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Fọ̀nàhànmí | Ọrẹolúwa Oyinlọlá

Fọ̀nàhànmí | Ọrẹolúwa Oyinlọlá

Fọ̀nàhànmí Ọrẹolúwa Oyinlọlá Agbowo Best fiction by African women

ISSUE 8 | JANUARY 2024 | WOMAN ISSUE


“John,” the priest announced to the people under the tent. The baby stirred in the priest’s arms as the crowd repeated the name. With a smile plastered on her face, Làbákẹ́ knew that the baby’s destiny was sealed. His ẹlẹ́ẹ̀dá had heard her plea and granted her desire. Just like John the Baptist, this baby would point to the solution.

Better than anyone, Làbákẹ́ knew the repercussions of a name. Her husband was living proof. Alhaja, his mother, had named him Gbénró without a prefix, declaring him a man standing howbeit with a dangling anchor. He was water without an identifiable source. She had made his life a quest; all his years were an experiment in finding a head. The first guess, Ọlágbénró, was quickly disproven. His father’s wealth was the singular culprit of his addictions. With abundant cash, Gbénró had never lacked access to Rothman’s, grass, or gin. “Bí ọmọdé ò kú, ó sì ma dàgbà. As long as the toddler does not die, he’ll mature,” his father was quick to say whenever his mother chastised him. The violent murder of his father by robbers during Umrah only sent him further into a downward spiral, eliminating any chance of it being Olúwagbénró. Being the bastard son from an unlegalised union, his uncles quickly sent him and his mother packing from their duplex. So, Ẹbígbénró was promptly ticked off the list. 

With Gbénró’s marriage, Gbénró’s mother passed the baton to Làbákẹ́. When Làbákẹ́ threw herself at the foot of the door, sobbing, Alhaja knew her son’s anchor was not love. No Ìfẹ́gbénró, even at the peak of his stupor, could beat his woman till she lost her baby for the second time. He just needs one child, she said to convince Làbákẹ́ and herself. With one child, he will have a pillar and a reason.

A few minutes after the birth of his second daughter, Baba Rukayat from the Mechanic Village announced that he had been arrested by a customer for selling their alternator. The next year, Làbákẹ́ moved back to her father’s house. Alhaja counselled, “he calls himself tìjàtìjà Ewégbẹ́mi, brother of Ṣàngó. Show him that you are a daughter of Ọ̀ṣun. Omi ni ń pa iná. Iná kìí n pa omi. Show him patience.

And now, after five girls, Alhaja found him staring into space in the armpit of the staircase, high as a kite, while his son was being christened outside. Orí ọ̀kẹ́rẹ́, koko láwo. Báawí f’ọ́mọ eni ágbọ́. Refusal to heed warnings will lead to consequences. He was no Omọ́gbénró.

“Fọ̀nàhànmí,” the priest’s voice boomed from underneath the canopy.

“Fọ̀nàhànmí,” the crowd repeated.

Làbákẹ́ had prayed and prayed before selecting a name. Fi ọ̀nà hàn mí, because he will show us the way, she explained to her daughter, Ọlọ́lá. For every child that she mothered, Làbákẹ́ planted a tree. For Ọlọ́lá, constantly torn between sleep and food, she had sown a mango seed: at the core, she would be hard and strong, and her life would be soft and sweet. For her fair-skinned Ẹkúndayọ̀, she planted an ewúro garden: just like the vegetable, she would make their hitherto bitter and dark lives become sweet and enjoyable. For Abíọ́nà, born on the car ride to the hospital, she planted tangelo: she would always be ready, and nothing would meet her unprepared. Born tiny and premature, she planted a guava tree for Ẹ̀gà: the birds will nest here, and she will never lack friends or help. For Bánkọ́lé, with her limbs long and eyes a cold white, she grew an arère: her roots will be deep, her foundation steady, and her branches wide.

The priest rubbed water against the boy’s lips.

“He will not thirst. His life will be peaceful.”

“Amen.”

He stained the boy’s mouth with palm oil.

“His life will be smooth and easy.”

“Amen.”

He chewed kolanut and spat it out.

“Evil will run from him.”

“Amen.”

He touched the boy’s mouth with honey.

“His life will be sweet.”

“Amen.”

He spread the pepper across the table.

“He will be fruitful.”

“Amen.”

