On the Road In Search of Wonder in Iseyin
It’s Nigeria, after all. Hope is what keeps many alive. In plethora of sufferings and fears, prayers abound.
With a group of other artists, I embark on a road trip across Nigeria, absorbing, documenting, learning to see. The trip ends with more questions in our hearts and a longing for solitude.
Two days later, I arrive at Ibadan and find my way into a bus traveling to Iseyin. The towns are separated by a two-hour stretch of jagged road. Considering J.P. Clark: if Ibadan is a city “scattered among seven hills like broken China in the sun,” Iseyin is a huge, colorful ball of embroidery thread, finely woven into the fabric of the Nigerian life. The home of aṣọ– òfì welcomes me with quiet and dust.
At the gate of Ebedi Writers’ Residency, I see a tree with bright yellow leaves waving about in the wind like a thousand hands in a hallelujah. Above the door of the room assigned to me, there is a name: Abubakar Gimba . I conclude other rooms must also have names of esteemed writers above their doors.
The residency administrator, Mr. Kofi tells us—the three residents—that one of the two Hanging Lakes in the world is suspended on the Iyake Mountain in Ado-Awaye, a neighboring town. He has been there several times, taking each set of residents. Marjaan, a slender, spirited writer from northern Nigeria and I decide we will go see it.
One Sunday morning, in harsh Harmattan wind, we begin our drive to the town. About ten minutes into the trip, Mr. Kofi points to a white house enclosed in a fence.
“That’s Professor Peller’s home.”
“Who is Professor Peller?”
“You’ve never heard of him?” he smiles, an attempt to shield his surprise at my ignorance. “He was one of the most renowned magicians in Africa. He was thirteen when he started performing illusion tricks . . . ”
Large banners of artists who performed at the twentieth anniversary of his death come into view as we drive past. I decide I will return. And about a week from now, I will walk around the compound, taking in the space, taking in Professor Peller’s history.
A quick search on the internet yields his images. In one black-and-white photograph, he is clad in a suit and a magician’s hat, hands spread over the body of a woman levitating in front of him. It calls to mind images of Pentecostal pastors praying for women kneeling before them, and I think of the phrase “the laying on of hands.”
We arrive at the base of the Iyake Mountain. There is a boulder sitting some feet away from a group of people praying. Elevated places are a favorite for those who earnestly seek the spectacular, who wish to touch the face of God.
In Ilorin, while on the road trip—during which we investigated and documented what it means to be Nigerian, as well as the impact of physical, political, and cultural borders—we climbed a hill where we saw people praying; some in groups, some alone. We met a woman who told us she practiced Christianity while up, then returned to Islam, her family’s religion, when she got down. She said by being there, above everyone else, she felt her prayers would reach God’s ears faster.
We walk past the boulder and aim for the crest of the Iyake Mountain. Climbing is subjecting my body to the leadership of my mind, trying to persuade it to honor a commitment I made even if it does not feel up to it. How much control do I have over my body? The aches in my thighs give me a small, electrifying thrill that I imagine will surpass whatever sense of fulfilment the pinnacle will present.
Scattered all over the mountain are depressions like a giant’s foot sunk in wet clay. Some cacti bear the names of climbers that came long before us. Lovers who wanted to preserve their union with nature-inscribed variations of, “Dayo and Tola were here.” It’s December. Still, some of the trees have leaves; others are bare like long branched bones. I crush the dried leaves under my feet with childlike glee.
One tall tree stands out because of its bulging mid-region. I want to touch it, kiss its belly. Loneliness and trees were the first friends I ever had. I take a picture and caption it “The Pregnant Tree” on my Instagram.
Because Professor Peller’s home is not accessible to the public, Mr. Kofi helped facilitate a meeting with a man who prefers to be addressed as “Doctor.” Going with a relative is an entrée, and this man is family. In front of Doctor’s house, a chicken and a goat stroll side by side as if walking down the aisle.
I’m ushered by a man into a dimly lit passage. The place smells of shea butter, old wounds, and weeping. The room on my left is slightly open. There is a man lying on a bed with his right leg wound in an orthopedic cast, a fracture I imagine had been sustained in a road accident. For the woman sitting in the next room, it’s her left arm. She leans against the wall, looking out the window to a view of a fence. Not all habitations become home.
In Doctor’s office, there’s a table in a corner, a chair he offers me, and a mattress on which he sits, placed on the bare floor. His legs are wide apart, reminiscent of Ifá diviners’ posture when they place the Ọ̀pẹ̀lẹ̀ before them, touching and turning the seed pods, beads, and cowries of the divination chain to consult Ifá on a matter.
Professor Peller was a powerful man, Doctor tells me. Even his birth was extraordinary. How many babies came out of their mother’s womb clutching on to a small gourd made in their flesh?
Doctor attended some of his performances many years ago. The most profound trick he witnessed was when Professor Peller cut his wife into bits. He remembers watching in astonishment, and cheering along with the audience, as the woman walked back into the hall.
The memory from years ago takes form on Doctor’s face, lighting it up. Then the light disappears, slowly, and the bland face I met returned. He stares into the wall, forlorn. “He was such a good man, you know. Everyone loved him. But God knows all things.”
In his life’s work as a traditional doctor, Doctor tells me, it is God who directs him on whose case to accept. Even if it’s only a broken finger, if God tells him to not take it, he won’t. But if God wants him to treat someone with a crushed femur, he will.
“There is nothing God cannot do. I follow his will .” Unfortunately, Doctor says, he is on his way out of town, but his brother, Omotayo, will take me to Professor Peller’s house.
The Hanging Lake sits quietly atop the mountain, responding to pebbles from visitors with a tumbu in circular, wavy ripples. A naked tree stands beside it. A section of the sky is clear azure, another like chunks of wool. The world’s only other Hanging Lake is in Glenwood Canyon, Colorado—a bowl-like basin discovered by a man searching for gold in the canyon. The lake in Colorado hangs onto cliffs, attracting a great number of visitors at different times of the year.
“There is nothing much to see,” says Marjaan, as she poses for a picture.
This lake seems ordinary; tourists may not be too keen to visit. In the distance, there are dots of houses and thin road networks twirling into oblivion. The air is crisp. I close my eyes and inhale. I feel like I am breathing in a dozen pins. The lake sits still; it does nothing but exist. But even in its nothingness, it inspires in some people a reverence akin to horror. Legends have it that no one has swum in it and survived. They say there is something in it that invites people. They say people dive in and never return.
The sun reflects off a corner of the lake, making it gleam like sun rays on a clean louvre. Looking at it, a childhood memory comes to me. About midway between home and my primary school, there was a stream. Sometimes, walking to or from school, I lingered, as though the stream had promised to tell me a secret. I watched the waters quietly glide around stones, ferrying plastics and nylons. The waters whooshed during the rainy season, burbling with intensity and urgency, spitting out objects it carried dearly in its tender period.
“There is nothing much to see,” says Marjaan, as she poses for a picture.
Waters are unpredictable. You think you’re in a safe space and they turn on you, leaving you cold and empty. Or they draw you in and refuse to give you back to yourself. I think of the mountain as an anchor—rooted and steady. Yet, it is this quality that bothers me about it. How can a thing be so rigid, so unchanging?
Standing here, waiting, it does not appear as though this lake has any message for me. There is nothing much to see .
It is quiet at Professor Peller’s house. The first thing I see by my right is a garden of different-sized sculptures. Omotayo tells me nobody has lived there since he died in 1997, out of fear of encountering his ghost. He believes the terror is unfounded. Professor Peller was a devout Muslim after all, and isn’t magic pure art and entertainment?
There are several tombs painted white at the left side of the compound. A section of the front wall of the house bears theatrical engravings: a woman floating in the air, her back held up by a sword; a human body being cut into pieces; a man standing in flames. Sitting in the backyard is a big puddle of filth and spirogyra, the remains of a small swimming pool.
A spire made of stones with the inscription “P P” towers above the roof of the building. The entrance of the living room is a sculpture of a lion in the middle of a roar. Take two steps in, by your left, you will see a fading painting of a snake on the wall. There is no furniture, save for the wooden home bar at one end of the room.
Shortly after Professor Peller died, Omotayo says, armed robbers carted away everything. Some rooms are upstairs, he announces, and we start climbing. There’s a theater in the building where he held some of his performances.
Looking out the window from the top offers a clearer view of the numerous sculptures. I imagine Professor Peller many years ago, standing at this spot where I now stand, hands clasped behind his back, thinking of his next magic trick. In a photograph on the internet, his face is slightly averted from the camera, revealing his tribal marks and forehead creased in contemplat ion. I try to conjure an image of him in his Lagos home twenty years ago, head bent in prayers, when some men came in and killed him.
There are people who appear to be larger than life, whose deaths are often accompanied with stories — truths or myths —that are passed down, across generations. Weeks, perhaps months before Professor Peller’s death, he had mentioned to a journalist during an interview that, in honor to God, before observing his Salat, he’d strip himself of his magic. And that was the only time he could get killed.
The gunmen had waited in the compound, waited until he was on his knees in prayers, then came in and did what they came for. Till date, they have not been apprehended.
