Friday, June 1, 2007

Orita Meta By Peju Alatishe - A Review

This must have been published in the Guardian News papers, Nigeria sometime ago but I doubt if its on their website.

ROPO EWENLA, 08032311574

YEAR: 2006
PAGE: 208

In Yoruba culture, orita meta – the point where three footpaths meet in literal sense – is a place of momentary physical confusion where strangers and visitors are likely to be confounded. It is a place of spiritual supplication for those whose path to divine favour must be accessed through Esu Laalu, the one whose abode is the crossroads.

Understandably, it is in the true character of Esu, the lord of mischief and master of ambivalence therefore, that he is controversial. It is true to his character that he is today the most misconceived of Yoruba deities especially in the perception of those who have been affected or afflicted by either or both of Islam and Christianity. And that may be why one is piqued to encounter such a passage as this in Alatise’s Orita Meta: “Also at the crossroads, the traditional worshipers of Esu, the devil, placed offerings often for the curse of other people to come to harm or suffer tragedies.”(My emphasis) This is not one of the characters in the novel speaking. It is the omnipotent author who is playing God and who is expected to know…but I guess I would have to come back to this and other issues later after we might all have got sufficiently familiar with the work we are dealing with.

So much for an introduction to some of the issues that might have been raised in Peju Alatise’s ground breaking novel. Hers is one novel that paints feminism against the background of African folklore and Christian doctrine to prescribe an emergent African and black people’s consciousness. Let us move closer to the book and the issues surrounding it.

What attracts you to a book? I mean, what motivates you to want to read a book? If it is a book written by a well known writer, hearing of it in passing may be all you need to commence a search for it. For those who love to read must read to live and live to read. Knowing that a new Soyinka, Marquez or Mda is out and not being able to read it almost immediately is like happening upon an avoidable case of coma from which revival is possible only when the book is administered.

Getting to read a book by a(n)(relatively) unknown writer is another ball game. Sometimes, you are attracted by the blurb; that back cover where short and enticing reviews are posted to challenge you to go into the pages. More often than not we have been told that just as the hood does not make the monk, so also does the blurb not make the book. Maybe before the blurb, there are some things about the book in its outward package that draws you near. Some of these could include the choice of font, choice of colour and quality of artwork on the cover. Well binded books with appealing choices of fount, colour and title head in just one direction; love at first sight. If such a book is being held by your enemy, you might want to propose a ceasefire simply to be able to ask for the book and read. I hold strongly to the hypothesis that if George Bush and Osama Bin Laden are placed on a diet of same books, after a while the enmity between them would somehow abate and the rest of humanity would be better for it.

I cannot recall ever meeting Peju Alatise the writer. Maybe I have seen some of the works of Peju the visual artist. I cannot be too sure. For a long time, I did not also get an opportunity to see the novel, which is her first, but I stumbled on a short review in one of the dailies and the title ORITA META: The Cross Roads, is all I needed to put it in the list of my achievable objectives for this year. I did not have till the end of the year to wait. Laalu, the patron god of the cross roads himself imbued me with sufficient blackmailing strategies to get a notorious editor friend of mine to offer me a copy at near gun point like the proprietary offering to Esu to let there be peace.

I got the book and my fear or call it challenge was triggered on from the dedication page. The author says she is interested in disproving the saying that women are their own worst enemies (I have no problem with that. I mean with her intent to prove anything whatsoever. She should just prove it convincingly) because her own growth, support and strength have been channeled through women. Thus she dedicates the work to her mother…her mothers…her sisters…her friend that stays closer than a brother and to all others of their likes (mothers, sisters and friends) “who offer their lives as a path to follow to a life worth living.” Then I wondered if this sister author ever read the creation story and if she did, whatever happened to all those who came down the line of Adam? On the next page however, is this unmarked headstone that suggests there is a man somewhere or that the author believes strongly in a male God who makes it possible for all her sisterhood sentiments to hold. These are all the appetizers I needed to plunge into the heart of the book.

In my perception, hardly can there be a more anti social and anti intellectual crime than hoarding useful information. To know of a book that is unread by a good many people or to have read a book that is good, bad or controversial and not share your view with others is a crime that bares the GRACE. No good Christian, Muslim or traditional believer would hoard a revelation even if you say it is not sublime. So, in the true spirit of what I believe, I go on to share with you some of what I make of Peju Alatise’s ORITA META: the Cross Roads.

The novel is about the separate and yet intertwined story of three major women characters, Oluwaremilekun (Remilekun), Cecilia (Sisi, Ifelolu) and Omolabake (Labake) who each have a part of the three clear parts of the narrative. This is the story of Oluwaremilekun

Six times her mother had laboured, six times the child had died till Oluwaremilekun came to stay. This accounts for the name which means God has relieved me of my tears. While growing up, Remilekun builds a relationship with one of the young boys around, Olalekan. It is a relationship that is expected to blossom into marriage but then disaster strikes. Remilekun is taken advantage of by a drunken slob from the landowners land. She soon finds out that she is pregnant and to cover up her shame, she takes flight to her grandmother’s village far from hers. There she gives birth and give up the child, whom she insists must be called Toluwani (it is God’s) for adoption. After doing this, she is convinced to go back and marry Olalekan. She does and Olalekan accepts her fully. They both have three more sons, Boluwatife (as God wishes), Olarotimi, (wealth stands by me) and Jayesinmi (let the world have peace). Years after, in a civil war, she loses her husband and in order to survive, she has to give away her eldest son Boluwatife in slavery, in exchange for a couple of goats upon which the rest of the family depend for survival. After many years of living from hand to mouth, she discovers money hidden by her late husband in the walls of their dilapidated home and life takes a new turn with her and the rest of the family. In an ironic twist, her mother in law informs her of a son her late husband has outside of wedlock (Olusoga). She is mandated to take charge of the son because the mother is dead. In alliance with other women like Adunni, she sets up the ‘Alternative’, an art and craft cooperative of women that encourages them to be both financially and mentally independent.

Cecilia’s story is the story of love and rejection. It is the story of Dr. Olwatoyosi and her University Professor friend who latter became her husband. It is the story of Tamedun, the story of nobody, somebody and everybody. Tamedun is the boy who was discovered in the middle of nowhere without a means of tracing his parents or people and was fostered by the professor and Dr. Olujobi. Like Remilekun’s story, Cecilia’s too starts from birth. She is born with a cleft of the upper palate and on account of that seeming abnormality, her parents refuse all entreaties and abandon her in the hospital. Dr Mrs. Olujobi takes her over and parents her. Along the line, she still encourages Sisi, as she fondly calls Cecilia, to pay her biological parents and family occasional visits. Reluctantly, the family welcomes her till they notice that she is near the age of marriage. At that time they are willing to take full charge of her. But matters do not get to a head till they circumcised her on one of her holiday visits. Naturally, her Dr. mother becomes livid with rage. The family’s calculation is based on the fact that with Cecilia’s college education, she would fetch them more in terms of dowry than any of their other children and that this may be the ticket they need to put the poverty line below them. In reaction to this act of circumcision, Dr. Olujobi takes her case for un-interfered custody to the elders of their church. The elders rule that the Sarumis have a right to their daughter irrespective of the fact that they have abandoned her fifteen years ago. After ten years with the Sarumis, a period within which Moyo, her best friend marries, and Tamedun, the only male friend of hers who has shown genuine interest in her, goes away with a promise to come back for her, Cecilia thinks she is fast becoming an old maid. Her parent’s response to the situation is to arrange to marry her off against her wish to Salako the short and polygamous man who is willing to marry her in spite of her deformity (the cleft). In reaction to this bid, she packs her things and goes back to Dr. Olujobi’s palce. But then, her story is not complete till the mystery of Tamedun is resolved. He comes back and takes her as wife. Before then, she is taken abroad for a corrective surgery that leaves her face exceedingly beautiful. Soon after, he takes her home to his people. At home, Tamedun is revealed as the same son of Remilekun who was earlier sold into slavery.

The third part of the story is the story of Omolabake, child of her mother’s old age who must therefore be extremely cared for. She is the child who grows up shunning her parent’s wealth in preference for the simple things and uncomplicated pleasures of life. She comes of age and her aged mother, especially, mounts pressure on her to give her a grandchild but all the suitors brought before her she turns down. When she finally finds the man who holds the key to her heart, she finds out that even love is not enough. First, her husband, who has found out that he is incurably infertile resorts to beating her in the belief that she would leave in annoyance. She does not. It is her mother in-law, whom she had put at an arms length in all family relations, who come to her rescue. Second, no sooner had the battery stop than her husband takes to heavy drinking in exchange.

While trying to adjust to this new situation in her marriage, she meets a man who has just been posted to head the Baptist church and they both fall in love. Just when she is about to take the plunge of having a full blown affair, she discovers that her secret lover is actually a well known friend of the family. The two lovers thereafter decide to call it quits. Soon after this, her husband who has been revealed as Jayesinmi disappears and is declared missing. After a month his decomposing corpse is discovered in a monkey trap. He is buried but according to tradition, his head stone cannot be laid since he has no child. The only remedy is for his wife to marry somebody from among his brothers or relations and have a child by him. Only then can his tombstone be erected and absolute after-life peace guaranteed him.

For Labake however, the convenient death of her husband makes it possible to marry the reverend gentleman. As her late husband’s family makes plans to have her choose one of the siblings of her husband to inherit her, she plans to elope with her lover. In hatching this plan, she takes into confidence her co wife, Cecilia, who has been renamed Ifelolu. While hatching the plan however, Remilekun overhears and also makes her own plan. When Labake finally runs away to her lover’s house, she not only met her lover and his parents waiting for her, there was Remilekun too. There and then it was revealed that this reverend gentleman, with white parents, is the same child once given away by a mother who insisted he be called Toluwani. Toluwani and Labake soon get married and a befitting tombstone is laid for Jayesinmi. Labake soon gives birth to a brown skin baby girl – Adetoun – whose story, says the author, is of the future.

Those are the three paths that converge to make a crossroad. Each of the paths also represents an individual who has to surmount the challenges of the crossroads in their lives. While one stretch of the story is going on, you never think that it has any connection with the previous one. Take especially the first two narratives – REMILEKUN AND CECILIA – they seem episodic enough. They almost suggest a life of their own till you get to the end of CECILIA. And then, you get the full import of the interconnectedness of every bit of the narrative in LABAKE. That is where you pleasantly find out that Ifelolu is Cecilia, that Jayesinmi is Labake’s husband, that Remilekun is Labake’s mother in-law and that Toluwani is still very much in the plot. This indeed is the convergence point in a crossroad where the dead, the living and the forgotten meet and mingle. That may be as far as the narratives are concerned. The overall tying up is done when you take the prologue and epilogue together. You arrive at a defining synthesis. This, in truth, is where the roads cross but it is also where they meet and merge to continue along one path.

Talking about synthesis let me make another projection. On the cover of the book are three heads. These are not just heads; they are female heads which are taken to represent each of the major characters in the novel. These heads are also pointers to each path that constitute the crossroads. This for me is a very strong artistic impression pregnant with potent meanings. I almost wanted to read this as a strong gender statement in which African cultural values are reagents to feminists or womanists ideals. My major reasons for this is that in the Yoruba world, if indeed one encounters the dilemma of the crossroads, it is ones head, far more than propitiations to Esu Laalu and the three hundred other deities and gods, which would clear a path for one. After all, the Yoruba’s say: ori la ba bo; ta a ba f’orisa sile, meaning that we had better worship the head and let the gods be, also because: ko s’orisa tii …la i s’ori eni, meaning there is no god that…..but ones head. Whether or not one will ever get to the crossroads at all depends on the head again because the Yorubas maintain that: ori lo mo bi oun n mu ese re, meaning it is the head that knows where it is taking the leg to. Forget about the fact that the leg seem to be moving on its own, the decision as to the direction to follow rests with the head.

