I’ve been spending a lot of time with my mum. I am thankful for the time God has given me to not only spend with her, but more importantly to get to know her. That may sound strange to some, but my parents split up when I was six and I was raised by my dad and step-mothers. It wasn’t until some twelve years later that I got to spend a bit of time with my mum. That was when I went on vacation during my 2nd year in college and I got to travel to London to spend the summer with her. And even after I graduated and moved to London I didn’t spend a lot of time with her. So I had an image of my mother in my mind, but I didn’t really know her. Now I do.
One of the activities I enjoy most is when my mum would tell me stories about her childhood in Nigeria. Stories about my grandfather and his wives; about meal times and going to the market by canoe, among other things. She also, at my urging, tells me stories her dad told her and her siblings while they sat outside under a full moon, eating roasted corn and pears.
Today I share one of those stories.
In a small village on the western edge of Nigeria, the Oba (King) was gravely ill. He called together his Elders. These were the men he relied on to help him make good decisions concerning his kingdom. Among the Elders were 4 of his most trusted friends – Elder Kola, Elder Akin, Elder Yomi and the one they called Babatunde. For the most part these men were very similar in background, age and sensibilities. They’d known each other all their lives and kept each other’s secrets, having grown up together. All of them, that is, except Babatunde. Babatunde was the youngest of the group by about 10 years, but had proved his loyalty to the throne over the years.
Eighteen years ago Babatunde lost his wife in childbirth. But because he had pledged his life to serving the Oba, Babatunde took no time to mourn his wife and made a decision to send his new born daughter to live with her mother’s family in another village. After all, the Oba came first and besides Babatunde had no experience looking after children. Although the Oba never said anything, he appreciated Babatunde’s sacrifice and brought him into his inner circle…
Now the Oba was dying and he knew it. Sitting on his throne for the first time in months, propped up by a stack of ashoke wrappers, he was a shadow of his former self. The room was dark and quiet. Most of the bush lanterns had been put out and the typical entourage of hundreds, including the dancing maidens were absent. This was not a typical meeting. Even the bodyguards were missing.
No one was allowed within 10 feet of the Oba. Normally this was not an issue as he deep baritone caused even inanimate objects to react. But not anymore. Now his voice was a little more than a whisper. The Elders stood stock still. They couldn’t afford to miss a word from the Oba.
“You have served me well all these years.” The Oba took a deep breath and pointed a body hand at his trusted men. “Now the time has come for me to give you one last command.”
Not showing any emotion, the Elders waited with baited breath as the Oba closed his eyes. Minutes trickled by, still they stood waiting for their Oba, their eyes trained on him. Fifteen minutes later they heard the strength of his voice; a voice they thought never to hear again.
“It is time to consult the Oracle.”
The festivities were well under way. The Oba was dead and his life and greatness had to be appropriately celebrated. The Elders huddled together for their last important mission on behalf of the late Oba. Under the cover of night they had to begin the 2 day trek to see the Oracle, who would give them the identity of the next Oba. Tradition dictated that they go to the Oracle within the first 5 days of the 14-day funereal activities for the Oba. This was a most secret mission and was done during this period because everyone in the village was required to attend the first 7 days of the Oba’s funeral and so the Elders could go on their mission without running into anyone on their way there.
The day before the Elders left to see the Oracle, Cash Madam - the richest woman in the village was making her way back from the Oracle. She had a self-satisfied smirk on her deeply lined face.
“Those stupid people will soon know who I am,” she muttered to herself. She turned to look at her 3 henchmen, bringing up the rear.
“You need to walk faster! Look at you! Good-for-nothing boys!” She yelled at them.
“Sorry madam. I beg no vex oh!”
“You should beg me. If you people are not careful I will have all of you killed.”
Dipo, the fat one slowly knelt in the hot sand. “Ah madam. You know we have been faithful to you. Nobody is more loyal to you that we three.”
Cash Madam rolled her eyes heaven ward. “Oya get up! I need to go and claim my throne.”
She turned around and quickened her pace. The three men hurried after her.
The Oracle was a wizened old man, with a shiny bald head and a long white beard. He had seen many things in his life time and had long since given up his dream of being the greatest Oracle in all the Yoruba kingdoms. But he knew that the Oracle Beyond the River was more accurate in his predictions and proclamations. The only reason the people flocked to him was because he was closer and many of them were afraid to cross the river.
But now he was tired. Tired of those silly village people and their complaints. But most of all he was tired of waiting for them to pay him what they owed for his services. That short Biye was the worst! Every time the Oracle went to see him to collect his money, Biye always had an excuse: the rain or lack of rain ruined his yams; his goat ran away; his chickens were stolen!
He stretched to scratch an itch in the middle of his back and he spat on the ground. He used his left foot to throw some sand over his spit.
With a thud he practically threw himself on the cement bench in the middle of his hut.
“I have no choice,” he said to the empty room. “If I don’t pronounce Cash Madam Oba she will send those thugs to kill me.”
