From the beginning, cultures and people had always sought after the perfect ways to amuse themselves.
When a way was found, it would later get dropped or made to evolve with its founders. Before everyone arrived at clubs, strippers, televisions and consoles, the ancient Yorubas had their ways of relaxing and having fun.
On chosen nights, men, after the grueling day on their farms, would gather in a square, over palm wine and smoked bush meat, and talk and guffaw. They would appraise each other’s farms and steal naughty looks at the beautiful young women busy trying out new dances in another corner in tight and little wrappers. All their faces would be as bright as the torches pegged at different points on the square. While housewives formed cliques to gossip their homes and husbands, the little ones would gather around the grandmothers for what was considered the best part of their childhood; they would sit and marvel at her stories, fables, mysteries and legends.
The grandmother was an important person in the family. Apart from being the best cook- a skill which had been refined by years of sitting before burning firewood- in the house, she also served as the shield against punishment for the children, she was a mediator, and the custodian of the family’s customs. The most interesting of all her unwritten duties was her ability to induce different kinds of emotions- fear, joy, horror, surprise, sadness- in the minds of gazing children through storytelling. She knew all the stories; of places and rare humans, of wars and traditions, of metaphysical mysteries, of apparitions, of strange creatures, and she enjoyed telling as much as the children enjoyed listening.
Once upon in a time in a tucked-away settlement, there lived a child called Bamidele.
Bamidele had a marked interest in stories. Whenever she was not peeling cassava, or roasting garri with her mother, or cleaning up her father’s palm wine gourds, she was with her grandmother, questioning and listening to tales. She almost always fought to be with Iya Agba, the oldest woman in their large family. More than the woman’s fine wrinkled face and gentle words, she loved her stories, and she would go the length to sit before her and watch the mysteries of the world flow of out her almost-toothless mouth effortlessly.
Amongst all the children in the compound, Bamidele was particularly known to be attentive and observant. She watched out for and listened to every detail in stories, even the subtlest events. Her mind never forgot a thing. So it wasn’t entirely uncalled-for whenever she had dreams of walking tortoises and elephants with crowns. Once, she had dreamt of going hunting with a dog that wouldn’t stop talking. In her unusual mind, the stories always came to life.
Bamidele could be daring and dauntless too. One evening, by the time her mother, Asabi, who was heavy with her tenth child released her from the roasting shed, she was already late for the evening stories with Iya Agba, other children had filled up the good spaces, Bamidele had to quietly climb one of trees amongst the huts in order to get a good view of her favorite storyteller. The decision had come to her easily.
As Bamidele grew to become an even more alert young girl, her ability to differentiate untrue stories from true but mysterious ones also developed. It gradually became no longer taxing for her to believe some stories Iya Agba shared. The old woman saw this, and decided it was time she started sharing deeper and unbelievable accounts with her granddaughter.
When Bamidele first heard of how a person who had just died could appear to his unsuspecting loved ones shortly before they discover he had died, she battled and resolved it in her head throughout the night; through fear and sleeplessness. Before morning, she had grown again. Stories about cunning tortoises were just for entertainment and lessons, but those about people who died untimely deaths and then went on to live elsewhere were to show the mysteries of the world she lived in. Iya Agba called these living deads Akudaya.
An Akudaya was a person, mostly a young human, who died a tragic death, and then instead of transcending to the afterlife, decided to travel to a faraway land to continue living as a normal physical being. Truly, their primary body would have been buried by their family, but mysteriously, elsewhere, they are alive, with a new body. And sometimes with a new family of their own.
Stories like this always brought out the curious side of Bamidele, her mind couldn’t just comprehend the mysteries immediately, so every now and then, she ran to Iya Agba to ask new questions.
One evening, she dropped her knife and went inside the hut, to Iya Agba. A question had just come up. She met the old woman eating, but she didn’t care, her question was more important.
“Iya Agba, awon Akudaya yi, se won ma n f’arawon eni to ba mo pe won ti ku?”
She smiled and gave the usual gentle reply,
“Rara o, ko sele ri.”
Bamidele pressed on,
“Ki ni yo sele, ti eni mimo ba ri won?”
“Ah, Akudaya o poora ni.”
The old woman further explained this was the reason an Akudaya always preferred a far place- where no one could recognize them. But once a familiar person or a former family member traveled far enough to notice their existence, they ceased to exist, they just disappeared. This was how people got to know about their existence.
Bamidele then asked a salient question.
“Se eeyan le se ki won ma lo mo?”
She was dying to know if they could get trapped and stopped from disappearing once sighted.
“Beeni, Bamidele. Sugbon, o le lati se, kodamiloju pe o sele ri.”
“Bawo Iya Agba?”
“Eje won o gbodo kan ile ilu ti won ti sewa. To ba kan’le, won o ni le lo mo.”
Iya Agba told her how it was being done, it sounded ridiculous, almost impossible too. How could one even get close enough? If an Akudaya was making a final appearance to his loved ones, how would they know he died already? You couldn’t just go about bleeding people? And wasn’t this the reason they wouldn’t lurk in a place they could be recognized? The questions raged in her head. However, that afternoon, she went back to the heap of cassava with loads of overwhelming and scary information.
Bamidele was in the shed as usual, stuffing the fireplace with pieces of dried wood in preparation for dinner when she heard an unusual shriek from the compound.
“Ko-we, ko-we, ko-we...”
At first, she ignored it, but because it wouldn’t stop, she stepped out to check what kind of bird was producing such strange sound.
The sight of it stunned her, it wasn’t as big as it sounded. How could something so small produce such crisp and persistent sound. The bird was perched on her father’s hut, its brown wings spread out. There was something unnatural about the way it cried. She sensed it.
Her interest hiked the moment her mother came out of her hut, followed her Iya Abike, her best friend, then Iya Oniru. They all stood before the hut and kept looking at the shrieking bird, their hands gripping their breasts in an alarming manner.
“Ko-we, ko-we, ko-we.”
Bamidele turned and focused on the women who were weirdly agitated by the sight of an ordinary bird. It remained funny to her until random villagers began stopping by their compound. While the numbers rose inside, some passersby just kept walking, their fear as visible as the sun.
“Ibi a re koja lori yin o, erosese o, kowe a ke ero o, eiye a ke ero o, ” they prayed as they passed.
What was happening? She struggled to understand what they were all about as more people arrived severally and formed clusters of wailers. They all were praying against some evil happening in her house. It was a dramatic scene.
It was until Iya Agba lumbered out that Bamidele became certain something terrible was happening.
As though the old woman had forgotten how to say other words, she kept repeating,
“Koba ma je oode mi o, koba ma je oode mi o, koba ma je oode mi o.”
It became a confusing sight. Never had she seen Iya Agba like this. It shouldn’t have been her family? What was happening to her family?
“Ko-we, ko-we, ko-we, ko-we.”
Bamidele ran to her,
“Iya Agba? Kilo n sele? Kilo de?”
She ignored her and continued,
“Koba ma je oode mi o, koba ma je oode...”
She was pale with fear.
Bamidele wanted to ask a lot; about the bird, the concerned people and what they were seeing? Why they were all pointing at bird? But instead, she burst out crying. She had never seen Iya Agba so afraid.
Then all at once, in another amusing turn of event, the bird stopped shrieking and began hooting,
“Ero-se-se, ero-se-se, ero-se-se...”
What kind of bird produced such distinct and unreal sounds! It sounded like a low-grade human.
There was an eruption of joy. It was magical. Everyone leaped for joy as the strange bird lifted and flew off, crying,
“ero-se-se, ero-se-se, ero-se-se...”
Bamidele couldn’t remember the last time she saw that much happiness in a group of people. The confusion grew.
As the bird disappeared into the skies, two men staggered into the compound, her father hanging in between them. He looked so bad. They had found him unconscious beneath a palm tree. He had fallen off while trying to climb and tap. A bone was broken, but he was alive.
Later that night, Iya Agba sat Bamidele down and told her about the powerful bird that perched on their hut earlier that day. It was called Kowe.
Kowe was a rare and mysterious bird with a special job- to warn people of an impending danger and to let them know if the danger had been averted. Its presence was dreaded. No one would know where the danger was coming from or how exactly it would arrive, but they would be sure it was lurking. The bird belonged to the forests but would be seen in the villages whenever it felt it was important to deliver a message to a household or a village. No one knew how or why it chose the ones it delivered to. It got its name from the way it shrieked, ko-we.
Whenever Kowe cried ko-we, it was a signal that something terrible- especially death, was happening or about to happen, so people would gather and pray and hope that the bird changed its song to ero-se-se, which was another signal that the impending evil had been averted.
Sometimes, the cry would change, sometimes, it wouldn’t.
The nights after became longer for Bamidele. She lost sleep. Every time sleep decided to pity her and visit, she got awoken by terrifying dreams of chirping animals. By the third night, Iya Agba was also chirping in her dreams.
For moons, apart from the time it shrieked at the market square, hours before the king’s palace got burnt with the king inside, the village never saw or heard anything of the bird until one night, when Bamidele’s mother went into labor.
