By Anote Ajeluorou
WHAT happens when two otherwise friendly cosmic powers clash over territorial spaces and then a third and aggrieved interest infiltrates their ranks and seeks revenge on behalf of its object of irrational love? At what point do the two cosmic powers come to their senses to save humanity the unintended injury from their intransigence? And in whose power it is to bring these opposing powers to their senses so as to restore balance and order to the human society? What role should a starry-eyed city child play in this epic battle that imperils humans and stretches their endurance to breaking point in this cosmic clash in one of Africa’s backwaters?
These are some questions Efua Traore attempts to answer in her magical novel, Children of the Quicksands. A communal folktale soon morphs into the living but harrowing reality for the people of Ajao village and its surrounding communities and Ekita, their administrative head. Children are disappearing faster than they should have. It’s supposed to be one child in 10 years as appeasement for a supposedly beautiful world Oshun has created for Layo, but now the disappearance is becoming too frequent. Morayo is the latest victim, and her father is beside himself with anger against Iyanla for not mediating with Oshun to return his daughter. He vents expletives on the priestess and her goddess and even threatens the unthinkable. Even Iyanla, the priestess of Oshun, is worried; it’s a new dimension to her years as a priestess. The chief at Ekita and other notables in the kingdom are nervous. They want the lake where these disappearances occur to be sealed up to avoid the loss of more children to a greedy goddess who is taking more than the agreed number of children. But it turns out that Oya and Oshun are too preoccupied with their quarrel to notice that their rank has been infiltrated, as they battle on, leaving their hapless worshippers dazed from the sparks of their furry.
After having Layo, Adunni vowed never to have another child to the dismay of her husband and everyone. Her love for Layo was so great, she didn’t want to share it with another child. And then he got himself drowned, and she was heartbroken and desperate. She’d wept for days, appealing to the water goddess Oshun to restore her son back to life. After a long time, Oshun approaches her sister, Oya, guardian of Egun, land of the dead, to let Layo live again. Oya initially refused her sister’s uncommon request, insisting that it would upset the balance of nature. When Oshun would not let up, Oya agreed and let Layo live. But Adunni had made a promise to Oshun to weep seven calabashes filled with her tears every day for the rest of her life. But she soon reneged after the joy of restoring her Layo back to life began to wan. Oshun then demanded to have Layo back, but when Adunni would not give up her son, Oshun commanded her waters to take Layo back. Not wanting to lose her son a second time, Adunni jumped into the water and drowned herself so she could be with her son. However, Oya refused to take back Layo a second time into the land of the dead in spite of Oshun’s pleas. In frustration, Oshun created a beautiful netherworld garden for Layo. But when Layo asked her how he could be alone, Oshun then left a quicksands’ opening in the lake around where a child would disappear every decade to join Layo as playmate. That is the communal folktale among Ajao people and adjoining communities.
But now, it seems a cosmic imbalance has set in, and the lives of everyone is imperilled. No child is safe again. Oya and Oshun do not see eye-to-eye again. Meanwhile, a third and evil character is taking advantage of this cosmic battle between two sisters to cause havoc in Ajao and environs. Morayo disappears into the lake when it isn’t yet time for a child to disappear. That is shortly after Biola’s only child Simi arrives from the city to stay with her grandmother, Iyanla, for the holidays. Simi and Iyanla are meeting for the first time. Biola is not in good terms with her mother for the loss of her only brother to the terrible lake. As soon as Simi arrives Ajao, she finds her young life embroiled in this ancient folklore; it is how she is made welcome to her ancestral village. An innocent errand by her grandmother to pick some local fruits takes a city child, unused to village ways, not least the festering disappearance under-current in Ajao, right into the forbidden lake and she gets sucked in and lands right into the garden that Layo and his mates occupy.
This is how Traore describes the cosmic fight between Oya and Oshun as people in Ajao, Ekita and environs experience it: “Simi stared fearfully out of Jay’s living room. A dry storm is raging. Lightening split the sky with sharp sparks of light, followed by ear-bursting thunderbolts. The air was charged, heavy and crackling. The clouds hurled across the sky in a frenzy. But still no rain.”
However, Simi manages to escape back alive. But the experience is so strange, scary and surreal, she is not sure whether it was real or she dreamt it up. But as things unfold in Ajao and Ekita, with the threat of sealing in the lake, Simi finds herself thrown into the middle of a magical mystery that only her can solve. How does she do this? What imbues her with the magical power to unravel the unseen, diabolical force at work between Oya and Oshun and bring them to an agreement to restore peace and balance?
Strangely, even the Oshun priestess, Iyanla, lost her own son Toyin to the goddess she presides over. It’s the reason for the chiasm between her and her only daughter, Biola, who does not believe in the myths of Oshun and her powers, and could not forgive her mother for the loss of her brother to the lake. Traore renders Iyanla’s pain at losing her two children the same day so poignantly: “She never spoke to me again. Soon after that she finished school and left Ajao, and I have not seen her since. And I cannot blame her. A person is not firewood. There’s a limit to what a person’s body can take… Both my children were taken from me that day. That is how the gods are. They scatter fates like a farmer throws seeds on his land. Some people’s fates are fertile, easy-to-cultivate seeds that grow into strong plants and bear fruits. While the fates of some others are hard, empty husks that wither and die.”
This is what is at the heart of Traore’s breath-taking and beautifully told Children of the Quicksands, a magical tale that blends ancient folklore with modern, realistic portraiture. For the people of Ajao, the past and parent are one long continuum they cannot escape, because the people and nature and same. Traore’s narrative flare is superb, as she weaves together a compassionate tale of a mother’s love that soon breeds unimaginable monstrosity. Also, Traore renders such heartfelt narrative about three generation of women from Iyanla to Biola and Simi, a family badly disrupted by differences in belief, with the same belief bringing them together again in such emotionally wrought moment, with the grandchild, Simi, serving as the missing key that unlocks the door to reconciliation between mother and daughter. This is a book that gives agency to Africa’s spirituality and what it means to be human in a world in such a mad rush to the future and modernity it sometimes forgets its past and ancient source.
- Ajeluorou is the author of Igho Goes to Farm (children’s story), Libations for Africa (poetry), Mermaid Encounter & Other Exotic Tales (collection of exotic tales) and soon-to-be released Brides of the Infidels (novella)