My best friends husband died recently. He was from Oginibo in Delta state, an Urhobo. She is from Eket in Akwa Ibom state, an Ibibio with a Russian mother. It is easier to get from one to the other by boat through the creeks. We had planned a regatta for her traditional wedding. I guess thats never going happen now.
He died. Just like that. He was 52. Kidney failure they said. Most of us didn’t even know he was sick. I haven’t seen my best friend in awhile. Life. You know how it is. I only heard he was in the hospital a week before he died. When I heard I felt a worm of fear. He wasn’t the type that went to the hospital. If he had a headache he took paracetamol. If it persisted more than a week he took something for malaria. He was a big hardy stoic kinda guy.
According to Urhobo tradition he had to be brought back to his ancestral village for burial even though he never lived there. Even though his wife and children had only visited the place once in the 16 years they were together. Even though he told his wife during one of those conversations he wanted to be buried wherever he lived. Even though she is the next -of-kin. Even though this is the 21st century.
So off on a 448km journey to Oginibo we went last Friday. Oginibo is 17 km SE of Warri somewhere in the Delta near the Forcados River. A google search isn’t very helpful. There are no population figures for the place and it isn’t actually named on google maps. One site said it has a ‘small population’. I came across a picture of their town square. Real native country.
When Delita, The Duchess, heard the burial was to be in Urhobo land and not in Abuja as previously proposed she went into a panic.
“Maya, I heard all sorts of horror stories. I heard they will lock you up in a room for 3 months and make you shave your hair!”
Many other friends warned that the natives would use the opportunity to milk the bereaved family. They told horror stories of their own. Stories of shake downs, blackmail and child napping. It cost a lot to bury a man. (Every where in Africa it costs less to bury a woman.) Apparently the Urhobo have a taste for expensive burials.
“They will ask you how your husband died.” Maya’s mother-in-law tried to reassure us. We didn’t know what to think but it seemed easier to let it go and bury him where ever his kinsmen wanted.
It was like planning a invasion. Money is tight so we decided we weren’t going to feed or water the natives. None of our business. We did some research on Urhobo and tribal jurisprudence. A ray of hope emerged – Maya and Dan never had a wedding under tribal laws! They got married in the registry. If the natives tried to impose any repugnant widowhood practices we would remind them of that.
While Maya’s kinsmen could not formally attend her brother would come to represent and protect her. Max our brother from another mother was also coming. A woman’s greatest protection in her husbands house is her own kinsmen. Thats why no one wants their daughter to marry far away. How else could they keep an eye on her and ensure her husband didn’t sell her into slavery or abuse her. Or something.
We also called in some favours with a brother in law for some heavy calvary. Just in case.
The drive down to Warri was pretty uneventful. We spent the night in Warri and ate bang soup for dinner. The Jubilee Conference Centre where we stayed was built two years ago. The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria decided they wanted to hold their conference in Warri but there was no hotel good enough for them so they just built their own.
The drive from Warri to Oginibo was like a time warp. The jungle just got thicker and thicker and the roads narrower and narrower with each kilometre. Our men were late joining us and we had to leave the morgue without them.
I called Max.
“Max, where are you? We’re on our way to Oginibo.”
“Still waiting for our car.”
“Max. You people can’t do this to us. You have left three women and two children to go into the jungle to face the natives. You guys need to catch up. NOW. please.” I sounded calmer than I felt.
“Where’s the calvary? Weren’t they supposed to meet us along the way? Where are we sef?” Maya asked.
Compulsively I reeled off the names of each community we passed – Ovwian, Ukpedi, Jeremi, Ayagha, Imode. And invoked all the deities I knew – OkwaraAgu, Ezenwanyi, Amadioha, Jesus, God. Angel Gabriel, and Michael.
We arrived Oginibo and the deceased’s homestead escorted and surrounded by natives speaking in Urhobo. Then they said we should come in for a family meeting. We sat down in the hall while the natives argued. Ever so often they gestured towards Maya. It was pretty obvious what they were arguing about. I chided myself. Why didn’t I think of bringing along an interpreter!
“Please we are educated.” one elderly woman said to the squabbling men in English.
“Hian.” I thought to myself.
Then the call came.
“Madam, this is Captain So So and So with the Nigerian Army. What is your location please?”
Our calvary had arrived! Within minutes three Hilux trucks arrived with over 30 soldiers and took up strategic positions around the compound. We sat in the hall, relieved but still pensive and waiting. Their arrival seemed to bring out a couple more natives who walked in authoritatively, greeted us ever so briefly and said something to the squabblers that seemed to escalate the discord briefly before walking out again. Later we learnt they came and stopped what was indeed an attempt to make Maya undergo some sort of trial by ordeal.
Then I looked up and there was Max and Yuri standing in the doorway! Our men had arrived. They must have broken all speed limits to get there so quick. Sometimes relief is spelled M-E-N. The mood changed. Drinks, kola and money were brought out and presented in welcome. Women do not deserve a formal welcome.
It was smooth sailing after that and the burial proceeded without further ado. No repugnant demands, no strange and demeaning widowhood practices. They invited us back to the homestead for entertainment but we declined. The Army escorted us all the way back to Warri and we high tailed it to Benin City to spend the night before departing for Abuja the next morning.
Mission accomplished. Thank you father. We are grateful.