Africanized Christianity and Enchanted Places of Kenya and Uganda

This Christmas, I can’t stop thinking about how Christianity in Africa is gradually morphing into a hybrid religion spiced with local traditions, just as it did in pagan Europe. One strong indicator of its future is visible in Legio Maria. I first heard of them in my childhood, after a neighbor’s child fell off a tree and died (apparently). A group of Legio Maria prayed for him and he resurrected. A few years later, we planted a moringa tree in our home. They have something against that tree, so one day they showed up at our fence and said prayers to curse the tree, and the tree grew so big that it threatened the house and we had to cut it down. In spite of these strange happening, I never bothered to find out about them until I visited Western Kenya in March of this year.
 

I only wanted to see rocks. People think Stonehenge is a human structure, but are quick to dismiss the beautiful formations in many parts of East Africa as works of nature. I think these rocks have something about them worth looking into, and so I went to the famous ones in Kisumu, not like an archeologist, but to get a sense local views about them.

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The Crying Stone, Ikhongo Murwi.

After finishing some business in Nairobi, I took a bus to Kakamega and then a boda boda to the Crying Rock, a pillar-like structure about forty meters high with a smaller rock sitting at its top. It is so named because water runs down its sides, leaving a tear-like stain, from a mysterious source at the peak. The boda guy said it was far outside town, but it was only a short ride, and it would have been quicker if the road was good and if he knew exactly where we were going. He did not, in spite of the rock’s alleged fame, because, he said, he did not see its use. In the past it was visible from the road, but the family that owns the land planted trees around it, and now the only way to see it is to go right up to it. Not a difficult journey, though the road petered out and I had to climb the hill on foot. Good for exercise. I met an old woman who insisted I pay for seeing the rock. I gave her 200 bob. She showed me a cave at the foot of the rock, which she claimed Legio Maria use for worship, but I saw no evidence of this, no candles, no pictures of holy people. Then she told me the secret of the Crying Rock. “I’ll tell you because you are not a mzungu,” she said. “We tell wazungu something different.” It’s hollow at the top. When it rains, water collects, and overflows. Since I came during the dry season, there was no overflow. That was the end of the visit. I felt cheated. I asked her about the significance of the rock to the local community, for I read somewhere that they held rituals there, to end droughts, to cleanse those who commit incest, and such, but she said the only people who bother to go to the rock are tourists, and Legio Maria (of which I saw no evidence). If you want my advice, don’t go there. It’s a waste of time. A place whose essence is consumed in less than ten minutes is not worth visiting.

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I jumped on a bus, and sped off to Kisumu, to explore Kit Mikayi. I arrived at about one o’clock and had lunch at Kit Mikayi Hotel, where a girl with a charming smile served me dry fish, sukuma wiki, and ugali. It was great to feast on a local delicacy. Her name was Qintar. Not sure how she spells it. I asked her about Kit Mikayi. “I went there once,” she said. “I prayed and fasted for three days for a good husband.” She is still waiting, but is hopeful that soon he will come along.
Qintar, in Obama t-shirt, at her hotel, Kit Mikayi, Kisumu.

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I must note here the importance of folk history attributing the rock formation to human activity. Why this set? Why not all the others around? Does it allude that an earlier civilization or probably humanoid species constructed it? Sadly, colonialism and Westernization has taught us to treat this lore as hogwash not worth of archeological investigation (I sometimes relate such legends to Krishna’s submerged city of Dvārakā).

If you visit Kit Mikayi, walk around the village. It’s worth it. John was kind enough to host me at his home for a few hours. It’s a very beautiful place. You’ll enjoy the scenery, and the rocks.

An old man I met, John Obuyo Ngeso, who lives near the site, and serves as a tour guide, told me it became a shrine a long time back during a severe drought. The leaders consulted a shaman, who said the rock had ‘tied up’ rain. To perform rituals to end the draught, they smashed a hen’s head against the rock, then slaughtered a goat. They grilled and ate these without ugali, then threw the goat entrails mixed in chicken blood into a crag in the rock, where the shaman said certain prayers. Within a day, rain fell. Apparently, every other place got rain, but not this rock. He added that in times of drought, the rock ‘cries’ and water flows down to save the land. I wondered how to relate this tale to others about the origins of the rock. He could not explain.

One ritual closely related to origins goes like this; when a young man marries a woman who is not from the area, they have to perform certain rituals inside this rock, to not only make the woman part of the community, but to ensure she never leaves. That is why there is hardly any divorce in the area, Obuyo said. He took me to the cave where they take the girl, and he demonstrated the ritual; it involved the woman making ululation sounds, or maybe screams. He was an animated storyteller.

Two Legio Maria faithfuls rest under a rock after a long pilgrimage to Kit Mikayi. They were part of a larger group.

Oddly, these rituals take place in a cave that has Christian artefacts – pictures of a European Jesus alongside that of a Black Jesus. That is the magic of Kit Mikayi. All kinds of religious sects consider it a very holy site. During my visit, I saw two: A group of Legio Maria rested under a shade after a trekking over ten miles in a sort of pilgrimage. Behind a rock, a group of Roho Mawa (sic) Christians sang, prayed, and meditated. I asked the Legio Maria why they worshipped at a place associated with ancestral spirits. “God is Everywhere,” they replied.

Inside the cave, where Legio Maria pray. Notice the candles, the potraits of a white Jesus, a black Jesus, and a black Virgin Mary. Locals worship ancestral spirits and perform cultural rituals in this same spot.
Legio Maria faithfuls in a procession, holding portraits of their founders, Mama Maria (right portrait), black Mary and spiritual mother of Ondetto (left portrait) the black Jesus.
The next day, when I went to Luanda’ Magere’s grave, I was not surprised to find a photo of Melkio Ondetto, the black Jesus who founded the sect. According to lore, Luanda Magere was made of stone. He never lost in battle, until his enemies sent a Delilah to figure out his powers, then they killed him. He turned into a rock on the spot upon which he fell. His rock, for all his legend, is a tiny lump half-buried in the ground. In the past, the place was bare, but a man (they didn’t tell me who) got a dream in which Luanda complained about being out in the rain and sun, so this man built a house over the rock. There’s a second house in the compound, for Luanda’s mother, because Luo sons build their homes to the right of their parents. Locals worship in the shrine, seeking blessings and, in the past, warriors would sharpen their spears and knives on his rock for good fortune. It is not uncommon to see both Legio Maria and ancestral spirit worshippers in the same room, kneeling in front of the same rock, praying to the same god.
 

One of the Legio Maria followers, also a caretaker at Luanda Magere’s grave, told me they believe Luanda Magere reincarnated as Dedan Kimathi, that Luanda Magere’s spirit keeps possessing different people. I wonder if they’ll make Dedan Kimathi a saint, or if he is already one of their saints.

After Luanda Magere’s site, I proceeded to Angoro Bethlehem (they have so renamed several villages in Western Kenyan that are significant to their faith), the village where Legio Maria’s founder, and the black Jesus, Melkio Ondetto, was born and raised. The brother of Melkio Ondetto, and the second Pope of the sect, had passed away and was due to be buried the next day. I sadly could not stay to witness it, for I had work back home. It was a fascinating place, with and the Legio Maria are warm and welcoming, humble and unassuming, their Cardinals are not pompous. I intend to visit Angoro Bethlehem another time, maybe when there is nothing going on there like a huge funeral.

Luanda Magere’s shrine. The rock is in the shelter on the right. The portrait of Melkio Ondetto, founder of Legio Maria, hangs at the entrance to the shelter above the grave.
Christian grafitti at Ssezibwa falls.

I am sure all over the continent, there are other such sites, places where both Christians and traditional African spiritualists worship, just like places in the Middle East that is holy both to Muslims and Christians. I wish I could live into the future to see if Christianity and ancestral spirit worship morph into one, and if these sites will become some kind of temples.

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Why I’ll Focus on Making Films for Online Distribution

My New Year resolution is to make a short film every month. I started very early, with this scifi/horror, What Happened to Jilted Lovers, and I hope to carry the momentum into the new year. I had this same ambition way back in 2008, the year I quit a salaried job to focus on writing and filmmaking. Back then, I didn’t achieve it because I had no equipment, filmmaking was way too expensive, and there was no market. Today, I have no excuse. Only motivation. And each film I make will be strictly for direct-to-consumer distribution online.

Me, somewhere in Nothern Uganda,
making a documentary.
 I’m not giving up on festivals, or on being discovered by the big players, I’m just not going to throw my energy and resources into that direction anymore. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s just that the films I make can’t get their attention. Or maybe there is a systematic bottleneck that ignores independent films produced in sub-Saharan Africa? Many indie films from Europe, America, or Asia, produced entirely in the country of origin, go on to make it big on the world stage, but I’m yet to see one produced entirely in sub-Saharan Africa, without a grant from the likes of World Cinema Fund, and without a co-producer from Europe or America attached, making it (and by making it I don’t mean a token selection in one or two or a few of the major festivals). This makes me wonder; Is it a reflection of the broader picture framed in neo-colonialism and imperialism? Is it a symptom of how the system perpetuates Africa’s dependence on the West?
Kansiime Anne in my film, What Happened in Room 13
In 2007, I made my first professional short film, What Happened in Room 13. Some people, who have had successful careers in Hollywood, saw it, and called it a masterpiece. With their connections, I submitted it to many festivals, without success. They put it in the hands of programmers, made sure the programmers saw it, but none of the festivals took it on. Only a few little ones bothered to show it. 

 Watch my new short film, What Happened to Jilted Lovers, on YouTube

I tried again, with my first feature film, The Felistas Fable, but I didn’t push that too much, for I had made a few mistakes in it, and I knew early on that it would not make it big internationally. So when I got making my second film, I played my cards right. I had made contacts with programmers at major festivals, and as they advised, I shared with them the script before going into production. Three of them read it, and gave me feedback. ‘Yes! If you shoot this film, it could be in our festival!’ they all said words to that effect. So I threw all my energy into production, using money I had made from working on Disney’s Queen of Katwe. Once I had a rough cut, I again contacted the programmers, and all three said; ‘Very exciting stuff! Send us the final cut by this date and we’ll consider it for the next edition of our festival.’ And again, I threw all my heart into the final cut, running very broke in the process. They were all kind enough to give me promo codes so I wouldn’t have to pay a fortune in entry fees. I was very excited. I knew one of them would say yes. My big moment had come. Alas. One by one, they said, ‘We liked it very much. Your film was shortlisted, your film was there right up to the last selection round, but unfortunately we got a high number of very high quality submissions blah blah blah…’
Shooting a film, with high-end equipment.
That was my wake up call. After the third rejection, I sat on my bed and thought hard about my career. It’s not that I’m a bad filmmaker. It’s not that these programmers lied to me. They surely loved my film and they surely thought it was the kind the big festivals would fall in love with. But so were a hundred other films. Sadly, festivals have only a very limited slot. They can’t accept all films they like. It had happened with Room 13. It was happening again. I felt suffocated. I felt like a bird without wings. What could I do? Keep waiting for a major breakthrough in the traditional platforms, or respond to the fact that my short film has attracted over six million views on YouTube?
Me, making a documentary in Nepal. This was during teej.
This film is What Happened in Room 13, the same film the festivals rejected. People love it. People are watching it and sharing it and commenting on it. Over six million views! And above that, I get paid for Google runs ads on the film. Some months it’s as little as US $100. Other months it’s as much as US $600. Festivals wouldn’t pay me anything to show it!

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The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to put energy into making films for YouTube, and other online platforms. If I have several that people are enjoying, and sharing, then my revenue might go well into thousands of dollars a month. 
Filming the wonderful poet, Linda Nabasa, Nada
I have several ideas running through my head. The first, and the easiest to get off, is #HorrorRomance, a series of loosely interconnected films, told very much like What Happened in Room 13, dark, thrilling, no dialog, and with romance that goes horribly wrong. There’s a group of bad guys, The Clique of Jilted Hearts, who vow to avenge broken hearts, and who I hope will someday be as famous as SPECTRE. What Happened to Jilted Lovers, which you can see on youtube, sets the pace. Then I plan to produce Safari Nyota, a multimedia project featuring prose, a graphic novel, interactive fiction, and a film series. Safari Nyota is Kiswahili for ‘journey to the stars’, and it is about a pioneer space trip that goes horribly wrong. Being a little too expensive, that might wait a while. What I will produce alongside HorrorRomance is Fashion Fixer, a comedy series about a girl who fixes people’s relationships by advising couples on what to wear. 

This is very ambitious Dilman, how will you manage? You might ask. That’s why I need your support. It’s simple. Subscribe to youtube.com/dilstories Watch my films. Share my films. Tell all your friends about them. And, you can support me on patreon. Patreon is a little bit like Kickstarter and indiegogo, but the contributions are not one-off. Instead, you get to contribute every time I make a film, and there are a lot of rewards for each contribution you make. For as little as $1 a film, you get stories, photographs, digital art, wallpapers, tutorials and behind-the-scenes, and many, many other cool perks. Head over to patreon.com/dilstories and give me wings to fly.
Producing a TV series.
Filming a documentary in Biratnagar, Nepal

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After the Storm?

Travel Blues

Sometimes, when travelling, you pray for something to go slightly wrong, not to derail your holiday or make it a horror, but just wrong enough to provide excitement and thrill on a very long and boring trip. For me, I’ve encountered all kinds of wrong. There were times when the journey was more exciting than the destination, and times when the journey was such a pain that I wished they could invent teleportation machines.

The call of the road. Here I was in Saptari district, eastern Nepal
The beauty of documentary film making is you travel. In Surkhet, western Nepal, filming in the mountains.
In March of this year, I traveled to Nairobi for business, and to check out the enchanted places of Western Kenya. I picked Mash Poa because I thought it was the coolest bus, fully air-conditioned, with enough leg room for a tall person like me to enjoy fourteen hours on the road. I was wrong. I’ll never take that effing bus again. Never.
 
At the border, I delayed in a long queue at immigration and the bus drove off without me. Just like that. I was shocked and angry. Why would they drive off without me? In April 2015, I was in CDG Airport, Paris, stuck in a very long queue, until officials of Turkish Air came looking for their passengers. They talked to migration officers to let us jump the queue, and we took off, a little late, but no one was left behind. I’ve seen it happen a lot in airports. I expected Mash Poa to do the same since they charged a lot more than ordinary buses, especially since it was two am. They did not. They just took off and left me stranded in the middle of the road in the middle of the night. 

Recommended short film. What Happened in Room 13.  6m views on Youtube! 

They left with my phone and my luggage. I had to awake a Mash Poa official in Busia, who then made several phone calls to the driver, who told me to find my luggage in Nairobi. So I jumped on the next available bus and did not get to Nairobi until midday. Guess what, the Mash Poa bus had not yet arrived! They had a mechanical fault. I sat idle all day waiting for it, for my phone and all my luggage was in it. Mash Poa is certainly not cool!
 
Queuing at Charles de Gualle airport, Paris
That time at Charles de Gualle Airport, I spent over two hours going through racist security (see below) and then passport control. It officially made CDG the worst airport I’ve ever visited, worse than Murtala Muhammed in Lagos, and certainly worse than Moroto airstrip. I thought the long queues were a freak occurrence, but on the way out, I suffered three long queues, one to get a boarding pass (I guess that was a Turkish Air problem) then to get through Passport Control. Half of the booths were empty. Was it understaffed? Unluckily, after over thirty minutes of queuing, when I nearly reached the booth the security guy took a break. He just got up and left. No one replaced him. We had to suffer a longer time at the queue. No wonder the Turkish Air flight was stuck for almost an hour on the runway, not for any technical problem but because the lines at passport control and security were ridiculously long. 
 
In March 2015, I had to go to South Africa. Being caught up in making a TV series, I asked a travel agent to book my ticket and arrange my travel. They sent me the ticket. The flight was to take off from Entebbe at 7 am, so I was at the airport by 4 am. Yet I could not board. The agent had booked the ticket, but not paid for it, yet I had given him the money. I made frantic calls, but he was asleep and his phone was off. I didn’t have enough cash to pay for the ticket, so well, I had to go back home looking like a fool.
The beauty of the airport in Addis Ababa
A few months later, I was travelling to Cannes Film Festival on a government sponsored trip. They arranged my flight, booked me on British Airways without telling me that I needed a transit visa to go through London. I stupidly did not double check this, but I was held up on a job, shooting the making of Queen of Katwe. I dashed from the set, dumped my equipment at home, and went straight to the airport, only for BA to tell me I can’t board without a transit visa. I raised hell, but they wouldn’t hear me. Eventually, I paid with cash for a Turkish Airways ticket, otherwise my program at Cannes, with all the meetings I’d set up, would be screwed. The government people assured me my money would be refunded, since BA issues a refund if the ticket is not checked in, but to date I’ve not seen the refund.
 
This is me, aboard Ethiopian.
From Cannes I flew to Johannesburg to continue filming behind the scenes of Queen of Katwe. At OR Tambo immigration wouldn’t let me in because I didn’t have a return ticket. They threatened to deport me to Turkey. “I’m not Turkish!” I protested. “You can’t deport me to Turkey!” The guy simply shrugged and said “You arrived from Istanbul, that’s where we’ll send you back.” They took me to a cell awaiting deportation, unless I produced a return ticket. I made frantic calls to the QoK team and they issued a return ticket to Kampala. Then there was another problem. It was electronic. I didn’t have internet access. “What a stupid excuse,” an immigration officer told me. “You are going to be deported.” At a loss of what to do, I asked if I could use their computers to access my mails. After a lot of pleading, one of them said “Kitu kidogo” and then a phrase in Kiswahili that I did not understand. I was surprised that he knew kitu kidogo. How did he know Kiswahili? I paid fifty dollars for three minutes at the most expensive internet café I’ve ever used.
I loved the road in Nepal. There was always fun and pain.
Here I was in Dhangadi town, far west Nepal.
 
A roadside market in Kapilbastu, western Nepal.
I loved the road trips!
 
My worst travel nightmare was in Paris, at Charles de Gualle, where I suffered outright racism. A few other people have told me they had similar experiences at that airport. I went there early in April 2015, to present a paper at a workshop,  Manufacture/Domestication of the Living in Science Fiction, at Le Cube.I’d just been on a long flight, after staying up all night because take off was at 4 am. All I wanted was a bed, but this security woman took a long look at my passport and then said, “This passport is very old.”
 
I gave her my best smile. “Yes,” I replied. “I got it in 2008. I use it a lot. It has to be old.”
 
“Stand aside,” she said. “For verification.” And she shoved the passport into her pockets.
 
Verification? Because my passport is old?
 
I was too shocked and too tired to ask, but maybe something on my face betrayed what I was thinking, for she suddenly stood on her toes (being short, she wanted to be on eye level with me, as if the gun on her waist wasn’t intimidating enough) and her eyes glowed with a wild fire.
Train travel in Europe is said to be less stressful.
 
“You disobeying me?” She shouted.
 
That’s when I noticed something strange. A group of Africans (or people of African descent) where huddled in a corner beside the door, their faces haggard and creased with frustration. One man, three women. There were three security people, one woman, two men, and they let Europeans pass without so much as a second glance at their passports. Now the other two security men saw my hesitation, and maybe they thought they had a situation in their hand that could get ugly, for they all turned to me, and one said, while placing a hand on his gun, “Wait over there, sir.” In that funny French accent.
 
I went to the corner beside the door. I kicked the wall to vent my anger. Unfortunately for me, the wall was of steel, so the loud bang that followed – I panicked. A loud bang in a place with tense soldiers is a very bad thing. I held the wall to stop it from making noise, but of course this was no sci-fi and I had no superpower, I couldn’t take back the noise. It was sharp and it must have drilled holes into the ears of the security guys. I at once put my hands up, in surrender, even though they had not asked me to, for I knew they would pull out their guns. The hall froze. Everyone stared at me. The security woman walked up to me, and again stood on her toes to look straight into my eyes, “You want trouble?” she said. “You want to make trouble?”
 
“No,” I said, surprised at how calm my voice was, though inside my heart was on fire. For nearly a minute she kept asking if I wanted to make trouble and I kept saying no, all the time praying that my nerves hold and I don’t start trembling, or worse that I don’t pee my pants.

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Eventually, the other two men spoke to her in French, they exchanged a few words, and went back to their work. They checked the passports of all those who had just stepped out of planes, and let white Europeans go, and detained a few more Africans. They harassed one Arab-looking woman, who had a hijab. They wanted to see her ears and her hair. She had a French passport. She spoke to them in French, she was smiling all the time, while they glowered and seemed to be barking. The big smile never left her face. Eventually they told her to stand aside too. After nearly forty minutes, when there were no more white people passing by, the security woman went with the smiling Arab woman somewhere, and they returned shortly afterwards. They let her go. I think the Arab woman had insisted on removing her hijab in a private room.
 
Now, they surely had to ‘verify’ our passports, and finally let us go. By this time my legs were on fire, my blood was boiling in anger and in frustration, and I knew what these security people were doing was highly wrong. I ached to take their picture. Why did they single out only African (and three Arab-looking) people? What was going on?
 
To make it worse, I thought they would take our passports to some machines for verification, which is what machines are for, but the three hurdled in a corner, and leafed through our passports, and they talked to themselves, they even giggled, then called us one at a time. I got the courage to take out my phone, and take a picture of what was happening, I wanted to complain to someone.
 
Unfortunately for me, the security woman stepped quickly to me. I was too busy with the phone to notice her until I held up the phone camera and she filled the screen. I nearly pressed the shutter button, but instead went for cancel. Lucky for me, I hadn’t pulled out my DSLR as I’d at first intended to.
 
“Are you taking my picture?” she started her show again, barking, standing on her toes, trying to look intimidating, but by this time I wasn’t scared of her. I knew I was on the right and whatever she was doing was wrong, so I said “No, I didn’t take your picture” at the same time thanking God for giving me a stupid Alcatel phone which is too slow. I cut her shot. I gave her the phone. “Check and see if your picture is there.”
 
Passengers wait for their flights at Ataturk Airport, Istanbul
Now she must have realized her show was for nothing. She couldn’t continue shouting. She took my phone, but the idiot didn’t even know how to check for photos, so she handed it back without a word, and then I wished I had taken that pic.
 
She asked for my hotel reservation, and return ticket, then she said, “Go.”
 
Always ask for the window seat, and you will enjoy these sites!
My anger came to the surface. “You made us wait all this time just so you ask for a hotel reservation and a return ticket?”
 
But the only word she said was “Go,” without the bravado she had exhibited earlier.
 
Had they held us behind because they did not want to waste the time of white Europeans, or was this harassment, pure and simple?
 
She was already walking away from me, and I felt helpless and furious and I wanted to kick her butt. Instead, my legs reminded me of how tired I was, so I hurled at her a few words in Kiswahili, involving her pussy and bhangi. She stopped and turned back to me, but maybe thought that whatever abuse I’d hurled at her didn’t matter since she didn’t understand it. If she had, she would have pulled out that gun and shot me.
 
“Terrorism,” a Parisian told me when I later narrated to him the ordeal. “After that Charlie Hebdo incident, the security forces are jittery. They don’t want to be caught napping again, but instead of looking for the real terrorists they are harassing innocent people who they think are weaker than they are. It’s just like the boys at school who tease younger ones yet are themselves teased by older bullies. But it doesn’t make sense to target out Africans and Arabs because Paris has a large population of those, and there are people who’ve been here for generations. It doesn’t make sense at all.”
 
That’s how the terrorists win. They sow doubt and suspicion and xenophobia and racism and they make the world a worse place, not by what they do but by how we react to what they do.
 
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Off the Beaten Path Attractions in Nigeria

I’ve been to a few caves before, some that human ancestors inhabited two million years ago, but the caves in Olumo rock blew me away. Historically, it’s similar to Lamogi Hills in Gulu, which locals used as a base to fight British colonialists, and the locals were only defeated after the British poisoned their drinking water. In Olumo rock, locals found a refuge against enemy attacks, but they went a step further and built mud walls to create rooms within the caves, thus turning the caves into homes. To this day, caretaker families live in these caves, and some chambers are still used for ritual worship, which makes it much more than just a tourist site, the kind of place I like to visit. 

One of the caretakers, and spiritual priestess, who lives in Olumo rock
I saw spots marked with red and white flags, where sacrifice is made. The flags got me thinking, for they reminded me of the Hindu and Budhist temples in Nepal, which also had red and white flags in places of worship. When I visited the Legio Maria sect in Kenya, I saw similar prayer flags, and it got me thinking, what is the significance of these flags? It is something I have to look into.
 
After visiting Olumo rock, I knew I was in for a real treat in Nigeria, for my mission was to see real historic monuments, structures that predated colonialism, but not those that are in every tour guide. Olumo rock was the most famous of the places I visited.
 

Fascinating Mud houses built in the caves.
My next stop was in Irefin palace. If you have not read my previous post, please do before visiting this place, for it is a live site. People live in there, and they are not caretakers like those in Olumo, but the families that have occupied the building for dozens of years. They are a bit squeamish about visitors popping out of nowhere to take photos and tour the place. They would not let me in, because I had not pre-booked, because no one had told the caretaker chief that I was coming, and because I carried a black backpack and because I looked like a Hausa from Nothern Nigeria, hence I was mistaken for a Boko Haram agent. The strange thing is that no website ever mentioned anything about booking in advance. I learnt the heard way. The best place to start is the National Council of Museums and Monuments.

A woman prepares a meal in Irefin palace, Ibadan, Nigeria
What fascinated me about Irefin was the architecture. It’s mostly of wood, a storeyed structure, about two hundred years old, but I could see European influence in it, or more accurately, it is similar to the buildings freed folk set up once they returned from America. I’ve seen similar buildings in photos of Freetown. It was not quiet what I was looking for. Still, I found the area around the palace to be of greater interest, for there are dozens of buildings with fascinating architecture, and I could have spent the whole day just taking pictures of them, or trying to discover more about them. Sadly, security people mistook me for a terrorist rece-ing the place, and I had to cut short my visit. You can read about that here.

Scenic. Idanre town in Nigeria. Totally worth a visit.

Idanre turned out to be the most interesting place I have visited in a long time. It’s not as old as Akure, but certainly older than Irefin, and the people who first settled there chose a plateau on top of a rock, accessible only by one path. This was for security reasons, as it is virtually impossible to attack the place up there.

The best part about it is getting there. I went up over six hundred steps curved into the stone steep, and when I got there I thought I would find the ancient palace right away, but no, we had to trek through a mini-forest, which might have been a jungle in ancient times, past a grassland, past huge boulders that stood on our way. I got the feeling that I was a real explorer, going through the wilderness in search of lost cities and pre-historic palaces. This hard to access location gives Idanre an exciting and adventurous character, for modern day civilization is yet to encroach upon the plateau. You can see signs of it, on the graffiti  people scratch on the walls, but when you are up there you get a feeling that you have walked right into the past in some kind of time machine. You don’t hear urban noise, or see anything ‘modern looking’; you catch a real glimpse of what life might have been like over a hundred years ago.
 

The village is still settled. Until the late 1970s, the village was still very much alive, but now only a handful of people stay up there to farm it. They however fully use the palace for some rituals and sacrifices.  A lot of the old buildings have been preserved from the way they were a hundred or more years ago. There’s the court house, the prison, the royal burial ground, a rich man’s homestead – marked by the number of animal skulls that hung from the eaves of his houses. Not just the number but the type of skulls, the animals he ate. Just as animal skin was a symbol of wealth or power, (for example only a warrior who has killed a leopard would wear leopard skin, in some communities), the types of animal skulls on the eaves showed what kind of meat the household ate, and how much.

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Skulls of wild game hung from the eaves of a rich man’s house.
A skull in a pile that forms the ‘bone calendar’ in Idanre palace.

Skulls served another purpose, as some kind of bone calendar. One of the falsities pumped into our brains in the colonial-influenced schools we attend is that Africans did not record the passage of time. I have a whole argument against this, but seeing the bone calendar in the palace of Idanre opened my eyes. Skulls were piled in one corner of the courtyard. According to the guide, at the end of every year the king held a feast/ritual, a bull (or some such animal) was slaughtered, and its skull kept in that corner. At the end of his rule, the number of skulls in the corner would indicate how long he ruled. In the much older palace at Akure, there were skulls in several rooms, each room belonging to a king/oba and recorded how long that particular king ruled.

Trekking through the ancient village raised my appetite to see the palace, but when I eventually saw the palace, I got a feeling of ‘Is this it?’ After the long hike up the steeps, after plodding through forests and jumping over streams and crossing boulder-filled bushes and feeling like a true explorer, I expected something grand, something to match the hype of a village that has stood for hundreds of years. But it’s a mud house, after all, and I shouldn’t have expected anything grandiose. I should have only looked forward to the experience of being there, of seeing it, of touching it. As they say, it’s not the end of the journey that matters, but the journey itself. It was a worthwhile experience, and I would recommend a visit.

Weird rules in Idanre, a house just outside palace. – Nobody should wear clothes inside this house. – Shaking of hands is forbidden here – Carrying of loads on head without holding it is forbidden
The next day when I set off for another ancient palace in Akure, I did not expect to see grand structures, but rather to experience an architecture that has survived for nearly a thousand years. The palace was first built in the 1100s AD, and it has stood for all these years. Again, like in Irefin, I had trouble getting in, because the gatekeepers said I did not have a ‘document’ allowing me to visit the palace. They did not know where I could have gotten this document, or what it looked like, but they thought I needed a letter introducing me to them, and my purposes there. I almost failed to see it, until I went to the neighboring building, a museum, where I found staff of the National Council of Museums and Monuments. The staff were appalled that the security people had failed to see me as a genuine visitor, and they smuggled me into the palace for a secret tour.
 
It is still an active site, with some of the courtyards inhabited by the widows of the late kings, and maybe that is why they are cautious about letting people walk in unannounced, but they should have stated that in their websites.
 
For a moment, as I toured the palace, I kept asking myself, what is all the bother about? Do I really want to see a collection of mud walls and dark rooms so bad that I have a shouting match with ‘security’ people for nearly thirty minutes? When we started to go through the palace, I knew why it was worth the bother. The palace is like a maze of sorts. It has over twenty courtyards, with some courtyards being inside courtyards, we had to keep consulting a map otherwise we could have gotten lost. 
 
One fascinating courtyard is the stuff of legends. It is said that even if a thousand people peed in this courtyard, it would not smell. Christian Odutola, an architect who acted as my guide, had no explanation for this phenomenon. He thought they used a type of soil, or maybe a chemical that absorbs the urine and smell, to make the courtyard.
 
He however was full of praise for the drainage system in the palace. In its thousand years of existence, it has never experienced flooding, compare that to the incessant floods in many African cities today which are a result of poor planning. Of course, the palace is so small a place it can’t be compared to a city, but still, it has over twenty courtyards, with courtyards being inside courtyards, and thus the designers needed a drainage system that would ensure the inside courtyards never flooded.
 
Also, they built it in such a way that there is enough sunlight in every courtyard, or enough sunlight to see by. It reminded me of the German Bundestag in Berlin, which was also built with care taken to minimize artificial lighting. When you take these little details into account, you realize that Akure palace is a work of sheer genius.

Clever architecture allows natural light into every courtyard, Akure palace.
An aerial view of Akure old palace
Unfortunately, it’s crumbling, and the current governments are not doing enough to preserve it. I think after they built the new palace, they forgot this. Some parts of the walls that have fallen away, and they have replaced it with concrete, which I think is not a good idea. Christian Odutola also thinks it is a very good idea. He is working with the NCMM to preserve the palace as it has been in the last a thousand years, and if the structure has withstood the test of time, there is little point in trying out new materials that might be tricky maintaining in the long run. Besides, using cement waters down the historic value of the walls that have stood the test of time.
 
 
The problem is they do not have enough funds to maintain the place as it has always been, and are lobbying UNESCO declare it a world heritage site (along with the palace in Idanre), then maybe it will attract enough attention and funding to keep it running, and to maintain this ancient genius artwork.

 

The wife of a former chief takes shelter from the midday heat
in one of the courtyards, Akure palace

 

Exploring the ancient, abandoned village in Idanre

 

A woman prepares a meal in Irefin palace.

 
Preparing to face the six hundred steps to the ancient village of Idanre.
In the past, there was no steps, just a path up the steep cliffside

 

Life inside Irefin palace, Ibadan.
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The Fun of Backpacking in Nigeria Pt 2: Mistaken for a Terrorist

It’s not what lies at the end of the road that makes travel irresistible, but the road itself. When I returned to Nigeria last November, I needed an excuse to trek around the country, a reason to get from point A to point B, and in between I expected to see things, to encounter interesting characters, and maybe to get an insight into the Nigerian way of life. I told you about some of this in the last post, and I promised to tell you about my escapades with security men.
The road is more fun than the destination.
Only in Nigeria will you see people hawking raw meat!
The excuse I gave myself was that I wanted to see old palaces, not the grand tourist attractions, but the little ones that you hardly hear about. So I spent a lot of time searching online, and I came up with a few targets, some of which were mentioned in less than five websites. I have a thing for old buildings, I think I am an architectural tourist, whatever that means, so when I heard of mud structures that were a thousand years old, my appetite soared. Because of time, I could not travel more than five hours from Lagos. The itinerary I came up with would take me from Abeokuta to Ibadan, to Idanre, to Akure, then to Lagos. Of these sites Idanre is the most popular, and it features prominently in many tourist sites, so I nearly struck it off my list, but they said it was up on a plateau that had stayed unchanged since the early 1900s so it promised to be an adventure.
Irefin Palace, Ibadan, Nigeria. Families still live in it.
A market thrives outside Irefin Palace, Ibadan, Nigeria

The first I went to was Irefin Palace in Ibadan, and only after I got there did I realize why it’s not a popular attraction. I thought it would be a prominent landmark in the city, but nobody knew where it was, or even what it was. I had to use Google maps to direct the okadaman. When he saw the building, he asked; “Is this the place you are coming to visit?” I said, “Yes,” and he said, “What do you want to see in this place?”
 
I did not have an answer, and for a moment I thought Google maps had deceived me and led me to a market with women selling vegetables under a veranda. But the building was made of wood and mud, and the houses in the neighborhood had the feel of history, so I thought I’d look around. I asked the vegetable women just to confirm that I was in the right place, and they said “Yes, it is a palace.” I walked in. I expected a booth where I’d pay an entry fee, as is the norm in touristy places, but there was only a couple of men idling at the entrance. I asked them if I could take a look. “First see the chief,” one said, and pointed at a veranda. When I heard ‘chief,’ I thought of Nollywood, fancy agbada and fancy regalia, but I met a simply dressed man. He looked elderly, maybe fifty. I thought he would take me to the chief, but he said he was the chief, so I told him I wanted to see his palace….
 
“Why?” he asked, cutting me short. His eyes on my camera. “Why are you interested in this palace?”
 
I thought that was self-explanatory, but now the question the okadaman asked seemed to make sense. To me, it’s a historical relic, a tourist attraction. To them, it’s just another old building in the neighborhood. Why would anyone want to see it? I tried my best to explain my motivation, but words failed me. How could I express my desire to see a building that was about two hundred years old? So I put it in the simplest way. “I’m a tourist,” I said. I showed off my camera, hoping it would drive the point home.
 
“Nobody told me you were coming!” the chief said. “Whenever visitors are to come, I am informed in advance. So get out. Go!”
 
 
I felt like a fool. The few websites that mentioned Irefin said nothing about informing anyone in advance. I soon learned that in spite of it being a historical monument, it is a home to several families, and so walk-in tourists will always find it tricky to see the place. I wish they had explained this in the websites! So I explained to the man, who I learned was not a chief but a caretaker, that I had come from very far away and did not……
 
“Where is the permission?” he cut in again. “You say you come from very far, where is the document allowing you to come here?”
 
I tried to tell him about my visa, but he did not seem to understand the concept, so I gave up and asked instead, Where can I go to get this permission?”
 
“I don’t know,” he said, and he started to shout at me. “Tourists come here in big numbers! We get big groups of people from America, from England, from Canada. Why are you alone?” He again gave my camera a long look, and now I begun to fear that he wanted to take it. “What is your mission?”
 
My mission? I kept hearing that phrase over the next few days. I think they are used to tourists in big tour cars, with tour guides, and who do not look African. Whites, Asians, whatever. I think they found it difficult to digest the concept of a broke traveler hoofing it solo from an African country they had never heard about.
 
“How did you learn about this place?” the ‘chief’ asked while I struggled to explain that I did not have any ‘mission’, and was a solo version of the white tourists he was used to.
 
“From the internet,” I replied, and then he exploded.
 
“Get out! GO! GO!” he started to shove me. I stumbled away from him. I thought he was going to beat me. “You will not be allowed to take photos of this place! Go!”
 
I was baffled. I do not know what he expected me to say. Where else could I have learned about Irefin? I got angry, and started to hurry out, but then, one of the men I had spoken to at the gate talked to the ‘chief’ in their language, and a few seconds later the chief calmed down, and he said to me, “Okay, take the pictures.”
 
I suspected a trap. I became a little wary. What was all that drama about? One moment he was screaming at me, the next he allowed me to tour the palace? Still, I looked around. I took pictures, but I was uneasy and I did not enjoy the visit. After only a few minutes, I thanked him and walked. I thought the buildings in the area would be of more interest, maybe I could chat up with the locals and ask them about the history of these buildings. So I started to take pictures, as I looked out for someone to talk to. Then, two men stopped me.
 
“Why are you taking pictures?” they asked.
Fascinating building just outside Irefin palace, Ibadan.
 
Another interesting piece of architecture, somewhere in Ibadan.
 
I did not want to say I was a tourist again, so I said “I’m a travel blogger. I’m a writer. I’m learning about ancient Nigeria.” That explanation had worked before. In Abeokuta it got me to see a masquerade. A year earlier in Lagos whoever had asked nodded in understanding and walked away without any drama. I had a very friendly smile as I talked to the two men. Maybe they would eventually tell me about the old, fascinating buildings all around me.
 
But they had grim faces. “Where is your ID,” they asked, and I stopped smiling. I showed them my passport, but they did not understand what it was. “This is not issued by the government,” they said, and I smiled even louder, “Oh, I’m not Nigerian,” I said. “I’m from Uganda.” I pointed at the words on my passport that spelled out Uganda.
 
“Uganda?” They said. “We have never heard of it. You look like Hausa. You are from the North.”
 
“No,” I said, laughing. “I’m not Nigerian.” I hurriedly dropped the Nollywood accent that I was using. Too late. While it had gotten me good rates when shopping and while it ensured Okadamen did not cheat me, it had backfired. These men identified themselves as members of something called the Civil Defense. They thought I was rec-ing the place for Boko Haram. Now I wondered why the men at the palace had allowed me to tour it after the outburst. Had it been a trick to keep me there as they summoned these operatives? “Why are you taking pictures? What is your mission?” They asked over and over again. A mob formed very quickly. Everyone was shouting at me. The women were the worst. When they started to prod me with their fingers, I knew I was in trouble.
 
“Why are you interested in this place?” they asked. “Why are you taking pictures of this place?”
 
“It’s a tourist site!” I screamed. I wanted to tell them about my desire to see buildings that are old, that have survived the test of time, but the words got choked in my throat, and I was now trembling and afraid, for it would take only a spark and they would start beating me up. They did not believe I was not Nigerian. They were convinced I was Hausa and a Boko Haram agent. “Who are you? What is your name? What is your mission?” They asked repeatedly. “What is your mission?”
 
Then an okada came by. “Jump on,” one of the men who claimed to be from the civil defense said. “We are taking you to the police.” I got on the bike quickly for I wanted to get away from the mob before it turned berserk. The man climbed behind me. Only after we rode off did I realize that I might be in a kidnap situation. I thought of screaming at bystanders to alert them, but I kept my cool. The okada was speeding and I was afraid of causing a commotion that would result in a terrible accident. I was immensely relieved when the bike stopped at a place marked immigration, but now I was wary of bribes, so the moment I jumped off the bike I threw a tantrum. I went to the nearest uniformed man and said, “These men are harassing me! They are kidnapping me! I’m just a tourist but why are they harassing me!” The trick was to become the complainant, and to get the uniforms to take me to an officer other than whoever the defense guy was taking me to, and it worked.
 
We ended up in an office with a crowd of uniformed officers, though there was only one desk. It was hard to tell who was senior, if it was a mess room of some sort, or whether it was an actual office. The uniformed men around the desk questioned the two men in their language, but I kept up my outburst. “Speak English!” I said. “Speak a language I understand!” The officers were not amused, but continued in English. They questioned the two men, and praised them for being vigilant. Now I knew I was in real trouble. One of them asked for my passport, he checked it, and passed it around the room. They questioned me, and after hearing my side of the story, I was surprised when they berated the two men for harassing me. “You have to forgive them,” one said to me. “There are security concerns in this country and you look like you are from the north. They had to be careful since you are carrying a black bag.” As he handed me back my passport, he added; “You are lucky you are not Nigerian, otherwise we would have put you in jail first and asked questions later.”
 
Now scared of Ibadan, I hurried to the motor garage and took a bus to Idanre. I went to the palace the next day, expecting trouble, but it is very touristy. I paid a thousand naira at the gate and got a guide for another thousand to take me up to the palace. At the end of the day I wrote off the Irefin experience as an exception, so when I went to Akure I had sort of forgotten about it and thought it there would be no trouble. Wrong.
 
Me at Idanre. Do I look like a Hausa?
A statue of a soldier at Idanre palace.
 

There are two palaces in Akure, the new one is right beside the old one. Since I came upon the new one first, I walked up to a man at the gate and asked; “I want to see the old palace. Where can I start?”

He looked at the camera dangling from my neck, he looked at my face for a few seconds, and then said, “Follow me.” We went to another gate, which I took to be the gate to the old palace, and I thought he was going to take me to an office where I would pay an entry fee and get a guide, but he took me to another man who he said is the ‘chief’.
 
“What is your mission?” this chief said. I had a sense of de javu. I knew it was going to be repeated all over again. “Where is the permission allowing you to come here?” the chief asked. I showed him my passport, and my visa, and he got angry. “I didn’t ask for your visa! I want to see the government document allowing you to come here!”
 
I got angry too. “What document is that?” I asked.
 
“I don’t know!” he said.
 
“Then why are you asking me for it?” I said.
 
I regretted asking that question, for at once a uniformed guard jumped in, pointing his gun at me. “Open your bag!” he said. “Open it!”
 
Again, a mob formed very quickly. We were in the veranda of this building, there were a lot of people. It seemed like a waiting area because there were benches and stuff like that, and doors opening to offices. There were about a hundred people or so, and now they crowded around me, and the gun was right in my face.
 
“Isn’t this a tourist place?” I said. I do not know why the anger stayed in my voice. I had not raised my voice in many, many years, but here I was, shouting at Nigerians twice in three days. I think they only listen to you when you shout at them. “What document then are you asking for? There was nothing about that in the Ondo state government website! It said Akure old palace is open for visits between eight and four pm! Nothing about documents! If you people don’t want tourists to come to your palace just say so! Take it off the websites! Unlist it! Don’t waste our time!”
 
A man grabbed my bag, to forcefully open it, but I clung on to the bag. I wrenched it off him. I did not care that a gun was pointed at my nose. “Let him open it!” the armed man said, and the other let goof the bag. “Open it!” the gunman said to me again.
 
It was a black backpack. I put it on the ground, and flung the contents out, “Look! Look!” I screamed. “Is this what you want to see!” There was nothing in there, no bomb, no guns, just a few t-shirts, a pair of jeans, a toothbrush, a roll of tissue (I had learned my lesson), and my laptop.
 
“Go before we arrest you,” the chief said. “Get out! Go!” And they shoved me out of the gate.
 
I walked away so pissed, wondering what I had done wrong, wondering if it was all just security concerns or if I had failed to see some cultural thing. I could not help asking myself; Would I be treated like this if I were a white person? Or if I had come as part of a tour group? (When I told this story to a Canadian friend, a white man who has been to Nigeria several times, he told me he was once thrown into jail in Lagos for taking pictures of the National Theater. He could not understand what his crime was, or why the policemen were harassing him, for they did not even ask for bribes, and he would have been in serious trouble if he did not know a prominent play write whose play was running.)
 
Just next to the palace is a museum, and I went in, now in defiance, for I wanted to see if I would be turned away as well. The first question I was asked was, “What is your mission?” and I started to bark at the man who asked it. “Why do you people list these in tourist sites when you don’t trust solo black tourists?” He could not understand my anger, and I felt foolish shouting at him, so I explained that I had been denied entry into the old palace for unknown reasons. “Come tell my oga,” he said, and led me to the oga in charge of the Museum. I forget his title.
 
The oga, on hearing my story, apologized for the way I was treated. “You should understand the security concerns,” he said. “You look like Hausa from the north and you are carrying a black backpack. There could be a bomb inside that bag. It’s black, you know. Maybe if it was red they would not bother you too much, but black….” I looked at my bag and wondered if terrorists used only black bags.
 
When the oga satisfied himself that I was nothing other than a writer exploring the old palaces of Nigeria, he again apologized for the way the palace people had treated me. “You should have come to us first,” he said. “These palaces are under the National Commission for Museums and Monuments. If you had come to our office, you would have walked into any palace without trouble. You wouldn’t have even paid a thousand naira to enter Idanre.”
 

But why isn’t that information available anywhere? No website mentioned it! I would not have known about it if I had not walked into that museum. Probably the tour companies know. That I think is the problem with tourism in many countries in Africa. They market to travelers who use tour guides and companies, and often they target people from Europe, America, and Asia, not fellow Africans.

The oga then called one of his staff, Odutola Christian, and instructed him to give me a tour of the old palace, just so that I don’t leave with only bad things to write about Nigeria. Odutola is not a guide, but he gave me a tour, although he had other pressing duties, and I learned a lot about the palace, for he is an architect and is involved in a project to preserve it. I learned things I would not have learned from any guides. So in the next post, I will review three palaces.

Odutola leads me through the old palace in Akure
Idanre. Beautiful History.

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When I made my second visit to Nigeria last November, I thought I’d find nothing new. I certainly did not expect trouble with security men who thought I was a Boko Haram agent, but I’ll tell you about that in a later post. Yet, that is not strange, given the terror situation in the world today. What I totally did not expect however was trouble with toilet paper. It’s something I never thought about much before, but after it hit me, I begun to question the meaning of life. Toilet paper!
A traveler enjoys the view on Olumo rock, Abeokuta

It’s the beauty of travel. You learn about other cultures, how they use words and things in a way totally different from what you know. Like a garage is a place to fix broken cars, but in Nigeria a motor garage is a taxi or bus park. And then tea. In the big hotels when you ask for tea you get tea, but I asked for it in a small hotel in Ibadan, and the waiter replied, “Do you want Milo, Bounvita, or Lipton?” I did not think Milo and Bounvita counted as tea. I thought she was merely offering me options. In Idanre I asked for tea in a small shack. The young man did not offer me options. He at once mixed me hot water and evaporated milk. “No!” I said. “Not that. I want tea!” He got cross. “But this is tea!” And we entered an argument. I tried to explain that I wanted only water and a tea-bag, but he only kept shouting at me about wasting his time, so I gave in and said, “Okay, just give it to me.” It was an awful drink. Only after I took a sip did I see a box of Lipton teabags on the shelf, and I said. “That! That is what I want.” And he laughed, “Why then did you say you want tea?” I learned rather late that in Nigeria, and most of West Africa, cocoa is tea. If you want actual tea, ask for Lipton.

Breakfast is served. ‘Tea’ and bread.
A shack restaurant in Idanre.
 
A woman uses a razor blade to peel an orange in Ibadan
Before all that fun, I was in Abeokuta for a week, at the fabulous Ake Arts and Book Festival. Life was easy in the luxury of Park Inn by Radisson. I did not feel the pinch of the power cuts, and I had access to great wifi and lovely Nigerian food. It did feel like my trip would be uneventful, that I’d have nothing to write about, until I wanted to change money. Then I got my first adventure.

I had thought that changing money would be as easy as it is in Uganda, that I would not have problems the way I did the South Africa. Nigeria shares many similarities with Uganda, and so I didn’t expect problems. I was wrong. I should have changed the money at the airport. A few friends offered to do it for me, but they said it would take a long time. I’d have to wait a whole day. I didn’t want to wait. I had only a hundred naira left. At the hotel they said they could change it for me, unofficially, but at ridiculous rates. I turned down their offer. They advised me to try the banks, but each bank I went to said they only change money for account holders. I nearly gave up until someone whispered, “Go to the black market.”

“Where is that?” I said.

“You can’t go alone,” he said. “They’ll cheat you. They might rob you. Better you give the dollars to a Nigerian and he’ll do it for you. Don’t go alone.”
 
I thought about that. It was wise advise. But I was looking for an adventure. I wanted a story to tell. So I thought it would be fun to find this black market on my own. I pled with him, and he reluctantly gave me a name of a place. Itoku.

I stepped into the streets with a mad sense of thrill. I had to go to Itoku, wherever that was, whatever I’d find there, a place where dollars are sold and bought illegally. Itoku. I didn’t even know which direction it was, so I asked the first pedestrian I met, and he pointed it out. “That way.” Still, I didn’t know how far I’d have to go, or how I’d know if I reached it. I didn’t even know if it was within Abeokuta town, or if I would have to travel an hour. Once I got there, how would I know the black marketeers? If they were doing it illegally, then they sure would not have sign posts that said ‘Dollars for sale’.
Rocks lend Abeokuta town a surreal beauty.

Well, I put my trust on an okadaman. It’s the beauty of travel, the way you throw yourself at the mercy of strangers, trusting that their good side will overwhelm the dark side. Naively. Trusting that they will always be nice to a traveler if you smiled your best. The okadaman agreed to take me for 70 naira, I then knew that Itoku wasn’t far out of town, but I had only 100 in my pockets and if things went wrong I might have only 30 left and no way to get back to the hotel. As we sped on the bike, I told him I wanted to change money. I held my breathe, knowing now was the time for his dark side to show, for surely he now knew I was a foreigner and that I had dollars.
 
“No problem,” he said. “I’ll take you to my friend.” Alarms went off in my head. How can it be that an okadaman I picked at random has a friend who sells dollars in the black market? I became suspicious. I almost told him to stop, but I bit my lips and waited for what would happen next. After all, I wanted thrill. An adventure. We stopped under a bridge, and several people crowded around us. “These are my friends,” the okada man said.
 

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“You want dollars?” one of the men said, and I replied that I wanted Naira. I kept looking around, expecting someone to pull a knife, or a gun, but we were at a roadside, with cars zooming by and pedestrians heading to a nearby market. That comforted me a bit. On addition, it struck me that I knew this kind of people. I grew up in a boarder town in Uganda. We used to call them ‘money changers’ and they dealt in Ugandan and Kenyan currencies. They always had huge bundles of money in their palms. They are still common in Busia and Malaba. But here were Nigerian men, in a small town about three hours from Lagos, a town not anywhere near a boarder, and they were dealing in dollars. It tells you something about the Nigerian economy.

I should have haggled and gotten a better rate, but the 215 Naira for a dollar they offered was above the rate I saw online (200 for a dollar) or in the bank (196 for a dollar) and way above what I was offered at the hotel (180 for a dollar), so I took it without asking questions. I later learnt that at the airport I could have gotten a better rate of 220-225 for a dollar. Thus my trip to the dollar black market turned out to be uneventful. Only that the okadaman changed his mind, and instead charged me 200 Naira, up from 70. When I tried to argue, he became quarraleous and wanted to fight, so I gave him the money.
A man buys bagged water from a truck. Nigeria seems to have
a drinking water problem. The safest water comes in plastic bags
and I wonder how much environmental damage that does.
 
A poster in the streets of Lagos illustrates gender disparity.
Female workers are paid less than males.
The next day, I struck travelers luck. I intended to explore Nigeria by walking the streets. It’s the best way to get a feel of a country, to experience something other than what you read in guide books. Just walk the streets, talk to people, blend in. I could pass for a Nigerian so it was a plus. I even spoke like them, putting an o! sound at the end of every sentence. (I’m exploring Nigeria o!) I wanted to look at the old streets of Abeokuta, at its historic architecture, and then, I saw it. Three very tall things swaying in the street. A masquerade. I at once started to take pictures. When they saw me do it, they posed and invited me to join them. I had a rare treat!
A masquerade in Abeokuta town
A poster for a Juju fantasy film from Nollywood
It opened my eyes. Some Nollywood films and all the news about pastors and Christianity had made me to imagine that ancestral spirit worship was dead. This igonuko masquerade was a small family event that happens once every three years. They used not to do it, but tragedy befell the family and four prominent members died within a year. A shaman advised them to do it or else the rest of the family would perish. In it they pray for blessings, and for protection. A few days later, in Ibadan, I saw a dead chicken in a calabash at a road junction. I at once recognized it as a sacrifice, for I had seen something similar in Nepal. A Nepali once explained the significance of sacrifice in road junctions, but I was not paying keen attention. Now, after seeing that both Nepalis and Nigerians leave sacrifice at road junctions, I am anxious for an explanation. Still, these two incidents showed me that Nigerians were worshipping their ancestors openly, unlike in Uganda where people are afraid of their Christian and Muslim peers.
Sacrifice left in at a road junction.
  
The sacrifice, or that’s what I think it is, up close
A man hawks religious artefacts and charms.
One reads ‘protection from evil.’


Ibadan is supposed to be an hour’s journey only from Abeokuta. I paid a thousand naira to share a small car with three other passengers. If I was in a hurry I could have paid four thousand to travel alone, but I was not, so I waited for two hours as the others trickled in. I reached Ibadan shortly after darkness. I had no accommodation, but that was the thing about this trip. I didn’t want to pre-plan anything. I was seeking thrill, so I’d hop into a car and get to the next town blindly. I did try googling and asking friends, but found no useful info for cheap hotels. I knew it had to be like Uganda, where you only get the cheap and comfortable places after you have reached town and ask help from locals. 

In Ibadan I had in mind the university guest house. It cost 10k naira a night yet my budget was 5k, so I for the second time I put my trust on okadas. “Take me to a hotel,” I said. “Which one?” he asked. “Any good one,” I said. “But cheap.” He took me to Plaza Park. I paid 5k for a room without a shower. I had to scoop water out of a bucket using a cup. 5k was too high for that kind of room! “We have air-conditioning,” the receptionist said when I complained. That explained everything. They charge according to whether a room has air-con (Cabs in Lagos with air-con charge higher too). However, the air-con was broken. I couldn’t change the temperature and it made a lot of noise. It kept me awake most of the night.
I paid 5000 N for this room in Plaza Park, Ibadan,
because of air-conditioning
 

I paid 2500 Naira for this room in Infinity Hotel, Idanre.
It had no air-con. No difference with the 5k Naira room.
External view of Infinity Hotel, one I’m not about to forget soon.


The next night I was in Idanre town. There was a power cut that had lasted four days, so even if I was to get a hotel with air-con, I’d have paid a high price for nothing. (Nigeria has a huge power and fuel problem that is cyclic. The power problem worsens the fuel crisis, for everyone uses generators, which compete with vehicles for gas.) Idanre gets a bit of tourists so there is online info on hotels. Everyone recommends Valley Rock, but in the spirit of my trip, I did not book in advance. I got in at 10pm, and the okadaman told me Valley Rock is far outside the town, too late to go there. “Then take me to the nearest hotel,” I said. He took me to one called Infinity. I knew it was the wrong place the moment I saw the receptionist – No, there was no reception. There was a bar, and there was a woman sitting at one of the tables, wearing nothing but an ill-fitting t-shirt, and red knickers, her legs spread open. She gave me a big smile and said “Welcome.” Did she open her legs wider or was it only my imagination?

“Buy me a beer,” the okadaman said, sitting at a table.

“Do you want a room?” the naked woman asked, coming closer. She had a strong perfume mixed with the stench of alcohol. I wanted to get out of there, but it was 10pm, and I wanted to take a poop, for I had spent the entire afternoon – let me backtrack. In Ibadan town, I was at the motor garage (car park) at 2pm when the urge to ease my bowels struck. I ran to the public toilets, but they had no tissue. “Use water,” the attendant told me. At once, the urge vanished. Water? I’d have to use my fingers to wipe –no. I couldn’t do it. I thought I’d wait until Idanre, so I jumped into the bus (mini-van). It took four hours to fill up, and only after we set off did I go into ‘labor pains’. By the time I reached Idanre at 10pm, my bowels were bursting, so I overlooked the naked woman and dived into the first room she showed me.

I paid only 2,500 Naira. There was no air-con, but they had a fan. I thought it was going to be a tough night to sleep, then I remembered that in Nepal, temperatures and humidity was just as bad, yet I slept soundly with only a fan. So I took the room. And dashed into the toilet. At least it had a shower, but the toilet set was broken, and there was no tissue. I went to the receptionist. The okadaman was still there. “I want my beer,” the okadaman said. “Me and you we get drunk tonight.” I got angry and told him to return the next day. He left. The naked woman laughed.

“I want tissue,” I told her. “What is that?” she said. “Toilet paper,” I said. “Toilet what? What does it do?” And so I made a motion of whipping my behinds, and she said, “Oh. You mean toilet roll. No. We don’t have that.” And I said, “Send someone to buy.” She replied, “No. We have to go to Akure (an hour’s drive away) to buy it.” And I said, “Then what shall I do?” And she said, “Use water o!”

By this time I could not hold it anymore. I found a piece of paper on the floor, a card from a Pentecostal church inviting people to a fundraising function, and I took that. I searched through my bag for scraps of paper, receipts, anything, and they did help.

The next day, I went to Idanre town and was pissed off to find tissue in every shop. The naked woman had just refused to buy me a roll. Or maybe she just couldn’t be bothered and wouldn’t understand why I could not use my fingers to wipe my butthole.

Continues here. In the next post I tell you how security people took me for a Boko Haram agent. Enjoy the read.


Meanwhile, enjoy a few more pics 🙂 
A sword woman guards spirits during the dance.
A masked spirit dancing
Not sure what his role was, but it looked like he was blessing everyone
by sprinkling them with stuff from the palm fronds.
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I’m in Love with Old Buildings

About two years ago I went to Europe for the first time. I visited Berlin. Being an enthusiast for old buildings, I thought I’d quench my thirst for architectural tourism, but I never enjoyed ancient buildings in Berlin, and I could never figure out why until last year when I visited the ancient towns of Vence and St. Paul de Vence in France. At first I thought the buildings in Berlin were not old in the strict sense of the word, since the city was obliterated during WWII and many sites had to be reconstructed, or rebuilt from scratch, but I did not feel any thrill while exploring Vence and St. Paul de Vence.
 
Travelers admire Belvedere auf dem Klausberg,
in Sanssouci park, Potsdam, Germany

I love old buildings, not just because of the fantasy that they might be haunted. Something about man-made structures that have lived for eons captivates me. Each time I see one, I wonder why has it stayed alive all this time?

Bazar street, Tororo, Uganda, where I grew up.
I grew up in one such house, in Tororo, not old in the way someone from Europe or Asia would think of old, for Tororo was built in the 1920s by migrant Indian traders who came to profit from the building of the Ugandan railway. It was among the first urban centers in the modern (colonial) history of East Africa. Maybe that’s why I’m fixated on ancient sites, and maybe that’s why whenever I travel I look out for those things that have stood since before my great grandfathers were born. 
 
 
A sadhu, holy man, in Pashupati temple, Nepal
Nepal is a haven for relic hunters, especially Kathmandu, where it seems like every building is over a century old. I lived there for two years, and traversed much of the country, satisfying my quest. Walking into temples that had stood for several hundred years, and still serve the same purpose, was like stepping into a time machine. I saw monks dressed pretty much the way they were dressed five hundred years ago; I saw worshipers lighting candles in the Stupa, an activity that has gone on for centuries; and I saw Sadhus smoking ganja on the banks of the Bhagmati as they await the next fistful of ash from cremated bodies in the Pashupati temple; I saw people doing the same things that had been done thousands of years, worshiping gods in the same way, and I heard of temples where the same fires have been burning for eons. That experience took me to worlds I could only dream of.
 
On returning home, I tried to find similar buildings. I went to Fort Patiko in Gulu and to Fort Jesus in Mombasa, but I was a little disappointed for I could not get the same orgasm as I did from the temples of Kathmandu. I couldn’t understand why. I thought it could be because they were built by foreigners, so their presence was more like somebody else’s history.
 
A view from a windmill near Sanssouci Palace.
When I went to Berlin in February of 2014, I expected to see places with similar emotional histories as those in Nepal. I took a walk from the Brandenburg Gate to check out the Berlin Cathedral, maybe the most impressive building I’d ever seen, and in between there was plenty of buildings to see. I totally enjoyed the art installations in the museum island, and then on the Berlin Wall – that was probably my best moment in Berlin. I visited the Reichstag building, with its stunning views of the city, but I still had a hankering and someone advised that if I wanted to see the real old ones, I had to go to Potsdam, for most of Berlin is a reconstruction. So I jumped on the train and headed off to Potsdam, for a one day trip.
Anything interesting in there?
A woman peeks into Orangery palace.
Belvedere auf dem Klausberg, Sansoucci park
I was disappointed. Sanssouci Palace did not look old at all. It could looked like something the English might have built in colonial Uganda. It felt nice for a picnic, for a walk around the park with a girlfriend, and I saw many people doing just that. I jumped on the bus and headed off to the New Palace, but on the way I saw the Orangery Palace and I decided to stop for a look. The disappointment deepened. It looked like a something set up with a pretentious effort at art, overrated, I should say. I found it closed for renovation the day I went, which is probably why I disliked it.
As I waited for the next bus, which I realized would take over an hour, I decided to explore the wilderness around the Orangery Palace. That was more exciting than the actual palace. I stumbled upon this building, it looked small and alone in the bushes, and strangely out of place. I would expect it to have been in Asia, with its style imitative of pagodas and with it being on top of a hill where you had to go up a steep flight of stairs to get to it. It reminded me of many small temples I saw in Nepal. Curious, I went up the stairs, and entered the building. It turned out to be a restaurant, very warm inside. Almost everyone was an elderly white person. I was the only young man, and black at that. The waiter too looked young, and he spoke a little English. I looked through the menu, and the prices were murder. I couldn’t afford anything in it, so I excused myself and stepped out into the coldness. A sign-post I came up shortly after said this was building was called Drachenhaus (dragon house).

 

Drachenhaus in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam, Germany
Well, the jewel in the clichéd crown was supposed to be The New Palace completed sometime in 1769 by Frederick the Great. The architecture of the kitchen was like something you’d find in Game of Thrones. I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the palace. The king apparently did not want the chaos and noise of the kitchen to disturb his peace, so he built the kitchen way off from the main house.
Hitherto, I had not peeked into the insides of any of these palaces. Though I was broke, having lost 200 Euros stupidly (believe me, the money just fell out of my pockets, twice, a hundred euros at a time), curiosity overcame me. I paid eight euros for a ticket. I was eager to see what it looked like inside, and I was disappointed to find it wasn’t any different from what I’d already seen in the movies and the photos. The extra money to take photographs was a complete waste. I could have as well used my phone camera, but because I had a DSLR they made me pay extra and I stupidly did. Idiot. The furniture, the paintings, the décor, there was nothing new I was seeing. Even the history of the individual rooms (this was where so and so died, this is where so and so committed suicide, this king used to have breakfast here, this was the music room) well, knowing all that didn’t move me. I thought it was because I wasn’t German and didn’t know any of the people they were talking about.
But then, in Nepal, I wasn’t Nepali and didn’t know any of the kings and goddesses, yet I still enjoyed Nepal, for I wasn’t visiting museums. The palaces in Berlin on the other hand are just that, museums, huge monoliths without life. In Nepal, I could go to the Kumari’s courtyard and though I would find a group of tourists, if I hung around long enough I’d be lucky to see the living goddess at the window, looking into a mirror, or having her hair combed, or something fun, something that told you the house is still what it was a thousand years ago, a house full of life, not dead and commercialized.
The servant’s section in New Palace was more interesting
than the building where the king resided and hosted parties.
Vence and St. Paul de Vence were a little better experiences than the trips to Berlin. The Grand Jardin was a captivating park, full of life, and the architecture in old Vence was interesting enough, different enough from what I had seen and know about Europe. I enjoyed St Paul de Vence more than I did Vence. I didn’t know about St. Paul until I was on the way to Vence, when I looked out of the bus window and saw a surreal village sitting on top of a rock. For a moment, it struck me like a movie set, something straight out of Game of Thrones, and I wanted to jump out of the bus and go to it, but I had set my eyes on Vence so I stayed in the bus and chose to visit St. Paul’s commune another day.

 

The problem is that both places are dead, not in the museum sense like the palaces in Berlin, but still dead. They have more shops and art galleries than real life. The art galleries are supposed to continue the culture of these ancient cities. Some famous artists, writers, and actors are said to have lived and worked there, and two including an American writer James Baldwin is said to have died there. I went off the main track and explored the alleys where few tourists went, I found people living in the little cottages. One cottage had a sign saying a poet, Jacques Prevert, lived in it in 1940. I wonder if there is a poet living there now. I wonder what kind of people were living in the houses right inside a tourist attraction. St. Paul de Vence and Vence were not as dead as Sanssouci park, and they keep their culture alive with galleries selling really high-end, and extraordinarily expensive art. But I still did not get the thrill for they are not really the kind of places they were at the time of construction. They had changed with the times, and though they were a little better than museums, I did not get into any time machine when as I explored them.

 

Artwork on display in St Paul’s Commune, Vence
In St Paul I came upon a chapel, The White Chapel, that intrigued me. The guide said it was a penitentiary of the White Brotherhood. I paid 4 Euros to enter. It was billed as the Church of Folon. I didn’t know who Folon was, but I was so curious I wanted to see this secret chapel that a brotherhood used. Maybe I would experience something from the Da Vinci Code. So I paid, and went in, but what did I see when I got in? An empty room. Yes, that’s exactly what it was, this chapel that the guide books had said was a penitentiary of the White Brotherhood, that they called the Church of Folon, I don’t know what exactly I expected to see, but an empty room? Come on. Okay, it was not exactly an empty room for there was a woman sitting by the door to make sure only ticket holders came in. But why put a guard to prevent people from entering an empty room? Do you have to pay to see the paintings on the wall and the sculptures? What made no sense was that both the paintings and sculptures had nothing to do with the Brotherhood. It would have been worth it if these paintings were old, or if they were from the brotherhood itself, but they were done by this Folon guy in the 1950s. Charging 4 Euros to enter an empty room to see ridiculous works of art is outright robbery. Maybe it would make more sense if I know who exactly Folon was, a version of Da Vinci?
Inside the chapel, this is all you see.

 

Impressive. St Paul’s Commune in Vence, France
The one exciting thing I remember from the trip to Vence was the sight of St. Paul’s Commune on the hill. It’s a good thing I had not known about it before, so it was a pleasant surprise to look out of the bus window and see an ancient city on top of a rock. I found a similar spectacle in Cannes, this time it was not a city but a castle, complete with a flag waving about. I grew up on literature featuring castles, and so they are kind of romanticized in my head. I had searched for them in Germany, but was told there was none near Berlin and I didn’t have time or money to go exploring far, so when I saw this one in Cannes, I was thrilled for a few seconds, until I remembered that it would no longer be a living place, but a museum. So I went to it without expecting much, and I didn’t find much thrill, but I enjoyed the chapel, where I saw people praying, and I think it’s still used for regular service. It then struck me that if I wanted to find that joy in visiting old buildings as I did in Nepal, I would have to go to places of worship, for they certainly would still be in use. I just hope I don’t find more scams like the Folon Church in St. Paul’s Commune.
So when I heard of a castle in Nice, La Chateau, or Castle Hill, it turned out to be just as unsatisfactory. It sits on a hill, but does not offer any romantic façade like Chateau de la Castre in Cannes, though from the top, just as from the one in Cannes, you get a grand view of the scenery below. I went mostly because I had heard that old town Nice was not only ancient, but still a home to people. I took joy in walking through the very narrow streets, though they were mostly empty, and as I wandered about, I came upon an old church, Cathedral of Saint Reparata, built around 1650. The thing about travelling is to not find out as much about a place as possible before going there, just the basics, and so just as I didn’t know about St. Paul’s Commune though I knew of Vence, I didn’t know about this church in old town Nice, so I got a pleasant surprise. Outside the cathedral a street band was playing some great music. That’s one thing I enjoyed very much about Europe, the street bands composed of seemingly talented musicians, crooning for pennies.
Beautiful music for pennies in front of the Cathedral of St Reparata,
old town Nice, France

 

After the church, I toured the flower market, expecting to see something like Owino, but it did not live up to its expectations. I guess you have to be a flower enthusiast to experience joy at visiting a flower market.

