by Tubal Cain
Mallam Mahmud rowed continuously.
The boat kept moving but very slowly. The paddle struck an object underneath the water noisily. Calling out to his partner to take over the rowing, he dropped the paddle inside the boat then descended leg first into the cold cloudy river water.
They were on their way home. The day’s catch was good, the boat was half filled with ’Kurungu’ a local species of cartilaginous fish prevalent in the area during the rainy seasons. The fisherman along with his partner Abdulahi had decided to close earlier than usual to enable them source for fire wood needed for smoking the fish before nightfall. It was a small black coloured fishing boat with its two paddles, two wet fishing nets, some jute-sacks and a bucket with empty packets of cigarette. Mahmud’s partner Abdulahi continued to row the boat, but slowly in attempt to maintain the position. Irritated by the delay caused by his partner, he called out his partners name loudly wondering what he was up to. They were friends from school days.
Mahmud resurfaced panting. He leapt, dripping some water and dropped something noisily into the boat. It was like a white pebble, the size of a small coconut shell in that darkness, then he climbed inside tilting the boat sideways. On berthing at the river bank, some customers that were waiting with oil lanterns rushed closer to the boat to purchase some fish.
It was the rays of a tilted lamp flame from a female customer that was selecting few fish fingerlings that exposed it. The item that earlier struck Mahmud’s paddle which he had gone after was a porcelain vase. A beautifully crafted vase with pink, purple and red coloured flower designs on a background of green leaves, it glowed reflecting the rays from the oil lamp.
Attracted, the customer requested for the price of the vase instead of the fish she had selected earlier. Abdulahi let-out a stifled scream when his attention was drawn to the vase. His scream attracted other customers who left the fish and gathered at the front end of the boat where the glowing vase lay. Mahmud returned from where he had gone to ease himself to see the gathering wondering what was amiss. The four customers stood pointing their lamps at the glowing vase while Abdulahi stared at it with a look of horror on his face. Promptly, Mahmud stepped into the boat pulling out a bag with which he covered the vase. They sold some fishes and proceeded to sort the remaining ones into jute sacks. It was after the last customer had left that Abdulahi spoke advising Mahmud to return the vase to the spot of the river where he found it. It was in response to a question Mahmud asked concerning why he screamed on seeing the vase. After arguing for a while, Abdulahi insisted he should throw the vase back into the river since it was already dark. Mahmud had refused, he picked up the vase and strolled to the nearby bushes. He hid it and returned pretending to have thrown it into the river.
The two fishermen went home with the sacks of fish carried on their shoulders. To closely examine the disposition of these fishermen, it would be necessary to digress briefly into the history of their environmental, economic and cultural background.
The fishermen live beside River Niger at Jebba town. Located around the Nigerian middle belt, the ancient town of Jebba is one of the most picturesque little towns west of Saharan Africa. The harmonious contrast in the town’s topographical features can only be described as enchanting. Its dreamy hills, smooth valleys, sparse but luxuriant vegetation and an agreeable weather all year round combine to make the settlement a desirable one.
Jebba is an ancient town with peculiar history and mysteries. Its disposition motivated ancient explorers including the famous foreign discoverer of the Niger, -Mungo Park as well as the Lander-Brothers to continuously journey through these creeks. Remnants of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther’s boat SS Dayspring– wrecked at Jebba in 1858 depicting wholly the mastery of the eighteenth century marine technology, just like Mungo Park’s tomb are some of the attractions the town holds. The colonial West African frontier force had its headquarters in the town in 1897, but the town has nothing to show for the colonial masters’ presence.
Daily, the sun reveals the town’s natural splendour, but at the bottom side of all the magnificence dwells the shadows, the poverty as if cast mischievously by the sun’s radiations questioning the sincerity of past government’s welfare policy implementation efforts. The greatest challenge life poses for the indigenes is that of survival. Made mostly of subsistence farmers and other minute scale informal sector economy operators, the town appears to have been forgotten by time. It boasts of a non-functional largest paper mill in West Africa, a functioning Hydro-Electric power station, abandoned Railway terminus, few schools, unequipped hospitals, and one commercial bank. There is a growing population, but no pipe-borne water.
