While Oloye sat at the centre of the village with other men on raffia mats as they drank otika, beer made from guinea corn that has the ability to make a grown man’s brain float in his skull, the district officer appointed to the village from the province visited and went straight to the house of Aromire, Oloye’s rival.
One of the men whistled at the women returning from the river with clay pots perched on their heads. “Fati bom bom, Olomu roro,” Oloye shouted, and the men responded with laughter exaggerated by the beer working its way through their veins.
The appellation was for Bolawa, one of the passing women, who rotated her body and spat in the direction of the beer shack. “Mtshew, useless man. Aromire is hosting the district officer, but you’re here whistling at the mates of your children.”
“What district officer? No important human being visits Eba Odan without paying obeisance to me, Alade,” he thumped his chest twice. “The great hunter that killed a bear with his bare hands and survived three months in the wilderness on nothing but its blood. No man does that. No man.”
Oloye gulped more calabashes of otika and sent a scrawny boy to confirm Bolawa’s statement. When the boy reported that the district officer was indeed at Aromire’s house, Oloye laughed and ordered for more otika. “The officer obviously wants to pay homage to me after wandering through the village,” he said. “After all, the carnival always ends with a display from the greatest masquerade.”
One by one, the men left the village centre to retreat to their waiting wives, and Oloye had no one to trouble with his assertion that the district officer was still going to visit him. When he realised this, he stood up, adjusted his dansiki, and started on the dirt road that led to Aromire’s compound. He staggered into the night, shouting about how he was going to teach the district officer a lesson in respect, interspersing his soliloquy with tales of his accomplishments as a skilled hunter.
He paused beside the village court, dropped his trousers and started to whistle an old war song to the accompaniment of the sound of urine splashing against the leaves. He then continued his walk through the village till he arrived at the two wooden totems that marked the entrance of Aromire’s compound—a patch of red sand in the middle of the green land, with seven huts in a circle, and a large hut in the middle of them, covered with various relief sculptures of river deities in various states of interactions with men, where Aromire held court. The other huts housed his five wives and their children, and his grown married sons with their wives.
The night was filled with the whispers of storytellers in various compounds, narrating tales to children under the moonlight, and the air was cold enough to justify being clothed, but not as cold as to send the children shivering to their mats. Oloye stopped his one-man procession a few feet from Aromire’s large hut, and stretched his arms wide.
“Aromire! Aromire! Bring that fool outside now so I can deal with him.”
He shifted his feet and adjusted his dansiki.
“I have been told that that long-nosed man they call the district officer is still lounging in your hut. Do you want me to flatten him and your hut with my anger or will you just present him for me to deal with?”
One by one, the tiny heads of curious kids popped out of the huts, followed by their wild giggles. The young men held their bellies as they pointed, and mothers rushed to cover the eyes of their kids as they squeezed their faces to stifle laughter. A tuft of wind balled up from the floor and flew through his thighs, raising the hairs on his legs and shrinking his dark scrotum. That was when Oloye felt the dangling between his legs. At once, the effect of the beer departed his brain and he realised the gravity of his error. But it was too late.
There are things that can be overcome by bravado, especially the kind of obese bravado Oloye had, but even he couldn’t envision a dignified life in a small village where the entirety of his rival’s clan had seen him standing naked with arms stretched wide like a scarecrow with real human gonads. A nobler man would have taken his own life, but Oloye had a love of life that surpassed his ideals of dignity.
The following morning, as the fog lifted over Eba Odan, and the news of Oloye’s shameful display travelled from household to household via women returning from the river, children running morning errands for their fathers, and men cleaning their tools in preparation for the day’s work, a thin cloud of smoke descended on the village. At first, many thought it was a signal for war between the two households on account of the night’s events. Instead, the villagers saw Oloye’s clan—his five wives, their children, two grown sons with their wives and his grandchildren—emerge from the smoke and walk through the village in a single file. Their heads were hung low as if they had all partaken of Oloye’s display the night before. Even the animals were walking slowly in front of the clan; young calves that were supposed to be galloping without care joined in the slow walk of shame, and the hens held in coops were all silent, an unnatural occurrence for all who were familiar with the endless chatter that was characteristic of Oloye Alade’s clan.
They packed everything they owned and set fire to the things they couldn’t haul or hoist on the back of cattle. As the lot of them—man, woman, child, animal—passed through the village centre, some of the villagers were almost moved in pity, but then they remembered how much of a nuisance Oloye had been and discarded their pity quickly like a logs of firewood infested with soldier ants.
