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Festac ’77 – a faction by Akin Adesokan

Was Festac 77 curated by Esu Elegba? Akin Adesokan’s faction explores art piracy, the curse of Festac and its many restless gods.

by Akin Adesokan

Imagine,
first,
a priestess of Esu (Elegbara), the West African god of the crossroads and inspiration for the less tangible practice of hermeneutics. The woman, in her late sixties when the story begins, in August 1976, in a small village three hours by car north of Lagos, is also the mother of twins born in 1930. One of them was dead within months of birth, hence the obligatory recomposition of the spirit of the departed in ere-ibeji. The twin sculptures are polished to shiny black by original emulsion and decades of oiling and handling. Her profession of Esu does not confl ict with her attendance on the spirit of the twins, or even the fact that her children answer to Muslim names. Both are her life, fabric of the relative peace of early-to-mid-twentieth century western Nigeria, “with its modern constructions with one foot in the bush…the whole area with its infi nity of night lights that appear to illuminate the noise”, as seen through the eyes of Edouard the Antillean. The peace was relative because, in times past, when she was not yet a child, gunshots from the hundred-year wars were the heartbeats of life, its passions the periodic fi res of ostentatious destructions. Insensate times: the smell of burning ivory, the sound of blunderbuss, the undying certainty that what was sold down the river for a fl ask of rum or sachet of gunpowder could not, like the river, fl ow back. What was gone was gone; the law of eternal return did not apply. Her name is Elesu, she who professes Esu.
Imagine,
next,
an out-of-job councillor, a creature of the military regime which has been in power for ten years, and claims inspiration from the warlike spirit of the iron-god to whom dogs are sacrifi ced by all workers in iron every February. He has no job right now, two years from the Constituent Assembly that will prepare the constitution of the Second Republic. Councillors’ positions are rotated among a crop of semi-educated men who used to be foot-soldiers of the Action Group, the party of the West that distributed the good things of life from Olympian helicopters. A fi fty-year-old Methodist with the habit of clutching a leather folder everywhere he went, Kansilo was a councillor long enough to have evolved an identity from the job. He is no longer one, but he still performs the duties – aff ects the pomp and circumstance of performing them. Such is the fl uidity of life on this fringe of offi cialdom, villages managed by the invisible hands of civil servants at the Secretariat, who are “directed to inform” by the Permanent Secretary who in turn keeps his position at the mercy of the Military Governor, Brigadier Oga Kekere. In this milieu, of a violence so deadening as to penetrate the very stuff of life into which its monstrosities disappear to be reborn as armed bandits shot at the Bar Beach on the pen-wielding authority of Brigadier Oga Kekere, it doesn’t matter that Kansilo is no longer in the Service. Who cares who knows?
Imagine the third character,
Cousin T, a.k.a. Tarifomah (Inter-Reformer), alias I-Dey-Dere, bus-loader, tout, back-up singer for an apala band, apprentice driver, possessed of an incredible gift of the gab. Cousin T doesn’t really live in the village; he lives in Ibadan but, as an apprentice driver, he arrives with the passenger mammy-wagon almost daily, and it is not unusual for him to miss a return journey as the lorry blasts its silencer out of the village while he is busy distributing his gifts to crowds who can’t get enough of him. When those gifts are wrapped in the foil of his poetry, the listener gets the distinct impression that the man had an argument who spoke of the language of this gift-giving as the missing link between music and speech. Cousin T would say: When a shoemaker’s wife prays, ‘May accursed feet not enter our home’, she is ruining her husband’s business.
