Keeping Wake in Obubu

10 April 2007 (my flat in New GRA, Benin)

My grandmother, Mewe, died twenty-three years ago and was buried in her home village of Obubu, in Udu Local Government Area. In Urhobo tradition, their daughters are not buried with their husbands, in their husbands’ hometown, as is customary in many other Nigerian communities. Their families return their bodies to their home village. A structure, or dwelling, is constructed over the grave. Mewe’s funeral was an elaborate two-day celebration. I was only eight at the time of that funeral, but it remains vivid in my memory. So many people came, and there was so much food and drink, plenty of music (much of it live), and I remember the exhaustion in the faces of my parents and my aunts and uncles. They had made all the arrangements, welcomed hundreds of visitors, and kept energetic wake through the night in Obubu.

I have just returned from Obubu to bury Mewe’s sister, Mama Beokuta. She was over ninety years old when she died. Her children originally gave her a Christian funeral, even though it was not her wish; she was not a Christian. She wanted to be buried as Mewe was buried, in the traditional way. We returned to Obubu because we learned that we did not in fact bury Beokuta; we had buried the wrong woman. My uncles: Areriobor, Friday, and Newman believe her spirit resisted the Christian funeral by evading identification at the morgue. Apparently another woman named Victoria (Beokuta’s English name), a fair woman with the same birth date as Beokuta, who was also toothless (as was Beokuta), was being kept at the same morgue. Sometimes when the morgue is overcrowded, they rotate storing the bodies in the freezers. Beokuta may not have been in the freezer when Uncle Friday and Cousin Minene went to identify her. In fact, they didn’t really see her at all. When they presented “Victoria,” my uncles and cousin did not recognize their mother; but the birth date was the same, and she was toothless…so, they carried her buried away to bury her. When Victoria’s real family came for their mother, they couldn’t find her. Uncle Friday got the call a few days after the funeral. We had to go to Obubu and return Victoria to her family and bury our own Beokuta.

The women argue over how things should be done.

The women argue over how things should be done.

Since I wasn’t able to attend the Christian funeral, I came along with Uncle Newman and Sissy Mary (my father’s oldest sister) to bury Beokuta in Obubu. I had not been to the village since Mewe’s funeral. Obubu is a small, quiet village and its inhabitants are petite, small-framed people. The women, however, are strong and vocal; they were the ones who came out to greet us and to help us with the burial arrangements. I watched as they prepared the food under a cluster of palm trees just outside Beokuta’s resting place. The children trekked back and forth between the cooking site and the well, carrying large, heavy pails on their heads. When anyone was not immediately at work, they danced to the DJ’s music, which syncopated everyone’s rhythm as we got ready for the funeral: from the smallest of the children to the oldest of the women. The DJ had set up a small canopy with raffia leaves and thick bamboo trunks. Throughout the afternoon, the skies threatened rain as we prepared. I watched and listened, the raspy, rolling sounds of Urhobo floating around me; spice and root smells, mingled with subtle human odor and schnapps, occasionally tickling my nose. I felt at home.

Beokuta’s burial place is just beyond Mewe’s. As I walked past Mewe’s resting place, I was struck first by how far it had deteriorated over the years. The windows and door had long since fallen away, and the walls had not been painted in all these years. Brother Mail performed a quick remembrance ceremony in her resting place, with an offering of rice, kola nut, and libations. Uncle Newman later took us into Mewe’s room to communicate with her. It felt surreal standing over my grandmother, in an empty room and gin splashed on damp cement floor in libation.

Keeping wake...dancing through the night.

Keeping wake…dancing through the night.

Back outside, I gratefully breathed in the fresh air. As night drew near, we began to perform the burial rites for Beokuta. The elderly men began by going out to the edge of the village to welcome Beokuta’s spirit. They call her to come and rest. This is done by setting up a kind of welcoming post, with two lanterns on each side of the path leading to the burial compound. Some rites are performed there to ensure she comes through. Later on, in the night, three fires are set. This is part of the process of settling her to rest. The music plays in the background, and people began to eat and drink. We, her kinsfolk, kept wake throughout the night, as the other rites were performed. A goat was sacrificed to “feed the ground.” The blood of the goat is distributed over her grave. Other offerings are made such as yam and plantain, along with dried fish in fulfillment of the homecoming. I did not witness how or when these offerings were made, however. As we kept wake, we were called three times to dance round the fires, as the men sang out to Beokuta and our other ancestors. The DJ then took over, and we danced and ate throughout the night, keeping ourselves awake in order to keep company with Mama Beokuta.

Groggy and fatigued, we greeted the morning with the final rites. We implored Beokuta to enter her resting place finally. The elder men then led a small procession through the village, a short call and response to accompany our steps. We were announcing Beokuta’s life and death, offering a sip of Ogogoro (a local clear liquor) to bystanders along the way. This concluded the long ceremony. We went round to embrace each other. I breathed in deeply the earthy odors of my kin, trying to create a sensory memento of this experience to keep with me and remember. My life is so far away from this small place, but a piece of it is in me. It is because of this place, these people that I exist.

