Things change in Benin, but then not so much. I come here a few times a year to visit some of my relatives. The ancient city is as stubborn as the even more ancient traditions of the Bini people. The Oba’s palace is a huge, sprawling compound with a land mass that would make any one of Saddam’s infamous palaces feel inadequate. The seat of one of Africa’s most famous Kingdoms is fenced round with the ubiquitous red mud of the Benin. I’m always awed by the length of the side of the fence that runs along Airport Road. It seems to go on forever.
Benin has its mystery which is not unconnected with the inextant traditions of its people in these times. The Chiefs are truly a sight to behold, with their very unique hairstyles, their impeccably white garments and the essential native beads around their necks and on their wrists. The King is officially addressed as The Omo n'Oba n'Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediuwa,Oba of Benin. Personally, I love the title, but that Uku Akpolokpolo part makes me uneasy.
I remember when I was about to come here to start secondary school. Two of my aunts came to our house with the sole intention of warning me of the perils lying in wait in the shadowy, foreign land into which my parents were about to pitch me.
Aunt N: When you go there keep to yourself.
Aunt W: Yes, don’t make friends anyhow.
Aunt N: I know you are inquisitive but it might land you in trouble over there.
Aunt W: Yes o! Curiosity kills the cat.
Aunt N: Of course we are not saying that you will be killed.
Aunt W: Or that you are a cat.
Aunt N: God forbid! That reminds me, beware of cats.
Aunt W: All animals in short. Those people are very fetish. They can change into any creature.
Aunt N: Porter, are you listening?
Aunt W: Listen and learn, we always tell you.
Aunt N: Don’t take food from anyone.
Aunt W: Especially rice. They use what you like to get you.
Aunt N: Don’t give out your clothes.
Aunt W: Yes, very important.
Aunt N: You must take your prayers seriously.
Aunt W: Put your bible under your pillow.
Aunt N: Fast when you can.
Aunt W: Very necessary.
Aunt N: What is making you laugh Porter? Do you think this is funny?
Aunt W: Take heed Porter, take heed.
On and on they went. My wonderful aunts. They still double-team me like that to this day.
Ahem! So back to Benin and its mystery and all that. Juju is not something hidden away in the backyard like some embarrassingly deranged relative. Here, it is real and acknowledged. It sits at the table and takes leisurely strolls around the neighbourhood. The practitioners/adherents of ancient religious traditions perform their rites with as much pride as the Hasids when they observe Hanukkah. It is not unusual to find an odd assortment of things slaughtered and things unidentifiable heaped at some junction early in the morning as sacrifice. There are various traditional religious sects that congregate and worship without any thought for the self-righteous opinions of the rest of our purported Christian/Muslim society.
There was a running joke back when I was in secondary school. It was something to the effect that on the CNN weather forecast, all other major cities in the world were listed thus :
New York 27F
Rio de Janeiro 52°F
Benin City *
*Weather conditions may change dramatically throughout the day due to obvious forces at work. Please contact your local juju-man or rainmaker for up-to-the minute forecast in that city.
Apparently I wasn’t the only kid from outside Benin who had been warned about the spiritual risks of just being in the city. The Benin boys as expected were not too happy with all the allegations that theirs was a decidedly hyper-fetish tradition, and they were always defensive. Their denials were however contradicted when most fights they got into over whatever ended up with them threatening to go home and 'swear for' their opponent at the shrine of some malevolent-sounding deity.
On one occasion, it suddenly started raining in the middle of a graduation ceremony. Our proprietor, a prominent Benin chief, stood up from the platform where parents and dignitaries were seated and headed toward a secluded corner, brushing away the shelter of an umbrella offered by an eager crony. Legend has it that he went and mouthed some arcane and potent incantations. I don’t know about that. What I know is that by the time he was returning to his high chair at the high table, the rain had stopped as suddenly as it had begun. He gained a lot of respect and, I dare say, fear on that day.