He would say: ‘I shall feed on (i.e. prosper from) my profession’ is a prayer unbecoming of the night-soil man. He finds out what’s going on in the world by listening to the radio or eavesdropping on the news-stands at the Ayeye Terminus while waiting on a Bedford lorry. This is Ibadan, that city of improvised “refreshment stands or beer halls lining up along the brush” of which, again, Edouard the Poet of Relations sings in a French syntax mediated by skeptical Pan-Africanism. Cousin T makes history out of news, legends out of phrases. By the time he’s done explaining the latest involvements of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi of the newlyformed Inkatha Freedom Party in anti-apartheid politics, his audience is invited to imagine a figure out of a Daniel Fagunwa novel, down to the name. The chief as Gongoshu. Twenty when the story begins, Cousin T has had rough dealings with Elesu in the past. We’ll get to that. The word is out, and Cousin T brings it home, that a spectacular festival showcasing the best of African arts, cultures and customs is in the pipeline. It will be held in Lagos, at the National Stadium and inside the magnificent theatre just imported for the purpose from Sofia, Bulgaria. The theatre is designed like a Colonel’s cap; the head of state is Lieutenant-General Obasanjo. This is what Cousin T says: Lagos is hot. Obasanjo takes off his cap, and sets it down saying, “That is your theater! Dance dance dance and forget your sorrow!”
People laugh. They are gathered under the massive acacia tree at the edge of the bus station, with a view of the road to Ibadan. Someone wonders if Obasanjo had then returned home with his head bare. Cousin T smirks and says that army caps are ten for kobo. He says that Lagos is crowded, or there would be two or more free caps to throw around. But there is no space to waste in Lagos. Tarifomah, someone else asks him, have you seen this cap? And how can anyone dance inside a cap? Go to Iganmu, Cousin T fires back. I dey dere, he says. The cap is shiny and big, but you can’t get inside. For now there is no access.
Once he says I dey dere, people usually back off. If he doesn’t say that, he says, finger pointed: You dey dere? It is late morning. The passenger lorry is long departed, but if Cousin T gets through with this undertaking, he might yet be on time for the second trip, at two o’clock. So the interrogation continues. This dance in Lagos, what is it about? Did someone old and wealthy die? Cousin T says it is all about Festac.
What does it mean?
His lips pursed to deliver a sneer as fitting response to the dumb question, Cousin T wonders what “mean” means.
What does Lagos mean? What does Tarifomah mean? Just alias, he declares with a superior air. You see it you know it.
But alias for what?
Festac alias African dance and culture!
No one can miss the exclamation punch of the statement.
Down the road, a figure emerges in resplendent agbada, clutching a leather pouch under his arm. Cousin T is the first to notice, and as he watches the figure approach, he makes a comment under his breath. The rest giggle.
What does he say to make people laugh at the approach of this important man? Kansilo is not resident in the village, but people know him very well. The youth especially, able-bodied men like Cousin T, are getting close to the age of dread at this time of the day. Thank God this is August. Last March, every March, Kansilo enters the village with the stealth of a jungle cat, the last of a team comprising six strong-armed men, each of whom has found his way in through one of the numerous bush-paths. These are the tax officers, and it is their duty to gather as many young, able-bodied men as possible, ask to see the receipts of their income tax. That prized paper, with the coat-of-arms of the State Government sitting at its crest! If you are of tax-paying age and you do not have this paper, you do not loiter about the village at ten o’clock in the morning. You take off at the sight of the man dressed in a flowing agbada and carrying a leather pouch. For Kansilo’s men do not arrive by car or lorry. They sneak in, on foot, like bad blood in the network of arteries leading to farms and rivers and other villages, and swoop on a group of layabouts, like the one currently listening to Cousin T’s rhapsodies. You know they have arrived the moment you feel a sudden grip at the scruff of your shirt. Nobody really takes the precaution of paying taxes until this tail-end of the financial year, and so the operation ends with the hemline of one man’s shirt becoming entangled in the hemline of another’s shirt, on and on, until the eight or so victims totter about in a quandary, a spectacular source of jeer for the village urchins. They are chain-ganged three miles to Kansilo’s village, Metoh (from Methodist), from where, unless any of them is able to come up with the tax amount and purchase his freedom proofed with the stamped-paid receipt, they are transported to the council jail at Ido. The age of dread is the tax-paying age. Thank God this is August, that’s what Cousin T says in an undertone. Kansilo walks past them, his demeanor so businesslike it is doubtful that he returns the courtesy of their greetings. He knows where he is going, so no need to ask for directions. The village is constructed in the shape of a honeycomb, houses bunched together in parallel rows that rise and dip in depth, so that to make one’s way from the outskirts to the centre, one proceeds by a series of incrementally diagonal paths that look like shortcuts between the lower and the higher depths. Kansilo’s destination lies between the centre and the outer edge of the village, a distance of a hundred and eighty metres. Crablike he moves, barely nodding to the obligatory ‘welcome’ muttered at him, a sign of extreme bad manners for an out-of-villager. Where is he going? What is he up to? After one or two unkind cuts at the personage in garrulous dress, Cousin T returns to his unfinished business. Next January, he says, I will be at the National Stadium to see Festac.
