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Imagine africa volume 3, p.3

Imagine Africa, Volume 3, page 3


Imagine Africa, Volume 3

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  Often I would bring out his cards and scan them for clues of where he lived. Maybe he had left Turnhout. Perhaps even left Belgium. Maybe he lived somewhere else. Two years was a long time. Who was to say that he hadn’t even returned to Nigeria like he predicted for himself all those many years ago. Occasionally I googled him but I never got any match. If he had published his novel, there was no trace of it. But it delighted me to think that he might be hard at work on it. Putting that brilliant creative mind of his to good use. Then slowly he receded again to the back of my mind to join other clutter: books read but no longer thought of; I no longer thought of him walking the cobbled streets of Turnhout. I no longer imagined him admiring the melons on Eve and the amazon in the water. Life took over. I had first one son, then another. When I had a third son, I imagined I was living the dream Conrad had all those years ago; to have a house full of sons to perpetuate his father’s name. This thought came up one night, the second day after my son’s birth while I held him and smelt the newness of him. The thought stayed with me all through the week, buzzing in my ears like an annoying fly. When I could not shake it off after two weeks, I walked to Conrad’s mother’s house. Even though I had hoped she would still be there, I was shocked to find that she was.

  She could as I had hoped fill me in on Conrad the Late. She spoke in a whisper, as if saying a prayer. Pausing occasionally as if to draw breath, she did not stir from her chair until she was done talking.

  Conrad’s business venture in Lagos had failed monumentally. His time keeping disability and his tales cost him customers. He was so sure, so certain his future lay in Europe that he invested what money he had into buying his passage. Belgium was a wild-card choice from a man in Badagary who could get his clients passports but Turnhout was a deliberate choice. It had many Africans. A good place to begin again.

  At first, Conrad had sent many optimistic letters home, praising the city, its lights, its Africans, its fountains in the city square. He would work hard, make some money and return home to start all over again. “But soon,” his mother said, “he began to complain about the loneliness. About being unable to leave before he’d made some money. He hated that he was so poor growing up. When he married he sent home a long letter. He sounded very well. He said a Belgian wife eased things. It did not matter that they did not understand each other.” His wife hardly spoke any English. Conrad spoke no Flemish so what conversation they had was made up mostly of gesticulations. At first, it had not mattered. Then the exoticism wore off and it began to grate. His marriage crumbled. His letters became long ramblings on the nature of life and loneliness. He started talking about owning castles and islands. “There was a great darkness in his heart,” his mother said. “It ate him up. Over there they called him Sule Ibrahim. His ‘asylum’ name. His passport said he was a Muslim from Sierra Leone. His file said he was escaping a war. I think that story created for him always bothered him.” She paused.

  “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” she said suddenly. “Do you know the poem?”


  “No one survives solitude.”

  She pressed a photograph in my hand before I left. She gave it to me face down as if she did not want to startle me by disclosing who was in it. I turned it over. A lump rose in my throat. Staring at me were two toddlers with Conrad’s high forehead sucking their thumbs in the same identical way.

  Born in Larache, Morocco, in 1961, HASSAN HAJJAJ left Morocco for London at an early age. Heavily influenced by the club, hip-hop, and reggae scenes of London as well as by his North African heritage, Hajjaj is a self-taught and thoroughly versatile artist whose work includes portraiture, installation, performance, fashion, and interior design, including furniture made from recycled utilitarian objects from North Africa. Turning to photography in the late 80s, Hajjaj started taking studio portraits of friends, musicians, and artists, as well as strangers from the streets of Marrakech, often wearing clothes designed by the artist. These colorful and engaging portraits combine the visual vocabulary of contemporary fashion photography and pop art, as well as the studio photography of African artist Malick Sidibe, in an intelligent commentary on the influences of tradition on the interpretations of high and low branding, and the effects of global capitalism. The artist lives and works between London and Marrakech.

