“Aferi Nana!” my grandmother sighed as she welcomed the soothing fresh breeze named after Nana, the first Itsekiri celebrity to settle in Koko and the last British-appointed Governor of the Benin River.
We lay on a king-size mattress, under the stars of Ogiame, surrounded by the waves of Umale-Okun, the birdsongs at night and the scents of flowers from the trees of Ipi. One of my sleepwalking legs was tied to a wrapper attached to my grandmother’s leg as she narrated my favourite bedtime story: the true story of my birth and resettlement.
“In the fullness of time and at the end of his reign, Ogiame Erejuwa II retired from the world of men to join the clouds of Iwere. It was decided that the next Olu of Warri must be a university graduate but the Abiloye was a second year student at the University of Benin and the Itsekiri nation could not wait for him. In place of the Abiloye, his elder brother was crowned,” my grandmother recited Itsekiri history.
“It was during Daniken, God-training for Kings, that Princess Eworitsemogha conceived a child for the Olu-elect,” she went on.
“But the Olu was a Christian so he refused to marry a second wife. Princess Eworitsemogha returned abroad to get a degree and the Abiloye, the-child-born-on-the-throne, was sent to live with his grandmother in Koko!”
“Mama, say the part when Abiloye came to Koko. The dancing and the singing and free food for everyone… Mama say everything, again and again!” I jumped on the bed.
“Lie down and sleep, before I call Okere-juju to flog nonsense from your body,” my grandmother said as she pulled me down with her wrapper.
The following morning, I woke up on the banks of the river with the bloody trail of my grandmother’s wrapper tied to my leg. Koko was in flames, my grandmother was dead and the-child-born-on-the-throne was homeless. The military government in Abuja had set up Ijaws against Itsekiris. So the ethnic siblings of Warri took up arms against their ancestral neighbours while Abacha and his men looted our Niger Delta.
It was decided that the Jolomis of Ugborodo would take care of me until the Palace decided otherwise. My grandmother fostered the orphaned siblings before they had children of their own. The three siblings were based in Warri, Sapele and Benin City. The eldest lived in Shell Estate, Edjeba.
Though Edjeba was geographically within Warri, it was an Urhobo settlement outside the domain of the Itsekiri Kingdom of Warri. Warri was the Anglicised spelling of Iwere. Iwere was the Latin verbalisation of Aveiro. Aveiro was the Portuguese name of the amalgamated lands and waters that formed the Itsekiri Kingdom in 1480. Nigeria did not exist until 1914 when the British amalgamated its colonised protectorates in the north and south of River Niger. As a result of the Itsekiri monarchy and its historic dominance of that portion of the Niger Delta, Warri became the geopolitical name used to describe a large city of autonomous cultures and people outside the dominium of Ogiame. This was because the Itsekiri monarchy had been exposed to western education since 1611 when Ogiame Atuwatse I (aka Dom Domingo) graduated from the University of Coimbra in Portugal. And we subjugated our Urhobo neighbours in the hinterlands and our Ijaw cousins in the riverine, while also regulating trade with the Europeans on the Benin River.
I was explaining to Gbugbemi, the thirteen year old son of Uncle Bawo at Shell Estate. He felt he knew better. He pissed me off when he started regurgitating the nonsense his parents were saying: we should bomb the Urhobos out of our land and drive the Ijaws into the sea.
“Your father’s head is not correct,” I spoke Itsekiri and he ran to report me to his mother.
Aunty Alero was the kind of woman who lived for her children and couldn’t see beyond her family’s needs. My grandmother had no patience for such women; she called them a disgrace to Iwere and living insults to the legacies of Princess Udorulusan, aka Iye, the first Itsekiri politician and the only woman who almost became Ogiame.
“Aunty, this is a quarrel between boys and I will not apologise for speaking the truth. Do you know what it means to be Itsekiri? Do you know who we are? The problem is not what I said but the words of Hitler coming from the mouth of your ignorant boy.” I sounded like my grandmother, it made Aunty Alero recoil.
She told Uncle Bawo that I called him a fool and the father of Hitler. I explained the genesis of our quarrel and Uncle Bawo spoke like a ward of my Grandmother.
“Are you saying we should do nothing while the Ijaws burn our villages and the Urhobos attack our city?”
“We should be fighting for resource control and not where the capital of an irrelevant local government council should be situated!” I echoed the words of my Grandmother.
