March 6, 2020

‘There was a lot of anxiety … Imagine’

By Akin Adesokan






One fine morning like this, when I was about your age, an officer in His Majesty’s Service arrived here, accompanied by his interpreter and orderly. An unusual visit, for the visitors and their hosts. It is true; we were along the way to the Resident Officer’s base, the town with the Railway Station, where cocoa merchants gathered to catch a glimpse of the train bringing payment from the capital. Other than that, it was unworthy of the honor of the visit of Captain Alan Denton-Wilks.

In those days, an unscheduled call such as this could result from a tussle over a plot of land, or a local ruler unyielding to the power of the times. But pacification was a thing of the past, and here was the site of one such battle. We were involved in a border dispute with our neighbors, but we had both agreed to keep the squabble from filtering out to the Resident Officer. There was a similar case elsewhere, in Ishagam, which had ended when the contested area became a cotton plantation. Imagine this whole town as a cocoa farm! In any case, what was the point of a visit without a battalion bearing artillery guns, instead of a troika with only the orderly’s defensive gun?

Unknown to us, his hosts, the Resident had just made a discovery.

Aboard the ship from Liverpool he had begun reading a pirate copy of James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, and been seized by fits of excitement so intense, so overpowering he took a break from the discovery of its pleasures. He was certain that the experience would last; it was like eating a sweet berry, to make it last you bite it bit by bit. On the way to his base, he stopped not far from here to check out the book for no other reason than to be sure it was still there. The novel was missing. When he was a boy, he told our father later that day, his mother had taught him that worthy things got missing when one paused to look for them. He marked that spot and three days later returned with two of his assistants. His obsession with the book had a reason: the romance of an autograph. ‘For Alan, from Joyce’ had been imprinted on the title page by a hand which in his imagination belonged either to an author born in Dublin or a colleague in the service, Joyce Cary they called him, who later made his name as an author. At the exact point where, three days ago, he had searched his glove compartment and withdrawn an empty hand, he instructed his assistant to park the truck. Next to a teak chest, the interpreter noticed the bulk. Denton-Wilks was excited. Among his colleagues where personality mattered and was inseparable from work, he was regarded as vain and eccentric and superstitious, but they called him ‘maverick’ when he was within an earshot. Denton-Wilks the maverick. He was so overjoyed he decided to pay an unscheduled visit to the baale, the ruler of our town.

The times had shrunk Maronu to a large village, although we, its inhabitants, thought and spoke of it as a town. It would grow again, during the cocoa boom, only to shrink back, for its survival depended on the fashion of big cities and the world markets. The Resident was too high an official to visit a provincial town, not to talk of a village, for mere sport, but who would query Captain Denton-Wilks, widely known for bringing a fresh breath into the staid air of the colonial mission? Our father, the baale, had never hosted a white man before, although he once dealt with one, to dire consequences. I tell you, Omisan, that is a story for another day. For he had not been a baale for long; he had been something else. He was Maronu’s first civillian head, getting used to the position, having spent a better part of his life as the leader of the council of six hunter-soldiers who ruled hereabouts at a time of the civil wars. The moment news of the Resident’s entourage got to him, he rallied his chiefs to a meeting. After listening to the story of the lost-but-found book they turned the occasion into a mini-festival. Incidentally, a company of travelling masquerades passing through Maronu had lodged in our father’s guest house. The players were called upon to entertain the guests. It remained an unexpected visit, however, and preparation had to be invented as the event went on.

There was a lot of anxiety in Maronu that day. Imagine, people had not seen a white man up close. The last British officer we knew lived in legend, his name was a mere word we spoke with a sense of relief. Everywhere people ran up and down, panting, crashing into other people casting about for the masque-leader to dust up customs and costumes. It was a day of fretting. A dancer put both feet in one trouser, but he did not realize this because the dress was ample enough to contain four limbs. Kneeling down in readiness for the Hands-Off-The-Ground somersault he noticed his knees knocking together. But it was already too late to change things so he continued to improvise, pretending that he was wearing a skirt, that the other trouser was just the lining of his pocket. He even held up the open end as proof of a porous pocket, and this gave him a good reason to demand donations from the audience, beginning with the Resident.

The baale turned out in a ceremonial outfit, looking kingly. I was there, so I know what I’m talking about. But, you see, between his fingers, there were smears of oil from an interrupted meal. He was wearing a necklace on his wrist, from where it dangled like a rosary. When our mother drew his attention to this error he doubled it up in loops and it became so thick you could mistake it for a dead puff-adder with its fangs sunk in its tail. Denton-Wilks watched the displays, completely fascinated. It was the spectacle of a masquerade dancing alone that most engrossed him.

From foot to waist this figure was covered in pleated quilts, and the batik of dancers’ costumes, in blue, red and yellow, spread over the rest of the body up to the neck. On top of this dress there was a mask, not the veil of lace that masquerades put on for social dances. It was a narrow mask, a little too small for the head, and held in place with the flap covering the rest of the head whose dimension we could not see because the masquerade danced faced us, Denton-Wilks, and his group. You needed to see it, Omisan, you who like to look at things so closely. Eight inches long and almost as wide, the mask, in wood, had holes where the bulbous eyes should have been, and the cheeks were pocked with long marks, vertical and diagonal, that crossed the bridge of the nose. They resembled our lineage-marks, the type you see on your uncle Raimi’s face. The forehead was so high it became double tiaras that looked more like horns, and coming down the nose, the face ended in the shape of a goat’s mouth. These details were not hard to see; the masque’s dance was slow and deliberate, and the mask was very striking.

Denton-Wilks was so carried away he did not know when his cigarette burnt past the stub to scald his fingers. He snapped off the remainder of the stub as he smelt his own flesh roasting and sucked his forefinger till it was wet with saliva. Then he applauded the performance out of turn, at the moment everyone else said Àse! to a prayer.

The gathering laughed, and joined in his applause. As the noise died out, someone rose from the Resident’s company, and walked away in anger. It was Pastor Hezekiah of St. Andrew’s Church&School, the man who liked troubles. Many people noticed this, including a listless youngster, my brother that is, who hovered around the baale. Everyone knew that when the pastor moved like that, he was up to no good. Denton-Wilks’s interpreter whispered in his boss’ ears, but the man was too fascinated by the dance to care.

When it was his turn to speak the Resident said how impressed he was by the show of hospitality at no notice at all. He was proud of the baale, he said, and could think of no better way to register his appreciation than to declare the event in line with the observation of Empire Day. It was November the eleventh, and he had been billed for the Empire Day parade in the provincial capital. He had declined to go. They said that was his way, to do as he wished. The interpreter translated his speech, but could find no one word in the language equivalent to ‘empire’. He left it unexplained, and this led to a brief exchange between him and his boss who insisted that the word must have a local meaning. You needed to see them, weighing the word like a sack on a scale, with gestures. Interpretation, not translation, was what they did, my brother said later, so eventually they settled for ‘the King’s land’. This felt short of their intention. ‘Empire’ sounded good to Denton-Wilks, and he instructed his interpreter to use the word which, it turned out, had an immediate ring for us, for our people. We had been constrained to organize an impromptu reception.

So we dispersed prattling, empire, empa, paya, empaya day, empaya deh; the year of the festival of empire, the day of ipaya, the age of fretting, is here, brought by a man known as Denton-Wilks who called the town he was visiting Maroon. Here comes the time that takes one’s confidence away.

As the crowd broke up, I saw the restless youngster walk over to the Resident and his assistants. During the ceremony, when he watched Pastor Hezekiah take his leave, my brother had been standing to the far side of the baale. And now he moved with assured steps. He started talking to the interpreter, who was surprised by the audacity of this approach, and by the way in which his words came out. The officer, who still sat close to the baale, also noticed my brother’s manner of approach. But my brother was more interested in the interpreter, and to him he handed a piece of paper. Then he started back in the direction from which he had emerged.

‘He’s my son,’ the baale said to his guest’s interpreter.

‘What’s his name?’ Denton-Wilks requested of his interpreter, turning attentively to the chief.

‘We call him Akanda. Akanda Gbadamosi,’ one of the palace officials offered, ‘but he calls himself Badmus.’

Our father appeared anxious to defend him:

‘He is a friend of the pastor, but he acts on his own. He means no disrespect.’

‘He spoke so well,’ Denton-Wilks observed.

The white man learnt that my brother was training to become a schoolteacher at St. Andrew’s. Then he wanted to know what was on the scrap of paper. The interpreter made to read it, but Denton-Wilks instructed that it be shown to him. Reading it, the resident creased his face, which soon broke into a slow smile. Finally, he nodded at his interpreter, who said to the baale:

‘It is a small detail about how to say the name of this town.’

This impressed the baale. Not so much because of the haughty son’s conduct, but because the officer’s warm attitude might prove that my brother was worthy of recruitment after he completed school.

Excerpted from a novel in progress with a working title: Yellow Fever. Akin Adesokan is associate professor of Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include Roots in the Sky, a novel (2004), and Postcolonial Artists and Global Aesthetics (2011). He has also published essays and fictions in Research in African Literatures, Chimurenga, AGNI, Mail & The Guardian, Social Dynamics, Textual Practice, Black Camera and Screen. His research interests incluse twentieth and twenty-first century African and African American/African Diaspora literature and cultures. He exerts influence on Nigerian cultural environment through commentary, advocacy, and writing.

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