I never knew who I’d find on the other side of our apartment door when I answered a knock. I was living in Ibadan, Nigeria, in the late 1960s. One afternoon a very young man stood there; he was slight, with sloping shoulders, a wide smile, more teeth than chin, an eager expression. How old? Maybe seventeen, hard to tell. Over one shoulder he carried a big sack, bulging with knobby objects. Over the other, a broad strap supported a wooden drum rimmed with brass ornaments. The burdens seemed almost as big as he was.
“Good afternoon, madam,” he said, looking up at me. “My name is Inioluwa. I am a dealer in African antiquities. I am carrying many fine articles for your consideration. May I kindly have your permission to enter?” How could I refuse? Evan and Kirik, my young children, always curious, came to sit beside me on the sofa.
“Ah.” said Inioluwa. “May I know your name?” “Evan,” said Evan. “Ah,” said Inioluwa, shaking her hand. “Evan. Excellent. And may I know your name?” “Kirik,” said Kirik. “Ah,” said Inioluwa, shaking his hand. “Excellent. Kirik. Ah. Excellent.” My cook-steward, Daniel, ever watchful, stood by, a slight frown on his face. Inioluwa, whose facial scars identified him as Yoruba, was seen as a brash young man by Daniel’s more conservative Hausa standards, and not necessarily to be trusted.
But indeed Inioluwa did have many fine articles for our consideration. From his sack he pulled out old wooden masks, which he explained were sold to him by Yorubas who had become so Christian they had no use for them. He laid out new cast metal sculptures, carefully crafted to look like ancient bronzes, and encrusted with the very dirt with which they had recently been coated. He pulled out bits of old beadwork from ceremonial wear, and carvings of unknown age. There was even a black painted wooden snake used in Yoruba festivals, whose mouth opened and closed with a loud clack when a hand was put up through its cloth body. A veritable Mary Poppins portmanteau of Africana.
“Ah. I believe that you will be interested in African music,” he said. “Allow me to demonstrate the Nigerian talking drum.” Holding the hourglass-shaped drum firmly under one arm and beating its skin head with a curved wooden drumstick, he showed its capabilities. When he squeezed tightly with his bent arm on the thongs holding the head in place, they pulled the skin tighter, raising its pitch when struck. He could “say” almost anything on the drum. Including the insult, “Your head is not correct.” We were entranced.
Inioluwa soon became a regular visitor. He charmed us all, though Daniel remained a bit on guard. Inioluwa would come in the afternoon, sit on the edge of his chair in the living room, leaning forward, skinny legs and sandaled feet firmly on the floor, looking earnestly at us. He moved his hands descriptively, punctuating his sentences with his abrupt “Ah.” Not a long, drawn-out exhalation, “Ahh...” but a sharp exclamation, “Ah. Ah”—framing his words. His English was full of flourishes, ornamented with phrases from his readings, his schooling, his imagination. My own speech sounded sparse and dull to my ears after I had been listening to Inioluwa. He began to tell me his family history, which he knew in great detail, going back many generations. Though Christian, he revered his non-Christian forebears. I began to hear the stories of Yoruba divinities woven seamlessly into his ancestry.
“Today I intend to speak to you about my great-grandfather,” he would begin. “He was a learned and illustrious man.” And soon I was in a magical world of Yoruba mythology, tales of the orishas, the spirits of war, of love, of prosperity, of death.
Later he brought blue copybooks, in which he’d carefully written out cautionary tales. These always had a moral, illustrating the precepts by which we should endeavor to live. One of my favorites was:
The Foolish Man and His Hen
Once upon a time, there lived a man who had a beautiful hen. The hen laid a golden egg every day.
The man said to himself, “If I kill this hen, I shall take all the gold inside it.” Not long after this, he killed his hen, but alas! he did not find any gold inside it. As a result of this, he lost two opportunities.
This story is applicable to a proverb which follows: Once an opportunity is lost, it can never be regained.
I wondered; did Aesop’s golden goose travel to Africa over the centuries and become a hen? Or did the hens travel to ancient Greece? Or did the stories arise independently?
Another set of Inioluwa’s stories touched a more subterranean level:
A Mother and Her Son
Once upon a time there lived a man who had two wives. One bore a son but the other had none. The name of the first wife was ASOREMASEKA and the second AKILOPE. Asoremaseka loved her son very dearly, and she pet him always.
