A sudden tug at her right arm jerked her out of her dreams and she had to strain to hear Nike’s mother say: “Use the ewedu at the bottom of the sack, leave the ones on top”. First irritation of the day, she thought: ‘why do people have to push me so hard before they talk to me? Just a tap on the shoulder would have woken me up and besides, people speak in such low tones…!’ As if that were not enough, the sweetest dream, cut short! She had seen the thief, everyone was on her side, they had pursued and had almost caught up with him but then she had been pulled back, yanked out of her sweet dream. And that same morning, 4th of July, she woke up worried, uneasy, and wondered why. It was pitch dark but she had chores to be done before she could leave for Agbeni market to sell the cosmetics she still had. In the little pouch where she kept her savings, she now had
N2, 500 and hoped to make up to N6, 500 after which she would start classes on “Fashion Designing” in the Home of Fashion School Lagos.
She crawled out of bed and went towards the kitchen to get the vegetables. There, in the room just before the kitchen, she saw Nike and Foluke still battling with drowsiness. She got the vegetables and settled down to prepare them and as she crushed the ewedu in the pot, with the special little broom, she marveled at all she had heard about the masquerades, the spirits of the ancestors!
They watch over us on earth, blessing, protecting, warning and punishing depending on whether we neglect or remember them. Sometimes, these “Ara Orun” (dwellers of heaven) are even invited to visit earth physically and they do so in masques and masquerades. They, in the past, led their communities in wars: “Lagbookun” in Oyo, “Kamoloolu” in Ipetumodu; “Oloolu” and “Atipako” in Ibadan. Together, they make up the Egungun cult and they help to rid the different communities of social ills. Ndidi hoped the ancestors would help catch those who stole her first savings as she cut off the stalk that had insolently joined the select ewedu leaves.
In actual fact, Nike had told her, the Egungun (just like the Oro and Agemo) is a secret cult. Mysteries of the cult are jealously guarded and only very few people know these secrets. Among these are a few privileged women – Iyamode, Yeyesorun and Ato, in different localities – who, under no circumstances dare divulge the secrets of the cult. They adhere strongly to the saying: –
“B’obinrin bawo, ko gbodo wi.”
(If a woman knows cult secrets, she must never tell.)
The Oloolu, the most powerful in Ibadan must not be seen by women. This fascinated Ndidi. She wondered if men’s eyes had anything special about them that those of women lacked. Anyway, … laws of the land; how could one question “the land”?
“Do you know that when the Oloolu goes on an outing, he wears the ago garment and carries the human skull which was brought back from the Ibariba war” Nike had confided. “Ago garment is powerful o! It is no ordinary garment! Once in a fire incident, it walked out of the scene of a fire disaster on its own without getting burnt. It walked out to a safe place.”
“Aah! What you are saying is not possible! How can a piece of cloth walk away from fire? A war that was fought so long ago; how can the head of the same person that was killed and ago garment be the very same ones now?”
“You keep on asking questions when I am yet to finish! Do you know that he even carries a stick, the same that is used to beat out ofi. A woman must not see the Oloolu! I am telling you now; no woman can see him o!”
A taboo! So it is taboo for any woman to see the Oloolu so attired. Ndidi wondered how Nike got to know all this if no woman dared see the Oloolu. Nike’s answer was even more shocking.
“My grandmother told me and let me tell you, I have seen the Oloolu with this woman-eyes of mine,” she had told a shocked and scared Ndidi. Nike had then gone on to explain that once, a short while after the Egungun festival started, she was with a friend in a house near where the Oloolu was, in Beere. They had peeped, well hidden from view. To eat the food set down before him, the Oloolu had to unmask and so they saw him and nothing happened. She only hoped that nothing would happen in future, she had sadly concluded, as she remembered that one of the curses attached to a woman seeing the Oloolu was that she would become barren.
Ndidi pounded the now mashed up ewedu harder and faster as she made up her mind to get to the market on time that day. She eagerly looked forward to her journey back to Lagos in two days’ time. ‘And Imagine! In a matter of one year or two, I will be called a Fashion Designer,’ she dreamed.
She was happy she had left Asaba for Ibadan to stay with her older sister’s best friend and was determined to make the best of it, buying and re-selling cosmetics. It was in Ibadan that she met Nike, the daughter of her sister’s best friend. She had known Nike for barely three months but it seemed they were life-long friends. The house was quite small for a family of seven but Nike’s parents had gladly taken her in and considered her one more of the family. The only thing she found quite exasperating was her own nervous stutter whenever she had to speak.
In a short while, the vegetables were ready and so were Rotimi and Segun, Nike’s elder brothers, who soon left for work. Foluke and Tunde were at it again hollering over who would get to wash the pot that would be used to cook the soup. Their first meal for the day would be in school; the usual moin-moin and eko. But the soup pots were usually booked long before the soup was made because it is common knowledge that the sweetest part of any soup is the burnt part stuck to the bottom of the pot.
“Na mi go chop borrumpot today.”
“You no fit when I dey here? Oya come try am now!”
The scuffle began. Nike’s mum reached for the broom and as if the parts had been rehearsed, the two quarreling kids grabbed their books and dashed towards the only door to escape; from the whip. Both laughed as their mother pretended to have swept them out of the house.
Nike was, by now, already through with sweeping the three rooms and outside, dawn had dispelled the dark as many more people left their homes for their various places of work. Ndidi soon joined a sea of people on the relatively short trek to work.
The sky served as roof for her outdoor working station. On her lone table, she laid out her precious belongings, forming the criss-cross pattern, interlacing hair pomades with body cream jars. Each jar supported another as it sat half side on this and the other half on that other item. Very few people were in the market this Fourth of July and when it was time to leave, she was only
N900 richer. Tired and itchy from scorched veins after the sunrays had stung through for eight merciless hours, she carefully dismantled the exhibition. She placed the cosmetics in her basin, and dexterously balanced the basin full of cosmetics on her head. Very tired, she walked towards home, deep in thought and oblivious of all happening around her.
Just a couple of streets away from where she now was, the violent beating of the dundun and gangan drums and singing, reverberated from the Oke Padi end of the Salvation Army Road in Ibadan, causing some confusion in the relatively tranquil neighbourhood. The street sellers understood the message of the drums. They grabbed their items for sale in record time and those not fast enough, abandoned theirs, to dive for cover. In the confusion, a curious teenager was abruptly pulled off the road, into a building nearby. The determined mother screamed as she pushed her forward into the unfinished building:
“Make you no look, NOO LOOOK, my daughter!”
In a matter of seconds the streets were deserted by women, leaving only men in sight. The Oloolu, Ibadan’s most dreaded masquerade and his entourage were on the prowl!
Three streets away Ndidi, heavy laden with the goods she had not been able to sell, hoped she would have more luck the next day, before leaving for Lagos. Not so far from Nike’s house, she wondered why people seemed to be making frantic signs to her. She wondered why the streets were no longer teeming with people either coming from work or buying and selling. She also wished she could hear the music that was so faint, a bit clearer; ‘the drums here sound so different from those back home,’ she mused.
She continued wondering, and this time, why she was hard of hearing and then, she sensed it. She held on, to steady the basin and instinctively took some quick steps forward as she turned to see why she shivered so under the scorching sun. Before she could make a complete turn, she screamed at the burning lash that hugged her neck. The well balanced basin full of cosmetics bent towards the contracted angle she now had her head tilted to, trying to regain its balance, but came crashing down in compelled obedience to the law of gravity, …the law of the land!
She turned to confront the aggressor and to her horror, saw the skull and garment a few yards away and a pack of its sweat smelling followers now had her hemmed in. She staggered at the hottest slap she had ever received and screamed again, as she cupped her now bleeding nose. With the pulling, pushing and blows she received, she staggered towards the only open space in-between two shabbily dressed boys of the entourage. All brakes on her legs now released, she tried to run faster than her legs could take her, screaming, and with the entourage in hot pursuit. Lots of women peeped out of windows; safe behind burglary-proof bars while the young boys watched, amused at what they thought was a funny sight. The Oloolu seemed ready to move on in the opposite direction but his excited followers still had a score to settle as they pursued the lone athlete. They soon caught up with her and as her cries for mercy fell on deaf ears, she fell; the bright sun suddenly turned dark. The drums beat even louder….
When next she opened her eyes, she wondered if this was yet a third dream. She saw Nike’s mother at the corner of the room and Nike just next to the bed. She felt sore all over and was unable to stop the tears that welled up in her eyes from overflowing as she saw the basin in a corner of the room, full of the smashed jars of pomade and hair cream all mixed up with sand and dirt. She also saw her dreams shattered. Shattered by the fearsome scourge of a masquerade whose trademark is next to death for the hapless, unsuspecting woman.