Grandma’s Twilight Àwùjọ

A sparkling blue sky romanced the soothing sea breeze that whispered through respite palm and baobab trees. Granny Henrietta sat on an antique stool knitting the names of her deceased relatives.

She had observed a pattern of disrespect for the elderly.

Stunned with bewilderment she said, “Age is a symbol of respect that holds the family tree together, like carefully knitted thread.” Her embroidery resembled a Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors.

A dignified Maroon, Henrietta is the oldest survivor on the paternal side. She did not look her age despite having turned four score, a milestone in the family’s genealogy. Her compatriots had painstakingly erected her unique cottage. The house stood on a precipice, where one could get a panoramic view of Freetown.

She peeled open her curtain to catch a view of activities in the sunshine. Mentally, she recalled the many sunrises and sunsets she has weathered. It flashed on her mind that the clock was ticking for her to join her ancestors. But not until the whole family had congregated for a final Àwùjọ ceremony she planned to host.

“Honor or respect is a deep rooted tree that adds wit to our beloved culture,” she echoed.

8.30 on Saturday Abiola’s mama dropped him off at grandma’s house. Excitement shone from his bright eyes like a flame. Grandma makes cookies for kids — toffees, gingerbread bun, and pepper-mint and coconut cake. And she tells spellbinding stories.

Usually the squeaky front door is open so people can easily walk in: and to allow fresh air in, since she had no fan or air conditioner.

Abiola’s eyes peeled with wonder as he walked inside. Arresting culture with charm cajoled him to dance. Antique furniture, fittings and family portraits animated the parlor, generously displaying the immortal artistry of Nigerian photographers, Adenuga and Jonathan.

“Good morning grandma,” he greeted.

“Good morning, Abiola, how are you today?

“I’m doing fine ma,” he answered.

He inhaled a familiar smell.

“Oh, again? It is nasty, too bitter. I hate it!” he screamed.

He had to gulp the bitter concoction whenever he visited Grandma. At dawn, she ritually has a cupful of Agbo 
 — bitter blend of roots and herbs — before breakfast. With the cup in her grip, she carefully sipped the potent brew to boost her health and longevity. She had never visited a doctor in her lifetime. 

“This is for you, Abiola. Drink it before it gets cold. Ready, steady, go!

“You have to drink it in one gulp before I can fix breakfast,” she coaxed.

“I don’t like it!  It’s nasty. And it makes my mouth bitter,” he protested.

But Abiola shut his eyes and swallowed the strong brew. A grim expression ruined his face as he drank the mixture.

Grandma said, “Yeah, good for you boy,” as she monitored his emotion with supportive eyes.

Soon, he gave her an empty cup, and she clapped heartily praising his child-like obedience.

“You are my good boy,” patting his head. “Now we can eat and tell stories,” she said.

He needed water to kill the bitterness that had ruined his taste bud.

She bent under the table, dipping a clay cup into an old country-pot that stored well water. The refreshing drink slowly restored his taste. Subsequently, Abiola feasted on a bowl of Quaker Oats and baby bread that he washed down with a cup of sweetened lemon grass tea creamed with Cow and Gate powdered milk. He was hungry, so he ate ravenously like a starving cub.

Grandma had earned the accolade The Singing Nightingale. She loved to sing her favorite tune, “I know ee go well with the righteous, ee go well with the righteous, when I reach home.”

The inviting rendition sent Bandale peering through his window to observe her singing.

“I love her sweet and lovely voice,” he said. He was inspired by her songs.

“She helps me to forget about my worries too,” his wife Ola agreed.

The couple had been enduring financial hardship, as a result of the gruesome civil war in Sierra Leone. Her songs lifted up spirits that were plagued with anxiety or destitution.

Abiola reached for his toothbrush and paste.

Grandma, who had never used a toothbrush, sang as she held her chewing-stick, adding charcoal and salt to brush her teeth.

“You are a toothbrush and paste generation,” she said.

She resisted processed goods loaded with chemicals, and lubricated her skin with animal fat, ori or nut oil. She made her own bathing soap - black soap. She wore no perfume or makeup.