Asoremaseka wanted to travel to a far distant place; she had to leave her son behind due to conditions which are yet unknown. She gave uncountable eggs to her partner in respect of her son. She told Akilope to keep them for her son, because her son did not like any other food other than eggs. After this arrangement, she went away.
Akilope did not keep to her promise. She did otherwise. She gave eba to the son instead of eggs. Through this callous treatment, the son fell sick.
One day the son went out exposing himself as an object of pity to the passersby.
He began to sing,
“People who are going to Ojese, Tell my mother the eggs she put down, They were not given to me, But eba which is sour, she places it before me.”
The passersby heard the song with sympathy, and they delivered the message to his mother. At a glance, his mother came back and fought with this wicked partner. Finally, this wicked soul died, and her end was bad.
Lesson: This teaches us to love one another and to inculcate the spirit of love in ourselves.
This story was not only about jealousy between co-wives—here was the wicked stepmother of European fairy tales, with all the themes of jealousy, envy, and fear of abandonment that children everywhere feel. Inioluwa also had many animal tales:
Reading these stories, in Inioluwa’s precise handwriting, I was brought back to my American childhood, to my white Virginian father reading me the animal stories of Uncle Remus. I loved his easy reading of southern dialect, so rich in sound. Back in Nigeria, I heard a juxtaposition of my father’s rhythmic voice with Inioluwa’s eloquent turn of phrase. I marveled at the power of such stories—carried in memory from West Africa by enslaved peoples to America more than three hundred years ago and still cherished today
After some months, Inioluwa had saved enough money to go back to school. Primary education in Nigeria was free, but secondary schooling was not. For Inioluwa, as for many, it was a hard struggle to pay school fees, living expenses, and to buy textbooks. We helped him to get started, and soon we began to receive letters from him in which his eloquence truly blossomed. At first his letters, carefully written by hand on lined paper, were somewhat formal.
My dear Mr. and Mrs. Jenness,
I take it a great pleasure to inform you that I arrived at Igbo Ora safe and sound. How to talk about the high degree of love that you have for me, this can never be gainsaid. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your kindness for me and your amiable conduct to humanity. I can never express how gratified I am, on account of all you did for me. But I am sure God will repay you accordingly. (Amen). If I say that I will be thanking you to the necessary point required, for your love for me, there won’t be any chance to stop my pen.
Yours faithfully, Inioluwa
But his money soon ran low, and so I heard from him again, with feeling:
My Dear Aylette,
I am in the hostel. I have paid my money, still yet, it appears I am unfit (why?), the reason for this is double; but they are based on money.
First, I have no pocket money with which to buy food—provisions. This is a serious thing indeed; for it appears that I am totally unfit in respect of money. Secondly, without good textbooks, necessary for me, all my efforts to achieve success will be in vain. I pray that it will not be in vain. Therefore I need a physics textbook which will make everything possible for me. This book will not be supplied to us in the school. This is the more reason why I want to buy it. The title of the book is; ‘INTRODUCTION TO PHYSICS BY WIDGES’. Therefore I need three pounds only.
Please, I am madly in need of this money; and therefore I write you with the hope that when you read it, I will find favour in you, and the money will be sent to me.
Yours faithfully, Inioluwa
N.B. Please do not send cheque but the notes, and roll it inside the blue envelope. Do not register it. It costs money and loses time.
So I sent the three pounds, folded and put in the blue envelope. But of course, the money problems continued, and his next letter was more impassioned:
My gold, Mrs. Jenness,
You are my gold. You deserve the term ‘gold.’ You are pure in heart. Your love to me is unique. You have put pushes to my fortune and greatness in life. God will repay you more than I expect. (Amen). I thank you; that you highly recognized me as wretched as I am. You have laid a strong foundation on account of your love and therefore it is indestructible.
Your letter came in hand together with the three pound notes.
As for your anxiety to know the reasons why I need money for food; it is like this; frankly, we are being fed in the boarding house. But we are underfed. The food is not satisfied at all. Therefore, it is the money that we use to buy bread (etc.) and other required provisions.
Please extend my greeting to my favorites, both Kirik and Evan.
