There I was, looking back in the mirror at a reflection I barely recognised. Not through significant outward appearance, but through lack of time spent looking in: through a rapid pace of life rushing past me, rapid adaptations being required, and many commitments to meet. Moving to my new country, aligning myself with my new job, meeting new colleagues and familiars, greeting my mother to my beloved Africa, adapting to my new physio regime, tasting new spices and foods, and so on. It was all happening at a rate of knots so fast that I felt like I was barely remembering to sleep let alone meditate, sit in stillness, reflect, appreciate, calm, ease, or most of all, breathe.
It came as somewhat of a surprise to find myself therefore, looking back at this forgotten woman in the mirror, as she showed a startled look to her face. My mother had just landed back in the UK and had sent a cautionary message. She advised that I check my Nigerian Visa requirements, in order to be sure that I could travel to my other beloved homelands the following week, as per original plan. The ‘she’ in this, being I, lost all colour to her face.
There I had been, feeling quite calm about my mum’s departure, due to an assertion that I would be seeing others that I loved within the week.Admitedly finances have not been flowing easily but where there is a will there is always a way and I knew that I would arrive to exactly where I needed to be the following week regardless. Therefore I did not think much of the message at all. A whisper in the back of my mind popped up however… so a day or two later I did hunt out my passport, just to double check, before I devised some way of securing an airline ticket.
Lo and behold she was right.
Through having a short-term work permit rather than my permanent one (another story to be told another time undoubtedly), I discovered I am here on a single entry only. Thus, whilst my ex-pat colleagues all around me were telling tales of their travels to come, I found myself there, ashen-faced, looking back at a bewildered face, feeling like the walls had begun to rapidly cave in on me.
Normally I would think nothing of being in the same country for a week off work, as I would hop on a bus, train, car, or even by foot, to see places and people of my choice. Here however, the majority of people I know, were not going to be here. Likewise, in a multitude of ways I had been receiving the message that here was the only place that I could be, (within Nigeria), if I was to remain safe and also within advisory limits of my position here. I went into shutdown. I found it hard to breathe. My eyes felt like they had been blinded. And my heart felt such an ache.
I found it hard even to tell friends in either country or to answer any communications. It was not that this was a permanent problem nor that I was in any way truly suffering. Thus I felt shame at my feeling, which enhanced my closure to others. I just felt intensely trapped, like my wings had been tied. And a massive irony swept upon me…for my leaving party back in the UK, I had set a theme of “come as someone you do not want to become”…
I had been a lion-tamer, under the guise that any time I feel my freedom/nature is tamed, I feel like I am in a prison and my soul cries inside. The last thing I ever want, is to put this upon another, be it human, animal or beast. Yet here I was, feeling like the bars were drawing up around me. I could not travel. Here or there. And I felt alone.
Now, as it happened, I had been asking about travel on Nigerian mainland since my arrival. Though I was hearing of many fears and boundaries, I was also hearing of beauty and of discovery, and of course, of stories waiting to be told. So, before I spiraled too far downwards in mental state, I decided I would put my best foot forward and instead, enjoy the fact that my days off were to be here, where it is my today home. I increased my questioning to my Nigerian friends, I upped the ante with my internet research, I began to read the Bradt guide to Nigeria via a kindle app, and I planned my escape!
The first weekend of the holiday saw some fun to be had here in Lagos anyhow, via the annual event Small World, followed by a Sunday spent at Muri Okunola park, for the Wazobian carnival.
The former of the two events transpired to be out of sync with my taste, not helped by the fact that I was also feeling a lot of pain in my knee, thus I didn’t stay there for too long. Alternatively, for me, the carnival was a lot of fun, wherein I once again met different stallholders, tried on a plethora of colours via the Ankara outfits, and gained quite the audience as I chatted away and absorbed the rainbows surrounding me. Next thing I knew, I was being beckoned by my newfound female friends, and when my colleagues later turned up to join me, they found me sat beside some beautiful Nigerian women, chatting away, playing with their baby and enjoying the beats of the performing musicians.
Cue a few days spent catching up with myself, by reading, resting and singing, as well as time spent catching up also with work, preparation and assessment included, and I then found myself already halfway through my time off work.