He cannot miss the absolute lack of interest in this subtle offer. Everyone knows that all it takes Cousin T to reach Lagos is a wave of the hand at an approaching bus at the Ayeye Terminus, where most drivers are his pals. And he hops on board, paying his way with a running order of jokes, puns, tales and songs. And if he asks to take you along, who can pass up such an offer? The one person certain to go with him is already there – Femo, a distant cousin of his and a notorious acolyte at the Afrika Shrine. But the priorities of Cousin T’s audience seem to have been altered by the arrival of Kansilo, who has the gait of a man going to see the village potentates. Is the tax season about to change? There is no point worrying; whatever brings him will be known even before he departs.
Kansilo taps carefully at Elesu’s door, which is also the door of the village chief. It is a Compound, a coterie of compartments internally divided as rooms or quarters belonging to each section of a large family according to the pattern of seniority among the male children of its original builder, framed with an open courtyard. Kansilo has crabbed his way into the courtyard. A stranger entering a house as big as this at this time of the day usually announces his presence outside the main entrance, but he has huge credit here. When the village chief ran foul of government funds during the 1973 National Census, he faced more than reprimand. As in most matters to do with money, details of the scandal became as complicated as denominating the new currency, but as the people of the village came to understand it, their chief had simply been faced with the dilemma of making a living out of an accident he had historically risen to defeat. It was better to see it in those terms – the tragic fatality of a way of life not guaranteed to endure. Either that or the misfortune applied to the entire village of Multiple-Paths, steeply decadent, bankrupted by the same habits that used to make it prosperous. But Kansilo had stretched out a helping-hand; the chief’s ordeal thus ended with three days away from the village, a fate more bearable than a judicial inquiry, and when he returned, maligned defender of his people’s interests, it was to continue to reinforce the very system that had once ambushed him. He had Kansilo to thank. The chief is advanced in age; he’s the first son of the family, older than Elesu’s husband by eighteen years. He is not the reason the renewable councillor taps at the door today.
Elesu comes to the door; seeing who it is, she enthusiastically throws it open – it is something of an honor to receive him.
There are a few people about the Compound: children too young to go to school, young women preparing for the market, the very old, like the chief, observing the routine of boredom with the experience of half a lifetime. Having admitted the visitor, exchanged pleasantries, responded to small-talk with the fulsome mien of a former beneficiary, Elesu invites Kansilo to a seat. But no, says the man with the leather pouch, what brings him is not something to discuss in the hallway, within hearing distance of young women’s ears primed like magnets for the iron-filings of gossip. At a corner of the courtyard, to the distant left of the door through which Kansilo has just walked, sits a private shrine of Esu, the squat and dark fellow, marked with a block of laterite the size of a human head, the supporting wall muraled with years of palm-oil offerings. Further down, in an alcove built for the purpose, are the carvings of the god in different poses, each representation reverential but honest, in commonsensical acknowledgment of his ways: principled unpredictability.
