Author: Alan

One man’s weeds

weeds reference

It’s mid-summer. The early morning sun lights up the long grass and all is a grey orange, hard to describe but wonderful to look at.
In the field beyond my weed filled ditch is a rotation crop full of blue flower. There seems to be a bee every square metre, and there is a gentle hum.

Over the next couple of days I try and capture my response to this on a small 8 x 10 canvas. It takes several sessions of about half an hour each, and stopped when it all ‘felt right’.
Weeds-oil-on-canvas-10x8-web

I went further with the theme but with a completely different approach,
and created a paper collage of the same scene in the studio.
This time I included one of the butterflies that passed by regularly as I stood there.
Weeds-and-Ringlet,-mixed-media-collage,-july-2018-web

A garden still life

It’s early summer, the weather is good, time for a warm up painting or three before I sling all the gear in the car and try my hand at a few en plain air landscapes. Looking around in the garden for potential subjects I noticed a red chair and big yellow plastic bin calling attention to themselves under a fruit tree that sails across at an angle, on which I’d hung a basket of lobelia. There’s a nice balance where the viewer’s attention is kept by the colours and angles, with the shadow of the tree taking you back around. I moved things around slightly here and there until I was satisfied with the placement of the objects, and then started to loosely sketch onto an 8 x 10 inch canvas. It was then that I noticed the patch of long grass and nettles behind was a bit bland, so I placed an aluminium pot there to ‘fill the void’.

set_up_and_blocking-in

I usually cover canvases with a thin layer of raw sienna to avoid painting on white. After a simple pencil line I go over this in very thin ultramarine to roughly indicate the main spaces, and then thinly block in the dark areas. I’m also using my oldest and much loved wooden sketching easel which I’ve repaired a few times. It’s not too stable out in the open in even a slight wind, but you make do. Hanging a heavy kit bag on it helps a lot.

I’m also using a very limited palette of just two blues (ultramarine and cobalt), two yellows (lemon yellow and yellow ochre) and two reds (light red and cadmium red) plus white. I can mix everything I’ll need from these, even using the white sparingly. It’s good discipline too, and will help me avoid using too many unnecessary colours. I prefer turpentine to any other medium, not just because I just love the smell!

Stages Garden still life wip oil on canvas 8 x 10

Garden Still Life, oil on canvas 8 x 10 inches
Garden Still Life, oil on canvas 8 x 10 inches

As I was working just outside my own back door, I took my time and completed the picture in six sessions of about half hour each, over a couple of weeks. Partly because the shadows had to be in the right place and therefore the sun had to be shining! I spent nearly as much time looking and assessing and making decisions about what comes next or what to change as I did actually painting. This is normal for me, it’s an all consuming experience. I was careful to describe the aluminium pot in just a stroke or two, and the yellow bin didn’t need much work at all, you can see the stain of the raw sienna on the canvas easily. The only area I’m not too sure about is the patch of nettles but overall the finished painting is ok. On to the next one….

Baba’s Last Journey Part 10: Celebrations

Saturday 13th May. Dawn. I’m up and ready, full of anticipation for what the day ahead brings. I take my coffee outside, where two family members have been up all night, sipping beer and keeping vigil over Baba’s coffin. The dj and his two buddies are asleep, one slumped over the music console, the others in white chairs hired for the occasion. The Naija style R&B is still playing, and is very loud. There is a feeling of premature aftermath which is difficult to explain, like it must have felt like before a day’s great battle. Time for eggs, onions and peppers.

Waheedi is late with the attire for everyone. There is tension, understandably. The outfits for immediate family including myself, are handsome and voluminous. Rich ultramarine blue and white for men, tasteful green and golden yellow for ladies. Other attendees wear outfits according to this colour dress code. Even Waheedi and family employees are to wear matching outfits it turns out, so much work, no wonder he is late!

The original idea was that Baba would spend the night at the old house in Isale Osun, but plans are flexible, and so the trumpeting, drumming, dancing cortege is on its way there now. Disappointingly (and predictably, perhaps) the road is blocked to the old house and access only possible when N15,000 is shelled out– ‘welcome to Nigeria: now bend over’. Shameful.

Oke okanla
A view down the street from First Baptist Church, Oke Okanla, past the new church build project in progress, and looking up to the existing church from the grounds.

All captured by the official videographers, the family members and onlookers pay their respects. It is crowded and noisy, and I would have liked to have been there to see this, but we must go straight to the First Baptist Church, as time is pressing. The church stands on one of the highest rises in the town, and from its tower there will be views taking in the whole of Osogbo. The new, even larger church is being built close to the road at the front of the grounds. It is still all block work and bamboo scaffolding at this stage. There is no hurry here. Full of butterflies, bees, lizards and scorpions, the grass slopes down away from the church towards the family plot, easily seen in its white marble splendour.