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Coming Home…Again

18 December 2006 (Early Morning, Ugbowo)

Every time I return to Nigeria, I confront an ever-present conundrum in my life. It is enmeshed in my art-making, my intellectual work, and in my cyclical personal struggles with existence. Where is home, and what does it mean to say one is home? I can never rest with this question.

So I have returned to a kind of home here in the Delta. Benin City lies on the western fringe of the Niger Delta region, which stretches East to Calabar. My family lived here in Benin in the 70s and 80s, and we went to Warri on most weekends to visit our grandparents. Warri is where I feel most intimately attached. Perhaps this is because I associate some of my happiest childhood memories. It was where my grandparents were; I played with my cousins there; and we spent our most relaxing times as a family there—weekend retreats, holidays and special occasions.

On the veranda of our family home, Benin City c. 1984

On the veranda of our family home, Benin City c. 1984

Perhaps too, some of my being compelled to return has to do with what some poets and writers write about…being connected to the very earth of a given place, or a place being in the blood. Yet, coming here, for me, is like returning to a dysfunctional household. It is at once familiar and unsettling. This is not a home that I have chosen, or one that I would even choose if given the opportunity. It has chosen me.

As you leave Benin and cross the border from Edo State to Delta State (where Warri is located), the patchy savannah quickly turns into lush forests. You pass countless palm and rubber plantations on the freeway, interspersed with villages that are tucked away from the main road. Nowadays these are indicated with little green signs…Ologbo, Okha, Obayantor, Koko; whereas 20 years ago, the only things indicating their existence were abrupt, narrow footpaths. There was an “in-the-middle-of-nowhere” impression I used to get passing by them.  What is it about having a sign or label marking them now that makes them suddenly exist in space (and time)? It is curious that these little green signs actually changed my awareness of these villages, which I’ve passed before and which have existed long before I ever did. I made these observations on my way to and from Ogharra yesterday. We went to visit my cousin Jite and his family. Ogharra is about a half hour drive from Benin, a third of the way to Warri. I have not been (home) to Warri yet.

Being away for so long has definitely colored my sense of belonging. It is not the belonging of my childhood, or even the belonging I felt when I came ten years ago. It is now a refracted, even disjointed belonging. It is as if my Americanness has finally settled in, and I can no longer extract it and set it aside while being here. In its settling, it has actually shifted some parts of my Nigerianness I might have taken for granted. Language is the clearest example of this. Even though I understand and even (from time to time) think in pidgin, my tongue is finding it very hard to release the words from my throat. Before, it was only a matter of being around fellow Nigerians for an hour or two, or spending a couple of days here before I would slip in and out of it. Now, not only am I finding it hard to utter the words, but my American accent is so strong that it grips everything I say. I am self-conscious.

I now worry (perhaps irrationally) about how I will wrap my tongue around my father’s language, Urhobo. Urhobo, a language that sounds like water. The Urhobo are a riverine people. The language is full of aspirated consonants, which are highly unlikely in English: vw’s, vb’s, wh’s that come out sounding like soft b’s or v’s depending on the word, rhie’s, rho’s, gh’s, kh’s that are almost swallowed at the back of your throat. It is also peppered with syncopated gb’s and kp’s, sharp t’s and rolling r’s. My grandmother’s dialect is softer than my grandfather’s. My father’s generation learned my grandfather’s more aggressive dialect. It is what I will have to settle with, although I miss the quiet rhythm of my late grandmother’s raspy voice…Mewe’s voice.

My dreams are vivid here too. I can’t tell if it is due to the medication I am taking (Mefloquine is said to cause bad dreams, and hallucinations in extreme cases). These are not bad dreams, but they are vivid. When I wake up it doesn’t feel like I ever left reality. That is another thing I remember from my childhood here: having a very active inner- and dream world. Now, I am not trying to idealize or mythologize this experience in a Joseph Conrad sort of way. There is nothing dark or ideal (as in “primitive Africa”/“mystical Africa”) in any of this. But I do think there is something about the way time moves here, and the quality of the air and ground that facilitate (at least in me, anyway) a heightened sense of awareness. Then again, there are several other possible reasons for this that have nothing to do with time or the air: for example, my outsiderness, the rawness of everyday lived experience here that forces a sensational immediacy.

I suppose this is how nostalgia works. The awareness, connectedness I speak of now, this slipped away over time as I struggled to come to grips with life in the U.S. I was very conscious of the loss. Whenever I return, it is as if I receive little memory packages of the world I used to occupy. It is in the smells, in the flavors of the food, in the quietness of the night, in the air itself…smoky, heavy…dense air. It is as if the weight of the air and the brilliant redness of the earth carry with them a story, or many stories. Words are not adequate. I wish I could paint it for you.