A couple of months ago, while researching examples of prose poems to share with my creative writing class, I came upon the poem “Snails” by the French poet Francis Ponge . They are heroes , Ponge says of snails, beings whose existence alone is a work of art.
In a dream later that night, I was back in Lagos, in the marsh surroundings of my childhood church, foraging under the cover of night, wading through wet grass as tall as little boys’ chins. I was alone then not alone, my younger brothers were away then suddenly appearing.
We were children again, the three of us. All the world was in slow motion, we were cheeping in union with giant-clawed frogs. In the middle of the field, a half-mile away from the church’s entrance, I encountered a worn, pyramid-like fish trap. It was a woven cane basket, the size of a backpack. Deep inside it, four water snails were motionless on a small heap of fresh banana leaves. I picked up the topmost leaf, folded it around the snails like wrapping paper.
When I looked up, I was alone. My brothers stood a small distance away, tall and beardless in their present bodies—young men in whom the world is pleased—at the church’s entrance, beckoning.
Instead of feeling the remnants of triumph like any other dream where I find what I have searched for, I woke from this dream about snails sweaty and perplexed.
They are heroes, Ponge says of Snails, beings whose existence alone is a work of art—not artists who merely make masterpieces.
As a writer privileged to study and sometimes teach writing, I could speak of my present state as a dream come true. As a Nigerian writer in America, I could live as one who has escaped our peculiar misfortune, albeit temporarily. Except there is a sullen disparity between my past and current. The present is a definite struggle; thus, my art is always neither honest nor dishonest but merely scaled: Enlarge past struggles for effect, diminish for respect.
I have been thinking a lot since this dream, about the metamorphic effects of poetry.
In the light poetry gives, there are countless possibilities. A verse can alter perception or intensify awareness, what is lost can be found or replaced. Reading “Snails,” I became a girl again. A girl at a specific point in time. A girl loving snails because they were found food and a crucial first step at independence.
My family had, circa 1997, found—this is not to say that we were, as a collective, seeking something; it was more of a stumbling upon, a latent discovery—a boisterous version of Pentecostal faith and begun attending a ramshackle hut of a church pastored by a former car mechanic named Paul. Located on a reclaimed marshland on the outskirts of Lagos, Southwest Nigeria, this self-titled prayer and miracle ministry held several services a week and encouraged perfect attendance.
On service nights, I would, together with my brothers who were nine and six at the time, sneak out the back and go fishing for snails. Whilst the congregation danced and praised in fervid unison, we wrapped our hands and feet in used shopping bags, walking and seeking and unafraid.
I have also been thinking about the purpose and tools of different styles of poetry. The great end of poetry is to give pleasure. Prose is arranged for transcendence. The peculiar advantage of prose poetry therefore is the balance of both richness of language and vastness of ambition. Words so efficiently arranged can create a world, and a verse can embody the essence or character of a place. A reader enthralled by the poet’s words can, at least temporarily, while immersed in the poem, become an abounding measure of diverse things. The effect of great poetry is then both transient and everlasting.
It is hard to imagine good poetry without the language of comparisons and associations—this thing is like this other thing and therefore one of these types of things. When poetry crosses time, space, and cultures, this strength of language tends to dissipate. A reader might be left with a sense of profundity (like the brief unexplained sudden silence in a room full of people) yet unable to articulate its source. Whilst they may not understand the precise feeling or awe or even misery the poems describe, a great poem will still evoke that sense, those feelings.
When reading this poem, I struggled to imagine the physical details not completely described. What kind of snail? What kind of soil? What’s the depth of the ditch? What is a pond? This is a new problem.
My Yoruba culture has two distinct species of edible snail. The diminutive freshwater snail is called Isawuru. The larger land snail is called Igbin, which is the more commonly available edible snail. When my people talk about snail farming, they are referring almost exclusively to Igbin. The desired texture of cooked snail meat is dry, firm, rubbery. It should be glossy, shiny black.
“Snails” reminds me of sermons from the pulpits of Pastor Paul of the church on the swamp. Ponge calls it miraculous, this ability of the snail to be at home whenever it is desired, defying unwanted visitors.
