Monday, 17 July 2023
The first chapter of the book...
From a very young age, the reasons for war were explained to me in depth, or as much detail as I could comprehend at the time. Papa said that I was implying questions with my tone as soon as I could make sounds. He said that I would point at things and raise the inflection in my voice, uttering obscure non-words, then await an explanation from them.
Papa would often joke with Mama that I even wanted to know why the breeze blew through the trees. He would do this when I asked the more difficult questions. The ones that did not really have an answer, or, at least, not one that could be articulated in a nice, neat package and finished with a bow. I think this is how Papa felt when I asked him why we had been at war with the Okena for so many years. We sat in our back yard on chairs Papa had hand-carved from an old tree stump and leftover logs from the debris of the last tropical hurricane. The sun was low in the sky, and it was nearly my bedtime, but Papa had promised me one last game of Choko before I went up. I used the game as a way to pry answers to the many questions I had, and I remember him smiling and shaking his head at me. I think I was around six or maybe seven years old at the time. After looking at me, he stood up, turned around to the faucet and loosened it to wash the blood off his hands.
‘Pass me the cloth, Elewa.’ He pointed over to the row of clean cloths that he used as makeshift bandages: they were hanging on the washing line. The rope used for the washing line was made of plant fibres that were delicately twined or braided to form the cord. Papa nailed each end of it to the exterior back wall of our house and whenever it was full of clothes, it made the house look all festive and spruced up, but the clothes would cover the back door, so we would have to crouch to get in and out until they dried.
Elewa was the nickname that Papa had given me; it literally meant ‘pretty’ in his native tongue. Papa always said I had a face that the world should see. Mama loved the name as well. “It means more than just pretty you know!” she’d say, but at that time I was content with ‘just pretty’.
I strolled over to the washing line, purposely dragging my feet along the red dirt to make a pattern in the ground before a gorgeous agama lizard with a bright orange head scurried through my feet.
‘Hey!’ I yelled.
‘If you want to play one last game before bedtime, you will have to hurry up!’
I jumped up underneath the washing line and grabbed a clean cloth for him.
‘Now hold there and do not let go,’ he said. It was the first layer of the bandage to be wrapped around his wounded hand; he needed me to hold it firmly, so that it would stay in place. I felt so important and proud that I could assist my papa in this way. The wound was quite deep and just off the centre of his palm. As Papa wrapped the cloth around his hand, my finger, which was holding the first layer of cloth started to feel trapped.
‘So, your question was, why do we go to war?’ he asked.
‘Why we have been at war for so long. Yes, Papa,’ I said, feeling my face heat up then twist with discomfort before a single cold salty tear rolled down my cheek and into my mouth. I wanted to ask him if I could release my finger – I was sure that the other layers were now secure enough to hold the bandage in place.
‘Sometimes, Elewa, you think you are helping by holding something important in place for someone that you love . . .’ He looked at my finger, now suffocating underneath the pressure of his fresh bandage. ‘. . . and so you do as you are told. You hold it in place until the pressure becomes uncomfortable and instead of simply holding something in place, you are being suffocated.
‘You wonder to yourself, perhaps I should have given them the space to help themselves, then perhaps I would not be so . . .’ He supported my hand and pulled my finger out. Finally, I thought. ‘. . . deep inside this nightmare now.’ He sat back down.
I still remember the relief I felt as the tingling sensations came back to my finger and yet I had no idea what Papa was talking about at the time. It was not until years later that I figured out what he really meant. Papa was my finger, stuck and suffocating in this war, only there in the first place with the intention of doing good, and the bandage was either his beliefs or his comrades or maybe both.
While massaging my finger, he continued.
‘Elewa, people will give you all kinds of excuses for war in your lifetime, I’m sure. But really, there is no good reason for war.’ He took a deep breath, stood up and walked towards the boundary wall wearing his typical house clothes: a faded indigo robe with a deep neckline and wide sleeves. He spoke the next sentence at a faster pace, as if he’d practised it before.
‘War is a result of bad choices, bad advice and, sometimes, well-meaning people trying to help, who ultimately just end up making things worse.’
In the years that followed, Papa would tell me how he had got that wound. It was from an Okena musket ball that tore through his hand as he prepared to launch his spear. He told me that he fell to his knees, mainly in shock, at the speed and force of the weapon. He said that he had to be carried out of battle by a man called Diallo, who died on his return to combat just a few hours later.
