by Ian McCall

Chapter 23 - THE EMOTAN TREE

Some tales persist. One that did so without being committed to historical record to my knowledge was that of the Emotan tree told to me in Benin City when on an inspection from Warri. It told of an Inspector of Works in Benin City who had the tree cut down to assist some technical project and created a furore he could not have foreseen. The Oba, the traditional ruler of Benin, was rumoured to have demanded six European heads in compensation. Emotan was a market woman who dared to stand on the side of truth and justice some centuries ago when it was neither safe nor fashionable to do so. Because of what she did and what she did not do, a usurper king lost his life and his throne while the legitimate king, who had lived in exile in the forest, regained his rightful place in the palace. Some Binis claimed she incorporated the soul of Benin. Associated with her memory was this tree which grew to be revered rather like an important national monument but which in terms of progress held up the accomplishment of scheduled public works. The fait accompli represented by its unheralded felling by the aforesaid inspector of works sparked off riots by the affronted Binis and it was then that the Oba was alleged to have voiced his demands.

That such tales circulate feeds on the history of Benin itself. Half a century earlier Benin was incorporated in a greater Southern Nigeria by force of arms contrary to the more general practice there of negotiating an accord with local chiefs, often it must be said, with standard forms of agreement which many did not understand but felt was a small price to pay for the protection of Queen Victoria. The situation in Benin arose, as an immediate response, from the massacre of the acting Consul General and unarmed officials on an announced visit to the Oba and, with less immediacy, as the result of reports which had percolated through over a period of atrocities committed against slaves and their own people. When troops of the punitive expedition entered the city of Benin in 1897 they found unbelievable horrors. Streams of dried human blood, pits filled with bodies, crucifixions on trees, women slaves gagged and pegged to the ground on their backs, the abdominal wall cut in the form of a cross and the uninjured gut hanging out as they waited to die in the sun. Fresh blood dripped off big bronze heads with huge ivory tusks fixed in them in the middle of the Oba’s compound. The infiltration of Christianity through Portuguese missionaries over a long period of time, then their withdrawal because of the high death rate of priests due to the unrelenting climate, resulted in its adherents falling back into fetishism. The sign of the cross cut on the bodies, the crucifixions and a bronze head of Jesus Christ were all that was left of the symbols of Christianity brought with the best of intentions by the Portuguese priests and the Binis who went to Lisbon for instruction and returned to continue the work of the departed Europeans in the 17th century.

The worship of inanimate things in West Africa and their associated rituals stems, it has been claimed, from the ways the cultures have prevented the creation of mental images outside the confines of everyday things, a state of affairs addressed in the later consideration of Nigerian pidgin. This in turn has resulted, so the argument goes, in people being unable to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects, giving rise to the idea that everything has a soul. A worshipper of an object could obtain from its owner, in return for a fee or reciprocal favour, the services of the spirit lodged within it, whether for benign purposes or otherwise; whether for protection or revenge for a perceived wrong. The word fetish comes from the Portuguese name given to the West African gods and has a similarity to their own relics of saints; it normally means ‘magic’. Interestingly, the French referred to it as juju from the French word for toy and the same word is also used in English, putting emphasis on the object rather than its supernatural or spiritual qualities and perhaps demonstrating that the Portuguese were closer to understanding the African mind than the French and British traders who were much later visitors to these shores. Human eyeballs, particularly of white men, were apparently in demand as a charm. It was with good reason Benin was called ‘the City of Blood’. It was not difficult to find Nigerians who believed that terrible things still happened in Benin, a view reinforced by the known fact that the then current Oba’s father had twice been accused of sacrificing a wife but was acquitted on each occasion. I was surprised to realise that some of the older Binis I saw could have been party or witness to some of these happenings. When I asked an assistant produce officer during a conversation what his father had done, he replied that he had been a warrior.

This picture of Benin contrasts vividly with the image formed on arrival at Benin by the traveller in the mid-1950s. A walk around the city would elicit smiles of acknowledgement and welcome - with the exception of some of the politically aware and active, a far cry from the welcome one would have received half a century earlier. It was no longer isolated. It had an airport with connections to other parts of Nigeria. On departure you were informed that, when three bells were rung, your aircraft had been sighted. Six bells were the signal for passengers to go forward for embarkation on the aircraft. On flights out of Benin it was possible to get an overall picture of the extent of the tree cover in the region, the dark green carpet below formed by the trees relieved only by the occasional glimpse of red laterite roads that looked pencil thin against the vast area of forest. The flight to Port Harcourt showed just how much the forest was intersected by waterways and why the river-borne means of transport were the preferred mode of travel in the early days and the only viable one in the delta in many cases to this day.

There was a catering rest house in the town where officers on tour and members of the travelling public could put up. These were nominally under the control of the local administrative officer. There you would meet others like Forest Officers and Agricultural Officers and company managers overseeing their domains. Here it was possible to exchange information about local conditions and connections. It was quite a surprise to meet two men from Lagos who introduced themselves as ladies’ hairdressers, but I was impressed by their enterprise and energy. When I later transferred back to Lagos I came across them again in their secondary capacity of Messrs Strutt and Williams, makers of fine lampshades of unique design.

Benin was a striking-off point for a visit to Siluko which I decided to inspect during a break in the rains. It had not been visited by the man I took over from and perhaps I was about to find out the reason. To get to Siluko from Benin you had to cross a trestle bridge built over a shallow gorge laid with two strips of planks only at a width between them that would accommodate the wheels of lorries which, to avoid an exceptionally long detour, had to pass that way when evacuating produce. It was almost too wide for the wheels of my car and my Assistant Produce Officer, Oye Sode, agreed to guide me across. I was worried in case he fell over as he walked backwards indicating to me whether I should move the wheel a fraction this way or that. He was worried lest I should go over with the car. I suspect we lost a few pounds between us. When we got to Siluko we knew we had to come back across the trestle but somehow having done it once it was not such a problem.

Walking along the main street of Siluko, I observed the chalk board of the local alternative medicine specialist offering traditional treatment for moon madness and unpowerful penis pre-empting by some forty five years the putting of the drug’Viagra’ on the market and the openness of discussion on the subject of male impotence. As ever, the local expression is so much more descriptive and real. ‘Erectile dysfunction’ as the qualified practitioners call it, seems dry and impersonal by comparison. Its conceptualisation eliminates all feeling for what must be a distressing human condition. I write later about the Nigerian use of expressive and non-conceptual language and this is yet another example.

Before I ever found out about many of the things I have described above, I felt much more uncomfortable in Benin than any other station I have known and at work had more trouble there than elsewhere. Was there a malign spirit at work? Did that same spirit make the Ighuoriaki ferry move forward as I was driving on? Even at the club, after what had been an enjoyable evening, I was pushing my car backwards on to a slope to start it (somehow my battery was always flat) and tried to close the door before engaging gear when it caught on a pillar and forced the door right back leaving a seriously crumpled wing so differentiating my car from all others. Not that I believed any of that juju stuff, I kept on telling myself.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003