All of a sudden he started to laugh. He fumbled with the twine holding up his wrapper over his bony waist. He pulled out his money bag, tied within his waist band. He nodded. “Yes I can do a lot with this money. I can even move away from this place!” He started as he heard footsteps just outside his raffia door.
“Who is there? I say, who is there?”
“We have come from the palace.” Elder Akin, the Elders Spokesman answered.
Cash Madam was a very bad queen. She was dominating, rude and made people do things they didn’t want to do. She made laws without any discussion or input from the Elders. She forced the people to give her half of all their crops and property. Unfortunately the people could not complain. Anyone who opposed Cash Madam disappeared at the hands of her henchmen. So the people were unhappy and lived in fear.
Elder Kola had dared to confront Cash Madam just yesterday and no one had seen him since.
Cash Madam called the remaining Elders and warned them that she would not have anyone in her palace oppose her.
The Elders held a secret meeting. Their beloved village was no longer the happy place it used to be. After much discussion they decided that Babatunde and Elder Akin’s wife travel across the river to enquire of the Oracle Beyond the River to confirm that Cash Madam truly was the chosen Oba.
Three days later Babatunde and Elder Akin’s wife arrived at the Oracle Beyond the River.
“I’ve been expecting you.” The Oracle Beyond the River appeared ageless. He was dressed in red lace, loosely wrapped around his body, and had a bushy head of very black hair.
Babatunde and Elder Akin’s wife were very surprised. The Oracle Beyond the River turned his back to them and entered his hut. Babatunde and Elder Akin’s wife looked at each other, unsure of what to do next.
“Come in. Come in. The answers you are looking for are not out there.” So in they went. The room was bare, with nothing on the walls or floor, not even a chair. The Oracle Beyond the River was seated on the floor with a hand mirror on the floor in front of him. He looked up at his visitors and gestured for them to join him on the floor. With some difficulty, they sat.
“How is your daughter?” he asked staring at Babatunde.
Babatunde’s eyes widened in surprise. No one knew about his daughter. In fact the entire village believed that his daughter died along with her mother.
“She is living with her grandmother in another village.”
The Oracle Beyond the River pursed his lips and sniffed.
“Whatever you do, protect that girl from Cash Madam because she is the true Oba.”
Babatunde and Elder Akin’s wife returned to the village and told the other Elders what they learned from the Oracle Beyond the River. They plotted to bring Cash Madam down from the throne. At their next meeting in the palace, Elder Akin, in the presence of Cash Madam, turned to Babatunde.
“Your wife died a long time ago, did you remarry”?
Babatunde shook his head. “No. I am only living for my daughter now.”
Cash Madam jumped up, “what daughter?”
“The daughter my wife was giving birth to when she died.”
Cash Madam became careless with her words. “You mean that child didn’t die? What is her name? Where is she?”
“Her name is Bisola. She lives with her grandmother in another village.”
“Oh! I will like to meet her. How old is she now?”
“She’s 18. Her grandmother is very old now and my daughter will not be able to leave her to come here.”
Cash Madam sat back on her throne and in an icy voice said, “I command you to go and bring her. You know you cannot refuse my request.”
So with a heavy heart Babatunde went and brought his daughter to meet Cash Madam. When they got to the palace, Cash Madam told Babatunde to leave Bisola with her. Bisola spent the night in the palace. While she was asleep Cash Madam asked her henchmen to kill Bisola as she made her way home the next day. When morning dawned Cash Madam gave Bisola some money and told her that she could go to her father’s house.
As Bisola walked along the dusty footpath, Cash Madam’s henchmen jumped out of the bushes and grabbed her. They dragged her into the bush and Dipo, the fat one, raised a knife to stab her. As he lowered his arm a bird appeared out of nowhere and started to sing:
Emakpa Bisola Oh
Enitoba fi owo kon Bisola
Onitonwu a kuku oro oh
Bisola is the real Queen
Do not kill Bisola
Anybody who touches Bisola
Will die a horrible death
They’d never heard a bird sing before, let alone in Yoruba. They were terrified. They all ran away, leaving Bisola in the bush. The bird then told her how to get to her father’s house. When she got there she told her father what happened.
Meanwhile the henchmen returned and reported to Cash Madam. News of the bird’s song spread throughout the village. So the Elders went to the palace and overthrew Cash Madam. They ran her out of town, but she still wanted Bisola dead. She hired new henchmen, who killed her previous henchmen. As she was plotting with them the singing bird appeared to her and said:
“If you don’t stop plotting against Bisola I will pluck out your eyes.” Cash Madam had never heard a singing bird before and went crazy.
Bisola was crowned Oba and the village was a happy place once again.
It’s interesting how there are so many parallels (with some variations of course) among stories told in different cultures. This story reminded me of the wicked queen in Snow White and also of Jezebel in the Bible. But more than any other event, it made me think of Balaam’s donkey in Numbers 22.
What children’s stories from your culture remind you of Biblical events?
Ufuoma Daniella Ojo is a Technical Author and Software Trainer. She lives in London. She is editing a manuscript, learning French, working on some new stories about relationships and trusting God for connections leading to publication.