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Narrative Travel Writing Contest

2009 Narrative Travel Writing Contest 3rd Place Winner

Aluminum Recollections

Man in Taxi in Yemen.

Oshogbo, in southwestern Nigeria, is a Yoruba city of several hundred thousand, where legends abound. It is said, for example, that the place was first settled about three hundred years ago by two hunters because a river goddess offered to protect all their descendants from tribal attacks in exchange for their promise not to hunt near her sacred river. There is Osun Sacred Grove, on the outskirts of the city of Oshogbo, regarded as the abode of the goddess of fertility Osun, one of the Yoruba gods, and it contains sculptures and art works in honor of Osun and other Yoruba deities. Oshogbo is now the capital of Osun State, and a major center of Yoruba arts and culture in Africa.

Suzanne Wenger, an Austrian artist, arrived here in the 1950s and helped refurbish the sacred shrine at Osun Grove, together with local Yoruba people. She was absorbed into the Yoruba community, became one of the wives of a local artist, and eventually a priestess. When I visited Oshogbo in 1975, it was a smaller place but already a center for art and culture. Suzanne had helped and encouraged many artists, and the work, which was only partly African, was developing a name beyond Nigeria. Much of it at the shrine and outdoor display was in the form of mud sculptures, but there were many other items in the shops and galleries of the town. I purchased a picture made on cloth with palm leaf quills and ink, by Twins Seven Seven (so called as the only survivor of a family of seven sets of twins). It shows the trickster god Esu diverting Ogun, the god of iron, with palm wine. Unknown to me Twins had already shown his work abroad and his work is now in museum and private collections around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in 2005 he was named the UNESCO Artist for Peace. Today the Osun Festival draws tourists from all over the world to celebrate “sacred people and sacred places.”

During my visit in 1975 I also purchased an aluminum picture. I had never seen one until I saw the room full of them in Oshogbo. The metal, which often derives from scrap, is first beaten flat. Then, with a variety of implements, especially a punch, designs are beaten into it. The works were by Asiru Olatunde, another modern artist of fame from Oshogbo. The background of my picture is marked by a continuous pattern made with the imprint of the punch, leaving the items of the picture rising silvery smooth, so that the end result is a kind of bas-relief. My picture is in four parts. Top left shows three men drinking palm wine in a simple hut and the top right depicts a man carrying palm sap in a large jug and another carrying produce in a basket through the forest. I assume the jug contains palm wine or the sap that is to become palm wine. The bottom left panel has a man cutting the trunk of the palm to initiate the flow of sap from which wine is made. The final panel shows two women grinding cassava into flour. Each has a giant pestle above the single huge mortar, and this scene takes me right back to Nigeria. The thump of two pestles as women bring them down in the mortar in regular alternation is the sound of a Nigerian village for me.

The figures in aluminum are all presented from the front with their faces in profile, in the manner of ancient Egyptian pictures, but the similarity ends there. The aluminum people are all squat and roughly made, with heads large for their bodies, and they wear traditional Yoruba dress. All the space is used up: people absorbed in their lives, palms full of leaves and coconuts, implements and various indeterminate arthropods filling the remaining space. Overall the picture has a most pleasing aspect for balance and design.  I brought the picture home to England and framed it simply, in a dark African hardwood. And now it hangs in my house in Tucson, Arizona, reminding me of a time when I worked in Nigeria, an entomologist engaged in team work to solve the problem of how to manage a species of pest grasshopper that destroyed the cassava crop.

When I looked up Olatunde on the web, I found that although he has been dead for over ten years, his work has been exhibited around the world, most recently in London in 2005 at the John Martin gallery, where pictures were hung on a backdrop of deep blue Nigerian adire cloth. The many works took inspiration from Yoruba stories and customs, as well as Biblical stories combined with local folklore, such as the Garden of Eden shown at his local sacred groves and surrounded by the river deity. As at the shrines, indigenous religious stories are melded with Christian ones.

Brought up in Queensland I thought I knew about humid heat, but nothing prepared me for the wall of warm moisture I encountered as I walked down the steps from the plane in Lagos on my first visit to Nigeria. It was around midnight and the combination of smells was overpowering: too-sweet flowers mixed with wet rotting materials and sweating bodies. And the air so thick one felt that breathing would be difficult.

