WOMEN OF FIRE

Yellow Brown Bird Illustration Little Childrens Book Cover (2)

1

“Selére, hurry up with that basket you’re weaving. I want you to go and buy me a new calabash.” Her mother called out.

“Yes, Nana. I am almost finished. We also need palm oil for tomorrow’s dinner,” Selére announced to her mother.

She pushed a strand of palm tree through another to make a tight knot. Her mother used to tell her stories of when she was still a child. The first time she spoke, she called her Mother Nana. Ever since then the name stuck.

Nana smiled and walked back into their hut to get more cowries for the extra cost of buying palm oil. Her mother made her way back to their compound where Selére was finishing the last weave of the basket. She gave her 5 cowries for the cost of buying palm oil and the calabash.

“Don’t stay late o Selére. I don’t want you to upset your father.” Nana said.

Selére nodded and rose to her feet. She put the cowries into her pouch. Giving her mother a quick hug, she headed for the market.

At the market, Selére tried to scan for her mother’s favourite trader- Iya Bola. The woman moulded the strongest calabash in the whole town of Imotan.

“Good afternoon Iya Bola. Nana said she needs a new calabash.” Selére said once she found the middle-aged woman who always tied a scarf over her black hair.

“Ah Selére, my dear. How is your mother?” She asked.

“She’s fine Iya Bola, but she won’t listen to me, she’s getting stressed of late. I told her to stop going to the farm. I, Bere, and the other children can help with the work.” Selére sighed.

“Your mother is stubborn. You too you’re taking after her.” Iya Bola started laughing. She remembered how Nana and her would go to the stream against their parents’ warnings.

“Oya, let me answer you before your mother comes and starts looking for you.” She continued as she reached for her basket on the floor. She took a few seconds to decide, that the calabash without holes would serve her old friend well.

Selére paid 3 cowries for the calabash before walking towards the food stalls. She noticed that most of the traders were men, only a few women came to sell. She was about to ask one of the men how much he would sell a bowl of palm oil for her when she felt a soft pat on her shoulder.

Selére turned, immediately her hostility vanished when she saw Remilekun.

Remilekun was famous for knowing everything that happened in Imotan. Today it seemed she has chosen Selére as her knew gossip partner.

“Did you hear about the new law?” She whispered.

“What law?” Selére asked she didn’t have time for Remi’s gossiping.

“The king said women are to stop coming to the market. Only men can sell now. He would punish any woman caught selling or buying.” she said.

“He can’t be serious. How are the women supposed to support their families? This is madness. How did you hear?” Selére asked. She didn’t trust Remi’s words completely.

“Tokunbo, you know he works at the palace. There was a meeting. The town crier would soon announce it.” Remilekun replied.

“Okay, but why would you tell me?” She asked still doubting Remi.

“No reason. I trust you.”

With that Remilekun walked away from Selére, leaving her to scattered thoughts. She had to tell her friends. They had to stop this new law, but first, she had to buy palm oil.

The moment Selére reached her father’s compound, she headed straight to his hut. Her father too had returned from the farm, because he was cleaning his favourite knife covered in mud.

“Baba, good afternoon.” she greeted.

The old man-with streaks of grey hair- looked up from his task to see his daughter. Selére was his only child and even though she was a girl he loved her.

“Selére, how are you?” he asked.

“Baba I am fine. I came to verify a rumour I heard. You’re one of the chiefs of our town, only you can know the truth.”

He dropped the rag and knife on the floor of the hut. Then gestured for her to sit down on the small stool opposite to him.

“Oya, tell me what is this rumour?”

“Baba, eh n, I heard that women will stop selling at the market very soon?”

A heartbeat passed, her father said nothing, he didn’t look surprised even. Selére looked at him trying to fish out the truth.

“Yes, the rumour is correct. Who told you? Remi abi?” he frowned, “One day, the king will punish that girl and her sharp mouth, always talking tu tu tu tu.”

He used his hands to imitate the beak of a bird. Selére didn’t want to betray her source neither did she want to lose her father’s trust. He had told her countless times to stay away from Remi. She tried to stay away but it seemed the girl liked her too much.

“Baba, what will happen to the women? Think of Iya Bola that supports her three daughters with the earnings of her calabash sales?” Selére argued.

“See, I don’t know anything. I have told you what I know. Oya go and meet your mother, let me rest,” he groaned.

“You don’t know or you won’t tell me?”

She wanted to yell at her father but instead, she left the room so he could rest. She knew where to channel her anger and she was going there once it was midnight.

2

Selére watched from her hut as her mother blew out the flame of the last lantern before entering her hut. It was time to go and find her friends.

She opened the bolt of their compound’s gate. The midnight breeze was cool. The trees danced with a lack of concern for the wind that brushed through their leaves. Selére spotted Sebi’s goats.

The black one was looking at her with glowing eyes, she nodded at it. The goat was the only living thing that knew of her midnight escapades. Every time she sneaked out she made sure to give the goat a nod to reassure their unusual friendship.

She headed for Oba river.

“Finally, we thought you were not coming again,” Abeni snickered at Selére.

“I see your sore throat has healed Abeni. Hello Orishabunmi, Araoluwa,” she greeted the remaining girls.

All four of them had met at the women’s society meeting. Their mothers were societal women. They were wives of their village chiefs, so they had to be proper and perfect. Selére, Abeni, Orishabunmi, and Araoluwa disagreed with their beliefs. Well, they preferred to discuss their disagreements during their midnight meetings.

“Oya everybody, give your report on anything you heard that will be bad for women,” Orishabunmi said. She was the oldest. After she endured a meeting where her mother had said.

“There is nothing wrong for a girl to get married off the moment she started bleeding.”

Orishabunmi vowed that day to find girls who disagreed with her mother’s opinions. She founded their group of rebels. The women of fire she called them at their first meeting. Now they worked behind the scene to help young girls and defy the injustice against them.

Selére spoke first, she didn’t have time to waste.

“The king is about to stop women from going to the market,” she said.

“What? That is madness,” Abeni screamed out.

“That was what I said too o,” Selére said before continuing, “I asked my father, and he said it is true. He refused to give me details of when the order will become active.” she finished.

“Hmm, the king wants to ruin his people. I am sure Queen Bosede has something to do with this,” Abeni said.

Since the day the queen tried to marry her off to one of the old chiefs, she hated the woman.

“Whoever is behind it is not the urgent matter. We have to do something about this.” Orishabunmi commented.

All four girls perched on rocks looked at the sky as if the solutions to their problem hid there. Selére jumped to her feet, her lips curved.

“We cause a commotion on the day the law will become active. But how we do it is what I don’t know,” her excitement downed down.

“What if we go to the market and sit down in front of the shops until the king allows women to sell again,” Abeni shared.

“Yes o, that makes sense. But only four of us cannot do it. They will be able to capture us. We need plenty women,” Orishabunmi said.

“Then we tell the women of the village. Nobody knows that the king is about to stop women from selling, only us. We spread the word and our plan,” Selére said, her excitement started rising again.

“Okay, is everybody agreeing with this plan?” Orishabunmi asked. All the girls nodded.

Their meeting was a success. Now they had to spread the rumour, was this how Remilekun felt?. Selére wondered as she headed back home. The black goat was already asleep when she reached her compound.

3

She knew someone was watching her. It wasn’t the first time she felt it. That heavy feeling of someone’s eyes on you.

“Come out, who is there?,” Abeni challenged.

Every evening, it was her job to fetch water for the next day. She knew the paths that lead to the stream by heart. But a few days ago she realized she wasn’t the only one going on her stream journeys.

There was a rustling sound coming from being her. Abeni turned to face the tall mango trees that grew together. It was a person that was behind the trees.

“Abeni,” a very deep voice called out from behind the trunk of one of the trees.

“Who are you? Show yourself,” she commanded.

“It’s me joor, Banjoko. No need to get all serious.” he laughed.

Banjoko was the queen’s nephew. His parents had died on a hunting trip. Ever since Queen Bosede tried to marry her off, Banjoko made it his life mission to marry her. Only that Abeni didn’t like him enough to consider marrying him.

“I’ve told you to stop following me Banjoko. I don’t like it. Don’t make me report you to my father.”

Abeni’s tone was strict, even if she became scared Banjoko would never know. Despite her warnings, Banjoko walked towards her as if he was a predator stalking prey.

With every step, he took Abeni took three backward. He was stronger and bigger than her. She would never be able to outrun him if she tried.

“Banjoko, leave me alone,” she yelled.

“But what is wrong with you Abeni? I told you I love you. You should feel special. Do you know how many girls want me?” he roared as she closed the gap between them.

“I’m sorry Banjoko. I don’t love you. I’m sure there is another girl in our village who will love you,”

Abeni was shivering. Banjoko was a foot away. He grasped her left arm and pulled her towards his chest.

“Banjoko leave me alone, I don’t want this, please leave me alone.” she was sobbing now, the tears were running wild down her ebony skin.

It seemed her pleas and tears aroused him because he reached for her tear-stained lips. She reached the conclusion of what he was trying to do in a heartbeat. Without hesitation, she glanced at the calabash, gripped tight in her right hand.

Without thinking she reached for his head and slammed the moulded clay. Within seconds it shattered into pieces. Banjoko took a step back freeing Abeni’s arm. She rushed away from him, leaving him in a state of confusion. Blood dripped from his forehead as he looked at her and swore to get his revenge.

Abeni ran as fast as her two legs would carry her. She was breathless and sweating by the time she reached her father’s compound. She stopped and used her wrapper to wipe her sweat and tears away. Pasting a smile on her face she took a breathe and entered the compound.

Her mother had visitors, and they were none other than the perfect society women.

“Ahh Abeni our daughter,” one of the women called out. Abeni grew disgusted. She wanted to yell at the women, tell them how the queen’s perfect nephew has been harassing her. He now had the boldness to almost kissing her. Instead, she looked blank and nodded at the women before she tried to escape their jaws.

“Wait Abeni. Where is my calabash?” her mother asked.

Ah ah ah, Abeni’s brain played a flashback of how the calabash had saved her life.

“Eh n mama, I tripped and fell, and the calabash broke.” she prayed that her mother and the other women would buy the lie.

“But you don’t have any injuries sha?” Iya Iyabo said scrutinizing her skin. Even if her mother bought the lie, those pock-nosing women wouldn’t. Mtcheww, Abeni hissed in her mind.

“There were some leaves, it cushioned the fall,” Abeni said then gave the shortest curtsy before leaving the women.

That night, Abeni didn’t sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Banjoko’s face.

4

That same day, while the sun was still shining without pity. Selére and her cousins were working overtime at their family’s farm. Selére noticed her mother’s niece-Bere- was looking unhappy.

The only reason why farming was enjoyable was because of Bere. Her special talent was telling stories. She had a new story every day, except today. Bere was quiet and her eyes looked hooded with sadness.

Selére exchanged her farming portions with one of her cousins, the one close to Bere. She lowered her hoe to the moist soil, then glanced at Bere who indeed looked unhappy, she was crying.

“Bere, what happened to you?” Selére asked.

Bere had not even noticed Selére was beside her. She raised her head and Selére saw her eyes, red and puffy.

“Nothing Selére. I’m fine.” Bere said.

“You can talk to me Bere. We can go back to the house. Nobody is at home now,” Selére offered. Bere rarely cried, so whatever happened to her must be serious. Bere calculated the offer if it was worth it. She trusted Selére, in fact, Selére was the only person she trusted in the whole village.

“Okay, but how will we go? We haven’t finished our portions.” Bere asked.

Selére smiled. She was one step ahead of her cousin, she had a plan. She pulled Bere towards her mother.

“Nana, it’s getting late. I have to go and start peeling the yam so we can cook it for dinner.” Selére announced. Her mother too tired didn’t bother to even argue with her. She waved her hand and told her to cook enough.

Once both Selére and Bere were away from prying eyes, Bere decided to share her burden.

“I’ve started bleeding Selére,” Bere said crying all over again. Selére went into shock.

Bleeding meant she was fertile. That equalled to Bere getting married off to some old chief that would never respect her. Selére remembered how she had escaped her own marriage, she lied she lost her innocence to her lover. She refused to tell the queen the name of this lover, not because he didn’t exist but to keep her lie going. Five years later Selére was still unmarried and happy.

“I’m happy for you Bere. You’re now a woman. But that means your life is not safe.” Selére confessed.

“We have to keep this a secret from your mother and brothers okay. I will meet with the girls and tell them so we can find a solution. We will find something I promise.

“Thank you Selére. We should start peeling yam before everybody comes back hungry and meet no food.” Bere said.

Selére laughed. Leave it to her favourite cousin to find the joke in a serious matter.

Two weeks later, Orishabunmi was running to the palace. Even though her father was one of the chiefs, the queen hated their family. She made Orishabunmi a palace maid. It was a big position for any unmarried woman in their village. Preoccupied with her thoughts, she ran her fingers over the scar a little above her left eyebrow.

The queen had used her knife to wound Orishabunmi when they were younger because she was jealous. When both of them started bleeding, men came from all over the town to ask for Orishabunmi’s hand. None came for Bosede. She ignored Orishabunmi until the king chose her. Bosede went mad with envy, she stole her spot and scarred her for life.

At the palace, Orishabunmi tells Ifeya of their plan to cause a commotion when the law passed. Ifeya agrees to take part. She also promised to rally more women and girls.

5

Soon Mobo, the village town crier came with the news, escorted by guards to punish anyone who refused to obey. Half of the women at the market were oblivious of what was about to happen. The other half- Selére and her friends were ready to put their plan to action.

“People of Imotan. People of Imotan I greet you o,” he cried out, banging his drum.

“Men and women, sons and daughters, families of Imotan I greet you o. I have a message from our king,” he announced.

The whole market became still. Even the trees refused to sway in the direction of the wind. Everyone was paying sound attention to Mobo. Selére and Abeni smirked.

Orishabunmi was breathing hard. While Araoluwa looked torn between running and staying.

“Our king has ordered that women should stop selling at the market. Women will also stop buying anything at the market. Any woman or girl caught at the market will get flogged with 20 strokes. That is all people of Imotan,” Mobo finished.

The still crowd immediately threw themselves into a state of frenzy. The realities of what Mobo’s words meant for them was setting in.

“That is impossible. Women have held this market for years.” a slender woman cried out, her daughter was holding her back from reaching towards Mobo.

“Who will sell for us then? Who will buy food and clothes for us now?” another woman wailed, it was Iya Bola.

It was time to act. The guards started packing the loads of women who refused to go home. Selére and the girls all sat in front of the sheds.

Mobo glared, confused. The girls formed a ring round the market and started screaming.

“We want to sell. We want to buy. We have families. We want to sell, we want to buy, we have families.”

The guards became taken aback by the sudden commotion. Mobo looked at the faces of the girls that initiated the commotion. He pointed towards them and immediately the guards understood.

Abeni also understood and she yelled.

“This is our land too. Our mothers built this village too. You can’t take it from us, we want to sell, we want to buy.

The guards pushed through their barricade and started tying them. The girls resisted, Abeni even gave one of the guards a hard shove on his stomach.

After what felt like hours, the guards tied up Selére, Abeni, Orishabunmi, Araoluwa, and Ifeya with ropes. They marched them to the palace. They all knew the fate that waited for them, but they had achieved their goal. They had shown the people what it meant to stand against injustice.

6

At the palace, Selére sees her father’s disappointed face as the guards force her to her knees. What she did was important. The king rose and everyone fell to their knees without question.

“Chiefs, today I passed a law that women will stop going to the market. I have my reasons. A king knows best for his people,”

King Rereloluwa bellowed to the chiefs and crowd that followed the guards back to the palace.

“But I see that some girls,” he looks down at Selére with annoyance. “Some of the people I am trying to protect don’t want my protection.”

As he spoke the chiefs rose back to their seats. Even the people stood up.

“What are you protecting us from?” Selére yelled out.

Everyone gasped, her mother almost fainted. Never in all the 30 years, their king had reigned had anyone spoke back to him. It was a crime punishable by death.

Selére’s father looked ashamed. If he had a son he wouldn’t have to endure such a disgrace. The king was beyond furious, a child was questioning his leadership.

“Alamo, flog them 30 strokes. Make sure it is painful so they remember always.” the king bellowed. The girls knew what was coming if they failed. But they did not fail.

The flogging would only prove to the women that there was a certain injustice only they faced. They were Obirin ti Ina, their flame would forever burn, sowing seeds of hope and courage.

Alamo, the king’s personal guard and executioner wasted no time in carrying the king’s order. The girls stripped and laid flat on the flogging wood.

Tuah tuah tuah tuah. Each stroke gave Selére a new purpose. She refused to cry. Orishabunmi smirked and laughed as Alamo’s bamboo stick unleashed its wrath on her soft skin. Abeni looked bored with Alamo’s effort to make her cry. It was only Araoluwa that cracked. Even Ifeya held her tears.

“For the flame,” she cried out.

The beating ended, their bodies were sore with red swollen marks. Selére’s skin had blood oozing out from some of the marks.

Alamo bowed to the king and stepped aside so everyone would see his job. He did it very well except the girls were witches. Any normal person would break and cry their eyes out after the fifth stroke.

The king glared and left the palace. His chiefs followed, Selére’s father looked at his daughter with shame. If only she was a boy he thought again. Selére’s mother managed to control herself and reached for her daughter.

She wrapped her wrapper over her naked body and pulled her away from the hateful eyes. Abeni and Orishabunmi’s mother was in tears as well. She had heard there was a commotion in the market, she decided to see what was happening. Only to find her two daughters at the epicenter of the trouble.

While the other mothers sobbed Araoluwa’s mother was furious with rage. She slapped Araoluwa until one of the elder women cautioned her to stop. Araoluwa knew the eyes her mother saw her with now. She was no more the perfect daughter that every man in Imotan wanted. She was a disgrace.

“In your entire remaining life, Araoluwa. I don’t want to ever see you with those useless girls. Do I make myself clear,” her mother roared.

“Yes mama,” Araoluwa replied.

She looked at Selére, Orishabunmi, Abeni, and Ifeya as their mother’s tethered to their wounds. She sighed and followed her mother back to their house.

7

Six days after their plan almost failed. The women of Imotan continued to cause commotion every day at the market. They came out in large groups, even the guards could not stop them. The king had no choice but to cancel the law. The women of fire had won.

The sun was preparing to let the moon take over for the day. The sky was a mixed shade of the luscious insides of a paw paw and palm kernel fruit.

Abeni had recovered from the beating, her mother had a special oil she used to treat them. When Bosede jagged Orishabunmi’s eyebrow with a blunt cutlass. Their mother used the oil every day to reduce the scar. News of the king lifting the law had reached her and the other girls. Some people called them heroes even. Abeni was proud to be a part of Obirin ti Ina.

As she headed for the stream. Her mother had warned her that she must watch the road and not ruin the new calabash she bought for fetching water.

She bent down so she could plunge the calabash into the running stream. The water was pouring from the brim when she set it down on the bank of the stream.

She adjusted her osuka ( a rolled wrapper placed on the head to support calabashes). Abeni placed the filled calabash on her head. She was an expert at setting the calabash on her head.

Ready to leave she turned to start her journey home. Someone grabbed her waist and pulled her towards the floor. The calabash wasted no time in obeying gravity as it fell off her head, shattering into pieces.

She wrestled the strong arms and turned to see Banjoko. His eyes darkened with lust and vengeance. He restrained her by gripping her throat. She was losing air, she couldn’t hear, she wanted to scream but only air came out.

Banjoko revelled in the moment of her weakness.

“I told you I would have my way,” he whispered into her ears.

Tears streamed down her face. He took her innocence and dignity away. He stole her life in a single moment. He ruined her.

Satisfied, he rose and spat on her naked body. Abeni’s eyes held nothing but hate. She cursed him in her heart, soul, and mind.

Banjoko knew no one would listen to her if she reported him, after all, he was the queen’s nephew. He whistled as he walked away. But he didn’t know how far Abeni’s rage would push her to get justice.

Abeni managed to shake off the weakness in her legs. She pushed her body towards the stream and plunged herself into its watery grasp. She prayed the goddess Oba would cleanse the misfortune that happened to her. She prayed and prayed.

She mustered courage and strength, then she sighted her wrapper and tied it. She would have her justice.

Orishabunmi had been waiting for her sister. It was already dark. The moon was already gleaming down on the people of Imotan. She was getting worried.

“Abeni should be back by this time,” she muttered to herself.

Since the day the king had ordered the guard to flog them, her father refused to speak to her. They were strangers living under the same roof. Her mind lost itself in worry but her eyes squinted as it tried to decipher who was coming into their compound.

“Abeni? Abeni, what happened to you since? Mama has been waiting for the water o,” Orishabunmi said but her sister had no calabash and she was crying.

“Abeni what happened, talk to me,”

Orishabunmi was panicking, she helped her sister to the bench she was sitting on before. She squatted and held her younger sister’s cheeks that were wet in her hands.

“He ruined me Bunmi. He almost killed me. No, he has killed me.” Abeni yelled.

“He was always following me, since that time I was almost married. He was everywhere, especially at the stream. The day I broke the first calabash, I used it to escape from him.

Orishabunmi said nothing, allowing her sister to pour out the pain she had bottled up for so long.

“I thought if I showed confidence and rejected him, he would stop. He didn’t Bunmi, now he has ruined me. He took my dignity as a woman. He stole my future, and I want justice.” Abeni screamed at the top of her voice. Their mother rushed out of her hut to see her two daughters in a pool of their own tears.

“Abeni, Orishabunmi, what has happened?” their mother asked.

“Mama, why don’t you ask Abeni,” Orishabunmi said standing to her feet so her mother could see Abeni’s face.

“It was Banjoko.” that was all Abeni said before she stood up and entered their hut. Their mother was weak, she was a perfect societal woman who lived to please the queen and king. What could she do?.

“I don’t understand Abeni,” she called out after her second daughter. “Bunmi what happened?”

“Banjoko took your daughter’s innocence away. He ruined her life mama.” Orishabunmi said crashing to the floor. Her mother raised her wrinkled hands to her mouth. She wanted to scream out as she cried but she had to control herself.

What would people say? Her daughters were already unfortunate, this scandal would ruin their family’s reputation. Her husband could lose his title as chief.

Orishabunmi knew why their mother was panicking. She knew the thoughts that ran across her fragile mind. Her mother wore the same look she did when Orishabunmi’s face got scared by the queen. Not that anyone knew it was the queen. This time she swore to get justice for her sister. Enough been quiet, she was ready to let her flame start burning.

8

A new moon took its place in the sky when Mobo’s voice echoed through the silent village of Imotan.

“People of Imotan, People of Imotan,” he started. “Women and men, sons and daughters, families of Imotan, I greet you ooo.”

Even though the village seemed as though everyone was asleep. The villagers were wide awake, listening to their town crier’s voice. Mobo only brought good or bad news. There were no in-betweens.

“I have good news for you o,” he announced. It was as if the still air could feel the relief of the people, it started blowing with a certain rush.

“The will be a wedding in two days at the palace. The oracle will bless this new union,” he continued.

Oracle? Selére thought. If the oracle was going to be there, it is a royal wedding then. She stilled her wandering mind so she could hear the reminder of Mobo’s message.

“The wedding is between our queen’s nephew, Banjoko, and the daughter of Chief Akanjo- Bere. Wear your best clothes and come and celebrate at the palace in two days”

Mobo finished his message. Voices started rising from compounds. It was sudden and Bere was still a young girl some of them argued.

When Selére heard Bere’s name knew she had failed her cousin. Someone must have found out she started bleeding. She wasn’t going to allow this wedding to happen.

Selére wasn’t the only one against the wedding. Abeni and Orishabunmi were planning to ruin the wedding and expose the devil Banjoko was.

The next day, once it was midnight, the girls except Araoluwa met at Oba river. They had a way of communicating through other girls. Selére told Iya Bola to tell Abeni ‘the river at midnight.’

Iya Bola never asked what it meant but she always delivered the message. She was their message woman.

“Selére, something has happened. We can’t let Bere marry Banjoko,” Abeni said once they sat on their respective rocks.

“I agree. Bere is too young. I don’t trust Banjoko either,” Selére replied.

“You shouldn’t trust him Selére,” Orishabunmi said. She glanced at Abeni who nodded for her to Orishabunmi took a deep breath. Selére glanced at the siblings. Confused by the unspoken conversation between the siblings.

“Banjoko defiled Abeni,” Orishabunmi whispered.

Selére stood to her feet and held her head. She was choking with rage. Her best friend didn’t deserve this fate. She wanted Banjoko dead.

“We must stop this wedding and Banjoko must pay for his sins.” Selére roared. Orishabunmi and Abeni stood up. The three girls held hands and swore to get justice at any cost.

9

The maids decorated the whole palace with bright flowers. Food was in enough. The women wore their hair like crowned jewels on their heads. They hoped to snatch a respected man as a husband at the end of the day.

The mothers were not far behind. Even though they came for the queen’s nephew’s wedding. They wanted to find a suitor or wife for their own children too.

“Welcome people of Imotan. Today is a day of celebration. We have come to celebrate the happiness and the future of our village.” Mobo cried.

The citizens of Imotan cheered and sang with happy voices. The chiefs sat down in a circular setting. King Rereloluwa and Queen Bosede sat at the centre of the chiefs. Servants at akimbo, fanning the hot air away from their rulers.

“Bring our future wife,” the king said out loud.

A group of young girls poured out from the entrance of the palace. The beads that sat on their waists echoed at every step they took towards the king. Bere was at the end of the parade.

The girls had covered Bere’s head with a thick wrapper.

Bere was crying. She was an unhappy bride. Her mother had entered the room when she was trying to pack the rag she used to clean herself when she bled out. Her father heard and the queen.

Her parents wanted status, the only way was through marriage. Bere paid for her parent’s ambition with her future.

“Where is the oracle?” queen Bosede asked Mobo.

“He has arrived your majesty,” Mobo answered.

The oracle covered his skin with markings made with grounded charcoal and chalk. He wrapped a single wrapper around his legs, it draped from his slim waist and stopped at his wrinkled knees. He was half-blind, two guards had to guide him towards Bere.

“Let the ceremony begin,” queen Bosede called out and everyone cried out with happiness. The dancers resumed their dancing and some men and women started singing at the top of their voice.

The oracle picked up one of the fowl, he slit the bird’s neck with grace and accuracy. Blood dripped from the cut into a small calabash. When he had collected enough blood, he threw the fowl to the floor. He reached for Bere’s veil and pulled it down.

“Why you dey cry?” he asked her. But Bere shook her head and said nothing.

He looked at her and went on with the ceremony. He dipped two lean fingers into the blood. As he raised them blood dripped back into a calabash. Bere took a step back but the guard behind her pushed her forward.

The oracle latched his bloody fingers to her forehead, he began to draw a circle. It was over, her life ruined. Bere almost collapsed if not for the guard. No one noticed her unhappiness, they only cared about her parents’ status and Banjoko’s future.

The oracle reached for Banjoko who was smiling. He had had his way in the end. The oracle’s fingers were reaching for his forehead when someone yelled out.

“STOP THIS WEDDING!”

Everyone turned. Frowned when they saw Selére and her band of rebels. Bere leaped for joy and pushed towards them but again the guard held her down before she could even move two steps.

“Seize them. This time your punishment will teach you how to behave like a proper woman!” queen Bosede yelled at the trio.

Before the guards could reach them, Orishabunmi started her speech at the top of her voice.

“People of Imotan. Today should be a day of joy for all. Except not all are happy. It is a sad day for us, for Bere” she looked at the villagers, some had confused gazes others looked annoyed.

The guards restrained the trio- Selére, Abeni, and Orishabunmi. The girls struggled until the oracle raised his hands. The queen wanted to oppose but the king held her hand and told her to remember the oracle had more authority. Selére continued their speech.

“Everyone here knows Bere is my cousin, some of you even call her my sister.”

Some of the villagers nodded at the truth Selére spoke.

“Bere is still young. She has bled for three full moons. Her body is not ready to bear children and she can’t raise a child on her own yet.”

Selére pleaded with the village to make sense of Bere’s predicament. She looked at Banjoko and glares at him with anger and disgust.

“Stop this madness now. I will not allow you to disrupt this happy day.” queen Bosede said. The crowd became torn between supporting Bere and obeying their queen. The oracle was silent all through.

Abeni stood up. Banjoko tensed. Her eyes blazed with shades of fiery anger. She pointed at Banjoko.

“People of Imotan, allow me to tell you a story of this man. This devil in form of man’s skin.”

Abeni stole the little meaning the villagers tried to make out of the whole drama.

“I was a young girl, like Bere when I was almost married off. Banjoko was at my wedding. Ever since that day, he follows me around town, claiming to love me,” she spat out.

“You should be happy, ungrateful girl,” queen Bosede snickered at Abeni.

Abeni ignored and continued with her story.

“Banjoko was always at the stream. I broke a calabash on his head the last time he tried to touch me against my will,”

This time Abeni looked at her mother with sad eyes. The realization of what her daughter had endured was hitting her.

“Three days ago, Banjoko took my innocence away,”

Abeni promised herself she wouldn’t cry in front of her enemies. The villagers were in a state of fear now. They looked from Banjoko to Abeni to Bere. Mouths were set to open, other women hissed and laughed. It was Banjoko’s words against Abeni’s. Nobody was going to believe the rebel girl.

10

“I don’t know this girl. She is jealous of my good fortune. Your majesty, please believe me. I would never of that to a woman of Imotan.” Banjoko started.

His voice was breaking with fear but nobody noticed.

“You are a liar and we will expose you today,” Selére yelled at him. Banjoko wasted no time in reaching for her face. Selére’s left cheek was hot from the slap. It took Abeni and Orishabunmi’s strength to stop Selére from clawing Banjoko’s eyes out of their sockets. She was livid.

“Abeni is telling the truth,” a small timid voice said from the crowd. It was Omorinsola, she was Remilekun’s older sister.

“Banjoko defiled me too. He stole my future. I believed no one would listen to me because of his royal status. But he is a wicked man and deserves severe punishment.” Omorinsola said.

Remi held her hand and encouraged her. Selére caught Remi’s eyes and she mouthed a thank you to her. The king rose, the queen followed. The chiefs bowed as did the whole village.

“What is this nonsense you girls are talking about?” king Rereloluwa bellowed. He was an impatient man. He wasn’t in the mood for the village drama.

“Banjoko tell me the truth. Do these girls speak the truth?” the king asked.

“No your majesty. Never will I do something so horrible.” Banjoko defended himself.

Banjoko was still defending himself when two girls joined Omorinsola.They confessed how he had been following them and had his way with them.Tujuka and Yejide also believe no one would believe them. But seeing the way Abeni and Omorinsola spoke the truth gave them courage.

“Let the oracle decide who is saying the truth. Let them drink water from Ikojo river.” Selére’s father said. He wanted the truth.

The oracle nodded and pulled a goatskin bag out from his wrapper bag. He poured the clear fluid into a calabash Mobo held in front of him.

“Let the girls come here and Banjoko. You will drink this water, if you lie you will die, but if you’re saying the truth you will live.” the oracle said.

The crowd went silent.

“No, I will not allow this. Stop.” queen Bosede yelled but her husband cautioned her. The matter was beyond them now.

One by one the four girls drank from the calabash, then Banjoko.

The tension in the air was thick, whispers coated the sky. Fear and worry. If they lied, they would die.

Tujuka started coughing. She rushed her palm to her mouth, when she brought it down, blood coated her brown hand.

The oracle shook his head. Tujuka lied and she was going to pay the price.

“No, no. Tujuka I warned you. I warned you!” a woman wailed out from the crowd.

“Mama, he rejected me, what was I supposed to do with my life? I’m sorry,” Tujuka slummed to the dry sand. Her mother rushed to wrap her daughter’s body. It was growing cold with every minute that passed.

“Ahhh, ehya, nawa o,” the crowd murmured their judgemental opinions about Tujuka. The show was far from over. Banjoko started coughing too. He looked at the oracle and grabbed the old man by the neck.

“You foolish man, you have poisoned me. You want to ruin me. Give me the cure now,”

Shocked drowned the queen, the whole village became silent.

“Banjoko, the water you drank is the same the girls drank. What will I gain from harming you? You brought this on yourself. No matter how evil a person is they will always face the consequences of their actions.” the oracle said, his voice gentle and his breathing was calm.

Banjoko released him and started coughing blood. He looked at his aunt, she looked away from him. He had stained her reign. She knew he enjoyed weird things but to go as far as stealing a woman’s innocence.

“They begged me to make them feel like a real woman. They teased me with their short wrappers and the way they walked. I only gave them what they wanted.”

Those were his last words before he staggered to the sand and died.

Some of the villagers were sitting on the floor, some were crying. Selére and her friends were not done yet.

“People of Imotan, we deserve justice and a right to demand the truth,” Selére said. She looked at the king before continuing.

“King Rereloluwa, tell us why you wanted to stop women from going to the market?”

He would have had Selére flogged for her constant disobedience. But he g his people deserved a leader who was a fellow kinsmen. He sighed and spoke with a loud commanding voice.

“My people of Imotan. Today we faced a great ordeal. Our dear Bere was almost given off to a wicked soul,” the queen cringed as he spoke.

“Every day I wear this crown, All I want is to protect you and your families. I stopped women from going to the market because I wanted to protect them. But it seems our women are strong and wise,” he glanced at Selére, Abeni, and Orishabunmi.

“I’m sorry for what happened to you Abeni.

From today, I decree that every girl who starts bleeding. Will marry only after five years of growing and learning.” he concluded.

Selére frowned, then chuckled. It was a win for the women of fire. Abeni laughed as Orishabunmi hugged her. The crowd went into happy mode. Bere ran towards Selére and hugged her too.

Their parents smiled with pride. They didn’t believe anything was wrong with their way of life. It took three girls to open the eyes of an entire village.

The next couple of full moons they continued to defy traditions that were unfair to women and girls. They even fought for girls to start learning how to fight and defend themselves.

They were the women of fire and they raised their voice against injustice against women. Imotan shined brighter because of Selére, Abeni, and Orishabunmi.

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