IN SOUTHERN NIGERIA -- the land of the Yoruba -- the god Eshu was my
patron and tormentor. In the Yoruba pantheon, Eshu is the god of crossroads,
highways and markets. He oversees a realm of uncertainty and confusion,
the web of random comings and goings that fill a public thoroughfare, and
the numberless crises of losing and finding one’s way that each individual
passing through it experiences. Eshu is inscrutable, unpredictable and
undependable. He has no form and no morality. ‘If you look for him around
the roof-beam, he squats under the ground-nut leaf. If you look for him
under the mat, he towers so high above you that his head goes through the
roof.’ You can only pray to him in the negative: 'Eshu ma se mi' -'Do not
injure me, Eshu'.
He favours sacrifices of baby goats and black chickens. His symbol is a mound of earth.
Eshu travels with the stranger. He was with me at bus stations, taxi stands, palace gates and markets --everywhere I went as I made my endless journey in search of the Yoruba kings.
In Nigeria, gods and kings are innumerable. Some say there are 201 Yoruba gods, others say there are 401. There might be 700 Yoruba kings, though some are more important than others. This is to say nothing of the traditional rulers of the Igbos and Hausas.
A Yoruba king -- oba -- is the immortal and immaterial soul of a Yoruba town. Most of the temporal powers the obas once had have been taken over by the government of Nigeria. What an oba retains is influence on local and sometimes national government, money, a palace, prestige and elaborate supernatural powers. A Yoruba can explain to a stranger the oba's role as guardian of the traditional Yoruba religion. He will tell you that, although the oba must represent all of his subjects, Christians and Muslims, he leads the worship of the Yoruba gods. What he cannot explain is the divine spark the oba embodies, which seems to place the obas among the gods themselves. A reigning oba is the living embodiment of a single spirit, passed from king to king. After an oba dies, his successor eats his heart (dried, in soup) and drinks from his skull, and performs a miracle, and becomes the oba – if he is following the tradition. He then can speak of his predecessors in the first person. Of a battle that took place three hundred years ago, he can say, '1 slew them left and right as they came,' even if, like the king of the town of Iragbiji, the Aragbiji of Iragbiji, in whose domain I began my investigation, he might be a retired employee of the trading firm John Holt, and a Christian.
The Aragbiji of Iragbiji's name is His Highness Oba Timothy Oyelade Adepoju II. Iragbiji is a large village in the north-eastern part of Oyo State. It wasn't on any of my maps.
Iragbiji is hidden deep in the heart of Yoruba country, an unvaried, mostly flat geography of red earth, tangled forest and stone hills. It is not virgin forest but 'secondary growth': what has grown back after centuries of bush farming. The forest ensured the isolation of the Yoruba over the centuries, and covered up the tracks of those who came to the Yoruba lands from elsewhere: this is where the secrets of the Yoruba are hidden.
I met the Aragbiji in the compound of Muraina Oyelami, a well-known Yoruba artist and musician whom I had met in London. Muraina's daughter Bimpe was getting married the day I arrived from Lagos.
Bride and groom were dressed in matching pink-and-silver costumes. They stood under a canvas tent at a table strewn with plastic flowers and bottles of Coke and Fanta, and cut an enormous blue cake. There were drummers and acrobats. All day, Muraina pulled money out of his robes to 'dash' the performers.
That evening the Aragbiji of Iragbiji favoured the proceedings with his presence. He arrived in the compound in his second-best car, a yellow Toyota with a licence plate that read:
OY 2 E
ARAGBIJI OF IRAGBIJI
His black Mercedes
(licence plate AY 1 E) was back at the palace. The Aragbiji and an oba
from a neighbouring town sat together in an upstairs room which was bare
except for two bulky armchairs, borrowed for the occasion from a carpenter,
and put there for their use. Food had been set before the obas on a low
table: glutinous eba, like unbaked bread dough, and a soup of the slimiest
Their cream-coloured robes were stiff with beadwork, and they carried beaded walking-sticks, the emblems of oba-ship. Deep in their armchairs they sat, very still, receiving visitors and nodding to them distantly. When you enter a room to greet an oba, you are supposed to fling yourself on to the floor in a prone position on the threshold, as if performing press-ups; usually to get down on one knee while deeply lowering the head is enough.