Nearby there are also the ere-ibeji, the sculptures embodying the spirit of the twins, one of whom still lives, has just sent himself off on an errand before the arrival of the august visitor. In front of the alcove, there’s a bench carved out of brown stone, a bigger laterite to stand guard over the smallish king of hermeneutics. Elesu and her guest sit. Then someone appears at the outer door of the courtyard: Cousin T.
What does he want? He stands looking directly into the courtyard, seeming to need attention but not daring to step into the house. What does he want? Elesu’s conversation has hardly begun. Asking for a moment’s excuse, she rises and goes toward the young man. But before she reaches the door, Cousin T breaks into a smile, bows comically, and turns tail. He does not look back. A stunned Elesu watches him go, apprehensive of pranks.
She looks out. There is no one else about. Another shrine of Esu sits in the open, on the near side of the courtyard, behind the house to the left that cuts a diagonal line to it. A few years ago, Cousin T was in the village for a whole week. Out of job or out of trouble, he went everywhere, trailed by desperate village urchins looking for mischief once it became clear that their leader had run out of stories. No one knew when and how it happened, but a little before noon, a hawker of shea-butter calling into Elesu’s courtyard noticed an unusual amount of fresh soil at the shrine. Earth plowed afresh around the mound of laterite, its circumference littered with potsherds, ceramics and bits of a broken gourd. It was an obvious sign that the shrine had been vandalized; when Elesu appeared to admire the freshness of the shea-butter (she had no intention of buying), the hawker made a comment about the freshness of earth around the shrine. Shocked, the priestess responded by flinging herself down, on the spot, in awestruck homage to the abused god. She launched into a panegyric, an endless song that looped in and out of sonic focus, adumbrated by the charged desperateness of the singer’s motive. A heartgrieving sight; the hawker was too scared to watch. She lifted her tray and ran. Sufficiently placated with songs and chants, Esu grinned at the priestess, who approached, led by the light of the grin beaming from the halo of brown earth freshly turned. Elesu reverted to her eulogies, now at the measured pace of a plea, placatory, tuneful, but lowtoned, the complacent cooing of a pigeon nestling under the eaves in the heat of the day. Another round of curtseying at the foot of the god, and the priestess tossed a bit of palmoil on the laterite. Propitious palm-oil, the fluid measure of temperance.
Shortly after, Elesu stumbled on an urchin sitting in a corner of the village, scooping food out of a tin. The lad was eating Geisha, mackerel canned and stewed in tomato sauce. The moment he saw the woman, he rose and fled. Soon she happened on another, who acted likewise, and when she came to the third, she didn’t let him know what was upon him before she got hold of him.
I didn’t do it, the scared imp cried, Tarifomah took us there!
News of Elesu’s detective work had reached Cousin T; by the time she appeared at the village centre, cuffing the scamp by his ear, the priestess had amassed a crowd eager to know what had happened and desperate to know what was going to happen. Cousin T stood to one side, studying the crowd, watching Elesu closely. He watched her tell of the abomination of wrecking the shrine of the god of unpredictability. He watched as the crowd reacted in total astonishment to the passionate, patient reconstruction of the horrifying spectacle of a violated shrine. It came down to this: Cousin T had led a band of urchins to the shrine to dig up old coins used as offering to Esu, and had distributed the money among them. Never before, it was said, had this kind of thing happened to even minor gods, the benign ones that people struggled to shake out of neglect. But this, and to Esu, of all things! It didn’t matter whether or not Cousin T took some for himself. It didn’t matter that any offerings given to the god belonged to none but who wished to use it.
The graph of the priestess’s tale rose and rose, attaining an exaggerated level of declamatory anger, and climaxing with a furious finger pressed down at Cousin T’s nose, a rather mild punishment for the offence, and of which, by the general snorts of indignation that preceded it, the crowd seemed to approve. Then it happened. As swift as the climax of Elesu’s anger, at the very moment her forefinger touched the accused on the nose, a sharp object shot out of the youngster’s hand, catching the sun’s rays with a dazzling immediacy and immediately drawing a red line across the width of the woman’s face. The contented snorts erupted into even more indignant shouts of astonishment, but Elesu’s voice rose above all else. Her face dripping blood, she beat a path through the diagonal cluster of houses crying, I had no idea that he was armed! I didn’t know that he stood for danger!