With love from your affectionate lad, Inioluwa
I could see that his elocution rose when the state of his finances fell, so I knew he was particularly strapped when I opened a letter that began:
Most apples of my face,
How are you? Hope you are enjoying the atmospheric conditions of that area? How is your work proceeding? I should have written you earlier than this, but the delay is due to the prevailing circumstances. Anyway, do not be so annoyed. I apologize for any inconvenience I might have caused on you. As a promising, pushful and ambitious boy I don’t want to be any other grade rather than grade I. But I have to read wide. Even though I have got many textbooks, yet I have not got Notes on each of them. Whereas, it is these Notes that will be a guide to the respective subjects.
I want to read. And I will face all the problems beside it. And I am sure that your paramount concern is to see that I am progressing in my studies. Therefore, I want you to help me and lend me a small amount to buy these books:
(1) Notes on English literature: Macbeth (2) Notes on Chemistry (3) Notes on Physics (4) Notes on Biology (5) Questions and answers on Geography (6) Structural patterns and Lexie English
These are the books which will give me my grade I on the forthcoming exam. Each does not cost more than 5/6d. Therefore, I want you to lend me 3 pounds only. Please; God will not disappoint you, do not disappoint me. I build my hope on you. I will be expecting your favourable letter and the money inside it. Thank you very much. I am anxiously awaiting your reply.
Yours faithfully, Inioluwa
I sent the money, awaited news of the exam results, and also to see what my next salutation might be. The news was good—and bad.
My dearest one,
I am happy to bring to you good tidings of joy. I passed both my West African School Certificate and the G.C.E. examinations. I took grade II with two distinctions, three credits, three good passes in the subjects I offered for the W.A.S.C exams. And I have three good passes for G.C.E. exam papers. I am happy that all your efforts on me have not been in vain.
But where the trouble lies is about the job. I have not got job. I thus want to proceed further, but I like to trade in Nigerian antiquities for a time. Therefore I need your support, and I solemnly promise to refund it after two months of obligations. It is only five pounds. And I promise to give interest on it if requested. Please; God will help you. And I strongly confide in you, do not disappoint me. I am in great expectation of the reply with an enclosed five pound note.
Please extend my sincere greetings to Kirik and Evan. Wishing you good and sound health and a happy season in advance.
Thank you with love from, Inioluwa
So here he was, after all his struggles with money, and his diligent schoolwork, going back to selling “antiquities”—a precarious living at best. How was he to get ahead at this chaotic time in the country, even as promising, pushful, and ambitious as he was? Still, I had faith that he would succeed (amen). So I “loaned” him the five pounds, and off he went.
As time went on, we saw less and less of him. I missed his eloquent speech, his extravagant letters, his fables, his fine articles for my consideration. Did I expect to see the five pounds again? No, not unless he needed another “loan.” I thought of a Yoruba proverb: “The rabbit that eats yams and enjoys them will return for more.” I was the rabbit, only wishing I could return for more yams (amen).
Aylette Jenness was born in NYC in 1934. Her mother, Shelby Shackelford was a painter of some note and her father a physicist. Jenness attended Pratt Institute and later the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to study sculpture. After teaching art at the elementary school level and working in day care she returned to school and received a masters degree in education from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
In the 1960s Aylette lived in the Arctic and Nigeria with her husband, Jonathan Jenness, an anthropologist, and their two young children, Kirik and Evan. She photographed their time there, and from their experiences wrote several books. From Alaska came two books for young people, Gussuk Boy, Dwellers of the Tundra, and In Two Worlds (with Alice Rivers), and from Nigeria came, Along the Niger River, also for young people, and now this memoir, Sometime a Clear Light.
Aylette’s photographs of Nigeria, which capture a lost way of life, are now archived at the National Museum of African Art in the Smithsonian Institution, which says: “Jenness communicates two themes that have guided her photography: her unique female perspective and a drive to educate others about diversity. With these ideas in mind, Jenness has produced a photographic legacy of intimate depictions of peoples from such varied places as Alaska and Africa.”
She later worked at the Boston Children’s Museum for 25 years as a cultural developer of exhibitions, public programs, curricula, festivals, and workshops for teachers. Several books resulted, including The Kid’s Bridge, and Families: A Celebration of Diversity, Commitment, and Love. She also worked with Lisa Kroeber in Guatemala to produce A Life of Their Own: An Indian Family in Latin America. All of Jenness’s books are available on Amazon. Sometime a Clear Light is available at a discounted price on www.aylettejenness.com
Now living on Cape Cod with her cat Purrsia, Aylette is navigating a new world as she is losing her vision to macular degeneration. She embraces the light streaming in through her windows reflecting off the waters of the bay and feels grateful for each new morning that she is given.