 T’orí ọmọ là ṣe wá We have come because of the child x2

T’orí ọmọ là ṣe wá o

Ọmọ dára

Ọmọ dára léyìn obìnrin A child looks good on the back of a woman x2

T’ori ọmọ la ṣe wá We have come because of the child

Kí n má ṣe ‘yéèpà, mo gbe’ May I not say ‘Ah, I’m in trouble’ x2

Kí n má ṣe ‘yéèpà, mo gbe’

Kí ikú má gba

Kí ikú ma gbọmọ lẹ́yìn mi May death not pluck this child from my back x2

Kí n ma se ‘yéèpà, mo gbe’ May I not say ‘Ah, I’m in trouble’

As the women sang, the mothers came towards Làbákẹ́. One by one, they offered names as prayers for the baby and dropped money in a bowl.

“Abeo. He will bring happiness,” pronounced Ìyá Alamin from the búkà across the road. She was the one who snatched Làbákẹ́ away from Gbénró’s fists when he hit her the first time.

“Níhìnọ̀náwà. This is where the road is,” Mama Rukayat declared. It was she who provided the àgbo that turned Fonahanmi into a boy when he was in the womb. “He sees these ones as children,” she had said when they crossed paths at the door of the jéléósimi when they had gone to pick up their children, “what he needs is a son.”

Tiny as Ropo Street was it housed half a hundred young, often unplanned families. With the noisy families and nosy women in the face-me-I-face-you houses, the only boundaries were the gutters that served as fences, signifying the end of a house and the beginning of another man’s land. Occupants from other houses casually used the clothesline in their neighbours’ yards. All the children went to the same jéléósimi. The unconventional daycare was a necessity in a place where women were constantly surprised by pregnancies and even the birth of their own children. The daycare meant that mothers could return to their lives after having their children.

Earlier that morning, Mama Rukayat joined Làbákẹ́ to seal the boy’s destiny in water. She sang with Làbákẹ́ as she paved the boy’s path with water. She soaked him in a mixture of ipẹ̀ta, asofẹ́yẹjẹ leaves, eru seeds, and the roots of iwọ̀ ọ̀sun to cleanse him and ward off evil spirits. As she washed him, they sang:

Alágbo Àwẹ̀yé The herbalist whose bathes bring healing

Bá mi tọ́ ọmọ mi Help me nurture my child

Alágbo Àwẹ̀yé The herbalist whose bathes bring healing

Bá mi wo ọmọ mi l’áwòyè Help me nurse him to health

Alágbo Àwẹ̀yé The herbalist whose bathes bring healing

Kí ikú ó má pa mí l’ọ́mọ Let death not kill my child

Alágbo Àwẹ̀yé The herbalist whose bathes bring healing

Má jẹ̀ẹ́ ki n fi òjá pamọ́ Don’t let me hide my swaddling wrapper

Alágbo Àwẹ̀yé The herbalist whose bathes bring healing

W‘rí, w‘rí, w‘rí mi Wash my head

Ọ̀ṣun sengẹ̀sẹ́ River goddess

W orí mi sí ire Wash my head for goodness

“Èyítómi. This child satisfies me,” Aunty Muinat proclaimed, not as an offering but a fact.

She ran the jéléósimi and watched over the children during the day. Làbákẹ́ had started to show signs of pregnancy once Bankole was old enough for the daycare. Although this was not strange on a street like Ropo, Aunty Muinat worried. The thought of Làbákẹ́ and her five daughters, the oldest no more grown than a preschooler, cramped in a musty room that was inconvenient for a newlywed was bothersome.

“I know. Alhaja said she needs a boy. What can I do?” Làbákẹ́ explained when Aunty Muinat accosted her.

“How many children do I have?”. Làbákẹ́ was embarrassed to answer. Everybody knew Aunty Muinat had àbíkú seeds. ”What do you think my husband’s family is saying? His younger sister’s children call me ‘Aunty’, and I am older than their mother. Having no sons, having no child, in a way, they are the same.”

“Hm,” Làbákẹ́ said, even though she did not fully agree. They were not the same.

“You know what is different? Having no husband and having a bad husband. And I don’t have to tell you which one is better or worse.” Aunty Muinat seemed determined to make this as longwinded and upsetting as she could. ”I have no children but my husband is here. You have five children, with one more on the way, and you can’t trust your husband to know their names.”

“Okay, thank you ma,” she bent to carry her daughter and leave.

“If you lift it, they’ll say ‘it is too heavy, you should drop it’. If you drop it, they’ll say ‘it is so light, why can’t you lift it’?”

“What?” The woman spoke as one suffering from a stroke.

“If you go close, they will run away. If you run away from them, they will say you are weak. Do you understand what I am saying?”

“Not to tell a lie, I don’t ma.”

“How did Ebenezer Obey say it? ‘Kò sí ọgbọ́n tí ò lè dá, kò sí ìwà tí o lè wù, kò sí ọ̀nà tí o lè mọ̀ tí o lè fi t’áyé lọ́rùn’.Do you understand me now?”

