28 May A Review of Sam Omatseye’s Book “Obito”
A New York Times’ writer some days back said “drama is about people behaving badly”. Sam Omatseye’s latest drama Obito has its dose of people behaving badly. They call white black and want us to see white as black. And they blame it on tradition and culture.
In this offering, Omatseye resurrects a number of ill-behaved people from his imaginative graveyard. They hide under the king’s son’s supposed graduation ceremony to cover their lies.
Ordinarily, the bone of contention looks simple: a king dies. But for these guys, it becomes complicated and confusing. Chiefs devise means to keep the truth in detention.
We meet interesting characters, such as Chief Nikoro, Toritse and Alero, the reporter, whose quest for truth helps shine light on what many will love to remain dark.
The kick-off point is Chief Nikoro’s tastefully furnished sitting room, where he is reading a newspaper. What confronts him on a page of the newspaper leads to this remark: “Dead yesterday, alive today. What tomorrow? This same newspaper proclaimed the king dead yesterday. Today it says the king lives. Our king has traversed breath and death like day and night. But like day and night, the news and chiefs cannot inhabit the same time. Yet this is a battle without an olive branch. Yesterday has never defeated today, neither has today wreathed its mother in a breathless mausoleum. Yet today threatens to betray yesterday?”
He is still lamenting when his son Toritse comes into the sitting room. He flings the newspaper and hugs his son. He is excited about the fact that his son comes first in school.
Chief Nikoro pronounces proudly: “It’s not for nothing that I call you my precious and precocious. You beat everybody in the school?”
An assignment given to Toritse in school by a teacher who perhaps just wants to know the truth through his informed father sees father and son dribbling each other over the dead king’s matter. Toritse asks: “Father, is it true?”
Chief Nikoro refuses to be drawn into confirming the truth. He fumes: “What sacrilegious tongue rolls in your head? Don’t talk like that! You don’t know who is listening.”
Toristse probes on: “But father, is he –’’, but Chief Nikoro will not allow him conclude the statement.
“Now, father, tell me! Is he really dead?” the boy repeats after a while.
Chief Nikoro replies: “Stubborn boy. I have not seen him.” He adds after further probe: “Look son, as we say, the king has travelled.”
Toritse will have none of that “I know. He died in Germany. So, he travelled there? The newspapers were right today?”
Chief Nikoro, a traditional aide of the monarch whose status is the source of the controversy, faults his son: “The newspapers? Their reports read like a satire. Yesterday, they reported that he was dead. This morning, they are saying he is not dead because the chiefs say so, and the hospital cannot issue an official statement from Germany. None of the newspaper reporters saw the king breathe his last. The king has gone to the bush. He has travelled to the ambience of leaves and boughs. That is the official line.”
An interesting conversation trails Chief Nikoro’s claim when his son attempts to pick holes in it.
Toritse says: “But dead men don’t talk.”
Chief Nikoro answers: “The king is not a man. He is of a different breed. He is like a deity.”
“Deity? Do deities have cell phone too?” Toritse asks.
Chief Nikoro: “Go ask that teacher who put you up to all this!”
In the midst of the argument, a reporter walks in. Her mission: the king’s status. Chief Nikoro replies her greeting with: “What is good about what you reported in the newspaper?”
“We are slaves of facts as journalists. But sir, why are you dressed in black?” says the reporter fishing out her recorder.
Reporter adds: “Tell me, chief, is black not the colour of mourning?”
Chief Nikoro’s quest to hide the truth makes him seize the reporter’s recorder.
“I am sad but not mourning. I am only waiting for you reporters to mourn the corpse of your lies when the truth is eventually revealed,” he declares.
The reporter’s observations that carpenters are carving coffin and the minstrels clearing their throats and casting funeral notes on their songs further infuriate Chief Nikoro, who seeks the answer to the reporter’s use of the word Obito.
“It is short for Obituary. But Obito, for the youths, means a funeral feast. It’s a big deal,” she explains.
Chief Nikoro soon tries to scare off the reporter: “Iriri masquerade are parading tonight, and curfew begins in a few hours from now. As a woman, you can be beheaded if you are out and about on such a night.”
When he sees that his tricks are not working, he whispers to the reporter: “I know I have been nasty to you, but I know we can do this for each other. I apologise for my rudeness with your recorder.”
The reporter says: “Accepted, sir. I’d better go. I have to interview others before the curfew kicks in. I don’t want to be the story in my newspaper tomorrow. “The Herald’s reporter beheaded” would not be a good headline.”
One very interesting thing about this 96-page drama is laid out in the prologue where Nikoro is told by a native doctor never to lie to his son as a way of atoning for the death of a son he had outside wedlock. As a traditional chief, he is under oath not to discuss the king’s death.
“If things get complicated, show him the way to the truth,” the native doctor instructs.
Chief Nikoro resorts to technology to show his son the way. He buys him a phone with a camera, takes him to the palace and allows him access to areas where he can get vital information that will help him do his assignment. Of course without telling him why he was doing it.
Tortise, who is determined to find the truth and pass his assignment, teams up with Alero, the reporter. It even turns out Chief Nikoro stylishly takes defining pictures, which confirm the king’s death and swaps his son’s phone with his so that the boy can know the truth about King Egbe.
With Obito, Omatseye’s mastery of language is on display. My most favourite line in the book is “the truth of culture and tradition”. I laughed out loud when I read this line in my car on Tuesday night. This is what Donald Truth will describe as alternative truth. There are many other fine expressions that will see an average reader turning the pages until the end where the reporter returns to Lagos after completing her task of establishing that the king is truly dead and not on any imaginary trip.
I also like the blend of prose and poetry in the dialogues. The characters are also well-developed. Chief Nikoro, Toritse and Alero loom large and are bound to be the stars when the play gets staged.
This is another great outing from the author of My Name is Okoro, Crocodile Girl, Tribe and Prejudice, among others.
This drama speaks truth to culture and tradition unwilling to bow to modernity and civilisation but threatened by technology. It sure will be worth your time.
Written by Olukorede Yishau, A Lagos based journalist and author of In the Name of Our Father.