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The year was 1956.
I knew something was horribly wrong that night, when Ahmadu dropped the soup! Normally exquisitely self-possessed, immaculately groomed, and imperturbable, our man-servant and friend was disheveled, the color of cement, and shaking like a leaf with acute anxiety and palpable fear.
Our little family—myself, Kay, and our imperious eighteen-month-old daughter, known behind her back as “She Who Must Be Obeyed”—were living in Idah at the time, among the people of the Igala kingdom.
I had visited Idah once before, the previous year, in order to observe the burial of an Ashadu, or high tribal adviser. This particular Ashadu had died at least four months before he was buried, for the Igala not only bury their important personages in pyramids (and in canoes in those pyramids too) but they also mummify them first–and that takes at least ninety days.
The only snag with the ceremonial is that, lacking the technological skills (or the materials) to build their pyramids upwards, the Igala have to compromise by digging them downwards, starting with a forty foot or so square and then digging nine steps from that on each side, a little less than two feet wide and each about two and a half feet high, to end in a square some 8’ X 8’ at the bottom. There the shrouded and mummified corpse is laid to rest, sealed in a canoe and surrounded by everything that he might need in the afterlife. The hole is then filled in with soil, calabash-full by calabash-full.
My job, on my first visit to Idah, was quite simple: watch the Ashadu’s burial so that the Colonial Office could certify that nine onigbo, or slaves—one on each step and with both kneecaps smashed so that they were unable to clamber out as the grave was filled in—had not been buried alive with him!
I did so. Apparently well enough that when further Colonial Office action was warranted in the region, I was summoned.
This time, my job was to investigate the Attah of Igala, a priest-king who ruled his people on the one hand with an iron fist, and on the other with the assistance of a mish-mash of African traditional religions, juju, and sacrifice (both animal and—it was said—human).
The position of Attah is hereditary, but not direct, in that the heir is always chosen after the incumbent’s death from one of the royal houses of the kingdom. The first Attah, Ebule-jonu, (who ruled in the fifteenth century), was a woman. Since then, most of the Attahs have been men (attah means “father” in the Igala language), but there have also been several female Attahs, as the kingdom recognizes their hereditary right in in the line of succession.
The activities of the current Attah, Ameh Oboni, had come to the attention of the Colonial Office, which was appalled at the reports it was getting from Igala, and which was particularly concerned about speculation of a planned human sacrifice at the upcoming Agricultural Festival.
I was ordered to look into this.
It seemed to Kay and me, as we drove into Idah, through the blood-spattered archway into town, upon which had recently been spitted a live cockerel—in our honor, we were told—that we could smell the kingdom’s fear.
I was only slightly reassured, upon discussions with the Attah and his henchmen, to discover that the sacrifice planned at the Festival was not that of a young woman, but that of a young she-goat who would be killed by the traditional Igala sacrificial method of vaginal evisceration.
The Colonial Office would never tolerate such an inhumane execution, I told the Attah. Either the method would have to change, or the animal would have to be killed humanely first.
The Attah agreed that the goat’s throat would be cut before the official ceremony began.
However, as I stood there on the day, on the field, togged out in my glad rags and medals, it was clear that the Attah had not kept his word, and that although this particular victim was not human, the methods of sacrifice described in the reports were true.
I wrote up my report, sent it in to the Office, and waited for the other shoe to drop.
Very soon, it did. The Attah was called to Kaduna to explain himself, and to be told that things in his kingdom would have to change. Instead, he agreed to resign, and on the journey back to Idah, he hanged himself.
Thus began the process of choosing his successor.
The two candidates, from two of the royal houses, were very different. One was a man in his late 70s, from the same royal house as the previous Attah (a small advantage) who spoke no English, was set in his ways, had most recently retired from his District Headship, and was illiterate in any language. The other candidate was much younger, well-educated, an Instructor at an administrative school in Zaria, and his English, both spoken and written, was excellent.
The Igala elders, who favored the pretensions of the older gentlemen, and who saw me as a modernizing influence and a potential, powerful, threat, were naturally dismayed at my continued presence in Idah which, they thought, might queer the pitch of their preferred candidate.
So, back to the soup.
We sat Ahmadu down and asked him what the matter was. When he had calmed down sufficiently to speak, he explained that a person had come to the house and delivered a message that the elderly candidate’s royal house had paid a local witch doctor of formidable reputation nine black goats and a virgin handmaiden in order to put a curse on me!
We told Ahmadu to put the rest of the meal on the table so we could help ourselves, summoned the smallboy to clean up the mess (Ahmadu had dropped the soup, tureen and all), and sent Ahmadu off to bed. As he took himself off, still trembling, I added (with what I now realize was almost foolhardy bravado), “Let us see what happens in the morning.”