I don’t know when fear sneaks up on me. Perhaps when I picture my body among the sculptures contracting and hardening until it becomes a stone, or when I become aware that I’m alone in a quiet house with a stranger—a man. What will I say I was looking for?
“We should go now,” I say, already flying down the stairs.
On August 2, 1997, Nigerians not only mourned Professor Peller—who was born Folorunsho Abiola Moshood Peller, I imagine many discovered that day—but also Fela Anikulapo Kuti.
Although he was not as celebrated as Fela in life and in death, Professor Peller performed in different parts of the world. His twentieth anniversary had in attendance royalties and artists such as the Ooni of Ife, Oba Adeyeye Enitan Ogunwusi; the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi III; the Aseyin of Iseyin, Oba Abdulganiyu Adekunle Salau; King Wasiu Ayinde Marshall; Olamide, and several others.
When I return from his house, I sit on my bed at the writers’ residency and open my computer to write. I hadn’t fixed my clothes in the wardrobe when I arrived weeks ago. I live from my bag, the way I did during the weeks on the road, when many dawns found me in transit—my body in a constant state of nowhereness. My bags look out of place on the other side of the bed, a metaphor for my life.
Twenty-six years on, the world is still a strange place, an event I’m unprepared for and would rather not attend. You know you will be out at some point but you don’t know when. But since you suddenly found yourself here, as though awakened from a dream , you decide to participate and make the best of it. An unending cycle of mingling and sitting at a corner to observe — until it ends.
I had visited Professor Peller’s house because I was curious. I imagined it would be a humbling experience to occupy, even briefly, the place he had lived. But I felt nothing. Everywhere was quiet and still, as it was at the lake.
In an instant, as I search for words, I become gripped by a strange anxiety. Writing gives me a reason to be in motion. What happens when recording what it’s like for me to be in the world no longer holds any meaning? What will become of me if I can no longer summon joy from watching the bi rds, dancing in the rain, or walking barefoot on carpet grass as rain water glides between my toes?
What will I say I was looking for?
It’s curious how much writing one does when they steal time from the busyness of their other lives. Besides teaching performance poetry to some secondary students in the community, and evenings of conversations with other residents, I should be writing. But where are the words now that I have all the time?
After an hour of stuttering on the screen, I decide I have tried. Let the record reflect that I showed up today. I reward my effort with a few glasses of wine and many hours of Sherlock .
Descending the Iyake Mountain requires great care. Walk too fast and you might tumble till your head hits a rock and you stop being. That I’m not particularly having a great time here does not mean I’m ready to go.
A group of people carrying small kegs and bottles walks towards us and ask for directions to the Hanging Lake. Their friends have told them many things about the water and they can’t wait to witness its power for themselves. They will fill their kegs with it and use it for ablution.
“Why this water?” I ask one of them.
He looks at me with the eye that says I just asked a ridiculous question. “Because the water is good and merciful.”
What do you mean merciful? I start to ask, but “Shut the fuck up and let people be” overtakes in my brain and the impudent question stops in my throat. I’m grateful for the intervention. It’s Nigeria, after all. Hope is what keeps many alive. In plethora of sufferings and fears, prayers abound.
I remember the unease in the voice of the woman in Ilorin and her reluctance to having her photograph taken. What if a relative saw an image of her on a hill with tall, wooden crosses and church bells? What miracle could mend broken trust?
The locals welcome us at the foot of the mountain. Hope climbing wasn’t too tiring. Did we take some of the water? Didn’t we know Christians also use it? When they pray on it and bathe with it, something miraculous happens. Oh, we really should have taken some.
It’s early afternoon when we return to the residence, after a delightful stop-off at a palm-wine tapper’s house. The tree at the gate stands tall in the distance, welcoming me. Its yellow leaves, which appear to have multiplied, are dancing in the wind. The dried ones rustle and gather in groups, creating their homes. I proceed to take pictures, as I have done several times before, recording them in their various forms of happiness.
If one sees something, perhaps a tree, and feels wonder, and becomes aware in that moment of the feeling of wonder, should one start to examine it? Or are moments of wonder best cherished when the object of wonder is no longer in sight? Can a person become so overwhelmed with wonder that it eludes them?
My life’s task is the intentional practice of joy. Perhaps despite my wavering view of God, he’s present everywhere I turn. I keep teaching myself awareness and presence of mind for moments of small delights. The business of living is mostly bland. But there are times when I’m taking a walk or laughing with a friend, and I become acutely aware that I’m alive. Oh, I’m really still here, breathing and blinking and dancing. How majestic.
I take more pictures. The sun witnesses from above, blazing like the eye of God. It pours a yellow glow over the road and the brown sand, over the corrugated sheets as far as my eyes can see, and beyond.
Everything is alive and open.