 

As a side note, if you visit Vence, or St Paul’s Commune, or even the Sanssouci park, make sure you don’t miss the last bus or you are screwed. There aren’t any taxis nearby. I’ve heard so much about transport in Europe, how it’s so cool and everything is on time and you can schedule your movements, but I found it a great, big inconvenience. You can’t travel at any time you want, as is the case in Kampala, where you go to the roadside and you’ll be sure a taxi will come along at some point. You have to stick to a creepy schedule, and if a train runs late, then you are screwed. I made the mistake of jumping on the wrong train once, to Grasse, yet I was to going to St. Raphael, and only then did they tell me that there is no train going back the other way. It was 8pm, and the trains had stopped running, the buses as well. My only option was a taxi, it cost me 200 Euros. I guess you have to live there long enough to get used to that system.
Well, that’s it for the old buildings in Europe, at least for now until I learn of better places to go to. I will be exploring more in Africa, and I got a taste of it in Nigeria in November 2014. When I went there I did not expect to see so many old buildings, there was one in almost every street in the cities that I went to, Abeokutta, Ibadan, Idanre, and Akure. I didn’t go to Benin for I feared it was more of a touristy place, and I instead went to little known palaces built using mud that had stood for nearly thousand years, yet still alive. Like the temples of Nepal, they are not relics, people living in them, and they still serve the same purposes as when first built. I have reserved another blog post for my trip to Nigeria. While there, I heard of the wooden houses in Freetown, Sierra Leon, and I think that should be my next stop, if I ever get the chance, but I also want to satisfy my curiosity about the old towns on the East African coast. I’ll definitely be making a visit there later this year.
A market booms in front of Irefin Palace, Ibadan, Nigeria
Tororo Town, one of the first urban centers in modern East Africa

 

New Palace in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam

 

New Palace in Sanssouci Park, Potsdam

 

Where a poet lived, in St Paul’s Commune, Vence

 

A couple explores St Paul’s Commune, Vence

 

An old house in Vence

 

A woman and her dog in ancient Vence

 

A view of old town nice, with the cathedral prominent

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9 People of Colour Scifi and Fantasy Books I Enjoyed in 2015

2015 was such a busy year for me. I started it with producing a TV series, which got me deep in debts, but which finally paid off :-)), and I ended it by producing a feature film, a scifi that I wrote and started making on a whim. Maybe this year you’ll get to see it. In between those two projects, I worked on the Disney film, Queen of Katwe, directing ‘the making of’ documentary, I traveled twice to South Africa, twice to France, twice to Kenya, and once to Nigeria, attending five festivals (thanks to the success of my book, A Killing in the Sun). I wrote several short stories and a novella, some of which appeared in The Apex Book of World SF 4, African Monsters, Imagine Africa 500 (coming this year), and AfroSF v2. I completed a radio script, and nearly finished my novel. Yet, I found time to date a few girls, though non got stuck on me, thankfully, and above that, I managed to read, maybe fifteen books, and a countless number of short stories. I set out to read diverse books, but really I read anything that I came upon. Still, of those I read, here are books by, or featuring, people of color that I enjoyed the most.
 

Taty Went West, Nikhil Singh
Nikhil has a vivid and very entertaining imagination. The first thing that struck me when I opened his book was the illustrations – I had never read an adult novel with pictures, not one that I remember anyway. This book has lots of them. They do help advance plot and define characters. The author is multi-talented, a writer, an artist, a musician (witchboy), and a filmmaker, so it makes sense that the book has lots of drawings by him, and it has music which is an essential to the plot. It’s the story of a teenage girl who escapes from home, and runs west into a place called the Outzone, spurred on by a song, In with the outzone (Listen to it here: auralsects.bandcamp.com/album/in-with-the-outzone), but the Outzone is not a place for any teenager. It is lawless, under the rule of criminal gangs and infested with a plague from another dimension. There, Taty, a scrawny girl, comes of age and learns to appreciate her talents, to accept who she truly is. The book is full of memorable characters, like Number Nun, a missionary robot reprogrammed to serve an underworld crime boss as a bodyguard of sorts and as a sex slave.

An illustration from Taty Went West
borrowed from http://thelake.co/?p=954

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Amos Tutuola.
While not as exciting as The Palmwine Drinkard, this is a beautiful tale. Sometimes the plot stagnates, for the protagonist is stuck in a spirit world, encountering all kinds of creatures, making it more of a collection of short stories, but it still was a very good read. In each chapter, you meet a new type of ghost, some are benevolent, others are deadly. The one that stuck, and that haunted my dreams for many nights, is the Flash-Eyed Mother. Her mountain of a body is made up of living human heads, each with eyes that see and mouths that talk independent of each other. There is a bit of humor, especially when the heads start arguing with each other, or when they start whispering dissent against the mother. Her eyes, which give her her name, are a deadly weapon, for they can flash out heatrays. When she led her town into battle, with her eyes blasting heatrays at the enemy, it made me want to make an epic horror-fantasy film. She would make one badass villain. Tutuola’s works are a constant reminder that science fiction and fantasy are not alien to Africa, that the first African novels ever published were in the SFF genre, but after independence quasi intellectuals and quasi elites sprung up, and they were determined to show the world that they were modern and did not believe in superstition like their ‘backward’ forefathers, and so they killed the genre, and helped relegate it to children’s stories. I think Achebe was one of them.

Fledgling, Octavia Butler

While Amos Tutuola introduced me to African SFF, Octavia introduced me to people of colour SFF. I remember reading Wild Seed in the early 2000s, and knowing it was an American book, I was puzzled to see a non-white protagonist. In Fledgling, Octavia made me rediscover my love for vampires. I do not remember the last vampire book I enjoyed, but it was long ago when I was still a teenager. Holywood somehow contributed to the death of vampires, but here they resurrect to great effect. They are the vampires I love, very close to how Bram Stoker imagined them, with a scientific twist. I won’t spoil the story for you. It was a joy read, sexy, very entertaining.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

I started reading this book without expecting the protagonist to be a person of color. Rather, I was more interested in the gender-less world Ursula had created, and was surprised when she mentioned the protagonist is black. He is an envoy on a mission to a new world, whose people he is supposed to help join a galactic conglomeration of human civilizations, but the people of Winter (as humans call that world) think creatures who have only one gender are sub-human. In Winter, people change their gender, they can be male or female. As I read the book I begun to see how much Ursula influenced SFF, gifting us things like the ansible and creatures like the snat. I first came across a snat in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and I thought it was a pretty cool monster (a splice of snake and rat), then I read Left Hand of Darkness and I thought it might have influenced Atwood. What makes me wonder is why Ursula’s influence did not extend to characters, for “The majority of her main characters are people of color, a choice made to reflect the non-white majority of humans, and one to which she attributes the frequent lack of character illustrations on her book covers” (from Wiki) Why then didn’t other authors pick up on this the way they picked up the ansible and the snat?

Zoo City, Lauren Beukes

The moment I started reading this book I thought of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, for she borrowed the idea of animals being attached to humans as a sign of sin. After a few pages I was drawn into an alternate Jo’burg bristling with gangs and spiced with a memorable heroine. While Pullman centers heavily on original sin (the Christian version) and by the third book you get a feeling he was trying to challenge Christian dogma and the Christian idea of God, Jesus, and angels, Lauren focuses on sins we commit in our lifetimes, which makes her allegory much more powerful, and I would say much more relevant to today’s world. It’s rather out dated to say we are paying for sins committed at the beginning of time. That was an excuse some evil people came up with to wash their hands of crimes they had committed by saying, ‘Look, I’m not responsible! Blame the first man!’


Moxyland, Lauren Beukes
I did enjoy this book, though after Zoo City I felt it was a little bit of a disappointment. I found the multi-character point-of-view a little too distracting, and a little of a drag, but I enjoyed reading about this futuristic South Africa riddled with corporate apperthied and I enjoyed the rebels fighting against the system.

Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord

This book started out great, with a lot of humor, and it had me laughing out loud. Karen certainly has the comic muse. The plot sort of reminded me of Hitchcock’s Psycho, where you follow a character for a long time thinking he is the protagonist, only for him to be nothing more than an introduction. It is essentially a story about a woman who is gifted an instrument of supernatural power, making her a superheroine if she can learn how to use it, and she then goes on a journey with a djombie who is trying to steal this power. It would have been a good book, but it has so many point of views that I kept losing track of the characters. Sometimes, the pov would change within a chapter, which is a bit jarring. But this style works nicely for comedy, and I must say that Karen has written a horror story the way I remember how it was told in my childhood: With humor. 

Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell

Being a fan of short stories, it is always satisfying to come across a collection as diverse (stories are from every continent), as colorful, and as entertaining as this. I particularly loved these stories; Capitalism in the 22nd Century by Geoff Ryman, Nilda by Junot Diaz, Song for the Asking by Carmelo Rafala, For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Ababua need not apply) by Chesya Burke, The Last Dying Man by Geetanjali Dighe, and Be Three by Jewelle Gomez. The book does not disappoint in being a tribute to Samuel R Delany. If he were to read them, he would have enjoyed every story in it, just as I did, and just as you will, if you love scifi.

Dhalgren, Samuel R Delany

I came across Delany’s book in a list (can’t remember which one) about the greatest people of color who wrote science fiction and fantasy. I was surprised that I knew nothing about Delany, especially given the awards he won, and the time he wrote in, and when I read Dhalgren, I was drawn in right from the first page, and taken for a thrill ride into a burning city by a man who cannot remember his own name. I’m sure glad I discovered Delany. I will be reading more of his books next year!

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