One day after 7 years wandering across continents and oceans I wake up in my papa’s little village in the jungles of south east Nigeria.
My father came home after 14 years in the Land of the White Man. There is a small party or large reception to welcome him back for weeks. Everyone wants to see him and the Golden Child he came back with.
I am a celebrity. Everywhere we go I am offered sweets, biscuits and Fanta. The village children follow me everywhere. My own personal entourage. They run after me singing ‘oyibo pe-pe’. I’m told what it means. I don’t like it.
I don’t have to do chores unless I want to but I go with the homestead children to the river everyday when they go to fetch water. I go to swim. I swim for hours while they wash their clothes or return home with water pots balanced on their heads.
My favourite place in the whole village is a bamboo grove on the banks of the Njaba river at the outskirts of town. It’s at the bottom of a hill of sharp white sand less than 5 yards from the waters edge. Water seeps out from under the roots and flows like a mini delta into the river.
The sand is so white, the sky so blue and the exuberant jungle is so green. Its cool under the bamboo shoots. I lie on my back looking up at the sky through the leaves. Children laugh and splash around in a cove on the river bank. Women gossip and beat clothes against an ancient log half submerged and shiny from decades of use.
I run and jump into the middle of the river on the other side of the cove where the current is swift and the water muddy brown. I want to see how fast I can swim up river. I hear shouts from the bank and look back.
‘You can’t go there! Mami-wata will get
I laugh and swim into the swiftest part of the river. The current tugs at my kicking legs like a physical hand about to pull me in and down. I laugh harder. Maybe that’s what they call Mami-Wata.
On the path to the river and in my bamboo grove there are always offerings of coins, sweets, biscuits and Fanta. I asked what they were and was told they were for Mami-Wata or Ezenwanyi the River goddess. She’s half woman and half fish like a mermaid. I know all about mermaids. I read The Little Mermaid by Pushkin and I saw her statue looking out over the sea in Copenhagen where we lived for a year.
I knew mermaids were a myth. Lilia told me so when I was 7 and she told me how and why adults told stories that weren’t true to teach children how to behave. She said all adults knew it was make believe. I don’t understand adult logic.
I march up to the first adult I see as soon as we get back to the homestead later that day.
‘Please tell them’ I demand and gesture at the gaggle of kids behind me ‘There is no such thing as Mami-Wata and mermaids.’
‘Of course Mami-Wata and mermaids are real’ she says with a wry smile playing on her lips.
I look at her scornfully and march straight up to my father huddled in a meeting with some tribal elders.
‘Papa tell these kids there is no such thing as mermaids.’ I demand.
He smiles. ‘Of course mermaids are real. This is Africa.’
I don’t find this funny. My father too? I’m devastated. I KNOW I’m right.
‘Papa. I learnt in school they’re not real’ I start arguing. I mean my white American school.
‘Well the White Man doesn’t know Africa.’
There is no use arguing. He doesn’t budge. I sulk. I know I’m right. The natives can’t be too smart if they still believe in mermaids.
Later that night after dinner Papa tells me a story.
At the beginning of his story is Agwubuo son of Duruabali (Lord of the night) Papa’s grand father. He was born around 1835. When he was a boy he was called Achinike and he was his fathers only son. After his father died his uncle’s plotted to sell him into slavery and appropriate his fathers vast land holdings for themselves.
His mother Lolo Duruabali learnt of their evil plans and ran away with him to her kins men for safety. They sent her and the boy to a master alchemist and magician that lived in the forests of Owu which was across the River Niger.
There Achinike was initiated into the cult of the River Goddess Ezenwanyi and acquired terrible powers from her. When he came back years later he was no longer the boy Achinike. He was the man named Agwubuo (spirit grow)and the spirit called Okwara Agu (first son of a lion) and his mother was the Matriarch of his household till she died.
She married many women for him and he had seven wives. His first wife (my great grand mother) was Lolo Ahunwa. Under the tutelage of her mother in law she learnt to rule her husbands vast holdings and his large household while her Lord and Master, Nna-anyi (father of all) built his empire and practised his craft uninterrupted. He was renowned and feared in the Four Towns.
Agwubuo is a shaman, an alchemist, a magician and an illusionist. He can strike his enemies down with lightning and suspend his walking stick in thin air. He can even change into an old woman to evade his enemies.
Agwubuo’s wives are all small entrepreneurs buying and selling excess produce and doing long distance trade. Lolo Ahunwa is personally very wealthy. Her husband is lender and mentor to men. She is lender and mentor to women.
Agwubuo’s daughters have to marry far away from home because the bachelors nearby are afraid of his retribution if they fight with their wives. His power protects his daughters and grand daughters from abuse in their husbands house. .
It all sounds very romantic but I don’t believe a word of it. I feel very superior to the ignorant natives. Yet I also feel my reality slip, my world view shaken. I feel myself slip like Alice through the looking glass into a world of magic.
In Africa if you don’t have a mother to look after you might as well be an orphan. Papa lost his mother to cholera when he was ten. He rarely talks about what happened to him but I hear awful stories from his sister Alumma (don’t marry beauty). She never married. When their mother died she looked after her younger siblings as best she could till she was too old to marry. Papa promised to take care of her all her remaining days.
With increasing frequency I wonder who is the African woman? It is not gender that oppresses people. Poverty oppresses people, male and female. Privileged African woman exercise considerable power. Mostly to maintain the status quo. They raise children that the status quo.
Privilege makes them opinion leaders among women. They are women leaders. The rules of power are the same. They that have the money make the rules.
The African matriarchs align with their elite husbands to rule. Derive their status from their men.
I’ve changed my mind about reality. Compassion and tolerance replace arrogance and bias. Years pass and one day I return to my bamboo grove. Its gone. Gutted by illegal sand excavation for construction. In its place a gaping hole of red clay soil like a bleeding wound. I imagine I hear Ezenwanyi cry as I turn away with tears in my eyes.