Next morning, we got up early, as usual. Ahmadu brought my shaving water and put out my clothes, as usual. He said nothing about the events of the previous night. Neither did I.
Spring is the hot season in Igala, and at the time our office hours were from 7AM to 9AM, followed by breakfast, then office from 10AM until 2PM, followed by an afternoon break and a return to work from 4PM to 6PM.
And so, at a few minutes before seven o’clock, I turned into the square in front of the Divisional Office, ready to get to work.
Rather unusually, the square was jam-packed with people, most of them women, and as soon as they saw me, they started ululating and throwing dust on their heads—the traditional invocation for forgiveness and demonstration of repentance.
I parked the car in the portico, got out, went up the steps to my office, and sat down. Today, instead of the usual hive of activity, there did not appear to be another soul in the entire complex.
For several minutes, I shuffled papers between my “IN,” “OUT,” and “PENDING” trays, in an attempt to create an appearance of normality, and eventually I observed a face, at floor level, peering around the door jamb.
It was my head messenger, Umaru, to whom I gestured, in the traditional manner, to approach.
Umaru crawled into the room, not on his hands and knees, which would have been bad enough, but on his belly, which was abject and awful! Somewhat peremptorily, I told him to stand up, and with the utmost diffidence and reluctance, he did so.
Umaru Obareku was a magnificent individual. He spoke eight languages fluently, including English, French and German, but since he could only write in Arabic script he had been deemed, by some half-witted government official, to be “illiterate,” and his opportunity for advancement was severely constrained as a result.
Today, though, he was a very frightened man.
Once Umaru had stood up, resumed his fez and his turban, sorted himself out and composed himself, I asked him again what was the matter. All he could bring himself to do was to say, in Hausa, “Haven’t you heard?”
Rather irascibly, I pointed out that it was not my job to tell him what I had heard, it was his job to tell me what he had heard. And eventually, he blurted out, “When the witch doctor got out of bed this morning, as soon as he put his foot on the ground, he fell down dead! Gagara yasin, ke nan? (His cards were trumped, were they not? Or, as the translation came to be told, “The Curse Rebounded.”)
That is how Gagara Yasin came to be the second vernacular nickname with which I was endowed during my time in Nigeria.
Subsequent, and closer, inquiry elicited a few other facts:
It was Umaru who had been ordered up to the house the previous evening to deliver the ‘curse’ message to me, as in order for the curse to be effective, the victim must be made duly aware that he or she has been subjected to it. However, his courage failed him when he arrived at the house, and rather than tell me, he had told Ahmadu, and then waited for Ahmadu to come back and tell him my response. My response, of course, was “Let us see what happens in the morning.”
Ahmadu gave this news to Umaru, who duly reported it back to the royal house.
Meanwhile, the witch doctor, by no means in his first youth, apparently enjoyed a riotous night with the goats and the virgin handmaiden (all of which were sent back, only lightly used, to their respective donors, shortly after the events recounted here). When he got up out of bed, and set his foot on the ground, he did, indeed, fall over stone cold dead.
Whether this was a physical phenomenon, or a psychosomatic one, we shall never, know, though much weight was placed upon the fact that he was not stricken until his foot touched the ground, with all the connotations of the magic imputed to Mother Earth, and of her power in overcoming evil.
Whatever the reason, I was conscious for a considerable time thereafter of a distinct reluctance in many quarters to challenge my rulings or to digress (even ever-so-slightly) from my opinion. In many respects, this made life a great deal easier!
As far as the older candidate was concerned, though, his goose was now cooked. He had tried his best pitch, and lost. The younger man’s candidacy was proposed, and accepted, with widespread acclamation. Attah Aliyu Ocheja Obaji ruled the Igala for fifty-six years, and died in 2012 at the grand old age of 102.
For your listening pleasure, I offer the following musical interlude, one of 1958’s top recordings in both the UK and the US. It drew fascination because it was the first popular use of a clever trick of mid-twentieth-century technology (which would come to annoy us all greatly over the years, particularly at Christmas, in many more recordings from the same guy, ostensibly by a trio of buck-toothed anthropomorphic rodents).
But in 1958 it was new, it was hot stuff, and it was a great hit at the Kaduna Officers Club. When my mother brought the 45rpm record home, I liked nothing more than to wind up the old blue gramophone (many places I lived while I was growing up had no electricity), play it, and dance around like a dervish. Or perhaps like the witch doctors that I had seen, and among whom I had lived.
True music lovers, please be gentle. I was not quite four years old. Here it is: