The ancient kingdom of Benin was where we did most of our growing up. Smack in the centre of the city was where our house stood.
Its proximity to everywhere – a major market, the post office, a government hospital, the airport, the seat of government, a string of pharmacies, our place of worship, ring road (the mother of all bus stops) – gave us a certain privileged status.
The centrality of its location was made more glaring by its position right behind the traditional ruler of the Benin Kingdom – the Oba of Benin’s palace. Omo n’Oba n’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo. It took several rehearsals to effortlessly reel off that name in one breath. Not an easy feat back then considering some of our Bini friends couldn’t twist their tongues around their king’s appellation.
Oba gha to kpe e. Ise!
So, one of our brother’s friends tagged our house the Oba of Benin’s boys’ quarters.
A part of the stretch of impenetrable red brick wall, that served as a fence, took up an entire side of our street. While others awoke to the golden view of the rising sun, ours was a mixture of seemingly endless concrete stronghold and yellow rays; a sight we beheld every morning. One we grew accustomed to. Looked forward to seeing, even.
When we got over the myths surrounding the palace wall, it also provided succor from the elements and a much-elevated side- walk.
Living behind the Oba’s palace meant we were bordered on the left and right sides by chiefs of the palace; some of whom were quite friendly with our parents.We had front row seats to the customs and culture of the Bini people.
The language was front, back and centre in our conscious and subconscious life; it began with the break of day. Where two or three Bini people are gathered, a poultry is speedily formed. Kor. Kor. Kor.
The ceremonial dress of the chiefs wasn’t a strange sight, and we always knew in what direction they were headed once that attire was donned on.
Sacrifices in clay pots or calabashes at the beginning/end of the street were commonplace and all in a day’s work of countering enemies-at-work.
Round and red mud – built huts dotted the back streets of our house, standing cheek by jowl with modern buildings.
A stone throw away was the famous Benin moat, that man-made wonder, which hollowed out shortcuts to many adventures in church, schools, and miscellaneous activities. It was our personal playground.
And then there were the parades; one of the most entertaining perks of living within this environment. Often occurring during the weekends, either to mark a festival or a special occasion, the parades always drew us all onto the verandah and held us captive until the very last group disappeared out of sight.
There were the dancers, the acrobats, the ones with loud, energetic movements; there were the chiefs looking dignified and proud (like true Bini men) in white traditional wear, and red wrist and neck beads; there were those purported to be the Oba’s wives clad in rich, deep red, velvet cloths knotted at their chests, black and red – lined, elaborate head dresses, and white handkerchiefs concealing their lips; and the assorted groups which defied description.
We participated daily in the reality of the ancient Benin Kingdom. Yet we were the only non – indigenes on the street, breathing and walking with those steeped deep in the laws of this red – sand land. How did this come to be? A bunch of wayo, wadoh – greeting, starch – eating folks like us?
Our landlord was a Bini man, and the practice of having only certain approved tribes occupy one’s building was yet to gain the wide – spread popularity it presently enjoys. We lived in harmony with all our neighbours, and in our own cocoon at the same time.
And the Bini people gave us some of our best memories, enduring friendships and life’s lessons. To every one of them, distant and dear, who enriched our lives (some of whom are reading this article), we say U ru ese. Like sibling #9 would always say: ‘We are Bini by association.’ Indeed, we are.
But like everything in life, staying at the centre of the city had its perks and its corresponding down sides.
It was our home.
To others, it meant something else completely…
Omo n’Oba n’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo – part of the Oba’s name/title before his name is pronounced
Oba gha to kpere – may the Oba live long
Ise! – Amen!
Wayo – a derogatory term used to describe the Urhobo people
Wadoh – a greeting by the Urhobos, could mean many things
photo credit: codepen.io, wmf.org, thewillnigeria