Lanre Arogundade relives some exciting childhood adventures on his 58th birthday

Assorted crayfish first aroused my curiousity about Sapele. Layoonu Arogundade, my mum, would return with baskets full of them after each trading expedition to and from Osi-Ekiti; along with different grades of Sapele water the testing of which was a spectacle. Little quantities would be poured on the ground and sparked into flame. Blue flame meant grade one and attracted the highest price; fairly blue fame was grade two for lower price and yellowish flame was grade three and went for the least price.

Testing the ‘cray-fishes’ on market days as we helped Layoonu prepare them for sale was more spectacular – in the left and right corners of my mouth, the harder I worked or the harder I pretended to work! They all tasted grade one and not even the occasional slaps of Layoonu because ‘se ofe kimi jere lori ede kimo se wahala la gbe a lati Sapele ni’ (do you want to deny me of profit on the crayfish I laboured to bring from Sapele?) could deter me. Layoonu can slap and it was in Sapele I really discovered.

The second curiousity arose out of meeting the Abus in Iwoye-Ijesa whenever I travelled with Layoonu for her maternal grandfather’s family functions. Seemingly all looking alike, especially the children of Chief Joshua Adebayo Abu, the first Baale of the Yoruba in Sapele, I thought the Abus were the largest and most beautiful family in the world.

If crayfish that travelled several miles (the 1970s were not years of kilometers) tasted that good, what would it be like at source? I yearned for Sapele and pestered Layoonu to take me there. She set a condition. I had to gain promotion to the next class and avoid a second repeat of my first year in secondary school. I passed the challenge and Layoonu promptly issued me the Sapele visa during the long vacation of the 73/74 academic session.

In those days, it was a long and winding journey in a lorry (Bolekaja), but on good roads – all the way from Osi-Ekiti to Ado-Ekiti, to Owo axis, to Sobe, to Agbanikaka and so on. As our lorry stepped on the Agbanikaka bridge, a bell rang loudly to my consternation. Layoonu, on whose laps sat Sade, the youngest in our family, allayed my fears explaining that the device was meant to alert vehicles coming from the opposite direction to wait for ours to pass. The bridge was narrow and lacked space for vehicles moving in opposite directions. A good educator, Layoonu also explained that the bridge used to be much more sophisticated and beautiful before it was bombed during the civil war.

The civil war temporarily halted Layoonu’s trading trips to the city where she was taken by her mother, Wuraola, at about age five. Where she grew up as a Sapele babe fluently speaking Itsekiri language and pidgin English, and some Isoko and Ibo; where along with other fun loving kids and teenagers she would swim across River Ethiope; where she watched Hubert Ogunde perform live on stage,had a crush on him and wanted to elope with him but was stopped by the God of Thomas Akinyemi Arogundade, who years later, would come around to ask her hand in marriage. The bridge across River Ethiope into Sapele had not been built then, so it was Layoonu that paddled the canoe that ferried her future husband across. Midway into the journey Layoonu had teasingly asked Thomas what would happen should the boat capsize knowing that he could not swim. Thomas burst into loud prayer in his Ijesa dialect: “loruko Jesu, e maa dojude” (In Jesus name the canoe would not capsize) while Layoonu laughed aloud.

We entered Layoonu’s Sapele late at night and arrived the Abus vast compound at Abu junction to the warm embrace of Chief J. Ade Abu himself. Early morning introductions to my new mummies, some of chief’s wives followed: from Mama Tope to Mama Adisa to Mama Tetsoma, etc. Mama Biodun would visit later from her Ibadan base. I was offered grade one Sapele water in Mama Tetsoma’s place which meant the introductions ended on a slightly dizzying note but not so dizzy for me not to notice the frowning Tetsoma.

A fight with her seemed destined and it occurred within days of the arrival of the village champion. If I had informed my immediate caucus of Biodun, Taye and Adisa that a battle with Tetsoma was looming, they would have advised me to back off. It was a duel worthy of a championship label. I boxed her but she readily traded punches. I opted for head butting and she answered with flying head butts. To overpower her, I switched to wrestling, but as I wrestled her to the ground, she unfolded her game plan. Her dangerous left arm went for my neck and she held me by the jugular. It was a strangulating grip and fearing the worst, the other cousins stepped in to end the battle.

The weekday routine was predictable. After morning chores we would head to Chief’s Vono distributorship and retailership store on market road. Our duty was to load the iron beds and mattresses into vehicles whenever there were sales. The blast of the time siren from the plywood factory for which Sapele was once famous would signal it was lunch time and arrangement would be made for someone to buy food…

Before Layoonu returned, she ensured we visited the other two Abu Uncles – Ayodele Abu (Baba Barracks) and Ibitayo Abu (Baba Pupa). I had also followed her to the banks of River Ethiope where inside moored boats and canoes, she bargained and purchased cray fish and other goods. There was no room for tasting especially with baby Sade on my laps. But my roving eyes saw one to two- year- olds being dipped into the river to prepare them for the art of swimming. I later heard tales of how some thieves would dive from the birthed ships into the River with non- perishable goods. Sapele ought to have produced Olympic gold winning medalists in a country that believes in encouraging natural talents.

But they had one more trick up their sleeves. Layoonu had arrived to take me back to Ekiti ahead of schools’ resumption and on the eve of our departure my cousins convinced me to join them for farewell football. When it was time to return home, I couldn’t find my sandals. Pretending to be helping me to look for the sandals, my cousins walked up and down with gloomy looks. Finally, Taye walked up to me saying they had discovered those who took my sandals but they had to be settled before they would return it. They wanted about six pence. I ran home to tell my Mum I needed to buy something urgently. She wanted to know what it was but I mumbled something incoherent. She gave me the money all the same while concealing her suspicion.

We returned to the playing arena but the guys would not return my shoes. Taye, the supposed go-between eventually collected all I had, disappeared and returned with my sandals. It was late by the time I got back and when my mum asked where I had been, she welcomed my incoherent answer with a slap that momentarily produced stars. It was actually the slap that cleared my head. My cousins led by Taye had played a fast one on me. We would joke about it years later but in terms of learning to be street wise and not street foolish, Sapele was a great university.

I write this as a 58th birthday memoir. More importantly, I write it as a tribute to my mum, Layoonu Hannah Arogundade, the Sapele babe who trained me and my siblings with love and discipline. And, I write it as a tribute to my maternal Uncle, the great Chief J. Ade Abu, the late high chief Segbua of Iwoye-Ijesa. I still recall how excited he was to see me several years later in the late 80s during a visit home. ‘That is my son, come and sit by my side. I like you. You fired them. You fired those military bastards’, he had said proudly in apparent reference to my exploits as NANS president. This year is the 30th anniversary of his demise and may his great soul continue to rest in peace. So also the soul of my departed cousins – Demola, Adisa and Taye – who helped me to see the fun and fury of Sapele streets.

Arogundade, a former Assistant Editor/member of Vanguard Editorial Board, is the Executive Director of International Press Centre, IPC, Lagos