” Remilekun cups her weighed down breasts in her hands to illustrate the firmness of the past. “When my breasts still had life to give, I would lavish my skin with coconut oil and rub these with honey. My Olalekan always came back to me.” She says in reminiscence. “Three things a man wants when he comes home from work, a house in order, a good meal and fine backyard with.” They all laugh when she rubs her buttocks to give emphasis to the word backyard. “The third thing is the tricky one. You must always groom your body and soul. There is no fine backyard without a good soul to keep it alive. Love and nurture yourself and it will be easier to do the same to my son.” “My dear, now your face is expressionless. “What must I do to put a smile on that pretty face of yours?” Remilekun was too happy to have anyone not affected by her elation. “A pretty face like yours must always have the smile of 63
the gazelle to go with. You know gazelles will still smile in the face of danger,” the woman the bride calls Aunty Aduni says. “Does she not remind you of a gazelle?” she asked the other women who all seemed to scrutinize her with laughing eyes, they liked what they saw. “Her big dark eyes and her long delicate but graceful neck. The most beautiful women were once gazelles, did you know that?” “Now she smiles. She has good teeth. Why have you been hiding them? Or do you have a secret to keep from us? Do you know that beautiful women like yourself always have secrets?” “What do you mean by beautiful women have secrets? Do not all people have a secret or two to keep from others?” The shy bride responded. “You do not know the old women’s folk tale that says so?” Aunty Know-this-know-that continues, “I’ll tell you. A young hunter, Olode, while hunting, met a beautiful girl in the forest. Beautiful! Olode was in awe of her beauty. He asked her to become his wife. He promised to honour her and care for her. She agreed to his proposition on the condition that he must never look at her feet; no one must look at her feet. Her feet were covered up. He took her home as his bride and at the gates of his home, his other wives asked to wash her feet, as it was the customary for new wives being introduced to their new home. He refused to have anyone touch her. On her account he defied the traditions and for this he was mocked by all, family and neighbours inclusive. One day, Olode with his curious heart
and mischievous hands lifted the wrapper of his beautiful wife while she was fast asleep. In shock he exclaimed, “YE KPA!” because of what he had seen. She woke up knowing Olode had betrayed her. She left him and never returned. My dear do you have any secrets?” “But what did Olode see? What was the big secret?” the bride asked. “She had the hoofs of a gazelle instead of feet.” The bride uncovers her feet for all to inspect, “As for secrets, I do not have the hoofs of a gazelle.” The bride was finally easy. The ceremonial washing of the feet of the bride at the threshold of their compound had been observed and the prayers were said. The chitchat with the mothers was over and the real reception began. The dancing will last two nights. It was the first celebration in a long, long time. Oluwaremilekun danced joy to the world like the wrappers around her waist were on fire. There was food and there was drink and the gates were open to all to join in the festivity.
My homesick heart One thing I always look forward to when visiting my hometown is to weave my hair the traditional style that the city hairdressers could not do. In the city, hair is woven in the outward-cornrow style but in my hometown the weaving is matted inwards. This style is fast going out of fashion. But I like it anyway. Not the hairdo per say, which never lasts for more than a week but the whole process that makes my often homesick heart feel really at home again. There is a place dedicated to women hairstylist not far from the market place. This place has the cool shade of the agbalumo and fruit trees. I hear, many generations of women have worked here, and the place never changes; like the old-woman-hairstylist who sits on a stool while you get your hair plaited, crouching on the raffia mat with your head pushed between her legs to hold your head in place as you take in whole breaths of foul odour. Despite this discomfort, you look forward to listening to these women talk. What makes their conversations interesting whether you participate or not, is you would never hear so much information anywhere else. They talk so much sense and so much nonsense. This is a place where affluent women and less fortunate women are the same. Here, they are unified and I feel I belong with them. It is the connectivity that I can never get from anywhere in the city. This day, I wanted to do the â€˜ipako eledeâ€™, a hairstyle named after the scull of a pig because of itâ€™s resemblance 66
to a pig’s hairdo, a little to the front and a little to the back. I needed a change from my regular hair style ‘koroba’, which has plaits woven from the middle of the head down to all sides like a bowl. This day was windy and ripe agbalumos fell from the trees, hitting me on my back. A woman called Aduni was also there getting her hair plaited. “Which man do you know,” she asked whoever was listening, “would give his woman wings to fly?” She was not expecting any immediate reply. “Men refer to us as birds and chicks. Do you know if ever they caught a bird, they would either clip its wings or keep it caged?” “Yes oh, my sister,” one woman responded, “I agree with you. When I was much younger, I wanted to be a big secretary otherwise why did I go to school? Before I married my husband, he agreed to allow me pursue my work and training but na lie. It was belle after belle, pikin after pikin. Seven children, I have to forget career.” “If any man was ever so nice and generous, he would give you wings made of gold. Of what use is that if the gold weighs you down? The whole idea is to suppress you. Se you know?” “I don’t mind being suppressed with gold.” Another woman replied. “My dear, you sell your soul,” Aduni said. “Yes oh! For gold!” other women agreed. “You lot prefer gold to freedom?” “Freedom is relative. My boyfriend allows me to work, he does not complain,” a young girl said. 67
“So he can spend your money. Do you think he will marry you?” “My husband is different,” a middle-aged woman said. “I refer to them as destroyers of the universe,” another woman said disregarding the middle-aged woman. “My husband is a wonderful man.” “Monkey no fine…” “Him wife go like am!” they chorused. “Honestly my husband loves me,” this one insisted. “I asked my husband once if he loves me, he got upset and said he is an African man, African men don’t love.” She continued, “he said that I am a chicken complaining it has no teeth to chew with but it’s getting fat and still feeding. Please ask me, what has love got to do with chickens?” “Honestly, you women that want nice things from your husbands, do you support your men in return?” A man dared to ask. “See you, I pay my children’s fees!” “I feed my house without his help and even when his greedy mouth should ask for cat-fish, I give him. But does he give me feeding allowance? No!” “By the way, who allowed you here? You no fear?” Men never ventured into this area unless they were hawking products women were generally interested in. Collectively, they rained insults on him, calling him woman-wrapper, stoning him with agbalumo and other small objects. Things had settled down again, “My husband, after chasing me away seventeen years ago, wants me back.” Aduni clapped her hands three times and hissed. “His mother
is dead now, he has no one to care for him.” “Leave him let him suffer,” some said and one other said, “my friend there are not many men alive here. Keep him if he will be useful.” “I wonder if it is not because of my money he wants me back, after all I hear he has other women.” Some of the other women where there and they said little. I asked Aduni what she did for a living and she asked me to look into my bag. I did. She asked me to read the name on the label and it read ‘Alterative’. In the city, we liked ‘Alternative’ products but knew little of the producers. She said she made it. She and her colleagues teach other women how to make different exportable items. They had a workshop. She invited me to her workshop. I did not think that plaiting my hair would lead me to such a place. It was a privilege I must confess, I was beyond doubt proud to be in the midst of these women, three of them. They represent a committee called ‘The Alternative’ for women who need an alternative to an undignified vocation. I have seen so many of their products, I had to come and bear witness for myself. It is unbelievable the strength each woman has, to bear the burdens of her community but Remi, the founder of this committee of more than a hundred women, corrects me that it is not ‘the burdens’ but ‘the life’. “Where we come from, hunger, prostitution, slavery and plenty plenty sad things, are not a burden but they are life, sad life.”
I had the opportunity to spend time with them for three days before heading back to the city; it was enlightenment for me in my myopic world. It took a lot of courage for me to look into their eyes, as I spoke one-on-one with each of them. Their eyes were like the eyes of spirits, hallow, women with aging experiences and wisdom but most certainly childlike hearts. They are child-like because of their simplistic approach to existence, the choice to be or not to be and the choice to do or not to do. This is the philosophy of The Alternative; it gives the women an opportunity to make choices. They are taught the art of making exportable crafts. Aduni, the most talkative of the three women and a mother of sixteen adopted children says; “I have not always been talkative but raising my sixteen children extended my vocal accords. Se you know, our society is wicked to the motherless child and the childless mother.” There was hardly any conversation she had without saying ‘do you know?’ Or ‘se you know’, like she was trying to tease your resoning. “An orphan is treated with disdain. They are only used as farm slaves and domestic servants even those that are not without other relatives. You should know this; a woman in the city can adopt an orphaned niece as her personal servant. Often times they are acquired and sold like common merchandise. The abuse is heart wrenching. “Do you know, there have been times I wonder at the ability of human wickedness, the intent to destroy something simply because it is pure and even beautiful? I understand that there are people that are cruel for gains but those who wear brutality as skin is beyond me. 70
“And you know a barren woman is not favoured any less. My mother-in-law in all ignorance and sincere concern called me a witch who needed a spiritual bath. If any woman lost a child in my neighbourhood it was my fault, I had eaten it spiritually. Se you know, in a place where men send their wives packing for bearing female children, barren women have no chance. It has been an incredible journey raising sixteen children but the pleasure is all mine.” Oluwaremilekun is the gifted ceramist and potter that tutors the local women in the art of pottery and other crafts making. She became a ceramist even before she knew the meaning of the word. This is a woman who was once so poverty stricken, she sold her own child to slavery after the civil war. “I think back on that day and I know then that I had few options. It was either I sold my son or we wait and see death come in a very slow stride. Once I overcame my circumstances I knew I had an assignment to ensure other women after me had more choices,” Remi confided in me. “When I was much younger I had so many dreams and visions of pottery. I had a dear friend in school Ayokunle, who told me a story once about a man seeking favour from God. He took with him a pot full of big dreams; everything he ever wanted was in it. With great care he presented it before his maker for blessings. His maker took the pot from him, held it up rather intently careless as if to examine it closely and it dropped and broke into many irreparable pieces. This man stood agape. His good Lord broke his dreams. In greater disbelief than hope he stood before God with unuttered words. 71
“Dear God picked up all the pieces and ground them back to fine dust and remoulded a new pot similar to the previous, fired it and glazed it. He then picked it up in his big hand and with great strength threw it hard against the floor. The pot bounced right back into his hand and He handed it back to the young man saying, “be on your way, it is blessed” “This story was a confirmation to my adolescent heart that I had to be a potter. I was growing up and seeing “Aye”, a word the Yoruba use to express the World not in its geographical entity but the phenomenon of its spirituality intertwined with its inhabitants and their life. Aye is not usually a good word. “I have realized that my calling is not to be a potter but to be like The Potter, it is the responsibility to serve and be in the service of others. I am happiest teaching other women how to work and earn a respectable income.” Maria named herself Maria when she settled down in the Baptist missionary centre where she became friends with Remi. She was born a slave and had her name changed with every new owner she served. She was separated from her mother when she was six and bore her own first child at fourteen and the second at sixteen. When she learned her children would be sold just as she was separated from her mother, she made her run without looking back. When she talked herself as a slave, she uses the word “Eru”. In the city, we like to call slaves, servant to ease our conscience. But really what do you call a servant that earns little or no wages? 72
She gained employment at the Baptist missionary school of nursing where she met her husband, a resident doctor, who has been of great encouragement to ‘the Alternative’ Organization. I had to ask each of them how they continued to live without the victim ideology because I never once heard them apportion blame not even to the civil war. Maria said, “Everyone is a victim of life, get over it! Not until recently, I learned to smile. I had no reason until my children’s first day at school and I looked forward to the day after. The doctor then who’s now my husband said the smile suits me just fine. “What I am trying to say is it never occurred to me to want to be or even realize I was a victim of abuse. “I believe that in everyone’s life, there is a time for a second birth. Before a boy becomes a man and a girl becomes a woman of purpose they must give birth to themselves. The Yoruba’s say “omo eniyan ni o tun ara re bi” it is a part of man’s journey when he looses the baggage of the past and recreates himself. It should be the metamorphosis of the spiritual mind, like the maggots become the flies and like the caterpillar becomes a butterfly. You become accountable and the past is lightly considered in judgment. Being born a slave is not enough excuse to remain a slave. I am now a partaker of life’s greatest luxury, Love. “There is an existence where the deprivation of mercy is so paramount that the necessity for love and compassion is unconsidered. Remember love and mercy are sisters but they are not the same. A slave may yearn mercy from his
master, freedom and lighter burden of work so much that there is no room to receive or give compassion and love. The heart is hard. I am fortunate to have both find me.â€? I listen to these women and I am sober. I ask myself, how useful am I to humanity? Neither self-abasement nor self-gratification dared to suffice in my answer to myself. We can all do a little more.
Cleft for me “If the oracles are not to blame then who is? This woman must be a witch! This monster is not my child. God forbid it!” The ‘this woman’ he referred to was his wife, his ‘my love’, ‘my sugar’ thirty minutes ago. “Take it away, do whatever you want but this thing is not coming home with me!” If he had not been in the delivery room with the doctor and mid-wife, he would have sworn he was given the wrong baby. “You must have had an affair, you slut!” He spat at her. “Shameless woman, the least you could have done was sleep with a man and not a dog!” If her condition were not that of a woman who had been in labour twelve hours, with the great fury of Sango, the god of thunder he would have descended on his once ‘my love’. If not for the presence of witnesses he would have strangled the tiny infant. “Mr. Sarumi, please sir calm down let us go to my office.” Dr. Oluwatoyosi Olujobi did her best to pacify him. “Take your mouth away from this issue, it does not concern you!” wishing he could snap her neck also. “That is the doctor you are talking to! Show some respect! If you do not calm down and listen to the doctor I will get someone that will sober you up quickly.” The black, robust, quick tongued, quick-tempered nurse spoke up. She was well known in the community she had nursed for twenty years. He followed Dr. Olujobi to her office. She was new in 77
her appointment here and a female doctor was scoffed in this chauvinistic town. She was converting them slowly. They never thought she would last six months but she was determined, she would win them over. She was barely forty and that made things more difficult but she was up for the challenge. Old male doctors were revered and preferred. She refused to perform abortions; the elders liked that but not all of them. She looked so thin and frail, her mother is this way and she cannot help it. The men in the community came to her office reluctantly but when they were on their way out of her office, you would hear ‘thank you sir!’ She did a man’s job and she did it well. Once they were in her office, she sat him down. “Mr. Sarumi, what has happened to your child is not uncommon.” “That is not my child!” “Shut up and listen!” stern and no-nonsense. He listened without interruptions thereafter. “Your child,” emphasizing ‘your’ as though to remind him of all the times he brought his wife for her regular checkups to the hospital. They always seemed in love. “Your child has what is called a cleft palette. This case thankfully is not severe. I am myself surprised since it is usually caused by a lack of iron and folic acid in pregnant women, which alters the proper development of the upper mouth, lip and nose in foetuses. I gave your wife a diet to follow but there are times unusual things occur in the foetus formation.” She then brought out a book with pictures of these deformations and showed it to him. He went through it with unreserved disgust. She was hoping that seeing worse 78
cases would make him more appreciative. “I can assure you that a woman cannot give birth to a dog’s baby and this cleft palette can be corrected, unfortunately you would have to see a specialist in the big city. It cost money. But other than the splitting of the upper mouth area of your baby, she is perfectly healthy and can live as a normal child.” He sniggered sarcastically at the word normal. “A cleft palette is not evidence of infidelity. Do not make unfounded accusations about your wife. She needs your support now, so she can care for the little one. You can also have other children without this ever occurring again once you follow doctor’s orders strictly without pretence. At the same time the mid-wife gave her support to the new mother explaining her own informed version of the cleft palette. “My dear, don’t cry. It is not your fault. They come like albinos, dwarfs and twins.” Mr. Sarumi came back to the ward to see his wife. He looked fiercely at his once ‘my sugar’ and an unheard communication between them ensued. He would forgive her but he did not want the child. Neither did she. It was time to breast-feed but the young woman would not stop lamenting. How could she bring this thing to suckle at her breast? She would not bond with her daughter; she would not even hold her. This thing had come to cause a rift between her and her darling husband, this disgrace of a thing. Was she asking too much to have a perfect child for her husband? At night the infant would cry for food and the mother 79
would ignore it. It will stop once it is tired of crying, she thought. The crying got louder the longer she ignored it. All of a sudden it got too much to bear. “SHUT UP! WHY ARE YOU CRYING? SHUT UP!! SHUT UP!!!” She grabbed her pillow and pushed it against her child to suffocate the noise. The night duty nurse rushed in, in time to rescue the baby. She carried the baby and began rocking and dancing to the infant’s indistinct complaints. “Are you insane? You want to kill this child?” panting, still trying to comfort the baby. “Yes I am insane, this thing is driving me insane. It won’t stop crying.” “That is what babies do best.” She examined the baby and its stomach was lean and she smelled of excrement. The nurse cleaned her, fed her and rocked her to sleep. The nurse returned to the young woman, “I had a problem bonding with my first child too, I understand. But holding her close to my bosom to feed her a few days after she was born, I fell in love with her. Try, carry her, she is beautiful, see.” She put her hand over the baby’s mouth in a bid to obscure her misfortune and she looked beautiful indeed. Thick, soft, black hair. She had shiny brown skin, big eyes with long lashes. The nurse placed her in her mother’s care. The next morning, Dr. Olujobi resumed late. She went straight to the emergency ward and became familiar with the new in-patients. Back at her office she prepared to resume consultation with outpatients, then she noticed the baby placed in her chair behind the desk. “Sarumi!” she sighed. She went to the room Mrs. Sarumi was placed in and it was empty. She had upped and left. 80
Dear Peju, It is almost a year and I find it a miracle that I am still in this backward town. I still have no friends. You must take heart; today I write you an epistle, be patient to read. Writing you amongst others is the high point of my social life here. It is work, work, and work. I swear, I am not complaining. I know I made the decision to move to a rural town and give up a life of plenty. I miss Lagos and I miss England. You must stop referring to Adeolu. I am not running away from him, he is with his wife and I have decided to move on with my life. A life without him is a life without deception. I gave him five years and it was lie after lie. I have always wanted to come back to my hometown but I didnâ€™t think it would be this early. My flat is so much more habitable than when you first came to visit, now that I am better settled. Although I miss the luxury of a water heater in my bathroom, I am adjusting fine. My garden is growing fast and pretty and I am excited about living in my own house. I actually grow my own vegetables. Today in the delivery room, I was taken aback. In my sixteen years of practice as a doctor, I have been able to absorb a lot of shocking occurrences but nothing is as fascinating as human behaviour, there are many surprises. When you think oh, I have seen the worst; the worst is redefined. A girl of about nineteen came to me for an abortion but she was twenty-five weeks pregnant. I had to turn her down, explaining to her the risk of having an abortion this late. I warned her not to try going to the quack-doctors or she would die in their hands. I promised her my full support in counselling if she continued with the pregnancy and she listened. I encouraged her, gave her free anti-natal checkups.
