Morning is a latecomer here. Or, maybe it is the sun. Nay, – lest I be unfair – the Sun is not to blame. Ado is rather too elephantine a rock. It kisses the skies permanently and it’s easy to conclude, albeit juvenilely, that it’s the ultimate horizon, and God’s stepping stone to earth. The Sun has to sweat, daily, before surmounting its imposing height. And when harmattan dawns, Ado puffs clouds all over the town, right to the ultimate heaven above – the secret recess of God. The Sun, at this time, is as hopeless as the townspeople’s chattering teeth, as their grey heads and dry skins that defy overdoses of Vaseline, as their dust-filled nostrils – like desert-dwellers’, as their poor lips cracking like clay earth and tearing like expired fabrics – no one dares laugh too ecstatically.
Such a time is this festive season I have decided to spend time hiking, and hiking again.
Exploring Ado, however, is more than mere hiking. It’s a deliberate presentation of one’s heart on a rail paved by adventure for thorough pummelling by a train of incredulities. It is a pilgrimage to the ethereal precincts of some sixteen gods. Ado, mightily sprawled to shield the town eastward, is an unsung Mount Olympus.
High, long one hundred and ninety-nine steps took me uphill and I sat beside Isage panting, sweating like an athlete after a marathon. I needed a brief rest and some sips of the energy drink I bore around my waist like a quiver. Isage, the piece of rock upon which I leaned, is the first amazement to savour. This wonder piece poised upon Ado like an obese head atop a similar torso with the aid of an almost unidentifiable neck. She posed, nevertheless, haughtily and unshaken since time immemorial. She’s a god in folklore, really benign, really benevolent. She’s saved the town in seasons of drought and cured a good number of barren townspeople. The children she gives are normally named after her. The Isages in town and believing farmers alike would never let their god stay naked for too long. You would thus always meet her poised resplendently in brilliant white.
I also needed a fresh aerial view of the valley town that cradled me. And as I rose, close to the heavens, the sheer compactness of the landscape struck me unbelievably. The never-abating onslaught of rural-urban migration would never let it grow in haste like the rest of the world. I caught a glimpse of Father’s house with the aid of the gaunt coconut tree he planted to shade his grave, and the primary school I attended, all in the west. I looked northward and saw more rocks and the secondary school I attended in the humblest of states. I first waxed nostalgic. The irony of one’s life, having been bred in this valley, then struck me. The near-ludicrous state of the schools echoed the utter incongruity that fast became all my feelings. A sullen wind then whistled by and swept me back in memory lane. Notably, I remembered some aghast moments experienced by mourners – from cities – accompanying corpses of some illustrious indigenes – Niyi Kehinde, Bayo Ohu, et cetera – upon arriving at the town. They were never able to conceal their wonder and you could easily read it from their uniform pale, askew countenance. I used to deem them insolent, but I now seemed to know better.
My spirit, inferably, had begun to wane like the effulgence of a setting sun, but I must shake off the advancing lethargy in order to commence my lonely adventure in earnest. I said some prayers and left. I had to climb, slope, and climb again like pilgrims on the mounts before getting to the next landmark – I beg your pardon, rockmark. This wonder is called the Elephant Tree. It’s a half-fallen baobab with exposed roots that helped it form virtually every part of an elephant: trunk, tusk, and what have you. The striking similarity of an elephant’s complexion to a baobab’s pronounced the sheer resemblance the more. Tour guides often recount, with unbridled amusement, stories of clueless tourists who almost took to their heels upon encountering the tree. I imagined such moments and chuckled.
I was now approaching the centre of the rock, where the only suspended lake in Africa hangs placidly like a well. A benign wind gently rustled the stale water of the hanging lake upon my arrival. Iyake, another benevolent god of fertility and more, wears a hypnotic ambience venerably pronounced by her seductive mien. I was immediately held spellbound by its dilating eyes. My head then began to balloon mysteriously, as if I was in the presence of a ghost. A celestial breeze blew to open my pores for solemnity to seep through. I was literally savouring the spiritual essence of the adventure. I was quenching my year-long craving for a pilgrimage to the castle of my soul – the very why I chose to come all alone. I then squatted and dipped my hands into the depthless water. The menacing harmattan had injected cold airs into the vulnerable suppleness and I felt the result to my marrow, and beyond. A less-benign wind suddenly gathered a sandy momentum and blew sinisterly to leave me blind. Blinded, I remembered that Iyake is a jewel that must be courted cautiously – there are rumoured accounts of some daring folks who got permanently lost into the lake whilst trying to discover its depth; she is very less-benign. I then washed my eyes open and moved several steps away.
I, temporarily sated by the mild trepidation, sat facing west, beholding the undulation of rusted zinc roofs atop the mean bungalows that sparsely pervade downward. More rocks shielding Ado Awaye, a town of two sister communities, poised unrestrained across its boundaries. The oasis-like expression of the town at the feet of several towering, barricading rocks sinuously tells the story of its origin, of its erstwhile refuge status: the aborigines here were folks from different parts of West Africa fleeing from slave hunters and internecine wars some seven centuries ago. The Ado people, desperate for safety, first lived on the rock. They lived where Ado Rock crested – my next and final destination.
A slippery steep, more like a ridge emptied into the bottomless chasm that partitioned the previous part of the rock and the crest. History accounts that it saved the people during the slave-hunting expedition that saw the historic fall of Oosogun and the capture of Ajayi Crowther by slave merchants. Oosogun, the hometown of the late iconic bishop who did the Yoruba translation of the Bible, is just a few kilometres away from here. In the wake of the siege, Ado people applied slippery substances to the already slippery surface of the steep and their assailants fell, in their numbers, into the chasm.
