Tonight, I cannot stay in my bed.
Like an oversized morsel of solid amala coated in films of steaming ewedu, burning the mouth, I’ve rolled these thoughts all around the corners of my head all day, but I have yet to make sense of them. Strange things do happen in this world of ours. Stranger things even now, with all the unfamiliarity our traveller friends are bringing home with them.
If what my friend Samieli tells me is true, then norm is soon to dissipate into obsoleteness, and strange will morph up to take its place; only I’m born too early to witness it.
You see, Samieli hasn’t always been Samieli, and he hasn’t always known so much about the future. Tragedy visited our small village of Osogun one notorious afternoon—a day rarely mentioned, but neatly tucked away in the shadows of our memory—and took everyone it met away with it.
Back then, he was Ajayi, my playmate. Together we hounded the thorny trees that taunted our long throats with high-hanging oranges. We took them for all their ripe fruits and left the dark-green ones hanging among the leaves, until the ripening of their backs betrayed them too. On that fateful day, however, I had gone with my mother to collect ajo—thrift savings—in a neighbouring village, so Ajayi had to do the plucking alone.
When we returned, a hair-raising emptiness welcomed us. There were prints in the soil that showed plenty of hooves, plenty of dragging and a lot of blood. Doors and windows were left ajar, and from outside one could see they had all been ransacked. I remember seeing the oranges scattered around in Ajayi’s compound and the silence in the village being almost as tangible as they were. That was before my mother’s piercing scream confirmed to me that the worst had happened. I would never see most of the villagers again, most painfully, my father.
When this thing happened, my hand on one side could barely go over my head to touch my ear on the other. My mother could swear I only just stopped suckling. That was decades ago, years have folded into years, etching their passing on our faces. Now, our mothers are no more, and we ourselves are preparing to become grandparents. The tragedy of then had shown a different side to itself, taking away young Ajayi, my playmate, and bringing back Samieli, the bright, learned, and widely travelled man who is among many bringing some colour to our black and white.
As I grow older, I’ve found very few things are as valuable as wisdom. It has also been easily recognisable. I lay in my earthen bed at night, with closed eyes and a lively mind, playing back all Samieli has been teaching me. I have found wisdom in him, and every morning I count the seconds until the cocks crow so I can resume again.
There’s not much more to do since the cruel hands of death snatched the love of my life, Abeke Okin, oju loge t’in wo ewa bi aso.[i] I have died a hundred times since she’s been gone, in my tears and in the nights I spent questioning Eledua—almighty God—, hoping for day to break so that the sun could snap me out of my bad dream.
I have since accepted my fate. Even Adisa, our son who jumped into her grave asking to be buried with her, has moved on, showing strength and maturity everyone has asked me to emulate. So, when my old friend returned and showed me a new world on the pages of his books, and in the stories from his many travels, I found a new purpose.
Plenty has changed since my friend has been back. Ojo is now Maikeli. Ogidan is Gabreli, and Talabi is Esikieli.
These are names of a new faith, but it is more about the “-eli” than it is about attending lengthy church-services. Even Dauda who is Musulumi, and Falana the Ifa-diviner’s son, both attempted the suffix, but Daudaeli and Falanaeli didn’t exactly sound right.
Some of the new Kristeni converts themselves rejected names like Pita, Abraam and Mosis. Ajayi is Samieli, and we too must eli-lise. Give us new names only if they’re suffixed -eli.
It sometimes amazes me how much I’ve learned in such little time. My hair had started to grey out by the time I began, but I have not only mastered the entire language, I can even invent my own words. Samieli says I’m the smartest person he has taught English, and that weighs more to me than a bountiful harvest from my cocoa farms.
He thinks me smart for many whys. I’m of the few who cared more about the things that happened on his journey than the goodies he brought back from almost becoming a slave.
“The ship was like a haunted house,” he says. “Haunted not by the mercilessness of the masters, but the hopelessness of the chained, lying on their backs and sides through the length of the gruesome journey—the Middle Passage. Souls lifted off bodies like steam from a boiling pot, leaving the bodies heavier but completely empty.”
“There are three things I will never forget,” Samieli always says: “the ship that rescued us away from that hell—the HMS Black Joke; the captain of the ship—Henry Leeke; and the place it took us to—Freetown.”
It’s with these three that he tells the story of his freedom every time.
The HMS Black Joke being the miracle that ended what seemed like a cruel joke, a horror he had to bear for being black-skinned; Henry Leeke’s name being close to the Yoruba expression e’n ri, which translates to ‘you all can see it’ as the horror played out in real life for all to see; and Freetown being the place he and the others became free again, with the name of the place wearing a constant reminder that it was all over.
His journey wasn’t entirely a nightmare, and the part where he says this to me is usually the bridge between the horror and the glorious part—the part that is my favourite.
Samieli soaks me in intense euphoria this way, seizing the canvas of my mind to paint vivid pictures of the dingy pits on the slave ships and the harsh sufferings vested on the unlucky ones in there; the experience of breathing clean air that didn’t threaten to choke and good food that didn’t provoke a puke in his new life in Freetown; the new worlds he discovered on the pages of books taught to him in the Queen’s country; and so much more.
The irony of it all is how you cannot feel bad for him. It’s hard to feel bad for a man whose lemonade you are sipping on, made from the sour fruits life has thrown at him.
As we sit together, breaking kolanut and drinking this sweet and sour lemon water, I take in how similar I am to my friend, yet how different. I wear my hair on my head while he spreads his to the sides of his face and the top of his upper lip like the white man. It’s also the white man’s clothes he wears now. I tried them once but since decided nothing compares to my buba and soro, with a fila abeti-aja—traditional shirt and trousers, with a fitting cap—to match.