The church is packed to the rafters with people, including the upper balcony. It is a big space. The walls are decoratively painted which helps create a light atmosphere, even though there is plenty of dark wooden furniture and structures. Fresh flowers are everywhere. There has already been a memorial service in Kaduna and in Jos, where Baba Lawoyin knew many people from his time there in service to the church, and the Pastor and other clergy are here today. Among the congregation are many people that have travelled long distances. They are of mixed faiths, sharing orders of service, praying and singing together. This is one of the stand outs I have learned on my travels, that people are people and will just get along, without the long nose of politics interfering. Another is the obvious contrast between this and a similar event back in the UK/West, where things are much more sombre. This is a wonderful celebration, and I know which I prefer.

Everyone looks very fine. It is refreshing. A gathering of people from far and wide to pay their respects and honour a very popular man. A man of god. There are sermons and a fine speech by eldest son, Segun, now officially head of the family. The immediate clan are invited forward to sing and clap hands at the front behind the coffin, while the band and the choir play on. It is the same choir from yesterday at the house. Tradition has it that row by row of the congregation pass by dancing, dropping money into a hat. I go round several times, in the noise and confusion not realising at first that I should be with the family too! But at least I earn the title of best dancer, which I’m sure is patronising in the kindest way possible!

After the service we attend the burial at the bottom of the grass slope. Prayers at the graveside. I start to realise I am very hot and sweating in my attire, but it won’t be long until I can relieve myself of the outer garment and fila. I take my turn to shovel some soil into the pit, and we make our way back up to the top of the hill. Suraju is close by, looking after my much needed water!

The celebrations are in a large hall in the northern sector of town. Here is where all the food cooked overnight is served (well, I am sure some of the food, especially some meat, didn’t make it that far….and went to feed some of the locals). There is an mc in a dark suit fronting a large band playing Afrobeat crossed with gospel, and some entertainment in the form of dancers and a spectacular short play involving actual fire eating. There is plenty to drink, and I must say a large whisky was very welcome. Family members are to dance while the mc chants along and mentions them by name. The better dancing the more dash placed on your forehead is the way it goes, and I am also singled out for this treatment, so having loosened up with a whisky or two I’m much less self conscious than I might otherwise be, and enjoy myself, albeit a little stiff in the hip movements! There are some really good dancers here, some young men in particular stick in the memory. There are lots of introductions and handshakes, and I know I won’t remember everyone’s name. Sikiru is here with some other lads from the house, and advises me not to wonder too far from the action as there is no security and as he puts it “not everyone is your friend”. This is good advice.Hall dancers

Plenty of photographs and video, both from official and unofficial sources. A photographer offers to use my camera to take pictures of me and other guests, and always on guard and alert I straight away notice him slowly wander further and further away as I chat and pose for other photos. He is hoping I will be distracted enough to not notice what he is doing, and so I retrieve my camera from him before it is ‘lost’….

Good to see the basket lady and her companions from town turn up.
(episode 5)

Eventually the party’s over. We are last to leave. It has been an extraordinary day, and I feel privileged to be here, once again.
There are more adventures before we leave Nigeria in a few days’ time, but for now Baba Gabriel Oladosu’s last journey is complete, and he is at rest.

Baba publications

 

Baba’s Last Journey Part 9: Wake-keeping day and night

May 13th

Up early to witness the goings on in the back yard. The air is slightly misty and cool before the sun comes up. I’m already too late to witness the slaughter of cow number one, which is now pumped full of air, I’m told to make it easier to clean off the hairy coat from the skin. There is the inevitable comparison to Pink Floyd’s famous inflatable pig from the “Animals” album cover. Some boys look on before starting work on the cobble driveway again. Nothing is wasted. Our slaughter man proceeds to dismember the animal on blood soaked concrete and plastic sheeting. There are no prime cuts here, just meat and skin in chunks. When served up, it’s a matter of luck if you end up with a piece of meat that isn’t very chewy and tough, but that’s how they roll here. I witnessed the demise of cow number two, took video and photos for my own education, I guess, but perhaps not suitable for display on this page. An education, certainly.

There is a general mood building, and has been for a couple of days, part excitement, part sadness. Austin has finished installing lights along the compound walls, inside and out, which are now newly painted and smart.

Baba Lawoyin’s immediate family, including myself, are wearing blue and silver outfits for the wake-keeping day. Waheedi the taylor and his team are late delivering them to the house, understandably as he has outfits for tomorrow, including friends and associates of the family to produce and deliver. It’s a big task. I am changed and ready. I have the honour of collecting Baba, together with eldest sons, from the mortuary at the hospital, where he has been ‘on ice’ since March.

At the hospital, we are invited to inspect the workmanship of the funeral parlour team in presenting Baba in perfection, led in his open coffin, looking at total peace. He is dressed in a glorious vintage style white cotton gown. It is hot in the sun, and the odour of the embalming fluid is too much for me and once experienced, is never to be forgotten. While discussions are held and we await the arrival of the hearse and the band, I seek the shade of the ward block nearby. The nurses have nice white uniforms with matching shoes and white bonnets with a red band, and appear to be a throwback to the 1950’s, but very smart. It is a peaceful, sunny morning, with a Woodland Kingfisher calling from a thicket in the hospital grounds, and butterflies flitting lazily past.

The bearers and the band arrive to escort the coffin back to the house, and we follow. The mini bus and the hearse stop 100 yards from the house, everyone gets out. The band strikes up their drum and trumpet tune suitably loudly and the bearers hoist the coffin aloft, the two dancing girls at the head of the procession. Family members are invited to carry the coffin (symbolically, the bearers always in control) and it is set down, raised up, turned around, and when down low, family again are invited to dance around it, laying money on top, as is tradition. It all looks flippant and casual, but is in reality tightly controlled and choreographed, and looks amazing. It’s a good twenty minutes before the procession reaches the courtyard and places Baba where he will rest for today and tonight, before the church service tomorrow.

The music continues. An elderly man no-one knows and dressed in a bright yellow kaftan is clanging two pieces of metal together rhythmically hoping for dash. A talking drum band play on throughout, people placing notes on their foreheads encouraging them. They respond with louder, faster drumming. People are dancing, taking photos and video on their phones, and there are many bystanders. Oscar shows off his dancing skills as Baba’s coffin is placed on its plinth. Austin mocks him playfully by pretending to place money on his forehead. It is a celebration of life, after all, and uplifting to witness.

Afternoon Service

When the dust has settled, there is still much to do. There is a constant supply of jolloff rice and sweet potato served, group photos taken, bottles of beer drunk. In the afternoon, the Pastor from the First Baptist Church, Oke Okanla, (where tomorrow’s service and burial will be held) arrives with his team and delivers a service in the yard complete with choir. The heavens open, lashing rain pours down but thankfully we are mostly kept dry by the awnings and canopy erected just hours before. On the table in front of the Pastor is one of Oscar’s batik designs. The official videographers somehow keep their equipment dry. The rain on the roof almost drowns out the words spoken, there is a service sheet, but everyone seems to know them anyway.

afternoon service

All night vigil

In the afternoon, ladies of all ages come from the old town, singing and clanging small metal bowls together, celebrating Baba’s life. They come into the house and sing and chant phrases led by an elder, and I guess, as in much of local custom, they have the opportunity to leave slightly wealthier than when they arrived… All are dressed in specially prepared and coordinated traditional attire with different blue and yellow schemes.
Infectious and emotional.

The ladies in the back yard were cooking food for tomorrow’s celebration feast, and would be there all night. There were stoves fuelled by gas, and the main fire was still going strong. Earlier the slaughter man had boiled the whole cow’s head, horns and all, in a large cauldron over this fire. He readily posed, without any prompting, holding a horn in each hand as if balancing the head in the cauldron. Today’s cheap plastic bowls and utensils are eye-catching and colourful, but I couldn’t help thinking that only a few decades ago, this would have all been done with grass baskets and clay pots. I was offered a meat roll, which was delicious. There are those that will sit with Baba all night, keeping a vigil, though I decide to get my head down for a while, as tomorrow will be the big day.

night-cooking

 

Baba’s Last Journey Part 8: The pressure is on

This morning the generator outside the window wakes me. When it stops, I can hear the long heavy trumpet sound of the (infrequent) train announcing its departure. There are no barriers or fences along the line, unlike in the West, and folk and livestock wander freely across the narrow gauge track going about their business. We bump over the line every trip into town. The grass grows in between the silver rails, and the litter billows up and settles as the heavy diesel locomotive rumbles on by, exhaust blowing blue in the heat haze.

I make my way to the kitchen, stepping over Austin and Ibrahim who are still sleeping in the darkened, open-plan dining room on a mattress and rolled up blanket. Ibrahim is muslim, and has the distinctive slightly hooked nose and dark complexion typical of Northern tribes. He drives, and is employed by Sister Jumoke as a handyman/general assistant, and has been brought down to Osogbo to help out. Many hands make light work. As I step outside, coffee (with fantastic, distinctively flavoured and near black local honey) in hand, I try my Yoruba with the boys. They like to try their English, and after hand slapping, finger-popping greetings (I rarely get the last ‘snap’ right) there is usually a few questions about the UK, and what it’s like outside Nigeria.

In the garden opposite, behind a high fence, are palms and masquerade trees, plus some other broad-leaved species. Some Grey Plantain-eaters, a type of Turaco, flap as if in slow motion into the top of a fruiting palm. We will be visiting the gentleman resident here with an invitation in the next few days.

It’s getting busier and the pressure is on, in an obvious way. The boys laying the stone on the driveway/courtyard, breaking stone up by hand and setting in dry mix concrete, have their work cut out. There are more boys to help, recruited by Ade. There are problems just when you don’t need them – isn’t that always the way? The big Nissan pick-up needs a tyre, and we are unlikely to get one of the right size today, it will have to come from out of town. This truck is dark navy blue, and I have an idea that people often think we are a government vehicle, such is the similarity, that we are often given a wide birth with it!

Baba’s Youngest son Ayo and senior son Segun arrived from Abuja last night. Segun is busy writing for the Order of Service and Celebration of Life booklet. It will be in English and Yoruba, and as usual with these things, running more than a little behind schedule. After all, there is a deadline! With Jumoke’s daughter Uzo arriving from Baltimore USA, and Toyin’s two younger sons Zack and Daniel arriving from the UK today, it will be busy. Out with Lalu and Maureen, we are sending packages from one of the bus stations in town. Seemingly chaotic with the blue suzuki mini-buses coming and going, parking at all angles on the deeply rutted bare earth yard, the man in charge behind his shuttered kiosk window barks instructions. He knows everything. All the destinations and numbers of the buses are handwritten on a well-worn chalk board on the wall next to the window, and I have no doubt it all runs smoothly despite the chaotic appearance!

truckcollage

On our way into town I see a small boy rolling a tyre along with a stick. Timeless. Some other uniformed schoolboys call out as we drive by, calling me a “white black man” as they see I am in native dress and fila, a reply in English and wave goes down well, all good natured.
After the usual business of the day we buy some Wara from the girls we see regularly. They know us by now and give us first opportunity to buy from them. I have permission to take their photograph (Back home later in the year, I turn these into paintings on canvas). Suraju has been asking us for a picture of him and me, and when we get some prints made as a surprise, he is really chuffed. He invites me into his tiny wooden house in Isale Osun to see where he will place it. On the wall next to pictures of family members, I am honoured indeed. I travel the last mile of the journey back to the house with 40 eggs in a thin plastic bag on my lap. This time I manage not to break any, despite the deep potholes!

This evening we settle Uzo, Zack and Daniel into their hotel nearby, and have a drinking session on the verandah, a little bitten by the mozzies. We return up the hill to our house at nearly midnite. An old boy guards the wooden pole barrier that is lowered, and as he lifts it for us I see he has a hunter’s shotgun over his shoulder. No deterrent if you are determined, but comforting to note there is some community spirit.

Next morning I have a Guiness hangover, but I can blame my grouchy mood on the malaria tablets (so the small print says). With Uzo and Maureen, we visit the churchyard where Baba will be buried at the First Baptist Church, Oke Okanla, and the family house at Isale Osun, where we visit the school opposite the house for the first time. The kids are understandably unsure of what is happening – who are these people? They are sharing books and pencils between them, and Uzo is a little shaken by their lack of resources. Keen to help somehow, this we do on our last day here, more on that later.

Back at the house, two of the three cows arrive to be slaughtered, Halal style. The boys working so hard on the drive get really upset as the cows are walked across the wet concrete and a lot of shouting ensues, a fight breaks out and a machete is raised in self defence by a wide eyed boy. Bloody hell! Fortunately the situation is diffused, but for a moment there it was looking seriously dodgy.

cook-prep-

There are some guests arriving for the celebrations already, and introductions, handshakes and group photographs are ongoing. Some people have not seen each other for years, after all.
The slaughterman readily poses with ‘cow number one’ for me, and round the back of the house, catering supplies and all sorts of pots and pans, some the size of witches cauldrons, are being prepared. The slaughter man has his well-worn but hopefully sharp knives laid out neatly on top of a barrel. A big fire is lit. A group of ladies are preparing vegetables and peppers for the cooking up, and are singing and chanting. They will go on all night and into the morning. All of the boys are still here, some are bunked down for the night. In the lamplight, I chat with Oscar and Sikiru about the West, and food production, meat slaughter, packaged food, organic food, supermarkets. The differences between cultures, but all governments have agendas etc.

There is a definite sense of occasion, tense and exciting at the same time, like watching a clock ticking just before the alarm goes off. Tomorrow is a big day. The Wake keeping begins. First though, will be cow number one.

Baba’s last Journey Part 7: Are you having the fish?

Wednesday evening cousin Yomi took us to nearby Abeggi, or ‘bar behind the trees’ for a Guinness or two. Having a drink here is something of a tradition when we’re in town. Basically an open grass space with a bar and dj stage at one end, in front of a line of very tall masquerade trees. There are low clipped hedges around the perimeter, and very little lighting. The outdoor tables and chairs are the stackable, plastic type, and easy to move around when it rains (frequently). The waitress service is quick and the music is foot-tapping good. It is always a good idea to cover up though, as the mosquitoes are always ready and waiting. Last year three of us were sat here, Yomi, Toyin’s brother Ayo and me. Ayo was talking and I suddenly interrupted…”Did you see that?” I asked. “Yeah I did” Yomi replied. Ayo had his back to a UFO as it flew over, with solid blue and red light, covering all the sky in a straight line, in about three seconds. Too low and fast to be a plane or chopper, and who knows, one of ours or one of theirs. We’ll never know the truth of what really goes on in our skies!

Day 6, fish sauce

This evening we repaired to another bar, more akin to a member’s only drinking club. The cars outside are mostly new four SUV’s and BMW’s. The owner was genial and pleased to see us. It was obvious Yomi is a regular. Some other regulars were huddled in the half-light around a table lit by a candle in a jar. We placed our order for beers. “Are you having the fish?” inquired Yomi. “Um, yeah?” I replied, thinking it was a spicy table snack, like the peppered beef on cocktail sticks at Abeggi. Suddenly the threatening grey clouds emptied what seemed like angry gallons of warm rain upon us at once, with strong gusts of wind threatening to blow our canopy away. We headed for an open door, water sloshing everywhere, and found ourselves among crates of beer and stacks of plastic furniture. No lights. We all thought this would be a fine alternative if we were to be stuck! The bar owner came to the rescue with flashlight and umbrella, escorting us one by one into the main building, cautiously negotiating the deep drain channels (fine in the daylight but in the dark?) now running fast with a mini torrent of water. In the low light of the indoor bar, past the kitchen, a tv was showing English football behind a bar in the corner. A couple of guys were sat on bar stools watching. A group of drinkers sat at a low table to one side, as we headed for the back of the room. A low ceiling and the dim light levels created a strange atmosphere, but we were relieved to be in the dry. Our fish arrived. Absolutely not a snack. Each of us had a pretty reasonably large catfish, laid predictably in a fish-shaped white plate filled with hot and spicy brown sauce. I have to say it was really tasty, though a little too much for me, as we’d already had sweet potato and beans back at the house, but I made an effort. In the gloom I couldn’t quite see what I was eating, but as this was his ‘after work’ evening meal, Yomi tucked in with relish – eating the head, eyes and all. The sauce was the cook’s own recipe, and was truly more-ish, especially before it cooled a little.

The following day at the house, painters painted, Sunday continued his sewing and hammering, and there seemed to be more foam, more wood, more rubble everywhere. Then I realised some extra chairs had been bought (typically here, from a roadside seller) to strip down and cover with the new fabric. Here the armchairs and sofas are luxuriant in dimension and finish, usually some sort of leather style with shiny bits…an African thing. I supervised some boys planting the potted plants we bought to fill in the gaps in the border. Enjoying gardening as I do, it was difficult not to do it myself and the lads were curious as to why I would get my hands dirty rather than just tell them what to do.

Auntie Sade, the housekeeper, kept us all well fed. It got to the point where there were so many boys around helping with the building work, and all needing high carb food, she was less than happy cooking all day long. I understand her frustration, though Austin the electrician introduced me to freshly cooked yam with honey drizzled over it. Nice.

 

drive cobbles
Progress on the laying of stone on the drive. The fence is newly painted, and posters of Baba Lawoyin are spread evenly along

On the bare ground I noticed four lizard eggs, perfectly shaped, white, matt and soft. About 15mm long and seemingly just randomly lying around on the dirt and gravel, only losely together, which made no sense to me. I picked them up carefully and placed them out of harm’s way. I’ve no idea if they were viable, or if this scattering was normal, but people seemed to think so. Certainly the agamas are absolutely everywhere.

Out in town, we always pass the roundabout manned by two or three friendly traffic officers. Their uniform consists of black trousers and boots, white gloves and eye-wateringly bright plain orange shirts, topped off with a black beret. On a bright day, even they have a parasol handy. Recognising our van they wave us by with a salute and big grin, sometimes with a greeting shouted out as we pass, sometimes even after we’ve passed. Today was a bright day. I could feel the back of my neck burning as I stood in line at the ATM, with Suraju chatting with someone he knows nearby.

Cash and cuts

We’re also changing some cash sterling into niaira with the money changers in the Hausa district along Sabo Road on the south-east side of town. We’ve been here many times, and the guys recognise our car, shouting out their exchange rates as we pass by. This time we see an intense looking boy who has a nasty looking stitched cut on his palm. To us it looks a little inflamed, and we give him our anti-septic gell and instructions on cleanliness and how to use it. He is very grateful. We have to wait ten minutes or so while our cash is being changed somewhere up the road, so I’m invited to sit in his wooden booth out of the sun. Suraju closes his eyes, holding on to the walking stick (now fully commandeered) and micro-naps. We were to check on the boy the following week, and all was well, with the cut healing nicely.

The power steering on the van is getting stiffer, and we soon see we have a fluid leak that needs fixing today. Driver Ade takes care of this, and tells us of a boy killed on the road earlier today, knocked off his machine most likely, where the driver failed to stop and drove on regardless. A reminder that life is cheap here.

Back at the house, today’s rain is coming in quickly. Lashing, squally wind batters the bananas and palms and it’s a wonder they survive. Water runs down the street within minutes, and dries up almost as quickly. I take the opportunity to draw up a couple of postcards to send back to friends in the UK. I’ve been watching the weaver colony in the tree at the gas station, the drongos and kingfisher on the phone lines, but it is the Red-headed Malimbe, a type of weaver, that I decide to draw. I saw this in the morning on a palm in the gardens of the house opposite. A new bird to tick off.

malimbe
Red-headed Malimbe, a new bird for my postcard home series

This evening, Baba’s middle son Lalu and wife Maureen arrive from a long trip from Baltimore, USA. I’ve not met Maureen before, but we immediately hit it off. Yomi takes us all to the bar for beer and fish supper, but I decline the fish this time, opting to just drink the Guiness and watch the others enjoying the hot sauce. In truth I don’t think I could have finished it.

Baba’s Last Journey Part 6, Godzilla for your Garden

Find me a flower

Back at the house, everything is getting a lick of paint ready for the wake-keeping and guests. The blockwork perimeter fence (all boundaries are called fences here, even if it’s a wall) are being rendered and painted a uniform light grey, and posters of Baba are being spaced along its length, inside and outside. In the yard, there is a narrow planted border held by kerb stones painted alternate black and white, which really needs some extra plants to fill in a few gaps.

mixing 2
Mixing the render for the outside fence

We need a garden centre. Is there such a thing in rural Osun? The nearest thing we will find are the roadside plant sellers, with their collection spread out under the cool shade of trees, with flowers and shrubs for sale grouped in rows and blocks for ease of watering. We take Suraju with us to a plant seller on the outskirts of town. We pull up on the side of the road and a girl approaches. We explain what we’re looking for and are invited to have a good look around.

The terrain was a little tricky so Toyin stayed in the van. I’ll have a look around, take snaps of likely candidate specimens on my smartphone, and back at the car we can negotiate a price. As a method it worked well, overcoming some language difficulties at the same time. Everyone informed, very democratic.

The plants are laid out on a slope partly shaded by trees, across a shallow ditch running with clear water. Some tadpoles are floundering on the plank which dips into the water as I put my weight on it. I rescue them by carefully flicking them back into the stream, and point them out to a young girl standing close by. I can tell she thinks I’m crazy. There are large sculptures for sale, of dinosaurs (Godzilla, really), ostriches, and what appears to be a group of World War 1 life-size soldiers. Close inspection reveals them to be a type of concrete render over a fibreglass base. Not sure I’d have one but they do have a certain quirky charm.plant seller

We also need palms and potted plants to give the house a finishing touch ready for the visitors. Also a good idea for the family house in Isale Osun, but we figure we can hire those, even though they may be eaten by the goats.

The soil at the house would benefit from any manure we could find to give the new plants a boost. Suraju makes a call. On our way into town he directs us down this street and that until we pull over at a point he has arranged to rendezvous with a couple of middle-aged men in traditional attire who are carrying shovels. The three of them are in animated conversation in the back of the mini-van as we arrive at the top of the road leading to the Osun Sacred Grove.

It is dusk, and the light is fading. We pull up over a stream winding its way through the undergrowth and litter. One of the men descends (nimbly, for his age) down the steep embankment and begins clearing a patch to access the silt underneath, bagging it as he goes, complete with bits of plastic rubbish. This is our compost, and will serve us well. Perfect material to give our flower borders a nutritional boost. The men disappear off back to their neighbourhood on foot after loading the bags and saying goodbye. Job done.

Night Drive

As we are near the entrance to the Osun Grove, we take the opportunity to drive through and out the other end, on what is oddly called Osun Grove Street, passing through water and deep muddy potholes, out to the unfinished outer ring road. I’m keen to walk this road one day, so it would be useful to see where we eventually come out. A couple of times Suraju gets out of the van to physically check the best way past various hazards.

It is very nearly dark by now, which only adds to the atmosphere, the magnificent trees silhouetted against the purple and indigo last light in the sky. Scattered houses show themselves by their square yellow lamplight. There is no knowing how far away they are, or what nocturnal forest dwellers are in between. Some bats and all sorts of moths and bugs pass in and out of the lamplight as we make our way down the ochre yellow dirt track that eventually leads us onto the new ring road and back into town. To me this is all very exciting. and I absorb everything like an enthusiastic schoolboy, and get to know a little more about the territory and its wildlife. Home for pepper chicken, bitter leaf, sweet potato and a chilled mango. If there are any left!

nightdrive dog
Driving through the forest by the Osun river out to the ring road

Baba’s Last Journey: Part 5, The basket ladies

At Isale Osun, we stop to check the progress of the builders. They are keen to show us the new toilet pit they have nearly finished, located in the inner courtyard. To get to it meant weaving left and right through narrow dark spaces between houses, past the odd chicken and one or two goats. The only light at one point was from dusty beams striking down from holes punched in the tin roof. Spielberg would approve. After we had inspected the impressive hand-dug and very square, deep pit (complete with a right-angled turn into the seat area for modesty), I stopped to exchange pleasantries with the elderly lady who we had photographed several times. She was sat on the floor eating Okra with one hand. I didn’t understand what she was asking me of course, until one of the girls turned up as if on cue and translated. She was asking me to join her, but as we had to move on I respectfully declined, and not just (as I tell myself) that Okra is not my favourite thing. It’s a little slimy for me.

On our way back through town we pass some small shops by an empty market square. The main building across the square is of the old colonial style, and as with most of these buildings, the hot/wet/dry climate soon eats away at the fabric of the building. Timber shutters and doors become bleached in the sun and the slow creep of algae from the ground is encouraged by the heavy seasonal rains. On the far side are smaller shops, some with pillars holding up the tin roof, some painted bright blue (a popular colour here), and some with the cheaply produced and often delightfully crumbly concrete colonnade ‘fence’.
A single market stall stands empty in the foreground.

market sq
A single market stall stands empty in the foreground.

A pile of baskets caught my eye. There were also pots and scourers, and food tins re-modelled into oil lamps, small stoves and even graters. Nothing that is remotely useful is wasted here, and it seems there is a whole industry of inventive recycling.

basket ladyThree ladies sat under the roof gossiping, until we got out of the car, that is. One lady in particular was wearing a striking blue and yellow outfit and seemed to be the more senior in rank of the three. She had a handsome face with prominent tribal scars, and her inner calm and sense of humour shone through. I’m sure we didn’t look as though we needed any baskets or lamps, and so a conversation started. It turned out that the ladies knew Baba Lawoyin, and knew that he had passed on recently. We gave the lady in blue and yellow (regretfully didn’t catch her name) an invitation to the Celebrations, they happily posed for photos and we went on our way.

basketlady with shop
What attracted me was the pile of baskets and the lady’s striking outfit.

Baba’s Last Journey: Part 4, Banks and Batik

Monday 1st May

Towards evening, we collect artist Oscar from one of the bus stations who has endured the hot and uncomfortable day long journey from Abuja and is commissioned to produce some batik fabric to be used on table and altar tops. A good looking, trim man in a dark t-shirt and jeans with pointed tan leather shoes, a big grin with perfect teeth, he looks much younger than his 49 years, and is one of those expressive, driven characters that as well as working with fabrics, produces poetry, sings, paints and even dances. In the next few weeks we will have many conversations about art, the importance of being focussed to achieve your goals, western values as opposed to African tradition etc.

Early next morning I turn the bedroom fan off – a relief from the noise – together with the generator, it’s like sleeping on a helipad. The quiet still air in the kitchen has a pleasant aroma, a mix of fruit, last night’s cooking and cleaning materials. Mangoes are piled high in the fridge, as it is the height of the season. They are especially sweet and juicy, and in the coming week there is not much room for anything else in the kitchen, save for a couple of bottles of beer and a tin of Peak Milk! A box of matches is balanced perfectly on the cupboard doorframe, where Auntie Sade the family cook habitually leaves them. You could find them in the dark.

I stroll outside with my coffee and scan the trees in the compound opposite. I always do this, looking for anything interesting that may show up. This morning a pair of kestrels are noisily flapping in the top of a fir tree, a western grey plantain-eater flies in and clumsily lands at the top of a masquerade tree, and a group of starlings busy themselves from one tree to another, and then fly off out of site, the reddish brown flush on their wings standing out from the overall near black plumage. A new species for me, I identify them in my trusty field guide as forest chestnut-winged starlings. Because we are here in May, the migratory black kites are all over town, wheeling skilfully low over the streets on constant lookout for a morsel or an unsuspecting lizard. I made them the subject of one of my hand-made postcards back to the UK.

kite postcard

The next few days are taken up with trips into town, the business of the day often involving standing around in banks for long periods. Either depositing sums to pay a bill connected to the funeral expenses,  or using the ATM to withdraw. Sometimes three separate banks were visited in a morning. And again in the afternoon. By the end of the trip we were at least on nodding terms with most parking attendants in all the major banks in town!

Naira bills are counted with a machine, the operator wears a mask as a token protection from the micro dust, (some bills are very, very dirty) and the question “are you the last person?” is heard more and more as Nigerians in general are getting used to the idea of how a queue is supposed to work. That’s not to be unkind, many a road journey is made twice as long as it need be due to the selfish behaviour of many drivers. No lane discipline. That and the potholes of course.

Alongside the reliable yet slow ‘desk to desk’ method of completing paperwork, some aspects of modern life are being tested out in countries like this, such as biometric data gathering for setting up an account, either in a bank or with a cell phone company, for instance. I’m wondering how a cashless society would work here, as cash is very much part of the day-to-day culture, and long shall it remain so. In established businesses such as banks, there is a delightful mix of old but serviceable wooden furniture, ceiling fans and modern office chairs, with slightly grubby looking computers, and piles of paper files sit alongside the teller’s smartphone. It’s as if the ultra modern world is being shoe-horned into a hot, dusty climate almost against its will. It has its own charm. Modern electronics companies, such as cellphone company retail premises, are very polished, with pull-up banner stands supplied by the marketing people at HQ, smart well-trained staff and keen and helpful doormen, usually wearing eye wateringly bright coloured shirts with epaulettes and black trousers and boots, all topped off with a beret.

Oscar has spent a couple of days getting a feel for the place and its people, and is ready to design his batik covers. He has been commissioned to produce something with a flavour of Baba’s home town, and has teamed up with some local artists to use their facilities. We go along to see the work in progress.

By now Suraju has all but commandeered Toyin’s walking stick, which seems to suit him, gesturing with it while chatting to acquaintances when we are queuing at the ATMs. He buys a bottle of roasted peanuts from across the street, as we’re all a bit peckish.

