IT was Elnathan John (author of Born on a Tuesday) who first put the argument in perspective when he said it was time conversations in the northern part of Nigeria be brought into the mainstream for better understanding. This is true of a region often shrouded in an inscrutable veil not unlike the purdah their women are forced to wear, sometimes in forced innocence and religiosity.
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms (Parresia Publishers Ltd, Lagos; 2015) extends the thesis of this much-needed conversation into forbidden zones of faith and sexuality. A son of the soil, Ibrahim does not shy away from the tabooed subject of sex, which is so freely practised, but so shrouded and protected that some have lost their lives on account of it to Sha’ria law.
But Ibrahim delicately weaves it into his supple narrative that plays up religious ferments, as it happened in Jos to shatter the family of Zubairu and the lives of Hajiya Binta and her niece Fa’iza. In fact, the Jos riots of September 7, 2001 provide the broad canvass on which Binta’s chequered life is painted. It exposes her, after 10 years of widowhood, to the sexual liberation she suddenly finds in the most unexpected manner and person, and to which, inevitably, she loses her second son in bizarre circumstance, while protecting the supposedly smeared honour of a mother having a liaison with a miscreant. Binta’s Fa’iza is distracted by trauma to the point of insanity because she cannot remember the face of her brother, Jamilu, who was murdered in her presence during one of those Jos riots.
Binta, a former school teacher in Jos, lost her first son to a Fulani tradition that forbids a mother from showing affection to her first child, boy or girl. She’d suffered a similar fate with her mother who could not call her first daughter or son by her given name. She did not know her mother’s love. So that when her son came, she had to resort to the generic name ‘Boy’ or ‘Yaro.’ This lack of affection partly drove Yaro into the embrace of police bullets, as he fled home after Binta beat him for smoking hemp. Ironically, she could only show affection to the bloodied body of her son when she hugged his lifeless form.
Her husband Zubairu was hacked to pieces and his body burnt in the riots by Christians. The scenario replayed itself again with her sister Asabe when her husband and her son Jamilu were dragged out and murdered. Binta’s second son Munkaila resettles her from Jos close to him in an Abuja suburb where she is living out her midlife. But she suffers a twist of fate; leader of a local gang, Reza, who also does dirty jobs for an Abuja politician, Senator Buba Maikudi, comes calling one afternoon to rob her of valuables. It marks the turning point in her life. His resemblance to her dead son, Yaro, breeds a horde of demons. Reza is a troubled youth who did not know a mother’s love. Something in Binta strikes a cord in him; days later, he returns what was left of her valuables. The gesture, and his resemblance to her son, ignite a spark of intuition that plunges both thieve and Binta, otherwise a virtuous, decent woman, into an irrisitible sexual embrace that would breed catastrophic consequences for Binta.
LIKE most women in northern Nigeria, Binta has lived her life in the shadows of religion and cultural practices that do not allow the independent existence of women. They are expected to submit their entire lives to the austere religious teachings and the men in their lives without having a say. And so for the years Binta was married to Zubairu as a child, the term ‘love’ was foreign to her. She has lived without a man in 10 years of widowhood. Her final obligation is to please her God and live a pious life, and if possible, remarry. Alhaji Haruna, already married with two wives, is after her for marriage. For a polygamist like Alhaji Haruna, a woman’s sexuality can only find outlet in marriage and certainly not outside of it.
He promptly goes to report Binta’s sexual remiss to her son who hurries to avenge her mother’s tainted honour; he dies doing so. Until Reza comes along, inadvertently, with his gospel of sexual freedom, and she embraces it with open arms. But it turns out toxic freedom.
Binta puts her plight when her liaison with Reza comes into the open and becomes a scandal and gossip material, when even her niece, Fa’iza, looks at her accusingly, “She wanted Reza, of that there was no doubt. She craved what they had. It mattered to her that at the twilight of her sexual life, her desires had finally been unleashed. She was inkling closer to his redemption – her redemption, to making him a better person. And all these people, including her niece, who had no inclining of the lifetime of deprivation she had endured, now looked at her with eyes that gleamed with accusations. It was getting to a time when she would have to make a choice between who she was and who she wanted to be. That she had to confront these choices so late in life is lamentable. But, in the final analysis, there was only one option – an end to the affair, a new beginning for her, elsewhere, far away”.
But that is as far as her decision could go: “But once Reza called her, not long after Subhi, to announce his imminent arrival, she knew she did not have the strength to go through with her decision”.
Intricately linked tradition and religious practices do not allow women to make any form of choices about their lives; it must be how the Islamic religion or tradition says it must be. But while Binta and her likes back in those days could not assert any sort of feminine freedom to determine their own destinies apart from what parents or religion demands, the tides have since turned as Binta’s daughter, Hureira shows. She gives free rein to her emotions; she married in love but her temper is a problem and she promptly divorces the first husband she fell in ‘love’ with, a luxury term her own mother could ill afford. Her second marriage has also hit the rocks, as her husband goes for a second wife to rattle her self-assertiveness.
Nigeria’s insufferable politics of greed and corruption do not escape Ibrahim’s attention. Reza is Senator Maikudi’s henchman for his dirty jobs. He is the rented gangster who fixes things in the dark and keeps Maikudi’s political opponents silent for his ascendancy. But as soon as Reza becomes as a political liability, Maikudi permanently silences him.
IF Ibrahim’s collection of short stories, The Whispering Trees in 2012, showed promise, Season of Crimson Blossoms is a promised delivered with aplomb. Ibrahim’s mastery of his craft is unmistakable. Season of Crimson Blossoms is a finely executed piece of elegant prose laced with vivid, enthralling imageries that are poetically evocative. It is a joy to read. The author’s turn of phrase is marveling, intense and even startling.
Take, for example, his capture of a photographer’s trade, “She sat on the bed and flipped through the album. Halfway through the laminated pages, she found the picture. The four of them, her children, in 1987, lined up against a pocked wall, staring into the lens as if startled by their own existence. The photographer, a Yoruba woman, had strolled from house to house; a troubadour of images, scribbling memories with the ink of light”.
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