However, via my various meetups and discoveries, I had manifested it that myself and a friend were to travel for the rest of the week, up-state. Hurrah! I felt every cell of my being dance around and skip to the beats still resonating in my bones from the carnival! Nigeria is such a different land to any that I have walked upon before, yet there are still beauties to behold, be it through people or through place. And I wanted part of it. I wanted to see, firsthand, what the sights were, beyond the monies and the businesses of Lagos. To be able to have even a snippet of what my Nigerian colleagues return home to each night and to feel much more of what the origins of this land are….Therefore I found myself traveling to Osun State, to visit the Sacred Lands of Osogbo Grove.
NB: I had been forewarned that the journey there would feel long, due to terrible road conditions. Admittedly there were times when it was bumpy, but in comparison to numerous journeys across the world, I do not share this opinion. The roads were sealed for the whole way for a start. Huge potholes at times, yes, and we traveled off-road for some of the return journey, yes to that too. But this was in an attempt to undercut the traffic jams and not because the roads themselves were crumbling, as has been my experience in other lands.
We stayed in a beautiful guesthouse filled to the brim with paintings and sculptures, both inside and out, amidst what can only be termed as the secret garden; I was sure that the metal figurines were only stationary when my eyes were upon them and that they were most disgruntled at our presence disturbing their fun!
I was in my own paradise, there inside my mind.
I could see the sky once again, the air felt lighter, the roads were dustier and wider, the gospel songs could be heard, as could the birds, and I felt like I was finally back in Africa, despite having landed here over a month ago.
There was a real eeriness to all that I witnessed however. Once out of Lagos state, everywhere had a strange sensation of abandonment. As if places had once been thriving hubbubs of activity. But no more. As if things had been left, and in quite the hurry too. Many times I felt like there should be tumbleweed rolling by, and often I felt like I was in the Wild West. Cacti popped up everywhere, as did lone horses, rusty motorbikes, and homes that looked as if a simple sneeze in the wind would cause them to collapse, like a deck of cards.
Visiting the grove, I was fascinated to feel the lands of old, to hear tales of the Fertility goddess, the ceremonies of the virgin procession, the sacrifices made to the god of thunder and lightning, and the pleas to a god for the ‘damaged’ children and souls, as they were presented before him. Our guide spoke in a soft tongue, with a strong accent, meaning that sadly I could not follow much of what she spoke. Yet it was immediately apparent that I was there to feel the energies, not to ‘learn’ them. Vulvas appeared amongst many of the carvings, as did many strange and curious looking beings. I hugged the goddess of fertility, bearer of some 150 children, and I spent time embracing wide-berthed ancient trees in much the same mindset.
I expressed a wish to my friend that we would have been able to walk amongst the grounds by ourselves, yet this did not seem to be our time for that. Perhaps in another breath and moment…
As we left however, a captivating woman passed by, seemingly from nowhere. Her hair was wrapped like a rainbow of serpents and I was mesmerised. Graciously she allowed me to be “snapped” with her (as they call it here in Nigeria) and towards the end of my stay in Osun, I ended up with a similar style…much to the amusement of my self and my friend due to the various mishaps and pains that this caused in order to make it happen!
We visited the home of famous Austrian artist Suzanne Wenger, as we had heard that this was an important thing to do whilst here. Though, a word to the wise; it is often useful to recall your reasons for such a visit before you get there…myself and my friend found ourselves sat in a darkened room, surrounded by exquisite yet dark and somehow ‘moody’ sculptures and carvings, with an older woman who simply sat staring at us in silence, finding ourselves totally at a loss at to why we were there! Through the power of words in our eyes, my friend and I questioned what protocols we had missed, in order to get the most out of this visit. Yet we failed. For the life of us, neither could remember much about Suzanne and when asked if we wanted to ask her daughter anything, we came up with the most peculiar of small-talk our baffled and tired minds could come up with! It was one of many funny moments on our trip, wherein we felt like we were in another reality, observing the surrealness of our experience through a kaleidoscopic lens rather than firsthand….
On another note in some ways, yet still arts-based, is the subject of Batik, important to the people of Osun state. We enjoyed visiting one of the main workshops of the town on our first day. I have not done batik since my Art GCSE, almost 20 years ago, and so I was thrilled when we created the opportunity to spend the following day creating our own designs and pieces.
This began in comedic fashion, in keeping with the theme of our whole adventure. Our tutor reported that he was feeling cold and thus prevented from working. He arranged with one of the guys to collect him a drink, to warm him up. Admittedly, it was cooler here than it is in Lagos, and I had felt the tickle of coolness on my skin; I sometimes wonder if I would feel cold inside an oven. Out of all the expats in my building, I am the only one to refrain from having my aircon on much of the time, and I continue to sleep under a duvet despite night temperatures remaining in the 20s. However, a drink to keep warm, when it was still a generous mid 20s temperature, was intriguing. None so much as when, rather than a hot tea arriving, the guy took hold of a bottle of Chelsea Gin and swiftly took in a healthy swig from it! Patting his midriff, he then looked coy at us and said “”to keep my belly warm”. We laughed aloud and got back to our lesson.
Time was spent practising freehand drawings and replicas of different Nigerian-styled patterns and designs, then we were moved to our personal Batik stations. I found my inner voice chomping away at the bit, as our ‘teacher’ took it upon himself to decide which of my designs were to go on my material then promptly do away with my style and change it into his own. I seemed to be rendered useless before I had even taken my first go at the wax part of the process! I grumbled to my friend, then realised aloud that if I didn’t like it, I had a tongue in my mouth for a reason and why wasn’t I speaking up! Cue a short altercation later, and I was set, with my table first turned around so that I could actually reach the melting wax pot (I am left-handed, much to the confusion and dismay of my tutor!). Hours later, I was lost in the world of Batik. Calm, soothed, delighted to be working at the pace of creativity rather than the pace of the clock. Then all of a sudden, I had no material left to work upon. My friend was not yet two thirds of the way through hers, yet here I was, with no room left to ‘wax’ upon. (Undoubtedly there is a more technical artistic terminology for this, but ‘to wax upon’ is perhaps my new phrase for it, and I like it, so I’m keeping it!) Feathers ruffled by my alertness of return to surroundings and the clock ticking by once again, I fought against my self, and re-settled back at the table, to add finer details to my patterns. I was wanting greatly to have a new piece of material to work upon, now that I felt I had found my oneship with the wax (!). My tutor had refused to let me dye my piece until Jo was ready anyhow, and though I had gotten my book out to read in the interim, staying wrapped and lost in the world of art was where I wanted to be, so I jumped straight back in. (Another point to note. When I learnt batik back in the UK, I had used some metal/wooden tool that you poured wax into and it funneled out onto your material as you wanted. Here, I was using a piece of crudely cut foam, shaped much like a giant pencil, with sharp elongated prism-like tip. Despite feeling like I had quickly become the master of the Batik through my daydreaminess with it, there were many times that foam and wax were not the most happy of unions. To express this unhappiness, the foam would shirk the wax off, straight onto my bare hands or even down to my naked toes. Hot wax and open skin – that will wake you up out of any daydream, I assure you).
As well as the Batik, we were also all set to be taught another technique, repteadly referred to as “tie and dye”, or what is more commonly known in my mind as simply tie dye. There was something in the addition of and to this phrase that really irked me, and still now, I cannot explain why. Anyways we were to be taught this second technique with the other half of our white material. An interesting lesson however, given that it seemed we were not allowed to touch the material or do any of the tying!
Much the same as when it came to the dying process of our Batiked materials. Our tutor put on the rather huge gloves and began the strenuous process of kneading the indigo-dyed waters into the materials to soak up. He did all of the rinsing for us, and he swished the darkened materials in the huge melting pot whilst we stood on the sides looking and feeling some sort of artistic voyeurs, not really meant to be there. Once again I reminded myself of my voice, and wondered why I was being so passive in this situation. So I asked if I could take a turn at the ‘swishing’, if only for sake of a photo. The camera opportunity seemed to be enough of a persuasive device, and the rather long stick/stirrer was granted to me. Hurrah once more.
