By Anote Ajeluorou
THE early 19th to 20th century encounters between many African kingdoms and their adventurous European powers will continue to excite the creative impulse across generations. Just when you thought you’ve read it all, something new and exciting crops up in yet another dimension of that historic encounter all of Africa is yet to and indeed may never recover.
Even Prof. Abdulrazak Gurnah’s winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2021 is anchored largely on his dredging up the colonial encounter as it happened to his native countrymen and women and how it shaped his Zazibar, Tanzania people.
Aiyeko-Ooto’s (Cash Onadele) new ‘Blood of Freedom Series’ also maps these mostly unpalatable encounters between two disparate civilzations and the friction and internal revolutions they engendered in local communities across Africa. The first in the series is ‘Blood & Arrows of Wits’ (3P Financial Network Corporation, Texas, U.S.; 2019).
But even from within, changes had begun to take place reminiscent of what venerable Chinua Achebe said that Africa did not wake up from one long, dark night into civilization upon the arrival of the white man knocking on the door. From within African communities, there was always a ferment of socio-political activities that set the people against their kings or verse visa, such that the ordinary flow of events could become altered beyond imagining. This was always the case even to these modern times.
So when Oba Obanta and his wife Ajara decided to go against tradition, it is a surprise but also normal and futuristic view of how women would be perceived, how they too must be integral part of society as people with inalienable rights to existence, too. The monaech was still expecting a son to inherit the throne when a daughter Aderinlo arrived in a community where a female as the first child for the king is a taboo. She must be sacrificed to appease the fertility goddess so a son would be born, but Oba Obanta acts contrary to tradition; he spared his daughter’s life and would package her off so she could set up her own kingdom far from the land of her forefathers. That new kingdom founded by a woman would comprise Paraki, Mopre, and Kalaba, with Alaamo as administrative head.
Many years later when Oba Adepitan ascends Aderinlo’s throne which had been reformed such that no woman is allowed to ascend it after Aderinlo as the founding matriarch, there’s unease in the land. The society is on a boil and Oba Adepitan’s throne is threatened, his first son is sick and the cure can only be procured in the white man’s land. There are disgruntled elements within who believe occupants of the throne are lazy and undeserving of their unmerited privileges; these forces are cooperating with the advancing colonial power to undermine the political power of Oba Adepitan.
But what sort of oba is Oba Adepitan that some forces are plotting his downfall? Is he a bad monarch? What is he doing wrong that he is target of insurrection? What becomes the outcome of these forces and what is Oba Adepitan’s response to these plots against him?
These are the questions that readily come to mind while reading Aiyeko Ooto’s ‘Blood & Arrows of Wits.’ But beyond the political ferment in the court of Oba Adepitan and in Alaamo, Aiyeko Ooto paints a vibrant society interacting well on all fronts. There’s a vast canvas of characters across all segments of the society, some working for the public good, others working at cross purposes to undermine Oba Adepitan’s peaceful reign and the peace of the community.
There is the council of chiefs, which along with the oba, is dispensing justice equitably, except Chief Kolawole who is being recruited by a returnee from the city, Abeo, who is working for the colonialists to destroy Oba Adepitan and bring about regime change. Abeo also has Gorimapa and his wife; there’s Janta, Agoro, Iya-loja and others under her belt in Abeo’s onslaught on Oba Adepitan.
The village gossip, Orofo, and her palace investigator-lover and later husband, Alayewo, Nimbe the palm wine tapper and cup bearer to Oba Adepitan; Arulogun, the war general, and the bevy of beauties preoccupied with which men will be their husbands; the young men are not left out in scheming for the hearts of the maidens. There steaming relationship tangles are well captured, the heartbreaks, the marriages and the yam festival that brings lots of happiness and conviviality to the society.
‘Blood & Arrows of Wits’ is a work of fiction that oscillates among drama, prose, and poetry. Aiyeko Ooto has managed to cram a whole lot into a single narrative with the three sub-genres jostling for space in equal measure. Although he calls it a dramatic piece, it is quite hard to so categorise the book, as elements of prose and poetry pepper its narrative so much so that they actually compete and collide with the dramatic element of the book. For one, it will be hard to fit the vastness of the narrative canvas to a stage as it will take hours on end to perform it. Also, the authorial narrative interventions take it beyond the realm of drama.
Then there’s the moving poetry almost at every turn either of love at its bloom between lovers like that between the heir-apparent Dumadan and his sweetheart, Ajini, and when that also crashes to the ground because Dumadan’s mother and queen forbids the relationship, preferring a noble match for her son instead, Ajini’s poetry turn full circle to bitterness. Ajini’s poetry while celebrating her love for Damudan or when she is forlorn and heartbroken are all poignant. Here, Aiyeko Ooto’s poetry is indeed a beauty to read.
So perhaps, the author should have chosen the prose format to tell this compelling story and infuse it with poetry. But lumping all three genres into one space somewhat weakens the narrative impulse. For a drama piece, the plot needs to be a lot tighter than it is, so the duration can fit into two hours of stage performance. As it is, that cannot happen; not even four hours will be sufficient to put it on stage.
What is more, with over 275 pages, the ‘play’ is nowhere near coming to an end, as readers are to wait till the next volume (‘Shaft of Arrows Pierce Wits’) comes out before the plot against Oba Adepitan is carried out, his heir returns from overseas medical trop and his response to the forces ranged round his throne on a mission to deny his bloodline continuity of kingship.
However in eventual production of this novel ‘play’, the direction that will give viewers justice to this deep and versatile work of infused drama is to engage in its production as a long running family TV series in the order of ‘Village Headmaster’ which ran for many years on network television in Nigeria, such that the beauty of the ‘novel’ can shine forth.