Oct/Nov 2007 Nonfiction

Between Sagamu and Samarkand's Tree (Snapshots from a Nigerian Funeral)

by Tolu Ogunlesi

While Ken Wiwa reeled from the suddenness of his father's extra-judicial murder by the regime of Nigerian Dictator Sani Abacha in 1995, his wife prepared to give birth to their first child. He wrote about this irony in his book In the Shadow of a Saint, terming it "the Cycle of Life and Death."

I'd like to tell the story of my own cycle of leavings and comings, of goodbyes and welcomes (but of course I realize that it will never jolt the needle of the life-and-death scale as much as Ken Wiwa's did).

My story took place nearly four years ago. My paternal grandfather's burial ceremony had drifted broodingly across time in search of a date and had settled on Saturday, the 17th of January, 2004, the same day as the launch of A Melody of Stones, an anthology of fiction and poetry published by the Nigeria chapter of PEN that included "Solemn Avenue," my first ever published short story. The events ensured mutual-exclusivity by picking two different locations: one the mega-city of Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, the other my sleepy-eyed hometown of Sagamu, about sixty kilometres from Lagos.

I had to make a choice: Sagamu, or the National Theatre's "Samarkand Tree" (venue of the launch)--so-called because a year or so earlier it had hosted the Nigerian launch of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka's most recent collection of poetry, Samarkand and Other Markets I Have Known.

I chose Samarkand and the chance to welcome my new life as a "writer."

Months later, when the events of that day had already become distant memories, I took it upon myself to embark on a journey through the picture-album of my grandfather's funeral. Somehow, that became my belated chance to be present at a ceremony I had missed.

My grandfather, Matthew Olubukola Ogunlesi, was a man with whom I shared a birthday, a name (Olubukola), and asthma. Thankfully, we have both severed our bond of asthma, him by death and me by outgrowing the disease.


The first picture in the album is of my grandfather in his casket. A casket expensive enough to effortlessly pay plenty of minimum wages in this oil-rich country starkly marked by a bizarre cohabitation of poverty and wealth. The picture shows a man lying in utmost comfort, a soul—or body—at peace with the world. His eyes and lips are tightly shut, somewhat stuck together, body warmly nesting in an agbada made from aso-oke. The customary white cotton pads peek boldly, mockingly, from his nose.


There are pictures of family members posing beside the open casket for a final photograph with the Patriarch. I missed that privilege. His children, their spouses, his wife (my Grandma), some grandchildren. The expressions on their faces are varied, loaded, probably containing enough material for a few grossly footnoted tomes to be tentatively titled The Psychology of Grief.


My father, second child of my grandfather, has a smile on his face—of someone who is glad his father chose to stay on Earth long enough and will therefore be rewarded with a befitting funeral. Three of my cousins look unsure what expressions to wear, so they seem to settle for a contrived somberness complete with bowed heads. My 16-year-old brother might as well have been a model, the way he stands, cradling the polished wooden edge of the casket top, eyes fixed on the camera, head inclined at a "studio" angle. I have often joked that maybe he was looking for an opportunity to search grandpa's pockets for some loose change.


One of my uncles (grandfather's last child) has gone beyond just smiling. It is more of a grin, his gaze fixed hard on Grandpa's face. You only get a chance to glare at your father (and get away with it) once in the bluest of moons. But of course the look is far from an angry one. He seems to be thinking, "Ba'ami, you just wait until you see the kind of funeral we've arranged for you."


Grandma (Grandfather's sole widow—in a culture where men's funerals very often turn out to be melodramatic unveilings cum head-counts of secret wives, concubines, and children) on her part, has a calm, serene, almost blank expression on her 77-year-old face. She is like a mother staring at the angelic repose of her one-week-old infant. And that is only fitting. Grandpa, in that state, is worse off than any infant. He is extremely helpless, and the prognosis is not at all good.


The wake. Priests, family—praying, singing, reading Bible lessons, or simply staring at the funeral programmes in their hands. Then there is the Church Service. The family is arranged out in the front pews, Grandpa in his very privileged position somewhere in the aisle.


The Interment proper. I wonder where exactly I was, and what I was doing, at this particular time, miles away in Lagos, at the PEN Anthology launch. I think I know. I was preparing to conduct my own funeral, to lay to final rest my doubts about my chances of ever truly belonging to that commune of poets, novelists, and playwrights ("bohemians" all) I'd long admired with a passion bordering on obsession.

At this point, the casket comes into full view. If everyone had that kind of wooden luxury when they signed out of the world, we might have an even lower life expectancy in Nigeria. We might find fewer people reluctant to die.


And then dust to dust, ashes to ashes, the most symbolic and emotional moment of any funeral. I don't like the second part of the phrase, ashes, with its associative reference to Hell. Dust to dust alone will do just fine.


The casket is now in the grave, about to fully disappear under a growing mound of sand. Life's grand irony, I think, is the fact that the way you say farewell to a loved one is to throw sand at them. Which is what we did (and got spanked for, of course) to our enemies as kids.


Pictures of the party follow. The images of western funerals (even of the elderly) that readily come to my mind (perhaps from Hollywood movies) are of small crowds dressed mostly in black, standing quietly at gravesides and holding on to one another comfortingly, and then leaving solemnly in convoys of black limos. And this forces me to wonder what they would think of the loud, lavish atmospheres obligatory at funerals of the elderly in Nigeria. From beginning to end, every action is invested with high drama, painted in the brightest colors of human emotion and action. The interment becomes a ritual of wailings and faintings and reminiscences and beating of hands upon heads, and the party that follows the interment transforms into a pulsating assembly of feasting, dancing guests--dressed not in black, but in brightly colored, traditional attires complete with regal headgears. (I must add however, that the above description of funeral parties applies mainly to funerals of the elderly; funerals of the young are usually muted).

For many people here, the party is the funeral. The church service and the graveside rites are just a prologue or foreword. The party is the book proper.


In my grandfather's funeral pictures, you will clearly see the packs of imported fruit-juice, wines, bottled water, half-eaten plates of food, the exaggerated headgears, and the expensive traditional clothes. By Nigerian standards my grandfather was quite fortunate. He had four children who had not done too badly for themselves and could afford to send him off grandly. He could have done better though. Eight children would certainly have been better. Then the event would have been an even more crowded ceremony—more guests, more noise, more glamor. Children are supposed to be an investment for your old age. To give you a very befitting burial—but only on the condition that they have made financial successes out of their lives. The more, the merrier.


Far away in Lagos, at some point during the book launch, I had to struggle to obtain a measly plate of rice. I could—and should—have told the attendants to go to hell. After all, wasn't my Grandfather feeding a whole town only a few hundred kilometers away?


My grandfather spent the last years of his working life as a fish merchant. That's why they called him Baba Eleja. I remember his now-defunct blue pick-up truck. I faintly remember that time, too, many years ago in my parents' sitting room in Abeokuta, when he'd tell me stories of his journeys around the world on business. Perhaps that explains why traveling seems to be his writer-grandson's definition of bliss.

He did work as a fish merchant, but at his funeral, the menu deserved much more than fish. Chicken, turkey, and beef—not fish—are what a burial of this standing deserves. Fish commands less respect than the trio.


The last set of pictures are the climax of the party: the dancing. This is where the band (one lead singer with a one-beat-fits-all soundtrack is the norm) mounts the stage and sends everyone scampering for their dancing shoes.

"Spraying" is what consummates the dancing. Spraying is what we call it when guests, dancing at a party, begin to plaster each other's heads (celebrants' especially) with crisp naira notes.

I presume it is a purely Nigerian invention, and today, you are as likely to come across a spraying session in Atlanta or London as in Ibadan, or Sagamu—a testament to the fact that, though it may very easy to take a person out of Nigeria, it is impossible to take Nigeria out of them.

Miles away in Lagos, at some point a two­man band entertained us writers, too, but it had nowhere near the allure of one of Sagamu's celebrations.


I wish you could see the pictures at this stage. I can see my dad holding out a note to the lead musician's head. The next is of my father's boss spraying him. Then it's my mother's turn to be sprayed. I guess the psychology of spraying is this:

1. We understand how much you have expended to entertain us all. This is just our little way of helping to defray the expenses.

2. Well, I spray you unreservedly today, expecting that you will spray me likewise when it is my own turn—when my own Father dies.


Where does my Grandfather fit into all of this, you may want to ask.

His part is over.

Unlike in the movies, here the actor has to die. This is the kind of drama in which the hero/heroine doesn't get to feature till the end. Granddad is dead and gone to his grave.

They who have come to bury him, and to be fed by him for the last time, having acted their parts excellently, are now beginning to feel they should be returning to their houses, to await the summons for another funeral—or wedding. Every Saturday is a highly prized chunk of time to be jostled for, mainly by weddings, birthdays, and funerals. Beginnings and Ends. The endless cycle of Saturdays and of Life and Death.


It was a day of travelings and of settling-down. I, birthday mate and third grandson, was starting a journey that day, as well as trying to get myself to feel at home in an assembly of established and emerging writers, under the National Theatre's Samarkand Tree in Iganmu, Lagos. In the same manner a grandfather had traveled, borne on the wings of dust and ashes, and was now probably trying to settle into a new abode.


Today I can look back and confirm that that PEN Anthology publication was like the beginning of a career—one that has in the three years since then been touched by strivings, stumblings, modest successes, and plenty of passion.

And I can't fail to note how intriguing it is that we all embark on different journeys, beating different paths through life, only to eventually end up in the same place. It was for the purpose of bidding him farewell to this "same place" that the world gathered for my grandfather, that Saturday, three years ago.

And one day, hopefully many years down the line, it will be my turn. I don't want to think too much about it though. Not just yet.


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