We were not sure exactly where to go and followed the crowd across the tarmac to the single-story terminal where temperatures were higher even than those outside, in spite of fans. The planes from Europe all arrived in the middle of the night and the place was milling with people, mostly Nigerians, but all with sweat glistening, beading, dripping, making clothes dark under the arms and in the middle of backs, running down legs and making sandals slippery.

We joined the long queue for passport control, and were accosted almost immediately by men in Nigerian dress offering their services.

“Sir Madam I take you to the front, one naira.”

“Come sir, I take you to the desk, one naira only.”

I wondered briefly, reluctant to give money away so soon, or give my passport to strangers. How did these men come to be on this side of the passport control?  I asked Reg, my partner and colleague with whom I worked on the biology of pest grasshoppers. He shrugged, too hot to answer. We watched in amazement as offers went to everyone. A man grabbed a willing passenger's passport and urged, “Come, come quickly,” and rushed to the front of the line where arguments ensued with all who were up there crowding around the desk. Voices were raised, “Yes, sir, this is most urgent.” Eventually the passenger was pushed into a better position amidst grumbling and shouting from everyone else.

The scenes imprinted on my tired mind in the long sticky wait, but were not processed. Hundreds of airport employees walked about; line jump helpers rushed up and down urging others to come with them hoping to earn lots of naira this night; women swathed in yards of brightly colored cloth with fantastic head gear of the same material screamed as they called out to children or friends; the babies cried; money changers called black market prices in Nigerian naira for English pounds and American dollars.

The minute we got out on the street, upward of twenty cab drivers fought over our luggage. Somebody grabbed, and it was gone. I was sure it was lost but Reg said, “Don’t need to worry about it, our money is more useful than our bags.” He was right. The aim seemed to be to get it into a cab somewhere so that we could be claimed immediately as passengers. We had probably fallen victim to the most aggressive driver, but he knew exactly where we wanted to go: the Airport Hotel. If you are going on to another destination you have to stay overnight and get the flight to the next town in the morning. The Airport Hotel was the only place to stay.

The draft of air coming in the cab window brought me to life as we sped screeching along, splashing through puddles, veering round car wrecks, bumping over who knows what, passing food stalls still open along the roadside and crowds of people eating, drinking, laughing. The electric lights were glaringly bright and I read the neatly made billboards above the low buildings: car doctor, tailor best shirts made here, one-day watch doctor, quick gonorrhea cure. The “cure” was in small type and we both smiled.

At a cross roads I saw the body of a man lying in the middle of the road. The cars and mammy-wagons swerved to avoid it but no one stopped. It seemed that he was dead.  We went by the  “barbing saloon,” where a panel of African men’s faces painted on the front each had a different hairstyle. There was the rounded effect, or flat on top and sides, or curved out at the sides and then flat on top, like topiary done on English hedges.

We turned into a driveway with relief, aching to rest. The Hotel was agreeably cool and the air conditioners rattled and roared. There was a slight moldy smell.  But we were not there yet.  

“No rooms left,” they told us. We pressed them repeatedly, but they were adamant, “No Sir, no Ma'am, absolutely nothing,” and we stood here in this dim lit lobby in thirsty tired dismay.

Ten minutes later the receptionist commanded, “Stand over there.” Nothing happened for what seemed hours and we stood there. I said to Reg, “What do you think?” He had spent years in Africa and he was confident. “It’s just a matter of time.” Some Africans checked in. We still stood. Inside my head I said all the buggers and fucks. Then our man commanded, “Go to room 716.” This was a command we liked.

We sat on our beds and laughed, and we drank bottles of Star, the Nigerian beer. No drink was ever as good as this one was.

Next day we took off in the second plane, after sitting for some hours in one that had a problem. Clouds were gathering and I knew that if planes arriving in Ibadan run into cloud they turn back to Lagos. We were lucky; the trip was short and the clouds didn’t close in. We flew low enough to see the rainforest below – old growth mixed with regenerating growth after periods of agriculture, clearings with small villages and patches of mixed crops. Ibadan came into view at last - a sea of mud houses with rusty corrugated iron roofs almost engulfed by tropical forest. This city, the largest in Africa south of the Sahara, had between one and three million inhabitants, no one knew exactly. Few Europeans lived in or visited Ibadan at that time, and it was not a tourist destination. Here, in 1974 tall buildings were rare and the narrow streets unpaved.  Storm drains provided the only sewage system and the vast rainfall took it all away somewhere else. We were told that the authorities could account for just one percent of the human waste.