The Aragbiji, whose title means 'owner of Iragbiji', was the older of the two kings. His features were fine and wizened, making him look almost Chinese. He wore a gold watch, and gold rings on his fingers. He had been oba since 1974.
I stood in the outer room among the drummers who were serenading the obas as they sat in splendour. The Aragbiji spotted me and summoned me in with an elegant wave of his hand.
I bowed and said, 'Kabiyesi!', which is how you address a Yoruba king. It can be translated as either 'May you have long life' or 'You cannot be contradicted.' It's one of these Yoruba expressions whose etymology depends on the imagination of the person who is explaining it to you. This is one of the principles of the interpretation of Yoruba culture: it's impossible to get to the bottom of anything. The further you burrow, the more numerous and tangled the roots become. Likewise, a white person is called 'oyinbo', which means either 'one who comes from over the sea' or 'someone without skin', depending on whom you ask.
It is the same when dealing with the problem of the origins of the Yoruba. There are three possible answers, all mutually contradictory. (a) They came from somewhere else -- i.e. the savannah. But where did the people of the savannah come from? From Egypt. But where did the people of Egypt come from?
From somewhere else. And so on. Inquiry leads into an infinite regression: the inward-curving boundary of the universe of the knowable. (b) They came from heaven. (c) No one knows.
Anyone of these is the right answer, but it's the wrong question. Why look for a chicken behind the egg? The chicken (or whatever bird it was) disappeared into the forest long ago, leaving behind a marvellous egg of mysterious provenance. It is better to consider the mysterious egg alone. I, for instance, the cradle of the Yoruba, where the world was created, gave the world the I bronzes, perhaps the greatest treasures of African art. These sculptures, most of which are now in the National Museum, Lagos, are human figures of breathtaking sensitivity. The jewellery and crowns which the figures wear suggest the art of a royal court. The sculptor seems to be recalling the image of a person dearly loved; each bronze is the evocation of fond mel1lOry, idealized but true. They have warmth and nearly the breath of life.
The Ife bronzes have no equal in the art that followed, and no antecedents. They cannot be placed in history more exactly than in a four-century band of time from 1000 to 1400 A.D. A refined court tradition seems to appear fully formed out of the darkness of unrecorded time.
I told the Aragbiji about my mission in Nigeria. He listened and nodded, and invited me to call on him at the palace. Then his features went icy and still, and it became clear to me that I had been dismissed. Although only a minor oba, he was a master of the art of royal distance and hauteur .
The day after the wedding I went to the palace ('afin' in Yoruba) with Muraina's eldest son, Tajudeen. We walked along the red dirt road until we saw an arch of painted cement over the road that led to the palace. On the arch was written' AF1N OF THE ARAGB1J1 OF 1RAGB1J1'. A mural had been painted on the wall beside the arch, showing the Aragbiji sitting in splendour, with his subjects prostrating themselves before him.
A palace servant showed us into the Aragbiji's private reception room upstairs. It was dimly lit by green fluorescent tubes. Deep, low armchairs surrounded the room; the walls were decorated with a clock, a calendar ('Sons of Iragbiji Benevolent Association') and portraits and photographs of the Aragbiji. A child brought us bottles of Star beer. Downstairs we could hear shouting: the Aragbiji was settling a domestic dispute. The electricity went off for fifteen minutes, then came back on. We waited for an hour and a half for the Aragbiji to appear, which he eventually did in a rustle of maroon robes.
He apologized for being busy. He gave us kola nut, then bitter kola. He broke the pink kola nut into segments and shared them with us. Kola contains nicotine: it gives you a lift. 'It dries the mouth, no?' the Aragbiji said, chewing. 'Now drink some beer. It will sweeten the mouth.' The biggest kola nuts, with four lobes, are called 'oba's kola'. He sat in one of the deep, threadbare armchairs.