Batik is a traditional craft for this area, and so is the use of indigo dye, though Oscar’s work is going to be black and white. The guys are working on tables that are half in, and half outside of the studio. I notice two infants asleep on a blanket on the floor inside, so we carefully avoid waking them. All is smiles as we take photos. Oscar larks around showing off the fabric, and sings a (long) song. I’m invited back to try out the technique for myself, which I’d like to do, but that’ll have to be some other time.

batik set

We were also checking the progress on work to improve the drainage and generally tidy up the old family house in Isale Osun. A local civil engineer was brought in to advise, and some boys had been set to work. The young foreman even contracted malaria at one point so we obtained the ‘one fix’ solution from a nearby pharmacy for him. He carried on working. Never let a spot of malaria slow you down eh?.

engineer surajuditch
Local civil engineer advising the young builder foreman and Suraju on raising levels over the open drain. On the right, a toddler carries her plate on her head.

Baba’s Last Journey: Part 3, Isale Osun

Some rooms in the house have air conditioning, some do not. Ours does not. I switched on the light and a gecko made its way out of sight into a gap in the window frame. The upright standard fan noisily moved the air around adequately enough though. Welcome back.

The heavy rain in the small hours, loud on the tin roof, has cooled the morning air. I noticed how much the paw-paw tree in the yard had grown since last year, and how the bananas had been thinned out. Some wood has been collected ready for cooking the food for the wake keeping. Apparently three cows will be slaughtered in the yard, halal style. Looking around I found an old Peak Milk wooden box that was destined for burning. Being of possibly 1950’s vintage, and therefore worthy of a place indoors, this will do nicely as both a doorstop and a makeshift bedside table. Anything to keep your things up off the floor away from the (very large but harmless) ants is a good thing. Peak Brand evaporated milk is very common in the stores here, and more convenient than fresh milk for obvious reasons. As a little luxury, I’d been travelling with an unopened bar of dark chocolate that had melted fully (shoulda known) and re-shaped itself to resemble a large smooth pebble. After being in the fridge overnight it was now solid again. Too solid.

windowshade2016montage

Sunday has been employed to re-upholster the lounge furniture, plus some new easy chairs in a similar style, to accommodate visitors to the house in comfort during the course of the celebrations. He doesn’t speak much English so our communication is restricted to common hand gestures and my rudimentary Yoruba greeting, which goes down well. He is working outdoors under cover, using an old mechanical sewing machine, and there is foam, timber and fabric strewn about. It will be like this right up until the wake-keeping day.

There are painters and plasterers too, with their assistants who are working in bare feet and look as though they should be at school.

A trip to Isale Osun

Next, we’re out and about in town with driver Ade, a cousin. A sturdy, reliable guy in his thirties with a stout jawline and ready smile. He lives nearby at Bosun’s catfish farm (more on that later) and is charged with supervising the boys who will be refurbishing Baba Lawoyin’s old family home in the old town, at Isale Osun, and also the driveway here at Baba’s current house. Isale Osun is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Osogbo. In Baba’s childhood years, there were green spaces to play football and plenty of trees, but over time houses and businesses have sprung up in close proximity to one another. We go along for the ride, there is work to do, after all. The intention is for Baba to spend the night here, at the home of his birth, the night before the funeral in a candle-lit vigil, so people can come and pay their respects before he leaves for the church. His last journey. It’s a big tradition, I can feel the buzz of anticipation of the events to come. Posters of Baba have been posted on the outer walls and the whole place is getting a lick of paint and general fix up. Everyone is keen to have photos taken with cousin Toyin, the young children though, are just curious as to who these strange visitors are.

Family members pose with Toyin at the house in Isale Osun

There is a strong sense of community here, where different religious beliefs live side by side. Mostly Muslim and Christian but also Animists, and there are traditional Osun worshippers too (we would meet some at the water’s edge in the Sacred Groves before the end of the trip). Everyone celebrates each others religious holidays, and it is not uncommon to find both Muslim and Christian family members in the same household. This plays a part in maintaining harmonious community relations where the population is roughly split 50/50. To Western ears this sounds strange, as our understanding of such things is tainted by politics and vested interests and we forget that, at the end of the day, we’re all just people trying to get by. For me, this is one of the major take-aways from trips here.

The ladies cooking up are happy to stir the pot for my snap. I notice the standard “stockfish” is not local, but actually cold water mackerel…

Suraju joins us (another cousin) and will be helping out wherever he can. He lives opposite the traditional family house and comes across as a quiet man of few words, the type that understands English well enough but chooses not to let on. He has a very dark, shiny complexion with prominent tribal scars on his cheeks, with slightly bloodshot, yellow eyes.

Suraju (right) poses with this garage owner in downtown Osogbo

A bit of a local politician, he seems to know everyone and is easily distracted talking to other locals. With us daily for the rest of the trip, Suraju quickly became indispensable when we needed an extra pair of hands, or just to know which part of town we needed to be to find this or that. He has a unique charm and is a lovely, lovely man. I like him a lot.