“Uncle, you work in Shell and you think God has buttered your bread. Have you ever considered owning Shell? How about owning an Indigenous Oil Exploration and Production Company? What about an oil refinery? Look at Ugborodo, an oil and gas producing community, but the place remains as it was when Ginuwa met Itsekiri in the fifteenth century!”
“Itsekiri was a person?” Gbugbemi said; Uncle Bawo frowned.
“Itsekiri was the name of the man who welcomed Crown Prince Ginuwa and the first sons of the fifty Chiefs of the Bini Empire when they settled here. Abiloye, help me educate this ignoramus!” Uncle Bawo fumed.
I didn’t know at the time that my over-sabi had set mother and son against me. The fact that Uncle Bawo spent his evenings discussing with me rather than going out to drink with his friends angered his family in ways I could never understand.
I’d never attended a block of classrooms because my grandmother said I was a mana-mana child who could never sit still to learn anything. So I was homeschooled by my grandmother and her clique of retirees. They loved telling tales during lessons and she allowed me to jump from house to house, with my books, to kill her contemporaries with questions while she rested at home. Every evening, she went through my notebooks and questioned me on what I had learnt that day. When I was examined by teachers in Warri, they told Uncle Bawo they wanted to register me for the West African Examinations into senior secondary school.
I tried to rectify my relationship with Gbugbemi but he returned to school before we could properly reconcile. In fact, when a friend of Uncle Bawo visited, someone stole the fifty US dollars he gave us to share. Gbugbemi’s mother insinuated about visitors taking what doesn’t belong to them, but I forgave her uneducated Itsekiri mind. Her son was the thief but she knew not.
A few weeks after the fifty dollars disappeared, Uncle Bawo rushed home from work and drove us to Sapele in a convoy of police escorts. There had been a tip-off that some people were planning to kidnap me. I spent a few days with Aunty Mofe, the nicest woman after my grandmother and the first daughter of the Jolomi siblings. Her children, Tosan and Neyin, were the nicest friends ever and I enjoyed peace at her Sapele home. I almost forgot memories of Koko on fire.
Good tidings ended when the Lioness of Ugborodo said Benin had better schools than Sapele. She was a hot-tempered gynaecologist at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital. Her husband was a professor of Fine Arts at the University of Benin and the Federal Government had not paid their salaries for more than six months. My arrival was their financial opportunity and the budget for my stay was prepared and prepaid before I set foot inside that house. Their son gave me a thorough beating on the first day of my arrival and his jealousy made me conscious of my words. Of all the insults and humiliations I suffered in that house, it was when Dafe called me “Ole fifty dollars” that scattered my head. When I reported him to his mother, she said: Is it a lie? We heard about your exploits in Warri but agreed to take you in so we can reform you. But since you came here, money has been disappearing from this house, twenty naira today, ten naira tomorrow. Are you a kleptomaniac? Talk now so we can help you!
The next day I called the Palace and told them about my wish to write the West African exams for Junior Students. I insisted on becoming a boarder at a secondary school, instead of living with the Lioness of Ugborodo, and my requests were granted. Within a week, I resumed at the boarding house to confront the boy who stole the fifty US dollars.
The boy who stole was coming to live with your family. He lived with your uncle in Warri and fifty US dollars disappeared. He lived with your aunt in Sapele but didn’t find anything to steal. This was his last chance before his final bus stop, the boarding house of a secondary school in Benin, your mother said.
You wondered why the ten year old was getting passed around. Though Itsekiri, like your mum and her siblings, you weren’t related by blood or marriage. What did you know about being Itsekiri? Your Itsekiri relatives stayed away because your father was Urhobo.
Your mother said the Itsekiri boy lived with his grandmother until she died. What about his parents, you asked. Don’t kill me with questions, your mother snapped as she transformed your room with his things: new bed frames, slightly larger than yours; his three layer bookshelf on your wall; new bed sheets on new mattress; and a reading lamp beside his bed. A section of your wardrobe was also emptied for him and the best corner of your bedroom was designated for his “stuff”. You felt like a squatter in your own room.
One day, you returned from school and found his luggage in your room; bags with labels of international travels. If you hadn’t been briefed, you would have assumed he had come straight from “the abroad”. You were mesmerised by his brand new Nintendo 64. You heard his laugher emanating from Ufuoma’s room and felt betrayed by your sixteen year old sister. You knocked her door and she came out with the boy. Nothing prepared you for his darkest shade of skin, face of a girl and strut of self-conscious supremacy.
“Welcome home, brother!” the boy winked at you.