Whenever a woman’s water broke, two emotions showed before the child arrived; joy and anxiety. The pain; how long it would last, would the child survive? Would the gods spare mother and child? Thoughts like these made the family agitated, however, the joy and pride of bringing forth a new life always overcame the negativities, it always kept everyone bustling.
That night, on their way to Iya Agbebi- the village birth attendant’s place, Asabi passed out. It was proving to be her most difficult birth yet. But when they arrived, she woke up.
They rushed her into the hut and filed back outside to wait for Iya Agbebi to bring them the good news.
Back at the compound, on her mat, waiting for the good news too, Bamidele bolted up.
She heard something, a familiar shriek of doom. It was sudden, evil and oppressive.
“Ko-we, ko-we, ko-we...”
She immediately began wishing she had declined staying back to prepare for when they return. She stood and hurried out of the hut, almost stumbling on the unfinished heap of cassava. Outside, perched on her mother’s hut was a Kowe, its eyes glinting green in the moonlight.
Danger was lurking.
Again, Iya Agbebi dipped the leafy branch she was holding into the white pot containing Omi Osun, and sprinkled it over Asabi’s sweaty face.
“Gbin! Asabi, oya gbiyanju ko gbin die si!”
As the instructions came out, Asabi complied and groaned some more. She kept pushing.
Outside, the family paced and prayed.
Soon, the baby’s leg emerged.
“Ko-we, ko-we, ko-we,”
Bamidele shook with each note coming from thatched roof. She gazed at the little beast, expecting the other song, she stood, loudly praying for erases.
But like a slippery dream, after what seemed like an eternity of sad monotonous shrieks, the bird rose and flew off,
“Ko-we, ko-we, ko-we,”
There should be another song! The impending evil was supposed to be turned.
Fighting to keep the trembles in check, she rushed back in. Now was not the time to tremble. She had to get to her mother. On her way back out, she heard a voice,
She spun around and faced the very familiar voice. She couldn’t believe who she was seeing, shining in the moonlight.
The trembling stopped and her fear disappeared in a instant.
“Kilo n se nita niwoyi?” Asabi asked.
Ignoring the unnecessary question, Bamidele ran towards her mother for a proper welcome.
She was taking her third stride when it hit her; didn’t her mother leave with a big belly and a host of people? Where were they now? Why was she alone? Where was the baby? And why was she dressed differently?
The cold, shivering truth struck her.
All of a sudden, she felt her head begin to swell. A wave a horror rushed through her. Like visitors who wouldn’t leave, everything she had been told, came rushing back in through the door of her extremely alert mind; every story, every mystery, the myths, the bird. She remembered Iya Agba’s words:
Their blood must not touch the soil of their village, else they would be trapped.
Bamidele’s waist bent reflexly, and her hand pulled out one of the knives stabbed into a mound of cassavas. She came back up, and her strides transformed into a sprint. The knife, partially hidden by the dark and her wrist, went with her.
She got to her mother and wasted no further thought sliding the sharp metal over her forehead. One fast slash, and blood gushed out, hitting the ground in a trickles. Asabi went down, fitting uncontrollably. The last expression on her face was shock.
Iya Agbebi and two elders kept consoling the people outside the delivering hut. It was an unfortunate and a very sad night, one minute the baby was out, the next minute, Asabi was dead. The bird had warned them.
A few moments ago, a Kowe had flown in from nowhere, and begun encircling the hut where the delivery was taking place.
“Ko-we, ko-we, ko-we.”
That had been the time they knew something was coming, but no one had known who the news was for exactly; Asabi? Or the Child? Or the two? Fear had had a feast on them as they prayed to the gods and hoped.
Asabi’s body was brought out and laid in the open. She looked so alive, only that she wasn’t. Her baby continued crying in the arms of Iya Agbebi.
And when everyone thought it was over for the night, the still hovering but quiet bird began hooting,
It got louder.
Shocked, they all looked up at the dark thing, no one could believe their ears. Yes, that was a good signal, but for what? When they looked down at Asabi, she was still dead.
Her mother had stopped fitting, the cut had stopped bleeding. Slowly, she sat up and opened her mouth,
“nibo ni mo wa? Bamidele?”
“Ile ni, iya mi, ile le wa.”
Steps away, a group of mourners dragged into the compound, a tightly wrapped body over their shoulders. Bamidele recognized them immediately; her father, Iya Agba, Iya Agbebi and a few other elders.
“Asabi lo o, Asabi ro’run o.”
They sang with all sorrow. Asabi was dead.
Bamidele understood. She looked from her mother, to the incoming people, to the long corpse on their shoulders, and silently prayed everyone would be able to handle what they were about to see.