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Read with us today: Olowo-Aiye Goes To Igbo Olodumare

Episode 2 | Culled From In the Forest of Olodumare by Wole Soyinka (Nelson Publishers, ISBN 978-978-8197-41-6)

The instant I saw Akara-ogun, I knew that heavy work had indeed begun. I turned to my wife and said, ‘Dear wife, the Dread Visitation is upon us. ’She replied calmly, ‘There is no Dread Visitation anywhere, my dear husband. Gird yourself. The King of Heaven will assist you. I know your tasks are many but work exists to bed ealt with. I shall take care of the home and smooth your passage, and I shall prepare exceptional food for the passage of the throat. ’When my wife responded in these words, I also replied, ‘I thank you for this exhortation it is only to be expected of you. I shall proceed with the labour, I, the man, make this declaration. You carry on with your work and I with mine. There is manhood in me even as there is womanhood in you.

We shall demonstrate the delights of this home to our guest. ’The industrious have respect in the eyes of the world, but the shirker is mere emptiness in the eyes of women. I entered the house, gathered up the instruments of my trade, set a chair beside a table, then set another facing it: on this, my friend, Akara-ogun, the man wedded to food to the gates of death, took his seat and, without further preliminaries, plunged straight into his story :‘Know, my dear friend, that it was in his twenty-fifth year on earth that my father prepared one morning to venture into a singular forest near our town to hunt, a forest known to our towns people as Igbo Olodumare, the Forest of the Lord of All Deities, for it was a forest that commanded fear in mortals. Hunters themselves were terrified of this forest even more than they were of the Forest of a Thousand Daemons, and it was a law in the town that no hunter who had yet to kill an elephant should venture within it. This forest was the very home of marvels there the birds speak in human voices, animals run markets of their own, a variety of trees have no roots, yet their trunks remain cool to the touch and their leaves display a dazzling glaze. The mice are bigger than the rats, snails bigger than the tortoise in the Forest of the Lord of All Deities. The powerful bog-trolls and aggressive ghommids are close friends while bothersome serpents of all kinds terrorize hunters, for in that forest also reigns the Head of all living reptiles, whose name is Python-of-Rage. ‘Before my father left home, he had lived true to a hunter’s calling. Numerous charms circled his waist, and rings of supernatural powers weighed down upon his fingers. Six cows were slaughtered as sacrifice for his departure. My father summoned the herbalists of the town and fed them, even though our home was filled with protective charms passed down from generation to generation. For six full months he had run from pillar to post on account of this mission to Igbo Olodumare, for those who had ventured in never returned, they were simply passed from the hands of one forest denizen to another’s. Ah, a most meticulous man was my father. There are men who simply surpass other men – Olowo-aiye was a colossus of a man. The day my father girded himself for that hunt, when it came to parting company with all kinds of
relations, it was an earthquake impact upon the household. The herbalists were gathered in our inner chambers. All kinds of people milled around the backyard, the elephant hunters congregated in the front porch, goats chased one another past the wicker-gate, women wept, men wept, the socialites could not speak, the city slickers wore heavy faces. However, my father togged out himself like a soldier in a white man’s army, wrapped himself in charms like a healer, walked like one who was set on a war-to-finish, stood at attention like a police recruit paraded before his superior officer. ‘When the hour arrived for him to take his leave, he summoned the entire household together, guests and all, and addressed them thus: ‘ “The day is upon us when I must go where men of valour go, to the domain of abnormal beings, to where all is still a dark mystery to me. I must leave well-being behind, enter the home of turbulence, but hardship is the father of success, a good name is to be preferred to a new wife, and if I endure all hardship today, I shall certainly gain treasures the day after. If I return from the Forest of the Lord of all Deities with joy, my name shall endure on earth imperishably. My dear people one and all, never aim at minor goals in your endeavours, always chase what is sizable. He who targets the great things, even if he does not attain his goal, will at least move close to the large things of life, but he who only sets his sights on the minor things will never stand within the assembly of the mighty. Whoever prays to own ten dandogo may not obtain all ten, but eight; he who prays for six pairs of trousers may obtain only five, but he who asks for only one pair of trousers from God, if he obtains two in the end, let him give thanks to the King of Heavens. ‘ “Truly, I see your looks are downcast, whereas my heart is as hard as stone glinting in the stream. However, progress is out of reach for the hesitant, and I am anything but that as I set out on my way. With the aid of my Creator, it is certain that I shall return to you. The hesitant thinks of his death in the morning and dies in the afternoon, whereas he still had three more days upon earth. One’s mind is the counselor of one's existence. So, give me leave to depart, take back my good wishes to your homes, take care of all I leave behind. Mangoes forth. Spread the news that the powerful goes where the powerful will be found, the man of note goes where men of note are found. Let it not be heard from notables, from young and old, that wayfarers to the Forest of the Lord of Heavens never return, let all the gentle people of the world continue to expect the return of the man of the Mask of Dares.”

‘With these words, Olowo-aiye set his face on the road to Igbo Olodumare, his eyes transformed in his head and turned red as embers. Such was his haste to be gone that he even forgot a most important fortification which was in a gourdlet, yet, without this, he would find it difficult to even find the way to the Forest. The feathers of the woodcock, the feathers of camwood bird, of the vulture, and the head plume of the parrot were used to stuff the neck of the gourdlet, while blood from various sources were smeared on its sides. It once belonged to my grandfather who found it inside the stomach of a python, for it must be recalled that even before we were born, several generations had been hunters within our family. The patriarch of whom I speak was the first to hunt in the depths of Igbo Olodumare throughout the land it was then that he dispatched the python and found the strange object in its belly. One only had to utter the appropriate incantation and name his destination, and instantly a breeze would blow and ruffle the feathers in the desired direction. Look, my friend, if my memory did not fail me, I would recite that incantation this very moment, for they are not more than twenty-five phrases, and once that was done, I would go and look for that potent gourd.

‘The Forest of Olodumare is indeed far, requiring at least a journey of two days, no less. The route is pocked with deep gullies. Broad rivers also criss-cross the terrain, rumbling as they cascade down rocks. It is lush with vegetation both good and bad, and there are countless thorned bushes to impede a man’s progress while all kinds of mean-spirited shrubs tangle with troublesome roots and weigh down branches, raining their rubbish on the wayfarer’s head. The animals give one no respite, the orangutangs, gorillas and their relations and other long-tailed simians leaping from tree to tree, their faces close to humans’ as are the fingers on their hands. Truly do those monkeys resemble humans, as if the Creator did intend that they be the relations of human beings. There are numerous species in those forest depths. Trees as tall as the palm tree, wrapped around by thick parasites, home to huge animals. Birds with sharp-pointed beaks they never strayed too far from the crown of palms lest they miss the kernels that sustain them, just as squirrels did not stay too far from roots. Ribbon-like snakes constantly sought the recesses; the mamba sought the undergrowth, the python made a home near the streams, while numberless venomous snakes sought the sanctuary of holes. Snails preferred the cool, moist places, the tortoise loved the earth-mounds, the brown hopper skipped between the shrubs while the pigeon sought rarer heights that bird functions like the cockerel of the forest depths, signalling to hunters the time of day. Trees a long time fallen have no more vitality, and mushrooms now grew upon them. The eyes of each animal differed from another, the path of the rodent was straight and smooth while that of the wild boar was broad and sumptuous. My good friend, seeing beggars all description. You know already the numerous kinds of peril that reside in the forest even so were my father’s encounters on his way to the Forest of Olodumare.

Nonetheless and it is I who assert this all I have recounted so far amounts to nothing when compared with what beset him when he finally reached destination. ‘My father slept by the road the first day he left home, and by the afternoon of the following day, he was quite close to destination. By three o'clock he arrived at a small forest that
was neighbour to Igbo Olodumare, this forest being known as Igbo Idakeroro, the Forest of Impenetrable Silence this qualifying as the most soundless place you could find anywhere under the sun. Only one ghommid lived in this forest, and he was more fiery than the very lightning of the sky. The ghommid did not permit anyone to enter Igbo Olodumare, placing in the way of hunters all manner of onerous tasks, yet he was no higher than the measure of two feet, this creature who lived in an outsize ant-hill. A most aggressive being, he moved around with a load of whips every day of his existence.

‘When my father entered this forest, every object was wrapped in total silence. The leaves on the trees were drooped, not one rubbed against another. It was as if no breeze whatever stirred the air. The boughs were equally motionless, just like soldiers before their superior. Roots appeared listless, like patients, animals had abandoned the place as abode and birds flown elsewhere to seek more congenial habitation. Every living thing took on the appearance of a debtor weighed down by his liabilities, the entire forest was eerily silent as if a major bereavement had befallen both friends and society. Look at me, my friend, seeing that my father found himself alone with this dimunitive kobold in the forest fastness, his passage was clearly not meant to be easy.
‘After my father had wandered aimlessly for a while, he and this tiny kobold finally set eyes upon each other. A memorable day it was: danger met with trouble, succubus
confronted incubus, two lions looked each other in the eye. The name of this creature was Esu-kekere-ode, Tiny Fiend of the Border. He wore neither smock nor trousers, he neither sported a cap nor wore a loincloth, deploying only leaves to cover his genital region. He had only one eye, and that was mounted on his head like a full moon. There was no nose to his face, but his eye extended beyond the border of his mouth and was flat like the palm of the hand. His teeth were similar to a lion’s, stained red as when the lion has just fed on raw meat. Hair covered him in place of clothing, his entire body was shaggy like a white man’s dog, and a huge lump seemed embedded at the top of his head. Even as he carried his load of whips on his shoulder, so was a huge sack tied round his neck, and that put terror in the beholder, for the sack was thoroughly saturated with blood with the down of birds stuck to it. Medicine gourdlets and dried ato shrubs, snake spines, the feathers of the woodcock and shrub hopper, animal horns large and small, including those of the striped deer which loves to eat okra on the farm, and feathers of the bush fowl that walks in the bush – all these were like outer garments on the monstrous sack of this tiny kobold of the forest ravine, he whose name is Esu-kekere-ode. ‘As he approached, his legs kept up a tintinnabulation from snail shells which had been broken into little pieces, each piece as solid as a shilling coin, strung together like beads and worn on his legs packed solid from ankle to knee. Just as dense were the metallic rings that turned his fingers black as the fingers of a dye-maker. Ah, take it from me, a most malevolent creature was this ghommid of the forest ravine, known as Esukekere- ode. ‘When my father appeared from this direction, and the other from the further, the pair stood still and surveyed each other, for when elephant meets elephant, certain it is that trees will topple on one another. He walked inwards, my father walked outwards, and when it lacked only a short distance for them to meet, they stood still once more and surveyed each other the inevitable was poised to begin. Esu-kekere was the first to speak: ‘ “Who are you? What are you? What are you worth? Of what are you made? How are you rated? What do you seek? What do you want? What are you looking at? What do you see? What's in your head? What ails you? Where are you from? Where are you headed? Where do you call home? What earth do you tread answer me! Son of mortals, answer me in one word! Surely you have courted trouble this day, you have climbed the tree beyond its branches, you have fallen from a great height into a well, you have heedlessly swallowed poison, you saw an overcrowded farm yet proceeded to plant groundnuts in it! You untutored man, you know that the lion and the antelope cannot set eyes on each other, that the leopard and cattle can never be friends, even as the day when the cat glimpses a mouse is the day the mouse’s existence ends. You saw me, I saw you, I approached, you approached, you did not commence a rapid dialogue with your legs, rather you swaggered towards me in total disrespect. You mean you are not struck with fear? Your heart did not leap out in fright? Have you never heard of me? Never heard people speak of me? The skulls of those greater than you have served me for a cooking pot, their bones littering the corner of my room, the rib cages of such unteachable ones serve as stools within my house. ‘ “I am the tiny kobold of the forest ravine whose name is Esu-kekere-ode. A disagreement took between me and another being at the gates of heaven and it led to my being accused of maligning the King of Heaven. This grew into a conspiracy with others, and they all insisted that I be expelled from the precincts of heaven. I left that place and came to reside beneath the heavens where I have remained a hundred years among the dead who are quartered in the lower regions. I learnt all kinds of wisdom from them and from then on, I came to understand that, among the deaths that overtake the children of earth, only a few could be attributed to the will of heaven. It is mortals themselves who bring death on themselves. Foolishness sometimes takes its toll unexpectedly; excess kills others without notice; laziness accounts for others; greed kills a number of them. Sometimes it is the hypocrite who seeks ways of ending the lives of others but instead, it is the would-be murderer who ends up on the porch of heaven. Again, the treacherous friend seeks ways of finishing off a friend but it is he who is pushed beyond existence. Sometimes the rich seek the end of the poor but the former ends up on heaven's terraces. The little man would seek the death of the important but finds himself on the other side of existence. The careless talker plays with death; the prodigal plays with death, the arrogant plays with death; the conspirator plays with death. And why does this persist? Because the Creator recompenses his creations by the measure of their works, and the aimlessness of the living among their kind. Thus the Creator cannot fail to use the rewards of their own conduct on them, especially the reverses of life, either on the outskirts of earth or of heaven. ‘ “I am the tiny kobold of the forest fastness, known as Esu-kekere-ode. When I left the dwelling of the dead, I came to the Forest of Idakeroro where I turned the ant-hill into my home. In this jungle I encountered animals, here I encountered birds, here I met ghommids but all of them I chased out so thoroughly that today I cannot find any being with whom to cohabit, leaving me the sole occupant, feeding on the leaves of the forest. However, this day, coming upon you unexpectedly, I give thanks, the luck of my head has brought a gift to me, for it is a long while since I tasted the meat of humans. When I have slaughtered you, I shall enjoy your meat for three full days. I shall use your head to season okra stew, your chest will swim in vegetable stew, and your buttocks will ooze fat into my pepper stew. The rest will be preserved in my home, stocked in my anthill larder. Ah, I give thanks to Olodumare on this day, I give thanks to all daemons this day, I give thanks to all ghommids on earth, give thanks to the provider amulet in my pouch, even as I thank the all-powerful ghommid, Alade-Igbo, the kobold who administers the ant-hills of the ravine, and who also happens to be a relation.” ‘Thus did this ghommid address my father, and my father responded even as it befits one strong man in his dealings with another. He regarded Esu-kekere-ode as a cantankerous woman looks at her husband with daggers in her eyes: ‘ “Whoever uses a sieve to gather rainfall merely deludes himself. He who stands in the path of a railway train will find himself in the other world. The aged one who spies a snake and does not flee is seeking his death. Any animal who thinks little of the hunter will sleep behind the hearth. Whoever counts on inheritance has already sold himself into penury. Any kobold who belittles me will wander from heaven to heaven it is I who make the boast – I say to you, all the kobold of Igbo Olodumare, that when the Creator had fashioned all the objects on this earth, it was the human whom he made lord of them all. I want you to know this day that pride is the beginning of destruction, it is the beginning of a fall, it is against the laws of mankind and contrary to the designs of the King of Heaven. Rather than you making a meal of me, I am poised to make your flesh dinner for the beasts of the forests and the birds flying in the trees. True, you have grown accustomed to turning those you have met into the contents of the soup pot. Nonetheless, Esu-kekere-ode, do not forget that one fowl is bigger than another, one goat supersedes another, one bird surpasses the next, one man is sturdier than another and no two hunters are the same. It is I who says to you, I am mightier than those others, I do not belong in their ranks, I am the equal of their fathers and you, tiny kobold of the jungle, you are nothing but a mouthy creature, you, Esu-kekere-ode, I am not the playmate of your mother's mother. To hell with you, what are you worth? To hell with you seven times over! Matters come to a head today, prepare, let us measure our strengths against each other.” ‘My dear friend, hardly had my father finished speaking than the two grappled with each other, and – what a Rumble in the Jungle! A human confronts a ghommid? The entire forest was in uproar. Tough as Esu-kekere was, just as tough was my father, Olowo-aiye, man among men, who engages in a noholds- barred with a creature from the other world. When the fight first began, Esu-kekere endeavoured to grab my father by the waist and slam his back onto a thorned tree, lift his leg onto his shoulder, toss him among fallen leaves, then begin to torment him. This however proved difficult to achieve, for even as he plotted this, my father had other ideas in mind. His plan was to seize Esu-kekere by the shoulders, lift the short creature from the ground completely, twirl the knuckle-head overhead and fling him a long distance, letting Esu-kekere fly from sky to heaven. However, this also proved easier said than done, for while one had girded himself like a lion, the other had mustered himself like an elephant, no wonder the thick dust of combat rose to the heavens. The ground began to shudder, the stamp of feet of both combatants exceeded that of ten humans. Their eyes bulged to bursting, they grappled with each other as parasites grip the trunk of a tree, each panting like a hunter’s dog. That was indeed a red-letter day for the kobold of the ravine, the creature known as Esu-kekere-ode. ‘After a while, this vicious ghommid leapt on my father at waist level, and as my father strove to seize him by the leg, he leapt on his shoulder, and when he had squeezed my father at the throat, he gave him a resounding slap. That infuriated my father, and he began to push the kobold forwards until he reached a thorned tree and, with all his energy, pinned Esukekere to the tree. The creature screamed but jumped off to the ground. My father was then able to seize him by both ankles to the extent that he lifted him above his head, but when
he hurled him with all the strength of his fury, in the hope of smashing his head completely, matters did not quite follow the script. When my father looked in front of him, this creature was standing as if at attention, laughing, regarding my father in a way that said the battle is just beginning. ‘My father was now becoming weary of the stalemate. He thrust his hand in his pouch, seeking some combat charm. His hands closed on a flute that had come to him through generations. He blew on it and the sound roiled round the entire neighbourhood. He raised the pipe to a tune which proclaimed that since the King of Heaven is the architect of all victories, the owner of all things on earth and in heaven, being present in the seas and in the air, there is nothing impossible for Him. Whatever he wishes will be done, and no one can prevent him from raising anyone to the heights. A pretender cannot prevent God from lifting high whomsoever he pleases. My father piped further: the pretender sets out in the morning, black as the soap from plantain leaves of the stream, by noon he is as brittle as firewood, by evening he has been totally consumed by fire. The conspirator said to his friends that he was fully covered in cloth, but when the truthful arrived, he revealed that he was stark naked. Thus and thus chanted my father with deep feeling on that day when he and the tiny kobold of the ravine met face to face. ‘The song echoed throughout the forest, and his flute was more mellifluous than that of the king. What else to expect when the song was a soulful plea it could not help but penetrate the hidden recesses of the mind of this kobold. The creature hung his head like the leaves of the plantain, he stared at the ground in mental turmoil and spoke: ‘ “The children of man have changed, the wise have gained admission to their souls. It has been a long while since I chose this place as my abode, but no one has ever tried to convert me from my ways. Yet have I observed, since the Creator chose to bring me to life,that the patient can never have regrets, unless those among them who let foolishness ruin their virtue of patience. Enough. From now on, I shall bear no further malice towards the children of this earth. My attitude to them shall cease to be hostile, I shall stop frowning at animals, and I shall not violate the leaves of the forest. Your words that turned my heart towards repentance. However, I must not leave you with the notion that it is mere ploy of the exhausted that extracts these words from me if you do, it can only mean that you have failed to understand anything. Thus you would have proved yourself to be one who calls the goat a cow, who calls a motor car a bicycle, and who sees this world as the heavenly abode. The patient is confronted with a fight and side-steps it, the foolish thinks he is simply a coward, but when the patient begins to fight, all the foolish begin to topple over like trees. I thank you for this dirge, it is a dirge of the wise and it reminded me of He who is my Creator. Without this song, you and I would have fought on for three solid days, for I am no stranger to fights of such lengths. I have fought for six months, I have fought for three, and I have fought a fight that lasted one full year solid yes, even this I, whose name is Esu-kekere-ode.” ‘Thus spoke this kobold, and my father’s rage subsided. He and Esu-kekere exchanged salutations, they shook hands and each turned his face in the direction of their destinations. However, as is only to be expected, a fight does not end without injuries to one, right or wrong. My father had collided with trees, his hunting sack was torn, he lost a most vital charm, and his tobacco pipe was broken. Even so had Esukekere sustain injuries. He lost two of his teeth, one of his rings was broken, he broke a leg and now walked like one with ringworm on his feet. This is why the wise consider fights like a poison and avoid it constantly, for a brawl is not befitting for humans, it being more like a fish-bone in the throat. But the demented of human society light the torch of the white man and begin to look for wars outside their own city boundaries. ‘Olowo-aiye set his face on his road, he and his Maker, and it lacked only a little time for him to pass through the Valley of Silence when he arrived at a small sparkling stream that flowed nearby, and was extremely cool. There my father rested and washed himself, after which he snacked off some red banana, took a kola nut from his pouch and bit a slice into his mouth. His mind now settled into a deep calm like a debtor who owed six pounds, only to have his Maker come to his rescue with a boost of ten pounds that found its way into his possession. ‘He had left the cool stream no longer than ten minutes when he arrived at another place which was spread wide and flat. The leaves of this place were cool and glossy, more beautiful than the front lawn of the white man, and small shrubs proliferated more abundantly than the huge trees. However, the trees which stood among the shrubs were truly impressive, they stood tall and proud, some white, others black, the bark on others were the colours of the rainbow, with stripes of black and red. The approach was wide, stretching beyond sight, which is to say that the road which my father now trod simply grew wider and wider. Huge stones were lined on either side of the road, behind them were small trees which cast their shaded on this avenue, lush with incredibly entrancing flowers. My dear friend, death that strikes before our eyes is merely alerting us with the proverbial – when Olowo-aiye saw these things, he knew indeed that Igbo Olodumarewas nearby, and he began to tighten his trousers. ‘The wise and the foolish seem indistinguishable when all is well, but the wise become clearly separated in a time of adversity – my father acted the wise at this moment. He carefully placed his possessions on the ground, moved under one of the trees and prostrated himself before God, saying: ‘ “You, King of Heaven who is my maker, you, King of Heaven who created Igbo Olodumare, you the Being of Marvels who created all things of marvel, Creator who made all the hunters of the living world, the time has come when I must pray that you remain my strength in this venture. There are those in this world who, when they departed the world, took their names with them, these are the ones who passed through this world as if a reptile slithered across a rock surface, leaving no footprints. There are those who entered this world and, on leaving, left behind them detestable names, these ones are like dark stains on white clothing . The washerman scrubbed hard to remove the stains until the fabric nearly turned to rags but the stain remained indelible. I pray you, my Creator, let me not be like these. I ask you in all humility that you act on the goodness of your heart, that I may be like those who came into this world and shone like the moon that does such good from generation to generation. Their names endured after their passage, and those who came after them labour hard so that they might emulate their lives. Even as I proceed, let me return as a man of solidity, so much so that even if the time has come for my departure from this world, the living would ask of one another, ‘could this have been a mere mortal? ‘Olowo-aiye prayed no more than this. The King of Heaven heard him from the other side, for just as there is no mortal akin to the angels, there is no rock of reliance like the King of Heaven. My father braced himself and surged forwards, singing, whistling, treading earth like a true warrior. ‘Not long after, gazing forward, he saw two women coming along the path, chatting and laughing, displaying roadside wares as is the occupation of hundreds of women. These two women conducted themselves as if they had left home and were enjoying themselves in the woods, acting coquettish as if they were in the middle of the town. One was light-complexioned, buxom and tall, struck one as a woman who had already entered the marital home, while the other was not that generously endowed, was only of moderate height, with a dark skin, her teeth white as the grains of new harvested corn. Both were beautiful. The tone of their voices sounded like that of socialites while their gait was like that which the enjoyment of life had turned carefree. ‘When they met my father, she greeted them and they also responded as one would expect from strangers, after which my father proceeded on his way and they on theirs. However, how these two society ladies found themselves in the forest depths could not fail to astonish anyone. This was what made my father turn round to take another look at them, and it was at this very moment that the shorter of the two also looked back, and when the two pairs of eyes met, they both broke into laughter, then resumed their walk

 To be Continued.

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