I know that Papa always felt awful about this, because while he was carried out for his hand wound, Diallo suffered a musket ball through the neck, and he lay there on the field in agony while people stepped on him and over him while the very life inside of him slipped away. It seemed there was no one around to close his eyelids or even say a short prayer for his soul.
Diallo was special; he did not have to help Papa that day. His death made Papa realise that there were hundreds of special people being thrown into mass graves every day, who either could not be identified or who had no living family left. Papa promised himself that he would do everything in his power to put an end to the war.
I thought about our entire discussion late into the night as I lay up listening to the sound of tree frogs filling up the darkness.
Mama said our house was built by farm hands that did a half-job before abandoning the project for their next enticing undertaking.
‘It is not suitable for a man of your standing . . .’ Grandma would complain to Papa every time she visited, but we were all content with our lot. The walls were thin and had tiny little holes in corners and joints where the rays from the sun would beam through at different times of day as the sun moved across the sky. Or the wind would push the sweet, loamy air in dusty surges and wanes throughout the house, creating a small indoor cyclone, which was fun for me and my brother Komi and my little sister Fumi, but the bane of Mama’s life.
As I grew older, I began to understand the reasons, or excuses, for our war with the Okena. Admittedly, though, my perspective was greatly shaped by the hours I had spent inadvertently fraternising at Omolara’s indoor market, which contained a treasure trove of goods beneath its palm roof.
When Omolara entered the room, the light softened somehow; her presence conjured up soothing, pacifying feelings, and she opened up the hearts of everyone in her presence. A lavish display of colourful beads hung on both sides of the walls, jingling every time someone entered or exited.
‘Elaaaywaaah . . .’ She always stretched out my name in that exaggerated way, as if my entrance was a momentous event. and I do not know how, but she knew all of her customers by name, and could sometimes even identify them by sound. This deeply baffled and frustrated me, until the day I found out exactly how she did it.
It was an exceptionally busy day at her indoor market, and Omolara had been organising merchandise, so her back was turned away from the entrance when Mr Sizwe, a local merchant and regular visitor, came through the door.
‘Good morning, Mr Sizwe.’ She stretched up to the top shelf to place a glass vessel of what looked like a luxury oud perfume obtained from one of the many merchants she traded with.
Mr Sizwe turned to look at me in a did-you-see-that? sort of way. I shrugged my shoulders at him and gave him of-course-I’ve-seen-it eyes but just like him, I had no idea how she did it. I was hoping he would have some answers, but he just smiled and shook his head in disbelief.
‘Morning, Lara!’ he replied, before heading to inspect some fabric.
I had witnessed her greet numerous customers like that, when they were out of her field of vision, and every time it happened, it astonished me all over again. Customer visibility was challenging due to the monumental towers of earthenware pots and enormous piles of bark cloth, baskets and woven fabric at every corner.
Aside from the low visibility inside, I had seen her welcome customers by name when she would be tidying, with her back turned away from the entrance or when she was helping another customer and facing the opposite direction. It was as if she recognised their vibrationas they entered. I wondered if there was some kind of trick to it, like a reflective panel on the back wall of the store that helped her view the person entering, but when I checked, I found nothing of the sort.
My curiosity erupted that day. ‘How do you do that? How do you know who is there without even turning around?’ I blurted out. Well, surely everyone else was thinking it too, I thought.
Everyone in the store, including Omolara, looked at me. My cheeks heated up and my heart started to race. I wanted the ground to open and swallow me, so I tried to fill in the painful silence.
‘Sorry, I just wondered how you do it, because . . . it is kind of . . . strange.’ I had never shouted anything out; in fact, I do not think anyone else had either. Thankfully though, her face gradually melted into a soft smile, which seemed to signal to everyone gawking that everything was congenial, so they started to move around and browse the market again.
She set aside the stock she was organising and walked over to the basket of scarves I had been muddling through before my outburst.
As she approached, her curls bounced with the rhythm of her strides. She had thick, black, tightly coiled hair; there was enough hair on her head for at least three grown women. Most of the time she wore her hair in ringlets formed by the fashioning of intricately twisted knots the night before, a technique Mama used too, but only for very special occasions. For Omolara, though, where her appearance was concerned, it seemed like every day was a special occasion. That day she wore an amethyst-coloured wrap with a thin beaded belt to match.