We had yet another eventful graduation ceremony a few years later when the erstwhile Military Administrator was invited as the Special Guest of Honour. When it was time to deliver his speech, the Navy Captain stood up and got into an arrogant intellectual rant intended to ridicule the monarch with whom he had a very bitter quarrel at the time. The audience was stunned. Amongst other very irreverent and disparaging comments, the MILAD said he was an intellectual and had read several books on diverse topics including Plasma Physics. He said it was an insult to his fecund intellect to expect him to believe that a human being could turn himself into a bat. He wondered what kind of molecular metamorphosis could permit such a mutation to occur. He went on to express his disdain for such backwardness, such superstition. The skimpily veiled attack almost ruined the entire event. The Benin Kingdom slept uneasily that day.
When the Milad’s wife suffered a miscarriage a few weeks later, the Benin people knew why.
On a less than morbid note, I resorted to calling the MILAD’s son (who-unfortunately for him-was my classmate) Plasma Boy! He hated it.
Speaking of bats, I’ve seen some very unusual activity by the nocturnal birds in these parts. On several occasions what seems like millions of them hover over the palace and around Ring Road. I wonder if there’s a huge bat cave somewhere in that vicinity. Hollywood take note: a good location for research or even a shoot if another Batman movie is in the works. I tink na authenticity dem say dem want?
Amongst the more bizarre things I’ve witnessed (albeit through the medium of the televison) in Benin was the Lovers’ Palaver which occurred a couple of years ago when I was here on a visit. A girl suspected that her boyfriend was cheating on her. To be sure, rather than hire a Private Eye to keep an eye on her lover’s privates, she went to a native doctor and ordered a customized spell. How she applied her designer spell, I don’t know. The fact is that whether via satellite, or the good old sprinkle-on-his-food method, the spell and (indeed the die) was cast. All that was required now was a siddon-look posture.
And so Mr. Loverman, oblivious as my fisherman Uncle in the village is to world oil prices, went about his business and played yet another away match. After the final whistle however, his erection remained. All his attempts to lower his flag were unsuccessful, he couldn’t even achieve half-mast by thinking unpleasant thoughts. Indeed, it was his mother who called in the family native doctor to help find a solution to the perpetual turgidity with which her son had been afflicted. And alas, it was the native doctor who with Sherlockian perspicacity deduced that the spell was from Mr. Loverman’s personal person, his babe, his main squeeze, his…em (I think I’m getting carried away again). ‘Hell hath no fury…’ said the native doctor, quoting Shakespeare in an unmistakably Oxbridge accent. (Sorry about that. I couldn’t resist. This is a true story o! Except for the obviously silly parts).
Anyway, the native doctor immediately asked that the long-suffering girlfriend be summoned. As can be expected, the girl refused to come, and instead sent a message back along the lines of ‘everyday for the thief…’ (Women!! Hah!)
Mr. Loverman spent one hellish night with an unyielding erection even as the native doctor tried his best to help him. By morning, it was clear that the spell was passworded and it was the girl who knew the pin code. Again they begged her but she continued to spurn all entreaties. Eventually, the boy had to go to the palace and plead his case (this is where the newscameras got in on the whole thing) even though the problem was clear to everyone. The palace then summoned the girl, and got her to temper justice with mercy and give the guy a break for crying out loud (italics and sympathetic opinion are mine). The guy was full of remorse and gratitude when they emerged from the Palace. He promised to be a stand up guy from then on. The girl was sulking and unwilling to oblige the journalists with any sound bites.
I think it’s pretty obvious that this post has veered way off course. Make I end am here. I can’t even remember what I set out to blog about. Anyway, I’m in Benin sleeping, eating, watching TV, and making the most of all that ‘oh-so-you-won’t-go-to-lawschool-until-September’ sympathy. I’m also giving my liver a bit of a break and rediscovering the music of The Cranberries and Tracy Chapman.
We go yan.