'We usually live very long,' the Aragbiji said, 'before we go where our fathers go.' He was speaking of his predecessors, of whom there had been fourteen. Obas do not die: when an oba 'passes away', he goes 'where his fathers went'.
Iragbiji, like every Yoruba town, has a foundation myth. The first Aragbiji, Ogba, came from Ife on a hunting expedition. When the hunters saw a leopard, they chased it into a hole in a stone outcrop. They ran in after it, and chased it through a narrow, winding passage. The leopard ran out the other side, and the hunters caught up with it and killed it. Where they emerged from the rock, they founded Iragbiji. They sealed up the hole, and every year the Aragbiji leads the people of the town back to this place to worship at the shrine of the deity who guards the spot.
The Oyelamis' compound was built on the slope of a hill, and from the
balcony of the upper room where the Aragbiji sat on the day of the wedding
the forest stretched away as far as one could see. Granite outcrops jutted
out between the houses and the trees. It was the rainy season, and the
sky was heavy and grey.
The compound was enclosed by a high concrete wall with a wrought-iron gate that was locked at night by a night-watchman. Inside there were buildings for the members of Muraina's extended family. Water was drawn from a well with a bucket made out of inner tube. I found it very difficult to discern who was related to whom there and how. Among its inhabitants was a small child who screamed with terror every time he -- she? -- saw me.
Muraina had a friend called Shango, who ran a beer parlour . Shango introduced me to the mysteries of the Yoruba religion. His real name was Adeleke, but he had taken the name of the god of thunder and lightning.
The Yoruba religion has no orthodoxy. As a theological system, it is whatever a Yoruba 's imagination says it is. It is a shared dream-world in which all act out the supernatural drama of their lives. Nothing is fixed. The gods control our lives, but their way of doing so is as confused as human affairs on earth. Their favour can be bought with sacrifices -- if they are in a good mood; but you can never tell what kind of mood they are in. The supreme god, Olorun, is an absentee landlord who takes no interest in human affairs. The gods below him have no hierarchy. A god's personality and characteristics are what each devotee perceives them to be. The identities of the gods blur and merge. Their reputations rise and fall depending on how well they are seen to deliver benefits to human beings.
Shango, if you don't bless me, the shame is your own. Shango, if I don't
serve you, the shame is mine.
Shango, if you don't bless me, I will go and make an Ogun image. Shango, if you don't bless me, I'll go and turn Christian.
Shango -- Adeleke --
was an artist, a musician, a dancer and a farmer. He was small in stature
and sinewy in build, and had a wispy moustache and beard, which he often
twisted in thought when spinning his version of Yoruba religion. Much of
it came to him in dreams. The octagonal diagram of the Yoruba cosmos that
he built into the floor of his beer parlour had come to him in one of these
dreams. It was a mosaic of pebbles and cowrie shells pressed into the cement,
for future archaeologists to discover and puzzle over.
Hanging from the walls were batiks he had made illustrating scenes in the imaginary struggles of Yoruba gods with supernatural forces. I couldn't see anything except dark, swirling abstract designs. For him they were windows into that other world.
'What's that, Shango?' I said once, over a large bottle of Guinness Foreign Export Stout (a malty version of Guinness, brewed in Lagos). His wife was asleep on a bench beside him.
'That is Ogun [god of iron weapons and machinery] fighting a snake.'
To me it looked like a diagram of molecules in Brownian motion, or the universe when it was two kilograms of matter.
His answers were glimmers from a complex and dangerous supernatural realm. I asked him to tell me the name of the god worshipped at the Irioke festival, at the cave where Iragbiji was founded.
'I can't tell you,' he said.
'I don't want to die.'
Of the giant black snails the country people sell at the side of the road, whose blood is white and is a traditional symbol of the amniotic fluid, the fluid of life, Shango said, 'If you have one of those in your house, you will never get sick.'
Of the dried black fish, bent into a circle, that we ate with our hands, with our okra soup and doughy amala, he said, 'Eat it -- it is from a good river.'
