3 Months In Nigeria: History, Spirituality & Connectedness
I travel the world, but rarely go home.
I have vague, surreal memories of my time in Nigeria as a toddler. I have vivid, recent memories of my time in Nigeria for my sister’s wedding, but no memories of exploring Nigeria as an adult who studies and adores the country from afar.
Although my primary reasons for being in Nigeria this summer were to conduct research (on literature, human rights and national identity) for my MA thesis and to be in a Yoruba language immersion program, I decided that I would be a student of all things – led by humility and an unwavering curiosity for the unknown.
My journey started in Lagos where I had one of the most emotional and educational experiences of my trip. Before I left the United States, I decided that I would visit sites associated with the transatlantic slave trade during my time in Nigeria. I felt that this was important given that I have visited such locations in the United States and Brazil, but none in my own country.
In Nigeria, I went to the compound of Seriki Abass Williams (born Ifaremilekun Fagbemi) – a Nigerian man who was sold into slavery twice and then, after being freed, returned back to Nigeria where he collaborated with slave masters and became a slave merchant himself. His compound has 40 tiny cells – each cell held 40 enslaved people for 3-4 months. Overwhelmed with grief and confusion, I realized that I will never be able to truly understand the circumstances that led a man who lived the horrors of slavery – twice – to inflict that same horror on others. He sent enslaved Nigerians to Brazil – the same country where he had been enslaved. The details deepened the wound. I learned that he exchanged 40 people for an umbrella…an umbrella that was only used as a sign of social status. I saw the tiny mirror that he received in exchange for 20 people and asked – is seeing your reflection worth more than attempting to rid 20 people of theirs?
I carried my unanswered questions with me on a boat to Gberefu Island. I walked to a well where it is believed that enslaved people were forced to drink a liquid that temporarily made them forget their identities. Beside the well there is a burial ground for those who refused this command…
Those who survived were taken to “the point of no return” where they were forced into ships – a point where the majority took their last glimpse of Africa.
I retraced the footsteps of over 550,000 people who were sold into slavery.
Each step felt like a funeral.
I carried this sadness with me to the Bring Back Our Girls Lagos chapter’s weekly meeting. I learned about the 112 schoolgirls that are still missing. I also learned that this group has met every weekend since the girls were kidnapped in April 2014 with some members traveling hours just to be there. I heard them share heartfelt comments on their efforts and the obstacles that they have faced over the past 4 years. As they spoke, I reflected on the global momentum that there was around the movement in 2014 and how that energy is dwindling today. Still, I looked at this multigenerational group who have remained dedicated to this cause and saw several candles amidst darkness.
I carried these heavy feelings with me to the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove – the home of the orisa Osun. The grove is populated with shrines and statues that are connected by winding paths and water. Standing in the grove I felt a deep sense of peace. I was both alone and surrounded. It’s rare for me, as a Black woman, to be able to stand in an seemingly empty space and feel secure – comforted by a presence unseen, but undeniable. I walked every path in the forest until I circled back to the beginning feeling baptized.
Truthfully, my time in Nigeria was a continuous baptism with all of my most significant experiences revolving around water. Climbing Olumo Rock, an enormous outcrop of granite rocks in Abeokuta (my paternal hometown), literally felt like an ascent to my ancestral plane. Olumo has a dual-meaning “God moulded” and “God put an end to our suffering.” In 1830, Olumo Rock served as a refuge for Egba people who were fleeing from war. After they consulted the Ifa Oracle they believed that this rock was their safe haven, which gave them the confidence to live under this rock for 3 years…3 years. The city “Abeokuta” literally means “under the rock.”
Today people still live under the rock – including Iya Orisa who is 133 years old. There are shrines and sacrifices given to the orisa of the rock…people still climb the rock just to touch its holy water…
I also bathed in the holy waters of the Olumirin waterfall in Erin Ijesha. These waterfalls were discovered in 1140AD by migrants from Ile-Ife who walked for seventeen days in hope of finding a new home. At first they were fearful of the waterfall, but when they learned that it was a manifestation of God they immediately settled and began to worship.
