AkÓÓla

The old neighborhood is just as I remember it. Brick houses roofed with iron sheets scattered haphazardly along an ever-winding road. There are a few twinges here and there like the newly renovated village school and a health clinic built most likely some years back by some missionaries. The nearest clinic then was 20km away.

Oketue is the typical small village a tourist passes without even noticing its presence. Despite the size, what makes Oketue what it is, isn't it's the quiet aura or the dusty roads but the mighty evergreen iroko of a tree standing tall at the center of the square. Legend has it that during the clash with the neighboring village of Etun, the enemies had surrounded the village, and there was no place to escape from. In the midst of the panic, this tree mysteriously sprang up, and its roots burrowed deep into the soil, forming underground tunnels for the villagers to hide. When the Etun warriors marched into the village, they turned it upside down, searching for the villagers. They left in frustration, and for unknown reasons, they didn't pay heed to this mysterious tree. At noon the following day, the villagers crawled out of their hiding place, grateful for the tree's protection. In reverence, they named it Akóóla- the one who saves.

I was never interested in the story; nevertheless, I adored it because it saved me multiple times from the whips of my mother's infamous koboko. It seems just like yesterday; I'd play in the river with other children, laughing like hyenas and throwing childish insults at each other. Oketue was a close-knit village. The kind where everybody knows everybody's business. If you don't have garri, you can 'kuku' send your child to Mama Agbe's house for some. The kind where your child will come back not only with that cup of garri but with a message like "Mama Agbe said I should tell you that you should not forget your villagers' meeting this evening oh."

At a point, my parents grew tired of the mundane lives they had; they longed for the big city, the big cars, and the fine clothes Mama Agbe's son brought for her every Christmas. Plans were made, and every little kobo was put into the 'kolo' for our journey. There was no more extra 5kobo for me to buy sweets from Mallam Sani's shop down the street. Of course, I was warned to keep my little mouth shut; my parents didn't want anybody blowing 'juju' on their plans.

As I said before, nothing happens in Oketue without the whole village knowing. Word began to spread about our departure, and soon, people came to confirm. There was no other choice but to say, " It's true, oh. We are actually moving to the big city". The villagers were quite supportive, although there were a few "bad belles." On the day of our departure, we packed our belongings into an old hired lorry, and after a long stream of teary hugs and farewells, we drove off.

****

Thirty-five years later, the view remains the same, evoking memories I thought were long gone. Still standing in her majestic glory is Akóola, with bird nests on her branches, and deep down, I know that for many more years to come, she will always remain Oketue's protector.

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