“Yes, ma. No matter what I do, I cannot satisfy people.”

“No matter what you do, you cannot chase away a man that wants to stay. No matter how many sons you bear, you cannot keep a man that does not want to stay. Even more, you cannot wake a man who is pretending to be sleeping. You cannot please a man who is not interested in performing his responsibilities.”

“Yes, ma.”

“And for Alhaja, it is not your son that is her problem. It is her own son, do you understand?”

“Yes ma.”

“Ominira,” Ìyá Níkẹ́ whispered over the child and gave Làbákẹ́ a quiet smile. Làbákẹ́ thought about their conversation a few weeks before the baby was born.

Ìyá Níkẹ́ had just concluded her apprenticeship at Bísí’s Place, a modern salon at the end of the bucolic but rowdy street. Her family’s room was directly opposite Làbákẹ́’s, but they only began speaking when Gbénró did not come home for a month. Làbákẹ́ was familiar with his sudden, unexplained absences. If he was not locked up in a police station for defrauding customers, he was on another episode of binging on gin and grass. With the extent of his presence in their lives, one might think Làbákẹ́’s Anglican name was Mary, and the father of her children a spirit. 

Bothered about his sudden, prolonged disappearance, Ìyá Níkẹ́ struck up a conversation with Làbákẹ́. With her husband being a buried corpse for two years now, she thought herself Làbákẹ́’s kin in widowhood. One might have suspected he disappeared so often to be with a secret family, but that would be ascribing a sense of responsibility with which even the most egoistic version of himself is not dignified. He showed up at the house a few days later without shoes, money, or an explanation.

“I wonder what he will do when he discovers that those are not his children. You know, I heard he can’t even get it up.” Làbákẹ́ was whispering about Iya Muri’s husband, who had rented a new shop for her. They were sitting on the verandah of the bungalow that housed them, Ìyá Níkẹ́ braiding Abíọ́nà’s hair.

“Are you just knowing? On top of that, he farts anywhere, anyhow. If he eats in Ìyá Alamin’s shop like this, you won’t be able to enter until the sun sets, rises, and sets again. Even with a husband like that, her shoulder is always touching her forehead.”

Ọlọ́run ò kúkú dá kainkain k’ó tóbi, àtapa ni ì bá máa ta èèyàn. If God had made the black ant bigger, it would have been stinging people to death.”

“Ah well, everybody has where the shoe pinches them. Àbí?” Làbákẹ́ knew she was referring to her entanglement with Gbénró that was, at best, a simulation of a relationship between housemates.

“Once this boy comes, he will change. Gbénró doesn’t need children. He needs a son,” Làbákẹ́ told Ìyá Níkẹ́, repeating the words of Mama Rukayat. 

“He will change how? He won’t raise his hand against you again? He will remember his children’s names? He will stop stealing and wasting his money on cigars?”

“What he needs is a reason to live, a reason to stand and be good.”

“Look at yourself. What have you not done for this man? What lengths have you not gone?”

“So what should I do? What else am I supposed to do?”

‘Me, I don’t know for you o, this one that you have resigned yourself to boiling a starling.”

“How?”

“You don’t know the rules for boiling a starling? You must be naked when you put it on your fire. You can only eat it in the dead of night, never during the day. You can only eat the right side of the bird, and you must immediately dispose of the left side. Much ado about a bird that is not even as big as a hen”

Làbákẹ́ was familiar with the proverb about the kowéè. But Ìyá Níkẹ́ has never known the metallic taste of blood from a lip burst open by her husband’s fist. Baba Níkẹ́, of blessed memory, had never been a drunk or an addict. He had never defrauded customers, slept in a police cell or missed his child’s birth because it coincided with a football match. The only time he made her cry was when he died. She could not possibly understand.

“I had a good husband, and he died. I almost died too. It seemed like life would never make sense or be worth living again.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” Làbákẹ́ started to say.

“That is not my point. Níkẹ́ was still a toddler. I had not returned to work, and I had no money. Even worse was what I had- two girls and no son. I was as scared and vulnerable as a chick with a dead mother.” She paused to inspect the straightness of a braid she had just finished stitching. She hissed and loosened it, the Ghana-weaving looked too bulky.

“I understand.”

“His sisters did not bother me. They let me sell his motorcycle. They let me hold the farm for my daughters. And, oh, when I wanted to die, when I was so lonely and starved, it was my daughters who saved me. I was ready to go, and then I looked at my Morẹ́nikẹ́. My duty, given to me to care for. I thought about my Ẹríìfẹ́. A testament of love that once was and, in a way, still is.”

“So what did you do?”

