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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

Hotel Alf (Akash Kapur, Poland, May 12, 1999).

Strolling Moscow's Broadway (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 28, 1999).

Uygur Luncheon (Jeffrey Tayler, China, April 14, 1999).

Onion Logic (Akash Kapur, India, March 31, 1999).

Dreamcasting Japan (Trevor Corson, Japan, March 17, 1999).

Talmud in a Taxi (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, March 3, 1999).

A Place of Healing (Jeffrey Tayler, China, February 17, 1999).

The Tiger Queen (Akash Kapur, India, February 3, 1999).

Holiday Moscow (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, January 6, 1999).

The Long Arm of the Chinese Law (Jeffrey Tayler, China, December 16, 1998).

Panama by Panga (Benjamin Howe, Panama, December 2, 1998).

Tower of Babel (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, November 18, 1998).

An Unlucky Place (Katherine Guckenberger, Ireland, November 4, 1998).

The Wonder in the Bog (Allan Reeder, Ireland, October 15, 1998).

The Hills of Sighisoara (Akash Kapur, Romania, October 1, 1998).

Dionysus and the Virgin (Wen Stephenson, Greece, September 16, 1998).

Never on Sunday (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, September 16, 1998).

A Long Way from Home (Akash Kapur, Turkey, August 26, 1998).

For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad Index.

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The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo

May 26, 1999

The driver steered his moped down the corrugated red mud road outside of the Nigerian town of Oshogbo, north of Lagos, with me bouncing along on the back seat. In front of a wooden gate he wobbled to a halt. The surrounding rain forest was dripping with humidity; wraiths of mist wandered between the big trees. I got off, paid him, and entered.

The Sacred Grove of Oshogbo was one place I had been looking forward to visiting in Nigeria. As prevalent as indigenous religions still are in West Africa, it is often hard to find public expressions of them in towns and cities; the Christianity brought by European slavers and colonialists has taken root and pushed most of these religions out of mainstream life. But in the Sacred Grove shrines honor all the local deities, including Obatala, the god of creation, Ogun, the god of iron, and Oshun, the goddess of water, whose aqueous essence is made manifest by the river running through the trees. The place is unique in the Yoruba religion, and that intrigued me.

As I passed through the gates I heard a squeaky voice. A diminutive middle-aged man came out from behind the trees -- the caretaker. He worked a toothbrush-sized stick around in his mouth, digging into the crevices between algae'd stubs of teeth. He was barefoot; he wore a blue batik shirt known as a buba, baggy purple trousers, and an embroidered skullcap. I asked him if he would show me around the shrine. Motioning me to follow, he spat out the results of his stick work and set off down the trail.

We stopped in front of a many-headed statue. "Ako Alumawewe," he blurted out, sucking on the stick. A deity? I asked. He nodded and spat, then headed down the trail to another stone effigy, that of Egbe. After kissing the ground at its base, he held forth at length in mellifluous Yoruba. Since I spoke no Yoruba and he, it turned out, no English, it became clear that my visit wasn't going to be as edifying as I had hoped.

"Hello!"

I looked back up the trail. A Nigerian man in penny loafers was making his way gingerly around the puddles and heading our way. He was young but a belly was already spreading under his white Izod shirt; he wore tight beige highwater trousers. It was clear that he was living a life of relative plenty. He introduced himself as Pastor Paul, from a church in Benue State.

"You come to look at the Grove?" he asked, shaking my hand. "Good. It's very touristic."

A young woman emerged from the trail. Her wardrobe, too, could have been bought on sale at JC Penney's, but unlike Pastor Paul, she was fit, with fresh eyes.

"My interpreter," Pastor Paul said, pointing to her. "Of course I can't understand these people. We have our own language in Benue State."

The little man talked up a storm in Yoruba, but the interpreter said nothing. Our guide then led us down to the river. The water ran bright green between the trees; monkeys jumped around the canopy above. Arising from a mess of roots was Oshun's statue, which occasioned a monologue from the little man.

"What is he saying?" I asked the translator.

"He says locals bring sacrifices to the gods here. Maize, moi-moi, cola nuts."

Father Paul shook his head, his brow wrinkling, his lips pursing. There were no locals about, I noticed. Where were they? Dodging oversized ferns, our guide hopped down the trail, and we followed him.

"Debel! Debel!" he said, pointing with disdain at a pug-nosed bust with an evil smirk standing amid a tangle of roots. The Devil.

The pastor's face retained its pinched expression. "Of course, this man is ignorant," he said to me, waving his arm in dismissal. I said nothing.

Up at a promontory above the river we found Olu Igbo -- the lord of the forest. Placing his stick in his back pocket, the little man fell silent and bowed. It was indeed an awesome sight -- a giant stone effigy standing among great trees, with huge eyes and long arms spread out like wings. Hoots and warbles percolated in from the foliage; rain began to fall but its drops, intercepted by the manifold layers of leaves above, hardly touched us.

The pastor harrumphed. "I tell my people in church to abandon these beliefs for God." His voice rang loud in the amphitheater of great trees. "Such ignorance. Our American pastors have a lot to say about how ignorant we are. We are trying to change, but these beliefs persist. Life is hard in our country. The people want to insure themselves, so they worship God and these idols. But it's ignorance. Don't you agree?"

"Why did you come here then?" I asked him as we walked back to the road.

"To see the skilled work of our artisans."

That was as good an answer as any. At the gate we tipped the guide and parted ways.


Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow, and is the author of Siberian Dawn (1999). He contributes regularly to The Atlantic Monthly and files frequent dispatches for Atlantic Abroad.

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