Pastor Paul of the church on the swamp used words, songs and stories, with the same ambitions as poetry. He would begin services with tales of people, places, and things. Using lengthy, sweeping narratives, we would get caught up in his descriptions only to be smacked in the face with the obviousness of its analogizing. When Pastor Paul told a story about snails, he was preaching against self-doubt and small-mindedness. If you always are where you want to be, how will you find something new? Something better?
There was a lot of preaching about dogs and pigs. When we listened to stories about dogs who mauled the children of their owners, we learned in church the inestimable value of gratitude and contentment and why on the Last Day dogs will be cast out of the Kingdom of God.
It was in this church I learned the spiritual value of Yoruba proverbs. They were assisting scripture. They were useful in localizing biblical doctrine and theories. The one proverb that upended my family was this:
Kokoro ton je efo inu efo lo wa.
The insect that devours the leaf lives on the inside of it.
This was that pastor’s interpretation of the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew , chapter 10:
A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.
Pastor Paul spoke often of insects and enemies. Insects were a special class of bad people, mostly witches. He called it household witchcraft—persons in your immediate/familial circle who benefited from your benevolence and still aimed to destroy you.
A few months after we started attending Pastor Paul’s church, he showed up at our house one Saturday. It was the last thing I was expecting to happen. Nigerian pastors are little deities, like the proverbial river: You go to see them, they never come to you. My little-girl mind was certain that we had been found out, he wanted to talk about the stolen snails. But he came to talk about insects. When Pastor Paul visited our home, it was to talk to my parents about the insects living with them.
This is what my father said to us right after the Pastor left. We were kneeling, all four of us children, on the floor before him in his bedroom.
“God has in His mercy revealed to the pastor that one of you children has been initiated into witchcraft.”
We knelt there stunned and quiet. I was wishing that I had sat in church more, that I had been more visible as a praying, believing child of God. I was certain that if the pastor had known me or my brothers personally, seen us pray with all our hearts, he would have known that we could not possibly be witches.
Father’s eyes were swollen in rage. My father had worn glasses since he was a little boy. His eyes were the color of rancid evaporated milk. Sunken farther into his head than any other set of eyes I knew, when he took off his glasses to stare at me, I feared he could see everything.
“After everything we have done for you children. How can one of you side with the enemy of this family?” he said.
There was silence and crying for a very long time. Even Mother was crying.
“No wonder. No wonder no matter what I do, I cannot progress in this life. It is one of you,” he said.
When I spoke up I did not even know why I was speaking.
“It is me,” I said. “I am the one. I confess. Please forgive me.”
The day I confessed to being a witch I had no idea what I was doing. I just wanted my family to move on quickly from that moment, from the hurt in my mother’s eyes and the anger in Father’s. I was thinking that it was an easy solution. All I needed to do was confess and promise to be the very best Christian girl anyone had ever seen.
A few years after this, I tried to take this confession back. I sat next to my mother on the bed she slept alone in months after the split with her husband and whispered it was a lie. I had made it all up because Father’s anger scared me.
“It was not a lie,” she said. “You have just forgotten all about it. This is an answer to my prayers. I prayed to God and asked him to make you forget all about your witchcraft group.”
The first loss is ignorance. I am convinced that of all the things a person can irretrievably lose on the journey between childhood to adulthood, the first true loss is ignorance of the way the world works; the way it is relentless and haphazard in its dispersing of misery.
I have been thinking a lot about something else: the medley of African traditional religion and Christianity. In the church by the swamp, I learnt several religious concepts fundamental to Yoruba traditional religious belief. The idea I keep returning to is the inner head—Ori.
In the Yoruba concept of personhood, humans are tripartite beings made up of three important elements. Ara is the flesh, physicality. Emi refers to the breath, the life giving spiritual element. Ori is the inner head, believed to preexist and considered responsible for a person’s fate or fortune.
In Yoruba folklore, humans in their pre-birth state go to the potting shed of Ajala, the potter, to pick their permanent Ori. Ajala is inattentive and a winebibber, he makes several corrupt and reprehensible Ori in a drunken state. It is believed that many humans, in their excitement to be born, pick malformed Ori. The result is a life of strife without escape.