The subsequent adventure of the day, as aforementioned, was the transformation of my self into my Medusa alter ego. Never before have I ever felt so much pain from my hair and head, nor have I felt it so heavy. The hairdresser had been adamant that she could fix my hair with ease and with speed. Suggesting that she would done within two hours. Some four hours later however, as tears filled up my eyes yet again through the silent screams from my hair follicles, and we were all exhausted. Not least her 2 month old baby, and 2 and a 1/2 year old toddler, both of whom Jo and I had done our best to entertain during this whole time. The woman complained of how hard my hair was to do, how tired she was and how I must pay her more if she was to complete it for me. I had little choice but to agree, as at that stage I looked akin to a shadow of the late Bob Marley (I even heard the women say this to each other), on the worst of all bad hair days. In fact, not only did I look like a very ugly version of Bob, I also looked mostly bald. Not exactly what I was after..
Once it was finally complete, and the woman were on their merry way, we found ourselves next being audience to our pre-arranged culture night. The artists and villagers collected together to present their native dances to us (I am still unsure that a form of lap dance given that I was unable to dance through the injury to my knee, is part of the traditional form, but hey, who am I to question) and we were also given our new Nigerian names; there I sat with my swirls of wrapped hair and beads, and I was granted the name Osun Shewa (pronounced much like the 80s cartoon heroine she-ra); definition being, Osun has beautified you. Another chance for a hurrah and of course a chuckle out loud together at the many amusements that continued to land in our laps (pun intended!). One of our fellow audience members, an older Nigerian man, excused himself from our company with the accompanying phrase, “do pardon me, I must leave now to take my drugs”. Not the most common of ways to say farewell, but we did admire his honesty as we laughed at his choice of phrase!
For the ending of that night, we chose to take some drinks with some of the artists, as we chatted away to learn as much as we could about local life, the Nigerian customs and laws, and the ways and whys of the land. We tried our hand, or should I say, feet, at Nigerian dancing (not so easy for me when this was mostly done from a seated position, to save hurting my leg), and Jo did her very best to teach the others how to Irish dance. More laughter ensued of course.
The next day, our last in Osun this time around, and I decided to go for an ample around the area of the guesthouse, to see what I could see. I chatted away to the villagers and I wandered off-road to take photos of the deserted buildings and the thirsty palm trees. There was much machinery that has been long forgotten about and it made me think of the canals and waterways back in the UK, as I looked at various metal wheels and cogs to turn, in order to operate various machines. As I stood there taking what is presently known as a “Selfie”, I heard a crunch, as part of the roof behind me began to collapse. Note to self; when wandering off the beaten track, it is usually wise to check the safety of where you will step, if you don’t want to be discovered some years later, by traces of wool and beads from the time when you thought it would be a laugh to try out the Medusa look for the day.
We hit the road on our third day, but not before we opted for time spent at the main market, hidden amongst the main roads surrounding the palace. Our driver seemed to want to get us in and out of there as fast as humanly possible and at first this appeared to be simply due to his wish to begin the journey home. However, my main reason for wanting to stop here, was not for the beads which I had told him, but to satisfy a morbid curiosity of something much more fascinating; we were in Black Magic land. Or rather, Ju-Ju as it more commonly referred to here. One of our fellow guests had mentioned the place at dinner the night before and had shown a video of an exotic creature she had never seen before. (Which turned out to be a pangolin according to her description matched to my identification via my own and the internet’s knowledge. I wished so much that I had located it in once in the market, as I would have bought it and taken it to the safety of the conservation centre back in Lekki. Alas this was not to be and I felt a big sadness after this fact).
As we entered the market and began negotiations for beads, there was none other than a dead baby hedgehog lying amongst them in the huge basket. I pointed it out as subtly as could to Jo and it took her a little while to make the connection. When I decided against a sale at this particular stall, the driver was already shepherding us back to the car, as best he could. I refused and insisted that I wanted to see “the animals”. So he came back down the path, and began to lead us in. Within moments we discovered pots akin to lobster pots, full of toads, or agama lizards, baskets full of geckos and other lizards, (all of which should normally be able to simply climb up and out of the open tops of the baskets, but whom were simply lying on top of each other in some sort of eery daze/sense of submission), cages of chameleons that had become as grey and as dark as their surroundings. And heads. Lots of heads. Monkeys, birds, snakes, rodents. Some other animals were still alive, some were dead and especially arranged on platters as what I presumed were sacrificial offerings.
