By Rahman Oladigbol (USA)
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Gently, the breeze blew at the branches and combed its way through the pine trees a few yards from my window. It made a hissing sound, one common during the cold, dry season of the year, adding a soundtrack to the festivity of the time. But the rain had just come back, with all the leaves green and luscious. This was the time vegetable farmers of the tropics had less time to sleep, sowing and reaping their crop while other people stayed dry at home and planting the seeds of the annual baby boom.
A deep tearing sound tore through the sky. As little kids, sometimes we would say it was God walking His humongous feet through His garden - perhaps as the authors of the book of Genesis conceived of Him. And sometimes we would say it was His angels running their errands loudly, or Sango, the African god, venting his anger. It was the sound of thunder, heralding the coming of a heavy rain for the day.
No one could tell what time of the day it was. Morning, evening, night, no one needed to tell. I had been in bed for about three months, stricken by an illness that often invoked within my family the conflict of modern science and witchcraft. It was a period of heightened trauma in my condition, a time when both the modernists and traditionalists struggled against admitting that I was losing the battle, perhaps against the god who made life hot for anyone he visited, one euphemistically called Hot Earth for fear of mentioning his real name. Across from me, a strange visitor, calmly seated, faced the bed in which I lay half-dead. She was Mama, my father's mother, staring at my decaying body and brooding what in the world she could do to turn the situation around. However, she didn't look uncertain of what to do, as my unresponsive state had made the rest of my household, each of whom woke up every morning and rushed to my room hoping that I was still alive.
At the foot of my bed, my father and his older brother sat and watched, waiting only for a miracle to wake their son, the kind they had heard Christians told of Jesus using on Lazarus. Although they were practicing Muslims, they believed in Jesus Christ as a prophet of God who did all the Bible said, except for dying on the cross. But they also believed that their Islam did not shut the door to the faith of their ancestors. They were the traditionalists in the family, though often careful not to oppose their children’s counterarguments for fear of appearing self-contradictory by their sending us to modern schools.
From the way my father and his brother were raised, they believed the dead were alive in a realm beyond the human world, sometimes watching over the living, and sometimes visiting into the human world for one reason or another. However, they did not think of a possibility of an ancestor visiting in the manner that Mama appeared to be doing. Though lying buried in the backyard, Mama was now here in the room with us in the flesh. Save for the sound from the trees outside, the room remained still and quiet, until another visitor walked into the room.
Mama Fatima was the widow of Mallam Ali, my father's Islamic spiritual counsel who died shortly after Mama passed away two years ago. She was called by her daughter's name, Fatima. After the death of her husband, Mama Fatima had turned to deep spiritual life, and now spent her time studying and reciting the Holy Qur'an, meditating, praying, and educating her child in the way of the heaven and the earth. Although she was surprised to see Mama in the room with us, the situation did not seem to her as strange. She greeted Mama warmly and asked her why she had come, treating her as if she was only a neighbor she hadn't seen in a long time.
"It is this child I have come to see." Mama replied, with a deeply worried voice, not taking her eyes off me. "My heart has not been at rest since I heard of his illness. I've been praying for him and I know he will get well by the grace of God. But I can't take it any longer to be away from him, and I have come to stay with him for sometime, to take care of him until he gets well."
"How is everyone over there?" Mama Fatima asked, referring to the welfare of the other relatives who have passed on, and casually trying to change the tense mood of the room.
"Everyone is fine." Mama replied, with equal casualness, as if heaven was a neighboring city where they had gone to earn a living, as everyone did who didn’t want to be a farmer, teacher, or a trader, the most prevalent professions of our quaint town.
A few months passed and my father's wife who had been pregnant was put to bed. In the Yoruba culture, a child born after the death of an elderly person in a family would be named to suggest it as a reincarnation of the dead person, if of the same sex. A baby boy would be named "Babatunde", "Babajide", or Babarinde to imply that "Baba has returned"; a girl would be named "Iyabo", "Yetunde", or "Yejide". Assumed to be a reincarnation of a past king of the town, or the Alaafin as we called the kings, my father was named according to the tradition by his grandfather who was the Alaafin at the time of his birth. And it was according to this tradition also that my father's new baby girl was named Iyabo after Mama, implying that "Mama has returned". Moreover, everyone thought she looked very much like Mama, and my father specifically gave her the name Tolani, Mama’s real name. The name “Mama”, literally meaning “mother”, was used customarily, as Mama was seen as everyone’s “mother”, and not just my father’s.
Tolani grew very fast and learned how to talk and walk with remarkable progress. She was an independent-minded child who chose when, where and with what to play, with no fear of anyone, anything, or anywhere. She was adored by everyone in the near and far neighborhoods, where the story of her precocity had spread. However, the purpose that brought Tolani into the world was not one that anyone could immediately imagine, and neither was it one we had a cause to ponder over as such.
One remarkable thing that Tolani often did was to talk and dispose herself towards my father as if she was older than he; really, as if she was his mother. Some of us in the family thought it was a bad attitude that my father shouldn't let her develop; yet, my father loved her so much that he often found himself indulging her, sometimes superstitiously.
Four years after she was born, Tolani fell ill, and, about a week later, despite all efforts to save her, she died. For a long time it troubled my heart, and it saddened everyone in the house and all over the town. But one day, after the shock of her death had calmed a little, my father and I picked up the courage to talk about her, about the remarkable and memorable things Tolani had done in her brief lifetime. During the conversation, however, he mentioned something that had never crossed my mind, and which would set me thinking for a very long time to come.
"There was something about that child that amazed me," my father said carefully and broodingly.
I stared at him inquiringly, eager to hear more of what he had to say. "Tolani did not seem like she was an ordinary person,” he continued, “at least, not as every one of us.”
This gave me a glimpse of what he was talking about, but I still wasn’t sure where he was going with it.
“I've been told about this some time ago,” my father proceeded, “but I did not pay much attention to it. I did not think it was something that would lead to her passing away like this.” I could see that it hurt him to think that we might have been able to save Tolani, if only we had been more vigilant. I wanted to tell him it hurt me too, but then I realized my father had more to say.
Using a metaphor, my father went on to tell me that, ever since she was born, Tolani had been not a child but an adult, and she had been conscious not only of this world, but at the same time another. He went on to cite many events that suggested this, and I also came to see it from his point of view. At the end, my father tried to console himself, and I, that may be we shouldn't really be mourning that we lost a child, but be grateful for the time she spent with us. What it was all about, he admitted he didn't know.
Baba Akinnu came to sympathize with us one evening, and when he came into my room he also told me things about Tolani that was like what my father had said. Baba Akinnu was a witchdoctor, in whose special care I had been for four years. He was a fearless teller of truth. In spite of being a beneficiary of my father’s wealth, he was the only witchdoctor in the town who told my father to his face to forget his only dream of attaining the throne of the kingdom of Oyo, a throne to which my father was eligible by birth and for which he had fought wholeheartedly for years. When, by his divination, he found out his truth about the battle for the throne, Baba Akinnu told my father that he did not see him becoming the next Alaafin, knowingly letting go of an easy chance to make money off our family. My father, bent on his ambition, turned his back on the man and his group of spiritual Elders who backed him in his profession. His only reason for being able to enter our home now was the state of my health, which had so far proven intractable and dangerous, costing an earlier witchdoctor her daughter’s life. At the time, both regular people and healers were afraid to associate with me, for fear of being caught up in what was believed to be an angry spell spun around me.
In his consolatory speech, Baba Akinnu went further to describe Tolani in certain mysterious ways and concluded by telling me that Tolani knew consciously that she was going to die at the time she did, and it wasn't surprising to her, only to us who had not known anything about who she really was.
Who, really, was Tolani? All Baba Akinnu could say was that Tolani had set her own death to the time it eventually happened, and that, for a purpose beyond our conscious grasp, she had come to live for the short period.
Why she had done this, neither Baba Akinnu nor my father could imagine; they only believed that Tolani's life had not been ordinary.
I was awestruck one dingy morning many years later, when the truth of the events walked up and sat beside me at the far end corner of a Red Line subway train, thousands of miles away from home. As mysteriously as my illness had begun and progressed, I had recovered relatively from it and was now able to move on with the goals of my life, and learning in one of the American schools in Massachusetts. The ‘truth’, a homeless Caucasian passenger, probably from inner Boston, muttered to herself for the most part of the journey from South Station to Ashmont. There, I was to take a bus to Randolph, the suburban town which I had made my new home, shielded from the witchcraft stories and realities of my birth-land.
As the train pulled up at its final stop, the woman turned to me and said, "She is happy to see you walk again."
Shocked at the realization of a total stranger making reference to my legs, I quickly uttered, as she rose and walked towards the door along with dozens of other passengers, "What are you talking about?" Though she looked like someone not in her right mind, and my walking cane may have motivated her comment, the ‘she’ in her remark unsettled me and I wanted to hear more, to know what it was all about.
"She was your mother, and your sister." The stranger turned and said before she finally stepped out and vanished amid the stream of people mingling at the station, or into thin air where perhaps she had come.