“I went to Bísí’s Place and started my training. What am I saying? The groundnut and the person roasting it feel the heat together. You’re not the only one suffering here. Your girls are suffering with you too.” She paused to scoop a dollop of Soul Mate hair cream onto the back of her hand. “You are going to have to face your life. You can run, hide, distract yourself, or ignore it. But one day, you are going to have to face your life. You cannot keep waiting for him. He is not going to change, and, even worse, he is not going to leave.”

And now, she bent over her child, whispering “Ominira. Freedom. Liberty.”

He seemed to agree with the name, his honey-stained mouth unfurling into a gummy smile. Every expectation of miracle that Làbákẹ́ had burdened him with dissipated when the midwife placed him in her hands. Her boy was going to lead an ordinary life and she was more than content.

That morning, Alhaja blessed him as she bathed him with herbs. She made the mothers sing along as she prayed over him and sealed his destiny in water.

“Ọlánrewájú. There’s wealth in the future,” Alhaja blessed her grandson.

“This one that we have received, God will personally watch him.”

“Amen.”

“He will restore and uphold our name. He will not become a corpse in our hands. He will not become rotten before our eyes. The hawk will not snatch him from our back. He will not struggle. He will not toil in vain. He will not simply accompany friends to the well, he will also fetch from it. Watch him, let him not spoil my name. He will not mix with the bad crowd. A daàgbà, kò ní di àgbàyà.”

Àmín.”

For Fọ̀nàhànmí, her longed-for child, Làbákẹ́ planted shea. He will be like the bark of the shea tree, strong, powerful, and able to withstand life’s wildfire. Like the butter from the shea seed, he will restore her glory and remind her of her shine. When other trees are being cut down for firewood, her boy will be spared. Her sacred boy will stand tall and straight, a Northern star reminding her of the way back to herself.



Glossary of Yoruba Words Used

(Listed in order of appearance)

Fọ̀nàhànmí Show me the way

Ẹlẹ́ẹ̀dá Creator

Bí ọmọdé ò kú, ó sì ma dàgbà If a child does not die, he will grow up

Tìjàtìjà Ever-quarrelsome

àngó A god in Yoruba mythology

Ọ̀ṣun A goddess in Yoruba mythology

Omi ni ń pa iná It is water that quenches fire

Iná kìí n pa omi Fire does not kill water

Orí ọ̀kẹ́rẹ́, koko láwo The head of a squirrel will end up as a stony 

meal.

Báawí f’ọ́mọ eni ágbọ́ If we instruct a child, he should obey

Fi ọ̀nà hàn mí Show me the way

Ewúro Bitterleaf

Arère African maple tree

T’orí ọmọ la ṣe wá We have come because of the child

Ọmọ dára léyìn obìnrin A child looks good on the back of a woman

Kí n má ṣe ‘yéèpà, mo gbe’ May I not say ‘Ah, I’m in trouble’

Kí ikú ma gbọmọ lẹ́yìn mi May death not pluck this child from my back

Búkà Inexpensive restaurant

Àgbo Herbal concoction

Jéléósimi Local creche and pre-school

Ipẹ̀ta Onion leaves

Asofẹ́yẹjẹ Rauwolfia, a medicinal plant

Eru A medicinal seed

Iwọ̀ ọ̀sun A medicinal tree

Alágbo Àwẹ̀yé The herbalist whose bathes bring  healing

Bá mi tọ́ ọmọ mi Help me nurture my child

Bá mi wo ọmọ mi l’áwòyè Help me nurse him to health

Kí ikú ó má pa mí l’ọ́mọ Let death not kill my child for me

Má jẹ̀ẹ́ ki n fi òjá pamọ́ Don’t let me hide my swaddling wrapper

W‘rí, w‘rí, w‘rí mi Wash my head

Ọ̀ṣun sengẹ̀sẹ́ River goddess

W orí mi sí ire Wash my head for goodness

Àbíkú A child who repeatedly dies and is reborn to the 

same family

Kò sí ọgbọ́n tí ò lè dá There is no wisdom you can employ

Kò sí ìwà tí o lè wù There is no manner in which you can behave

Kò sí ọ̀nà tí o lè mò tí o lè fi t’áyé lọ́rùn There is no path you can take to please the world

Ọlọ́run ò kúkú dá kainkain k’ó tóbi If God had made the black ant bigger

Àtapa ni ì bá máa ta èèyàn. It would have been stinging people to death

Àbí Right?

Kowéè A small bird, equivalent to a starling or pigeon

A daàgbà, kò ní di àgbàyà He will grow old, he will not become a 

shameless elderly person

Àmín Amen


Ọrẹolúwa Oyinlọlá
Agbowo

Ọrẹolúwa Oyinlọlá

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

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