Bobrisky’s masque, Yahaya Bello’s boa

Bobrisky’s masque, Yahaya Bello’s boa

By Lasisi Olagunju,


“When you reach home, tell my mother,
Say it was a boa that his son transformed into And never returned home.”
The actor comes on the stage singing and dancing, his troupe festive around him. He invokes his powers and turns into this and that.

Everything he fancies, he becomes.
Then he goes back to man.
The world applauds him.
The man becomes a roof-climbing, banana-eating monkey.
The applaud gets louder.
He turns to a woman – like Bobrisky- complete with all the charm of the seductress; he beckons on men who could dare but none comes forward. He gets no suitor. Then, his drummers warn him: Ilè nsú / T’óbá burú tan/ Ìwo nìkan ní ó kù (it is getting dark; you will be alone if things get bad).


If you are warned, listen to what the world is saying. In his ‘The Poetry of the Yoruba Masque Theatre’, Professor J.A. Adedeji (1978) says better what the bata drums say: “Don’t be careless, evening is approaching/ Aiyelabola; If the worst comes/ You will be left alone to your devices.” The tragedy of man, of all of us, is that we always deny the advent of dusk. The masked one hears the beats and ignores the beats. He takes one more step and turns to a boa – and darkness descends on his performance.


The boa-man struggles with himself. He tries every trick in his bag of charms. He chants every incantation in his pouch; he bellows every shout. He draws blank; nothing works again for the influencer. The world has hacked into the actor’s act; life’s principal coders have changed his password. The boa cannot shed the snake skin and adorn the human costume he came with. Aiyelabola will die a boa.


His troupe sings his dirge; his audience his elegy: “Aiyelabola d’ere, o b’ere lo.”

Defeated, Adedeji writes, the boa sings:

“When you reach home, tell my mother,

Say it was a boa that his son transformed into

And never returned home.”

Tell the world, Aiyelabola d’ere, o ti b’ere lo.

When the ‘world’ is involved in someone’s case, what is customarily ignored attracts global opprobrium; even the ordinarily routine becomes problematic, song becomes abuse, and the key that used to open doors stops working. One day, we will know why the young man called Bobrisky was suddenly taken too seriously by drama-loving Nigeria.


The pioneer of Yoruba waka music, Batile Alake, invokes chants in her evergreen songs. In a particular album, she sings about entering the farm through the furrow and escaping the whips of the farm owner by not stepping on his (yam) heaps – poro ni mo gbà/ kí olóko má nà mí/ mo ti dá ebeè kojá. In another song, Batile sings about the unusual and the attention which bigness attracts: “B’érin bá w’ojà á j’ogún àpéjowò omo aráyé (when ponderous elephant saunters into the market square, he inherits the world as his audience).” It is possible that Bobrisky, the actor, got that sense from the quaint world of the spirit of money and fame.


On social media and in the social sphere, he was/is news – bad and good news – many times not exactly good. But he enjoyed it and sought to live it in defiance of whatever his world thought. He saw the world as a festival of sort and dressed himself up for it in coarse cottons of disgusting shock. Listening to strange beats, the man danced his way into the moral marketplace as a woman and stepped on the toes of his world.


For breaking a pot of water, the child who repeatedly spilt drums of palm oil without consequences was docked in a court in Lagos some days ago. Bobrisky is in jail for doing what Duro Ladipo calls “ritual theatre”, that which many do impulsively as a cultural practice – spraying money at social parties. In the times of our fathers, ‘spraying’ was not the word; money meant for the forehead never touched the ground. If it did, it was a taboo broken. But, today, àkàrà has become bones in the mouth of the toothless. Money-miss road nouveau riche dudes dance on a canvass of cash to proclaim their success. What autumn does to leafy trees is what they do with the naira. They carpet the ground with careless currency notes, plod rough-shod and record their misbehaviour for us to sorrow about. They incite the poor to query the poverty in their destiny.


I read a piece on “Ritual Killing, 419, and Fast Wealth in Southeastern Nigeria” published in the ‘American Ethnologist’ of November 2001. The author, Daniel Jordan Smith, marvels at what we do here with paper money on foreheads at social parties. He explores the drama of our doing it, how we do it and why we do it: “The act of spraying itself has become a performance, and those who do the spraying are often drawing public attention to themselves as much as to those they are supporting.


In the act of spraying, the dance of the sprayer is watched and admired, but most importantly, the quantity and denomination of the bills pasted to the foreheads of the sprayee is closely monitored. People who spray large sums of money are roundly applauded by the crowd…” The paradox (and the lesson) here is what Smith admits: “such ostentation is resented even as it is admired.”


Singer Portable’s ‘brother’ who claims ‘sisterhood’ is a goat immolated to make other goats stop misbehaving. Won pa iji han iji. But, he is just an actor, a masquerader monetizing his mime of our unserious world. And we are really unserious. Of all the inmates in our house of sin; of all the sicknesses in our sick body, Bobrisky is what takes our precious time and judgment. Locking him up is our loss.


