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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New Year in Warri

3 January (9 p.m., my flat, Ugbowo)

It was an emotional trip to Warri. Efe and I left very early on the morning of New Year’s Eve, on the Bob Izua Bus Line from Ring Road at the center of Benin City. Harmattan fog and smoke from burning brush and rubbish filled the morning air. Red earth turned to sulfuric yellow and bauxite gray as we crossed into Delta State. The roads are now paved and smooth, far different from the Lagos-Benin Expressway; and they were not so smooth even a few years ago. We approached a bridge I remember crossing so many times as a child, in our little white Passat. They have since upgraded the bridge, but the scene beyond it is the same: the wide Ethiope river with thick vegetation on either side, morning mist hovering over calm, dark water.

That view has not changed in all these years. It was is reassuring. However, my sense of comfort was abruptly replaced with a deep yearning. I was alone this time. I was not with my father. I had crossed that bridge so many times in the back of his Passat; and when I returned older a few years ago, we had crossed the bridge together, always together. My father and I have not spoken to each other for many months now. As the tears threatened to break through, it was all I could do to breathe through the pressure I felt in my chest. How embarrassing. There I was, in a packed bus with 13 other strangers, already being watched, fighting to keep myself together. Thankfully, I had a handkerchief handy while Efe silently coaxed me back to calmness.

When our bus approached the main roundabout entering Warri Efe and I caught Okadas (motorbike taxis) to Otite’s house, which sits on the outskirts of Warri, in Effurun. Effurun is like a suburb of Warri. It is very quiet there, with small bungalows arranged in neat, walled-in estates. I took note of this, because before, Effurun was separate from Warri, and considered a kind of country backwater. Warri has expanded and improved a lot over the past few years under the leadership of the governor, James Ibori. Although it is well-known that he lines his pockets with oil money, people gratefully acknowledge that he at least makes basic attempts to improve infrastructure to show he is more progressive and more benevolent than his predecessors. There are more tarred, paved, and cleaned roads, and more hotels. The city itself seems far cleaner than I remembered it being in 1997 when I last visited. Folks even look healthier and happier here than people in Benin, a place of dust, potholes and decay. The scorn hurled at the Edo State governor is intense in Benin, a city ravaged by corruption and inept leadership.

Warri is an oil company hub, and the site of one of the last functioning refineries in the country. Here, you see plenty of Europeans and Americans moving about (in their air-conditioned, secured SUV’s). The roads have to be paved, and the city more organized in order for the business of oil extraction to run efficiently. The manicured neighborhoods in the Government Reserved Area (a remnant of colonial era segregation) work well to house these multinationals, and there is a large reservoir of human labor all around to ensure the smooth running of things. I cannot speak yet for the areas surrounding Warri; the villages that actually host the oil rigs and intrusive pipelines, witnesses to the wasteful gas flaring practices of these companies that char farmland and pollute the rivers. None of this is visible in Warri. I will write more on these troubling aspects of life here in the Delta in coming months.

Still, there are some worrisome things I notice about Warri. It is a highly militarized zone, and this is due to extreme episodes of communal violence that broke out in 1999, 2001, and 2003. These clashes threaten to erupt with each election cycle: different factions, dissatisfied with municipal dealings or election results, usually respond with violent civil outbursts. These are usually characterized as ethnic clashes, but I have a hunch there is more to it than ethnic difference. Efe also talks about the rise of robbery and vigilantism in the city. My mother and I witnessed some of this in 2005, when we passed by two bodies, tired and charred at a junction one morning: robbers, caught by a neighborhood watch group, and apparently sentenced to death. A harrowing scene. I observed none of this, this time around, but the tension is palpable with the elections coming up in April. I have to spend more time in Warri to really get a sense of what is going on, where the roots of these tensions lie and what people are really concerned about. The historical roots of these tensions lie at the heart of my research agenda.

White House

White House, c. 1980

I rang in the New Year at White House, the family house Papa (my grandfather) built and named with a healthy sense of humor. Of course, it is white, with pink cement latticework panels over the staircase leading up to the second floor. The colors have always been the same. It is a big structure with three living quarters. The biggest section is the second floor, where Papa’s home was: four bedrooms, two and a half baths, two sitting areas, a dining room, a large kitchen, and a veranda that wraps around the entire front face of the house. The hallways are much shorter than I remember them from childhood. The veranda is itself a kind of room where we spent so many hours as children, running and playing, sitting with our grandparents, and telling stories or sleeping out on mats in cool, harmattan nights. Uncle Newman, my dad’s eldest brother now lives there. He is the current patriarch of the family. Downstairs are two smaller flats and a small shop front. Brother Mail (Dad’s second eldest brother) and Auntie Yeruwa (Dad’s youngest sister) live in the two flats with their children and grandchildren. The shop space is still there. Mama used to sell convenience items, from that shop. It is now boarded up, and the front portion, which used to serve as a resting place to take a drink or have a snack is gone completely. I think Auntie Yeruwa has plans to renovate it and start selling things again.

Mama's Old Storefront

Mama’s Old Storefront

I made the rounds greeting everyone. I digwe for my elders, and the young ones in turn, digwe for me. Digwe is a form of greeting: the younger person greets the elder person, bending or kneeling on one leg, saying “mi gwo” (greetings); the elder responds with “vren do…o ma garhen?” (blessings…how body/are you well?); the younger person responds with a simple “ay” if he/she is well. Uncle Newman re-introduced me to relatives all gathered for the holiday, explaining my position and lineage within the family. I am my father Reriobor’s first child and daughter, come back from America. I am also the eldest female Okoh of my generation (that is, the eldest girl child born to any of Papa’s first wife’s sons…if this clarifies things for you!). Papa had several wives, in different states. He used to carry the nickname, 19 States, because at his prime, when Nigeria only had 19 states, folks speculated he had a wife in each one. I will write more about dear Papa later. So, we finished with greetings and got down to the business of merrymaking: drinks, fresh fish pepper soup, jollof rice, long stories, and music…more music, firecrackers, and church sounds syncopating the night around us.

Me on White House Veranda

Me on White House Veranda