There is an intriguing natural landmark in Jebba, an ancient god called ‘Juju-Rock,’ a legendary semi-conscious enigmatic presence. Legend has it that people travelled by boat from all parts of the world to worship it in the past. Towering over the Niger River like a sand pillar, this spiritual castle legend claims once sheltered the deity maximus or grand deity of the African traditional religion.
Back at home, it was after the fishermen had borrowed enough firewood from their neighbours for the family members to start smoking the fish that they settled down to talk over dinner. They were both indigenes of Jebba, but Mahmud had travelled to Sokoto, in northern Nigeria where the parents worked at a very early age. His great grand father was an employee of the West African Frontier Force. Abdulahi thus had the home advantage, he knew much about the village.
Abdulahi told Mahmud in clear terms that the vase he got from the river was Sacred. He explained that from the location where the vase was collected, it belonged to the deity inhabiting the adjacent hill which he described as Juju-Rock. Mahmud was fascinated by the story which he felt was superstitious, he had urged him to continue. Abdulahi continued saying people came from far distances to make sacrifices for and worship the deity. He said the deity had a shrine furnished with its Effigy and other objects of worship dedicated to it which was vandalised and sold to foreigners during a past war. He further explained that the deity had a priest through whom the worshippers performed sacrifices in return for good luck and hidden treasures which he said the rock chambers held. Abdulahi had concluded by saying that the rock had an entrance which his late father once told him evoked an odd feeling of de`ja-vu on him the day he got close. He said the strange feeling made the father run away from the entrance quickly. Of investigators that had gone through the entrance into the rock, Abdulahi claimed none was to be found, he however said that going through the entrance was guaranteed to change one’s life either positively or negatively.
Four elderly thieves armed with knives, cutlasses and sticks broke into Abdulahi and Mahmud’s thatched huts that night. The fishermen were neighbours residing in what is referred to as ‘Gungu’ a local appellation for Island, within Jebba. The armed intruders demanded for the vase threatening to harm them and their family members if they failed to hand it over. They however left when the fishermen told them that the vase was thrown back into the river.
Mahmud considered Abdulahi’s story with all measure of seriousness after the previous night’s encounter with the intruders. Their strange demand surprised him. He felt the vase was precious and in very high demand and decided to keep it secretly for himself. He left the house very early the following morning going straight to the river bank where he retrieved the vase and wrapped it up with a dark cloth before he took it home. Mahmud dug and buried the vase beneath the floor of his bedroom.
The vase or rather, curiosity resulting from a desire to find the origin of the vase later changed Mahmud’s life-style completely. He studied and discovered where the entrance to the rock was located later on. The rock is located on a small Island within the river, he purchased a small boat to facilitate his investigations into the legend surrounding rock. In order to ascertain if there was a physical apart from the speculated spiritual inhabitant of the rock, he carried out two experiments. He resorted to watching the rock entrance from a spot on the opposite bank of the river daily, he left fishing and watched the entrance in the mornings continuously for weeks without finding anything.
Something however emerged from the deity’s door one evening, only it did not float, crawl or walk out as he had expected. It flew out. A hideous creature in its own way, with others of its kind. A bat actually, some bats flew out. Mahmud decided to investigate further. He placed food contained in his lunch box on white sand a few feet away from the rock entrance one evening. He was surprised to find out that the food along with his lunch box had disappeared the following morning. On close examination, he saw traits of hoof-prints, like those of a donkey on the ground from the white sand area where the lunch box was left to the entrance of the rock.