The brutal act of slashing the face of a respected woman was condemned; Cousin T was overpowered, hauled before the elders, and scourged. But that day and the next, everyone wondered if he, and not Elesu, had acted on Esu’s behalf. Was not unpredictability, after all, the first thing about this god? In later days and months, Elesu healed the wounds dealt her by working out a friendship with her attacker. And people said: That’s Esu’s way. The deity who attacks his defender.
And people said:
There must be a reason that things turned out that way for Elesu. The god she attended might not be predictable, but he was always principled.
It is from of this sense of purpose and dread that she has risen to approach the comical figure loitering at the door of the courtyard. But he is gone; there are no other rascals around. She scurries toward the shrine to the left of the outer wall. There is nothing unusual about it. She repairs to the laterite bench where Kansilo sits and waits.
Out of his leather pouch, he brings a copy of Daily Sketch.
First, he opens the newspaper to its centre spread, placing it on the bench for Elesu to see it. Then he begins to speak. We of the black race are blessed with culture and tradition. We have a great civilization. Our governments recognize this wealth; our cultural heritage is our wealth. Eleven years ago, in Dakar, our people came from different parts of the world, they went to celebrate our rich cultural heritage. It was so good that they agreed to do it regularly – every ten years. Our country is the next host. In January next year, we will have a new festival. It has a name already; they call it Festac.
Our government has built big spaces to host it. It is a good thing for us.
He pauses. The priestess, who has been nodding to this odd but nice-sounding speech, says nothing. She watches him; she wonders if he needs a drink of water. She calls into the house for water for the guest. Aware that a more magisterial tone is called for, Kansilo brings the newspaper closer to his face, and reads a passage aloud, but slowly, because although Daily Sketch is an English-language newspaper, he pronounces words that cause Elesu to nod in comprehension.
“By the term art, we mean all disciplines that are useful to social life and have the character[pause]ristic feature of imparting beauty to the world: sculpture, painting, architecture, music and dance, drama, cinema, etc. The black and African art is not only an important and an essential element of black and African civilization and the greatest contribution of the latter to human culture, indeed it is also, for the structure of the civilization, an element and a factor of specif[halt]city…”
Kansilo translates as he reads, but Elesu hears only two things: the voice of a preacher, modulated in the mystifying Talking- Book gestures of the missionaries of her childhood, and the word “contribution”. Is this about an attempt to impose new levies? Are people of Metoh planning to plant a church? But she knows better than to ask. She listens. You do not ask the riddle-maker what the devil he means; you beat the devil of riddles by being phlegmatic. What Kansilo means is that as a priestess, custodian of the objects and accessories that impart beauty to the world, Elesu is one of a few people from around the black and African world to give Festac a good welcome. And since opportunity comes but once and opportunity lost can never be regained and time and tides wait for no one and heavens help those who help themselves and the journey of a thousand miles starts with a footstep and no one sings Don’t-Pass-Me-Over while lying down, I Kansilo, who know these things because of my contacts and exposure, wish to inform you that before it is too late, we have to make use of the opportunity that is knocking at the door.
Atop the deep column of the article Kansilo reads from sits the Festac logo, the majestic head of Queen Idia, the prize ivory sculpture pilfered during the punitive expedition in Benin in 1897. The logo is so positioned that an eye trained on the page cannot miss it; the paper is held in such a way that it is all Elesu sees when she looks. The Queen Idia is an oblong face with the stylized eyes looking down, as if at the nose, two vertical gashes lining the forehead, and behind these, the rest of the head, is the headdress, a complex beadwork bordered by twelve tiaras arranged in a semi-circle. Perhaps a crown, the feminine version of the king’s spectacular royal wear, the envy of those who knew what beauty it would impart to the world and had ensured that it stayed there, in the world, far away from home. They stare at the page for what seems like seventy-nine years. Something waits to be said, Elesu is the one to say it, but Kansilo’s personality has been forged in the crucible of inconvenient moments, the political perception that all transitions are profound or risky and that in order to stay in touch with power it is necessary to befriend forbidden knowledge. Elesu, staring at the female head, is riveted by it. Perhaps not. Kansilo speaks, gesturing at the sculptures nearby, in the alcove:
All these too can be put in the newspapers, so that they can impart beauty to the world and bring honour to those at home.