Today, at the delivery ward, she was doing just fine. She was 81
brave all through her labour pains. Just as the baby’s head was out, she stopped pushing. She clinched her thighs together and closed it tight. I told her to open up but she laid back and with all her strength, she kept her thighs clasped. The midwife and I tried everything to open this girl’s legs but it was impossible. I went crazy and began slapping her thighs because she was suffocating the baby. The midwife as big as she was, kept tearing at her legs and I was hitting her on the chest. She was determined but eventually we succeeded. We succeeded too late. The baby died soon after it was born. I went ballistic and attacked the girl. She was a lot bigger than me but I was sure I could break her. The head nurse, you remember her? The fat black woman picked me up and slumped me over her shoulders, took me to the next room and I just kept crying and crying. How unfair! The ones that want don’t get and the undeserving are blessed! Earlier in the week, a soldier man was brought in from a car accident. His injury to the arms and head were minor and healed fast. During the time he was unconscious, the nurse assigned to give him a bed bath became very mischievous. When she undressed him, she called the other nurses and made a spectacle of him. I realized they all had a nickname for him but I didn’t know why until he complained of pain in his groin. When he took off his pants, he was as big as my forearm and guess what? It was in its flaccid state. The silly man stood akimbo, hands on his hips, pushing his pelvis towards me. In his deepest, proudest voice, he announced he had six children. He had concerns that the accident might have affected him there and he worried further about his performance in the bedroom
although he had the pains before the accident. Well, it was his prostate and after several tests, results showed he had been shooting blanks and there was no way he fathered any children. 82
The wife begged not to reveal this to her soldier man. She said she was not promiscuous, how could she be with a man built like a horse. She suspected her husband was sterile after three years of marriage without child and he wanted children so much. “He is a good man, a good father. Please I can’t disgrace him.” She begged me. You remember the baby with the cleft palette that was abandoned at the hospital? I traced her parents. I know I should not get involved but I have a feeling that child will not survive in that home if I forced her on them. The father swore he did not want to see his child but I do not think the mother is hard-hearted. She can only make decisions based on her husband’s happiness. Well I agreed to be the baby’s foster mother, she lives with me and the mother comes to nurse her during the day while I am at work. So, I am a mother! I am not sure the reality has sunk in yet but I am excited about loving someone unconditionally. Please do not see this as a desperate response from me. Please be happy with me. It was a decision I made carefully. I have not told my sisters, I am not sure they will understand. I named her Cecilia. Sisi for short, she will be beautiful when she grows up. When will you visit me again? I miss you most of all. It would be a pleasure to see you again. Any man yet? Please do not give up like I have. How is the furniture business? Making a lot of money? As absurd as this sounds coming from me, Peju, please be happy. I see people die every other day and then wonder if they lived a life worth living. If it was lived well then yes, it was worth it. Be good to yourself. Yours sincerely, Toyosi Olujobi 83
This little light “Children, please settle down, be quiet, I’ll like you to meet a new pupil in our class. Do you want me to introduce you?” “No ma, I can introduce myself.” She was bold, smart and well spoken. The teacher smiled at her and turned her around to face the other children who were now seated quietly. “Why is she wearing a mask?” A few of the children asked, “Why is she covering her mouth?” Cecilia wore a small sized surgical mask made of a material like tissue. Mama Toyo sometimes made her wear it to stop other children teasing and making fun of her. “Children can be cruel sometimes because they do not know any better. Do not get sad or upset about it, they are not used to people who are different,” she would say. Cecilia took off the mask and gave her biggest brightest smile. She never liked wearing the mask; it was uncomfortable. She had had the first surgery done to stop food passing through the sinus cavity and to properly digest food since the roof of her mouth was not sufficiently formed. The surgery was very expensive and rarely done in the big city at this time and Cecilia had waited so long for the first surgery even though her doctor mother pulled a few strings to shorten the waiting period. The next stage would be the cosmetic, plastic surgery to remedy any superficial deformities but there were hardly any plastic surgeons practicing in the country then. 84
The children gasped at the sight of her smile. Her upper lip was barely full and split to her nose, exposing a split gum and displaced milk teeth. “Why is her mouth like that? Did she have an accident on her mouth?” A little albino girl wearing thick glasses asked in a loud crisp voice. “I was born like this.” She answered without offence taken. “Oh! Like I was born white and pink?” And the class laughed and turned their attention to the albino girl, teasing her. “Okay, quiet now, let her introduce herself.” “My name is Cecilia. I am six and a half years old. My mummy is a doctor. I am in the children’s church choir and I like to sing. Can I sing, please?” The teacher nodded with a smile and she sang. The song was ‘this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.’ The class children knew the song and joined in. It ended with a round of applause and Cecilia enjoyed the attention. When it was time for her to take a seat, she was drawn towards the white and pink girl who was waving frantically at her, she had prepared a seat for Cecilia. “Can I touch your lips?” the girl asked, and Cecilia smiled pushing her face towards the girl. “Does it hurt?” “No.” “My name is Moyo. I like your hair, it is so long and black.” “I like your hair, its like yellow cotton wool.” They both
smiled and remained fascinated with each other. It was her first day at a new school and she brought a friend home. Toyosi was delighted. Moyo’s mother, a nurse in the same hospital as Dr. Olujobi, lived in the staff Quarters not far from the doctor’s house. They made good friends and a good part of their childhood would be spent together. The best part of it was when they baked mud cakes in imaginary ovens and garnish them with bougainvillea flowers and deliver them to the fat black nurse who in turn gives them ‘ojojo’, fried water yam cakes. She plaited their hair into fat braids, neatly and ready for the first school day of the week. This was a Sunday evening ritual. Moyo’s scalp was soft and tender and rather painful to plait. The fat black nurse would tell stories, folk tales and sing songs that got the little girls so excited, they’d forget their scalps were being pinched and their heads and necks twisted and turned in impossible poses. “Alo O!” This was to announce the beginning of a fable. “Alo!” The children or listeners would reply. They set their ears ready to listen. “There was this fine widow with four children. Their names were Bele Bele, Bele Kuku, Bele Matani and Kwakwakwa. All the children were fine like their mother except for Kwakwakwa, who was a stepchild. She warned her children never to open door to strangers whenever she was away from the house. “When she came back from her outing, she would knock on the door and sing a song which chorused; 86
Bele Bele, come here, Bele Kuku, come here, Bele Matani, come here, But Kwakwakwa, stay there! At this part of the story the children will sing as loudly as possible the chorus of the story. This was always the best part, any part the chorus came up. “Bele, Kuku and Matani would open the door and greet their mother. She would buy them gifts and sweets and they would all ignore Kwakwakwa. Kwakwakwa was not liked because he looked different from the other children. A day came when a monster that ate children came to the door and knocked hard but the children would not open the door, so it hid himself in the bushes and waited till their mother came home. He listened to the song their mother sang and learned it. The day the children where home alone, the monster knocked on the door and sang the song in a deep, harsh voice,” a voice the storyteller and her listeners would mimic. “The children did not open the door saying, ”Our mother’s voice is not deep and coarse.” The monster ate some chalk and then sang softly. Bele, Kuku and Matani rushed to the door and opened it. The hungry monster ate them all up and left. The mother came home, knocked on the door and sang but the door remained shut. She sang three times without response until she sang, “Kwakwakwa come here!” Kwakwakwa opened the door and explained what happened to her children. She cried and cried but Kwakwakwa consoled 87
her. Soon, Kwakwakwa and the widow became friends and even though Kwakwakwa did not look like her, they learned to love each other and they lived happy together.â€? Moyo and Cecilia never understood the moral of the story but learned never to talk to strangers and to be absolutely certain before opening the doors at home.
The games children play Moyo, Cecilia’s best friend was going away for the long holiday to be with her grandparents in the village and Cecilia could not go with her. Cecilia’s foster mother, Dr. Olujobi could not travel with Cecilia either, there was too much work at the hospital. Cecilia was rather lonely. She had come to know her biological mother as an aunty that came to see her once a month. Even though she was a child, she felt unloved by this woman who stole ribbons from her hair anytime she visited. Dr. Olujobi, whom she called Mama Toyo was the only mother she knew until Toyosi explained to her that she had two mothers and only very lucky special children had two mothers. There was an outbreak of cholera in the town and most staffs of the hospital worked late hours. There was hardly anyone available to baby-sit Cecilia during the day. This pressured Mama Toyo to approach Cecilia’s biological parents to allow Cecilia spend some time with her siblings during the day. Cecilia was a happy child lacking very little. Her skin was healthy, her hair shone, long and neatly plaited. She wore pressed clothes and socks with her shoes. She looked perfect except her lips, split to her nose. Her speech was fluent and her English language was spoken like the English except for the occasional lisping caused by the gap in her upper teeth and gum. Mama Toyo sent her to the best school. All her attributes were noticed by all, even her father when
he met her again for the first time in nine years, saw features of himself in her. Mrs. Sarumi her mother, only told her “that is daddy,” pointing to him, omitting the word ‘your’ that should precede daddy. She met her other siblings, five in all. She looked like the peacock in the midst of locally bred chickens loosing their plumage. She hated Cecilia for making her children look poorly cared for. They wore only pants at home. Full clothing was only worn to school and church and any other important place or important days of the year. Mrs. Sarumi asked Cecilia to take her clothes and shoes off so they do not get dirty while they played and the doctor would not get upset about dirty clothes, like she cared what the Doctor felt. Cecilia was given a scarf, which she wrapped around her body and knotted in place behind her neck. They played in the front yard with three other children, neighbours, two of them were older than Cecilia and the youngest was tending towards obesity. She learned to make and fly kites with broomsticks, old papers and waste nylon bags. She learned new songs and games. They played hide and seek and whenever the ones seeking found the ones hiding, they’d say, “Mo ri e, mo ri e, mo ri e Ma fi fila bori e Mo ma so fun mama e Mo ma so fun baba e Ise agbepo lon se” I see you, I see you, I see you Do not cover your head with a cap 90
I will tell your mother I will tell your father You work as a sewage carrier. Cecilia and the over sized girl had their turn to hide and the girl suggested they hide on top of a shed were Mrs. Sarumi kept her ikoko, clay cooking pots. Cecilia went up first and helped the other girl up by extending her hand to pull. The first step the big little girl took on the old zinc roof covered with dried palm fronds thatch, broke every thing beneath her foot. The fat girl landed first with Cecilia landing on top of her. Mrs. Sarumi’s pots suffered great damage. Mr. Sarumi heard the loud crash and ran out to find out what happened. The fat girl pushed Cecilia hard on top of the broken pot, got up quickly and shouted “Sisi, look at what you have done,” everyone gathered around to see Cecilia with the broken pots. ”Sisi has broken mama’s pots!” “I didn’t do it! She is lying! The roof collapsed when she climbed on it.” Cecilia was astounded to hear the revised version of the recent occurrence. “Did you climb this roof?” Mr. Sarumi asked softly but really he was concerned she did not hurt herself. Cecilia said yes but the other girl denied going near the shed and pointed out as a matter of fact she was too fat to climb. “If your mother gets back to see this she will beat you bad. You have to go back to your doctor.” He touched her for the first time, cleaning the dust and sand off her body. He sent her off in the scarf she wore to the hospital accompanied by the oldest of the children.
Seeing Cecilia in this state was a silent warning from Mr. Sarumi not to send her back, she did not fit in neither did she belong. It reminded her that they had abandoned Cecilia for a reason. Dr. Olujobi paid for the broken pots and returned the scarf Cecilia wore. Ceciliaâ€™s dress, shoes and socks were never returned.
Personal diary, Day 38 Thirty-eight days into my five years assignment to pioneer the environmental science faculty in the third university built in the western part of Nigeria, but the first day I have decided to keep a personal diary other than the study diaries and reports I submit to the N.I.U. at the end of every month. I have never thought it wise to keep a personal diary but there are certain occurrences that make wise thoughts irrelevant. The thirty-eighth day, today, this certain occurrence gave light to a life within me, awakening a part of me that wilfully submitted itself to career and professionalism. When there is this light, there is time and time must be recorded and accounted for. I am not sure I can maintain the habit of personal record keeping but I must write about today even though I am to remember today for many years to come, unaided. My ear had been aching for two weeks and I had managed the discomfort until it bothered my sleep last night, forcing me to seek medical attention. I hate to visit hospitals and the doctor that examined me must have thought me to be uncooperative. The minute I saw her, my symptoms changed and my body confused my thinking. She asked me questions and I lost my sense of speech. She spoke while examining my ears and I got temporarily deaf. She touched me to feel my pulse and I had palpitations. I broke into a sweat; her touch was hot. 93
I wonder if she was aware she caused these effects. She seemed impatient at first but smiled when she thought my reasoning had found me or maybe she thought I was nervous, a good-looking nervous man I must say. Maybe I was nervous, all my senses failed me except my sense of sight and smell. She was brown, I like brown. She was slender but curved in the right places. I swear her breasts must be perky, they spoke an inaudible language and they called me by name. She had the face of loveliness itself. The Lord was generous with her large almond shaped eyes and full fleshed lips. She looked so delicate, I had to pledge within me to serve and protect her whether or not she wanted or needed me to. Yes, she should need me to. But want? I will make her want. She smelled like exotic oils, clean and fresh, certainly seductive oozing off the flesh of a goddess. Her ring finger was missing a band, neither gold metal nor lighter coloured skin. I swore to myself to put one there. Would she like that? Iâ€™ll make her like it even though it might take a while. No ring, no complications, I like that. This is not my typical attraction to older women; this is not merely an attraction. She must be older than I; her eyes say so even though her breasts deny her age. I tried to hide my shamelessness but I think she noticed. I have altered my timetable; I have to dedicate time to hospital visits. I am beginning to enjoy the sound of the word hospital. The word Toyosi, her name, made me quiver in excitement, I like that even more. I enjoy the symptoms both words create in my body. Day thirty-nine, I will see her again. 94
Personal diaries, 365 days later The outcry, â€œCrucify, crucify him!â€? left a trail of blood and I followed. In all my years of travel and endless wandering, I had never seen a more contentious, sadistic horde of persecutors; yet amongst them were they that begged mercy. Mercy was not in attendance. The trail of spotting scarlet beckoned me to follow. I had to see its bearer, unsparing to let. Threading my way through the eye of the upheaval, I met with the once white cloth that almost covered his loins, even closer, the facets of laceration forced open by broken glass affixed to leather lariats. He was made to carry a rafter or two of cedar, crossed to silhouette his stretched arms. He slowed in pace and I proceeded faster that I might overtake him. As I turned to face him, I trembled but he stumbled, the weight of the dead tree on a man losing life. They that he called the daughters of Jerusalem cried his name Jesus. And I remembered him. His bleeding face was the same one once on the mountains, teaching. I was on my nomadic expedition that day when I heard a voice in the mountains teaching as one having authority. I was a clear distance away but his voice came louder the farther I went from him. I was in the midst of multitudes but he spoke to only me, convicting my soul of unpitying contempt. For months his voice kept haunting my conscience, I had to return to seek him to free me with his words. 95
But here he was, on a journey to Calvarius, Golgotha. Trodden by the weight of the cross, he lifted his bloodied and spattered head, he looked up at me and my heart went out to him. What could he have done? He was extreme enough to call on the Almighty as Father but I believed. Within that brief moment I was thrust forward by the disarraying crowd and the Centurion pressed me to carry the cross. As the dead weight thumped my shoulders, I remembered Alexander and Rufus, how little of a father I had been to them. My obsession for exploration of mysteries unsolved deprived them of a fellowship I was privileged to observe with my own father. Their mother, how unfaithfully I loved her. I have had an unceasing affair with my self-absorbed adventures. My flesh revealed its inadequacies to my seeking soul. My head deserved the thorn crown for injustice I condoned. Many times, I had turned a blind eye to atrocities committed by my fellow men as it was being done this day. My self-righteousness told me I was better than they that partake in these practices. The weight of the cross reminded me of the nature of man that requires an uplifting of the spirit. The truth be told, my sins need not be grave to understand that I needed redemption but in a while he was crucified on that cross. If I, Simon of Cyrene, felt deserving of the cross, what could he have done? His charge was then read, ”King of the Jews.” “King of the Jews”? Was that it? What man isn’t deserving of the cross, as all men are capable of great evil? Are not all 96
men as guilty as Barabas, yet this Jesus took his place? Then I understood neither Barabas nor I were worthy of this sacrifice. I remembered the words he spoke on the mount asking me to trust. I need the new beginning and I need forgiveness. He attained my sins once more. With his last breath I heard him say, â€œIt is finished.â€? Almost two thousand years later, I wrote these words and read it before the congregation on Easter Good Friday at the Anglican Church. I was invited to give a speech on what Easter meant to me. I was reluctant to attend church let alone give a speech in church. The reverend father was my grammar schoolâ€™s headmaster while I attended that school many years back. It was a Friday I did not want to spend in church. He still had that power to make me do whatever he wanted. It was a long speech, as short as the composition I wrote. After every sentence I said, I had to pause for the translator to relate the words in Yoruba, the local dialect. The season got everybody sober for at least that day and there was an air of holy spirituality. But there were a lot of influences that drowned the essence of the Easter. The blessings lasted usually during that period alone. In a town where there were three main religions, Christianity, Islam, traditional worship, spirituality was principal. Most Africans are spiritual. It is true and rightly said that indeed religion is the opium of the people. It is a lethal but legal drug. The more needy 97
people become addicts. There is no such thing as overdose and even if there was such, those diagnosed as overdosed proudly bore a name ‘fanatics’; this was something to be proud of. The word fanatic is translated as genuine and dedicated. Religion brings segregation or maybe it gives reason for segregation. People cannot just get along. There were always religious clashes. Christians burned shrines; traditionalists disrupted both mosques and church services. Moslems burned churches and loathed the pagans. Christians never suffered a witch to live. Religious intolerance. These clashes and violence had nothing to do with neither spiritual cleanliness nor soul redemption. A girl passes in front of a mosque in a pair of trousers with her head uncovered; it would be enough reason to burn houses of Christians. Three women dream of the same person and she is declared a witch, that was all it took to spill blood. The local newspaper carries an article of a personal opinion of a journalist’s religious bias and heads will roll. There was an on going religious unrest in the country. Those within this community did not want a fight so everyone was unusually polite. There was respect for boundaries. The hospital provided a neutral ground for ceasefire. Everyone observed one rite, recuperation, irrespective of spiritual status. There had been a severe religious clash that resulted in a sit at home strike. The soldiers ordered it. That was another thing that put the people in order, the soldier’s gun. 365 days after I decided to keep a personal diary but the 98
second time I would ever write in this diary since my decision, I had a strange encounter yet again. I had left the church premises after the reverend invited me to join him in a feast with some other church members as part of the Easter Good Friday celebration. I was reluctant to attend. The meal served was the traditional â€˜no blood shed mealâ€™ for good Christians on Good Friday; a Brazilian delicacy made from black beans. I was reluctant to eat the dark brown pap. I was driving a long way back to the university campus and the black bean delicacy forced me to stop along the roadside to purge. I never really liked it. I was almost through when I noticed somebody covered in red dust in the bushes where I had to ease myself. I was frightened at first thinking it was some rioter waiting to ambush defenceless passers-by and I was immediately done with my business. I made a farther distance between this somebody and me, walking backwards but still observing this person. Soon I realized this person remained too motionless and my instincts drew me closer to the body. It looked lifeless with a head covered in caked up blood but he drew in a stifling breath. Without thinking, I picked him up hurriedly and laid him in the back seat of my car. I drove back into town to Toyosi. My Toyosi. I knew she was not on call at the hospital today. She would be home expecting my visit in three hours. Toyosi managed to revive him and she admitted him into the hospital. He was cleaned up and fed. He had signs on him to show he was not a local. His feet seemed to have walked a thousand miles unaided. They were dreadfully
blistered. He was malnourished and badly beaten. He might have been a victim of the recent religious clash in the neighbouring state. When he is well enough to clarify my guesses, I would know how to help him better. I write in this diary today because I had a tiny bit of a revelation of a bigger picture. The bigger picture that the human eye is too myopic to recognize; a picture so big that if man could envisage just a little bit of It, he would hardly ask the question why? My ‘why?’ became ‘what if?’ I realized I was a part of a phenomenon where nothing is a coincidence. I had been delayed in church for a reason. I had eaten the black bean pap for a reason. I had stopped at that particular part of the road for a reason. But what if I had not done any of these things? It takes the rippling effect of one action to change the cause of others. I pray the boy will live. Today I have learned to tolerate the things I cannot change and let life happen without fighting it. Finding that boy made me appreciate goodness, not mine but Toyosi’s. She served the boy like he was her personal friend. She looked even more beautiful than the first day I saw her. She still confuses me when she smiles. I cannot change my feelings about her neither do I want to fight the life she is giving me. 365 days later, I want to wake up with her.