Mahmud ventured through the entrance of the rock one afternoon. A large cave with several chambers lay within the rock. The sandy floor of the warm cave was littered with earthenware bowls, cups and basins of various sizes. There were wooden and rock carvings, ceramic wares and potsherds. Most of the items were broken. The inner chambers of the rock was in total disarray. He made it a daily obligation to explore the different chambers. He discovered that one chamber was completely filled with excrements from bats that once lived dangling from the chamber’s ceiling. Though there were other chambers strewn with bat-dung, Mahmud couldn’t help wondering what endeared the bats to certain chambers or rather what restricted them from other chambers.
While still exploring, he occasionally removed some of the bat-dung with jute-sacks using them as manure for his rice, corn and millet farms.
One rainy day, Mahmud stumbled into an unexplored cave chamber which was clean and orderly within the rock. Carvings, leather drapers and masks hanging on the walls of the cave appeared to be familiar to him. On surveying further, he saw a beautiful maiden sitting at a corner within the chamber. Mahmud was scared. Though she wore a leather veil, he could see the greater part of the face clearly, the maiden’s eyes were closed. Lots of things went through Mahmud’s mind, he first thought she was a blind lady that had strayed into the cave, then remembering the location of the rock, he dismissed the thought as impossible.
Considering the figure to be a mermaid, he had called out a greeting expecting her to disappear. She didn’t stir or move. Panicked, he was about to run out of the frightening chamber when the middle-aged maiden let out a very loud hiss then stood up and sauntered slowly into an inner chamber of the cave. Frightened, the fisherman ran out of the cave then. Mahmud had a very mysterious dream at home that night.
He could not forget the encounter and kept visiting the maiden’s chamber regularly. He usually went along with trinkets, assorted shoe sizes, creams and hand-bags meant as presents for the lady. He often wondered if an individual in the maiden’s disposition could have need for material items. Some of the items would not be found on another visit while others were left untouched in the centre of the chamber where he usually placed them. On some visits, he met her sitting in the same corner and position where he first saw her, she usually made the hissing sound before leaving into the inner chamber. On other days he couldn’t find her and sometimes had to wait for hours without seeing her. He was consciously afraid of what lay within the inner chambers of the maiden and never made any attempt to go further than the outer chamber.
Mahmud almost stopped visiting the maiden after making a very terrifying discovery. He however started visiting her again after communicating with her in a second dream. He had suspected her to be one of the ‘Desert Lamias’ but could not conclude as Lamias were said to exist only in dry desert areas of the world. The idea came from a family friend that visited him from Sokoto State within the period. He had related his experience to the friend without mentioning the vase before the friend told him about Lamias. Precisely, the friend said they were desert demons that occasionally materialized in the form of attractive women and were capable of eating human as well as animal flesh when hungry. He said Lamias could be distinguished by their inability to speak ; that they hissed like serpents. The friend conclusively told him that a Lyceum of clairvoyant priests that were trained in the skill of combating Lamias was once established in ancient Roman empire. He however told him Lamias could only exist in the deserts.
The mysterious maiden gave Mahmud a strange proposition in the second dream. She gave him an earthenware pot saying that he should take the pot home and drop the glowing vase gently inside it before placing the pot permanently in one corner of his bedroom. She promised to visit him at home regularly if he agreed to the proposition.
Mahmud visited the maiden’s chamber within the rock the following evening. He did not meet her on the usual seat, instead a pot similar to the one he saw in the dream rested on the seat. Mahmud took the pot home.
In the interim, farm produce from Mahmud’s farmlands improved tremendously as a result of the bat-dung. His crops matured earlier enabling him to harvest, sell and cultivate again before the general harvest season. Mahmud concentrated more on farming in those following years and became very rich as a result. He erected a fanciful white coloured bungalow with a high fence round about it and lived there alone.
It was the white paint he used on every part of the building that made the people especially his peers in the fishing business speculate that he was married to the devil. His waning interest in fishing strained his relationship with other fishermen costing him his position as a master in the league of Gungu fishermen. Abdulahi however got closer to other fishermen within the period. With Mahmud no longer joining him for their fishing trips, he employed paid labour using the facilities they procured together to maximize his fishing capabilities while keeping all the profit to himself. He later declared himself the leader of the fishermen, while speculating that his friend Mahmud must have sold the local deity’s vase. He cited his friend’s increasing wealth as evidence.