We could see the grassy plain of Ibadan airport below a patch of cloud and the wheels were lowered with grinding and squeaking, then the plane descended fast. Suddenly, perhaps when we were only a hundred feet from the ground, the plane jerked sickeningly and we rose again. As we turned, I saw there were animals on the runway; sheep or maybe goats were all over. It is forbidden of course, but the luscious grass is tempting for poor farmers, and the experienced pilots know to watch out for animals here. We circled three times and finally descended again, landing with a bump. I was more than pleased to experience this bump of arrival.

What do I remember best of Nigeria now? The heat and mud in the field where colorful grasshoppers congregated, butterflies flocked and army ants marched. Working in the cassava fields, counting grasshoppers and grasshopper corpses, figuring out causes of mortality was always full of surprises.

“What in the name of fortune…” one colleague, Alan, says as he points to a gourd hanging in a regrowing rainforest tree.

“Oh yeah,” Bill replies, “You see them all over, they have frogs and all sorts of things in them. Black magic.”

Mystery emanates from the magical gourd in the earthy moisture of the morning. I look inside and see only black liquid with emergent lumps whose identity is indeterminable. We would never know the meaning, but the materials rotting in there make up a hanging counterpart to the rapid disintegration of dead leaves, rotten papaya fruit, moldy insects, human excrement.  The fast reduction of complexity to component molecules. What invocation, I wonder, accompanied its making, and what hopes or curses were suspended here.  But the black mystery is not for ex-colonialists to understand.

There is the exciting noise and color in the markets, laughing groups of men, trestle sewing machines running, calls to eat the street food. And on campus, the sound of revival songs from a church– “Jay, Ee, Ess, You, Ess, Jesus, halleeluyaaa,” constant pressure from men and women hawking woven or embroidered materials, indigo-blue adire cloth, wood carvings, food, masks, brass bowls.

“Best for you, only twenty naira,” the same ones called every day, laughing and slowly reducing the price on successive days, “Come on sir, yes sir, bargain ma’am today at only twelve naira.”  Always bargaining, laughing and joking, it was hard to know whether life was just funny or if we were most amusing.

As for the project, I loved the teamwork and laughter, the camaraderie of a group of British and Nigerians working on fascinating grasshopper biology and solving a pest problem. I loved the sights and sounds of so much life, so much insect activity, such a lot of Africans. Nigeria remembered by the English team for all the novelty of an African community built in rainforest, working with Reg as our leader, with Reg as my guide and partner.

The work had been exciting and rewarding. As a group we discovered much about our grasshopper pest. It ate and grew on many plants, but grew best on the cyanogenic cassava, yet, upon biting into its turgid leaves, the escaping cyanide gas was repellent enough to prevent feeding. In the heat of the day however, when most people stay indoors, the grasshoppers in hunger take occasional bites and eventually the leaves wilt, reducing the escape of cyanide gas and causing them to become acceptable, which in turn allows the insects to do their worst, often completely defoliating the crop. The colorful creatures were found to be distasteful themselves, avoided by any possible predators, after sequestering numerous toxins from weedy plant foods. They displayed themselves in conspicuous groups, attracted to one another by smell, and they laid eggs in enormous concentrations in the ground.  The key to suppressing their numbers turned out to by simple – go out at the right time of day and identify the egg-laying site, which was usually one per acre or two, dig up the eggs and just leave them to desiccate in the hot tropical sun.

I had enjoyed the travel to different regions of Nigeria, meeting Ebo people in the east, Fulani in the north. And how quickly I felt different, how pale skin became odd among the dense population of very dark-skinned people.  And of course, there was Oshogbo, shrine and center for contemporary art, combining legend and myth, pagan gods and Christian stories, European tools and native materials, and the strange story of an Austrian woman who played a part in the development of the sacred shrine with locally made art, and who helped bring the work into the world outside. Here, by chance I purchased work by two artists who fascinated me – Twins Seven Seven with strange figures painted on cloth and Adiru Olatunde with beaten aluminum – and both of them now icons in Yoruba art.

Both artists manage to convey a sense of the jungle that is the humid tropics of Africa, the one with legend, the other with scenes of everyday life, and while the legend is mysterious the aluminum pictures of life in southern Nigeria take me back there when I step into a bathroom painted green with a window to the desert and the mountains of Arizona.