Everybody, Somebody, Nobody “Have you ever touched someone and you felt the touch was more than skin deep? “Have you ever held someone and you felt your soul is awakened with good energy? “Mama Feyi, that is how he said he felt.” Cecilia tried to explain what had happened to her last week. Last week, Cecilia was drying out the laundry in the backyard while her Mama Toyo was taking a shower. There was not much left to do. The stay at home was still being observed and soldiers still patrolled the hospital grounds. She spread out the wet clothing as slowly as possible, making a drama of it, singing without caution and pretending there was an audience. She did not hear the professor’s car approach but she heard the professor shut the car door and run into the house through the front door. Something had to be wrong. He was always calm and composed. He was a tall man, rather lean with an unsuspecting potbelly that did not seem to belong to him. The first time he came visiting, Mama Toyo entertained him on the front porch and soon after frequent visits, he became familiar with the household and could walk into the kitchen to fix himself a meal if Mama Toyo was still at the hospital. They were not expecting him until seven in the evening. His car engine was still running and inspecting closer, she saw the boy in the backseat. He was tired, wounded 101
and losing consciousness. Cecilia was at first frightened when she discovered him. He laid too still; frightened that he may be dead when she saw the blood caked up on his lean body and head. He was breathing. “That was when I touched him, he opened his eyes immediately, I was startled. I thought he was unconscious.” The professor and Mama Toyo rushed towards the car and they both took him to the hospital eventually. “Mama Feyi, is it possible to recognise someone you have never met before?” honestly, Cecilia was not looking for answers. “Why do I feel a compulsion to help him?” He was nursed to recovery and in time he began answering a multitude of questions. He had been in the bushes for two days. He was not a local. He was sixteen but looked twelve due to malnutrition. He left home to find work; his family depended on his income. The shelter meant for squatters like him was attacked and set ablaze during the riot. It was a missionary shelter and the riot was antimissionaries. These things he said but keeping much more in his heart, giving himself a name, Tamedu, the everybody, somebody but nobody. “What kind of name is Tamedu? Mr. Anybody?” Mama Feyi looked at Cecilia and listened to her in rapt attention. Responding with a smile each time she asked a question. These were not new questions, she herself had asked these same questions when she was a young midwife. But after more than a few decades of midwifery, certain occurrences eventually sorted her straight. She had chosen to be a midwife at the age of fifteen. Her first unprofessional experience was with her mother and her 102
youngest brother. Her mother went into labour rather earlier than expected. She helped birth her baby brother. Instinctively she knew exactly what to do. When she asked her mother why and how she did it, her mother had said her hands were blessed to do such. Many times she guessed the sex of the child and she would be right. There were times she recognized special children from their birth. Earlier in her profession she worried about children born with faeces. These were normal emergency cases. A child is born and the first thing it experiences is excrement, what a way to come. She always made an effort to clear up the mess as fast as she could even with her bare hands. Giving a baby a good start is very important to her. Like Cecilia, she remembered was born with a big smile. The doctor had said it was a cleft palette and not a smile but she knew what she saw. The first time she held Cecilia in her arm, she also felt this compassion unknown to her even after having six children of her own. Yes, you can recognise someone you have never met before. Mama Feyi said to Cecilia, â€œYou just show mercy always.â€? The young man regained strength in time, Cecilia made certain of that. She cooked his meals and fed him till he could feed himself. The doctor managed to secure a job for him, cleaning the premises of the hospital. He did any odd job. He made his efficiency felt and a little room was given to him to sleep in. The professor took special interest in him, inquiring his level of education and encouraging him to study further. He attended evening classes at the grammar school and he oozed ambition. 103
Easy like Sunday gossip “Here comes Mrs. Lizard,” they were both seated on the very last row of chairs away from the altar. “Ha, why do you always call her Mrs. Lizard?” They were speaking in quiet voices. “Can’t you see the way she walks in those shoes? As clumsy as a lizard.” “Have you seen lizards with shoes?” “Precisely my point, if lizards wore shoes they would walk like her.” They giggled. ”What of Mr. Lizard? If lizards wore clothes…” “Doctor is coming, why must she dress to oppress?” “Professional women are like that, they must show they are more together than the rest of us.” “Remember I told you I suspect those two are having an affair, look at them winking at each other.” “Hum, it’s true, I just saw the Prof. brush his hands against her buttocks when he walked past her. That her small buttocks like mosquito buttocks and yes, if mosquitoes have buttocks...” “Did I tell you I saw Mr. Sarumi in the hospital the other day? He asked to see a male doctor. The nurse said only Doc. Olujobi was on call. He looked desperate holding his groin in his hands.” “Ha, you know when a man asks to see a male doctor it can only mean his manhood is diseased.” “I feel so sorry for his wife, I wonder if she is aware her husband is as common as a public toilet?”
“Why? I don’t feel sorry for her one bit! She sold me four yards adire and lied it was six yards. A cheat deserves a cheat.” “I am not surprised, I have seen her pinch money from the offering tray before. Hum, watch her she might do it again.” “I hope she does, if I catch her I will make her return the money she cheated me off or I will disgrace her.” “Who is that hungry-looking boy seating beside the dog face girl?” “Hey! That is wicked! Sisi is a pleasant girl; it’s not her fault she looks like that. We can talk about what people do but we cannot criticize the way they look, especially not in the presence of God.” “Abeg, gossip is gossip, preacher sister, when did you develop a conscience? You still have not answered my question; who is that hungry looking boy? He looks like he is about to eat your darling Sisi or Reverend.” “I have never seen him before.” It was an early Sunday morning; Moyo and Cecilia came to take him to Sunday service. Today’s sermon was the Good Samaritan. The messages in the Anglican churches were of love thy neighbour. Even the Imams preached peace; the virtue of Islam is peace. But the fanatics! Tolerance is compromise. Lately, the preacher was concerned for the fragile state of peace in the community. The young man seated between Moyo and Cecilia was staring hard at the preacher; it seemed the man of God knew too much about him. He made a sermon of him. It was an 105
affirmation that he had been given a second chance in life. Cecilia had been his ticket. He stole glances at her and was grateful to the reciting of the Grace. It gave him an opportunity to hold her hand. He held her firmly but softly and much longer than he should have. They smiled at each other, frequently. Her smile was always welcoming; especially when it brought him back to consciousness, her horridly misplaced teeth was his miracle. Four rows behind them was Mrs. Sarumi. She suspected the body language between the two. She twisted her lips giving a sigh and rolled her eyeballs in the up-down-updown manner. It was time to take interest in her estranged daughter. “…. Surely, His goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.” “The Lord has blessed me today, my sister. How refreshing it is to gather amongst followers and stare upon the face of the handsome Reverend.” “Do you think he will have interest in your dried out, widowed bosoms?” “I pray, Amen.”
A red cut too deep Najibat, a young woman at twenty years of age has an embarrassing problem. She has lost the voluntary control of her sphincter. This means that she bed wets and also has to make way to the ladies every other thirty minutes. This problem is called acute urinary incontinence. While still a baby, she was circumcised, a cultural ritual performed on a female infant in some of the African traditions. In this sometimes-barbaric act of mandatory rites, the infant has her clitoris and labia minor cut and sutured. In Najibatâ€™s unfortunate case, the sutured flesh healed with fibrosis and scarring causing an infection of the urethra. This imposes a disability that may not be reversed mainly due to lack of funds and access to proper medical care. Her father consented to this, believing it would avert her from promiscuity. Cecilia has emotional and physical scars to contend with everyday. She makes an effort to forgive but to forget is beyond her strength. Her scar reminds her but teaches her to forgive. Her story of betrayal begins in the dead of the night. It was time to rest from the chores of the day. Mama Toyo doubtfully sent her to spend a week with her biological parents and she was glad to be with her younger ones. Mrs. Sarumi had asked for Ceciliaâ€™s participation in this yearâ€™s yam festival. She said her night prayers and laid in the bed. Without 107
fear of what the night would bring, she fell asleep. Rude interruptions awoke her from her slumber. Through her sleepy eyes, she saw two huge men. They pinned her down and spread her legs wide apart. Now in full consciousness, she began to scream and cry for help. An old woman walked into her room and stuffed her mouth with cotton wool to drown her noise. On Cecilia was performed female genital mutilation. Bleeding and in tears, she saw her mother in the background giving orders to the men that held her down. Cecilia knew it was her younger sisterâ€™s turn as Mrs. Sarumi pointed to her room. The following day, Mrs. Sarumi tried to explain to the young maidens of fourteen and fifteen years that this was what made them complete women. The young women were beginning to develop breasts and wide hips; this would make them even more desirable to men. Their custom demanded that it be done and done at night. No explanation was enough for Cecilia, for no longer would she trust this woman who had abandoned her in her early days, not any of them and not even the darkness of the night that taunted her deserved her trust. She required a medical examination to ascertain the need for an operation that would reduce any chances of mishap and pain during sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sukule, at the age of seventeen was betrothed and prepared for marriage. With much convincing, she was coaxed into circumcision by her mother and lover, saying she will bear more male children if she were circumcised. She was taken
to a Priestess who was spiritually led to perform circumcision. The Priestess with a vague knowledge of the anatomy of the female genitals cut Sukuleâ€™s clitoris and a vein. Being haemophilic, Sukule was not as fortunate as the other young women mentioned previously. She bled to death. The priestess explained that Sukuleâ€™s ancestors had sinned and the gods demanded her blood for atonement. There are so many other unfortunate occurrences caused by female genital mutilations. Rusty blades that cause tetanus, the defacing of the genitals and the psychological damages done to the more mature girls are a very few of the mishaps. A lot of publicity has been given to this social problem. Thank God for the recognition of human rights. But like the famous Nigerian singer, Fela, says it is madness to request human rights when it is every human beingâ€™s right to be human. But where there is poverty, which begets ignorance, a lot of atrocities occur. For the cultures that refuse to abolish the practice, they are encouraged to have the formal procedure done in hospitals with any available medical assistance.
Not of Solomonâ€™s wisdom It was like a walk in time, a time past, a time not less than six centuries before Christ. It was like you sat in the grounds of Jerusalem, before King Solomon himself. The day two women stood before him to ask for justice not from the revised justice in the courts of law but from an authority legally binding. They both wanted the same child. In no time, you realize that you were mistaken. This was Reverend Solomon and not King Solomon. This was not in the presence of crowned heads as it was written of Solomon, neither were the women harlots. They did not live together neither did they recently suckle infant sons. Mrs. Sarumi bore six children and Dr. Olujobi bore none. They both wanted Cecilia. Mrs. Sarumi, who abandoned her daughter fifteen years ago, wanted her back. Five days earlier, while the doctor nursed Cecilia, who had been forcefully circumcised by Mrs. Sarumi, she also nursed a fuelling anger. The day of confrontation was set. The day Cecilia could walk without looking like she had a loaf of bread stuffed between her thighs. Her nurse friend, mama Moyo, accompanied Toyosi, the doctor. They only meant to talk to Mrs. Sarumi. It was only intended to be a severe warning to Mrs. Sarumi to stay clear of Cecilia. It was neither the disrespectful sigh nor the rolling of her eyeballs in the up-down-up-down manner and not even the cursing words of Mrs. Sarumi that erupted the volcano brewing within Toyosi. It was the justifying of the pain 110
inflicted through circumcision without remorse or pity. Toyosi pounced on Mrs. Sarumi like a huge ocean wave smashed against a sea crab. She embodied the wrath of many angry gods. It made her dark and tripled in size. It made the observers stand back and mama Moyo stood, a guard against trespassers. Toyosi tore at her like bitter rains. It was an utterly disgraceful act that deserved applauding in a shameless heart of one that hungered justice and not a mockery of Solomon’s wisdom. “Why?” Toyosi demanded, “why now? Why, after fifteen years? If you did not want her when she was born, why would you want her now?” Everyone wanted an answer from Mrs. Sarumi, an answer to why. It became obvious to Mr. and Mrs. Sarumi a few weeks back that Cecilia had come of age to marry. She was getting round in certain places and they also noticed the interest of a particular young man. The truth was that they wanted Cecilia for the sake of her bride price. If she got married in another year while she lived with them, they would be honoured with the bride price. They heard she would be attending the teacher’s training college by the end of the year. Even though she was not pretty and she had that deformity in her face, the face that repulsed them on the day of her birth, she had become educated. If the bride price for a girl with only primary school education was enough to initiate a herd of cows then what more a girl with college education. Their living conditions would improve. This true reason, Mrs. Sarumi could not relate to the audience. 111
“I do not owe anyone any explanation other than this; she is my child and I want her back.” Toyosi pled with Rev. Solomon and the elders. She reminded them of the day Cecilia was abandoned without a name; of how good a mother she has been to Cecilia. She paid for everything Cecilia ever owned. She had been saving up for a plastic surgery for Cecilia after she graduated; Cecilia had a great future ahead of her, Cecilia, Cecilia, Cecilia. The elders liked this but not all of them. This was not Solomon’s wisdom. This did not require a tempt test to cut the child into two halves to determine who owned the child. Both women were in desperate need of Cecilia, for their own desperate reasons. There could be no fair judgment. One woman would rejoice at the other’s disenchantment. Cecilia, the golden child, was seated in an adjoining room. She pressed her ear hard against the cracked wooden door, hoping to hear each mother state her case. She remembered the fat black nurse and a folk tale she told some years back. It was the story of an Oba, a very great man without a male heir. He had married to himself three wives, Oloris. He swore that the first of them to bear him a male child would be the one to co-rule his empire and her linage will rule for generations to come. Each wife kept birthing female children and the Oba increased the number of women in his harem. There were many wives and there were many concubines. A day came to pass when one of the youngest women
in the harem put to bed a baby boy. The midwives were the older Oloris. They said to themselves, “How can this young girl rule over us? It is bad enough that she happens to be the Oba’s favourite. His highness will definitely do away with us.” They burned the infant’s umbilical cord at his belly, which would leave a scar. They wrapped the baby in leaves and threw him into the stream that divides two rival empires. They also presented to the young mother a stone and claimed she gave birth to this stone. The news got to the anxious Oba that his beloved put to bed a stone. This was an evil omen and the oracles demanded her life but because of his affection for her, he sent her away from the harem. The devastated woman who was certain she heard the cries of her child kept wailing. She pointed accusing fingers, pulled her hair off her head and tore at her clothing but everyone said her evil luck had run her crazy, nobody cared to listen. A fisherman found the child and then sold him to a warrior of the other village. The boy grew up handsome. He was a fast learner. The warrior suspected he was of royal blood and trained him into the village’s best hunter and wrestler. The young and fearsome warrior fought battles and won to the glory of his king. It came to their hearing that their most dreaded rival Oba had taken ill. They were aware he still did not have an heir. Their rival had become weak and vulnerable. They forwarded a messenger to the Oba, challenging him for his throne. The Oba consulted his diviners and the oracles told him that his
son would rule his land; a son with the burned navel. To the Oba this meant he would surely be defeated, as he had no son. He was indeed defeated by the young warrior who spared his life but kept him locked up. The kingdom had been promised to whomever defeated it. The young warrior was to seat over the Oba’s throne. On the day of his coronation, the Ifa priest, a priest of the gods, demanded his father. The warrior who raised him as a son said he was bought off a fisherman. The fisherman said the boy was caught in his net. He was wrapped in the broad leaves of the Iroko, which grew only in Oba’s land. It was concluded that he was a son of this soil. All the women of age were asked to cook a meal for this successor. His mother would cook the meal he was led to eat and finish. That day all the women of age presented their prepared dishes including a destitute woman whom people believed had gone insane. The aroma of good cooking brought fear to the brave man’s heart. “What if he ate the wrong meal?” he was given the staff of Ifa and the staff led him to the destitute woman. He kneeled before her and ate her food of eko and palm oil served in her hands. She was once a wife of the Oba. Mother and son were reunited. The words of the Oba’s oracles were confirmed, the son with the burned navel ruled the land. Cecilia wished the two women were told to cook her a meal and she would eat Mama Toyo’s meal to the shame of the woman that abandoned her. Her wishes were horses that could not fly. She was handed to Mrs. Sarumi. She was
told that Mama Toyo had had her for fifteen years and it was time for Mrs. Sarumi to resume her duty as mother. No one applauded and none rejoiced. The mother had every right to her child. The elders liked this but not all of them. Mrs. Sarumi left with her daughter and she also left with a dreadful warning of words that pierced her conscience and taunted her mind. She recalled the events five days ago and shuddered at the echoing pains in her body. Toyosi bit the edge of an iron knife swearing by Ogun, the god of the metals that fought battles, â€œIf any harm befalls Cecilia while she is in your care, I swear, I will kill you. I will find you in your reincarnation and I will kill you again.â€?