I pondered over this throughout the rest of my journey home, as the truth gradually dawned on me. I couldn't help but wonder about the unbelievable picture it was unveiling. My past and my present, all a mystery woven. My years of illness had begun by a gunshot that paralyzed my legs. But the mystery of it was that the gunshot was an event in my dream; I only woke up to find the wound on the spot of the shot, an event that had torn me between the debating viewpoints in my family.
Mama's visit during the early days of my illness had also been a dream Mama Fatima had one night, which she had rushed to my sickroom the following morning to tell. The story had led only to remembrance of Mama's motherliness; and because Africans held dreams as symbolic and precognitive of reality, the interpretation of the dream was told that Mama had really heard about my illness and was being with me in spirit.
In the pre-colonial era, this was one of the channels that witchdoctors liked to pursue in caring for a sick child. They would make appeasements to the spirit of the mother to make her keep the suffering child in mind for recovery, and even take active roles in the healing. People in the great beyond were believed to have a better understanding of, and control over, our finite world. At one point in the course of my illness, one of the witchdoctors suggested and offered to make sacrifices to Sango over my case. Though now worshipped as the god of lightening and thunder across Africa and some countries of the Americas, Sango was a warrior king in the nascent Oyo kingdom, and a patriarch from which my family descended.
For me, it was comforting, as Mama Fatima’s dream portended, to believe that the spirit of my grandmother was aiding me in the battle for my life against a illness that confounded and threatened both medical practitioners and witchdoctors away from me. Yet, God cast forgetfulness upon everyone of us, and in a short time no one had the freedom of mind to remember the dream anymore, perhaps because there were a lot of mind-boggling events tormenting me around the time.
Then Tolani was born.
Now, awoke from another dream, and in the comfort of my new home, all the drama that characterized Tolani’s four-year lifetime evoked the reality Mama Fatima's dream had symbolized - the message my grandmother may have been trying to pass across.
Had dreams really been the golden road to the world unknown? I have now read books enough to know about some ancient worshippers who slept in the temple of Aesclepius, the Greek god of medicine, with the hope of finding in their dreams the cure for their various ailments. The psychoanalysts hold dreams as a cornerstone in the resolution of psychic conflicts, perhaps not much different from the way neuroscientists now see it as a mechanism employed by the brain to build memory and solve problems. Though it was difficult for me to talk in classrooms about the Yoruba’s view of the dream as a precognitive tool often consciously exploited by witches and witchdoctors, I could not help but wonder, had Mama come to spend some time with me, to take care of me?
I remembered how Tolani had been very fond of playing in my sickroom. Many times she would be alone with me, and, now appearing strange, she would sit at the same spot where Mama had sat in Mama Fatima's dream. That was her favorite spot. As little as she was, Tolani would sit quietly and calmly, as if brooding what in the world she could do to turn my situation around. Sometimes she would ask questions about how I felt, and sometimes we would just play together. Some things intriguing in all these were the facts that Tolani had been born shortly after my illness began, as Mama had appeared in Mama Fatima's dream, and she died only about three months before I finally left the sickbed. Also, my treatment had taken its positive turn at Tolani's birth, specifically during her naming ceremony. As if by coincidence, it was Mama's younger brother that walked into our house and suggested to my father the witchdoctor that will eventually take care of me when everything else was failing. Baba Akinnu’s treatments had begun on the evening of the naming ceremony.
Again and again I wondered at the relationship of these events in my life, and again and again I go on wondering. In this increasingly scientific world, how can I explain the logic and sequence of it? Though I realized no one may be able to unexplain it either, I chose to tell my story anyway. Life is a mystery, and even though we have a sense of reason to throw light on it, there is only so much it can lighten up. At the base of life's events is always the staggering depth of opaque darkness, through which human intelligence may not pass. Agreeing with Albert Einstein and his cohorts that the best we can experience in the world is the mysterious, I revisit the conflict of viewpoints in my family and wonder who was modern and who was not. But my father and his brother have passed, and now I can only appease their spirits.
Humbly, I believe. I believe in the possibilities of the worlds beyond, and in their interaction with the one we live in. Tolani came as my mother; she left me. She came as my sister; she left me. I hope that when next she comes she will not leave me, so I can show her how much I appreciate what she has done for me, how much I love her.
I dwell in Possibility-
A fairer House than Prose-
More numerous of Windows-
Of Chambers as the Cedar-
Impregnable of Eye-
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky-
Of Visitors-the fairest-
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise-
-- Emily Dickinson.