Mahmud dismissed Abdulahi’s insinuations as the handiwork of a guilty and jealous old friend. He threatened to expose what he called his past exploits on other fishermen’s night-catch and his complicity in the selling of Artefacts from the local deity’s shrine to foreigners which he claimed he had an evidence.
The end came after Mahmud had allowed a security guard he employed shortly after the completion of the building access to all parts of the building. It was Abdulahi that suggested he needed a security guard recommending his cousin, they were still friend’s then.
One evening, while in the bathroom, Mahmud heard a noise like shattering of glasses, on rushing into his bedroom, he met the maiden’s pot broken. The vase was intact, it lay glowing in the middle of the potsherd. With a stick raised upwards, the security-guard stood there over the heap of potsherd inside the bedroom. He had broken the pot. Upon enquiry, he told Mahmud that he saw and chased a Python from the courtyard through the rooms and it eventually entered the earthenware pot. He claimed he decided to smash the pot in order to kill it and expressed his surprise at not finding the Python within the potsherd. He was dismissed instantly.
Mahmud was confused by the development. He gathered the potsherd along with the vase wrapping them up with a leather mat and made straight for the maiden’s chamber within the rock. She was not on her seat, he waited anxiously for an hour then entered the inner chamber he usually dreaded. Mahmud never came out of that rock that day. He is yet to come out, up till this moment.
News of Mahmud’s disappearance went all over the town within the first three days. Friends and relatives searched the hills and valleys thoroughly without finding him.
Abdulahi saw and collected another floating vase two days after the news of Mahmud’s disappearance had broken out. It was in a different location from where the first was collected. It was the same size, only it had a grey colour without designs and did not glow like the first vase. All effort made to sell it failed. The inscription at the bottom of the vase seemed to trouble potential buyer’s conscience discouraging them. The inscription which was in Arabic read: ‘Vatsa’. The dull vase rests like a useless trophy on a table in Abdulahi’s living room.
The mysterious dream which Mahmud had in the night of the day he first saw the maiden went this way;
The lady told him she was from the heart of the Sahara Desert. That she had taken over the flesh of a woman that had drowned in a great deluge at Timbuktu, thousands of years earlier. She said she drifted with the river currents to the rock location and was lucky to find the vase she had been struggling to retrieve before she got drowned stuck in her clothes when she regained consciousness. That she was trapped, having inhabited the flesh for a longer period than permitted while she was unconscious. She explained that she could not speak human language but could communicate through dreams and was harmless.
The lady had in that dream which lasted all night told Mahmud of what she called ‘Downwind-Draught’. She claimed the issue was of grave concern to her as it threatened her existence and that of the Niger River. Insisting that she could not survive outside a river bank, she said that the Illuminati had recommended a sanction for the Niger valley through gradual deprivation of an essential natural element. Specifically, she said total restriction on the flow of the Niger and Benue Rivers which constituted the major water sources in Nigeria would be used as a weapon to secure part of her territorial land areas.
She recalled that both rivers originated from francophone countries that are still at the mercy of the colonial masters. She had concluded by saying that only purposeful, visionary, globally compliant and effective leadership will sustain the level of diplomacy necessary to avert the draught, suffering and agony that will be looming over the African continent in the next few decades. She warned that while the local community leaders were busy strengthening their defence capabilities in terms of hardware, the global situation had gone beyond staying alert with archaic physical counter offensive strategies. That there must be a deliberate search for more subtle, but decisive and efficient alternatives. She had at that point tried to warn him against thinking or trying to hurt her saying plainly that she watched and could read his mind at all times. She said ‘they’ were spiritually and physically above mortal men, that he will be eternally hurt if he tried to harm her in any way. She concluded by saying that she made references to human maxims for his own benefit since she was communicating with a mortal man while quoting Edmund Burke saying, "He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skills. Our antagonist is our helper."
