That restlessness that prompt many travellers to seek out a void is usually an indication of being at ease; and to be really at ease, they become one with a road. Homesickness, in Hans Christian Andersen’s thought, ‘is a feeling that many know and suffer from; I on the other hand feel a pain less known, and its name is out-sickness‘. I was suffering from this out-sickness (though the previous months have seen me travelled) searching for a possible travel destination. When I talked it with a friend, it was without much deliberation that I accepted when he suggested we go to Ìkónífin, his hometown in Osun state in the South West of Nigeria.
I’d never heard of the town and then I entered the keyword into Google but nothing interesting came up save a helicopter crash incident in the town some years ago and a Boko Haram ruse staged by a pastor. I wasn’t disappointed. That was just enough to fuel my curiosity to seek it out. So I packed few things into my backpack for another wayfaring. This time with my friend Faloye as my co-traveller.
We left home, in Ibadan, in mid-afternoon a week after the discussion, on Thursday, December 10, 2015 in a white Toyota Hilux truck. It was around late afternoon when we arrived at Agbowo round-about in Iwo, Osun state. A small signpost publicising Bowen University corroded with seasons tilts sleepily sideward to the road at the round-about. From there we passed through Odoori market. A larger than life sculpture of a bird perches at the junction to the market. My guess was the junction was a repository of sacrifice to the gods of the land as crossroads are wont to be in the South West of Nigeria. In fact, there was a time I went around taking pictures of sacrifices at crossroads in Ibadan out of fascination and curiosity. The market was, evidently, also the commercial hub of the town as it teemed with people doing one trade or the other. It was there that I noticed I had lost signal on my phone.
We arrived Ìkónífin around past five. That’s about more than two hours on the road from Ibadan. We changed into casual wears and went to his paternal grandmother’s place to pay her greetings. She offered us a fresh kill, a grass cutter, from a hunter that supplies her bush meat. I laughed when I saw the animal fatally ripped apart with a bullet. Poor thing. We played with it, took selfies and talked about it until evening. From there we went to his aunt’s place and with the grass cutter.
And just like his grandmother, she was aware of our coming. She was effusive with excitement, showering praises and recounting my friend’s family pedigree as soon as we got there. I handed Faloye the grass-cutter and he passed it to his aunt to help us prepare it.
She made us sit on a bench under a frangipani tree in front of the house, where we were chatting indolently, watching the road that connects the town to Ogbomosho. I learned this road was the major route to Ogbomosho before the dualization of the Oyo highway that many now prefer to take. She set a big pot of water on a hearth not far from us and beckoned that food will soon be ready. We were in the middle of a discussion when she beckoned again that the water was ready. Clearly the dryness of harmattan have had its effect on the firewood. With the hot water we scraped off the furl the animal and cleaned it and handed it back to her. Shortly after, I heard the rhythm of pounding too.
We were welcomed to a very sumptuous meal— pounded yam and a scrumptious soup. The whiteness of the pounded yam was like the face of a full moon peering at me from the plate, steaming hypnotically like the breath of a fairy and smelling of thousands wishes (I am sure if I had said a wish at that moment it would have come to pass); the okra, abundant with locust beans, was dished in another plate and beside it the soup and the meat.
You don’t just eat this kind of food; you relish it. I love and appreciate the efforts and culinary skills that go into preparing a dish like this. I love cooking myself. I regard it as a form of art, and of course, it is easier to fault my sentiment if I dare say African women are the most adept in this art. Imagine the enormous strength required to pound yam in a mortar. Not a morsel of that should be wasted. And once in a while one should endeavour to eat a moon like this.
Maybe I had more than my fill because by time I took the last morsel of the food, I was secretly praying I should not have to deal with a gastro the following morning. I showered her with thanks that I suspected she thought it was too much, that it was from my belly not my heart. We left and returned to the place prepared for us where we were going to stay the weekend. It is a newly completed bungalow not far from Faloye’s grandmother’s place. Was I surprised to find the floor tiled, the toilet modern, the kitchen furnished when we arrived? It was such a sharp contrast to the houses around.
I woke up early the next morning but kept myself tucked away under an ankara fabric for some time. It was especially cold. The hamarttan air was al dente with oxygen, I could feel it in my throat as if I just downed a bottle of cold water.
After morning talk with Faloye and a cursory visit to the toilet, I went outside to brush my teeth. I had a vantage angle to observe the street from the house. When I looked up I saw the Oke Isero mountain and surrounding hills dense with the morning mist and static clouds that suspended gracefully atop them. The view was surreal and had scenic appeal with hawks hovering over the hills. I was riveted and urged Faloye to let us go out before the sun would be intense in the afternoon: I was secretly wishing my phone would pick up signal somewhere if I trek far. He suggested we first go see the house where he was ushered into the world.
It’s a mud house. The front and its left side was plastered with cement, the other was just bare revealing mud bricks. On its walls were sketches of cars drawn by joining few vertical and horizontal lines together, arithmetic table, quantitative reasoning exercise, and ABC. The ceiling of the house was a pattern of different sacks stitched together. It’s stained with rat shit, and who knows what else. I heard a lizard scuttling in the ceiling as we sat in the house.
Opposite the place as we stepped out was a school building now converted into a sawmill. That was a double tragedy, to the future of the children and the trees in the town. Beside the building was the Osun State Government Revenue Office— a shamble, actually. Its entrance was overgrown with weeds and some louvre blades were missing. It looked nothing more than a ghost house.
From there we strolled to Garage, the heart of the town. As Faloye explained, Garage was where towners came together at night to have fun. There was a motorcycle park not far from the there. The park bore the memory of yesteryears; it bore the slogan ‘Oyin ni o!’, the election catchphrase of Prince Oyinlola, on the wood panel that afforded shade for the motorcycles under it. It also read Ìkónífin to Everywhere. I asked my friend why there were only motorcycles at the park. He said that it was the only means of transport out of the town.
We were joined by some school children on the road. I came to realise the road led to the Ìkónífin Community High School. Some boys were staring at us. If it had been yesterday when we arrived I would have looked myself over to confirm nothing was amiss but by that time, I was already accustomed to the occasional deferential stares of the towners, saying something like who are you?
I heard the school children conversing in Yoruba, talking animatedly. It dawned on me why they were chatty and excited on their way to school when I learned, from one of them, it was their vacation day. But what surprised me was not that. And it wasn’t the fact that some were without footwear. But that they were going to school wearing football jerseys. Four boys were walking together, they put on those inferior quality kind of children jerseys. It had the names of Toni Kroos, C. Ronaldo, Messi, Ozil. I had earlier marvelled that people in the town watched European leagues when I saw a viewing centre at Garage but this expressed more about the craze for European football in the country.
Along the way, we sighted a signpost that read:
—-MOTTO: Psalm 126.
Faloye laughed upon seeing this.
‘The only hotel here,’ he said. ‘You will be really surprised when you get to that hotel.’
‘OK. Let’s go see it then,’
‘Come and see Ikonifin’s 5-star hotel. What’s even the meaning of that bible verse on the signpost?’ He drew his phone from his pocket and checked it. He read the psalm aloud for me to hear.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ He asked.
‘I don’t know.’ I was dumbfounded.
We continued walking and talking about the hotel. I was so curious to see a hotel that would paint a bible verse on its signpost as its motto. We sighted another signpost a few meters away from the hotel. It read the same but with another psalm this time. It’s psalm 125. Again, he looked it up on his phone.
Nothing that related to that again. Then it just occurred to me, the name itself showed part of what the place might be like.
My reaction to the hotel when we got there was just nothing. Nothing. I didn’t feel shocked or surprised as Faloye had expected. I was not going to such a place with any bit of expectation. But I would be shocked than my friend could ever imagine later. The hotel was a bungalow; attached to its left side was a small bar. It’s painted deep green but the colour was fading and peeling off the wall. Maybe it’s a pretence; maybe it was even built with clay bricks but as it was plastered and painted, who could tell? We entered the unfenced compound. A woman came to attend to us. She was sitting in front of the hotel. She wore a cardigan and on top of that a buba blouse, and tied wrapper around her waist. Her head was a mass and she had a wide mouth to complement it. She crouched on her seat, shivering from the cold. She was on a call and gestured us to hang on.
‘Welcome. I can see you are new in the town,’ she said, as the call was terminated.
‘Oh yes. That’s why we are here to make enquiry about the hotel. How much is a room per night?’ Faloye asked.
He said ok and made to turn back and leave but I pressed that we see the rooms. ‘Can we see the rooms?’
‘Of course, yes.’ She answered.
She led us into what appeared to be an empty living room— I guess it’s meant to serve as a bar. A big black dusty container was at a corner to the passageway. From the structure of the building, it seemed like a house meant for a family. She gestured to an opened room. I entered and scanned the room, it was empty save the bed. The floor was bare; the bed, I couldn’t even bring myself to touch it, stank of odour that can conjure nightmares. I peeped into the toilet and I was startled when I saw it was an open latrine. That explained the foul smell that assailed me when I entered the room. I saw a cockroach having a past-time at the rim of the latrine. I waved that it was okay that we had seen enough. She asked as she ushered us out when we would come back after showing us the rooms. I nodded we would come back in the evening that we needed to sort out some things first in the town.
Stepping into the open, I gulped fresh air after holding my breath in the hotel. I pitied the NYSC members that must have fallen for such deceit and travellers that might had car breakdown in the middle of the night and forced to pass the night in that shitty place.
We walked about for some time to other places and decided to return back because of the scorching sun and to have lunch. The electricity flickered. I was unperturbed, I had no use of it as I had switched off my phone.
It was equally a long way back home and after I had had lunch, I retired on a bench outside Faloye’s aunt’s house. Faloye showed me the report card of one boy in the house. It was all red at first glance but what caught my attention was the class teacher’s remark about the boy: Add more effort to your elbow. It turned into a bawling laughter between me and him. That the boy performed poorly in his exams was understandably excusable. We continued in trifling issues like that then we hit the sack to our little home later in the evening.
When I woke up the next day I felt completely lazy. I felt free, I felt lost, I felt worried because of my phone without network. My mind became an automated engine churning out endless what if. Maybe it was just a hunch when I informed my co-workers at office that I would be off the radar for the weekend.
But it was no longer nothing as we were drawing the curtain on our visit. It’s our last day in the town. Though I had few disappointments. I went to the king’s palace, Oonifin of Ìkónífin, Oba Dr. Solomon Oyewo Ojo (JP) Akinyena I, to hold a conversation with him over the history of the town. Unfortunately, he was not around. Faloye’s aunt who had promised to fill me in about the helicopter crash, was not around too when we went to her place for the purpose. It seemed we had run out of luck. It was also a pain she could not complete the story she was narrating about the mystical, smoky Oke Isero mountain which she said was a repository of gold and the home of a certain one-eyed ogre. It was believed by the towners, and even Faloye shared the superstition and wouldn’t regard it a superstition, that whenever smoke rises from the mountain that it must definitely rain on that day. Though he had a staggering sense of exaggeration to the point of being absurd. Like when we were talking about the price the bush meat we had for dinner could go for in Ibadan, he started by saying it could go for N5, 000. But I was stunned when he upped it from N10, 000 to N20, 000, N50, 000. A mere grass cutter! He was the kind that resort to hyperbolism whenever he cannot win an argument logically.
We hurriedly packed our things when the truck that brought us returned to take us back home. We went to the homes of the people we’d been to, and those who had helped us in one way or the other to bid them goodbye. Mama Mission, Faloye’s grandma, was unyielding and was urging us to stay more. We went to his aunt’s but she was not yet around as well. We lugged our backpacks and the gifts we received into the truck and set off. Upon picking signal at the Agbowo Round-About in Iwo, I got lots of messages. I checked my email too and saw few new emails.
It’s interesting all the while we’d been in the town. Memories would stay with me for a while: the dilapidating mud walls patched with campaign posters of politicians, from Sai Buhari to Aregbesola, quiet street lined with frangipani trees that fill the street with fragrances, the curious people that can easily can smell a stranger in their midst, their simple lives. It is the only thing a traveller can really hold on to of his journeys not the mementos.
Ìkónífin is not a perfect travel destination where you could spend the weekend. Unless you wouldn’t mind Victory Height hotel. But it’s one of those places you can disappear off the face earth if you so desire. Or if you buy the gold myth, you could visit for a gold rush. You could visit for number of reasons.
The Favourite Son of Africa is the pseudonym of Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè. He is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the administrator of the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library in Ibadan. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and FilmsandCinemas, Lagos. He enjoys travelling and cooking. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.