Green, green, green! “I should not have come here. If I had known these people would only show-off their money, I would have stayed home. Food! Yes, food.” Mrs. Sarumi conversed with her thoughts in her head. She flickered her eyelids, rolled her eyeballs in the up-down-up-down manner and twisted her lips to give a sigh, her usual habit at responding to sights and sounds that irritated her. A plate of jollof rice was handed to her and she began eating. “Hmm, look at Cecilia, dressed in the same attire as that witch! That long, black hair should be cut short, she is too full of herself. She does not even respect me. I must find a way to humble her without touching her,” reminding herself of the day that witch, Toyosi beat the Hades out of her. The tingling sensation in her side, where Toyosi repeatedly hit her, made her uncomfortable. With four years gone by it still reminded her to be afraid of Cecilia. Cecilia looked pretty in the peach coloured lace she wore, seated beside her foster mother Toyosi, who was being celebrated by the entire community for serving them as a doctor for the past twenty years, now she was retiring from the government hospital. They always dressed identically for grand occasions such as this. The doctor’s sisters and friends from the big city came to celebrate with her. They fondly called Cecilia, Sisi Mi, my lady. This infuriated Mrs. Sarumi and she asked herself why. She remembered the night of the last Christmas when she saw the doctor with Cecilia. 116
They laid a big raffia mat in the fields by the church, Toyosi sat with her legs stretched and Cecilia laid her head on Toyosi’s laps. They shared smiles and affection. The professor whom she suspected was lovers with the doctor soon joined them. They ate packed dinner with Cecilia’s friends. They observed a joyful camaraderie she had never experienced. Mrs. Sarumi was not sure which of the two she hated more, Toyosi or Cecilia; Toyosi for loving her own daughter more than she could ever, or Cecilia for being loved even though she had been abandoned by her. Ever since she and her husband got custody of Cecilia, Cecilia never stayed in their home. She moved from the doctor’s house straight into the college hostel. School would not last forever. Her graduation from college was in another week; she would have no choice but to move into their home. One thing she was certain of was the reason for resenting their harmonious life style and comfort, it reminded her that she lacked a great deal. They lived a life she could never experience and even if she had such opportunity, she would live it with too much effort. They fitted into what was theirs naturally, like the peach coloured lace they wore. The lace she could never afford. She wore a green Ankara blouse and wrapper that had been washed too often. These people had a way of making her look worthless. She turned to her younger daughter who was dressed in a hand-me-down dress from Cecilia and said, “eat up and then go to the servers, tell them they have given us nothing to eat. Whatever food they give you, put in this bag and then we leave this place.” 117
Like woman, like fruit Mama Feyi, the fat black nurse with arms large enough to embrace the entire earth, always says, “Woman is like a fruit. If you liken her to a fruit that best describes her qualities, she would never be a mystery to you.” As she speaks these words, an illusion of a watermelon replaces her image in my mind’s eye. The very dark, round watermelon. The outer layer is tough and cannot be pierced by naked hands but when you cut through, you see, feel and taste her softness and sweetness. Like a watermelon with many seeds, mama Feyi is a woman of many words. Not words of empty consequences but words like seeds sown in the heart to birth humour. She says there are two kinds of women like two kinds of fruit. One with the soft outer layer and flesh but has a core of stone, an avocado, mango and peach, for example. This is the woman that is sweet, nice, pretty and likeable on the exterior. They are always attractive and desirable from a distance but she has a heart of stone. The other type is the fruit with a hard and rough exterior often unattractive but the exterior protects a soft, sweet and delicate interior, like the pineapple, sugarcane, etc. This is the other woman that seems tough, unbecoming and difficult but kind, beautiful and vulnerable within. Neither is better than the other. It is a defence mechanism. Every woman has a right to protect a part of her that is most delicate and susceptible. If you are soft all over, you get 118
squashed rather easily, the tomato. If you are hard all over, you become an object of ridicule, the coconut brain. The idea is to be balanced but very few humans partake of this perfection. This was the only way Cecilia could analyse her mother, who reminded her of sour grapes. She was neither hard inside nor outside but she was sour all over. Like the lime and lemon are sour but gives flavour to water, they are never all bad. Every fruit has its peculiar tang. Cecilia learned to acquire the taste for sour grapes.
YES! Personal diary, day: I have lost count I am not sure how many days have gone by since Day 38 but give or take six years and more months. It has been almost two years since I decided to settle down here after my five-year appointment was over and I was asked to remain the Dean of the Environmental Science Faculty. Today, I have been given a new appointment, the ViceChancellor. Yes, I accepted. I should commence appointment in two weeks. As honoured and favoured as I feel about this, it is not the reason I write this memoir. I write because after almost seven years of consistent and relentless pursuit and wooing, today she said yes! Yes! That beautiful word of affirmation. She said yes and the last letter of the word danced and teased its way from her tongue through the slight gap between her two upper front teeth. She fascinates me the more. Could I be so blessed? I do believe. Yes! The gold band says it is my honest right to wake up with her every morning.
Never been kissed It was a festival night made for only children, no one older than ten years participated. A week before tonight, the children bought the second inner layer of the green bamboo sticks cut into thin strips made particularly for the occasion. They also bought thin, coloured papers. With these materials, they would build small-scale houses of every imaginable shape, which would actually be used as lanterns. That night, candles were put in the paper houses and in groups of up to ten; the children would go from house to house singing and beating drums. The most beautiful houses are rewarded with money and the less beautiful houses had their makers putting in more effort into their singing and dancing to also make money. This was to recover the cost of making the lanterns. To those that gave money, which where coins back then but not any less valuable, the children sang songs of prayers for blessings and favours. To those that the children got little or nothing from even after their performances, they would sing prayers as well but prayers of release from tightfistedness. It was always a beautiful night. In a town without streetlights, having these lanterns line the streets gave iridescent feelings of innocence and peace. The adults looked forward to the festival for the entertainment, it showed a community at peace, because all children irrespective of religion took part. The mothers made akara bean cakes, puffpuff local doughnuts and kuli-kuli groundnut sweets amongst 121
other treats for the children. Cecilia helped her youngest sibling prepare for the night. Tamedu was there to help with the building of the lantern. She sent her little brother off with his group of friends after they had performed for both her and Tamedu and she had dropped coins in their offering bowl. They were alone now. No one had ever shown interest in Cecilia except Tamedu. But this interest confused Cecilia. It had been six years since she supposedly moved into her fatherâ€™s house and they worried she might never be proposed to. Tamedu was not an indigene of the state but this did not bother her parents, anyone would do. Tamedu always reassured her that he loved her but he never proposed to her. Moyo, her best friend, got married two years ago to a lecturer in their college but Cecilia was becoming an old maiden at twenty-one. Her younger sister was also married and Mrs. Sarumi, her mother always reminded Cecilia she was a bad investment. No one wanted her. It was her deformed face. Tamedu got a job in the oil company that helped develop the state. Oil was soon to be the power income of the nation, Tamedu was certain to be a part of it. The government was going to build a road that would connect the east to the west. Once the people had freedom of movement, development would follow. It had been four years since he got the job and he seemed to be growing well into a responsible man but still he did not propose marriage.
Now he had come to inform her that he had been promoted to the marketing officer to supervise the sale of bitumen to those constructing this road. He was going away. He promised to return. He implored Cecilia to wait for him. He said he had good intentions. He was a man of few words. He said his intentions were not ripe enough to be spoken. Tamedu believed when one announces his plans for the future, certain spirits made sure they would never come to pass. He was a man that kept everything locked in his heart. He only told her he loved her. No spirit could contend this. Whenever Cecilia asked him certain questions, his reply was that it was not time to tell. He hardly revealed anything about himself, not even the name given to him on his eighth day. Her mother said he was a stranger and he would disappear the way he appeared. It seemed her mother was right. He was leaving. Leaving without a proposal. He did not offer to take her along. Whenever they were alone together, he never made sexual advances, advances that Cecilia was aching to welcome. She worried he might not be all man. He would hold her hands and she would feel they belonged in his. He would pull her close and lay her head on his chest, she would feel her head belonged there; it was close to his heart. When they embraced, her body and soul would melt into his and she was certain they belonged to him. All the questions went away content without an answer. When he caressed her hair, she felt they grew soft and silky for him to caress. She was convinced she is because of him. There were times he held her so close her feet floated 123
and she was weightless. It was these times that she became a part of existence in the spirit world. When he held her, she had feelings that should never pass. The kind of feeling that she should forever be trapped in. This night, he held her longer than he should have. But he never kissed her. He said his goodbye, reminding her it was not for long. It was till the roads were completed. He was leaving in the morning. He left her at the front veranda. She sat there afraid to cry but as the tears dropped, she felt the wetness and she realized she was not dreaming. He was really going away. Moyo had known about his departure, he told her. Moyo had come to make her feel less lonely. They sat side by side on the top edge of the short stairs leading to the veranda. Moyo put her arm around Cecilia and Cecilia rested her head on Moyo’s shoulder. “He has never kissed me, not this night, never. Am I so ugly? Am I that repulsive? Could my deformed mouth be such a complication?” She had never been kissed. Cecilia felt hurt by her cleft palette. She never seemed to feel disadvantaged by her looks but tonight her confidence sank. Moyo wiped her tears and cupped her face in her hands. She drew Cecilia’s face close to hers and kissed her softly and affectionately on her mouth. They both smiled. “Cecilia, you are the most beautiful person I know besides my baby girl.” They got up to join the children in the festival of paper lanterns. It was still a beautiful night. 124
Ironic This man is raised to believe he is less than human, born to serve, next to beast. After all, his father was a slave; his father’s father was a slave. He is told he does not own himself. He hears the word ‘freedom’ from his peers. Freedom will elevate him from his oppressors and oppression. They fight and many die. Then freedom comes for him. How does he employ it, when freedom is beyond his reasoning and remains an illusion? The fight was not for him, but the generation in his son’s loins. The generation oblivious of their blood filled sacrifice. They will drive freedom with a reckless heart. A man with great wealth fears for his life. The adage, “Every lizard has its belly to the ground, you will not know which one has the stomach flu,” hunts him. He trusted no one. His many wives, many friends, many sons and many siblings were humble to him but he did not know which ones were sincere and which ones had it in for him. He was certain someone was after his life. He consulted the spiritualist even though he was a staunch Moslem. He needed the protection of his forefathers, protection from envy, poison, any and every conceivable and inconceivable weapon. With his newfound confidence, he acquires young mistresses. Soon the man dies. He died of a heart attack atop his new mistress. Educating girls was encouraged now in the community, parents sent their girls off to school. Enlightenment was dancing its way into the slow development of the town. 125
But were they for the right reasons? The educated young women were still forced into arranged marriages and stayed home as housewives. Women are to be seen not heard. The husbands frowned at undomesticated jobs. Why educate them if they are not part of the nation building? The educated girls had a higher value in bride price. It is similar to fattening a cow to earn more at the slaughterhouse. Cecilia told herself these ironies exist in circumstances due to lack of knowledge. But some ironies exist to confound those that think themselves to be wise. She was educated, had a job as a secondary school teacher but she was not married. The irony comes in where her parents fought tooth and nail for her custody but did not bargain to keep her for as long as ten years. Ceciliaâ€™s mother was concerned. There was no betrothal at her birth. No one was obligated to marry her. No one showed interest in her daughter. It was her face, that ugly face. Mrs. Sarumi had consulted the â€˜aladuraâ€™ prophet. Mrs. Sarumi and Cecilia kneeled in the centre of a ring of lit candles. They were prayed for. The prophet came with a bottle of holy olive oil and bottled perfume oil. He poured out the perfumed oil in water and added a hand full of salt. He said the seawater was powerful to change destinies. Since there was no seawater, he made a bucket full of one. He asked her to take her bath in the rusted zinc shack and rub her body with the olive oil after the bath. The perfume bath would cleanse her outer body and give her a new aura, a spiritually attractive aura. No man would resist her after this, the prophet assured. The oil applied on her face would make 126
beauty in the eye of any beholder. Cecilia did as she was told. She rubbed a lot of oil on her face and presented herself before her mother and prophet. She stood before them and suddenly roared with her jagged teeth flashing hideously at her mother, who was standing beside the prophet. Both of them jumped back in panic at her performance. Cecilia began laughing as though she was under some influence. She smiled at Mrs. Sarumi and the prophet and said softly, â€œIf my own mother cannot look at me without a puzzled face, nothing you do could ever work.â€?
This short man “Cecilia, I know I haven’t been very close to you, we don’t even get along. I need to talk to you. Will you please listen?” Mrs. Sarumi kneeled by her daughter’s bedside, speaking in a low submissive tone of voice. Cecilia sat up on her bed and cautioned herself to be responsive and less confrontational, it was too early in the morning to contest. “You are not getting any younger. You are no longer a child. It is my wish you settle down and start your own family. You cannot be a complete woman until you are married and you have your children.” “Madam,” she hardly called her mother, “Marriage and child bearing are not the beginning neither are they the end of womanhood. They are a part of it not the entirety. If my life does not include them, it does not make me less woman. It is my responsibility to be a woman before I am a wife or a mother and I remain a woman without the latter.” “Your doctor mother has brainwashed you. She says these things because she is without a husband and child. She has no life.” “She did not brainwash me. This is my own conclusion. She has lived a more effective life than ten women like you put together. You are wrong when you say she is without child. I am her child. I bear the name she gave. What name did you give me? Tell me? She has breasts that could not feed me milk, she would have if she could but she had a heart that fed me love and life. Tell me, what love have you 128
shown me? I will bear children at a time that pleases the Lord but the children will be her delight and not yours.” “Cecilia, I am sorry, I do not want to argue. I am only concerned about you. I gave birth to you, I have a right to care.” “For what reasons do you care?” “Cecilia, please let us not quarrel. I did not come to answer questions from you. I want to talk to you about Salako.” “Salako? That short man?” “He may be short but he is a good man. He wants you. Please give him a chance. He likes you.” “Likes me? He only comes to see me at home. He never takes me out. He does not want us to be seen together.” “But you never want to go out with him. He is the only man that shows interest in you or do you see any men queuing to court you? Wake up; there is no man out there. Do not chase Salako away.” It is true no men queued to court her. Her Tamedu now seemed like a man she dreamed. She wondered if he would ever come back to her. It was almost four years since he had been gone. She kept silent and listened to Mrs. Sarumi. “The prophet says he is the one for you. Please be good to Salako. The least you could do is give him a try. He will take care of you. You will learn to like him when the elders pray for your union.” Salako became a regular visitor for the next week at the Sarumi’s residence. Their most intense communication was his hands up her skirt and a heavy slap from Cecilia’s hand. This amused the man. He would seat opposite her on the 129
veranda, sweating with excitement, holding his head in his hands. He would say she had a luscious body and Cecilia should be good to him. Cecilia had mixed emotions, a few times she was amused and other times she worried his heavy perspiring caused a bad odour. She worked hard at being tolerant. Mrs. Sarumi was happy to see them together. Cecilia was cooperative. Moyo came to see Cecilia on a late evening; Salako was just taking his leave. The three women sat on the veranda eating the ojojo Moyo brought along. Then Moyo asked, ”What was Mr. Salako looking for here?” “He is the man madam’s aladura prophet envisioned for me.” Cecilia replied with a tint of sarcasm. “Did the prophet also envision that he is already married? His wife works in my husband’s school.” Moyo asked puzzled. “So he is married! That must be why he would never go out with me. Madam, did you hear that he is already married?” Mrs. Sarumi was not as surprised as Cecilia. She was instead taken aback that Moyo knew his wife. “Your silence means you know he is married. You are trying to arrange me as a second wife? What are you playing at?” “I am playing at what is best for you. There is nothing wrong with being a second wife.” “You can never know what is best for me.” With the help of Moyo, Cecilia packed up all her belongings and left for her doctor mother’s house. She was old enough to make her own decision. The elders would accept this but not all of them. To hell with all of them! 130
A stone’s throw from heaven There was no reason to awake, no reason at all The morning was dark and cold The sun was reluctant to rise My heart was afraid to beat, afraid to hear a call The call that got me waiting and might never come I did not breathe, I did not cry, I was wise Still I receive no embrace, not even from Sheol My God, my God. We love each other, my God and I. He is everywhere but not here when I need the embrace of a man. He cannot kiss me, He cannot love me the way a man could. My God, He created every good thing and He created an ache within me, an ache only this man can fill. I miss him, this man, so much; I wish I never knew him. It has been five years and some have waited longer. I longed to be with him. But this day the walls of bedroom echoed, “You are a stone’s throw from heaven.” Though the words did not lie, it understated the nearness of heaven. Heaven had come in my lifetime, here and now. Heaven’s breath I felt whisper over my shoulder. Heaven called my name playfully “Sisi mi”. Heaven pulled me closer to himself as we lay carelessly in bed. Heaven had come for me. What is heaven and who is heaven? This cold, dark morning, I dreamed a good dream. This dream did not run from me even when I awakened. Heaven remained. When he laid his hand on my left breast, my heart could feel his touch. 131
Heaven in my lifetime He held me so close he seeped into my soul The cherubs applauded our union Heaven in my lifetime I had cursed myself, thinking he would never be back. He is back Heaven in my lifetime.