Hiking this part is the real adventure. And surmounting the steep and crawling up the opposite elevation that receives one unto the crest was fun. Relics of the past: clay pots, crumbled walls, et cetera, sparsely littered the deserted refuge and one could not stop wondering how the people coped living on stark rock.
Wonders still abound: the indelible footprints of gods, the permanent kneel-print left by the first king during his initiation rites, and so on. There’s also a groove inside which the remaining gods are believed to reside. But to none of those would I devote my attention this time around. I only wanted to exploit the most towering height of this part of the rock. People claimed one could see Cocoa House, the skyscraper in Ibadan, from the edge of the crest – Ibadan is several miles away from Ado Awaye. Standing at the edge of the crest, however, is a scary thing to do. And I was disappointed when upon summoning the courage to try, I looked far southward and saw only clouds and more clouds. In other words, harmattan dealt me the most massive blow yet. No thanks at all to the old, insouciant fellow.
Around Iyake, I saw a large flock of vultures preying while descending. My footsteps alarmed them and they left hurriedly. The discordant clatter of their heavy, flapping wings abruptly reminded me of helicopter rotors. Their massive size brought back my lust for birds. I regretted that it’s a taboo to eat vultures in this clime and for once considered taking literally a bit of poetic advice I was once given by an uncle:
and it doesn’t matter
that you hunt vulture,
if you have to.
And it doesn’t matter
that you make,
enjoy a delicious meal of your kill,
if you have to.
But be sure to keep your escapade a secret.
For the gods, you see, are silent
to sins no man complains about.
And my disappointment about the scarcity of bush meats caused by incessant kidnapping in the town was also rekindled. “Everyone is scared of them,” Mother said.
“Including hunters?” I queried.
“Everyone. And, you know, the natural complicity of the towering rocks and wild savannahs isn’t helping.”
“It’s serious. And the fact that hunters too are scared makes it even more scary. Are they not known to be men, real men wielding not only mere guns but potent voodoo?”
“Voodoo my foot? Boy, don’t even amuse me now. More than six men have been kidnapped so far and they were ransomed with millions of naira. “And,” she hesitated to elicit keener attention, “that reminds me, I must not see you write anything about this issue.” She punctuated her entreaty with a stare that spoke a thousand more words in split seconds. She, because of Bayo Ohu the slain journalist, has mixed feelings about my career. He’s a third-generation cousin of hers. His gruesome murder and subsequent denial of justice still resonate in her mind, in our minds. And I know I have to keep praying for the day I would make her realize the difference between a poet and a journalist.
However, Mother’s caution, I must admit, is not unfounded. Thus, I think it’s about time the parrot roosted so that writing doesn’t turn writhing as magic turned majiki (resuscitating him) on that fateful night of the Gelede performance.
Gelede, you know finally, is the town’s unique musical art whose slow rhythm entertains didactically. The Gelede artists work in guilds or cults and members have a duty to be moral agents in the society. They sing to chastise and rebuke evil-doers and must never compromise their virtues; erring members would be “court-martialled” and publicly disgraced. They perform in open spaces, in a theatre-in-the-round kind of setting, where the composer, the vocalists, and sometimes an assistant would mount the roof of the nearest house and dictate songs to others from above. Gelede bands have clear specialisations: composers, singers, drummers, and dancers. The audience will also join, everyone selecting his/her preferred role, as a performance unfolds.
On that night, people sang and danced for a while. There’s a recess during which an itinerant magician came forth for a freestyle. He came wielding a thick rope and daring anyone who thought he was man enough to come forward to try to strangle him with it. Several men did try frantically but the man remained unscathed and was hailed to heavens by the audience. He then grew quite proud. “You all have seen me tonight. Haven’t you?” He began. “I think, you see, that people were mean when they named a-man-like-three-men. I am more than that, won’t you say?”
“Oh yes you are!”, the crowd cheered.
“Very well. You must henceforth call me a-man-like-three-and-half-men,” he added and was cheered more. His ego then ballooned, and burst. “You know what?”
“What is more, man-like-three-and-half-men?” They responded enthusiastically.
“I think this is indeed a land of no real man,” he boasted, to people’s chagrin. His luck had taken a sudden twist but he was too intoxicated to notice. “I dare say none of the spineless men that populate this land is a match for even my daughter,” he added, to everyone’s utter disappointment.
“You are a bastard, a homeless beast! You must be out of your deranged mind,” Ogungbenro, one of the bravest hunters in town, responded and came forward. He grabbed the rope angrily. He was murmuring esoterically as he fastened it around his neck, but nothing happened. He tried harder, nothing happened still. The man kept boasting, but Ogunbenro persisted. Suddenly, he began to let out some deep groans like a freshly snarled game. He couldn’t speak but was gesturing to plead for his life. Ogungbenro had however grown too furious to let him go. He remained adamant and people began to fear. The crowd then grew thinner and thinner. The Gelede vocalist hibernating atop, having sensed danger, knew he must do something to help wriggle Ogungbenro free from the delusive, hubristic claws of anger and he came back to live ingeniously, evocatively:
Eje’se kalo let’s leave now
Ajo gelede ki ru’oku Gelede artists, we aren’t undertakers
Ogungbenro f’okun fun ologun pa Ogungbenro has strangled the wizard
Magic di majiki Magic has now turned majiki.
Bayo Aderoju is a multi-genre writer from Nigeria. His latest fiction has been selected for inclusion in the forthcoming United Nations Economic Commission for Africa’s Decade of Action Short Stories Anthology. His works appear/are forthcoming on Brittle Paper, Stellium, Platform Review, African Writer, Praxis, Spillwords, Kalahari Review, Nantygreens, Ngiga Review, The Shallow Tales Review and elsewhere. He tweets @bayo_aderoju.
Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash