The meeting that would decide Moremi’s fate was held in the parlour of Alhaja’s house.
The parlour was the biggest room in the house. It had several old fashioned couches spread around it. The chairs were so immense one was led to believe giants had once occupied them and that over the years their progeny had shrunk in size.
The walls of the room held black and white pictures of long gone ancestors. The most imposing picture was that of Alhaji, the family patriarch, Alhaja’s great-grandfather. It was positioned in a corner that faced the doorway, there was no way anybody could miss it.
He was dressed in an agbada made of Aso-Oke, around his neck was a thick, gold necklace, with a huge pendant, both the necklace and pendant nearly reached his ankle. On his shoulder was a thick saki, famously worn by members of the Ogboni fraternity.
For this important meeting, the sitting room had been transformed into a community hall. The couches that could be manouvered were piled one on top of the other in one corner, while the heavier ones were covered with sheets. Plastic chairs were arranged facing the direction of the only door that led into the spacious room.
Members of the family trickled into the room in ones and twos, after a while someone shooed the little children previously playing hide and seek in the room into the brilliant sunshine outside.
As the room filled up the noise level increased.
Moremi swathed in black, neck bent in sadness, shoulders slumped in defeat, was led in by one of the women her arm placed possessively around Moremi’s shoulders. Murmurs of sympathy rose from the people already in the room, each person ensured they had a word with her while those who had no words patted her on the back.
Moremi detached herself from the women that held her, lifted up the corner of one of the sheets and squeezed into a tiny space on one of the covered couches at the back of the room. She wished she could squeeze herself into the couch she was seated on, she wanted to just disappear, but then nothing ever happened the way she wanted it.
There was a flurry of neck craning as Morieba, a tall, dark-skinned woman with ample breasts draped in gleaming jewels, at odds with her sober mien, sauntered into the room.
“Anti Morieba, you’re back from London!” One of the women that had been hitherto gossiping with her neighbour shouted. She jumped out of the chair she was seated on and knelt down to greet Morieba, who patted her on the head and complained about the fact that nobody deemed it fit to call her immediately Alhaja died.
“I would have gotten on the next flight out of London. I even missed the burial ceremony,” she said in her deep, almost masculine, voice.
“Don’t be angry Anti Morieba, you know how messed up NITEL services are these days, I tried to call you on the number you left with me, but each time I went to their offices they would tell me something is wrong with something called a trunk. Me I just left jejely.” The woman said as she followed after Morieba who was headed towards where Moremi was seated.
Morieba grabbed Moremi and smothered her with her ample breasts and the Channel No 5 perfume she was wearing.
Moremi smiled tremulously at her favourite aunt as she was replaced delicately on the chair she had been seated on.
“We will talk later,” Morieba whispered.
As Morieba turned to find a place to sit in the room, she nearly bumped into Olori Ebi, who was closely followed by two of his children. Morieba and Olori Ebi ignored one another with an ease borne of long practice.
“Have you eaten this morning?” Olori Ebi boomed at Moremi soliticiously, his voice loud enough to be heard by the chickens pecking at the ground outside.
“Yes sir. Thank you sir.” Moremi replied, her voice coming out in a squeak. Olori Ebi had always made her nervous, she didn’t like the man.
“Good girl,” He said and walked back to the front of the room where a chair had been placed in readiness for him.
His sons took up bodyguard positions next to the chair and glared at everybody.
The rest of the family ignored them and found places to sit, all the while exchanging the latest news about their children and vicious gossip about family members that were seated too far away to overhear or were not in the meeting. The room fell silent as Olori Ebi rose to his full height. He was over six feet tall and had a girth to march his height. His facial marks were deep and wide, they ran from the side of his head to both cheeks in the shape of L’s, just like the one worn by his great-grandfather, who was also presiding over the room, through his picture, from the skies beyond.
Olori Ebi’s triple chin trembled with every move he made.
He adjusted the ‘abeti-aja’ cap, perched jauntily on his head, and in order to allow his subjects, also known as the members of his family, to enjoy the full glory of the pink jacquard lace he wore, he stretched out his arms and swept his agbada gracefully back on his shoulders, in the classic ‘one thousand, five hundred Naira’ gesture mastered by all affluent Yoruba men from the womb. He straightened the thick gold chain that dangled off his neck, (the exact replica of the one worn in the picture by the great-grandfather) and the humongous pendant at its end rested comfortably on the top of his pink sandals.
While some of the people seated in the room looked at Olori Ebi with envy and admiration, most of them did not bother to hide their loathing.
Since he had been made head of the family, a position that could only be held by the oldest male child in that generation, he had insisted that they should stop calling him by his given name, Raufu. He was to be addressed by his title ‘Olori Ebi’.
Nobody wanted to deny him the pleasure of the respect of that title, after all, respect is a big deal, especially when one was older than the others, who doesn’t like being knelt down to or prostrated for? But his disrespect of everybody, alongside his use of talisman to attack all known and perceived enemies, was pretty galling. The man was just too arrogant.
Everybody knew that he was backed by one of the most powerful medicine men in all of Yorubaland, so they tiptoed around him. He was a man so powerful that one look from him could kill you, afflict you with a mysterious illness or worse still, make you run to the biggest market place you could find, strip yourself naked and start dancing ‘palongo’.
At least that was what they told themselves each time he informed them that there was nothing to be shared from the farmland that belonged to the family. Not a single kobo, not even an ear of corn. He talked about the government, taxes, pests, insecticides, fertilizers and one million other reasons why the farms made no profits.
They usually discussed the fact that there had always been taxes, governments, pests, insecticides and fertilizers but at the end of each farming season the family members still had something to take home, no matter how little it was … well out of his earshot.
They also tended to debate the saying ‘a living dog is better than a dead lion’ intensely after they left any meeting with him. During those meetings they were usually full of smiles, kneelings and prostratings. They sucked up to him in the worst possible ways, but immediately they congregated outside his home, the bitter wrangling would start all over again.
“Why didn’t you say the thing we planned to say? Why didn’t you tell him he’s a cheat and a liar?” One would ask the other.
“Why not you? Who wants to die?” The other would reply to the one. At the end of the day, all parties involved would agree that Olori Ebi had used his remote control ‘gbetu-gbetu’ on them and all would be well with their world as they departed on sad notes.
Alhaja Aduke, Moremi’s grandmother, was one of Olori Ebi’s numerous half-sisters, the one he hated the most, the one that had stood up to him. She was the only person who had not been afraid of him. She was the one who prevented him from selling the farmlands. He must be very happy at her demise and that was the reason he wore pink instead of the traditional black, the family members surmised.
He was the only male child Alhaja’s father had in the twilight of his days. In spite of his powers, and maybe because of them, he had not been able to quell the rumours, which he and other members of the family believed Alhaja Aduke had instigated during her lifetime, that his real father was Saka the young teacher that had been posted to the village school around the time the family had married his mother. It seemed to Olori Ebi that the older, richer and more powerful he grew, the stronger, louder and more malicious the gossip became, and so it should be! The gossips also known as family members, would add with glee.
“I won’t be surprised if Olori Ebi killed Alhaja Aduke and turned her only daughter into a drug addict just to get his greedy hands on the poor woman’s wealth.” A female voice said in a loud whisper, “The man has seriously strong medicine.”
“God will surely judge him and deliver us from his evil hands, after all peace only reigns in families that their bastards have not grown into adulthood.” Another person whispered loudly in response.
Olori Ebi cleared his throat. The people responded with long and loud sucking of their teeth which sounded rehearsed because of its perfect synchronisation, after all there was safety in numbers.
Olori Ebi launched into a speech.
“We have all gathered here to execute a very painful duty. Death is a mean and vengeful master. He deals with who he wills, when he wills.” He said and then paused for effect. His inattentive audience took their cue and made sympathetic noises hoping that would spur him to get straight to the point.
“It is the prayer of every parent that when they die their child will bury them, but it is not so in this case. Alhaja had one child, only one child and she is going around drinking cocaine, drinking heroine and having bastard children for unknown white men…-” He was interrupted by a loud screech from the back of the room. Necks craned to see who was creating a scene. (Scenes were good, they enlivened otherwise boring family meetings and provided fodder for gossip that could be milked for months and even years, if carefully managed).
“That is enough! That is quite enough Olori Ebi, please don’t go there at all, it is only someone who has died that will know the person that will bury him!” As soon as everybody identified the speaker they tried to keep their faces blank. Morieba was not to be trifled with or laughed at, at least not in her presence. She was a firebrand who had a two-edged sword in her mouth in place of a tongue.
Morieba was one of Olori Ebi’s nieces. Her mother had died at childbirth and she had spent her childhood being sent from one family member to the other like an unwanted package because of her stubbornness, her insistence that she be treated like a child instead of a slave, because of her refusal to bow down to constituted authority. She had been (and still is as far as most members of the family were concerned) a bloody nuisance!
Up till a few years before, she had been just another woman trying to make ends meet by selling provisions in Agbeni market, one of the biggest in markets Ibadan. Suddenly she became the richest woman in the family, even richer than Alhaja Aduke her mentor. Several rumours floated around about her, that she had used her womb to do money-making rituals, that she was a drug ‘pusher’; the least favourite of rumour mongers was that she got lucky when she became the sole distributor for a new product which became an overnight success. Fanciful people believe that it must be a combination of the three.
“Who is that fool that dares interrupt when a great man is talking?” Olori Ebi barked, murmurs rose up to the rafters and rained down warning him that the natives were getting restive. “Anyway, we are here to take a decision about what to do with Moremi. Who will take Moremi home?”
The question hung in the air for close to five minutes, and for the first time since the meeting was convened silence reigned, nobody dared cough. Olori Ebi fidgeted with his necklace and cleared his throat.
“I don’t knows why you ‘er wasting my timeses. We cannot be coming to be going to be tie daylight down with a rope,” a dwarfish man seated in the front row grumbled in English into the silence, “I cannot be leaving my spare parts shop for the tifs that call themself my sell boys. If I yam not carefulls they will efen take my clotheses off in the open outside. I wants to goes back to my shops!”
The people in the hall laughed at the man behind their hands and exchanged sneering looks. Tafa had travelled to England once in the early seventies and since he returned he no longer spoke Yoruba, he was an educated man.
Olori Ebi stared at him long enough to ensure that Tafa knew he was being pointedly ignored and continued talking.
“Whoever decides to take care of her will not have to worry about money. Alhaja left enough to cater for her until she’s old enough to get married. The money and property shall be managed by me to ensure honesty and transparency. Left to me I will simply find a husband for her, I don’t see the point of sending girls to school.”
The words had barely left Olori Ebi’s lips when Morieba jumped up and shouted, her breasts threatening to burst out of the confines of her blouse.
“Ehn Ehn! Why would you see the point of educating girls when you have a bunch of useless sons in your house? That’s how you refused to send me to school, worthless man! See him open his mouth talking about poor Moremi as if she was not here! I would have loved to take her in but I know you will not give me custody of this child. Not because you think I’m incapable of taking care of her but your greed will not allow you to let someone who has some brains close to her. We all know it’s your talisman that killed Alhaja, but her spirit will take revenge on you! Shebi it’s because of her wealth that you have done all these things.” She tugged at her buba to show off the gleaming jewels at her throat and the huge diamonds that dotted every digit of her hands, “I also know that none of you can face this man because you’re all cowards!” She glared at each person in the room. None of them met her eyes. She raised her face heavenwards “Alhaja Aduke, you know the spirit of a mother does not sleep after death, do not sleep o! Come and take revenge on your enemies!”
“K’oro gba l’enu e Morieba! How dare you? Can you imagine this little child having the temerity to speak in the presence of her elders? This is what happens when little girls have too much money, they become lippy! Who even invited you to this gathering? Aren’t you supposed to be out there with your mates playing with sand and wooden dolls?” Olori Ebi was furious.
Morieba jumped as if somebody lit a fire under her, she took off her gele and wrapped it round her waist. It was war he wanted and she would give him one. She planted her feet apart like a sumo wrestler, held her arms akimbo, bounced on her toes, once, twice and was about to launch herself at Olori Ebi when two elderly women grabbed her.
An ancient woman who was so stooped she used a cane to prop herself spoke up in a thin wavering voice, “Please, everybody, let peace and sobriety reign. We should all try to remember why we are here, after all we’ve just lost a dearly beloved daughter. Somebody who at one time or the other we’ve been at the receiving end of her many kindnesses. Alhaja Aduke was the true daughter of her father.” As soon as the old woman mentioned Alhaja’s name, fresh wailing started from another part of the room.
“Oh shut up L’Egba, you’re not a professional mourner for heaven sakes!” Olori Ebi barked, everybody knew that the only kind of drama he enjoyed were those that he generated all by himself.
“Ah Olori Ebi, you don’t understand,” the woman called L’egba wailed, “If you know all the wonderful things Alhaja has done for me you won’t be talking like that.” Loud sighs arose from the members of the family, chairs creaked along in sympathy. It was going to be one long day.
L’Egba was far from discouraged.
“Since the day my oloriburuku husband threw us out of his house, Alhaja had been my source of sustenance. She was the one that found me a place to stay, a shop and even bought the goods I sell in it.” She said bursting into fresh tears. “I-i-in fact, I will take Moremi home with me.”
“And with what will you feed her?” Olori Ebi snapped. “Pray tell, how you will train her? You want to join her to your brood of half-starved girls. Are we the ones that said your poisoned womb should only bear girls? Which man who is a real man will stay with a woman who gave birth to 4 girls in 6 years of marriage? You don’t want his name to live on after his death ni? In fact he even tried, I would have walked out on you the day you had your third girl!”
“Is it my fault? Is it not Eleduwa that deemed it fit to bless me with girls?” L’Egba said still crying, she had an audience and she intended to squeeze out every advantage their attention might give her.
Olori Ebi had lost control of the meeting and he did not like it one bit.
“So you consider girls who will eat all your food and then go and marry someone else a blessing?” Olori Ebi growled in consternation.
“You this old man, every time you open those thick lips of yours the rubbish that comes out just confirm your idiocy and ignorance.” Morieba interrupted. “In case you missed the news, men decide the sex of a baby!”
“Why is this small girl talking when I’m talking?” Olori Ebi growled back at her. “Why am I even exchanging words with you? Husband you don’t have, even a worthless female child has not graced your empty womb with its presence, don’t even go there or I’ll tell your humiliating story to everyone here. You bastard child of a harlot!” Olori Ebi said with rancour.
Morieba’s barely reigned in anger exploded, she launched herself across the room at Olori Ebi, she had the tip of his parachute-like attire in her hands when strong arms restrained her and dragged her to the back of the room.
Morieba’s captors were not afraid she would hurt Olori Ebi, far from it. They just wanted to save her from the beating they were sure she’d get from his sons. They told her all these in a voice that brooked no argument, she sat down bosom heaving.
“Before we continue our deliberations please you should all take note of these ground rules,” He cleared his throat again and almost shouted, “If you are unmarried, a suspected or known harlot and childless, you are not allowed to take Moremi home, it is only married and respectable people that can have her,” He glared pointedly at Morieba all the while he was talking.
Hisses and hostile murmurs met his announcement. Why can’t he just allow Morieba to take the girl and save them all the trouble? But nobody had the boldness to speak up.
“I will take her.” A man who had entered the room while the fracas between Morieba and Olori Ebi had been brewing ventured.
Necks were strained again to see the person who had spoken. Some people took the opportunity to stand up and pretend they were stretching, all the better to see the speaker.
Immediately the speaker was identified loud murmurs started again. It was Kasali, Olori Ebi’s 2nd cousin. He worked at the Ministry of Transportation as a clerk and was a well-respected man.
Kasali was actually volunteering to take in the child of a mad woman? A woman who goes about sniffing and injecting all kinds of drugs into her system! Doesn’t he understand it is the thread that the mother unreels that the child will use to sew? What if the girl wakes up in the middle of the night and takes a knife to all the members of his household? Obviously the girl has a head that attracts bad luck. She’s an original oloriburuku! See what happened to her mother! See how Alhaja had died under mysterious circumstances! What other evidence does one need to confirm that the girl was possessed by an evil spirit? Better him than me!
Moremi heard every word being murmured, they were carried to her by the wind, presented like gifts, they sank into the core of her being.
“Are you sure Kasali? What will you do with her? You and your wife have already trained all your children, are you sure you want to start training this one too?” Olori Ebi said in soft tones. Finally things were going his way.
“It is not me that will train her, remember Moji my last daughter? Doctor Wale’s wife, yes that one, well she just had another child…”
“Eeh e ku oriire o.” Different voices congratulated him from all around the room. Mouths watered in anticipation of the feast that was sure to accompany this announcement. This was going to be one great month, two births and a death, food and aso-ebi galore, the women exchanged happy glances, Ariya, the god of great parties, had sprinkled gold dust on the family.
“She needs two people to help her with her household chores.” Kasali continued as the voices died down, “I believe she and Moremi will deal well together. You know her husband is a doctor.” From Kasali’s tone it was obvious that being the wife of a doctor was a very important position, almost as good as being the wife of a Nigerian president.
It was a thing of shame not to have at least one doctor in the family, but Moji had saved them by marrying one, this was the major reason she and her father were well loved and respected.
“Wait o!” Morieba jumped out of her chair again, “So you’re saying you want to take poor Moremi to your bratty daughter’s house. The one that had three children in the space of four years! You want to turn Amope’s daughter into a slave because her mum is not around and her grandmother is dead! You human beings are wicked! What will happen to her schooling? If you want a slave for your daughter, Kasali, go and look elsewhere!” Morieba said hotly.
“Honestly, I’ve had it with you and your disrespect. Must you have an opinion about everything? For once in your life can’t you just shut up?” Olori Ebi said, and for once, most of the people in the room agreed with him. “This is unacceptable behaviour and I will no longer stomach it. Little wonder no man has deigned to put you in his house. You are an unrepentant witch! Lekan! Kunle!” Olori Ebi called his two sons who looked exactly like him, except where he had run to fat they were packed with muscles.
“Baami!” they responded in gruff voices.
“Throw that woman out and don’t let her back in here!” The husky boys approached Morieba as they would a spitting cobra. Morieba stood up and picked up her bag languorously, her body daring the boys to draw near her. She sashayed towards Olori Ebi, stood in front of him for a second and swept him a dirty look from his bald head to his slippers clad foot.
“This is a seasonal film Raufu and this is just part one of season one.” She drew closer to him. “You will not finish watching it!” She whispered and sauntered out of the room.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish!” Tafa said in a loud whisper.
Moremi crumpled up inside. Her fate had been taken out of her hands … again.
Ayodele Olofintuade is the Nigerian Literature Prize nominated author of Eno’s Story