Yes, in its way, ORITA META describes and prescribes. It describes the separate but intertwined life experience of three women and all that they come across. More than that, in these narratives is stuffed the suggestions that beyond the characters and situations being encountered, there is also the latent narrative of the African continent. It prescribes the way of the brown skin culture represented by Adetoun, who must overcome the controversy of the crossroads by exploring and inheriting the earth. You can extend and expand these descriptions and prescriptions when you take in the full import of the image of Africa both in the prologue and the epilogue. It is in the prologue that Alatise warns:

If you understand, you will know that the mother is called my Africa and the bride with her dancers could be the desire of the soul or the lust of the flesh. If you looked at the palm of your hand, will you not see your ability to do and you ability to become? It is the weakness of man that substitutes the desires of the soul for the lust of the flesh. Do not be confused. (4)

Who does the crossroad of Esu confound that the holy trinity does not? How come it is conceivable to find one person in three places while it is unbelievable to find three persons in one person or vice versa? If you can understand that the hood does not make the monk, how come you cannot comprehend that similar fact that cowries do not make the traditional believer’s priest?

Alatise’s ORITA META speaks in languages that reach deeper than the English language. She speaks in images and metaphors. She speaks of the pains of womanhood. She speaks in colours of paints and strokes of brushes. She speaks in canvasses and palettes. She speaks in prose, in poetry and in parables. She speaks of African folktales and biblical allusions. That is why the narrator keeps changing. Sometime it is the omniscient narrator who sees everything. Sometimes it is the first person narrator. This is not to say that this is a perfect book. It has its lapses which include the usual editorial gaffes such as mix up in temporal settings and unverifiable cultural postulations. Down page forty two, Remi shuddered her shoulders. I would have advocated for her to shrug her shoulders. Take again for instance expressions like; “Some other women where there and they said little” (69). “She asked me to read the name on the label and it read ‘Alterative’. In the city, we liked ‘Alternative.” (69) When she talked ( ) herself as a slave…. In the city we like to call slaves, servant. (72). For a Yoruba girl too, while her handling of the folktales are commendable, her spelling of Yoruba words are not too tidy. For yeepa, she has YE KPA! (65) Pray, what language would that be? Okay, let us start from the beginning. Unsure whether when roads cross they become roads or road, the outside cover page reads ORITA META: THE CROSROADS while the inside title page reads ORITA META: THE CROSSROAD. Well, the choice is yours.


Doris Speaks said...

A lovely book indeed. Have very fond memories of her description of the woman, as a fruit.

tunmise said...

hmmm, good review indeed, and the editorial lapses as you called them could also be what e e cummings did.
what i am most taken with in the book is her weaving the nigerian story albeit incomplete, into the story, but then i am awaiting "adetoun"
the editorial lapses come from having to self publish in nigeria, but when you look beyond these, you will notice she didnt condemned the so called cultural practices, she described in such a way a womn who has been a subject of female genital mutilation, which she cautiously called circumscion, would relate anf forgives not only her parents but herself.
i personally wished i had written the book and the crossroads, how they link back to oluwaremilekun was beautiful,
howver after all said and done, i was really expecting another book on the "thing" wrong with nigeria without looking at what is "wrong/right" with the people, which she tried..
then for the first time the "yoruba" side of the civil war is kindda touched. this is at the risk of sounding ethnicist/racist/tribalistic...
feminism maybe the central theme of the book,but its deeper than that, its accepting yourself as a woman and then being the woman....
thanks oluwafiropo for the honest review loved it.