By Farooq A. Kperogi
Over the past week, my first daughter, Sinani, and I traveled to my hometown of Okuta(originally called Serukperu, meaning “egg-shaped rock” in the Batonu language, before it was Yorubanized to “Okuta” with the active collusion of British colonialists who had difficulty pronouncing the original name) located in the westernmost margins of Kwara State— on the borderline between Nigeria and the Republic of Benin.
But Okuta is my hometown only because the Borgu society where I come from, like most African societies, is patrilineal. If it were matrilineal, as many societies in Ghana are, my hometown would have been Parakou, Benin Republic’s third largest city (after Cotonou and Porto Novo) and northern Benin Republic’s largest.
A little digression here is not amiss. You will notice I called Parakou northern Benin Republic’s largest city. Now, if my part of Nigeria is located along our western border with Benin Republic, Parakou, which is only about an hour away from my hometown, should properly be in the eastern part of the country. But in Benin Republic, the Borgou state (one of 12 states in the country) of which Parakou is the capital, is often referred to as being in the “nord” (French for north), although it is actually geographically in the east.
Interestingly, my part of Kwara State, which used to be called Western Borgu until it was renamed Baruten after Northern Borgu was ceded to Niger State in the late 1980s, is also usually called “northern” Kwara in our state’s political lexicon, although it, too, is actually in the western belt of the state. It is so called, perhaps, because it is, along with the Nupe-speaking parts of the state, almost culturally indistinguishable from Nigeria’s far north even though most people there don’t speak Hausa.
It’s probably the same logic that explains the labeling of Borgou in Benin Republic as “nord.” In many ways, Borgou is the Beninese cultural and political equivalent of Nigeria’s far north. In politics, it seems, cultural affiliation and filiation trump cartographic labels.
Well, although I spent the first 18 years of my life in my hometown, I had never visited Parakou, the city of my mother’s birth. I had curiously been incurious about my maternal origins. That changed last week.
With only a little prodding from my mother, we set out for Parakou on a bumpy country road. But a few meters before the Parakou city gate, Beninese police officers, called gendarmes, stopped us. They said I was Igbo. In this country, I later found out, anyone who is dressed in a shirt and a trouser, has a complexion that is a little lighter than the average Beninese, and speaks English is called Igbo. They then asked for my travel documents, which I didn’t have because I didn’t think I needed them. I politely told them I was Batonu (or Bariba, as my people are called there) and that my mother was born in the city whose gorgeous gates overlooked us.
They weren’t convinced—or impressed. For starters, I don’t look anything like my mother. And I didn’t conform to what they thought to be the conventional or formulaic image of a Bariba man—whatever that is. Plus, my sartorial comportment—and that of my daughter who wore American clothes and boots—falsely gave me away as “Ibo”—or anything but Bariba. So they insisted that the conditions for my entry into Parakou was for me to either show my travel documents or pay some outrageous fee as penalty for not having the proper travel documents. My mother was spared this burden. They probably thought she was self-evidently Beninese, although her parents moved to what is now Nigeria since she was six, that is, when there was no place called Nigeria.
To convince them that I was who I said I was, I spoke the Batonu language, the Nigerian dialect of the language, that is, which is perfectly mutually intelligible with the Beninese dialect. All this time the gendarmes had been communicating with me in the faltering English they could speak. But after I spoke my language, the guys switched to French and pretended they didn’t understand Batonu, the major language in central and northern Benin Republic. They also stopped speaking English altogether.
At this point, I lost my cool. I told them their pigheadedness dramatized, in cruder, starker ways than I ever bargained for, the tragedy of arbitrary colonial boundary delineations and the attendant painful fragmentation of otherwise cohesive pre-colonial African societies. (I didn’t expect them to understand much less sympathize with this highfalutin angst; I was merely letting off steam). Much of central and northern Benin Republic used to part of the ancient Borgu Empire, which extended to what is today western Kwara State, southern Niger State and parts of Kebbi State in Nigeria. To this day, the spiritual and political headquarters of the Borgu people (who comprise different ethnic groups) is the Batonu town of Nikki in Benin Republic.
I also asked the gendarmes if they were aware of something called the ECOWAS protocol on free movement of people across the West African sub-region. That was obviously news to them. In a fit of simulated and impotent rage carefully calculated to intimidate them I insisted that I would neither produce any travel documents nor pay a dime as penalty. “This is literally my motherland and I won’t accept being treated like some illegal alien here by ignorant and clueless goons!” I said.
Then some self-important and well-fed bureaucrat who appeared to be the boss walked out leisurely, called me aside, and asked to know who I was. I told him. He asked for my ID, which I showed him. And that did the magic. We were now free to enter Parakou! Was I let off because I showed evidence that I live in America? Most probably. Tragic, isn’t it?
My mother’s family house is located near Parakou’s delightfully splendid central mosque. And that’s not by accident. She is descended from a family of illustrious Islamic scholars. The current chief Imam of Parakou is, in fact, her first cousin. Her own father, who died a few months after my older brother was born, was a noted Islamic scholar in the community, and her mom held a traditional title that is reserved only for people who hail from historically Muslim families in Borgu. In any case, my mom’s ethnic group, Dendi, is invariably associated with Islam in Benin Republic and in Nigerian Borgu.
The Dendi are a Songhai people originally from Niger Republic (there are still Dendid in Niger Republic) whose language is mutually intelligible with Zarma (or Zabarma), the politically dominant ethnic group in Niger Republic. They have the distinction of having brought Islam to Borgu in about the 15th century. However, over the years, many traditionally Muslim ethnic groups, particularly Hausas and Kanuris, have melted into Dendi in Benin Republic. My maternal grandmother, for instance, always told us she was part Katsina and part Kanuri (or Baribari, as she often said), although the only language she spoke was Dendi—and heavily Dendi-inflected Batonu.
My mom’s cousin in whose house we stayed told me exactly the same thing. He said the traditions of their origins are handed down to them through a folk song, which he sang for me—in Dendi, which I don’t understand for the life of me. The only words that were intelligible to me in the song were “Katsina” and “Borno.” Interestingly, the immediate past mayor of Parakou is the son of a Katsina man who migrated to Parakou as a young man. The ex-mayor, I was told, can’t speak a word of Hausa. He calls himself Dendi. So, Dendi, then, is no more than a complex, multi-layered ethnic alchemy that only uses the Songhai Dendi identity as a convenient wrap. My mom’s dad, though, appeared to be a direct descendant of the “unmingled” Songhai Dendi.
While I was dissecting the complexity of the Dendi identity with my mother’s first cousin who is a retired Beninese civil servant and older brother to Parakou’s chief Imam, an elderly, heavy-set man walked into the living room. He shook hands with me so very warmly and spoke to me in perfect English. He introduced himself as “the older brother of the man you’re conversing with.” I asked where and how he learned to speak English so well, especially considering his age.
It turned out that he was Benin Republic’s first ambassador to Nigeria between 1960 and 1963. How symbolic! Here was I trying to navigate and make sense of the complex contours of my identity as a Nigerian with a labyrythine network of tortuous maternal roots in Benin Republic and it turns out that my mother’s first cousin was actually Benin Republic’s first ambassador to Nigeria. (My mother hadn’t told me about this because, not being literate, she didn’t know).
The symbolism was not lost on the man himself. He insisted that next time I visit he would help me get Benin Republic’s citizenship if only to avoid the little annoyances of the gendarmes each time I visit. His first son is the country’s current minister of education, he said, and he would ask him to facilitate the issuance of a Benin Republic citizenship certificate to me. (Benin Republic’s current President, Dr. Thomas Boni Yayi, also hails from Borgou).
I also learned during my visit that the late Dr. Abdoulai Isa, the fiery Marxist intellectual who served as Benin Republic’s vice president under President Mathieu Kerekou and the intellectual powerhouse behind country’s 1970s “socialist revolution,” was my mom’s second cousin. He died in a car accident in the 1980s. Family members spoke of him with a lot of ambivalence. On one hand, he brought glory to the family by rising to such an important national position. But on the other hand, he also brought “shame” to the family because he not only routinely denounced religion (including Islam) while he was alive; he was also an aggressive atheist who had an ice-cold disdain for faith, leading his father, who was an Imam, to publicly disown him.
But if the man’s family was ambivalent or hostile toward him, his city and country celebrate, even worship, his memory. His tomb in downtown Parakou near the governor’s office is a marble splendor. It is one of Parakou’s tourist attractions, along with the statues of Hubert Bio Maga (Benin Republic’s first president who was a Batonu man from Parakou), Bio Gera (the audacious, no-nonsense Borgou monarch who fought French colonialists to a standstill), and many others. I was taken to these historic sites—and many more—during my visit.
To say that I experienced a surreal and ethereal sensation connecting the dots in my maternal heritage and living history in this poor and tiny country (which nonetheless suffers no power cuts like we do in Nigeria) is to understate the tremendous sense of personal fulfillment I felt about this exhilarating journey of genetic self-discovery.