‘My story meanders around and about*, landing on the most cunning of all animals. Who can tell me which animal that is?’
‘Correct! You are all very wise children,’ she praises them effusively, then everyone settled in to listen to the tale…
Once upon a time, in the animal kingdom, there was a great famine. The rains did not come, so the plants did not grow. Soon, all the animals started starving – except the birds. Ijapa (tortoise) was the one who noticed that the birds did not appear to be suffering like the rest of the animals. They flew out in the morning, then returned in the evening, satiated.
When he asked them where they got their food, the birds told him that they were often invited to feasts in the skies. By the time they finished describing the feasts, Ijapa had devised an inventive way to attend the feasts with them.
‘If every one of you lent me a feather,’ he reasoned, ‘then I can fly with you to the next feast.’
The birds were skeptical and reluctant but Ijapa was persistent. Every bird gave Ijapa a feather which he stuck to his arms to create a flying appendage from a medley of feathers.
Early the next morning saw them flying off, Ijapa and his company of birds, heading to yet another feast in the sky.
‘Before we go in,’ the cunning animal said to his companions as they neared their destination. ‘It is important to have one person who speaks for the group. That brings us more prestige in the sight of our hosts. Who is your designated spokesperson?’
The birds, simple beings, looked about askance and confessed they never had one.
‘Never fear,’ Ijapa reassured them gleefully. ‘I shall be the spokesperson. On one condition. For the duration of our stay, you will all recognize and address me by my new name – All of You.’
‘Your new name is All of You?’ one of the flightier birds taunted.
But ijapa was serious. ‘Yes. Until we return home, I will be referred to only as All of You.’ He insisted.
The birds were puzzled by this unusual name, but let it go as they soon arrived at their destination.
Ijapa was a truly talented spokesperson, using his skilled oratory to thank and flatter their hosts until he and the party of birds were seated amidst pomp and reverence. The birds marveled at how much warmer their reception was with him as their mouthpiece. Soon, platters of foods and drinks were placed before them, making their little avian stomachs growl. But before they could dig into the food, Ijapa stopped the servers and asked them who the goodies were meant for.
‘Why,’ the puzzled server responded, ‘it is for all of you.’
The birds were amazed when Ijapa, reminding them that he was All of You, proceeded to consume the entire platter of foods and drinks laid out before them, by himself. They watched in astonishment as more was brought out, only to meet similar fate – each time, Ijapa taking care to ask for whom it was intended.
Finally, the birds had had enough of the spectacle. They stormed off, but only after demanding back the respective feathers they had lent the greedy tortoise. Soon, ijapa was bare, stripped of his motley of feathers and unsure how to get back to his home on earth.
‘Please,’ he begged Aparo, one of the last birds to leave. ‘Go to Yanibo, my wife. Tell her to bring out all the soft things she can find and make a bed out of them for me. That way, I can jump down without hurting myself.’
Aparo agreed to convey the message and flew away. When he got to earth, he gave Yanibo a slightly different message, and Ijapa from his heights in the sky was no wiser. All he could see was a very tiny apparition of his wife making a heap on the ground, never realizing that the bed had asked her to bring out all of the hard and sharp things she could find!
Ijapa jumped, falling the great distance to land ignominiously in the waiting pile. His very hard shell broke into many pieces, and it took Yanibo almost the entire day to hunt down the fragments and glue them unto his back.
And that is why, till this day, Ijapa’s shell is as you see it.
‘So, who wants to tell me the lesson they learnt from the story?’
Abeke let the children’s chorus of ‘Emi! Emi!’* carry her to a place of escape.
It was late evening in Jilete village. The sun was nestling among the shadows of the distant horizon in hues of starling orange and flaming red. The day’s work was mostly done, and everyone sat in clusters in front of their huts and in the village square. She had wandered unto this gathering of the children listening rapturously to tales that have been passed down through the generations. She had been on her way back from Aduke’s house when she saw Raufu and his friends running in this direction. By the time she’d caught up with them, there were several semi-circles of children sitting at the feet of Iya Adigun, one of the oldest women in the village.