One cow, five cows, many cows On an ordinary eight o’clock morning, the local women dressed in wrappers tied across their chest and waist carrying loads of laundry, would pass by my quarters heading for the stream. Every eight o’clock morning, it was always a jungle of voices. High pitch voices, some singing, and some humming, gossiping, tale telling, chitchatting, sometimes little babies cried and the melodious noise tells you it is an ordinary morning. There was pipe-borne water and bore holes were dug within the community but the women reserved this for drinking and cooking. The habit of eight o’clock washing in the stream was a ritual the women were not going to replace with modern amenities for convenience sake. It was a time to know what was going on within the community, a time to mind other people’s businesses and a time to be with friends while doing their chores. Breakfast had been cooked and served and children were off to school. The women washed clothes and fetched water and would sometimes swim and bathe in the stream. You could tell what season it was by the intensity and the air of the noise. You could tell what festival was coming, when young girls were getting married, when there has been death or any other matter of concern. The voices were like a weather forecast and newscast. Today was not an ordinary day. I could not decipher the air. The noise was chaotic with excitement. 133
I traced my way to the stream following the red, dusty path that turned to sugar brown and then white grainy sands just by the brink of the waters. I asked one of the young women what was going on. She said a bride price unheard of had been proposed and a bride price unheard of had been paid. The bride price had always created preferential social strata amongst the women. Bride prices were paid in cows or the equivalent. The most beautiful young women from wealthy homes were married off with five cows with a wedding feast open to the entire community. The least desirable women married off quietly with a cow and some goats. The women married off in affluence had their circle of friends within an age bracket. They were respected and honoured. The highest paid bride price was seven cows, which rarely ever happened. Today a bride price equivalent to a dozen and three cows was paid. A farmland with a two bedroom quarters, to be precise. The wedding feast was two weeks away. The women by the stream were still chattering. I had to leave them behind, I had to see the bride for myself and I was not prepared to wait till a fortnight. I heard she was leaving for the city today with her groom to be back in the night before the big feast. I got to the community centre early enough to see the bride being ushered into the vehicle conveying them to the city. I kept thinking of fifteen cows and a woman amongst women, a woman immeasurable in beauty. I realized she was not from a wealthy home. The parents of the bride were
seated in the seats of honour dedicated to only parents of a bride in an occasion such as this, dressed less than presentable for an occasion such as this. It was a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Gleeful, who had just won the high-priced lottery. I saw her, the bride. I knew she was the bride because of all the attention she got. She was the impeccably dressed. She pulled away the iborun that covered her face and I was awe stricken. I am sorry but if I had to pick a word to describe her, ugly would be an understatement. She had a frightfully disfigured face. Fifteen cows for a cow, was the sin of my thoughts. No one knew why she was that highly placed. I understood the chaos at the stream, my mind felt the same; it was in a riot. I was prepared to defer my departure from the township another three weeks. I had to wait to speak with the groom when he returned for the wedding feast. I went back to the stream to listen to the women make sense of the mystery behind the bride and her bride price. It was conclusive from their discussion that the groom was a rich fool who had needles in his eyes from birth. It was the morning of the wedding feast. The groom welcomed me into his house. I was served with palm wine. There were no needles, no pins. He was not blind. He lived modestly, it was a small house but he said it was not his permanent abode. He was going to take his bride back to his home. The car parked outside had the shell logo and a driver in a shell uniform. He must have a good position in the oil company. That explained the availability of funds but not the willingness to pay it. I told him I wanted to take 135
pictures of his bride and the grand event later today. He smiled; he knew the real reason I was here. A local journalist always has motives. “It has been over twelve years I met my bride. The later four years I went away to work but she waited for me.” He was a man of few words, giving very little explanation, leaving me to read between the lines. “She is God-sent. I should have died years back but she is a miracle of life.” He was in no hurry to address the question he thought he knew in my head. I had time. “When I approached her father to ask him for her hand in marriage, he laughed and scoffed at me. He said she was old, girls get married as early as sixteen but she is twentyfive, a waste of investment. No man wanted her for fear of birthing children that resembled her. I told him I wanted children just like her and he thought I ridiculed him in turn. “He got serious and said if I wanted her, I could have her for a goat and fowls. He almost begged me to get her off his hands. It hurt me to know he could not see what I saw in her. It hurt even more to know she had to put up with such an ill-bred father. She had suffered much indignity and I had to boost her self-esteem.” He said all this in between sips of palm wine. He left me little to read between the lines. They played a last card that won the game. The bride price was not to honour her parents but it was to honour the bride. No price is too much too pay. He called out to his bride saying they had their first guest as husband and wife to entertain. My heart began to thump 136
faster and harder. She was coming towards me. I held my breath to deter me from my sinning heart. It was when I told myself to look beyond the face but look for the soul that the love drunk groom held on to, I got confused. I did not see the same face as the other day. I expected the deformed face, although my eyes were willing to look beyond it. I was almost certain it was not the same face I saw that morning. My eyes were honest without deceit. This face was perfect. The smile was full of nice teeth. She sat closely to the man holding him affectionately as though to prove she was indeed the bride. She was beautiful. She said it was her first time of wearing lipstick; she never had the lips until recently. She said she had a dental surgery and a cosmetic surgery to correct her cleft palette while in the city. The company her husband worked for arranged medical consultants to see to her. She was in high spirits and her smiles convicted my condemnatory heart of guilt. I should have been less human not to judge by appearance. They had the last laugh.
Jigida Today I dance, That is all I care about for now For I have waited long, I have laboured hard So long I have prepared for this day This day to celebrate. I have no concern for yesterday But I do remember it brought me pain The pain, which is my strength The strength that made me Truly I am a first-born ordained by the heavens Though my mother’s undeserving child. I am a city maiden Stretched by the whip of success Pressured by expectations Burdened by traditional rites Damn the consequences, if I do not marry the short fellow A man they wish for me Damn the devil, the Good Lord’s hand lays upon my head I cannot go wrong. Today, my skin glows with the oil of gladness My hair plaits wears long My rounded breasts speak for my youthfulness My waist is clad finely with layers of beads Together they make my jigida, how well they rest on my hips So I swing my hips and they begin to chorus Ji-gi-da-ji-gi-da-ji-gi-da-ji-gi-da… Today, the Lord has made People from everywhere have come to witness Aah! Today I dance!! 138
Omowale The journey to Tamedu’s hometown was almost endless. It was Cecilia’s anxiety that made it so. Eleven hours. It would have taken a longer time if Tamedu had not sent a procession with gifts for his household the week earlier to search out his family house. The search lasted four days. They found his family house and left word that he would meet with them on this day, as God willed. He could have left earlier but he had to give time to his folks to prepare for his arrival with his bride. Cecilia also needed time to say goodbye to her family and friends. Her doctor mother told her that now the roads were constructed, no town was too far to journey. There were more vehicles imported and she had bought one for herself. They cried, they kissed; they embraced and made promises to visit each other. The journey seemed even longer. They made several stops along the way, Cecilia needed to rest or stretch her legs, eat, spend a penny; her condition required a soft journey. As they approached the family compound, numerous women and children, cheering at the vehicle with the shell logo, greeted them. They lined the dusty roads, waving and singing ‘OMOWALE’, the child has come home. They were like spectres emerging from every corner, having an insight to their identity. They honoured him as they would a prince. “How long had they waited?” “Two decades.” Tamedu put his arms around his wife to soothe her anxiety, she was unnerved by the grandiose welcome and he himself was taken aback. There was little she knew of 139
him but he always said what she did not know would be a pleasant revelation when time made naked his secrets. They were ushered into the household and their feet were washed at the threshold. His mother had been inside, kneeling before her prayer altar, six days till now. There was so much to pray for. The prayers were not to change what had been destined but it was to keep her sanity. The good Lord seemed to hasten every minute to show mercy to the tortured soul. She heard the jubilation outside and the time had come. Her legs betrayed her because her eyes took their strength to work its tears. It seemed twenty years had never passed. He walked up to her. She wore the wrapper she had on the day they were separated. She wore the same tears. Little but twenty years had changed with the way she looked. He kneeled beside her and wiped her tears. “How would you see me with all the tears?” he asked. “You have your father’s face and voice. Bolu, Boluwatife you are home.” There was so much to be said. “When your father named you Bi Oluwa ti fe, as God wills, he must have seen a vision of today,” he put his hand over her mouth. They did not need words to speak them. They embraced and he pulled her to her feet. He introduced Cecilia to his mother. She put her hand on Cecilia’s protruding belly and smiled like she would burst in excitement. She handed Cecilia a piece of blanket, “The baby would need it more than your husband.” It was a piece of her bridal quilt. She belonged to a new family. She had a new mother, new brothers, new sister, new friends, new neighbours and a new life. She was grateful for a new favourable start. 140
Omolabake Once upon a time she was superstitious but after adding experience in scores of years, she bothered less with things unseen. More often than not, it should be the other way round. The older one gets, the more aware one becomes of the spiritual principles. Today and for the past few days, she believed the spirits were confused. She had no reason to pay them attention. She was still in shock. She was yet to come to terms with her present condition. It was only last week her oldest daughter, Bisola, Bisobiso, left her family to be with her and care for her in her recent ailment. No one was sure what kind of fever she suffered. Bisola studied her mother well and after a few days made the conclusion of ‘no cause for alarm’. It has been twenty years since she thought she was done with the labours of childbearing. Bisola broke her the news, “Mama, I am almost certain that you are with child.” She laughed many laughs; the ‘you must be crazy’ laugh, the ‘you are joking’ laugh, the ‘could it be possible?’ laugh, the ‘oh my heavens, am too old to be pregnant!’ laugh and the ‘what am I going to do?’ laugh. Pregnant women must avoid the market place but if she must visit the market place it should be early in the day or just after sunset but not after dark. The market place is believed to bear all kinds of spirits, the good, the bad and the very bad spirits. A visit to the
market by an expectant mother was to risk the substitution of her unborn child’s spirit with the incarnate of any restless spirit in the market place. She left for the market place at two in the afternoon. She was not showing so the spirits cannot know, she thought. She bought some fish, plantain, plenty of Eko, vegetables and avoided the yams. Pregnant women must be careful buying yams. Something to do with the weight of the child... Bisola would help buy yams later. It was a hot day and the sun had a million hot whips. All million of them broke the sweat out of her skin and she took cover in the cooling shed of the Adire textile stall. The young shop owner offered her a seat and a cold drink of Kunu. “Mama,” she said, “you should not be out in this sun.” She raised her eyebrows and her eyes made reference to mama’s belly. They had never met before. Mama puts her hand over her belly as if to protect it from the woman’s eyes but the raised eyebrows encouraged a smile. “She is the child of your old age,” she said, again her eyes made reference to her belly. “Are you aware the baby is a girl?” Mama’s face was twisted in puzzlement. She wanted to get up and leave but she remembered the sun did more than caress her skin. The young woman mystified her with her perception. She sat back and kept drinking the Kunu. “What is your name?” mama finally spoke. “Omolabake, I too am a child of my mother’s old age but she was not as lucky as you are, neither was she as 144
strong as you are. Only one of us made it. I too am a dreamer, a dreamer in pursuit of a loved one. I will see him soon. She too must learn patience.” At the sound of her name, ‘Omolabake’, mama was most certain she felt a swift movement in her womb, it was the first; she was definitely pregnant. ‘Omolabake’ is a name given to a child meant to be specially loved, spoiled and cared for, like the long awaited child or a child of old age. Mama looked at the young woman, she was very pretty, very pretty indeed. She was petite in size and dark in complexion. There was this calm about her. Omolabake then gave her a smooth shiny stone called ‘Edun Ara’. Mama knew what to do with the stone. She always had one tied in her wrapper back in the days when she was much younger and expectant. The ‘Edun Ara’ is a stone that is believed to be carved out of a rock by the hand of ‘Shango’ himself - the god of thunder. This is true that when lightening strikes the rocks, little shiny pebbles are formed. A woman with child was to either carry this stone that offers the protection of Shango for the child from evil spirits close to her belly or carry a small piece of iron that symbolized the protection of the god of iron, ‘Ogun’. Usually this other talisman commonly used is a safety pin, which is the least burdensome piece of metal. Mama took the stone thanked her and tucked it into her wrapper. Mama looked around her and then noticed for the first time, the beautifully dyed fabrics. The ‘Adire Eleko’ was 145
dyed in indigo and its texture was very light and soft cotton. Mama bought ‘opa mefa’, six yards, which would make her two boubous and a scarf after bargaining. The boubous are most comfortable to wear in hot weather. “If what you say is true, she too will be called Omolabake,” they greeted each other. They would never meet again. Mama thought of her as a good spirit and once again she was very superstitious.
Gold is good Her name is Omolabake because she is the child of her old age. Her name is Yetunde because she is her mother’s late mother. This made it more difficult for the mother to discipline her daughter the way the black woman does. Each time she was naughty and deserved spanking, mama would hesitate, one look at Labake’s face and she would see her mother. If she closed her eyes to smack her, her raised hand would fall lazily on Labake’s bottom. Her withering strength could barely keep up with the energy of a ten year old. Mama thought to herself that she was indeed lucky. Labake was a good and thoughtful child. Mama believed Labake would do well with little direction. Her late mother’s wisdom was in Labake. Labake was affectionate towards her mother. She cared for her like she was the mother and not the child. This was not surprising. Many nights they would seat on the veranda where the night breeze was cool and gentle and they would chat till their voices were the only ones to disturb the dark. They talked about many things; this was because Labake was quite a conversationalist for her age. Labake would ask many questions her mother had no answers to. She seemed to be on a quest to know why? “Why is it wrong to serve or offer an elder anything with the left hand?” “If the left hand is offensive why don’t we have two right hands?”
“Why is kneeling down to greet a sign of respect?” “Why do I have to call certain people aunty and uncle when they are not relatives?” “Why can’t good behaviour and polite talk be respect enough?” Mama knew this was the price to pay for living in the city. Traditions and culture were only considered when convenient. And educating a girl? Labake’s father wanted it this way. Labake was very independent but still a child, a child that seemed to want to compensate humanity. She came from one of the wealthiest homes in the community. She never liked to be different nor treated differently. If most of the children in her class went without socks in their shoes, she would also go without socks in her shoes. She would rather walk two miles and more than have her father’s driver chauffer her. Once it rained so heavily during school hours, she waited endless hours but the downpour continued. After school she took off her clothes and wrapped them around her books, put the bundle on her head and placed her shoes on the bundle. She plucked two elephant-ear leaves to cover her tiny body wearing nothing but her panties and shimmy. She ran as fast as her little legs could permit but not fast enough to resist a cold. By sunset, she was down with a fever. Mama kept her warm and made her drink hot soup and chew on alligator pepper. They sat together in the back yard by logwood burning through midnight while boiling potable water. 148
“Omo mi Labake”, mama sang her name, “Why do you despise your father’s wealth?” she asked. “Your father has worked very hard so you can live well, his wealth is your inheritance, do not reject it. Good living is a gift from God and not a taboo. I suspect it is all these western religion and fairy tales they teach you in school. That is why I tell you our folk tales so you don’t get lost in the city world. “The story you learned in school about the gluttonous king who loved gold has got you hating gold. Don’t be too impressionable. That story was half told. You do remember his touch turned his beloved daughter into gold and after the spell was cast from him, his daughter returned to him. The story does not end there. “The little girl grew up to hate gold and anything it could acquire. All she ever showed interest in was her garden. She loved her flowers. She admired their simple existence. They live on only water and sunlight. Her obsession for flowers got her wishing hard to become a flower herself. That day she became a soft pink hibiscus. “Flowers are beautiful, no doubt but the day after she was in full bloom, the sun came up and scorched her, a few hours after midday she was trampled under feet of callous passers-by. She withered and she was no more. “Omolabake, money, gold, wealth are all good but don’t love it enough to become gluttonous and don’t despise it enough to be trampled upon and wither within the day.”
Independence Day Whenever the pupils heard the school bell ring four times, they would stand at attention and sing the unrecognised national anthem and then gather according to their classes in the schoolyard where the unrecognised national flag is flown and await further instructions. This was what the children did to prepare for the Independence Day. This they practiced for a few years until the long awaited D-day. If you asked Labake what the Independence Day meant to her, she would tell you it meant free school, free lunch in school, free school uniform, free hospitals and medicine and free rides to school on the ‘guguru bus’, not for her but for all the friends she did not but wanted to have in school. The Independence Day would make everyone equal. She hoped she would not have to feel guilty about having and neither would the friends she did not have. The celebration of the Independence Day lasted a week and all they did was play, dance and eat. No one remembered to keep a grudge. They all had jollof rice to eat each day, which the rich ate only on Sundays. They all drank their first bottles of ‘seven up’ and wore sponsorship t-shirts. Life was easy enough for the children to appreciate. Life would get even better for Labake. Her father became the first to own a television set in the community. Once a week, the first local soap opera was aired; Labake’s mother would gather the children in the neighbourhood to watch television with her. When mama was much younger growing 150
up in the village, children always gathered together to listen to folk tales told by old widowed women that fried them groundnuts, guguru or termites that had lost their wings after a rain fall. All that would be replaced by the television. The children these days would not eat termites so she popped them guguru. The Independence Day also meant Labake could watch her first movie in the great Glover Hall. Her first movie was the â€˜Sound of Musicâ€™. She and Maria were kindred spirits. The wild child tamed by love. Labake had never known romance, not by name but what Maria felt for the captain, she could identify. The nation then became a Federal Republic some years after Independence. This meant to Labake that the children from the east and the north could attend the same school as she did. She made a new friend, Nanbam, soft spoken, genteel, Nanbam. This also meant intertribal marriages. Her immediate older sister, twenty years older than she, wanted to get married to a man from the east. Their father opposed this vehemently, saying he would prefer the all forsaken interracial marriage to this intertribal marriage. He was not racist but he was definitely ethnicist. His favourite daughter would not relent so he gave his blessing. Many more years passed by, the school bell was still rung everyday and the children still performed the usual rite. If you asked any of the children why they made this performance, hardly would they remember the real reason. They never understood the terminologies, Independence 151
Day nor the Federal Republic. They never knew there was a fight for freedom. It was not their fight. They only learned to pronounce and spell these words. But what they will remember are the events that shaped their lives in its simplicity. Labake will continue to live a sheltered life.
Torn between two She is aware of the words that say it is impossible to love two masters equally. A choice she has to make and make it this day. She crouched on the floor, arched her back and forced her head between her knees. In this posture, she believes humility would be bestowed upon her soul. She asked herself to search for pride within her spirit, the pride that stopped her from accepting the love of one young man, a man from a different culture and different social strata. She is from a noble background and he, a humble home. He is a teacher in the local grammar school, where a friend of hers teaches as well. She met him when visiting her friend and there she took an instant liking to him. This seemingly kind hearted, gentle fellow, content with what he possessed in life, fell in love. He loved her like he loved himself. She knew he could give her the basic necessities of life but that was all he could give, not an ounce of luxury could he afford. The luxury and comfort she had known all her life. She had maids of her own to answer her every call. What a sacrifice she would have to make to give it all up and become one with this man; who would take her to his village, where she would be a stranger, a place where she would be responsible for the most despicable chores. She shuddered at the thought of being a commoner. There was a knock on the door that startled her. She put her thoughts aside and answered the door. Her maid had
come to inform her that the other guest had arrived and her attention was required in her father’s lounge. This other guest is this other man, the son of the Adini, a proud, handsome but not so young man. This other man also claimed to love her. He loved her since the day they met ten years earlier when she was too young to put a handle on his advances. He already was married, a fact she reviled. They both are from the same wealthy background and culture. Though they shared the same way of life, they possessed different faith. She refuses to believe in the faith that allowed a man to share his love with more than one woman. Such faith she knows, knows nothing of love. She got dressed and walked slowly to the lounge. Every step brought her closer to the tough decision she has to make. She took her time but unlike time, which goes on to infinity, her way to the lounge was a limited distance. Her parents were seated, so also were the two contenders. If you had this choice to make, whom would you pick? She thought it easier if she were someone else. She made a mental record of what each of them could offer her. That way the one with more to offer might just win. But then what did she have to offer in return? She now possessed the answer to her riddle. As she approached both men she greeted them. Finally she kneeled before her parents and said, “ma, pa, you ask me to decide which man I would marry, choosing between these two. Neither of them I choose for neither of them I love.”
Omo daddy When they got angry, it was an abrupt outburst of harsh words, pointing fingers, sometimes clapping of hands, swinging of hips, the flickering of evil eyes and the tapping of the one foot synchronizing with the throbbing temple on one side of the forehead. The words ran fast and loud. The mouth uttering such fury never once pauses, not until the little pink blade of a flame had had five minutes gashing and slashing and the lungs had gone out of breath. It was never a violent outburst but a few things broke. Not always though. It was not uncommon for the body to gyrate enthusiastically a few seconds before all hell was locked up again. It was always almost comical. This was the generational reaction of all the women in the family to intolerable nonsense. The black woman has gone mad. Temporarily. The mad black woman syndrome was her fatherâ€™s reference to the uncultured behaviour contaminating his bloodline through marriage. He did not expect his educated daughters to act like illiterates. This was unbecoming he would say. Thank goodness, intolerable nonsense did not occur often. This day, she was her fatherâ€™s daughter, omo daddy. She did not need to say goodbye, so she did not. She turned her back and left, for good. The urge to want to break something was nagging, she wished to put some fear in him but pride pulled her further away from him. Be more afraid. Although he denied everything he knew better than to go after her. 155
Earlier that day, she had attended a friendâ€™s wedding at the courthouse registry and there his name was, on the notice board to be married to some other woman on Friday. This day was Tuesday. He had told her he loved her the day before, Monday. It was he all right; his passport-sized picture was attached to his other details. No two people had thick enough eyebrows that joined their hairline. Still, he denied it all. It was too much insult to her intelligence and he knew this. She did not ask â€˜why?â€™, she just walked away. As she left, she felt a comforting relief as though her soul received a soothing balm. She did not have to put up with a short hairy man for a husband.
My dear sister Bisola, You are right when you say some are lucky and some are not. Yesterday and today, I am not so lucky. I used to think that in the matters of the heart, some are blessed and some are not but I am wrong and you are right. For if I, as blessed as I am with good home, good morale, good face, good body, good head and good speech, why then am I so unfortunate in the matters of the heart? You and I know even those without virtue are lucky to have love find them. This morning, mama came to my room. Our dear old woman kneeled before me and wept. This is not a good sign. She said she wants to see my child before she goes. Mama thinks because I have a job and I want to buy a car, I will have no interest in men. She believes my independence is my curse. I will not buy a car. This is not fair. I cannot play God even if I wish to. Please sis Biso, help me be wise. So many people have told me that I think too much of myself and I should bring myself closer to humility. I have tried the place of humility but even humility cannot give love on demand, neither can it kindle passion in the heart. How do I show love to the object not of my affection? You say love can be learned but why is it then that I have been with this young man a long few years and I have not learned to love him? I respect him, care for him, tolerate him but I feel no love for him, not the love I know I am capable of giving from within my soul. Now, I hear the word patience more than I could appreciate, patience, love will come. Love will come as whom? Do I wait many more long years for love to show up in this young man or do I wait for love to show in a man that may be the creation of my imagination? 157
Sometimes I feel love is much ado about little but if there is little to love why then does my intangible finite being so burdened with inexplicable compassion. A type of compassion meant to be shared with compulsion by someone I think I know but I do not know him. Then I hear patience, again. Patience? How do I employ patience? My dear sis Biso, please tell. Do reply me soon as I have never been more confused. Forgive me; I waited till the end to inquire of you, your health and your family. Do extend my greetings to all. I have a work leave starting on the first Monday of next month; please can I come and spend it with you? I need to get away from everyone here; at least for a short while. I am eager to hear from you soon. Desperately, Labake
Red lipstick The Bata dance is the dance of â€˜Sangoâ€™, the dance of war and sensuality. There was a Bata dance festival and everyone gathered at the community city hall. The Bata is danced to the tune of the talking drums. Every beat of the drum commanded a movement in the body. No listeners of the talking drum could stand still as long as the drum spoke. It was either the shoulders moved back, forth, up and down or the hips and waist would sway or the hairs on the arms uncurled. Nanbam had always been fascinated by the language of the dance and eventually joined a dance troop. Today was her debut and Labake had promised to attend. She was going to be there to give her support. Labake got dressed, nicely; a little bit of flesh showing here and her hair was all over the place. She rubbed in some perfumed oil in her hair and let it loose again. She was going to stop over at her young manâ€™s place before heading to the city hall. She took one last look at herself in the mirror and assured herself she looked nice and smelled good. Today, she woke up with the feeling that something good was going to happen. She had no idea what it was. She could feel it. The young man had asked to see her as soon as possible. May be he was going to propose to her, again. Today she would say yes, she felt good. She walked into his little apartment, today, it felt huge. She took a seat and called out his name. He joined her in 159
the living room, which doubled as a bedroom. He had been cooking. Strange, he never cooked. He said he was tired of waiting for her to be ready for marriage with him and before she could say anything he called out to Banke. Banke had also been cooking. Little else was said and Labake headed for the door. She was getting accustomed to this. She passed by the mirror and stopped to take a look at herself. Something was not quite right. So he had found another and she was not heartbroken. She opened her bag and picked up a red lipstick she had had in her purse for a long time but was never brave enough to wear it. She rubbed it on and smacked her lips together. Now, everything was right. Today, she still felt good. She did not want to be late for the opening performance. A dark skinned lady with her hair let loose, tumbling over her shoulders, showing a bit of flesh here now wearing bright cherry red lipstick was a woman daring possibilities. Her aura was exciting and intimidating and she smelled good. She walked into the hall and picked a chair. Her dear friend Nanbam danced into the hall wearing the ‘Etu’ cloth wrapped across her breast to her knees. She had the ‘aso-oke’ shawl tied around her waist. She had huge beads of agate and red coral on her neck and a talking drum strapped under her armpit. Her hair was plaited in ‘shuku’ and dressed with glass beads. The soft spoken, genteel Nanbam, in all her calm and quiet demeanour was a riot of creative expressions eager to be unleashed from the inside. For a first performance, Nanbam did well. Some people watched the dance and some watched 160
Labake, standing on her seat trying to get a better view, clapping away enthusiastically. When Nanbam was done with her part she threw on a boubou and joined Labake to watch the rest of the show together. Refreshments where always sold during the festivals at the venue and Labake went over to the counter to buy soft drinks. “Two bottles of Coca-Cola, please?” she asked and she was told she did not have to pay. Some gentleman had offered to pay but he was not at the counter. She picked up the straws and dropped the money on the counter anyway. He liked that. “Coke is good, isn’t it?” the first sip she took left the bottle half empty. “Yes it is.” But it was not Nanbam who replied her. He introduced himself and asked to seat with the ladies. He talked and Labake could not listen to a word he spoke. He had nice teeth, nice hands and clear skin. Labake kept gawking. “He is handsome,” she told herself. The good feeling she had all day was heightened. He asked her questions and she smiled in response. Today, the day of the Bata dance festival, Labake felt great!
Alareno The two families sat separately but facing each other. Inbetween them were the ‘Alaga-ijoko’ and the ‘Alaga-iduro’, the professional orators each representing a family. Also between them, the intending groom’s family had presented gifts of forty-two tubers of yams, a basket full of fruits, a bottle of honey, palm oil and seaman-schnapps, several sticks of sugarcane, a white baby goat, packets of sweets for children, a Holy Quran and praying mat, a suitcase of clothing for the intending bride and a letter addressed to the head of the bride’s family. The letter stated that they wanted the hand of their daughter in marriage. An already prepared letter of acceptance was also to be read but first the family of the groom had to identify the bride amongst other young women. This was a performance that was customary. The bride was always known. The performance was just an amusement for the audience where the fake brides impersonate the bride and the groom’s family would deny her. The bride was easy to spot. She was better and more expensively dressed than the others, and even though a veil was put over her face the groom’s family could ask to see her face. Five brides were ushered in. Each one would kneel before the head of the groom’s family one after the other until the bride was identified. In this scenario, the head of this groom’s family was the groom’s mother. His father had passed on. The groom whispered into his mother’s ear the woman of 162
his choice as the mother and the bride to be had never met. The first, then the second and the third supposed brides were rejected and then the fourth and true bride took her turn. She kneeled before the intending mother in-law and lowered her head. The elderly woman asked to take a peek at her face and Labake lifted her veil. The woman asked to see the fifth bride before she could pick the real bride. Labake stepped back in panic, if she knew the real bride she would not ask to see the fifth. The fifth bride stepped forward and the woman took her hands like she identified with her. Everyone knew Labake and could not understand what this woman was playing at. Labake became upset. The woman then asked Labake, “My dear, why are you upset? I have not announced whom my son wants. I know that you are Omolabake.” Then she announced that the fourth bride was their choice. Everyone laughed and applauded. From this moment on, Labake thought of nothing else but what had just happened. She thought the woman was not the least bit amusing and could not understand why everyone laughed. Labake began to prepare her mind for the most evil mother-in-law. She thought she had to do something to stop the ceremony but a look at the groom’s face, he was smiling, flashing his white teeth and she thought she should wait till she had a chance to speak with him. This could not happen until the end of the first part of the ceremony. A cold sweat accompanied her cold feet. The bride price and the hand-over had to be negotiated. Labake’s father said he wanted no bride price other than a vow to keep his daughter safe and happy. This was agreeable. 163
The handover was to commence but there was no ‘Alareno’, the middleman of courtship or marital union. This was a person familiar to both families, who would take the responsibility of the union. Should any problem arise from the union of marriage, the ‘Alareno’ would be obligated to solve it. The two families spoke the same language but they understood different dialects. The mother of the groom swore to an alliance of friendship with Labake’s father and would keep the position of the middleman in all fairness. Labake thought this had to be a mistake. Her father held her hand and gave it a squeeze, he felt her fear and he reassured her. He was not certain of her choice in husband, he never was certain for any of his daughters’ choices but he had a good feeling about the woman, he had heard of her. Before the hand over was over, Omolabake kneeled before her parents to be prayed for. There were lots of tears and Labake held on to her parents and would not let go. The ‘Alaga’ announced it was time for her to take her place with her intending groom but Labake would still not let go. Labake’s mother told her it was time for her to start a new life and a family of her own but Labake held her tighter. The tears of a bride and those of her mother are a part of the traditional ceremony. Every bride has her own reasons for the tears whether genuine, crocodile or fashionable tears, stylishly cleaned by the corner of a folded handkerchief barely touching the eyes. Labake’s tears were for fear’s sake. Eventually, the two ‘Alagas’ pulled her away with much effort but once they let go of her, Labake ran back and clamped her arms around her father’s waist, sitting at his feet. Her crying got louder. She did not care that she ruined 164
her makeup or that the photographer seemed to click on his camera incessantly. This time the tears connoted a fear of detachment from her parents. She voiced her objection to the marriage but everyone disregarded her words saying it was all part of the bride-drama that were never unusual at these ceremonies. Her father held up his hand as a signal for everyone to step away from her. Then he pulled Labake up to sit on his weak knees. He wiped her tears with his thumb and whispered in her ears, “I have waited till now to see you settled and happy. Do you think I will let you go anywhere where you will suffer calamity? I would rather live another hundred years taking care of you than to let that happen. Where you are going you will have trials definitely, that is because you are human. But you are a strong and brave girl, you will overcome. But there you will also find the goodness of life.” Labake, like the spoiled child that she is, embraced her father and finally let go. She walked over to her groom, who seated her by his side and put his arm around her to comfort her. She looked at his face. She quietly thought she should insist on an end to this ceremony, nice teeth or no nice teeth. The second part of the ceremony started. There was eating, drinking, dancing and cultural performances. It was a grand event. It would be the last event Labake’s father would host and he knew this, so he gave the best the community had ever seen. It was his happiest day ever. He was an accomplished man who was satisfied with the generosity of life. In his heart, he spoke words of prayers, “she will need them and she will do well.”
Labake’s Wedding They danced into the hall in lines of two. “They have come!” and everyone in the hall was silenced. They indeed are a sight to behold. The royal blue head ties of silk, the gold voile lace tightly sewn to emphasize the contours of their femininity. Jewellery of everything new, a few were gold, blue and really some borrowed. ‘The friends of the bride.’ I smile as I admire them, for I am proud to be amongst the vainest women of the continent, illustrating the better side of vanity, this vanity that mothers the creation of beautiful things. The bride is ushered in and is prayed for. Her groom, who is covered with sweat not because he is nervous but because of the weighty layers of aso-oke agbada he has on, seats Labake close to himself. I know her well enough to recognize the smile on her face is as bogus as the costume jewellery worn by the Alagaijoko. The smile was in response to the new mother-in-law’s gratitude speech of the new addition to her family. We were also seated at several tables with friends of the groom. Every single uncommitted girl and unsatisfied married woman makes more effort to be more English than the word lady. Subtle smiles, absentminded, eating like birds, laser jet eyes, super sharp brains scanning the hall for potential available man-prey secretly hoping to get lucky. When all guards were let down, conversations began. 166
The one most annoying, rhetorical question is asked, “so when are you getting married?” There are lamentations, jokes, venom spitting, words of encouragements and gender rivalry debates. Today’s debate is “who is more stupid, the one that tells the lies or the one that believes the lies?” During the ‘not out of the ordinary topic of discussion’, I felt someone staring at me. Intuitively, I turned and saw him. He smiles and I return the favour. He gets up to approach me. He adjusts his fila, ‘HALLELUJAH! No wedding ring!’ He extends his hand and says, “You look familiar.” (Haba, that’s an old line!) “You are Nanbam,” (like I didn’t know) I was taken aback for a few seconds. I unconsciously ran through my past in search of decaying memories. There he was roting away, someone I dated briefly some ten years ago. He got some other girl pregnant. I had hallelujahed too soon. After the civil exchange of polite words, I remembered I had another function to attend; I had to take my leave. “Why are you leaving so soon?” he asked (I doubt that I would like to stay long enough for him to get another girl pregnant.) I went to the bride and I embraced her. “Omolabake, with all my heart, I pray you well.” “Nanbam, with all my heart, I pray you well.”
The first times The first of everything is most sacred in some cultures. Usually the first of tangibles were celebrated and offerings given to secure the goodness of other things to come. The first born of the womb, the first harvest, the first earnings of a child, the first house built and the list is endless. In relationships, the first of special and out of the ordinary occurrences are celebrated in anniversaries. Some people treasure that moment for as long as it needs to be remembered. Labake treasured memories of their first kiss; the first time they made love, their first quarrel, their first make-up and their first holiday together. Some things were good and some things were not so good but on the average things were not so bad. Labake was content. She had a recent development good for her business. Her bank had offered to help her become the biggest distributor of Nestle products in her local government. It was a string pulled by her father. The new couple were happy and things got better. Labake had prepared for whatever challenges she might face like her father had presumed but nothing surprised her as the first slap her husband dished her. It was more surprising as she had never been slapped across the face. It happened when she came home late from work. She applied a coat of red lipstick in the car hoping it would excite him and distract him from his hungry belly. It distracted 168
him all right but for other reasons. He accused her for wearing it for someone else and all explanations to make him see differently were lost. The argument turned verbally abusive and Labake turned to leave and that was it. She should not have turned her back on him. Labake was not unaware of domestic violence as it was now being called. Her parents never engaged in any such confrontations, her father is a gentle man. It was her father’s tenants that would come to him to solve domestic palavers. A number of times he would leave the house to rescue a woman shouting for help or attend to any sudden uproar. He was very respectable and no one challenged him. Labake had eavesdropped on some cases her father held in his living room. A lot of times the men did it to tame their wives to submission and other times the women wanted it for the attention. This was more common with the polygamous families. When the churches came, polygamy was frowned upon but some misguided brutes that referred to it as ‘Holy Ghost Discipline’ glorified wife beating. She remembered a particular woman, mama Banke, who was a second wife out of three. She was a quarrelsome woman. She was a woman who wanted to be beaten for the attention. When she had been beaten, she would cry so much, the husband will be guilt ridden to console her and end up spending the night with her. After a while, her techniques no longer worked. She came to Labake’s father for counselling, explaining that it was most difficult to be a middle wife. She was always ignored even if she cooked the
best meals. Labake’s father then said to her, “stop getting yourself hurt, the way to a man heart is never through his fist, not always through his belly but another certain way is between his legs. Whenever you get him sleeping alone, lock the door and quietly peel his plantain and eat his sugarcane, he will think he woke up in heaven and when he sees you he will confuse you to be a heavenly being.” Three days afterwards, mama Banke sent Labake’s family a bowl of ‘Aadun’. No one ever heard mama Banke’s wailing ever again. Labake related wife beating to weakness. She never thought her husband as one with insecurities, he was always self-assured and confident, and that was what made him so attractive other than the nice teeth and hands. The first slap had not sunk in her mind. To her, it never happened. She had been married a couple of years and she did not think she would need mama Banke’s lesson so early in marriage. Eat his sugarcane?! Coming from a culture where women’s sexual satisfaction was irrelevant if not unacceptable otherwise, why cut off her clitoris at her infant age? Things were changing and they were all learning or else. Peel his plantain! It is about sexual gratification beneficial to man only, educated or not. She had always sworn to mutual benefits. So what! Story! She exercised the sugarcane lesson that night. It was also a first to remember.
7:00am The wailing of Labake, my next-door neighbour woke me up. Labake does a fine job waking me up every morning at 7:00am. I got out of bed to open my bedroom window. This Saturday, I decided to observe the activities of my environs. The last Saturday of the month, environmental sanitation day. This is the soldier’s bright idea to ‘operation discipline the people’. The old men in the estate gathered, as they normally would, to discuss the matters concerning the estate. Matters like cleaning the environment, security and the like. Serious talk but all talk. They are gathered outside, a good distance from my window. I greeted Baba Sharafa as we made eye contact. I saw a mallam staring desperately, trying to catch more than a glimpse of the food hawker’s breasts that stooped to serve him his meal. There is something wrong with this picture. Should he not be fasting? This is the month of Ramadan. I noticed a policeman inspecting a broken-into window surrounded by a crowd of observers. The flat two blocks away from me had been burgled. Labake dashed out of her house in her undergarments with a wrapper that barely covered her body. Sweating profusely, cursing and ranting was the man chasing after her, her husband to be precise. She ran to the policeman for help 171
but he would not get involved. “Solve una domestic palaver una sef”. I have seen this only too often. The noise of sirens caught my attention; a governor or senator must be passing by in a convoy of twelve-escort vehicles, mostly 504 and 505 Peugeots. “Na wa O!” I exclaimed. I looked away when I could see the last car no more. The refuse cart pushers occupied my scene. They dumped refuse right in the middle of the streets. It was quiet again except the old men’s voices rang in my ears when I heard ‘Young Alhaji’s’ voice say his father was attempting suicide. Young Alhaji, as he is fondly called should be in his seventies, making his father not less than a hundred. “Baba went into a comma because of his fasting. When he woke up after two days, his first words were, “awe mi di meta,” proud that he has fasted three days.” They laugh and I laughed. Young Alhaji was not laughing. I could see into Mrs. Alabi’s yard. Her twin children were playing some mischievous game. God bless us all. Baba Sharafa slapped the buttocks of a woman that is not Mama Sharafa’s. The woman that is not Mama Sharafa is amused. So much to see but I heard my name. I turned to see my husband. Now he is awake, calling me back to bed. I closed the window. Today won’t be so bad after all. I was greeted with a smile. In all the chaos, I had peace and warmth in my home.