They trudged through the great forest for months, stopping at nights to rest the women and kids and resuming their walk at dawn. They sang, every day of their miserable exodus, until they eventually burst out of the forest like seeds out of a pod, and spilled onto the sands of the ocean. Waking up daily to its rage and sleeping at nights to its pleasures, they built a new village for themselves by the ocean, away from the noise and shame of Eba Odan. They taught themselves new survival skills—for fishing food out of the sea was not one of the things they’d grown up to do—and honed old ones, like hunting, to fit the demands of killing the slippery reptiles that dwelt by the waters.
For a long time, Oloye and his little village by the sea stayed out of the tongues of the people of Eba Odan. His departure had no dramatic implications for the village: Man and animals continued to live as they used to: communicating with themselves and exploiting nature to fit their needs and desires.
Now, in spite of how much he taunted her while still in Eba Odan, Bolawa chose to leave the village with Oloye and his clan. She was, and still is, a woman of incredible beauty, who was unfortunate to have been born when the men of Eba Odan were groomed to believe women with any decent purchase of flesh were not to be taken as wives. Nothing she did could rid her of her sumptuous curves, and so, with time, she became resigned to her status as the village’s eternal spinster.
As a young woman, Bolawa’s mother would enter her room early in the morning, and pull at her love handles, blaming them and all her other meaty parts for the lack of a suitor. Even old men with multiple wives who should have considered her an addition to their work force, like Oloye, did not come for her hand in marriage. They did not consider her strong arms that were designed for farming, sturdy thighs prepared for ushering children into this world, and breasts primed to nourish them. All of these formed a cloud of sadness around her, one that she couldn’t escape no matter where she turned to in Eba Odan. In the departing Oloye she, however, saw a man with an ego too wounded to reject her, and knew with him was the future she had always envisaged for herself—to be a mother of beautiful babies.
When the clan got to the edge of the ocean and finished work on the first set of huts, she took her things from the make-shift tent she had shared with the other women, and moved them to Oloye’s hut. No one in the clan had the mind to rebuke her brazenness, and Oloye knew in her lay his final hopes for pleasure. She became his last, most beautiful, and most powerful wife.
She insisted on getting married in a proper ceremony, because now at the edge of the ocean, she wanted to reclaim all the happiness life had denied her. So, the village organised a feast that doubled as the celebration of the start of the new village. It was also supposed to be a coronation of Oloye Alade as a proper king, but the man refused a coronation. In the days following his humiliation at Eba Odan and in the sojourn through the great forest, he had enough time to think about his relationship to power, and concluded that all he wanted in life was to remain a hunter. The feast therefore became a celebration for Bolawa, and her alone. She came out in the fullness of her bodily glory, and rolled and danced as the other women sang.
As his wife danced, Oloye dragged his feet, which everyone knew was unusual, because he often chose his wedding feasts to show off his remarkable dancing skill. None of his five wives bested him on the floor during his previous wedding ceremonies as the crowd sang o le pami layo, goading him to twist his body, fling his limbs, jump up and somersault to their applause. But Bolawa bested him that day, because there were no dances left in her new husband.
She gave birth to a son so good-looking he made all of Oloye’s wives and daughters ache with pleasure. Of course the source of this beauty was all Bolawa, for Oloye’s face was a cross between a scowling Baboon and a slumbering bush baby. News of the boy’s beauty would eventually travel to Eba Odan, and that, coupled with a few other things we’re about to reveal, reclaimed some pride for Oloye in a village that forgot about him too quickly.
One evening, as mud dried on the last of their freshly built huts, close to the start of the rainy season, just when the scent of plant tears mixed with sea salts was descending on the little village, solitude in the new village was ruptured by a procession that emerged from the forest, accompanied by the sound of loud bata and gangan. Feet stomped on the forest cover in rhythm to the omele’s high-pitched fast rhythms that animated the bodies dressed in gaudy sanyan and aso oke. They were gyrating with much exaggeration and singing praises of a certain Arikuyeri.
Apparently, the villages in the district had been ordered by the district officer to conduct an election to appoint a leader to represent them in the supreme council of nations. This was strange for a land where the only way a man used to assume power was either by being the son of a departing king, the killer of a deposed king, or one who by an act of unprecedented greatness became the natural leader after the demise of one. The act of singing and running around villages to ask people to support someone who wanted to become a leader was strange, almost imbecilic, to the people of Oloye’s little village. If anyone was fit to become a leader, he had no reason to beg for it. Pleas were for weaklings.
Arikuyeri, the underdog in the elections, was a dwarfish man with a leading belly that bobbed as he alighted from his horse. A little boy led him from the centre of the village to Oloye’s hut at the edge of the village where the beach waves crash into the cliffs that balloon into a range of hills. Oloye was now bent over, rid of the ebullience of his former life in Eba Odan. He stumbled out of the hut to meet Arikuyeri. The dark portly man prostrated, hitting the ground like a sack of beans, his feet and head seesawing on the fulcrum of his belly. Oloye raised him up feebly, and offered a handshake. And that was it.