The Egun did not have this tradition, usually they gathered at night for singing and dancing in the moonlight, and the storytelling intrigued Abeke. It was a way of passing on the values of the people to the younger generation, and it fostered a sense of community that Abeke never had until she came here, to this village, these people.
It made her consider seriously, for the first time, what the Baale said to her three market cycles ago. Maybe she should consider getting married, well, again as most of the villagers thought. It wasn’t as though she was opposed to marriage, nor was it that she had not received offers. It was just that… Abeke realized that she was more independent than most women, even in this rather women-valuing village. Maybe it was a childhood of watching her mother cower to her husband and his wife, a lifetime of having to fend for herself and her siblings, or just the realization that she did not really need a man – the past four rain cycles have shown her that.
What she wanted was to be even more ingrained in this society, to be accepted totally without anyone questioning her right of belonging. And to do that, it was becoming increasingly obvious that she needed a husband.
There was a Mola* kolanut trader in Atan, one of her most important suppliers at that market. Four market cycles ago, they had a rather enlightening discussion. Originally from a place called Kano, the man had lived in Ibadan for several years before moving to Atan just a few months before. He told her of the kolanut farm he ran successfully with his brother for several years before their falling out necessitated his moving away. Unfortunately, his only son, with whom he had planned to begin his new enterprise had died just weeks after the relocation, and the man suddenly felt too old and too disillusioned to start such an endeavor all over again, on his own. He planned to sell off the rest of his vast stock and move back home, to Kano. He did however offer his seeds, his expertise and as many of his men as she was able to come to agreement with to Abeke, to help her start her own obi farm.
It was a tremendous opportunity and, scared as she was of its enormity, Abeke wanted it. So, she had gone to the Baale to ask for more farming land, considerably more land than the current one that was allocated to her family, obviously for subsistence farming. She had been disappointed when he’d informed her a mere two days after her request that it had been turned down by the council of village chiefs.
‘Take heart, Iya Raufu. You know if it was up to me, I would have given you the land.’ The kindly man shrugged helplessly. ‘But it is not up to me.’
‘Thank you, Baale.’ Abeke said absently. ‘But what I do not understand is why? Why would they oppose my using the land? It’s just lying there!’
What she had learnt, in the village head’s uncharacteristically fumbling explanation that followed, was that the all-men council of elders were uncomfortable giving her, a strange woman, access to land to grow crops that she was not even going to eat. It would be foolhardy, to think that they did not give young men land until they were ready to undertake the responsibility of marriage and a family but would approve an unmarried woman using it. And only for profit. Giving her land so she and her son and siblings would not starve was one thing, but this… well, this was taking her audaciousness too far.
At the time, she had been furious and hurt over the decision of the old men. All she had heard was a bunch of men trying to keep her in what they considered her place. She had felt defeated. But now, listening to this tale of Ijapa and his ingenuity in fending for himself, she straightened her shoulders once again.
If she had to marry, then marry she would!
And it would not be to Jagunmolu, the most influential of her suitors who also sat on that council of elders. Abeke got a sense that he was playing a sort of cat and mouse game with her, trying to back her into a corner where she’d have to accept his proposal. She knew that most of the village expected her to accept him too, he was the relative best choice of all the men – all three of them – who had shown an interest in her. He was affluent, influential, in his prime at almost forty rain cycles, and his wives – he had three already – all appeared well cared for and happy.
But Abeke did not want to ‘appear well cared for’. If she had to marry, she wanted a man who would accept her with her differences, or at least give her free reign over her own choices. Not one who would try to mold her into something she could never be.
‘Maami!,’ Raufu’s voice broke into her reverie as he ran towards her, making her realize that story time was over and the circle was broken up. He also made her appreciate that she had a son. As far as this village knew, she was a widow. She did not have to limit herself to the older men who were already set in their ways and their expectations of what a wife is.
It may be true that she needed a husband, but all she had to do was find an amendable young man!
Alo – story/tale
*Alo mi lo ti ti ti (my fanciful translation)
Emi – Me/ I
Mola – A term used by the Yoruba to denote people (historically Hausa-Fulanis) from northern Nigeria.