Tutu recounts a popular folktale from the Calabar region of Nigeria. It’s about a stunning young woman, Afiong. She had bright eyes and velvety smooth skin, the colour of the deepest golden honey. She was also tall and carried herself with poise and grace. But, she was vain and turned down several marriage proposals brought by her parents. It all changed when she heard about the most handsome man from a faraway land. What happened after her marriage? The intriguing folklore speaks volumes. A Different Truths exclusive for the al Issue on Africa.
There was a man named, Edem, who was a native of Cobham Town. He was a wealthy man with a kind disposition and he had only one child, a beautiful maiden, whose name was Afiong. This stunning young woman had bright eyes and velvety smooth skin, the colour of the deepest golden honey. She was also tall and carried herself with poise and grace. All the young men in the town and surrounding country wanted to marry her on account of her beauty; but she refused all offers of marriage.
Long after coming of age, Afiong continued to remain unmarried, in spite of repeated entreaties from her parents. Her reason for not marrying was somewhat shallow, being vain, she felt that all the men in town were not good-looking enough for her. Afiong told her parents, “The man I marry must be the best-looking man in the country. He would have to be young and strong, and also well to do, and capable of looking after me, properly.”
Unfortunately, most of the men her parents chose for her, although rich, were older than her and not very handsome men. And so the girl continued to disobey her parents, at which they were very much aggrieved.
The fame of her beauty spread throughout the land of Calabar, and even beyond its borders… until it reached the land of the spirits. An inhabitant of the land of the spirits, called the Skull, finally heard of the beauty of this Calabar virgin. The Skull, thought to himself, “I am lonely. It would be nice to possess such a Beauty; but they say that she is vain. She will only marry a perfect man.”
The truth was that he was horrifying to look at, a walking skeleton as a matter of fact. But the Skull was cunning. He thought to himself, “I will use her own vanity to woo her into marrying me.”
So the Skull went about amongst his friends and asked them for a favour, “Will you allow me to borrow some parts of your body?” He knew they would agree because he had done them favours in the past. The Skull borrowed different parts of the body from them, and he chose the ones with the best. From one he got a good head, another lent him a body, a third gave him strong arms, and a fourth lent him a fine pair of legs. At last he was complete, and was a very perfect specimen of manhood. However, before he left they told him, “You can only borrow our bodies for 14 days, after that you have to return them to us.”
He then crossed the river which separated the spirit land from the land of men. He made the long journey to Cobham market. There he saw Afiong from afar, and admired her very much. He also told the friendly young women he met, how much he admired her. He had brought with him gifts from the spirit world, such as cowry shells and ivory combs to win their trust.
Afiong soon heard from her friends that a very fine man had been seen in the market. They told her, “We have never seen him before and he is better-looking than any of the natives.” Led by her friends, she went to the market at once, and the instance she saw the Skull in all his borrowed beauty, she fell in love with him. After some teasing from her friends, the now handsome Skull managed to strike up a conversation with Afiong. He told her, “I’m a stranger in this town with no place to stay. I have been sleeping in the market, these past few nights…”
Afiong immediately invited him to her house. The Skull was delighted, and went home with her. Upon his arrival, he was introduced by the besotted girl to her surprised parents. They were even more alarmed when he immediately asked their consent to marry their daughter. At first they refused, as they did not wish her to marry a stranger; it was the custom of Calabar not to allow women to marry men from unknown lands. However, due to Afiong’s pleas, they finally agreed to let her marry him.
He lived with Afiong for a few days in her parents’ house. But he realised that he had been away too long and told Afiong, “I have to return to my home soon because my mother is ill and needs me. But I wish to take you back to my country, which is far off. It is even more beautiful than this country; we have rich farms with yam and cassava and many livestock. Even the trees of the forest is heavy with oil palm fruits.”
To this the girl readily agreed, as he was such a fine man. Not surprisingly, Afiong’s parents were against this idea and tried to persuade her not to go. Her father, who never raised his voice at her before, told her firmly that she was forbidden to leave. Being very headstrong, she made up her mind to go; she loved her husband too much to let him go. However, she pretended to agree with her father. At nightfall, when everyone was asleep, they started off together.