A perfect Aristotelian tragic protagonist, he will be in solitary misery for six months at our expense. Everyone thinks he deserves to be where he is. Even those of us who accept that he is just an alárìnjó (itinerant, walk-and-dance masquerade) insist that his choice of style is dirty. But there is neither disgust nor ugliness in drama. It is either a tragedy or a comedy or the concoction in the middle. Everything is about costuming and packaging and marketing. If my good old literature teacher, Professor Oyin Ogunba (God bless his soul), were around and he watched this spectacle, he would describe the man as drama. Read Ogunba in Oyekan Owomoyela’s ‘Give me Drama Or…’ I did. “A masked figure at a festival,” Ogunba argues, “whether he dances or speaks or does neither, has, by his mere appearance, created a situation of potential dramatic value.” The jailed young man has the mask; he has the chant; he has the gait, the dance. He has the drama and an excitable audience. His face and costume are just life-mimicry gone awry. He shouldn’t have suffered an overkill.


In the grove of life’s principals, there are many masks of varying potency. It appears that Bobrisky entered the grove without paying his dues. It is ìbà that saves goat from being tied down as sacrificial lamb. He didn’t do that and lost control of his panel. There is no system the world cannot hack into; the principalities of this plane are code-crackers. They reduced the cross-dresser to a helpless influencer who could not influence the winds from blowing him into jail. It happened to Aiyelabola, the powerful masque-actor who turned himself into a boa for effect but could not go back to the human he was.

The world overtook Bobrisky and locked him up. He thought he could recreate himself to a woman and be crowned queen of the covens. He didn’t learn from Aiyelabola who moved from man to boa and slithered off forever as boa. May we not step on the eye of the earth.


Bobrisky is a metaphor for the hypocrisy of this society of masked men and specialists. He is also a metaphor for self-violation. In court, he disowned his feminine costume and pronounced himself man. He is, in significant ways, a metaphor for a politician called Yahaya Bello. What happened to the cross-dresser is exactly what is happening to the former Kogi State governor. He is being asked by his troupe mates – the igneous caste of his cast – to come out and account for his years in power. There is a big lesson here: An Egungun that is conscious of life out of the mask will behave well, will limit his performance to dance and songs; will carry no whips, and will whip not the helpless.


Andu is the name of one Egúngún (eégún) in a Yoruba town which enjoys the throne with the king. Ulli Beier in his ‘The Egungun Cult Among the Yoruba’ (Presence Africaine, 1958: 34) says “Andu enjoys great power and privileges. He may, for example, sit on the king’s throne when the king is not present.” What do you think would happen if this Egungun extends his privileges and starts contesting the stool with the king, the Timi of Ede? The storm and the drama that we saw around Bello last week were what normally happens to temporary men who think themselves permanent. When ‘big’ men eat food meant for the gods and step on sacred toes and the world takes note, they are condemned to run kitikiti katakata as Bello did last week. The consequence he suffers is the fate of the bird called agbe: his feathers got dyed in indigo. The aluko bird was not created henna, his colour was made so by an angry world. When the world felt offended enough by the egret’s unacceptable ways, it dipped the bird in a pot of snow-white chalk. The world is sufficiently angry with the actor called Yahaya Bello; it is cooking a pot of bile for him to feast on.


One Muslim cleric waxed a record in the 1970s with a line that made a lot of sense. I can’t remember the cleric’s name but I can’t forget that he sings about the powerful who think themselves faster than life. But, he says, the world is not that cheap; it storms their sail and sinks their ship. “Won ro pe won le aye won ba/ Aye o je bee/aye da won nu.” The Titanic, its competent crew and its arrogant builders come to mind here.


My people would look at Yahaya Bello and see the opposite of careful chameleon who walks gingerly through life. Chameleon is asked why his feet rarely touch the ground. He says it is in deference to the earth; he says the ground must not cave in under his weight. “This world (aye) is a dangerous and difficult place; it is full of negative forces that hinder, even destroy, one’s life.” Benjamin C. Ray was of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, United States, when in 1993 he wrote the above quote in a research article on ‘Aladura Christianity: A Yoruba Religion’. The quote, peeled from Ray’s 27-page piece on ‘aye’ and its forces, summarizes what I am saying here about moderation, about doing right and stepping away from wrong even if you have the grit of a lion. Ray is not alone. Professor Karin Barber’s scholarship is on Yoruba’s ways and means. Her mental visage on man and precarious power, published in a journal called ‘Africa’ in 1981, sees the solitary worldly ‘man’ who is “picking his way …between a variety of forces, some benign, some hostile, many ambivalent.”


Did Shakespeare not say justice whirls in equal measure? Today’s eegun, our ensemble of powers and principalities, can also learn from the fate of Bello, a whitened lion in flight. Their own festival of immunity will end one day, and the children of the grove will no longer have free balls of bean cakes. Listen. The antidote to darkness is light. If you don’t want to die a boa, don’t live a boa. What is happening to Bello tells even deities that they are not immune from (and to) the ravages of an incensed world. When the forces of life face and fight a rogue masquerade, they tear off his mask and call women to come and watch. And, of course, an Egungun dies the day he is paraded naked before a coven of weird beings who piss from behind.


(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 22 April, 2024)

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