She took pride in maintaining a carefully groomed appearance. Her favorite color was white. She washed her own clothes, which left her hands rough or hard. She soaked her clothes overnight in soap powder. Next day, she would wash them with the aid of a laundry board, before rinsing and bleaching them under the sun. Her dresses looked spotless, sparkling clean.

She became the rallying factor and spiritual guru the whole family cherished.

or Henrietta, every challenge or problem had its own salvage. Her persuasive words had more voltage than electricity, smoothened with passionate authority.

She spoke in parables and riddles in order to challenge the emerging generation. Her favorite slogan was when two elephants fight only the grass suffers.

“With my gray hair, I have one foot in the grave as my days draw closer to its twilight,” she said. “Being the oldest family member alive my duty involves nurturing unity, peace, love and understanding among us all. We must endeavor to uphold the tenets and beauty of our tradition. This life is not a paragraph and death is not a parenthesis. Our children or grandchildren must get to know each other, and avoid dating or marrying each other blindly. It is a taboo and a serious unhealthy practice,” she emphasized.

While she spoke, tears trickled down her sagging cheeks.

She had arranged other Àwùjọ feasts or reunions before. Neighbors would expect her to grease the wheels of time that jump-start feasts.

Àwùjọ equates the feeding of the five thousand in the Bible, a family reunion. The platform brought the entire family together. The event also united people. And people usually eat from the same bowl at the same place: naturally, the gathering created a communion between the living and the dead.

“Our ancestors are intermediaries between the celestial and terrestrial domain. It is necessary to maintain a healthy marriage between the two hemispheres,” she said.

The feast required no invitation whatsoever. Heads of families would contribute towards funding the event. Large-scale variety of dishes lavished the charity that easily drew mammoth crowds. She had a passion for charities amid her endearing fellowship among people. She founded the Daniel’s Band Cottage group to meet the needs of the poor or neglected people. As part of its agenda, the group visited needy homes including the King George’s Home to care for the homeless or destitute.

She served tasty home cooked meals and distributed toiletries and clothes to patients.

New Year’s Day was the date for the grand Àwùjọ feast.

Grandma dispatched Abiola and Mariatu to uncles, aunts and cousins to remind them about the upcoming event. Cash contributions flowed in especially from families living abroad. A handsome contribution of $300 came from her grandson, and Auntie Phoebe too received money from her daughter in the United States.

Grandma coordinated the details for the shopping list that included an assortment of food and drinks. Several experienced cooks volunteered their time in preparing various sumptuous meals. Helpers transported the extravagant provision of drinks, food and livestock including the rented chairs.

Neighbors, including Mr. Cole captured a peep preview of the excitement. He said, “Ar get for tek purge so are go eat lek wolf: bifo good eat wase nar me belleh go boss,” he declared.

Before the ceremony, Grandma visited the cemetery to invite all her ancestors, requesting their presence and blessing. And she poured libation to commune with the dead using lobes of cola nuts. According to the tradition, she tossed an equal number of cola nut lobes up in the air to land with an equal number of heads or tails.

A vivacious musical blasted off motivating more people to attend the feast only three days away. She reminded neighbors to bring large containers for take home food service. Vultures and other domestic creatures would be tipped too.

On the eve, many volunteers helped with the preliminary preparation of the dishes. A bowl of black-eyed beans was prepped and ready to blend and later fried to make Akara — a tasty bean cake.

A large pot of beans cooked with palm oil, pepper and onions goes with a favorite dish Aborbor. A vegetable dish Orbiata — cooked with Crain Crain, goes with the foo foo — a product of cassava cooked and molded into dough. There was white rice, fish and beef stew, with a choice of either palm oil or groundnut oil.

Early morning helpers made a trip to the mill to blend the bowl of beans. Women who recently slept with their men could not handle the mix; they feared the mixture would turn flat as unleavened bread.

Cooking took place in a backyard makeshift kitchen, suitable for huge, spherical tripod firestones that could hold the gigantic cooking pots.

