Shhh, shhh, concentrate on my voice, not the comb in your hair, okay? Goodness, your hair is so thick, though, child. Now I know you like to hear about your great-grandmother Yaya, and if you stop moving around, I’ll tell you. I knew her myself, you know. Yes, I was very young, of course, about seven or eight. She was a crazy woman, bursting with life. I always wanted to be like her so badly. She had puff puff hair like a huge cotton ball and she’d comb it out till it was like a big black halo. And it was so thick that even in the wind it wouldn’t move.
Most women back then wore their hair plaited or in thread wraps. You know what those are, right? Wrap bunches of hair in thread and they all stick out like a pincushion. They still wear them like that today, in all these intricate styles. You’ll get to see when you visit Nigeria this Christmas. Hmm, I see you’ve stopped squirming. Good, now listen and listen close. Yaya sometimes wore a cloak and she’d move quieter than smoke.
In Nigeria, in Iboland, the people there lived off of yam, and in good times they drank palm tree wine. Women were not allowed to climb palm trees for any reason — not to cut down leaves or to tap the sweet milky wine. You see, palm wine carried power to the first person to touch and drink it. Supposedly women would evaporate into thin air because they weren’t capable of withstanding such power. Women were weak creatures and they should not be exposed to such harm. Shh, stop fidgeting. I’m not braiding your hair that tight. I thought you liked to hear a good story. Well then, behave.
Not all of the women evaporated when they climbed a palm tree, but the parents of the offender were cautioned and cleansing rituals were performed to appease the gods for her misdeed. A she-goat and a hen had to be sacrificed, and kola nut, yams, and alligator pepper were placed on shrines. The people of this village did not eat meat, and to sacrifice an animal, one had to find a goat willing to offer itself for sacrifice. You can imagine how hard that must be.
Well, there was a young woman named Yaya, your great-grandmother. Most people dismissed her as an eccentric. She was married to a young conservative man whose job was to talk sense into families who were having internal disputes. He had a respectable reputation. Everyone loved him, since he had saved marriages, friendships, and family relationships. But his woman, well, she was a different story. She wrote for the town newspaper but that wasn’t the problem. Her problem was her mouth.
She’d argue with anyone who was game. And as she was smart, and she was beautiful, so all the men in the village liked to engage her in discussion. The problem was she’d mastered the art of arguing and the men would either grow infuriated or stalk away exasperated. Rumor had it that the only argument she lost was with the man she married.
Yaya was a free spirit and when she wasn’t arguing, she was laughing loudly and joking with her husband. But one day, Yaya was arguing with Old Man Rum Cake, the village chief elder. Now, Cake was over a hundred years old and he liked to watch Yaya flit about the village. She both annoyed and intrigued him. This was the reason for his comment about the glass of palm wine she was sipping: “You know women aren’t even supposed to climb palm trees, let alone drink it when it is sweet,” he said. At the time, Yaya only humphed at his comment, and went on with their argument about whether garri was better than Farina with stew. Nevertheless, Yaya’s mind filed the comment away, to chew on later. It didn’t take much to get Yaya’s gears going.
That very night, she ravished her husband into exhaustion, and while he slept his deepest sleep, she dressed and snuck out of the house. Under the mask of night, she crept toward the three palm trees that grew in the center of town, wrapped a rope around her waist and shimmied up the trunk of one of the trees. She took her knife out of her pocket and carved a circle about a foot in diameter, her people’s sign for female: a moon. Then she cut three huge leaves and brought them down with her, setting them at the trunk of the tree.
The next morning was chaos. Men looked confused. Some women wailed. What was to become of their desecrated village? The chief called a town meeting — the culprit had to be located and punished. But who would do such a thing? What woman could survive such an encounter? Yaya almost died with laughter, pinching her nose and feigning several sneezes and coughs. Cake proposed that the woman who did it had most likely evaporated. “And good riddance to bad rubbish,” he said.
The next week she struck again, this time tapping palm wine from one of the trees and leaving the jug at the trunk of the tree. Next to the moon she carved a heart, the sign for Erzulie, the village’s Mother symbol. This time, it was mostly the men who were in an uproar. The women were quiet, some of them even smiling to themselves. A month later, Yaya struck a third time. However this time, she almost got caught. Three men had been assigned to walk the village streets at night. For the entire month, Yaya had watched them, pretending to enjoy sitting near the window reading. She thought she had adequately memorized their night watch patterns. Nevertheless, there she was in the palm tree just as one of the men came strolling up to the tree. Yaya, froze, her cloak fluttering in the breeze, her hands dripping with tapped wine. Her heart was doing acrobatics. The young man looked up directly at Yaya. Then he looked away and turned around, heading back up the street, reaching into his pocket for a piece of gum. Yaya, just sat there, leaning against her rope. He hadn’t seen her. He’d looked right through her. She glanced at the heart she had carved in the tree next to the moon. She gasped and then giggled, a mixture of relief and awe. The carving pulsed and Yaya knew if she touched it, it would be pleasantly warm.
When she got home, there was a green jug in front of her bed. She glanced at her snoozing husband and quietly picked it up and brought it to her lips. It was the sweetest palm wine she’d ever tasted, as if only a split second ago it had dripped from the tree. She plopped into bed next to her husband, more inebriated than she’d ever been in her life.
In the morning, her husband smelled the sweetness on her and was reluctant to go to work. People smelled her in the newsroom, too. Many of her coworkers bought chocolates and cakes that day to soothe a mysterious craving. They began calling her the Palm Tree Bandit and eventually, as it always happened in villages, a story began to gel around her.
The Palm Tree Bandit was not human. She was a polluting spirit whose only reason for existing was to cause trouble. If there was a night without moon — such nights were thought to be the time of evil — she would strike. The chief, who was also the village priest, burned sacrificial leaves, hoping to appease whatever god was punishing the village with such an evil presence.
Nevertheless, the women developed another story amongst themselves. The Palm Tree Bandit was a nameless wandering woman with no man or children. And she had powers. And if a woman prayed hard enough to her, she’d answer their call because she understood their problems. Legend had it that she had legs roped with muscle that could walk up a palm tree without using her hands, and her hair grew in the shape of palm leaves. Her skin was shiny from the palm oil she rubbed into it and her clothes were made of palm fibers.
Soon, Yaya realized she didn’t have to keep shimmying up palm trees. One moonless night she had contemplated going out to cause some mischief but decided to snuggle against her husband instead. Nevertheless, when she woke up, she found another jug of palm wine wrapped in green fresh palm tree leaves inside her basket full of underwear. There were oily red footprints leading from the basket to the window next to it. Yaya grinned as she quickly ran to get a soapy washcloth to scrub the oil from the floor before her husband saw it. That day, the village was alive with chatter again. And the Palm Tree Bandit’s mischievousness spread to other villages, kingdoms away. Instead of an uproar, it became a typical occurrence. And the palm wine tapped was as sweet as ever and the leaves grew wide and tough. Only the chief and his ensemble were upset by it any more. Otherwise, it was just something more to argue and giggle about.
Eventually, women were allowed to climb palm trees for whatever reason. But they had to offer sacrifices to the Palm Tree Bandit first. Shrines were built honoring her and women often left her bottles of sweet fresh palm wine and coconut meat. No matter where the shrine was, when morning came, these items were always gone. So your great-grandmother was a powerful woman, yes she was. Just as squirmy as you, girl.
My story is done, and so is your hair. Here you are, Yaya number four. Of this story, there’s no more. Run along now.