Running away from home is not quite as adventurous as it sounds.
Tonight would mark the sixth new moon since she took her siblings and fled from the security of all they’d known, and after months of travelling – by foot and on the occasional lorry – Abeke was beginning to wonder if life as a forgotten wife of an ageing Monarch would have been so bad. Watching them sleep beside her in the open market stall they had bunked in for the night, she struggled with her doubts and guilt. In trying to avoid the fate planned for her, she had condemned them to life as homeless, landless orphans with no family. At home, their stepmother had been harsh, but their father -negligent as he was – had been respected. Even before her brother became the Baale, their father had the distinction of being one of the few men of the village who spoke Yoruba fluently, making him invaluable for trade and negotiations with the more populous and dominant neighboring tribe. Of course, the hypocrisy of his eminence for such a reason, and then the disdain shown to his Yoruba wife – Abeke’s mother – became very glaring to her at a young age.
Yet, Abeke had never been more grateful for her mother’s heritage until she embarked on this hare-brained trip. The further they travelled away from home, the more obvious it was to her that to evade unwanted notice, they had to become Yoruba. There was no way a couple of Egun strangers passing through a Yoruba village would go unnoticed, and she did not want to leave a trail for anyone that might still be searching for them, as unlikely as that possibility got the farther they themselves got. Moreover, people fear what they do not understand, her mother always told her whenever the little Medeyonmi had puzzled over the hostility of the village women towards her mother. She did not escape potential harm to serve herself and her siblings as targets of actual harm for some people’s small-mindedness. So, they all adopted their Yoruba names – their mother always gave them one – and she forbade them from speaking the Egun language, even when they were alone.
Sessi, of course, had grumbled a bit – she had never liked the name Abike, but had settled down easily enough when her sister asked her to choose any name for herself. She had chosen Aduke (she who is coveted and pampered).
Very vain and rather fitting.
Still, Abeke had relented, after the first three villages or so, and let her remove the black gauze that covered her face, but she had put her foot down on the other pieces of clothing.
Her days of flaunting her charms as an Egun maiden was over, and she’d do well to accept it.
In fact, after the imale man in the eleventh village who had become obsessed with having her sister for his wife, Abeke had created an extra layer of protection for the troublesome beauty. They had maintained a story, thereafter, of a widow (Abeke) and her little son, travelling with her brother and his wife (Aduke) back to their own Yoruba people, after the sudden death of her lemamu husband who had lived in Badagiri. It was a story that explained their odd accent in speaking the language, their occasional fumbles on nuanced aspects of the Yoruba culture and brought them more goodwill than would have been extended to a couple of run-aways. Abeke considered having to don the Yoruba dress and imale iborun a small price to pay for safe passage and goodwill.
They made their way through several villages, steering clear of the larger towns with reigning monarchs – who knew what networks they had to send messages among themselves? The last thing she wanted was to be captured and sent back, or worse, to have a lustful King decree her sister for himself. She traded in places where their stay coincided with the market days, careful to keep her stash of money on her person and away from sight at all times. She also made sure they never stayed more than three nights in any one place, sometimes walking away if there were no lorries available to take them as they continued their journey.
It had been hard, and both her siblings had recently taken to asking her where they were going. She had no answer for them. In all her fantasies of running away from home, she’d never gotten to the point where you stopped running.
At the last village, the women had talked about trading at Lusada! Although her careful questioning had revealed that it was a much farther market from them and was not part of their five-day market rotation, several women from the village professed attending on a semi-regular basis because the market was very big, bringing traders from far-flung areas with a very wide selection of wares. Pretending to be wide-eyed and awed, as though that was not the reason she had been one of the few in her village to trade the same market herself, Abeke had retreated with the niggling fear that they were circling back home. True, Lusada was far from her home and this village, but if they continued on this path, they would invariably get close enough for detection.
Mother, I wish you were here!
If her mother had not been so sickly that she needed her so much to care for the younger children, and her father so negligent that she had gone to learn trading so young to ensure she and her siblings were fed, Abeke would be married. Probably, like the story she had told so often in the past months, she’d even be a widow with one or more children of her own. But in that moment, after years of being the mother to her siblings, of shouldering responsibilities bigger than most grown women had to bear, months from all she had grown up knowing, Abeke felt none of her fifteen harvest years. She was just a little girl who wanted her mother.
I am so tired!
She allowed herself a moment to feel the weariness, to shed a tear or two for her tired soul and bones, silent and unacknowledged, then she straightened.
Tomorrow, she promised her sleeping siblings, tucking the wrapper more securely around the baby – Raufu was the imale name she chose for him – to keep the mosquitoes off his plump baby limbs.
Tomorrow, we’ll stop.
The Ilaje people of this village had not been the most welcoming but they had understood the universal language of money, unwittingly parting with valuable information while selling them food, allowing them sleep in the market stall and promising them safe escort to the nearby Egbado village in the morning. That village, Jilete it was called, is where Abeke hoped to settle her family. They, at least, were Yoruba, and was said to have a mostly imale population. All things considered, it seemed like a sign and if the Baale was as kind as rumored in this village, amongst this people of a different tribe, language and religion, then she would make their home there.
Tommorrow, she prayed.
Lemamu (Imam) – A Muslim cleric
Ilaje – a minority tribe who live in riverine areas of SW Nigeria
Egbado– a faction of the Yoruba people.