The pastors of the churches of my childhood spoke constantly about Ori. Their choirs sang about Ori. As congregants, we prayed constantly about Ori. Most times with both hands firmly on our (outer) heads, shaking it vigorously side to side. We implored Ori to lead us to good paths, to keep us out of trouble, to accept the blessings of Jehovah.
There are several intersections between the Evangelical Christian concept of the person and the Yoruba traditional belief. The clearest is this idea of tripartite man. There are also clear distinctions. A standard example is the rejection of preexistence of the human soul.
In practice this medley is haphazard and confusing. For instance, it was permissible and Christian to sing, “Ori ma da mu mi”—“Inner head, please do not hinder my advancement”—but idolatrous to plead, “Ori iya mi a ja fun mi”—“My mother’s inner head will make sure I am avenged.” This is even though both expressions have roots in the same concepts. In 2009, I am a new mother, fresh out of college, living at home with my own mother again.
One afternoon, I am home in bed, my baby sleeping in the nook of my arm. My mother calls me on my cell phone
“Please leave whatever you’re doing and get dressed. You’re going somewhere with me.”
“Where?” I ask, already annoyed.
“My friend’s pastor wants to see you,” she says. “Please don’t argue with me.”
She raises her voice in what I interpret to be a panicked fear. “You have to come with me,” she screams. Her words are fire in my eardrums. “You have to if you need to keep living in my house.”
I say nothing.
She softens. “Tola, I don’t know why he wants to see you.” She says: “I just went there for prayers for my business and he asked me to bring the daughter still living with me.”
This church is a mini campus in Ojota, Lagos. There are several buildings two stories tall, impossibly close to one another. They have been painted with no obvious attempt at color coordination. We are led into the church offices, a white building next to a lime green one. The church’s name is written on all buildings in blue emulsion paint.
We sit for a few minutes in an air-conditioned waiting room until there is a power cut. Soon, my son wakes up and starts to cry. The room is hot and humid. There is a mild commotion when I get up and leave the room. They have all assumed I am leaving. A tall young man screams out after me:
“Aunty, the Man of God will see you now.”
I turn around and walk toward the building he is pointing to. It is the church auditorium: a wide-open space with long pillars every few feet and a zinc roof with no ceilings. I can see my mother coming up behind. There are several women with her. I only recognize one of them.
The pastor, a wiry, dark-skinned man with a full head of hair graying at the edges goes straight to the point.
“Kneel before me,” he says in Yoruba. “God has told me about you.”
One of the women in my mother’s group pulls my son out of my hands as I kneel.
“There is powerful evil in you” the pastor says. “It is a deposit. An access point. This is why her tragedies are happening in rapid succession. Evil needs a domicile,” he continues, this time addressing the small crowd. “This is how evil gets into this nice woman’s house. This is why she is depressed and struggling. This is the reason her business is failing.”
It is easy to conflate a search for truth with a search for answers. Truth will lend itself to inspection, contemplation, verification, it should expect to be tested. Truth is a bottomless pit. Answers are for comfort, closure.
“There is danger in letting people misname you,” the poet Upile writes. I think the danger of naming is the innocuousness of it. The way it commands our acquiescence. Names are of no consequence but for the habit of the named answering to it. The first time I took upon myself this name, Witch, I did it because someone had to. I decided that person would be me. The first conceit is strength. The second is temperance.
The second time, I was fully aware of the futility of resistance. What respite could a battle against a name bring?
Afro-Christian religious practice insists that a person can be delivered of witchcraft, or any other similar possession, if they confess and renounce those acts. In Yoruba traditional belief this process of renunciation is called kika (which translated means accounting). The witch is supposed to publicly take responsibility for all she has done and give directions about how corrupted destinies be repaired.
The first time, I took great pleasure in spinning elaborate tales. I was testing how much these adults would believe. When I was asked, “Who gave you the witchcraft to eat?” I looked at both of my parents and said, “Your mother and your mother, they were working together.” It takes another couple of years for them to begin living separately but this moment in that decrepit church is the last time they were cordial.