She scanned the scarves then reached out and grabbed a vibrant pink one; it had a spiral pattern on it, like a chameleon’s tail. She placed the scarf around my neck and gently turned me around, so I was facing a looking glass that was fixed to the wall behind me.
‘Everyone is special . . .’ She fussed with the scarf, looping the long end around my neck twice before letting it hang. Her glossy, thick black eyebrows were now all scrunched together. She disapproves, I thought. Still anxious, I looked nervously at the customers behind me in the glass, relieved to see everyone appeared to have completely lost interest in my outburst – they all seemed to be busy riffling through shelves or browsing displays packed with fabrics in every colour, shade, weave and texture you could imagine. She stepped out in front of me and unlooped the scarf from around my neck. ‘. . . and the sounds they make when they enter a space are unique and specific to them and only them.’ She draped it evenly around my shoulders and looked away briefly to smile at a few customers that walked by and made eye contact.
‘When you really start to listen, child, you will not need to use these as much.’ She wagged her fingers at her eyes and chuckled, presumably at the perplexed expression on my face.
I took a deep breath in, ‘Well, I’ll try!’ I agreed ambiguously while still working out what I was agreeing to.
‘It fits you!’ She stepped to the side, out of the way, so that I could see myself in the looking glass and admire the full view of her ensemble. I felt a little swaddled by this beautiful silk display around my neck.
I smiled respectfully, though, and nodded in agreement. I did like the scarf, but I was still confused by her trick; it reminded me of what Papa had taught me about how certain animals navigate the world by sound.
I had so many questions for her, and maybe for Papa as well, but the indoor market was full, and I was still too embarrassed to stay any longer than I needed to. Though they had stopped staring, probably out of respect, I knew when they got home to their families, my outburst would be the only thing they would tell them about; it would probably be the only out-of-the-ordinary thing to happen in the market that day. Besides, the long discussions I had with Omolara usually happened in the evenings, after she had closed for the day; or on a slow day when most people stayed at home.
‘I will take it!’ I rummaged through my purse, desperately looking for the coins that Papa had given me for helping him with chores a few days before.
'It is my gift to you!’ She removed the scarf from my shoul- ders, folded and tucked it into my purse. I knew better than to argue with her once she had made her mind up about anything, so I humbly accepted.
‘Come and see me tomorrow – we can talk more,’ she called out as I rushed off, making a beeline for the door.
A cool breeze circled around my clammy body as I opened the shop door. I did not go back the next day like I had promised, or for at least what seemed like the next one hundred days.
I did heed Omolara’s advice though; I went over it in my head so many times...the sounds they make when they enter a space are unique and specific to them and only them. After a while it stuck and I started to learn the distinct sounds that the people in my life would make, the differences in pressure they applied to the objects around them, how their feet interacted with the ground. There was heavy and surefooted, light and rolling, or springy and enthusiastic, just to name a few.
It was not magic, it was just attentiveness, but her level of attention to detail was magical to me and to all of her patrons, I think.
‘Very good, child!’ she encouraged me once I finally returned to the market to share my success; how I could now recognise the people in my life by sound most of the time now. ‘I recognise all our guards,’ I bragged. ‘Also a few of the people who pass our house on their regular travels.’ ‘Wonderful,’ she sang. ‘See, there is no “trick” – you’re just using your ears as much as you use your eyes. And do you know your eyes have a power that can be sensed? Once you turn your gaze on a person, they change . . . Try to see what you can find out about the person without looking at them: there is more truth that way,’ she insisted.
Once I started practising, I realised that I had been unknowingly using this ‘trick’ with my family as far back as I could remember. I knew the difference between Mama and Papa without looking, but with acquaintances, it was much harder.
Over time I also learned that every person has their own texture, like how they feel when they are around you: some are coarse and sharp, while others are velvety and smooth. The more people I studied, the more I learned that people can be coarse and smooth or sharp and velvety, and a million other complex combinations.
Omolara was simple, though: her whole purpose seemed to revolve around comforting people, making them feel welcome and connecting with them on a deeper level. It was simple because there did not seem to be any ulterior motive; no façade or underhanded objectives – it was just about respect, compassion and connection.
