Death to the Baobabs!
What defines Ìdí-ẹgbẹ́ as Ìdí-ẹgbẹ́ is the huge baobab tree there. I can’t guess its age, but by the hypothesis by which science uses to predict the age of ancient trees, we can agree it is centuries old. Everybody met there including Sunday Alálùjọ̀nú, its devotee. Ìdí-ẹgbẹ́ is called Ìdí-ẹgbẹ́ because it used to be a rendezvous for children to play soccer, hide-and-seek, and Lákáàlàkàá. Ẹgbẹ́ implies group in Yoruba language. Ìdí means spot or the point of meeting or the root. Hence, the name Ìdí-ẹgbẹ́.
Ìdí-ẹgbẹ́ terrifies everyone because of its immanence and mythical grimace, because of the white clothes tied about its thick body, because of the huge brown calabash of sacrifice placed at its feet, because of the feathers and carcasses of pigeons that tarred its floor, because of the grey-clothed sofa used by its devotee to sit whenever he was consulting with the incubus inside the tree. It was also rumoured that it was a coven, and different spirits lived inside the tree and that included the incubus Sunday Alálùjònú worshipped. Regardless, everyone honoured the tree.
We never went too close to it.
We children that have turned the front of Ìdí-ẹgbẹ́ to soccer pitch used to believe that its devotee, Sunday Alálùjònú (who also worked as a native doctor), must have been a privileged being with some metaphysical powers. And yes, he was. Sometimes we would pause our Monkey-Post match and watch him as he engaged in some rites.
For our quietness and preferably hailing, Alálùjònú!, we often got compensated. He would collect some leaves of the baobab and whisper some incantation into his cupped hands, and in a minute, he would fling some candies into the thin air. We would dart about to pick them up. Other times, he would fling coins into the air. We would pursue the direction, bumping on one another to grab as much as possible. It was a marvelous show because we often watched the process of the miracle from the beginning to the end.
When Sunday died in the early 2000s in a car accident, the tree also died. It lost its soul and gradually children who used to play around it disappeared. It dried off slowly, its body became weak and desiccated; its branch dropped one by one. I often watched the slow process of its death whenever I ran errands for my father. It was like someone suffering the last stage of cancer: You know you are going to die and there is nothing that can stop the free radicals that have turned your body into a circus show. It was as if when Sunday died, all the spirits that embodied the tree also packed out and moved elsewhere. And so was the end of Chtulucenic bond. When I grieve with the baobab, I also grieve the loss of my childhood. A kind of Haraway’s tentacular thinking. But then, Ìdí-ẹgbẹ́ was just one.
I was born in an ancient town. Shàó has many tales of mythical and mystical places and objects as such. And there are a number of eminent baobabs with similar stories. One was the ZEB Baobab which was not as tall as Ìdí-Ẹgbẹ́ but with the same mythic grimace. Some night when my mother asked me to get locust beans to make Lúrú Soup, the darkness that surrounded the baobab would terrify me. I abhorred such nights because I would always think some nymphs might jump out of the trees and pursue me for desecrating them with my presence. So instead of walking past the tree, I would tarry. The leaves that made up Luru itself were leaves of baobab. Just like Ìdí-ẹgbẹ́, ZEB grew within an elementary school. It was called ZEB because the school was founded in the 1930s by Western Nigerian zonal education board.. Like Ìdi-ẹgbẹ́, the school met the baobab there.
When I wasn’t at one, I would be at the other collecting Monkey Bread (its fruits). It was what I relished most in the afternoon as a snack. Some hundreds of yards adjacent to our house was another, the tallest of them in the neighbourhood. Fearful, imposing and numinous; an occasional receiver of sacrifice from an unknown devotee. Yorùbá has a word for everything. When they talk about such trees, they would say, ó ti gbà-bọ̀-dè for their extraordinariness and astonishing details as habitat for the unseen. It is a phrase with ecological consequences because you don’t want to near such trees for their choleric character. You don’t want to scratch their barks because you may be hurting a gnome. When you go near, you do it with reverence because of the fear their presence invokes.
Shàó is Shàó because it was famed for powerful people who possessed strong charms, its attachment to Yorùbá culture, and its resistance to local colonialism of the emirate system that wanted to absorb it. Shàó is Shàó because other surrounding towns feared its heritage and histories that made up the name. Yet, it was that myth that Shàó had built around itself. Even with the strong presence of indigenous Yorùbá religions, Christianity spread at its own pace within the town. For example, the first church in the town, SDA, is more than a century old. Yet, the town did not yield completely to the sway. As we wrapped up the 20th century, Pentecostal churches began to spring here and there. Orthodox churches lost their members to the new ones. And prophets began to visit towns. There were gyrations of miracles and rumours of children accused of witchcraft. New perceptions grew as Pentecostal fervency seethed into the artery of the town. Most cultural events turned into a stock of humour for the adherents of Pentecostalism. Heritage sites, objects suffered the casualty. The baobabs did not survive the horror. Ignored, abandoned and forbidden, hatred was mobilized on things indigenous. Unchristlikely, they would say. Everybody wanted a miracle so badly to escape the undoing Nigeria visited on them. Most people went to the miracle shops to purchase liberation from heritage of lineage curses. Sometimes it came with the sordid conclusion that some trees were possessed and have become covens of witches and demons. When it was not that, they summarily assumed the oldest of the women in the extended family as the eye of evil that needed to be plugged out. The campaign was vehement but I wonder if religions can coexist side by side without one growing on the misfortune of the other.
