This past week has definitely brought some tangible events I can talk about to people who are outside of Nigeria. I often categorize the things that happen to me here into the tangible and intangible – the things that I can say ‘hey I was in Africa and I did this this and that’ and the intangible that people will not understand like my daily walks to school and the accent of my Yoruba grandmother and the way the sunsets on palm trees. But going to greet a king is definitely one of the more tangible ones.
About a month ago when I had malaria, my friends came to visit me after announcing that while I was home sick a king’s assistant had come from Osogbo to see the Oyinbos learning Yoruba at the university. Interested by our study, the king had invited us to come greet him in October. This turned into a two day event including three awesome Yoruba meals, the most dancing I’ve ever done in my life, countless awkward encounters, and new friends.
Let’s start with Friday morning. We had to leave at 7:30 AM. The drive is about three hours including su kare fa kare (traffic) so we wanted an early start. This is Nigeria so we met at 8:30. Instead of the normal van outside our meeting spot we saw two range rovers (the most expensive car in Nigeria), a black van with sirens attached, and various important looking guests including security officers in awkward looking suits. I guess the king was nervous that we were white and would be attacked, even though we’ve been out before, and gave us an escort. This was particularly embarrassing when the siren car would race around us on the uneven roads to literally push others off the road as we passed. If being white didn’t get their attention, being abnoxious certainly did. In the car the drive played country music the whole time – we think because they thought we’d like it but probably because a lot of Nigerians really love country. Then we switched to the Abba soundtrack which was played twice. I’m not sure why.
When we arrived we were greeted by many different drummers playing on an instrument called the “talking drum.” In Yoruba, there are three tones (do-re-mi). The drum has those three tones that the drummers use to play out sentences in Yoruba. For example, my name is Ayodele – Re Do Mi Mi, the drummers play. They even taught us later on how to play our names and some simple phrases. So they while come up to greet you and play (but really talk) a special invitation for you and you are supposed to dance the traditional steps to it.
We settled in, greeted the king, his wife, his sons, and his chiefs with “E ku kaabiyesi!” which means “greetings your highness.” Women get down on their knees but men have to lie flat on their stomachs to greet the king. He was “kaabiyesi pelu okan titobi” – a king with a big heart. He toured us around the grounds. We went hiking later on his beautiful property where there is a small waterfall. We ate great meals with him including jollof rice, yam stew and fried chicken and fish and then pounded yam with greens and hot red soup. Oh, and I accidentally am now engaged to a Nigerian prince – got a little lost in translation.
Later we went to visit the townhall which was occupied full by townspeople. We shared the space with a local organization doing aids testing which was interesting to talk to them. We stood in front of everybody and told our names and where we were from in Yoruba which was followed by an obligatory joyous dance party. Our talking drum entourage followed us through the whole town.
The whole experience was amazing. Later that evening we witnessed a small play in which a man threw his young daughter in the air in repeated somersaults and later got a performance from a local girls dancing group. They invited us down to dance and laughed at me as I learned the steps. We performed one dance in which everyone kneels down while the talking drum plays a special song for a solo performer as she dances around the kneeling group. Then while we were all kneeling one of my friends whispered “Ayodele Ayodele!” until all of the girls were excitedly screaming “AYODELE!” Embarrassed and unsure I stood up. Everyone looked at me as if I were going to politely refuse but then I thought ‘what the heck’ and put all my energy into swinging my body around like the girls taught me. All the children laughed and screamed and cheered me on for about four minutes until I knelt again. It was fun, embarrassing, and unfortunately caught on tape by a fellow friend. Afterward I made friends with a lot of the girls. They talked about aspirations to be doctors and lawyers and thanked us for learning Yoruba. The king says “Maa je dokita tabi lawya, sugbon asa se nnkan to pataki ju” – “be a doctor and lawyer, but culture is the most important, never forget your culture.” We took “snaps” (photos) together. Before they left we all lit these traditional local torches in the dark and danced and play until a gigantic lightning storm took the light.
The next day we ate akara and ogi (delicious fried bean cakes and corn pudding). We went to a local palm oil harvester, followed by at least forty interested townspeople through the small town Eko-Ila outside Osogbo. It was interesting to see a rural area, because Ibadan is so urban and large. We greeted many stunned faces. I have never been so aware of my skin color. I was wearing plain ankara dress with no jewelry or expensive objects. I carried no money and wore no makeup. I was plain, but my skin shines like gold and carries a meaning of wealth wherever I go. I could be the poorest person in the world, but in our world, white means something wherever you go. White and Yoruba speaking means confusion and smiles, which is better than silence and whispers. So I tried to greet as much as possible, especially the agbalagbas and omo kekere (older respected people and small children). When we returned we said goodbye to the king. He gave us gifts of traditional clothes and a small ere (statute) from the town. The king laughed and said “so who’s going to be the next President here? Of America.” He then grabbed my male friend Adeleke and said “it will be you! And Funmilola secretary of something. And Ayodele, a first lady.” There’s a lot of this in the culture and it doesn’t phase me much anymore. Men really enjoy men and there’s still the inclination to not think of women as being in positions of power. But this time as we all smiled I said “E jo kaabiesiyi, mo maa je aare” (excuse me king, but I think it will be me who is President.) He laughed and just said “good, good.”
Upon leaving, I politely refused the king’s sons and got out before they could try to take my phone number.
On Sunday, I got to go to an ayeye igbeyawo or wedding reception with a my neighbor and a couple new friends. I sat with some older people and talked in Yoruba for a while. This time when a man asked me “se o maa fe mi?” (will you marry me) I said “e se pupo sugbon o ti” (thanks a lot, but no). He laughed and laughed, his wife sitting next to him (it had been a test to see if the oyinbo really could speak) and said “iyawo ikinni, iyawo ikeji!” pointing to her and then me (wife one and wife two!) I was once again dragged onto the dance floor where people
“sprayed” me with blessings of money and laughed as they tried to mimic my awkward dancing style. I had a lot of fun and the food was delicious. I didn’t actually see the ceremony, we just went to the reception, but I’ll be going to two more weddings in the coming month I think. Weddings are a huge part of the culture here. Huge.
We also ran into a friend of my neighbor on the way home who was so shocked that I could speak Yoruba that she held us there for a whole ten minutes questioning me. It makes me happy to speak to a lot of people. I’ll post photos of the king’s greeting soon.