  Hassan Hajjaj, Poetic Pilgrimage, 2010


  Translated from the Yoruba by AKIN ADESOKAN

  The Age of White Rulers

  (Aye D’Aye Oyinbo)

  ISAAC O. DELANO was an important Nigerian writer and a foremost man of letters. Equally at home in Yoruba and English, he was praised for “bridging the gap,” between the intellectual cultures of both, and he published four novels, two biographies, the first and only Yoruba-Yoruba dictionary, a book of proverbs, and an ethnography-cum-travel memoir entitled The Soul of Nigeria. At the time of his death in 1979, Delano was a Senior Research Fellow at the former University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Ile-Ife. The novel Aye D’Aye Oyinbo is significant in that it offers a counterpoint to the well-known narrative, in modern African letters, about the colonial experience as essentially oppressive.

  AKIN ADESOKAN’s books include Roots in the Sky, a novel, and Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics, a critical study.

  I: In a Polygamous Home

  THOSE BYGONE days, when we were young, we knew a life of pleasures. Peace reigned. Food was plentiful. People lived according to their stations in life. The powerful acted with liberty; they took advantage of their neighbors without fear of consequence. If you were born into a good family, that was your luck; you were free to do as you pleased. No one dared confront you. I, Asabi the Discerning, was a freeborn, an epitome of nobility, and I grew up with a sense of my worth. My father was the commander of our town’s army, the Balogun, the title that became his name. Whenever he went to war, he returned with scores of captives. Some of these he sold into slavery, some he sacrificed to Ogun, his orisa, the rest he took as wives. Our compound was as busy as a daily market. We children alone numbered up to two dozen, not counting the young slaves, the bonded, and the numerous others who arrived in our house as maidservants to young brides and there found their own husbands.

  And my mother? Solabomi the Delicate, death-repellent, the wealthy one who funded strife. Thus did my father hail her every morning, saying her oriki as she knelt in greeting before him. He would greet her, griot her, and my mother would grow swollen-headed with pride.

  My mother was exceedingly beautiful, slender and dark. She was not a captive, nor was she a bondswoman. After all, the enslaved or the bonded bore no oriki, except maybe where they came from. She was married formally; my father paid the bride-price and went through the rituals of betrothal, in the fashion of those days. She was distinguished as a trader in beads and other bodily accessories. Among her wares were bracelets, segi, corals, amethysts, and silver earrings. From a special type of ruby the size of a thumb she strung for my father a beaded necklace befitting a high chief. For he was not just the Balogun; he occupied a civil position as well. Bedecked with those rich beads, my father went everywhere with pomp and swagger, proud husband of a woman who knew the worth of appearance. Thus he treated my mother as the trophy wife, to the envy of her co-wives. Naturally, this attitude was extended to me and my siblings, so that my father treated us better than our half-brothers and half-sisters. This preference almost caused a trouble; it nearly turned into a civil strife. The rest of the compound resented us. When neither my father nor his favorite wife was nearby, people snapped their fingers at us saying, “Someday, you will see.”

  We, my mother’s children, were three. One afternoon, Obafunke, the eldest, died suddenly. Obafunke fair of skin, tall and slender, beloved of our parents. My father in particular doted on him, for he resembled him in appearance. My mother, after all, was of dark complexion. His death saddened my parents to no end; there was widespread belief that it was not a natural death, but the doing of my
mother’s co-wives. My father believed this talk, and so did my mother. They wept bitterly that day, both of them. For a man, and a titled chief at that, my father’s conduct was unbecoming. There he sat, weeping like a woman! Neighbors and friends beseeched him. Such are the ways of Providence, they told him, you must be a man. But he would not be comforted. He would stare into space for a while, then jump to his feet and say:

  “Where is my Obafunke? Ha, whoever brought this misfortune on us will leave this world without offspring!”

  And another round of wailings would begin. With my mother it was worse. She cried so much her eyeballs grew resentful. She ran to the housefront, threw herself on the ground, writhing in the throes of a great sorrow. Even we, the children, did our share of crying. Our entire compound was one huge noise of bereavement. The news of Obafunke’s death spread everywhere, and neighbors came to sympathize with us. They stood by us. It was a sad day for my family.