The tethered livestock — a cow, fowls, goat and sheep were at the backyard waiting to calm the salivation of the guests. The sonorous booing of the cow, crowing of the fowl and bleating of the sheep and goat, attracted crowds from neighboring areas.

Men dug two holes in front of the house to hold the blood of the slain creatures. During the ceremony, animal blood sprouted into the air, as the vultures stood patiently observing and rattled on the rooftop. The smell and sight of blood attracted more vultures to land with stampede on the rooftop, and even interceded in the butchery. Now emboldened, they descended to snatch portions of meat away.

“It is a good sign to be graced with their presence, our ancestors are pleased. It is a bad omen to organize Àwùjọ without vultures showing up,” an old woman said.

They feasted on the entrails, like the legitimate ancestors.

“That old vulture resembles late auntie Katie,” she said.

Later, they feasted on the food provided for the dead cooked without salt. The meat was prepped and seasoned. Grandma got more cola nuts and a variety of fruits including sugar cane.

A diverse family, friends from afar, visited the cemetery early that morning to commune with the dead. It is a rite to visit the dead at least once a year, usually on New Year’s or Easter.

Uncle Bob and his family wore their colorful Aso ebi as they arrived in a chartered poda poda, a local minibus. Men wore embroidered cotton lapel shirts, and the women wore expensively crafted long flowing dresses.

AL haji Cole and his family the Muslim wing of the family appeared in white, long flowing robes.

As they came off the latest model Mercedes Benz, they greeted with handshakes and said, “As-salamu alaykum,” to family and guests.

Women wore silk veils and men wore hats, caftans, long gowns, mukays or slippers.

Mr. Cole, a Christian, tried to shake Safiatu’s hand, but she bowed respectfully from a distance.

He was boiling with emotion while greeting relatives from abroad. In tears, he said, “If nar so die bin tan are go gladdie, usai una bin dae, tenk God for Mammy Henrietta! I would be happy if death reunited us all with our deceased, where were you all living? Thanks to Henrietta for this united gathering.”

Spectators admired a fusion of beautiful bright colors.

People had requests, complaints concerning loved ones, and Grandma’s house was flooded with well-wishers. She sat on a regal armchair dressed in purple dress with head-tie to match.

“Mammy Henrietta, I love your beautiful dress. Where did you buy it?” Salamatu Cole asked.

“Oh I got it over fifteen years ago. Doris Davies made it. This is the third time I’m wearing it,” she said.

A jubilant atmosphere reflected the spirit of the celebration.

Cooking had progressed and the foofoo was wrapped on the table; preparation of other dishes went according to plan.

A variety of food for the dead was set on a table in her room, with a glass of water for the deceased.

At noon, she said, “My dear ancestors this modest feast is for you to dine with us. Please bless those who made it possible, and spread your wings of love, protection and provision over all.

“I have attained a milestone indeed being a leader. “I’m ready to join my ancestors on the brighter shore. May unity and love bind our family, as I wait for my time.”

This mystic rhetoric transformed her into a trancelike reverence for the ancestors.

Subsequently, amid the merriment and celebration, Grandma prematurely retired to her room. Guests had reached the peak of high-spirited entertainment, and no one noticed her absence.

The Nyorleh ceremony, charity for the dead was about to begin, and the crowd took position for Capu Capu, the free for all stampede. But Grandma was not at the designated site. No one noticed she had earlier retired to bed, quietly taking off her footwear.

 It was getting dark and time for the guests to depart. The emotionally-charged family invaded her room only to witness a transfigured woman smiling on her bed. They shook her with frenzied, jaw-breaking screams, but she was cold and unresponsive. She could hear and empathize, but a mighty river had just separated them. She was reunited with her ancestors; deserting the enduring Àwùjọ fusion, leaving shocking confusion.

Roland Bankole Marke is the author of three books, Teardrops Keep Falling, Silver Rain and Blizzard and Harvest of Hate. He is also a songwriter with three recorded CDs to his credit: “The Gift of Life,” “Jesus Dwells in My Soul” and “Love and Happy New Year.” His work has appeared in several publications including the World Press, Szirine and Florida Times Union. 


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