Through observing Omolara, I learned the importance of how to treat people. How to put people at ease and how to bring out the best in them; and although I found all these lessons fascinating, and even a bit enchanting, the most enlightening lesson Omolara taught me was about the history of our tribe, the Oleba.
After these lessons, I felt empowered, like I really belonged and, most importantly, I felt hope for peace.
My name is Ruru or Elewa, although some people call me Titi. When Mama is angry, she calls me Aje, but of my many names, I love Elewa the most. I think I love Elewa the most because she is adored without judgement and accepted without prejudice. Or perhaps I love Elewa the most because it is the nickname that Papa gave to me. Whenever I meet anyone new, I always introduce myself as Elewa and most people go on to call me by that name.
Where and when I’m from, people prefer to observe how you act, your personality and your deeds, and then create their own name for you. That’s one of the reasons why I have so many names. A popular proverb within our tribe is ‘your actions will determine the name you are called’.
The Oleba are the descendants of nomads who eventually evolved into farmers. When I was growing up, young Oleba men were schooled in our tribal history and in our farming traditions. They were taught to understand the significance of our ceremonies, how to act and take part in cultural events that bound us as a tribe.
During the war, most Oleba men became warriors or wrestlers. They were the best wrestlers in their land, and they frequently partook in the seasonal matches that helped to bring the tribe together. The regular Oleba wrestling events represented a declaration of the Oleba culture, just like the knowledge of agriculture and farming served as an honour and remembrance to the Oleba ancestors.
In the earlier days, way before the war, when the first Oleba nomads decided to stop travelling, the men wrestled in order to win the land that we now call home. Papa said that our ancestors travelled from the south all the way up to the coast of the northwest, where we eventually settled. Apparently, this journey took those pioneers six full moons to complete. I’m not sure why the Oleba chose to move, or why we chose the land we did, but Papa told me a fascinating story about what happened when we first arrived on the land.
When we first arrived in the northwest, we met an Animist tribe called the Chaandari. The Chaandari were hunter-gatherer people who were thin and tall. Papa told me they had been described as having a beautiful yellow-brown colour with delicately sculpted noses, elegant, full, heart-shaped lips, and wide, kind brown eyes. He said their hair formed tight circular curls that hugged their scalp closely.They wore beaded crowns and the beads formed gorgeous colourful patterns.
They ran for the best part of the day, hunting and foraging sustenance for short periods of time. The women wore a simple wraparound cloth skirt and a heavily beaded necklace, and the men wore loincloths made from animal skins with a simple beaded headband.
The land they had once thrived on had become scarce. Even so, the Chaandari still put up a fight to remain on it. Proficient with spears, they executed many of our tribesmen in combat. If we had allowed them to keep this up, our tribe probably would not exist today.
Papa said that both tribal leaders agreed to meet and talk through ways in which this problem could be settled, once and for all. Our chief managed to persuade theirs to have a wrestling match to the death: bare hands and no weapons. It is told that our chief picked one of the more feeble-looking boys to attend the meeting and told their chief he was one of our best wrestlers. Their chief quickly agreed to the match without enquiring who exactly would be in the duel. Our chief, naturally, picked another skilled wrestler and the Chaandari tribe were defeated.
Being an honourable tribe, they moved on to find other lands, leaving some of their women and children behind in the promise that they would be taken care of. We agreed that as long as they took our tribal name, learned our ways and ceased to practise their old tribal ceremonies, they could stay and form a new life with us. Some did so, adopting our ways and becoming like authentic Oleba. They raised families with us and let their past go. Others pretended to follow our ways and were later caught practising Animism ceremonies in secret. In those far-off days, they were immediately punished by death, or if our chief was feeling sympathetic, they were indentured for a period of time. Others tried to stay but eventually ran away in search of their old tribe.
Most of the Chaandari that stayed were those who could not physically make the journey east: pregnant women, their children, and elders. Our tribe has a mixture of Oleba and Chaandari blood in it to this day, and that is how we came to have the land that our tribe calls home.
I found this story interesting but sad, and asked Papa why the Oleba had not allowed the Chaandari to continue revering the spirits of animals and plants and rocks if they wished. What harm did that do?
‘Elewa,’ Papa replied gravely, ‘all this was very long ago. The world was harsher and more brutal then. We cannot change the past. We cannot change history.’