  In the evening, the men of the neighborhood buried Obafunke on a patch in front of our house. As the grave was covered with earth, more people took to crying. In the days that followed, my mother regularly returned to mourn at the graveside at night. She sat there crying and hailing her son, whose death had cast her world adrift. One such night, going to observe her routine, she arrived to find my father already there. Apparently they had both made a habit of visiting the grave, but had never encountered each other until that night. Husband and wife both broke into wailing, of such decibel that it woke up not just the house but the entire neighborhood. It was not a mean affair. Neighbors pleaded with them again, and thereafter the elders called my father in private. Nobody knew what they said to him, but after that day he did not go back to Obafunke’s grave to cry.

  I was the middle child; my younger brother was named Adekanbi, and Obafunke the eldest had just died. The two remaining children became the apples of our parents’ eyes. The affection was exceeding, it was incredible; and even now that I am grown in years, with my own family, it continues to amaze me that a man, my father, who had made a profession of killing people in war and of selling others into slavery, behaved like a woman when it came to his own children. He adored us to the point of affecting our characters. True, the slave and the freeborn come into the world in like manners; but my father treated us with especial care. He truly adored us.

  As evidence of this superseding love, our parents decided to protect Adekanbi and me with charms, so we might escape death, avert ill-health, the evil eye of the people of this world; that sorcerers might not set eyes on us, nor witches even look in our direction. We received incisions at every joint in our bodies, charmed rings adorned our necks, and potent waistbands our waists. These they called “insurance,” and they treasured those charms most assuredly, because soon enough they caused me to wear anklets in addition. This they explained as the counsel of the Ifa oracle, which had decided that I was a strange child. Regularly our parents made feasts because of us; they would kill a goat, cook beans (as if we were twins!), fry yams and beans and gather children from the neighborhood to eat of the feast. These were great expenses which I did not understand at the time. Even now, as I write of those days, I still do not fully appreciate the love. My parents displayed exceptional love. Surely parents love their children more than children can understand or reciprocate.

  Meanwhile, I regarded myself with these accoutrements, going to bed and waking in them. I would stare at Adekanbi for some time and taunt him about his appearance, which reminded me of Fikuyeri, a fearsome masquerade in our neighborhood. Fikuyeri emerged every year festooned with charms to harass children all over the neighborhood. But what about me? What did I look like? Adekanbi found the perfect comparison: Sorowanke. Now Sorowanke was a female lunatic, who dressed herself in junk and brass anklets, and proceeded to dance in the streets. The day they pointed her out to me, and I saw the person to whom I was being likened, I was extremely infuriated. In consequence I yanked off all the junk that my parents had used to “insure” me.

  Adekanbi had gone prowling the city. Returning, he was followed by drummers who hailed him with praises, and so he looked exactly like Fikuyeri! I laughed and said, “Fikuyeri, I greet you!”

  And the drummers saluted him thus: “Adekanbi, child of Balogun. You will surely measure up to your father!”

  I laughed so much I shed tears, but nobody knew why I was laughing. But as he was taking steps in response to the drummers’ efforts, Adekanbi looked every inch like Fikuyeri. He clearly did not recognize me upon entering, for he turned to me to inquire about my whereabouts. I smiled quietly now, and delved into a corner. He looked around and could not “see” me. His sight had not quite adjusted to the room; he had been in the scorching sun for a long time. He sweated much, not realizing I was the one standing nearby. Turning to me again, he yelled: “Where is Asabi, that Sorowanke look-alike?” Laughter rose to my neck, but I suppressed it. I saw two kids close by and winked to them to gain their confidence. They laughed, but I continued to keep a straight face. When Adekanbi repeated his question, no one could bear it further, and our collective laughter gave the game away. He now discovered that he had been asking me about me all the while. Stunned, he asked the question a third time. Now I answered him: “Yes, it’s me! You, you look like Fikuyeri!”