This second time, I speak up for myself. “None of these are true. Her business is failing because of theft. Her staff is stealing from her.” Nobody listens. Nothing changes after this visit. My mother’s food supply businesses continue to lose clients. She falls behind on her loan payments. I get a job at a law firm but I quit after one month to manage her businesses. I am determined to turn things around. I spend most of the next three years working sixty hours a week. Eventually, the business is liquidated and its assets dissolved.
The churches most young Nigerians attend are nothing like the churches of my childhood. Services are held entirely in English in these new-generation churches. Instead of a choir and hymns, there is a worship leader and band. The enemy is not witchcraft or demons. Poverty, mediocrity, and shabby dressing are the new foes. I try to steer my family in the direction of these new programs. It works for everyone but my mother. She considers our Christianity of rock and roll music privileged.
“I have conquered ancestral giants in prayer. This is why you can have your cute and fun Christianity,” she said to me once when, as an undergraduate, I invited her to the parent church of my campus ministry.
By the time my mother hastily sells her home property and hands over the proceeds, forty thousand dollars in cash, to a pastor introduced to her by a friend, the disaster has been long in coming. The police investigation will suggest hypnosis. In her words, “He told me things that happened before I was born. He assured me it was God’s command.”
Every member of my family is still fervently Christian. I haven’t been to a proper service in months but I read the bible without fail daily and send money to faith-based charities every month.
We are snails. How? Precisely by our abiding loyalty to that to which we are accustomed. Like our fathers and their fathers and mothers, we are drawn, incapacitated by a blighted religion. It is a fellowship of suffering. We know our vices. We are accustomed to loss.
When my creative writing class sits on Monday morning, we do not get to spend a lot of time on Ponge. We spend most of it unpacking and rearranging Terrance Hayes’s “Lighthead’s Guide To The Galaxy.” It is a great choice. The students are captivated by the breadth of its imaginativeness. Despite my best efforts, the class gets caught up in a disagreement about the ambitions of the poem.
One student, a veteran, who writes with such empathy about children in juvenile institutions, is totally smitten. He reads out this line as he insists the poet is searching for explanations for life:
The small dog barking at the darkness has something to say about the way we live.
Another student, aspiring rapper and class clown, quickly agrees with him. His favorite quote is this:
Ask the lunatic yard dog why it tolerates the leash.
There is something about the way they argue that evokes unfounded fear in me. In that instant, I’m rooted to the spot. My fear is both imagined and real. The terror is out of body and fully contained in it. I think of everything. It comes bubbling up to the surface—snails, insects, dogs, witches and sinners accustomed to pain.
The biggest criticism they have is the poet’s use of insinuation, the lack of coherence and unity. For some reason, they seem to think accessibility and candor are the more important goals of poetry. When my mind clears, the only thought I can articulate is this line from the proverbs of Solomon, chapter 25:
It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honor of kings is to search out a matter.
It turns out to be a great starting point. I explain it to them the way I wanted it explained to me. There is a way to write poetry (or prose for that matter) that does not involve contemplative searching, digging, or even the occasional head-scratching, sullen confusion. I am exhausted by those kinds of writing. Facts are better narrated quickly, readily, in their most easily digestible form, orally. But the written word can do so much more. When we decide to write poetry or fiction, we are aiming to do so much more.
Like the codification of common law into statute, we are condensing, legitimizing already existing norms. Has it not been said and often repeated that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world?
I have been thinking again of the kind of monuments Ponge extolled—literature. In his writings in The Nature of Things he named Rameau, Horace, as worthy of admiration, praising them for building monuments from the “one true human secretion, from the thing most closely proportioned and adapted to his body, yet bearing the least conceivable likeness to his form: LANGUAGE.”
This is what I aspire to write and teach.
I have a choice to tell my story with any form I can. I could say it in one sentence, this thing that happened to me when I was a girl: A pastor told my parents I was a witch, intent on destroying them, and they believed him. Those are the facts, not the story. The story is shame, persistent and debilitating. The story is that religion is a sharp cutting tool in a fool’s hand. The story is that a mind is a flimsy, devious thing and families—families are everybody’s first war.