I told him about the American blues guitarist Robert Johnson, and his famous song 'Crossroads'. According to the legend, this is a song about a pact with the Devil. To become a blues player, you must take your guitar to a crossroads just before midnight. 'A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you.' After that you can play anything. The Robert Johnson myth suggests that he broke the pact he made with this figure, and died in mysterious and tragic circumstances as a result. The big black man was an embodiment of Eshu, god of the crossroads.
Shango said it made perfect sense. 'When you want something from a god, you have to pay for it, and the more you want it, the more you have to pay. It's the same for drummers here.'
Yoruba religion is like gambling: it only works if you are in it so deep that the only way to break even is to put still more into it.
Later I told Shango I wanted to consult Ifa, the Yoruba oracle.
He gave me a serious stare.
'When you are ready,' he said, after a moment, and returned to his beer .
Money is more than a medium of exchange for the Yoruba: it is a sacrament.
The design of the twenty-naira note, bearing the face of Murtala Muhammad,
the assassinated military ruler of Nigeria (who ruled briefly from 1975
to 1976), is printed on to fabrics for clothes and on to the enamel crockery
you buy in the market and is painted on to the sides of trucks and buses.
People ask you for money as freely as they might ask you the time.
One night I went to Shango's and drank a calabash of palm wine. It gave me bad dreams and upset my bowels. In bed later, I dreamed I was watching people being hacked to death while some very loud drumming was going on. At about 2.30 a.m. I woke up, in my pitch-dark, windowless, airless room. The dream evaporated, but the drumming was still audible. In a room like that, though, you can't be sure if you're awake or asleep, so I fumbled for my torch and switched it on. The sound continued.
I hoped the compound gate was locked. I tried to tell if the sound was getting closer, but I couldn't. The talking drums were saying something, but of course I didn't know what.
The chanting stopped at around dawn, and I slept for an hour. At eight o'clock I rose and set about my ablutions.
I asked Nike, Muraina's other daughter, about the singing and drumming I'd heard.
'It was from the Cherubim and Seraphim church,' she said.
'A church? What were they doing at church in the middle of the night, singing and drumming until dawn?'
'They were praying to God.'
'To help them.'
'To give them money.'
She was a 'freethinker' herself.
The Aragbiji of Iragbiji demonstrated the real powers of an oba when
he rescued me from the clutches of the Nigerian security police, the State
Security Service, the SSS. He cannot be contradicted! May he have long
The incident took place in the nearby town of Ikirun. Shango and I had gone there to see the newly installed oba, the Akirun of Ikirun, exhibiting himself to the multitude. It was a very crowded and noisy celebration. Great beery multitudes of people, drummers, acrobats and sellers of cheap commemorative souvenirs had gathered outside the palace. The palace grandees, who sit permanently on the palace porch, welcomed us and we were pushed upstairs to greet the oba. We were shown to armchairs along the walls of a big reception room. A drunken trumpeter put his bottle aside and his bugle to his lips and blew a wobbly fanfare to announce the oba's entry. Prostrations. The oba sat, waved his flywhisk, and summoned us forward. We exchanged courtesies. The oba invited me to come back the next day to interview him. He was an accountant and the managing director of a bank in Lagos.
As we were leaving the palace, a plain-clothes SSS agent in a white costume stopped us and began to ask a lot of impertinent questions. He demanded to see my passport. I said I wasn't carrying it, and wouldn't have shown it to him even if I had been. I had no idea who he was and wanted to walk away, but Shango was trembling at the knees. The man was tall, heavily built, vicious and young enough to be a real nuisance. 'Come with me,' he said.
Shango was dismissed, and I was taken to the police station, where the agent and the Ikirun police took it in turns to question me. I sat at a wooden desk and faced my accusers.
‘Are you a spy? Are you the one who is stirring up the students at the university?'
‘Are you carrying a pistol?'
'Where is your residence permit?'
‘Who gave you permission to enter this area?'
'Why aren't you carrying your passport?'
‘Do you know we have a law against wandering in this country?’
'Why are Nigerians treated so badly in the United States?'
So that was it! I was a scapegoat for US immigration policy. Everyone in Nigeria wants a visa to the United States, but only a fraction of those who apply get them. I read later, in a Lagos newspaper, that 25,000 visas to the United States were issued annually in Nigeria, but 80 per cent of the applications were accompanied by false documents.
One of the SSS men said he had seen me the week before in Iragbiji. This made me appear doubly suspicious. The agent left, and I waited. A young Igbo policeman named Lucky sat beside me to prevent me from escaping. We had a nice chat. He had been in Ikirun for two weeks and couldn't stand it. He spoke no Yoruba. 'The people here are heartless,' he said.
Night fell and it began to rain. The revellers were still thronging the street outside. A tout came in and said, trying to keep a straight face, that when my questioning was over I was to go to a particular guest-house that he represented. Then the lights went out.
Lucky lit an oil lamp, and made apologies for NEPA, the chaotic Nigerian Electric Power Authority. The tout shuffed back and asked for two naira instead. Lucky said he only had two naira left and he needed it to buy some maize.
The man in white returned and ordered me to get into a car with a smashed windscreen covered in tape. Two other agents were inside. Personally, I've never liked driving with strange, hostile men in battered cars down dark country roads, especially in politically unstable foreign countries where Americans are unpopular.
'Where are we going?'
'Get in the car.'
I saw Shango standing in the rain, shivering.
The interrogation continued. 'What is your mission in Nigeria?'
They drove me to a remote police station, where the SSS man unsuccessfully, despite some threatening talk, tried to persuade the duty officer to incarcerate me. 'It is above my power,' the officer replied, in the often charmingly formal Nigerian dialect of the English language. I hadn't been charged with anything.
'I am asking you again, do you refuse to take this man?'
The officer stood his ground.
'What is in the bag?'
My belongings were arrayed on the counter. My notebook attracted the first agent's attention. He opened it at random and stared at the illegible script, pretending to read. I was allowed to put the other things back into my backpack, but he kept the notebook.
'Get in the car.'
We drove down roads with no houses or people in sight, just tall grass and junked machinery on either side. I was going to be deported tomorrow, he said, just so I would waste the money I had spent on the ticket. I was sure they were going to beat me.
We seemed to re-enter the town, and pulled into a driveway. There were houses on both sides of the road, which was reassuring, but if the agents beat me up in full view of those modest people, cooking on outdoor fires, no one would try to stop them. The car stopped. An older man in his underwear came to the window. It was a superior officer. I had no idea what they were saying.
We drove back to Ikirun and found Shango, who suggested that the Aragbiji would vouch for me. We drove to his palace.
Shango pounded on the palace door. It was 10.00 p.m. and raining.
'What do you want?' said the silhouette in the window.
'We would like to see Kabiyesi.'
'He's asleep!' (The king is always asleep when you call unexpectedly. It's the Yoruba equivalent of the secretarial evasion 'He's in a meeting.')
'Er, there are some policemen here,' I called.back.
A shirtless young man came out and led us in. The oba sat regally on the comer of his desk in the dark, clad in a single piece of purple cloth thrown over one shoulder, with the other one bare.
After the case had been put before him, the Aragbiji nodded curtly and turned to me in his best peremptory manner.
'Come here,' he said.
I stepped obediently forward three paces. 'Kabiyesi.'
'I saw you at Oyelami's house, did I not? And you came and greeted me. Later you came to me here, did you not?'
'What else?' he said, with both palms upward.
He ordered us all to go upstairs, where he told me to take pen and paper and write.
'I will dictate. "I -- write your name -- promise to bring my passport -- write the number -- to Ikirun tomorrow. If I don't, - write your friend's name -- agrees to bear the full consequences and punishments." Give him back his notebook. What else?'
The matter was settled. Praise to the Aragbiji of Iragbiji!
His neck is long -- because of beads!
His arms are long -- because of weapons!
He wears his crown bravely in the midst of war! He makes a boundary with Eshu!
He is so rich in brass -- he uses it to pound yam with!
No one will dance in the town without the Aragbiji taking part in it! He will dance even in the presence of death!
sleeping on Shango's floor, I was bitten by a female anopheles mosquito.
Two weeks later I came down with malaria.