Matters of the heart The matters of my heart concerns this man Man, man, man Who is he that I give much concern in favour of? Yet he has the power to create and destroy With dominion he walks loftily on the earth Look at him, he is his own enemy. Who do I blame for his actions? Does he walk under the influence of spirits? Is he aware of what he does? When he breaks my heart and scorns my affection? Damn the devil! But is the devil to blame? What a great mystery Yet I still love man.
Waking up with him A womanâ€™s intuitiveness and perceptive attributes are usually more developed than her male counterpart. This is arguably true, considering the notion that women are more gullible than their male counterparts. Sometimes, intuitions and perceptions are best related to an individualâ€™s development, whether male or female. Labake was never one to be tolerant with her intuitive sixth-sense, especially when she was often wrong. She relied more on common sense observations than fallible perceptions. Four years into her marriage, she studied her husbandâ€™s behavioural pattern with duress. She could tell what his feelings were towards her by the way he woke up with her. She learned to read his waking-up pattern and posture like a mother learned to read the needs of her yet speechless infant child. With this observation, she could give a forecast on their daily interaction. When he lays in the foetal posture, turning his back to her, he is feeling vulnerable, wanting reassurance and affection without having to ask. If he lies facing her in a way that she can feel his breathe tickle the nape of her neck, filling his nostrils with the scent of her skin and hair, placing his arm around her waist, this means he is happy to be with her. She can ask for the moon and he will present her a galaxy named after her. He can trust her and give her full control. After four years of marriage things were changing and 174
so were his waking-up postures. If he woke up atop her, he demanded his husbandly privileges. If he woke up with his arms folded across his chest, often making faces at the ceiling then he does not want to be touched or maybe he has a lot on his mind. On these days, Labake asked for nothing. She would do her wifely duties with care for the littlest details. He is a six-hour minimum, deep sleeper and she is a sixhour maximum, light sleeper. He hardly ever woke up before her but like all things changing, there were many days she wished never to awaken. These were the days after her father died. Her mother was the first to depart and her father followed a few months after his wife. It was not a surprise, they were both well over eighty. Lately, Labake woke up to find herself enveloped by her husband. He would hold her so closely. She hardly knew what to make of the new stance. He held her like he loved her but sympathy felt more appropriate to Labake. This morning, she was startled to find him staring at her when she finally opened her eyes. He laid close to her without touching her. “Is anything the matter?” she asked. “We need to talk.” “Now? It’s quite early in the morning,” she complained. “It is the best time to talk.” They both sat up in bed, “I have been thinking about us owning our own business. You studied business management so this will be an interesting challenge for you. There is a cocoa plantation up for sale in my hometown. It is up to thirty acres of plantation in the government-reserved area for farming. We can become the 175
largest producers of cocoa in our region as we grow. I have done a lot of research and it is profitable business.” She could hardly ignore the excitement in his voice as he spoke. “You don’t have that kind of money to purchase this plantation.” She did not appreciate this conversation. “But WE do. If we put our resources together we can do this. I have spoken to my other siblings and it can become a family business. They are as keen as I am.” “What resources are you referring to? My savings including my working capital?” “Have you forgotten your inheritance? Your father left you a lot of money.” He knew how much. He knew about everything she owned except one property. The block of apartments they lived in belonged to her long before her father died. Before they got married, she told him she had found a perfect accommodation for them to start their new life together. They leased it off an estate agent employed by her father. All the show of affection was not even for the sake of sympathy, she told herself. He only wanted something from her. She searched the face of a man she knew as her husband and realized she knew him not at all. Her silence meant her refusal. He told her to think about it. Labake is a city girl proper; she has never been to a farmyard. It is unthinkable for her to give up all that she owned in pursuit of her husband’s village fantasy. Now there are new sleeping patterns, sleeping patterns that leave little to observe. Labake wakes up alone. 176
Going home A few days to the big family reunion, Labake had packed everything they could possibly need to sustain them for a week in her husband’s hometown. She had only ever met his mother and younger brother once. That was during their wedding ceremony. Her sister-in-law had given birth to a son, her mother-in-law is turning sixty and her husband’s family had a lot to be thankful for. She had mixed feelings about the reunion. She was certain to feel odd amongst them. How is she to rejoice with them when she has little to be grateful for? She held on to an inheritance that threatened her marriage. She was without child, how could she try to get pregnant when her husband stopped sleeping with her? She felt so alone. She and her husband sat in the same vehicle but hardly spoke to each other all through the gruesome five-hour journey. She could never sleep sitting so she tried to read a novel to keep her wandering mind in focus while her husband snored away. The book got boring and she took a new interest in the colourfully painted huge trucks plying this route to and from the north. She looked out for the messages painted on the rear end of these overloaded vehicles tilting to one side like they would fall over. “God dey!” “If God be 4 mi, u no fit” “No food 4 lazy man” “If you get problem, na woman cause am” “Soup wey sweet, na kpanla kill am” 177
The messages in pidgin-English, as silly as they seemed, made sense to her, especially one she read off a peculiar orange truck that slowed them down, driving in the middle of the road, thereby making it difficult for their vehicle to over take it. It read, “Sense e good, money sef e good”, it reminded her of a verse in ecclesiastics which reads, “wisdom along with inheritance is good.” She pondered on the message, wondering how she could dispense wisdom in her inheritance issues. She could not trust her husband with all that she owned. Many years back when she heard money was the root of all evil, she did well to despise it but her mother encouraged her otherwise. “Your father worked hard so you can live well,” was what her mother had said. She was not ready to let go of what her father worked hard to build with years of hard labour, only to watch her over-ambitious husband make waste of it. The night before the journey, she had prayed for direction from God. She had asked for signs to influence her decision. Foolishly or maybe not, desperately or maybe not, the messages she had seen thus far, she had believed and they had elevated her but none had been direct to the issue. She remained watchful. Three hours well into their journey, they were held up in traffic. A hundred meters of hooting, overheating vehicles away from them, a truckload of tomatoes had fallen over. It was bound to happen. There were no casualties. Passengers came down from their vehicles to help clear the mess. A preacher man took advantage of the unsuspecting 178
congregation. The old preacher looked like he should be institutionalised. But Labake sort wisdom even from the senile. It always starts with “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand!” “These are the end times. The daughters of hell shall ensnare those unaware. Jezebel is riding the sensibility of man. You will know them when you see them. Their hair is long and so are their nails,” unknown to him as hair extensions and acrylic nails. “They are mammy-water, the spirit of the queen of the coast possesses them. Beware.” “You, the daughter of heaven!” referring to Labake as she was the only one that paid him any attention, “why do you paint your face like them? Repent now and submit to your husband!” All else that was said went unheard. The Lord had spoken, through the senile man. Her conviction and naivety prevailed. The journey continued. Labake held her hand out to her husband who still ignored her; hurt by his rejection she laid her hand to rest on his. His hand was cold. Once again she felt alone and doubt came rushing like an overload truck of tomatoes. Her conviction and naivety got squashed rather easily.
“Iya oko mi” In life there are people we meet who have a role to play in our lives, some stronger than others. There are those called fillers; they have no influence, they neither take away nor add any value to us. There are those who are dependent on us and simultaneously, we are dependent on them or on others. There are those whose purpose is to be a thorn in the flesh, they cause us grief, deserving or not. Coincidence is never a significant occurrence. Amongst the many categories of role-players are those called ‘mothers-in-law’. There is a prayer which says “may we have enough joy to keep us thankful and may we have enough sorrow to keep us humble.’ Mothers-in-law could well qualify as the humbling factor. This is regardless of the fact that every female child born is a potential mother-in-law. Labake never believed in the reincarnation ideology. Life in Its present was too urgent for a reflective past-life. She believed in the here and now. But for explanations without conviction, she suspects a treacherous mother-in-law taunted her past-life. Her ‘here and now’ would not tolerate any meddling inconsequential other. She was both defensive and offensive in relations with her husband’s mother. There was nothing the older woman did that was agreeable to Labake. Her mother-in-law was always a suspect and Labake was always suspicious. Labake carried around herself an unseen façade that permitted no one access to her. No one was comfortable with her, specifically her mother-in-law. 180
She never called her maami like the others but referred to her as ‘iya oko mi’. After the naming ceremony of the new mother and child, there was a thanks-giving service held by her husband’s family. Labake distinguished herself from the others, sitting while others danced. Could she dance to new birth if she fears her womb closed? The obvious incidence sparked off a confrontation between her and her husband in their private quarters. ‘Iya oko’ walked in on flying fists. She ordered her son out of the room and calmed Labake’s heaving flanks with soft words without touching her. “Take your handbag, wear your slippers, wrap your head in a scarf, take a walk into the village proper. You cannot get lost if you follow the path of the red soil. If my observations of you are right, the good air will cleanse your thoughts and nature will give you insight.” Labake followed all instructions and took her leave after ‘iya oko’ left to sort out her son. “Your father, God bless him, never hit me,” she told her son. “No union is perfect but you do not seem to try. You have made her lonely.” “Why do you defend her Maami? She was openly rude to you! I had to put her right!” There was a tear in his eye forcing its way back into the tear sack. “Put her right with your fist? You are not a foolish boy!” she reminded him. “Did I tell you that I could not defend myself? I know there is more than the eyes perceive. I raised you to be a good man,” she seemingly implored her son. 181
“NOT A COMPLETE MAN!” he spat out. His mother’s eyes read she understood him. “I found out two years ago. I cannot tell her. I am trying to make her leave me.” “Making her believe she is barren?” she showed no sentiments. She remained compassionate but unfazed. “Life is not fair, life has burdened me enough,” he said. “So you dispense some of your own burden on her?” “Maami, we share the burden.” “Unequally! You are a coward I must say but I have learned in times past that to be a coward has its reward but I am not certain it applies well in your case.” She pulled her son to her side; speaking unspoken words only they understood. Be strong, it will be all right. But words uttered said, “You must never hit her again!” There was little fear of retribution against the words but they dared not be disobeyed. In life there are comforters; they are angels of heaven and some are called mothers.
Labake dear, Your apartment is heavenly; well itâ€™s mine now. My life has got a whole lot more comfortable now. I hope the changes you have made are pleasurable to you as well. I have little fear that any harm could come your way; you are the special of the Almighty. More importantly, I hope you and your husband are working things out? I find it difficult to believe you spoiled city girl left all the glitter and scandal of Lagos for a cocoa plantation. Reporting as the acting landlady, I have deposited the annual rent payments into the fixed account you wanted. Scandal! The family in flat four. The thirteen-year-old girl, Tinu, supposedly came back from boarding school pregnant. She was dismissed from school three months ago but did not come home until a week after your departure. She must have been at least seven-eight months pregnant looking so sickly and malnourished. Her mother was so happy to see her, forgetting to be angry. Well, five nights ago, the girl was screaming the building down. The noise was so eerie. I went up to them and opened their door with the spare keys. She had gone into labour. You know Mrs. Alabi is a nurse, she said there was no need to rush to the hospital so she delivered her daughterâ€™s baby by herself with little help from me. The baby was just fine. I helped with the cleaning. None of us had a minute of sleep. Tinu was taken to the hospital by dawn. Today I went to see Mrs. Alabi to inquire of Tinu. The woman was sitting in the dark crying. I thought something had gone utterly wrong. Well, something was definitely wrong. Mrs. Alabi said she never suspected Tinu to be pregnant before she sent her off to boarding house. She assumed her increasing weight was due to puberty. She kept blaming herself for not being a good mother, that if she were not a single mother she would not raise imbalanced children.
I tried to encourage her, to make her realize it was not her fault. She then revealed to me that the father of baby is Tinuâ€™s twin brother. Mrs. Alabi was throwing up. I asked how Tinu and the baby were and she said Tinu was fine in the hospital and that after I had left that night, she locked the baby up in a cupboard till it cried to death. My head took a spin. I am not sure which is more atrocious! She said she could not bear to see the living taboo with blood full of sin breathing like a normal child. She was sure if she had not done what she did, the child would commit suicide eventually. I am not sure I should write you about this but I cannot resist the scandal. Seriously, I know you are trying hard for a baby and this might upset you but really, I think it is food for thought. I am doing well and the children are fine. I cannot wait for them to start primary school so I can sign them up for every extracurricular after-school activities. I need to get them off my hands; they are driving me insane! You just say the word and they are yours. I will send them off to you without reconsideration. They miss you. I miss you. Everything will be all right. Nanbam
Dear Nanbam, Scandals are everywhere. I am brewing a bit of my own here. I visited the Erinjesha waterfall yesterday. It is a beautiful place. It is one of the reasons I agreed to move here. I was promised the water has healing potential. I believe it will help with my fertility issues. Anyway, I was there some weeks ago, swimming. Then this really tall and handsome oyinbo man came to swim as well. God forgive my weakness for beautiful things. We became friends so easily. I enjoyed his company. If I were not married, I could swear it was love at first sight! I forgot to tell him I was married because he said he would like to see me again. I told him I bathe there once a week and he said heâ€™d see me this same time next week. Donâ€™t preach! I know it is wrong but I have this feeling he is the ONE. I know it is too late for me to think that. My marriage, at times, I feel is a mistake. We donâ€™t make each other happy. My husband is a good man and any woman will be lucky to have him, any woman but not me. It has been five years and it is not getting better between us. I want to believe in second chances. Anyway, we have met twice now. Nothing has happened; I should let him know I am miserably married first. Two days ago, there was this big fuss about a new minister coming to the Baptist church, the son of the American missionary couple. Apparently he is a childhood friend of my husband. He was so excited about a reunion. They had not seen each other for over ten years. This morning he brought his friend home and it was my oyinbo. Awkward does not describe our introduction. He went red. I was so ashamed. I have been flirting with a Baptist minister. When we were alone briefly I begged desperately for his understanding. I told him to give me a chance to explain and make things right if he would meet with me again at the waterfall.
Don’t preach! I know what I am doing. About Mrs. Alabi, I feel bad for her not because of her daughter but because of the life she will be held accountable for. Spiritually, I believe she has no right to take any life however gruesome it may be and legally, no court of law will find her innocent for this supposed mercy killing. Easy to judge isn’t it? Was she arrested? Why do I have a feeling everything is swept under the carpet? I am not as distressed as you think I am about my childlessness. It will come when it will come. I learn to trust God. But if in another few years, I do not conceive then I will take up your offer on one of your children. Send my love to them, I miss you all too. I am setting up a warehouse for our cocoa produce. Harvest will begin soon. I have made propositions to companies that will buy processed cocoa from us. My sister-in-law and I are working on this project. We get on well and I like her. I wish I could say the same of my mother-in-law. We just avoid each other. I am thinking of making bottled water from the warm springs at the foot of the hill. I am in search of distributors for this. Believe me, this place is full of untapped resources. I prefer this life much more than the city life. Whenever you get a work-leave, please let me know. I will send for you. The children will love it here. The ‘Erinjesha’ is like a spa. You will be rejuvenated. My dear, it is well with you and I. Yours faithfully, Omolabake
You! Now you have a face, There was a time you touched me, held me and even loved me. But it was all in my head. They were dreams I dreamed. Then I awake, the one that lay beside me, He is not in my dream. Often times I am eager to sleep, It was the only way to be with you, though I never met you. Now you have a name. The name is gentle to my breath. The letters are soft on my lips. They wish to be called out loud, proclaimed, As they burn the tip of my tongue yet it stays gentle to my breath. I fear that when I am with him, your name will force my lips to confess, Like it did the other night, when you came to my dream. I fear that he may have heard but his eyes were shut. Now I see your face. I knew it was you the first time we met. You wore your beautiful smile and nice white teeth. You already knew my name. The first time we held hands. The second time, we embraced and the time after, we kissed. You brushed your hands against my breast and then you held back. 187
Now I see your face, I feel like such a desperate fool. I begged you to take me but you had your reasons not to. Now I see your face, What good has it done me? You should have remained a dream because now you are much too real.