The stallholders were mostly happy by our presence and allowed us to look, wonder, and even photograph. But the whole time, our driver was edgy and did not stand still. And when I went to capture a photo of one particular offering, he was concerned, refused my snap, and took me by the hand quickly away. Both Jo and I wanted to know as much as we could about all that we were seeing, but we got a huge sense of it not being wise to ask then and there, and that these would be learnings we would get some other place and time. We were also deeply curious about the appearance of many children around the stalls, seemingly relaxed and unperturbed by the macabre nature of the setting…fascinating. Would you let your children hang out here?
There are many stories, of now and of old, of sacrifice, here in Nigeria. I certainly haven’t experienced it firsthand like this before and I had the strangest of feelings running through my bones for the rest of the day, after having witnessed these things now. Some of the things I have learnt during my short-time here already may well be hearsay, and others may well be stories that I will tell you face-to-face rather than here in written form. It really is true that you have to see it to believe it and honestly, you may not believe me if I told you. What the mind wants to know, is what the eyes will see and the ears will hear. Is it not so?
The final escapade of this particular telling of tales leads me to the final hours of our trip. We had been away for what felt like the longest of times via the powers of surrealism and we were both really quite tired on the journey home. For the most part, we both drifted in and out of slump. For me, my hair was still feeling so heavy and taut, and my leg was aching somewhat, that it meant I struggled to get into much of a restful slumber. Thus I spent much of the time ‘almost asleep’ with my eyes open. Jo seemed to manage better than I, especially as she had brought a travel eye mask with her. However this was to be a potential downfall in our safe arrival home….
Often here and in Uganda I have come across police stopping cars in order to seek a bribe, finding any crime that they can think of, be it real or imagined, to confront the driver with. In order to receive a release and free passage from this, money will generally be expected to exchange hands. It is said that this happens more often when someone of white-skin is in the car, as we are seen as wealthier. On the drive out to Osun however, any time the police saw us in the vehicle, we were waved through and it was all of the other cars etc that were being pulled over instead. During the return trip however, this was not so. The first police man asked straight up for money, speaking only to us in the back, disregarding the driver entirely. We told him the genuine truth, that we had no cash on us, and he very calmly accepted our answer and waved us on. Some time later, when we were both resting once more, I did in fact feel us being pulled over proper. I hazily opened my eyes and in/out of dream state I listened to what was being said. I heard questions of why the Nigerian driver was taking 2 Owimbos around and to where he was taking them. The police man was unconvinced. As I listened out for requests for bribe once more, I quickly realised that this conversation was rather different to the previous one. The police man was speaking in an accusatory and concerned way, and seemed somehow fearful on our behalf. Which is when I realised; he thought he had interrupted a kidnapping. This was confirmed when I heard him asking why Jo (“that one”) had her face covered, what was being hidden? I quickly became alert and immediately said “take off your eye mask”, without giving my friend any gentle form of awakening from her resting state. Looking a little startled, she did as I said and looked at me questioningly. A clear sense of relief was felt by the police man, and we were allowed to drive on. At which point we both laughed aloud, yet again. Quite the comfortable and high-class kidnap if you are able to sleep with a silk eye mask and pillow as you go on your way.
Jokes aside, it was very reassuring to know that we were both being taken care of, not just simply seen as another dollar in someone’s pocket. Let it be noted in fact, that throughout the whole trip, we were cared for, respected, and loved.
It was a real joy to experience some of the splendor that Nigeria has to offer and to witness firsthand how the lands change, diversify and at times, suffer. Returning home, I felt the walls close in again a little, as I got that Sunday sensation of ‘back-to-work-itus’ and the return to norms and routines; this energy seems to be the same the world over for many and it never fails to surprise me when it comes to me. Yet, I also felt the air around me expand. Gratitude landed back in my heart, as I felt bestowed with the grace of the lands and the people here and a deeper appreciation of who I am working and living beside.
I had felt lost here before this week. I now feel a lot more found. I don’t think this is my forever place, by any means. I look different to who I feel I am, in so many ways, even when I look back on pictures of me from only six weeks aho. I miss my self, as well as many of the people in my heart. But I am now more at ease with being here. It was my choice after all, for all of the reasons that are in my mind. Not for as many reasons as are in my heart admittedly, hence the discombobulation that bounces around for me. But it is ok. What the mind wants, the eyes can see. So my lenses are off now, and my perspective widened.