A short speech; having said so much indirectly, Kansilo entitles himself to the declarative. To which Elesu, after a pause just as short, replies that as a custodian she is but an intercessor, and she will perform this role by “asking my father”. She means that the undertaking calls for the propitiation of the fellow of Iserin, the squat mound of laterite present at once in here and out there. There is more: the head of the household, also sitting somewhere nearby and close to dotage, has to be told. In two days, perhaps, it will be possible to offer a detailed response to this declaration. There is more, but a question will suffice. Why is no one sending men and materials to propagate this Festac, like it happened during the National Census? Where are the posters, the radio jingles, the mobile trucks with loudspeakers cackling from their roofs? Kansilo says that the process has just begun. That’s one reason he is here, so early in the day.
Both are satisfied.
Kansilo rises to go; he crabs in the direction of the alcove, ready to admire the sculptures. Or merely regard them. He stands and stares. He feels like touching, but he will have to bring forth a coin or two; a toss of palm-oil will not do – that’s a gesture permitted only the priestess.
Stepping out of the courtyard, Kansilo pauses to light a cigarette. His gait is less businesslike now; he is sauntering through the village, tracing the same diagonal walkways he has earlier hurried through. When the retired councillor pauses again, to acknowledge greetings from familiar voices, Cousin T, who has never been far away, coughs and breaks into a ditty: The sky is overcast. Let no one smoke. The thunder king does not take kindly to flames.
The rude song startles Kansilo; he turns to look. Then he turns back to complete his greetings, hoping that his acquaintance will at least tongue-lash the youth. The man exchanging greetings with Kansilo sucks his teeth, seeking refuge in a proverb: When a child outgrows the whip, he invites the sanction of the lip; when the rebuke grows tame, the withering eye brings him shame.
He says it loud enough for Cousin T to hear, but the young man doesn’t seem to care. He circles the area like a rooster angling to mate, humming, whistling, and snapping his fingers to take the score. Unsure what his motives are, Kansilo quickly ends the pleasantries and goes on his way. The ditty is longer than three lines, but Cousin T withholds the final line, where the punch lies. Twenty-two years ago, when he had not yet been born, the song was very popular as a political jingle affronting the Action Group, party of the West, in quarters like the village of Multi-Paths where its rival, the NCNC, had a foothold. The line says: Penkelemes does not take kindly to the Palm Tree (the symbol of AG). Kansilo, let us recall, was one of the foot-soldiers of the old party.
Several hours later, close to six o’clock in the evening, Kansilo is back, his leather pouch clasped under his arm. This time, he stops under the acacia tree, to acknowledge greetings, scanning the gathered faces for the rude lad of earlier in the day. Cousin T is not there. Kansilo doesn’t have to stop for long just to respond to greetings; he is careful to look serious, to affect the demeanour of the offended. If he wishes to convey the impression that Cousin T is in trouble, he seems to succeed. Whether he is in a position to make the trouble real, beyond impressions, remains to be seen. Walking slowly now, but with greater deliberateness, he makes his way to the house lying between the centre and the outer edge of the village of Multiple-Paths. Cousin T’s song proves prophetic; the sky is becoming overcast: August, month of a million rains.