Months later, news of Arikuyeri’s victory returned to the village. And since all odds were stacked against him, that news was coupled with the myth that his handshake with Oloye had been his lucky charm. As appreciation for this, Arikuyeri sent labourers to the village with supplies for the construction of a village hall, with promise to make the hall a cathedral magnificent enough to be the desire of all people in the district.
After the first batch of supplies were exhausted, the labourers waited for more that never came and, instead of returning to their lives in Eba Odan, dug roots in the little village by the sea, not unlike those of the trees that grew into, and intertwined with, the uncompleted walls of the abandoned hall. This became a pattern: every four years, gaudy-dressed people would dance out of the forest, a man—usually an underdog—would prostrate before Oloye, shake his hands, and win the elections. He would then send supplies to start a new hall for the village, none of them possessing the wisdom to finish the uncompleted ones, only to abandon it, and for its workers to make a home in the now-growing village. The wide-ranging skills of the workers became the spine of the development of the village. And since this business of failed promises was beneficial to all involved, no one complained.
Now, in this time, our little village by the sea was already witnessing the growth of its own future leader, who was being groomed for one reason only: beauty. Unlike the rest of us—men, unfortunate sons of Adam who grow more ugly as we increase in height — Alamu, Bolawa’s young son, grew more comely with the passing years. His body, touched by the mildest of physical labours, took to a defined shape that other men spend years wrestling with enormous tools to achieve.
Everyone saw the shortcut to a return to greatness in him, so they added the things they thought he would need to his life: The hunters showed him how to track game, how to imitate animal calls in the wild and lurk after lumbering beasts at night; the fishermen taught him the best way to set traps and catch the largest fish in the waters; the artisans taught his hand to fashion tools from wood, stone, and how to work the bellow to stoke fire that produced the purest of swords; and, more importantly, the women showed him the secrets of manipulating the egos of men, the many ways a man can be turned into a raging bull without a word uttered, and the right words to say to a woman to turn all of her affections towards him and none other. Barely in his teenage years, we already knew he would have the best women and leave only the remnants of his desire to the rest of us.
As they taught him all these, they also taught us to adore him, to offer him our playthings when he asked, and never think evil of his actions, so that when the time would come for a choice of a leader, no one would speak of an election. For Alamu, by then, would be head and shoulders above everyone else. This, everyone knows, is the wise way to choose leaders.
The row of uncompleted halls left by years of unfulfilled promises became a prime location for our dodgiiiing, firrrrre, gun! Each new hall came with a fresh, unknown layout: intricate corridors, hidden doors, even underground tunnels. Every four years, we would abandon a hall, having grown familiar with its secrets, and also becoming wary of animals that often invaded it on account of the trees and shrub that gradually colonised the walls and floors. It was a perfect set-up: Oloye’s good luck charm offered success to would-be leaders, they promised halls, abandoned them, and these became our playgrounds. We were the winners in this cosmic farce.
What we did not know was that the animals occupying the old halls were also interested in our new playground. One evening, while running and pointing to one another with sticks, we heard a cry form one of the hidden corridors. We paused, waited to see if it was a ploy to draw us out of hiding, then the cry was repeated and we all ran towards its source. It was Alamu writhing on the floor from snakebite.
Asanke, the biggest in our age group, hauled Alamu onto his shoulder and made a run for the house of the only onisegun in the village—Oloye’s eldest wife—who is also the one who told us these stories of how we came to find ourselves away from the rest of the world, alone at the edge of the sea. She toiled all night, trying to keep Alamu alive as the rest of the village kept vigil in front of Oloye’s hut. Nothing she did stopped the venom’s steady flow from the boy’s legs to his pretty heart.
If shame was the jab that keeled Oloye over, grief was the knockout blow. The village mourned Alamu’s death for days, and we still hear the Oloye Alade’s voice fill the night with sad cries. The animals in the woods echo his howl, and on such nights, the crickets pause their chatter in honour of the dead. Somehow, we all know Oloye is going to join them soon.
The hunters in the village now sit on the edge of the forest, in shifts, singing morose songs while sharpening their machetes and cleaning their guns. Grief, sorrow and the dark side of dashed hopes are all present in their simple chants of longing. It would be a month before the new elections, and the contestants are already going through the villages, canvassing for support. The creased brows, tensed arms and sombre faces of the hunters speak of a deadly intent. The next man who comes through the woods, looking for the lucky charm, is doomed.