In response to a question Mahmud asked about the origin of the glowing vase, she had gone into a very long story. She said the vase held the secret of all ‘their’ powers as Elemental beings.
She said thousands of years back, a crippled old man whose son was very diligent at digging fresh water wells was approached to influence his son into digging a well for the community leader for a fee. It was in Kissidougou the highland areas of ancient Songhai Empire that is presently known as the Republic of Guinea within west Africa. Then, fresh water springs which were rare constituted the only source of drinking water for the various communities in the sub region. People had to travel for weeks in search of fresh water and could only fetch limited quantities with earthenware pots which were the only form of containers for transporting liquids. There was no spring near Kissidougou until the cripple’s son was hired and successfully dug a well in a nearby village using his bare hands. He later on introduced crude pieces of hard rocks which he carved into various shapes for digging.
The price was agreed upon and he started digging. The young man found the glowing vase which held the secret powers of the entities of the air beneath the earth a few weeks after he had started digging. He never knew the value or function of the vase, he only kept it in his father’s custody because of its beauty. She said ‘they’ tried to influence the young man and obtain the vase unsuccessfully, that without material cloaks, they resorted to agitating other elements violently in order to obtain the vase.
The young man soon struck an Aquifer, as he continued to dig, a Geyser erupted from the shallow well drowning the young man. The aged cripple on discovering the circumstances under which his only son had drowned, crawled hastily down the hills to inform the head of the community about the impending danger. The village was evacuated, he practically saved all the lives there. The community head along with the rest of the citizens earlier lived on the lowland plains which were later flooded.
The temperature of the geyser reduced with time, but the eruption continued in a manner common to what is regarded as Artesian wells in today’s technological parlance. With time the plains that once harboured the community was completely eroded and reduced to a valley. The flood drowned several villages with the inhabitants on its route, passing through locations which now include Republics’ of Mali, Niger, and eventually found its way to join the Benue river at Lokoja. The Kissidougou flood of ancient times is what is presently referred to as River Niger.
Relocation to the new plain brought its own strain on the community. Shelter, food and other needs of sustenance were scarcely available. With time, the community members began regarding the aged cripple as the cause of their predicament blaming him. He was accused of bewitching and flooding the former settlement, tried and sentenced to death. She said the incident occurred after the head of the community had tried to obtain the glowing vase from the cripple unsuccessfully. The aged cripple was tied up with the vase which he refused to let go and drowned in the flood. She insisted that the aged cripple however triumphed spiritually above his antagonists and quoted Elie Wiesu saying, "There are victories of the soul and spirit, sometimes even if you lose, you win."
She said leadership in Africa has always been oppressive. That in ancient empires of Songhai, Mali, Egypt, Ethiopia and Ghana, a ruler’s strength was determined by his ability to violently destroy and selfishly plunder through conquest. She recalled the tyrannies of the ancient Ghanaian Soninkes, atrocities of Sumanguru, Sundiata, and other Malian ancestral leaders including the flamboyant Mansa-Musa who once splashed three million pounds in gold while on a pilgrimage to Mecca. She concluded by saying that those archaic leadership traits which Africans still experience in varying degrees were genetically handed down through the ages. That as change in leadership had always been violent, the masses must ensure a complete repossession of their power and freedom. She had quoted Woodrow Wilson saying,“Liberty has never come from government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of the government. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it.”
She said if the masses failed to collectively resist the influence and selfish manipulations of their leaders, consolidated tyranny which will be foisted on the continent will eliminate the possibility of prosperous and peaceful coexistence. That the conducive business environment which the former plunderers and their allies are desperately seeking to facilitate profitable investment of their loot will continue to be elusive.
Back in Jebba, a different worship centre now occupies the location where the desecrated shrine of the King of African traditional deities once stood.
Two questions prevail in Jebba;
From the young people: Who will access the ancient-deity’s Rock to posses the treasures therein?
From the elderly: Will a new government bring hope?
Time will tell.