Monkey trap “Ever since the beating stopped, something else gave way. Freshly tapped palm-wine is abundant on the farm. Drinking had taken a further step from just pleasant leisure. Why must man have a vice? Since when did balance seem mundane?” Labake no longer complained; it was more of reflecting over her predicament. “I thought he would be happy here. He wanted to be home by all means, now he is here I fear he might self-destruct. It has been four days and no one has seen him.” Ifelolu only listened. They were not yet worried. He could not have left his wife like this. Although he had left his home for three and more days several times in the past, someone always knew of his whereabouts. He took nothing along with him and they believed he would be back. “Does he hate me this much?” Labake kept talking to her sister-in-law who did not seem to have answers to any of her questions. “Is he not too old to go missing?” The last time he was seen was on the farm, drinking. It was the last Friday of the month, which meant there would be a meeting on the farm for all workers. During the meeting, the farm manager related a strange encounter he had. He said he was inspecting the palm-kernel siblings they had planted six months earlier on their newly acquired farmland. He said he met seven old women wearing ‘etu’ pulling out weeds from around the siblings. This is a rather unusual scenario as the ‘etu’ is an expensive, woven cotton cloth 189
worn for special occasions. The old women were not even employees of theirs. A particular woman amongst them, who seemed to be their leader, then asked him if he owned the land and he replied otherwise. He was told by her to give the owner of the land this message, “Oil is to the spirits like food is to man, We are the keepers of the spirits’ incense. Will man indulge in what is of the spirit without permission? Does he mock their need for pleasure of burning oil offerings? My son, we are happy that you do this for you are not many. But you must celebrate the gift of the oil. The white fowls must roast, And the whiteness of palm-wine must make the heart merry. We will join you. Man is not a monkey that he should ignore the unseen.” After the manger gave full details of his encounter, ‘iya oko’ sent for twenty-five layer hens and a hundred litters of palm-wine. As the fowls were put to roast, the aroma drew numerous people near. People they had never seen before. Some brought eko and some brought roasted yams. All foods eaten there were white, except the redness of palmoil. There was singing, clapping and dancing. Labake and Ifelolu began serving meals to all. It was when Labake kneeled to serve a peculiar old woman; too old to dance like the others, sitting on the raffia mat that the woman then said to her, “Thank you my child, you shall never be barren.” Many, including Labake’s husband heard what the woman had said. He became upset. He asked who the old woman 190
was and why she had said what she said. The woman smiled. It seemed she knew of his secret, if not then why did she smile at him the way she did? He became more upset. He asked everyone to eat, drink up and get back to work. A month had gone by since then and everyone was certain something had gone wrong. It had become a local police case and even the vigilantes kept their eyes and ears open for any news on him. Four years had gone by slowly since they first moved to the village. Labake remembers all that she had to give up to make her husband happy. They had a better relationship here than they did in Lagos. Here, they had managed themselves well. But there was a time they sincerely loved each other, now they tolerated each other. She did not hate him but she still loved him maybe not the way she used to. They cared for each other in their own way. They had grown into friends and not lovers. With time she realized she indeed was not barren. She never missed her monthly periods and knew when she was ovulating. They never intently discussed their childlessness. Today was the monthly workers meeting again. Labake and Ifelolu took a long drive to the farm. They were running late. They met an empty barn. After waiting for half an hour with only a few workers showing up, they decided to take a drive into the palm-kernel plantation. On approaching the place, they saw a crowd gather. There was some commotion in their midst. When they got down from the car, walking towards them, Labakeâ€™s brother-in-law, Ifeloluâ€™s husband saw 191
them move toward the chaos. He ran to them stopping them from moving any closer. He led them back to the car; the place was not safe for them he said. Ifelolu knew all was not well, she could see their motherin-law, Maami sitting on the grounds of the unsafe place. “What is wrong?” she was almost shouting. Labake tasted salt in her mouth, she too was panicking. “It is my husband, you have found him,” asking and confirming. “Yes it is. He was caught in a monkey trap pit.” Labake ran towards the place where her husband laid and she was held back, “I cannot let you see this. I am sorry.” His decaying body staled the air with a foul odour. Iya oko was led away. It was a sad day, this day. Iya oko shed many tears. It is not fair for any mother to bury her child. For the first time Labake and her mother-in-law found comfort in each other. They held each other for times that seemed like hours. Iya oko whispered into Labake’s ears, “We shall not mourn his death, we shall celebrate his life. We shall not wear black clothing; we shall wear ‘etu’. He may not have shown you love in so many ways but he loved you quietly in his heart. He was not always strong but his heart was good. Though he is not here where we can see, he will rejoice with us here on. Tears are good but for only a short while. We shall suffer loss no more.” Jayesimi, Omolabake’s husband was buried and his soul prayed for. 192
Burial rites Every tradition has its peculiar burial rite. Some burials have no women in attendance while some have no children, death seems easily contagious to the younger ones. Some bury their dead ceremoniously with the use of well-crafted coffins and some without. Some families employ professional moaners to dramatize the grief while some have no one in attendance. Oluwaremilekun, iya oko, now had a son, Jayesimi, who was no more. Where she comes from, a mother or father is forbidden to bury a child. She would not be allowed anywhere near the burial grounds neither would she see the tomb of her son. There are burial rituals, which include widowhood rites. There are some who use a death in the family to abuse other members of the family. This is the atrocity of sister on sister misdeed, women abusing women. Rather than finding comfort in each other, they visit vengeance on the wife and children of the departed. They would make the widow sit on filthy floors and mats wearing nothing but filthy wrappers. They are held in small rooms as hostages, shaving off hairs atop and below with broken snail shells or broken plates. They are made to eat from unwashed bowls. Some would go as far as forcing the bereaved to drink and sometimes bathe with the water used to wash the corpse. They are held hostage long enough to plunder the property of the deceased like vultures would plunder remains. 193
This demoralizing rite could last seven to forty days. Fortunately for Labake, she did not belong to such a clan. She and her mother-in-law developed a bond through their loss. It is a shame that it took the death of a son and husband to achieve this closeness. She was not free of all burial rites though. There were rites she had to perform in honour of her late husband. Jayesimi died without an heir to bury him as the customs required a son to bury his father. His corpse will be laid by his fatherâ€™s tomb but no head stone will be placed until a son was born to him. Her mother-in-law had exempted her from all moaning rituals. She did not believe in mourning, she thought it kept the dead, dead. A celebration was more appropriate. The issue of an heir remained and she desired an heir for the sake of her sonâ€™s restive soul. The family meeting would conclude this issue. Friends and well-wishers came to give their condolences and amongst them was the oyinbo Baptist minister. Labake had not seen him in a long while. The last time they spoke was the day he had kissed her. It was a sin he had cursed himself for, betraying his dear friend. He had no regrets though but he knew it could never happen again. He never visited Jayesimiâ€™s house but he would instead visit the main family house that Labake avoided and then send for Jayesimi. Labake felt hurt by the way he avoided her. Many times and many Sundays, Labake attended the Baptist church services, just to see him and to hear his voice. One Sunday, Labake attended the service and she was told he had moved 194
to a neighbouring town. She understood the message. Unknown to her, he still visited the family house, maybe once a month. This day, he had made his usual visit only to learn of Jayesimi’s demise. This same day, he visited Labake, held hands with her and he even embraced her. He said he was sorry for her loss. Sorry? He said he would miss his dear friend. This day and many more days, he visited Labake. Each time, they held hands, embraced and did a little more. One of these many days, Ifelolu happened on them. She walked in on them doing more than holding hands. She was not surprised. She had observed the way they looked at each other from the first time he came to see her. He had confessed to her years back that he was in love with Jayesimi’s wife and she had kept his secret all this while. Ifelolu had made him promise not to be the cause of a breakup in their marriage and he had kept his distance until now. There was no marriage to break up any more. Ifelolu had come to relate the conclusion of the family meeting held to discuss the laying of Jayesimi’s tombheadstone. Labake would have to bear an heir in Jayesimi’s name with one of his brothers. Labake was distraught with the news. Three months after her husband’s death, Jayesimi still held her confined.
Six pairs of shoes Here I am, staring at six pairs of shoes, thinking what in the good Lord’s name am I to do. Feeling helpless, knowing tears had no strength to carry my burden and yet there was no time to suppurate. This burden of mine was to make a choice, a choice to pick a pair from the six. This pair I choose, would belong to that man that will have me bear an heir in the name of my late husband, Jayesimi. So I go over and over and over each pair and to whom they belonged. By method of elimination, the first pair to be put away belonged to uncle Shi-na. The silly old pervert with his missing teeth! He came by yesterday to show me the shoes he will present today. He never seems to empathize the word shame as he openly drools whenever he sees me. Tisha kekere’s (young teacher) shoes followed (another of my late husband’s uncle). I can tell the shoes belong to him; they looked educated, like they have been everywhere if you know what I mean. I put his shoes aside because I loathe his hypocrisy, speaking against the traditions of the land and yet his shoes are here to participate in one of the most unjust of the traditions. He fights against the forceful marriage of a betrothed against her will, yet he says it is all right for a widow to be pushed on to the next of kin, believing I am responsible for Jayesimi’s immobile soldiers and blank bullets.
Rumour has it that Wasiu, Uncle Shi-na’s son cannot get it up. He is of no use. I wonder; where were all these people when Jayesimi was growing up? Where were they on the most important days of his life? Jayesimi had become a man without a father figure, had no one to represent his father and had no one assist his mother. But here they are, scavenging hyenas wanting another man’s kill. This pair would be Olusoga’s, my late husband’s LAZY half brother. Olusoga is here for the money. He has been contending for the family’s property that has been my Jayesimi’s birthright and blood sweat. To have me as his concubine and get rich doing it is far too easy. Two pairs left. They are the littlest of all the evil but still despicable. They belong to my two brothers-in-law. One much, much too liberated, in pursuit of higher understanding, having little interest in traditional rites. Mama put his shoes here. He, Olarotimi had left home to study for his P.H.D. And the other happens to be my best friend’s husband. Boluwatife. The last thing I want to do is hurt Ifelolu. She says she would never mind sparing her husband for this purpose but I cannot accept. They share such a special companionship that I would be accursed if I came between them. Many times, Ifelolu had told me stories of what they had overcome in times past. Circumstances in which they met, the separation they suffered, the operation he paid for to correct her facial deformity and how he redeemed her through marriage.
He had given her the name Ifeloluwa meaning God is Love. She is the only one that knows I might already be carrying the heir. She has helped keep my lover a secret all this while, this man I loved even before I was married. To think that I am free from him to whom I was married to even after his demise would be a miracle, a miracle called Ifelolu. She has promised to help me abscond, in case I decide not to pick any shoes. So help me God.
The proper way “God is not a tax collector, not the way HE is spoken of by some of the preachers. HE would not take without giving back.” In all her dreams, she never once saw the death of her son, Jayesimi. Those that came to give her words of encouragement spoke words that burned her ears. Most of them believed the servants of the devil had played a bad joke on her. No man lays a monkey trap only to be ensnared by the works of his hands. Oluwaremilekun then said to them, “If you understand the will of God, your ignorance will not make a mockery of you.” The pity party avoided her. Omolabake and Oluwaremilekun had become closer than friends in the past few months. Labake and Ifelolu had become to her, daughters she never had. There was a youthfulness she took pleasure in when they were together. Remilekun would make much effort to preserve the friendship she had with her daughters-in-law. She had not seen Labake since the family meeting. She feared Labake would feel betrayed by the decisions made for her to bear an heir in her late husband’s name with the next of kin of her choice. She needed to make certain Labake would consent to this, otherwise she, Remilekun would lay the headstone of her son’s grave, taboo or not. Labake was not home. She had to be at the warehouse. She had resumed work and 199
Remilekun was certain to find her there. As Remilekun approached the office of the warehouse, she heard voices. “There is nothing I can take along with me. If I start to move things about, iya oko mi will be suspicious.” It was Labake’s voice. “You don’t need to take anything. We can restart a new life without any of these things.” It was a man’s voice. Remilekun stood still to listen better. “I wish I did not have to leave this place. I am excited to restart a new life with you but I do not feel I have to give all this up. I have worked so hard to make a success of this and now I have to throw it all away.” “I’ll be leaving my family too you know. My practice, the church but being with you is more important.” He was sitting on the chair and he pulled Labake, who was sitting on the table, to her feet, standing between his parted legs and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I can’t let anyone take you from me,” he continued, “I’d rather die. I always entreated Jayesimi to care for you. I encouraged him to love you but he never could, not like I do. If I could be accepted, I would offer myself to raise an heir for him. Many heirs.” He gave a painful smile. He rubbed his nose and lips on her belly, knowing he had put someone there. “So it is six in the evening then?” “Six in the evening, I’ll be waiting for you.” “Ifelolu has agreed to help.” Labake held his head to her chest and rested her chin on him, “God bless her.” 200
Remilekun had seen and heard all this. Her doubts were confirmed. Labake had a plan to runaway. Remilekun left in search of her other daughter-in-law. The day of shoes had come. The six intended except one were present. They awaited the decision of Jayesimi’s bereaved wife. All shoes were returned except one. Bolu’s shoes. The other four men picked up their shoes and left Labake’s quarters disgruntled. Boluwatife was uneasy about this. He knew he had the duty of raising a son in his late brother’s name but he had quietly hoped Labake would pick anyone else but him. He walked into her inner chambers. The curtains were drawn but a little light seeped in through the openings of the fabric. He made his way carefully to where Labake was seated. He sat on the bed beside her. A long silent pause ensued. “You don’t have to do this you know,” he was nervous, he did not think his late brother would approve of him sleeping with his wife not even over his dead body. Boluwatife had not been with any woman other than Cecilia. In his thoughts, he called his wife Cecilia but when he spoke he referred to her as Ifelolu. It was more appropriate in a Yoruba family. “Ifelolu says it is alright but I will do nothing you don’t approve of. You don’t have to do this.” He reminded her. “But I want to.” She replied but it was not Labake’s voice he heard. Cecilia was wearing Labake’s clothing, impersonating Labake, while Labake made a run for it. 201
Labake had let herself out through the window. It was sunset; the sky began to grey, no one saw her escape. She made her way to her lover’s house where a hired car should be waiting to take them to the city. As she neared the house, she saw no yellow taxi. She began to pray he had not changed his mind. As she neared the door, she saw a pair of slippers laid neatly aside. It belonged to her mother-in-law. The salty taste in her mouth was back. She entered his house unprepared for what she would encounter. Remilekun was certainly there, seated with Labake’s lover and his parents. Remilekun had come to see him hours earlier. It was the turn of events that involved his parents. When he first left home some years back to study in the United States, he realized he was different from his parents. They were white and he was darker with tightly curled hair. Seeing more people like himself he began to ask questions. He was eventually told that he was an adopted son. They claimed to know nothing of his biological mother other than she was a young local woman who had given him the name Toluwani. When Remilekun had first appeared at his doorstep, he knew it was to do with Labake but things took an unexpected course. He had known Jayesimi’s mother for many years and he was fond of her. He felt the shame of betrayal when he planned to run with Jayesimi’s wife. He let her in and offered her a chair. Without much ado, she asked him if he knew who his 202
mother was. There were a lot of questions asked and they were all answered. She had told him she wished he were called Toluwani. It all made sense. He asked of his biological father and the rape was never mentioned. She said it was a festive night and she was mischievous. Today, she had come to ask him if he would offer his shoes as next of kin. “All protocols must be observed,” she said, “it is the proper way to do things.” He accepted. It was at this time Omolabake crossed the threshold of his door.
Epilogue Brown Skin To Africa, three daughters were born. Oluwaremilekun, Cecilia called Ifeloluwa and Omolabake. They lived through trials and triumphed. The three women bore sons and daughters as good trees bore good fruits. There is the possibility that a journey never ends in one lifetime and the baton is relayed to another bearer to arrive at the destination. These three women began the journey of those to bring fortification to those that slumbered. The race is not theirs, neither is the destination but they must contribute the first step. They must birth and raise unto themselves a new generation of torchbearers. Omolabake was pregnant with her third child and she was due anytime soon. She was always restless. Ifelolu did most of the cooking and it was Saturday night, which meant she would cook ikokore, water yam porridge. The three women ate supper together while the men left in a hurry to watch the annual wrestling match. Labakeâ€™s meal was specially spiced up with a lot of pepper; her mother-in-law had said pepper encourages contractions. After the heavy meal, all three decided to stretch out on the raffia mats in the backyard veranda. All three snoozed off and dreamed dreams alike after so much talk of babies. 204
Remilekun dreamed that where she lay she was awakened with the sounding of a gong. She heard voices of people gathered. Some had come to ask if she was prepared to receive the Oba, while some congratulated her that she was honoured to have such royalty visit her. The Oba approached her and embraced her, calling her Maama. The Oba was a woman, which is not normal. She knew it was her grandchild, the one that was yet to be born. Ifelolu dreamed of the children she schooled when she was not on the farm. She had a new pupil. On her desk was a lamp. The lamp was lit. When the child held the lamp in her hands, it began to attract fireflies. The fireflies gathered in a large number and it seemed like she held a huge ball of colourful light. Everyone gathered about her, all enthralled by the iridescence of light held by the child. Omolabake dreamed of bathing a baby girl. Her babyâ€™s skin was flawless brown. As she sponged her child, the baby began to cry, as would most babies at bath time. When the baby cried, she sang her a song that made her laugh. A song she never heard but she sang it well. Adetounmi omo oba, Ma ma yun oko ni igba ojo, Ma ma fese kan roro. Adetounmi, child of the king, Do not visit the farm during the rains, Do not get your feet wet in the puddles. As she playfully splashed water on her baby, she felt water run down her thighs. She soon realized she no longer dreamed. Her water had broken. The pepper worked faster 205
than she had expected. The other two women came to her attendance, knowing this was no ordinary child they would help deliver. It was a baby girl, they already knew. The infant child was wrapped up in a cut out piece from Oluwaremilekunâ€™s bridal quilt. On the eigth day, her mother named her Adetounmi. The name was befitting. Adetounmi, the crown of my desire. All three women raised Adetoun. She was a peculiar child in many ways, walking a path that they were new to. They were not surprised. She belonged to a changing world that they could not resist. She was growing into a new woman they were not privileged to become. She is the brown skinned child her mother had dreamed of. The brown skin is a new culture, emerging within the already subsisting culture inherited by a contemporary generation from thousands of years of laid out traditions. It is true that the most constant phenomenon in life is change but Africa has been a slow runner. The sacredness of its traditions and way of life has held the movement of change firmly to the ground as solid foundations. Those that manage to break from it become victims of identity crisis. The solution is not in the breaking away, eastto-west movement but in the building upon of the foundation. This gives change an upward, vertical movement. The elevation of change brings new insights and this influences the building process. It is this influence that births the brown skin. Never more than ever has the womanâ€™s role been more visible than now. More women have included nation building to home making. 206
Brown skin has very little to do with the actual skin colour but more to do with the soul colour and the intangible identity not readily seen in the appearance. Brown skin woman is the African woman that is not and should not become her sisters from other continents but is open to learn from them and also possesses something to give back. This African woman no longer remains black but becomes brown because of the influence of the world around her. She is no longer left behind. She is educated and confident. She is resourceful and she is still a helper. She is Brown Skin. Then fingers begin to point toward prejudice. Why skin colour? Why change? Why a new culture? My answer resides in the epochs. History to me is like a creative master inspired by instruments of time and materials of the earth, so that it creates a composition whether or not selective in its creativity. Yes, selective because history has been accused of a selective memory. When my grandmother speaks of her youth and times past in many decades, her words create an imagery of her epoch. I see her history, her era as a drummer. The earth with all that is tangible as a drum straddled in his armpit and time with all that is intangible is held in his hands as the drumstick. The stories she speaks of come to me as an ode from the drummer, beating away mercilessly, resounding a rhythmic beat either pleasing to my ears or reverberating an ache in my heart or thumping consciousness in my head. When I think of my contemporary era, I think of a painter I call Alawemerin. The earth is his canvas and time exposes
brushstrokes. But unlike my grandmotherâ€™s creative master, a third party amongst the mediums is present; Alawemerin uses the medium of humans. This may be so because I am involved. The humans become colour pigments. When mixed on the palette and applied on the canvas a new composition is formed. The assistance of this palette, a fourth medium, which I would liken to a platform for rehearsals and performances, is my revelation of possibilities. All mediums intertwine. The end result is a kaleidoscope of happenings. The composition is neither this nor that, black nor white, good nor bad. When humans are exposed to each other, cultures merge to create new cultures. The brown skin culture is a reality; it already exists. It should be acknowledged. Adetoun, as a young woman desires to explore and inherit the earth. But like all others, she also has to embark on her own journey. She too will face the devil at the crossroads and this she knows, because her grandmother had told her about the crossroads. The day she encountered the devil at the crossroads, she too offered her hand for a glimpse of prophecy. In the palm of her hand, she saw the dancing women. And when she looked closer, the dancing women were the three daughters born to Africa to mother her. Adetoun became amongst the few, who overcame the controversy of the crossroads, she has bigger challenges and she is able, by the Author of life to â€˜becomeâ€™. But it is a new future and another tale.
by Peju Alatise