If you lived in Lagos in the last thirty years this narrative will make some sense to you, but if you are new in the city we call Las Gidi it may not be too strange to you either. I lived with my parents, first at number 37 Bola Street and then later we upgraded to Sabiu Ajose Street, off Modupe Johnson in Surulere. The location we lived did not change the rites and rituals of the first day of the year. The only major difference, if you may call it so, was that Ebute Metta’s celebration had a touch of the traditional to it. The Oloolu grove was not too far from where we lived. This afforded us the opportunity to see the traditional worshippers observing their iwure ọdun. It was a time they consulted with the different deities and offered prayers for the New Year. As you can guess our parents did not allow us anywhere near the tent of the traditional worshippers. Now as I re-enter my past, I am now curious about what they did and how they were done.
If the Oloolu grove was a no-go area, the Apostolic Church was open to us both physically and spiritually. We did not need to attend their services though, the loud speakers and loud wailings made up for what we missed. At the strike of 12 mid night, the voices of supplicants grew louder to such an extent that nothing on Kadara street right up to Coates Street could sleep in peace. God had to grant their request by fire and by force. If he did I never will know.
The Koranic school behind 37 Bola Street next to Ogba Fred had no noticeable activity during the eve of the first day of any year. The place just went dead leaving the street urchins to play with their bangers and what was called ‘knockouts’. The noise and the beautiful lightings that resulted did not agree with my eyes nor to my ears. If you were close enough you would notice the excitement on the faces of those who participated in it. Please count me out of such mindless fear inducing fun!
If Bola Street provided us with mixed fun, the riotous fireworks at Ologbowo Methodist Church, on Lagos Island, was something out of this world. It was as if the different families that attended the Watch night service were in competition for who could induce the greatest fear! I was not amused at all. I dreaded the time the Choir would start to sing Awa Yin ọ, the song (more like chant) that signaled the passing of an old year and the entrance of the new.
So fast-forward to the afternoon hours of that very first of January. The Household of Pa Oladega Odutola transformed its self into a festival of food, fun and drinks. The women of the family from all corners of Lagos would have assembled to first take care of the Ram or mini cow depending on how buoyant Pa Odutola felt that year. Did Yoruba people not say that on the death day of an Elephant, different kinds of knives will appear? Yes, it is on that day that different cooking styles and cooking theories made a showing. The wives of Ijebu stock will rival those Lagos born and bred. Condiments of sorts made a showing too, the outcome of the culinary rivalry and cooking styles received commendation or condemnation from our tongues. The evaluation of the cuisine was very personal, no one dared voice his or her displeasure if something was too spicy or had more salt than bearable. Just eat and send praises and thanks to the most high.
“It was too spicy?” The conversation that reined only in my head. Should I voice my thoughts out there will be a wise saying to cut me to size. Remember that complex proverb of “ẹmi yẹpẹrẹ ni ki i jata” (meaning it is an ordinary spirit that is unable to consume pepper). Now as an old man myself I now have my riposte. Unfortunately, it will take a whole page to explain myself; so I will keep that for another time we meet on this page.
If the nose had “eaten” its own fair share, it was the turn of the tongue at lunchtime to give a verdict to the delicacies. The fried rice, the jollof rice and fried plantation supplied the component parts of this festival. As memory fails me now, I really cannot tell if the Ijebu delicacies of Ebiripo and Ikokore ever made a showing. If ever they were sideshows, the same cannot be said of pounded yam, amala and eba. These were necessary participants at our family festival of foods. These came with efo riro or melon seed stew. Since the head of the family never ate Okro soup, it was never a part of the menu. Is Okro not what Arsenal fans now label as draw soup?
If cooking of the meals was the main job of the women, icing the drinks was the job of the boys. I can recount the process and procedures of this particular chore because I was not too young to lift the block of ice that came from Mainland Cold Storage at Iponri nor too old to wash the old drums where the drinks were neatly arranged. The bottles of Beer were the first to go in, followed by bottles of wine and finally the “soft drinks” (Soda to those reading outside Nigeria). After about two layers, pieces of broken ice goes in and then more drinks until the drum was filled. The last step was to cover each drum with a plastic and wait until lunchtime when they will be needed. On days like these, there were no limits to how many bottles each child was allowed to consume after all New Year comes only but once. If you ask me who drank what, I can tell you exactly what went into each mouth. Mama Alake, (the twin of Tai Solarin) loved her small stout, Baba Jeba (the elder Oyeledun) loved his chilled bottles of Beer and Uncle GG drank only wine. The list goes on and so was the fun. The wine, the women and smell of different foods helped welcome the New Year into our household. Lunch lasted for hours with visitors coming and going. As a teenager, my wish was that every day could be like this but hey, it happened only for this time when most of our relatives were on holidays. Lagos city, especially Surulere was never on holidays. The middle-class families celebrated in-doors and we children met days after to exchange notes. Who said what and who ate what fed our gossip machine until the next New Year!
Is the New Year only about eating and drinking? Of course not except you are not a child or grandchild of Patience Omope Ajayi. Part of the rituals of a new year, was to walk down Adeniran Ogunsanya, until you reached the area where Super Cinema was situated. There was where my grandmother lived. On New Year ’s Day, she had her little white saucers of salt, honey, lobes of kolanuts, palm oil and such items that only made sense to traditionalist-Christian like her. The deal was to either lick or take a small bite of each as prayers are offered in Yoruba. To her it was one of the ways of fortifying the unseen self for what the year may bring. Once that ritual was over, you were sure of a chilled glass of Ginger Beer she would have stayed up the previous day making. A new year would be called another name if Ginger Beer was excluded. We then sat and gisted till the day gave its baton to night and my return walk to Shell Club area commenced. The night announced its self-when “left overs” from lunch starts to show up in different stages of undress. Some eaten half way, some still as intact as the women dished them. The mixing and matching of foods became a new game among siblings who still had an appetite for more food.
The first day of New Years in Lagos the state of my birth reminds me that something in missing in this new land I found myself. The streets here are cold, the people very private and the unseen God is the only common denominator here.