His voice was unbroken and sounded like your JSS 3 Oral English teacher and her practised elocution, as though he wanted you to forget he was born and bred in the bloody Itsekiri town of Koko. And even though your mother begged you guys to treat him like a younger brother, you were the only boy and baby of the house until he came to steal your place.
“I’m going to warm the soup. Lunch will be ready in a few minutes.” Ufuoma said and you noticed how the boy was influencing her affectations.
“I can do your homework while you play my game before your Lesson Teacher comes. I was preparing for Junior WAEC in Warri before the Crisis shattered my life.”
You searched his eyes for sarcasm. Did he think you guys were mates? Did he think you cared about his Nintendo 64? What concerned you with his preparations for the West African examinations at ten? And none of your friends used “shattered” in spoken English! Would your mother complain if you shoved his head inside his television? But his eyes were desperate to fit in, desperate for affection, and it made you powerful.
“Thanks. I need to do it myself, except if you’re also going to write the Junior WAEC for me too. Go and help Ufuoma in the kitchen, I want to shower.”
“Yes, boss,” he said and you detected sarcasm in his eyes.
The bathroom was your sanctuary against endless maternal errands, your elder sisters barging into your no-locks room and your parents quarrelling over money. It was where you invented sweety: a process of massaging your thing until your heart threatened to explode and semen flowed without putting it inside a girl. It felt like losing your virginity and you wanted to explore it alone before telling your friends to try it. It worked better if you summoned the image of any girl you fancied. You imagined Isoken, your classmate with watermelon breasts, between your legs, and you were moaning her name when you noticed a big black head muffling a giggle at the door.
“See your small pencil. It will break if Isoken sharpens it for you,” the Itsekiri bastard said and you pursued him.
You did not know when you smashed his Nintendo, punched his face and made his body bleed.
“Are you mad? Do you want to kill him? Mummy will kill you today,” Ufuoma screamed as she pulled you away from the sobbing boy.
You fled into the bathroom while he narrated his side of the story between bawls and hiccups.
“You said I should go and call Dafe… I was calling him from the staircase but he didn’t answer… I checked the room but I didn’t see him…so I checked the bathroom…the door wasn’t locked and I didn’t think he was inside… I saw him touching himself and he started to beat me as though I saw him on purpose!”
You never knew a boy could cry for so long, that he would sob like a girl over a beating he had deserved. Ufuoma assured the boy of the beating you would receive from the Lioness of Ugborodo, yet his eyes continued to produce tears.
“What’s happening? Who’s crying? Why’s anyone crying?” The Lioness of Ugborodo was running up the stairs and you could hear violence rising in your mother’s voice.
The boy with a plastered head wailed for Africa, louder than when you were beating him, and the Lioness read the signs in your scattered room: Ufuoma was consoling the boy, the first aid kit on the ground, and you avoided the gaze of your mother.
“Blood of Jesus! Ufuoma, what happened? Who scattered everywhere like this?” The Lioness roared and was already approaching you before Ufuoma gave the word.
“It’s Dafe! He beat up Abiloye because the poor boy caught him playing with himself in the bathroom! I sent Abiloye to call Dafe to have lunch…”
The Lioness pounced: kicking, biting and slapping the shit out of you. Abiloye stopped crying and there was joy in his eyes as he watched your mother beat you with her Itsekiri temper, all the fury of the Warri crisis, and the frustrations from the Federal Government who haven’t paid the salaries of your parents for many months.
“Mummy, it’s enough!” Abiloye tried stopping the Lioness from beating you to death.
“Abiloye leave me! Let me kill him! I gave birth to him and I will send him back whenever I want,” Your mother stopped kicking but continued to blind you with slaps.
“I said it’s enough,” Abiloye spoke Itsekiri and your mother stopped as suddenly as she began.
Abiloye possessed powers you never imagined, and you saw the awe on Ufuoma’s face. Not even your father could stop the Lioness of Ugborodo from beating a child to the hospital. Your mother would return to reality only when the Lioness ran out of breathe.
“I don’t know what to do with this child,” Your mother complained to the ten-year-old boy. “I hope you can forgive us. I don’t know what entered his head. All these Urhobo children lack manners.”
Abiloye smiled and assured your mother that all was forgiven. He said she shouldn’t worry, his father would buy a better Nintendo for him, and you were humbled by wealth.
“Asaimagor, Olori Edema, Abiloye of Warri Kingdom,” Your mother sang his praises and the boy smiled like a girl.
Ufuoma copied the dance steps of your mother as the Lioness led Abiloye out of your room. The praise singing and petting continued after your father returned home. Your mother told him of your crimes against the Itsekiri nation and your father bestowed twenty-four lashes of his leather belt on your behind. When you returned downstairs after cleaning the scene of your crime, your family was fussing over Abiloye at the dining table.
“Your Highness, I wish to paint your portrait. Will you like that?” Your father said and the boy agreed.
“You will have to sit still for a while, every day, until he says it’s okay. Will that be okay?” Your mother said and the painting was the first commission your father received that year.
You would have given anything to sit for your father, even if it was just your eyebrows he needed, but it would never happen because the Lioness wouldn’t tolerate such exercise in profitless labour. It was the painting that made you lie, it wasn’t the beatings, and you never imagined it would lead to death.
Gbugbemi would have committed soku if he understood the intricacies of suicide by hanging. Neither could he obtain poison at the expensive boarding house of his elite secondary school. He tried forgetting memories of his ordeal but everywhere he went, students would sing Ole wa, jijikpokpo—the thief cometh, jijikpokpo.
It was second term holidays. JSS 3 and SS 3 students were staying back for WAEC. No one remembered the fifty US dollars until Abiloye resumed and started asking questions. It wasn’t hard to find out about a non-secret. Gbugbemi had contacted classmates with enough pocket money to convert it into naira.
Unlike other royal students from popular Nigerian cultures, Abiloye was from the land of oil. According to rumours, his pocket money was sufficient to pay tuition fees. That was why everyone called him “the Prince.” The Prince was popular with girls because he brought lyric books and romance novels to school. He was popular with seniors because he explained complicated equations, like a child, and turned further maths into ABC. When the Prince told the Head Boy about the theft and conspiracy to tarnish the image of royalty, he also suggested a royal punishment.
At midnight, Gbugbemi was woken up with a bucket of urine donated by his classmates. He was stripped and paraded, on all fours, with a rope around his neck and dragged by the Prince singing: ole wa, jijikpokpo. Gbugbemi crawled from bunk to bunk, junior hostel to senior hostel, and his classmates repeated “jijikpokpo” and stoned him with raw eggs. After the crawl of shame, he cleaned his trail of eggs while others slept. In the morning, wherever he went, someone would sing, Ole wa, jijikpokpo. He was ostracised from study groups and couldn’t concentrate on his Junior WAEC preparations.
A stroke of luck begot misfortune. The Lioness of Ugborodo came to visit with her children and husband. They came with the finished portrait of the Prince but he refused to see them or the painting.
“Who does he think he is?” Dafe said at the visitor’s car park.
“The next Olu of Warri. Ogiame Erebenukorkor I.” Gbugbemi laughed.
“More like Ogiame the Cocksucker of Warri Kingdom,” Dafe said.
“What do you mean?”
“Abiloye is a faggot. I was naked in the bathroom and I caught him peeping.”
“You mean you were wanking?” Gbugbemi laughed.
“I said I caught him peeping!”
Gbugbemi went to call classmates to witness Dafe’s accusations but the few who came were only interested in the rice and chicken the Lioness gave them and not in the words of the cousin of jijikpokpo. Despite many attempts by Gbugbemi to instigate opprobrium against the Prince, his classmates focused on their Junior WAEC preparations and his seniors refused to heed the counsel of a thief.
Nonetheless, the attention on the Prince diminished as the dates of the exams drew closer. In the mind of the Prince, fewer students agreed to play with him because they were beginning to believe the lies against him. Friends told him to shut up at study groups and even girls were reluctant to talk about Mills & Boons and Westlife.
“No wonder your father hates you and your mother dumped you. They know you’re a faggot and want nothing to do with you,” Gbugbemi pushed the Prince into dark zones.
After WAEC examinations, JSS 3 and SS 3 students returned home but the Prince had no place to call his own. He called the Palace and a solution was provided in Benin City: a house of his own with a cook, a housekeeper, a car and a driver. That was how Abiloye graduated from talking to himself to having conversations with his late grandmother. Before his mother returned from London, the Prince had committed soku.
About the Writer:
Amatesiro Dore studied law at the Igbinedion University Okada and the Nigerian Law School. He’s a 2009 Alumnus of the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop, 2015 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency, 2017 Participant at the British Council / International Association of Theatre Critics “Young Critics Programme”, and Regional Managing Editor (Nigeria) of The Theatre Times. In 2016, he was awarded the Saraba Manuscript (Non-Fiction) Prize, the Reimagined Folktales Contest, and currently shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award.