  Breaking into a hooligan’s laughter, he started chasing me round the house, hoping to attack me. Adekanbi with his street-boy’s ways. Immediately, he began to tear off the charms and amulets strung on his arms and legs. Within moments, he had turned himself into a tall and handsome young man.

  It was an unforgettable day in our family. When my father came home and saw that we no longer had our protective charms, he flew into a rage. He did not realize it right away; an entire hour passed after his arrival before he noticed our unusual appearances. This was surprising because my own anklets littered the housefront, and it was from this direction that he had entered. He was outraged. He spoke angrily. He created a scene. He cursed. It was not us he cursed, let me be fair. After all, he treasured me and my brother a lot. He directed much of his anger at my mother; it was she whom he accused of encouraging us to discard the charms. As the father, he said, his own loss would be minimal if we too were to die suddenly, like Obafunke. He had other children. Well, we did not die and we did not take ill; our ancestors watched over us. And who were our ancestors? We knew them in the egungun, the masked beings that came from the heavens. To tell you the truth, that day I was terrified of my father’s rage. I had never seen him in that mood before. Trust Adekanbi! He laughed through it all, but did so quietly.

  On moonlit nights, after supper, we gathered on a platform in the backyard and told stories. Children would make riddles, aalo, before telling stories. That was the order of proceeding. Thus the saying: “The riddlemaker who fails to tell stories is a country yokel.” On the night that I am talking about, I kicked off the riddle session with the customary preamble. I called out, “Aalo o,” and Adekanbi and other children of the compound responded, “Aalo!”

  “What passes by the king’s palace without acknowledging him?”

  “Sorowanke!” replied Adekanbi.

  “A fool,” said another kid.

  “The flood,” another one said.

  “That’s right!” I replied. “It’s the flood.”

  I cannot relate all the events of that night, the sense of relief we channeled into telling riddles and stories to compensate for my father’s disappointment at our conduct. The bright full moon turned the night into day; the moon had ripened into its final phase. After a while, the young men brought out their sound-boxes. Thus was our storytellers’ gathering dispersed; playing the sound-box was more exciting than storytelling. We undertook these nightly games. The years of childhood were full of memories. There were fine memories during my youth, too. And even now, in my old age, things are not so bad, in spite of the trials I have been through.

  When we were young, the elders and even the youth partook of the nightly gatherings. It was o
nly the mothers who hardly ever came out to join the groups, as though they were confined to a harem. They labored without respite. Either they were looking after their young children or they were busy preparing meals for their husbands. The women’s lot was miserable in those bygone days.

  Time continued on its course. I grew in age, and so did Adekanbi. Everyone weathered time and took on more years. What a strange entity, this thing called time! For this reason, child, do not waste time on any undertaking. For the time which I recall only seems like yesterday. Before I knew it, I had become a young maiden, ready for the ways of womanhood. My mother, Solabomi, often counseled me on the challenges faced by the womenfolk. The life of a woman was delicate; a minor mistake might take years to repair. She advised me on how one conducted oneself in marriage; the do’s and the don’ts. These things pertained to how you treat your husband, what you do to curry the favor of your mother-in-law, what is expected of a wife from the family and friends of her husband. My mother spoke about these and other things as well. For instance, she took me into confidence on which of her co-wives liked us and which hated us. Indeed, she secretly whispered to me the name of the person she strongly suspected of killing Obafunke, my brother.

  In our compound, my fathers’ many wives were not friendly to one another, in spite of the fact that they shared meals and drinks. They attended social functions together, dressed uniformly in aso-ebi, as a mark of solidarity. That was for the attention of outsiders; the fellow-feeling was not sincere. In fact, they intensely hated one another. Soon, I too began to discern who my friend was, and who my enemy. I resolved that I would never talk to certain people, particularly the person who I now believed was responsible for my brother’s death.

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