When Kansilo sweeps into Elesu’s courtyard, it is as if the woman has not moved a step from the stone-bench inside the portico. She is there, languid on her paunch, picking her teeth in a distracted manner that suggests more habit than necessity. Is she irritated to see him! His influence notwithstanding, the perception of the retired councillor as an unrelenting hustler is as common in the village as rain in August. If in the morning Kansilo was exploratory and indirect, this evening he is deliberate and to-the-point; if the purpose in the morning was to introduce or promote Festac, now the point is to claim its object, that thing which imparts beauty to the world; in the morning it had been up to him to break the ice, now he puts Elesu on the defensive, his mouth trained on her like a hose, drenching her with a deluge of questions:
What does the chief say? Which of the twins does this represent? Why is the shrine here and not there? What will the god demand? When will you be ready to receive Festac agents from Lagos? Do you mind if I talk to other priestesses?
The sky is overcast; it is twilight in the village of Multiple- Paths. Somewhere in the neighbourhood, amid the chatters of eventide, a noise more systematic than rhubarb is building up. In the distance, the sky rumbles with the sound of thunder. Following the attack from Cousin T, apart from consciously befriending the youngster, Elesu also revived a practice common to devotees of Esu, but which time and the pressures of Chrislamity had all but rendered quaint: the vow of abstinence. She took to fasting twice a week. Meditation concentrates the spirit. After Kansilo’s departure earlier in the day, she has considered this option, a purer way of readying the spirit for the reception of signals on how to proceed. It is Esu, more than the chief vegetating in the parlor, whose consent is primary. With the aggressive questioning, Elesu secretly wishes for the inspiration to handle the challenge. The noise from the centre of the village continues to rise, or come closer. The rain-clouds gather in density, throwing a dark pall over the village with the coming of dusk. It is time to bring out the storm lanterns. The young girls of the house are returning from the market. The noise trails them, getting louder the deeper they disappear into the Compound. It does not enter with them; it remains outside the courtyard, rowdy but determined, the frustrated hooftaps of a bridled horse. Elesu rises to light the courtyard.
When she returns, Kansilo is on his feet. The noise, strident and declamatory, stands permanently at the outer door. Drumbeats. The sky is overcast. The sky growls. Thunder sunders the sky, it shudders. Furious fingers of lightning scratch the sky. The night is alight with the sparks. The sound of stones beating an alarm out of tins and bottles has the unsettling clarity of bata, the drum of the thunder god. Then it stops, to be replaced by a one-tone song with an oddly familiar ring: The sky is overcast. Let no one smoke. The thunder king does not take kindly to flames.
The voice is as familiar as the song: Cousin T. To Elesu it is clear that Kansilo is ready to leave, although his questions remain unanswered. Wait a moment. The minor shrine at the foot of the laterite bench is near the site of the ere-ibeji, repositories of the spirits of the twins.
Kansilo, I’m done for! Where are my twins?
Use the light well, Elesu, use the light in your hands.
Cousin T and his band of drummers are straining at the bridle. The sky dense with moisture cracks from the menace of unruly noises, thunder and lightning, bottles, tins and stones…!
Kansilo, where are they? Wooden sculptures don’t walk!
Patience, Elesu, patience. I’m standing here with you.
Kansilo, I will ask my father to find them for me!
Patience, Elesu. Let me help you…
Sango, the thunder king, is the spirit of the rainy season.
When the god is on the prowl, in anger or leisure, his devotees observe a worse affront than smoking: leaning on a wall. Kansilo, moving out of the way of Elesu’s desperate search, leans backwards, his back resting on the wall of the courtyard. A deafening roll of thunder crashes to earth with the rains, its impact so strong it knocks the storm lantern out of the woman’s hand, plunging the courtyard into darkness. The rain descends in noisy torrents, but above it rise the singing voices of Cousin T’s orchestra, calling on the thunder king to behold the audacity of mortals, and act. Kansilo blunders through the wet twilight without his pouch.
In the morning, after the rain, a sodden copy of the Daily
Sketch will stick out of the pouch, next to the ere-ibeji, dark and polished, washed clean by rainwater.

This piece was first published in Chimurenga 08: We’re All Nigerian! (December 2005).

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