Nothing prepared me for it.
I did not hit my big toe on a stone, my eyelids did not twitch. None of those telltale signs that should precede such phenomenal change of events as I experienced.
And even though I was the keeper of my father’s Ifa oracle and I slept on his consulting mat most nights, I did not dream about it, I had no premonition, no inkling. Not even my father saw the clouds gathering before that heavy rain, the gods were obviously setting me up.
The only daughter of an ancient man who consulted with the gods on behalf of the Baale and the entire village, and a woman who was widely feared for her fierceness by everyone, including her own daughter; I was no regular girl.
I went to school every morning -for I was one of the few girls in my village that attended Modern school-, and came back in the afternoon to watch my father consult with the Ifa oracle. My mother insisted that a girl had no business with an opele Ifa, but my father always told her to leave me be, ‘hasn’t she done the chores you assigned her?’ That always angered my mother and she took it out on me everytime she could, beating me heavily at the slightest provocation.
But my father was very fond of me, he showed me how to arrange the beads on the slate, where to put cowry shells and what various incantations meant. He would let me carry his mat and follow him to the Baale’s palace and would even let me sit by and watch from a respectable distance as he and the king consulted.
He loved education and was going to make me a teacher, he had made arrangements with my aunt who lived in Ibadan to look after me the following year when I would come to resume at the teacher’s training college. Whether I would pass the entrance examination or not was not a question that crossed his mind once, Baa mi was very confident in his daughter’s intelligence.
The morning of the day my entire life would change, an aroko arrived for my father from the king’s palace as I prepared to leave for school. I had a glimpse of it as the messenger handed it over to my father, the bundle was tied in a bright red piece of cloth and had white feathers attached to it. Whatever message the aroko conveyed, I knew it was grave and very urgent.
Baa mi, for that is what I called him, only grunted in reply when I bid him goodbye as I left for school, his brows were furrowed in deep thought, something was obviously wrong.
While walking to school, I tried to guess what the message could have been to have discomfited Baa mi so, my father was a pacific man who was never visibly ruffled by any circumstance however terrible. I decided to find Oyelakin in class and ask him if all was well at the palace.
Oyelakin was the Prince’s name, and I was the only one I knew that ever called him by his name. Everyone else referred to him as ‘Omo Baale’, but I called him Oyelakin. We belonged to the same age bracket, and had been friends all our lives. Apart from carrying my father’s mat for him and helping him lay out his slate at the palace, seeing Oyelakin was the reason I rushed to finish my chores and made sure I followed my father to the palace everytime the Baale summoned him.
Oyelakin and I were sweethearts, and we had a connection that far transcended mere emotions, we were two of a kind, and we both had dreams that were bigger than our village, we read books that others did not read, went to Ibadan during holidays and had dreams to continue our lives there, I at the teacher’s training college, and he at the university of Ibadan.
I could not concentrate at school that day, because Oyelakin was not in class. I was worried that he, and not the Baale as I had guessed, was seriously ill and the aroko’s urgent message was about his failing health. Time passed too slowly, and I could not wait for school to be over so that I could go home and ask my father if Oyelakin was fine.
I rushed out of the school compound as soon as the closing bell went and started walking home as fast as I could. I was determined to go to the palace and see Oyelakin myself if I did not find my father at home.
I was only a few metres from home when I saw two palace guards approaching, I exchanged pleasantries with them and made to continue my brisk walk home, but one of them snatched my school bag, and the other grabbed my arm. Startled, I wrenched my arm from his grip and started to run towards home, confused and scared.
My father was standing just by the door and did not appear surprised to see that I had been running. There was another palace guard standing beside my father, and his presence greatly unsettled me. ‘Baa mi?’ I turned to my father, my face full of questions.
My father looked very weak as he said ‘Ibipeju, you must go with the palace guards, Oyelakin wants to see you’. ‘And since when did Oyelakin start sending hounds to drag me to the palace?’, I retorted angrily.
My heart began to pound faster as a possibility crept into my mind. Let it not be… ‘Baa mi!!’, I thundered, ‘ Is the Baale dead??’
As though that was his cue, the guard who had been standing quietly placed a piece of cloth firmly over my mouth and lifted me into his arms in one motion. I struggled with him and tried to listen for my father’s answer to my question but his head was hanging low, his lips were moving, but no sound came out from them.
I kicked and struggled, and even rolled off and tried to escape once, but there were three of them.
We soon got to the palace, and they hurried me into a room I had never entered before, it appeared to be newly furnished, and I was dropped unceremoniously on a bed, all four of us breathing heavily; apparently, carrying a nineteen year old from her father’s house to the palace turned out to be a lot more difficult than the guards expected.
I stopped crying for a while and looked around, there was a cup of water on a stool beside the bed, I took a long drink and laid back on the bed, trying to clear my mind and force myself not to think for a while.
The drumbeats filtering into my ears confirmed the worst of my fears, the Baale was really dead, and the fact that I was in that room meant only one thing: Oyelakin was to ascend the throne in his father’s stead, and as a Baale could not be crowned without being married, he had been asked to decide who his ‘aya Baale’ was going to be, and he obviously had chosen me.
I boiled with anger as the import of Oyelakin’s selfishness dawned fully on me. While it was true that I wanted nothing more than to spend the rest of my life with him, a life in the palace was not what I wanted, this was not the life I looked forward to, and he knew it.
We had never for once anticipated his father’s death while making all our plans for the future, and justifiably so, because the Baale was only in his forties and had very sound health.
I knew Oyelakin did not want this life either, it was forced on him by fate, and by our tradition. But should he force on me what was forced on him? Did I not deserve the freedom to choose whether to chase my dreams or bear this servitude with him?
It would have killed me to leave Oyelakin and follow my dreams, but I would have done it anyway, for my dreams were far bigger than the palace, bigger than the village, and bigger than the polygamous monarch that my Oyelakin was going to be after being crowned Baale.
Oyelakin knew this, and that was why he did not let me choose, because he loved me the way most humans did: selfishly, he wanted me for himself even if it meant that I would lose myself.