It was time to get back to the thick of things. For the field epidemiologist, the place of work, by definition, is the field. But the airports had not opened yet and there was no special Presidential Task Force flight going to Lagos. So, again, I hit the road after sixteen days away from the epicentre. I enjoyed the road trip the last time. So, why not? The skies were clear and there was a gentle breeze, the type poets would rather call a zephyr. Don’t mind them.
Gwagwalada. This Abuja-Lokoja expressway, when will it ever be completed? Some people have been chopping the money, abi? The construction has gone on forever, stretches breaking down before others are built. Potholes and craters. Some parts forming ridges and furrows like a rutted road to the farm.
At a checkpoint after Abaji, we bought kuli-kuli and dakkuwa. The driver also confessed his love for kuli. Is there really any well-meaning person who doesn’t like kuli?
When we stopped at Total fuel station in Okene, some girls in hijab brought kola nuts and gorigo: roasted sesame seeds packaged in a way that ensures that the small quantity of the accompanying groundnuts is visible. I hadn’t tasted that combination for a while. She called the sesame seeds beniseed which I thought was a rare word. Groundnut seems to demonstrate culinary promiscuity with other food items as it appears in all manner of delicacies across the Niger. Banana and groundnuts as I discovered in Onitsha. Or garden egg and groundnut paste (the obvious inspiration for peanut butter) that I encountered for the first time a long time ago with some Igbo family friends in Kano. Roasted plantain and groundnut (boli at’epa) in Yorubaland. Pop-corn and groundnut all over the place. It also makes an excellent solo appearance in kunun gyada. Of course, you can eat it just like that, roasted or boiled. And, yes, groundnut stew. It has been made into groundnut candy by my people north of the Niger who have a thing for sweetmeats and candies. Or squeezed and fried in its own oil to create kuli-kuli. Or mixed with unsieved maize flour to generate dakkuwa. It is also glazed with sugar and sold in paper folded into a cone in Kano. Perhaps, the most glorious coupling of groundnut is in garri and groundnut. Before anybody says this is all santi, let me assure you that I did not eat the gorigo and groundnut until I got to Lagos. Ehen.
From Lokoja to Okene, no sign that the world is writhing through a pandemic of a respiratory virus. Absolutely no social distancing. Not even the occasional face mask seen elsewhere. I’m alone with the driver in the car but both of us were wearing our face masks. In a bizarre fashion, Kogi State has shown to the rest of the country how not to be affected by a COVID-19 outbreak. To the madman, living in his own untainted bliss, it is the rest of the world that is deranged.
In a strip of Edo State jutting into the junction of Kogi and Ondo states is that sociologically interesting place called Akoko-Edo. The double-barred name suggests the hybrid origins of the people. However, considering that language is the main vessel of culture, I wonder how the people of this place came to speak a language, Igarra, that is neither Yoruba nor Edo, but is more like Ebira than any other language. Meanwhile, many Igarra people bear straightforward Yoruba names like Folorunsho, Olusegun, Ekundayo.
Still in Akoko-Edo LGA. Lampese. Ibilo. Ekpesa: what language do they speak here? Do they speak Igarra too, or some form of Edo?
Akoko, Ikare-Akoko to be precise, the birthplace of Moses Orimolade, the charismatic preacher who founded the Cherubim and Seraphim Church (C&S) in the 1920s. Orimolade is the object of a song I remember vividly from my childhood:
Orimolade, mojuba re
B’ekolo juba, ile ayanu
Orimolade, I pay my respects
If the earthworm makes obeisance, the earth opens up
How did I learn this song? Yes, Offa is overwhelmingly Muslim. In many towns of the old Oyo Empire, Islam alongside traditional religion had been practiced for centuries before the advent of Christianity. This is enshrined in the saying:
Ile laaba Ifa
Ile laaba Imale
Osan gangan niti Igbagbo
Traditional religion had always been there
Islam had always been there
Christianity arrived in the full glare of the day
But many Offa families have Christian members, most of whom had converted from Islam. One of such was Iya Ile Alubata and her children. As a little child during a brief period in Offa in the 1970s, I would dance and sing with them, especially Auntie Doyin. Those two lines came from that period of innocence.
On the outskirts of Owoh, we stopped at a checkpoint while the crooked uniformed men stretched out their grubby hands to receive from the motorists ahead of us. As usual, we passed without question. It was in front of the Best Western Plus Mydas Hotel and Resort. The driver told me that he once spent about two weeks there when he brought some colleagues to respond to a Lassa fever outbreak. Along with Edo and Ebonyi, Ondo State has been a hotspot for Lassa fever in recent years. He said that the hotel is really nice. On the other side of the road is a large mansion with a lot of space around it. It is said to belong to the owner of the resort. The place is peaceful, serene, the very antithesis of the hustle and bustle of places like Lagos. The hawkers came with their wares: freshly boiled African walnut and maize. And kola nuts in transparent polythene bags, ten in a bag. And bitter kola. No face masks.
A Haruna Ishola song rang into my head from many years ago:
Ododun lanr’omo omo obi
Bodi lamodun kama rira, ohe
Every year comes with bitter cola
Every year comes with African walnut
Every year comes with kola nuts
It’s a folk prayer for divine bounties which probably started life as a supplicatory incantation to a deity. African musicians appropriate cultural patrimonies like this all the time. This is the season of asala – it comes with the rains. It seems this is the season for all these crops that have held medicinal and cultural significance for the heirs of Oduduwa for ages. So much so that African walnut has more than one name in Yoruba: some people call it asala, while others call it awusa. As for bitter kola, do our people still believe that it confers longevity?
I bought a lot of the still-warm asala for myself and the driver who said it’s called ukpa in Igbo. It had never occurred to me that it was ever boiled. I thought it was eaten as harvested. Not easy to crack between the fingers, you naturally cracked the black shell with your teeth, with the occasional risk of ingesting the putrid fluid from an addled nut.
This is one of the joys of a road trip in this beautiful and abundantly blessed country with wasted resources and untapped potentials. You can buy and eat organic stuff straight from the farm. Just make sure it is hot-fresh. Reminds me of the days when the trains used to work. It would take almost two days to travel from Kano to Lagos or Offa. The train, never in a hurry, would stop at a hundred stations on the way: Zaria, Rigachikun, Kaduna, Sarkin Pawa, Kafanchan, Minna, Zungeru, Kutiwengi, Mokwa, Jebba, Ilorin, Offa, Inisa, Ikirun, Osogbo, Ibadan, Abeokuta. At these stops, you could buy a wide variety of food and hear different varieties and dialects of Hausa and Yoruba as the train trudged through the western half of the country.
After Akure, an entertainment programme was on air. The host was speaking in what most likely was the Akure dialect – the theme song contained the epithet Akure Oloyemekun. I only managed to catch a fifth of the words spoken. He could as well have been speaking French. These Yoruba dialects, ehn. Then he played music which was also in the dialect but leaning more towards mainstream Yoruba. Otherwise, how many people would bother to listen? Then he played another one and the driver asked whether the guys were speaking Ebira. He obviously didn’t recognize the language to be Yoruba.
Just after Ife junction, among people returning from Church, a Yorubaman on a bike was wearing an ancient yellow and green lace with a design that must have trended in those days in the seventies when one served as a flower boy at family weddings.
On both sides of the road was a jungle of bamboo, mahogany, plantain, climbers, and creepers, with twigs, leaves, and fronds densely entangled. This seemed like some of the country’s last bastions of floral biodiversity crying for conservation. We must protect the forests.
Ibadan, where their ancestors ate African wild mangoes for dinner and the inhabitants speak a lyrical, even dramatic, Yoruba understood by all and sundry.
Finally, Lagos, where people speak a most simplified form of Yoruba which the people of the hinterland see as lacking in depth but full of colorful slang and musical in its own way. A kind of Yoruba which has acquired a quasi-privileged position so much so that many new arrivals from the Yoruba hinterland quickly acquire it in order not to sound provincial. Even people in Ibadan and Ogbomoso who have never been to Berger speak a form that approximates Lagos Yoruba. It has somehow moved up to mainstream status. But we still disregard it in the written form of the language. In Lagos, the much richer Yoruba from the hinterland is condescendingly referred to as Yoruba Ilu Oke. Imagine. Ilu Oke being Yorubaland north of Ogun State. A gang-up of Lagos and Ogun people. The same people that nasalized Wumi to Wunmi. Where did they get the ‘n’ from? They even make a show of not pronouncing ‘r’ correctly, like French people. As for the Okun, Ekiti and Ijesha people, their speech is ede to the Lagosian ear, as if they spoke an entirely different language. Me sha, that Lagos Yoruba used to sound odd when an adult spoke it – I thought it was a form of Yoruba used only by little children.