By Edwin Madu
In 2009, sometime in the first half of the year, I was an exchange student in the capital of Benin Republic, Porto-Novo at a school named Lycee Behanzin. My secondary school in Nigeria at the time was almost obsessed with giving us a bilingual curriculum and what this meant for us young boys and girls was having to go to a public school in another country and also wearing their school uniforms, which were an acquired taste cos they were plain khakis that were not flattering on anybody.
Living in Porto-Novo for the better part of 9 months came with several experiences, from having people laugh at us for not speaking French properly in class to learning to eat new types of food. One of such experiences had the most effect on me. It happened on my way back from school with some friends. There were three of us. We were headed back home through the same backroads we had come to know like the back of our hands after several months. We had started to feel more like natives now, greeting some of the women as we passed by in Guun, Yoruba or French, depending on which you felt they would respond to. They usually responded to any. It was while passing by one of these backroads that we came upon a calabash filled with boiled yam dipped in palm oil.
“That is Ebo. Sacrifice for gods.” I remember one of my friends saying as we passed by it. He seemed to always know about things like this. It was not the first time he was saying it however. It was also not the first time we were seeing it. Porto-Novo, at least at the time that I was there, had what I have now coined as a high ‘spiritual diversity’. By this I mean, there were all sorts of religious places of worships littered around. From cathedrals to mosques and even shrines. I may be exaggerating but I believe it would be an easier task to find out how many street corners did not have a shrine for a certain god than it would be to find all the ones that had. That is how many they are. So these sacrifices were not a new thing. We saw them everywhere bearing different delicacies; I saw one that had beans and a boiled egg sitting on it. Sometimes you would find these calabashes empty and the insides would look like someone had actually eaten it. As a young boy at the time, seeing things like that caused me to start questioning: Did the gods actually come to eat the food? To eat the beans and egg?
On this day as we passed by this particular calabash, we had only walked a few metres in front of it, already engaging in a different conversation before we heard one of the women we had greeted earlier scream. The screaming was not the type screamed when you are in danger. It was the kind almost every African kid should be familiar with. You know that one your mother or aunty would do if they saw you putting your hand in the fire or something. It was that kind. We turned to see what or who they were shouting at. And there they were, two young kids, far younger than we were, none of them above 7, were eating from the calabash. The women screamed for them to stop, that the food belonged to idols. The children stared at them confused. You could tell from the look in their eyes that this was a last resort. Their eyes seemed to say “If we had a choice, do you think we would eat the idol’s food?”
I think the women got the message, because soon they stopped screaming. I do not know what happened after because before I could see anything else, I noticed I was alone. My friends had turned back and were already on their way down the backroads. I ran to catch up with them. I thought about this incident for days on end. My sympathy couldn’t be helped. It was the one time I was sad seeing another person eat. Seeing what I saw that day birthed something in me that I would not discover till later. It taught me sympathy in a way nothing else could, it made me strive to be better so that I could be in a position to help people driven to do things they wouldn’t if they had a choice. I wanted to give them a choice.