The English rolls off Samieli’s tongue with such perfection, it is easy to forget how much of a traditional Yoruba man he is. I’m reminded when he chants my oriki—eulogy—in admiration of how fast I have mastered these languages—English, Nupe and Igbo: Omo ologbon ti’n fogbon s’omimu. Ologbon lo laiye, eni ti ogbon oya ju eni to ti kulo.[ii]
Truly, he who doesn’t seek knowledge is no better than a dead person. This has been in my oriki, but until he sang it to me, it didn’t really mean more than mere praises. With renewed clarity to these words, I decide to start to live afresh. After all, my son, Adisa has taken a wife and showed himself capable of taking over my cocoa farm. This is surely a better way to spend my time than to continue wallowing in self-pity over my Abeke’s demise.
So, I bid my friend goodbye and set out on a quest for more knowledge. With each figment of it came a new splash of colour. My footprints can bear witness to the expanse of my quest across the continent of Africa. I’ve fed on written words within the walls of Timbuktu, and I’ve been taught in a place called yunifasiti in Karueein, Morocco.
Trotting from place to place across Africa showed me more of her beauty and the abundance of wealth tucked within her. I still lay with closed eyes at night, closed eyes attached to a lively mind. The “lively” was in black and white, but now I see in colours. The greying has eaten up all of the black strands on my head, but you should see it, shiny and sitting pretty like a silver crown.
My friend published a book in Yoruba many years before. By the time I’m back, he has written more in Nupe, Igbo, as well as English. He is even writing the entire Kristeni book – the Bibeli – from English into Yoruba. I know I’ll likely never publish, but I took inspiration from him to start writing in this, my book.
Among the things I’ve written is a burning question I carried all the way home with me from my travels. Samieli hardly heard it in full before giving me a knowing nod. The mention of Ali Quam, the alchemist from Dar-es-Salam, was all it took. Apparently, they met a while ago and rubbed minds extensively on the issue.
While I was being taught Swahili by Ali Quam in a lonely settlement along the River Nile, he told me about this Vibranium. He said it’s believed to only be available in Africa. He said it’s powerful enough to transform the world. But he also said it could take up to a hundred years before we even find its exact location.
“So, you believe in this Vibranium?” I ask.
“Seeing is believing my friend,” he responds.
I’m building this image of the future in my mind. It’s a stairway that leads to a summit beyond my sight. Finding Vibranium is maybe the only way I can see it.
Samieli doesn’t agree, and he makes a good point. Vibranium or not, do you not see how blessed we are already?
Truly, we are the balance of existence, where nature sits, and all the good things of life abound.
Is our air not clean, or our soil not fertile? Are our children not warriors, or does milk and honey not flow beneath our grounds? His questions keep coming.
Submerged in reflection, I nod slowly, and then I ask a question of my own: “How do you imagine this place would look in a hundred years?”
“Everything will be better,” he says. “Humans will live better, trade better, transport themselves better, and communicate better. Maybe the world will have a meeting point then, centralised and without the barriers of borders. More diseases will have cures, and maybe that can help people live longer.”
My mind struggles to create better houses than the earthen masterpiece I live in. Would they be movable, or would they sit in mid-air? How about getting the education I got through space and time without having to leave home? Would that not be some kind of egbe—disappearance charm? I know Samieli’s horse-pulled carriage tops my aged donkey, but what could top the carriage? Perhaps I could speak from here and Quam would respond wherever he is? All these seem strange and impossible.
Samieli scratches his sideburns, his face tilting upwards as if he’s been deeply reflecting too. “You’ll be surprised how many more things you think strange now that were the norm then,” he says.
“If only I could see it,” I sigh.
“Who says you can’t?” He responds. “Who says they wouldn’t have found a way to fold time by then.?”
That comment danced around my mind all evening, and now as I lay in my bed watching the glowing bow of the moon through my open window, it has birthed an idea that’s shaking my whole body with excitement.
Tonight, I can no longer stay in my bed. My mind is alive and in colours, but my eyes are not shut. I am bending over my journal, inked feather in hand. If I can’t make sense of these hot morsel thoughts, I can at least send a message forward and ask for help.
A hundred years is what Samieli and I talked about, but when I tear this page off from this book, I will add another fifty and lock it away in my inheritance until the year 2020 AD.
So, dear great-great, or great-great-great grandchild or children, this is a journal entry for you. I believe strange must be the norm by the time you’re reading this. Maybe you even found Vibranium.
If by now, folding time backwards is possible, please travel to the year 1870 AD to get me. It must be a beautiful place where you are, and I would really love to see it. More importantly, please bring some cure for high fever if it exists. Together we will travel a few more years backwards and undo my greatest regret by saving my Abeke Okin. I miss her much more than I can invent new words for.
It will be fun, I promise you.
Alabi-eli Omoafrica olowo Cocoa
[i] Fashionable face who wears beauty like a cloth.
[ii] Child of the wise who drinks from the fountain of wisdom. The wise owns the world, he who is not wise is no better than he who is already dead.
After he was forcibly sent to science class in high school, it took Ibrahim Babátúndé Ibrahim twenty years to finally find his way back to his passion, in 2019, when he left a successful ten-year career in media and entertainment to become a writer. In that time, his works have appeared in Doorisa Jar, Ake Review, Agbowó, Analogies and Allegories, and more. He finished as a finalist in #GogeAfrica20 Writing Contest and Ibua Journal’s Packlight Series. He has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He can be found at https://twitter.com/heemthewriter, https://www.instagram.com/heemthewriter/, https://www.facebook.com/heemthewriter