I. ‘Fire-dancing’ (How do you make free spirit out of taut soul?)
The music box stood on the table mat, dispelling polyphonic beats that hung heavy about the room, giving it a drowsy air. Yet, something buried deep in the rattling of the sékéré that dominated even the droning of the solo singer and the combination of percussion instruments that made the song, willed you to sail your body into a smooth sway – and if you could manage, a fire-dance.
On a sofa beside you, your travel companion curled, eye-locked on her phone screen, fingers working themselves into a soft ‘tap tap’ sound as they tackled the tons of buzzing messages.
‘Guy – people dey para o.’
You looked at her.
‘They haven’t still repaired the bus yet?’
‘Someone said the driver didn’t agree to buy a new fuel pump. He’s still trying to fix the old one.’
‘Damn. They’ve been stuck there for like how many hours? Four?’
She shrugged. The tap tap resumed.
You closed your eyes. You were overwhelmed. The thought of a rickety bus and its disgorged, weary passengers stranded haunted you. You searched through your phone. A note you made earlier in the morning jumped at you. Your feet tapped repeatedly to the tune floating around the room as you read.
‘…We are a bunch of energetic youth wanting to find our niches. Or maybe feel
new places. The buses we file into are rickety scraps of iron, but we’ve been assured
they could take us to and fro our destination. The ride will be bumpy. We know. But
Las Las, we go dey alright. :D’
The beat rose to a crescendo. The overwhelming heaviness you had felt seemed to dissolve and, in its place, excitement grew, filling you gradually till all you felt was lightness.
Outside, the sun teased each face etched with worry and weariness with its orange glow. In a short while, darkness would descend. You sprang up and slowly, you let the beat fill your body and control you.
‘Look at me – do you think this is what Fela Kuti meant when he sang about the fire-dance?’ You tried to gyrate your waist, laughing at your awkward jerky movements.
‘You’re almost getting it girl. Just try. Go more slowly… like that…’ You tried to sway your hips in sync with the beat. ‘Slow-ly,’ She laughed.
Your back ached. But you felt good. The cool breeze caressing your face sailed easily from the open windows. In the distance, the sun was reclining slowly behind the mountains.
II. Of Beginnings and Culture. (Why do we have to wear the ways of our fathers as underskirts?)
I called him Baba after he complimented my dance moves.
‘So, you dey sabi dance this kind dance?’ He had asked, and I had taken that as a compliment. We began talking.
We talked about the music emitting out of his music box. He said the language in which it was sung was Igharra. I had thought It was Yoruba because the beats had the vibrancy associated with Yoruba songs.
‘What is the history of this place?’
He was the tour guide and a native of Osósó town. I envied him. The peace and beautiful scenery of this small rocky town tucked safely around the outskirts of Edo state had seduced me.
‘This place? It was built by the colonial master. The white man make everywhere fine like this. People come here to relax and all.’ He sounded excited.
‘The white man built this place?’ That broke my heart.
‘Yes,’ he smiled proudly. ‘Many white people come here sef every time. They say this place is just like their “abroad”.’
It took a split second for me to realize what he was talking about.
‘Oh. I am not talking about here. I mean the town. What was the history of the people before the white man came?’
He smiled faintly.
‘The people here come from Kogi. In the early days, they come here small-small.’
‘They had no leader?’
‘No. In those days, the plenty tribal wars make people come to hide among the rocks. And then, small-small, they begin to stay here and farm.’
‘They farmed here? How dey take do am?’
He laughed. Deeply amused by my wonder.
‘Yes. Me sef, I get farm for here. We grow cashew, okro, yam and other crops and then we sell them at the town market.’
We talked about their culture. He was an enthusiastic conversationalist. There were some paintings I had previously examined hanging around the lounge room. He gestured towards one. The girl was naked save some coloured beads slanting down her hips to her lower waistline. Her neck was bedecked with colourful beads. She held a long stick.
‘When our girls reach puberty, they go through the ovikó feast. It runs for five days. They will walk around the town like this and after the feast, they can marry. Some of them even marry immediately after the feast. I married my wife after her own.’
‘So, you mean they will walk around the town like this?’
‘Yes, nobody can touch them or anything. You just look and go.’
He recounted the tales of his own coming-of-age rite – the Itakpofestival – when I asked if it was just the women that had a coming-of-age festival.
‘We celebrate it for seven years. One-two-three-four-five-six-SEVEN!’ He hit the seventh finger with a dramatic finality. ‘This one is celebrated big. We will come with the produce from our farms and ató, our locally brewed gin, and then everybody will dance.’
When I asked him if they had a god or gods they worshipped, his voice attenuated.
‘We serve the almighty God. We have Methodist Church here. Even Anglican and Catholic.’
‘No. I mean before the white man came. Weren’t there oracles of the mountains and caves or something like that?’
‘Eh – they are Africans and, you know, Africans had their cultures and traditions before the white man came. But now we don’t do all of that again. People don’t serve all these small-small gods again.’
‘But you had before?’
He shook his head.
‘We serve the almighty God now.’
I knew that was final.
He talked about the weather. How similar to ‘abroad’ it was. He seemed keen to talk about the white presence and how they liked the place. Outside, my fellow weary travellers had begun a small party. The faint sound of their laughter and music drifted into my ears. We knew we were not leaving today. As planned. Not with some of our fellow travellers still stranded four hours away from us. The mountains had begun to don a dark cloak.
‘You know, Osósó men sabi take care of women well-well. Most people come here and they just stay here and marry.’ He smiled. ‘I see you like this place very well. I can show you my brother. He will like you. Two of you will marry and then you can stay here with us.’
I smiled. Then chuckled. I imagined how round his eyes would bulge in bewilderment if I told him how I have no intention of getting married. I thought of my mother’s reaction too. The chuckle grew into a laugh. He joined me.^
Ruona Idjenughwa is currently a student at the University of Benin, Benin City. She is a lover of fine wine, fine poetry, soul music and open windows.
Cover and inset photos courtesy of [Re:] Entanglements (Photographs were taken by the government anthropologist Northcote Whitridge Thomas in Southern Nigeria and Sierra Leone, 1909-1915).