The theme of finding refuge by water followed me behind the palace walls in Ile-Ife.
In the palace, I learned about Yeyemolu and visited her shrine. Yeyemolu was the wife of the first Ooni of Ife (king of Yoruba people). She was unable to conceive so she told the Ooni to marry another wife. After a while, he did as she asked and had a child with a new wife. One day Yeyemolu told the Ooni that she was going to surprise him – he had no idea what that surprise would be. Days later, Yeyemolu went missing and a servant searched all of the palace grounds for her. After a while, the servant found an unusual site…there was a large opening in the ground that had not been there beforehand. The Ooni consulted the Ifa Oracle and learned that Yeyemolu had entered the ground. The Ooni had a conversation with Yeyemolu and she confirmed that she is in the well and that she will grant the wishes of all those who come to the well to talk to her and to drink the water. Since that day the well has been producing clean water. People visit the well, which is now regarded as a shrine, to get their prayers answered. When a new Ooni of Ife is selected he has to go to the well and take Yeyemolu as his first wife.
I stood in this sacred place, feet raking the earth (shoes are not allowed on most of the palace grounds – including some of the outdoors), imaging the footprints of those that have come before me.
As I washed my hands and feet with Yeyemolu’s water, I recalled the water in Irin Ijesha, Olumo Rock, Osun-Osogbo and I imagined all of those waters rushing over me.
My encounters with Yoruba religion were important given that over the past year I have been on a new course in my spiritual journey. It has been a time of questioning. I am in the process of distinguishing between my beliefs as an adult and the beliefs that I inherited as a child. There are some overlaps and there are some differences. It has been a project of understanding my own personal concept of God.
As I have been contemplating these large questions, I have been increasingly drawn to Yoruba religion. As a child the images that I saw of Yoruba religion were centered on demonic possession, curses and blood sacrifices. I was ignorant to the ways in which Yoruba spirituality is woven into the fabric of my homeland and that by understanding the beliefs of my ancestors I can develop a better understanding of myself. In Nigeria, I was particularly drawn to the power that I saw devotees of Yoruba religion embody. Seeing them masterfully handle fire, water, and air made me believe that I am also in possession of such magic. The magic of heightened intuition, the magic of healing, the magic of summoning…weapons against daily acts of violence..weapons that I was born with…weapons that have been waiting to be discovered…
Beyond the parts of my trip that were overtly educational, I went out and simply enjoyed myself. I went to Fela’s New Africa Shrine twice, I watched the world cup with a bar full of passionate Nigerians, and I went out to lounges that made me feel like I had money, but really I was spending the equivalent of $5.
I scouted out natural hair salons and had fantastic experiences at Lumo Naturals (Abuja) and Jenniks Salon (Abuja) . I observed the art of gele tying and wore mine like a crown.
But more than anything, I simply valued having one-on-one conversations interactions with people. From interactions with my aunty who taught me how to pound yam in Ilorin, to conversations with my host-brother in Ibadan about his impressions of America, to hearing about the struggles that propel people to leave Nigeria and the love that encourages people to stay…
There were days when we had no electricity. I sat in darkness and had conversations with myself. I thought about my status as the children of migrants and what it means to occupy a liminal place between being Nigerian, British and American. I thought about the different ways that people in Nigeria may perceive me and I thought about how I perceive myself. In my case, I dealt with the emotions of not feeling “Nigerian-enough”, which led me to often feel that I needed to prove my “Nigerian-ness”. In the end, I stopped considering external perceptions and I chose to see myself with my own eyes. I recalled the words of Audre Lorde who said:
“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
One of the best decisions that I made on this trip was to be self-defining.
I consider this post a working document if not physically at least mentally. I look forward to returning to Nigeria with one hand full experiences and the other hand waiting for more.
Until then, I’ll have to imagine eating yam and egg everyday for breakfast, hearing Afrobeats so often that a playlist gets created for my dreams, and engaging with the distressing and beautiful sides of my people’s history and present in a way that is both tangible and transformative.