Towards the beginning of 2005, a certain Prophet Sodiq came to town and going by the fervour of the moment you could tell, he had a successful run on his sheep. Out of curiosity for his rebellious name of Islamic background, I went to his all-night crusade where thousands of his followers were already waiting. The crusade was an open field crusade with a wooden mantle and an improvised pulpit. It was a five-day crusade, and this was Day Four. A number of his adherents came with strange household items like brooms to sweep their perceived enemies away, and plastics of water to purify themselves of curses. On the podium stood the stocky dark man with little bushy hair. His face looked genuine and he carried the aura of military around him each time he dived into the trance of prayer. It was like a drill, once he summoned the next item people should pray about. But there was always the need to drop offerings to support your supplications. Intercessions from the prophet came with tithing. If you feel your problem is big, then the offering should be bigger. It helped your prayer get easily to God.
Day Four came with its awful details. The prophet latched on to the fervency of the moment and announced some trees were abodes of destroyed glories of people in the town, hence there was a need to fell them. He added that if the trees were covens for witches who have been instrumental to the life failures of many of the congregants, then may the axe be upon them. It was a high moment of trance: the breakthrough phrase the crowd was waiting for. He ordered that Day Five was all about praying around those trees. Exterminate them! Reclaim your glory!
The congregation started as a trickle. Then morphed into a huge spectacle of people waiting to avenge what the trees have cost them. The crowd at ZEB that morning. All armed with used tyres, machetes, kerosene and other assassination materials to kill the tree. When the prophet arrived a few hours later, he also had a throng of crowds following him. He went into marathons of prayers then stopped after two hours. He made a call for volunteers that would climb the trees to gore some of its branches and add salt or hack them down while others would dump their tyres at its feet and saturate it with kerosene and petrol. Excited, a number of men popped out of the crowd; wasp-angry, they climbed on and he continued to speak in tongues. “Death to you, baobab! Harvesters of destinies! Clog against the progress of this town!”
He signaled to the men on the trees and they jumped into the day business. Branches started falling! I was waiting for the spirit inside the trees to come. I was waiting for blood to flow through the cuts. Only saps dripped. Women sang songs of victory while the slow violence went on. The prophet, not in his frock, but a white singlet now was also sweating while making prophetic declarations. The hacking continued for many hours. When they had had enough of the macheting, the men descended half-satisfied. They grabbed a number of gallons filled with the kerosene and soaked the tyres. A few minutes later the tree was immolated. One would think that, as rotund as ZEB was, it would outlive the horror as the folk saying in Yorùbá goes, “Ìpa tí a ń pa osè, ara ló fi ń san. (“You can only harm yourself, not the baobab.”)
Yet the tree died a slow, violent death. On the same day, they headed for Ìdí-ẹgbẹ́ and re-enacted the same horror. Two ill-fated deaths in the hands of the Pentecostal fundamentalists. Nobody came to the knowledge among the arsonists that when you kill a tree you also annihilate part of history. When you kill trees such as baobab you disappear centuries old stories and the scar of such violence will never heal. Days after the violence I went to the spot and watched as ZEB still burned. It was harmattan so the tragedy was timely as the wind continued to fan the fire. Going by the revelation that predicted the misfortune of the trees, people were supposed to die in the town that day. The keepers of glory. But nobody died. The prophet left the town, and his followers continued their toils. The heavens never opened. The demons were bound and cast but the miracle never came.
Headlines like this across Nigeria are not hard to find. Bishops declaring their visions on ancient trees with a strong tie to history. Pastors labeling trees with strong cultural and ecological implication as abject. In March 2018, Vanguard reported on a similar trend in Benin City where a pastor cursed a tree and instructed that it be cut down. That raised a question: Does Nigeria have anti-logging policies at all? If it does, how effective are those regulations? Or is it one of the many failures foisted on the country by corruption? Is there a unit at the Nigerian Department of Forestry that caters for forest preservation for endangered tree species in Nigeria? Are forest rangers paid to ignore the number of agbégilódò that trot into the bush daily to collect trees for use in China? The pace of deforestation in Nigeria is certainly enough to institute radical policies against thousands of rickety pick-up buses that go into the bushes daily to collect charcoal which are first transported to Lagos before they are shipped to the West.
If the country is actually committed to the threat unleashed by Pentecostalism against its ecological survival, is there the political will to stop the rampage across the length and breadth of a country where deforestation comes at no cost and pervasive capitalism has taken the front seat? Nigeria continues to ignore the slow danger that Pentecostalism constitutes in the trajectory of environmental degradation. For once, we may acknowledge pundits of Nigeria’s politics that one of the banes of its development is religious fervency. Randomly, prophets continue to visit the hinterland and declare their vision on a site of heritage leading to the onslaught against the multispecies living in the environment.
On May 3rd, 2021, Chikezie Omeje asked us in the New Republic, do you know where your charcoal comes from? If the exploited country ever cared to know, it is high time it instituted stringent policies against encroachment of desert which the deforestation continued to foist on Nigerian society. If the concerned nation ever cared for its biodiversity, religious stakeholders would be convoked and issued warning against their provoked frenzy against environmental destruction. If the country would ever honor the Paris Accord and acknowledge the danger posed to its multi-complex habitat housing multi-species, then logging would be replaced with planting, and we can begin to count gains instead of loss. We must remind the prophets of doom that God created trees so that we may breathe.
Salawu Olajide is a Nigerian writer. He is the author of Preface for Leaving Homeland published under African Poetry Book Fund and edited by Kwame Dawes. He is the managing editor of our Brick House cousin Olongo Africa.