Iyalode: Before the Invention of Women
My grandmother, Iya Oyo, belonged to the generation of women who didn’t experience what the sociology scholar, Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi described as the “invention of women.”
What Professor Oyewumi means is that nowadays, there are lots of rules and regulations that appear to specify what a woman is supposed to do, and what she is not supposed to be.
My grandmother appeared not to subscribe to such “inventions of women.”
She was married to a pastor, my grandfather, but she was not a Christian. She had her Esu shrine, a small roofed building next to their residence. She kept the shrine pristine and adorned with a mural with geometric shapes that she painted all by herself.
Every evening my grandfather and grandmother sat in front of the house and they both smoked their pipes in silence.
When I stole out of the boarding house to visit them, I would sit next to them in silence. I always wondered why they smoked the pipe.
So, one evening I asked her, as they both sat under the Ose tree smoking the pipe, without saying a word to each other.
“Why do you smoke the pipe, Iya Oyo?” I asked.
She smiled. A woman with an austere face that hardly betrayed any emotion, her smile was like a warning.
“I will tell you a story about smoking,” Iya Oyo replied.
My grandfather chuckled. He seemed to know the story she was going to narrate.
“There was a woman who smoked a pipe,” Iya Oyo began.
I sat up to listen.
“This woman had only one child, and she was already past child-bearing age, meaning she could not have another daughter.”
“Just answer his question,” said my grandfather. “He didn’t ask you for a long epistle.”
She ignored him and continued.
“This woman doted on her only daughter, Morenike, a gorgeous-looking maiden, always dressed in beautiful clothes and expensive jewelry. Everybody knew how special Morenike was to her, so they treated Morenike with the greatest care. Morenike grew up, really spoilt, and was old enough to get married. Morenike was so spoilt that she did not know how to cook, wash clothes, or clean the house. Her mother did every chore in the home. Morenike was not allowed to go to the farm with the others, or even to go to the stream to fetch water.”
“You are not answering Akanbi’s question,” my grandfather interjected.
But Iya Oyo continued with her story.
“The only thing Morenike did in that home was to clean her mother’s pipe and bring the tiny ember of charcoal to her mother whenever her mother smoked in the evening. People would ask, ‘Iya, Morenike is too spoilt. How is she going to keep her husband’s house when she gets married?’ She shrugged and said, ‘That’s none of your business.
“They found Morenike a suitor and announced the wedding date. A couple of days before the wedding, Morenike’s best friends begged her mother to allow Morenike to go with them to the stream near the house to fetch water. She told them it was fine, but they should not stay too long.”
“You and your stories,” Baba Oyo interrupted.
“Morenike cleaned her mother’s pipe, went to the stove and brought her the tiny ember that her mother placed in the pipe to keep it burning while smoking. They didn’t have any fancy matches or lighter as we do now. They used the ember (ògúnná) to light the pipe.
“Mama Morenike sat in front of her house, enjoying her pipe, while Morenike and her friends went to the stream. Morenike was excited to go to the stream. The moment they got to the stream, Morenike jumped inside it before her friends could stop her. Unfortunately, she jumped into the part that was deepest with strong currents. In a matter of moments, she sank and drowned. Her lifeless body floated in about five minutes. Her friends recovered her remains from a shallow section of the stream where the current carried the body.
“They went and called the elders of the village. The elders were worried. They didn’t know how to break the news to Mama Morenike. One elder said, ‘The news would kill her. She would just dash her head against the ground and die.’ Another elder responded, ‘This is what we will do. Two strong men will grab her and pin her hands to her body, making sure she couldn’t move. Then I will break the sad news to her as gently as possible.’ They agreed that was a good plan.
“They went to Mama Morenike’s house. They found her seated in front of the house, waiting for the return of her daughter, as she smoked her pipe.
“The elders did exactly as they planned. Two strong young men grabbed her from behind, and the elder broke the sad news to her slowly.
“She screamed and struggled, yelling ‘Iná jó mi o! I am on fire.’ ‘We understand,’ said one of the elders. ‘The fire of losing an only child is too hot to bear.’
“Mama Morenike, still pinned down, screamed again, ‘Ina o! Ina o! Fire! Fire! Fire is burning me.’ The elders assured her that her reaction was natural. One said, ‘Nobody could lose a child and not feel that scalding fire of missing one’s child.’
“That was when Mama Morenike clarified matters. She yelled, “No, it is not the fire of a lost child. It is the hot ember that has dropped from my pipe when you grabbed me. The ember landed on my lap and it is burning me.”
“The elders noticed, for the first time, that her wrapper was already on fire, and a long wisp of smoke was slowly rising up, with the distinctive odor of flame tinting the air.”
Iya Oyo did not even crack a smile as she concluded the story.
I couldn’t decide if the story was a tragedy or a comedy.