Her parents were devastated when they found her missing, the next morning. After they had been gone a few days the father consulted his Ju Ju man. The man cast lots, and told the father gravely, “Your daughter’s husband belonged to the land of the spirits. Although she is still alive, she would surely be killed.”
The father returned home with his head bowed and they all mourned her as dead.
After walking for several days, Afiong and the Skull came towards the border between the spirit land and the land of humans. Although she did not notice anything amiss at first, Afiong began to realise that the land was becoming more barren, compared to the lush valley she lived in. She felt strangely apprehensive as they crossed the border, into the desolate land, he called his “rich and fertile land.”
The instant they set foot in the spirit land, a man walking on skeletal legs came to the Skull and demanded his legs, then another his face and scalp, and the next his body, and so on, until in several minutes there was nothing left of the Skull, except for a bare skeleton in all its natural ugliness. Afiong was paralysed with horror. When she could finally move she screamed and attempted to cross the border, but the river prevented her from leaving, the bridge was gone. The Skull grabbed hold of her hand and ordered her to go with him.
Weeping and shaking with fear, she was forced to follow him. When she arrived at the Skull’s house, she found his mother sitting on a stool. She was a very old woman, bent almost double. The poor woman was quite incapable of doing any work, and could only creep about. Afiong felt an unexpected sense of compassion for the old woman and tried her best to help her. She brought water and firewood for the old woman and dug up roots from the garden to cook food for them both. The old creature was very grateful for these attentions, and soon became quite fond of Afiong.
One day the old woman told Afiong, “Unlike the people in the spirit land, I’m still alive. I’m a witch-woman and I came here to live with my son when he passed away because there was no one to take care of us. The people in the spirit land are cannibals, but my magic protects me. You are safe as long as I’m alive but I fear that will not be for long. When I pass into the spirit world, they will come down and kill you.”
The Skull’s mother then told Afiong that she had looked after her so well, she promised she would send her back to her country as soon as possible, providing that she promised to obey her parents. Afiong almost wept with gratitude when she heard this. She had missed her parents and her friends, dearly. She promised that she would obey her parents if she ever managed to escape from the spirit land.
Then the old woman sent for the spider, who was a very clever hairdresser, and asked her to comb and dress Afiong’s hair into beautiful braids. The beautiful and proud maiden had grown thin and worn out, living in this strange land. Her hair, which used to be so well coifed, was now unkempt. After Afiong’s hair had been done, the old woman presented her with silver anklets, bead necklaces and cowry shells on account of her kindness. The Witch-Woman then created a powerful Ju Ju and called the winds to come and carry Afiong to her home. At first a violent whirlwind came, with thunder, lightning and rain, but the Skull’s mother sent it away as unsuitable. The next wind to come was a strong but gentle breeze. With her last strength, the Witch-Woman told the breeze to carry Afiong to her mother’s house, and said good-bye to her. When Afiong left, the old woman took her last breath.
Very soon afterwards the breeze deposited Afiong outside her home, and left her there. Afiong dared not enter her home for fear of being rejected by them. She remembered how she had disobeyed them and stood outside and called out to her parents, “It is I, your daughter, Afiong. I have come from the faraway land.”
When the parents saw their daughter, they were at first incredulous. When they realised that it was in fact Afiong and she was alive, their hearts filled with joy. They had given her up for dead, months ago. The father rushed out and spread soft animals’ skins on the ground from where his daughter was standing all the way to the house, so that her feet should not be soiled. Afiong then walked to the house. Her mother hugged her with tears in her eyes.
Later that day, her father called all the young girls who used to keep his daughter company to come and sing and dance; and the feasting and dancing lasted for eight days and nights. When the rejoicing was over, the father reported what had happened to the Chieftain of the town. The Chieftain then passed a law that parents should never allow their daughters to marry strangers who came from far and unknown country.
After Afiong had settled down and recovered fully from her ordeal, the father asked his daughter if she was willing to marry a man who was a nephew of a friend of his. Afiong, who no longer felt so vain, willingly consented. After the marriage, which also lasted eight days and nights, Afiong and her husband lived happily together for many years, and had many children.
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