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TUN Fellow Adesuwa Olumhense

For her fellowship project Adesuwa wrote a series of poems focused on her family and culture. The numbers were added to replicate page breaks in the original submission.

(1)

Trace a hesitant finger back to your genesis

Do you remember your first breath

Your grandmother’s first sigh

Your sister’s first laugh?

 

Do you remember when it all fell apart?

(2)
 

Foreword

By: Adesuwa Olumhense

Because rocky road drips a tacky lie down my fingers

And good things do not always come to those who wait, my father says. 

 

Because if you tug your curls down long enough

Soon they’ll look just a bit straighter. 

 

Because when you’re old enough to sit and wait until your scalp catches fire 

It means the perm is working.

 

Because straight hair shines brightly 

Until it breaks off into space.  

 

Because you will repeat your name until your throat dries

And they still won’t hear you. 

 

Because your brothers march out the door on a one-way trip

And your sisters murmur their bloodsoaked litany. 

 

Because my brothers are their father’s sons 

And my sister was born a mother. 

 

Because ‘someday’ is written in a tongue

my grandfather will never learn

And my grandmother refuses to speak. 

 

Because when I ask my mother   

 

“Will the sunflower’s neck snap 

if the sun is too far from view?” 

 

She waits for the world to answer. 

(3)

Edo terms 

 

Kpele - Sorry

 

Ebonekhui - A white person in a black person’s body. The nickname the people around Benin City gave my grandfather. 

 

Iwu - Body markings of the native Edo people, accomplished by tattooing or scarification.  There were facial markings and body markings. Women would also paint their faces for traditional rituals. In the past 60 or so years, this tradition has almost completely died. 

 

Oba - the king of the ancient Benin Kingdom, now in modern day Edo state in Southern Nigeria. The current Oba is the descendent of the ancient kings. 

 

Iyoba - A title for the King’s mother. Translates as “Queen Mother.” One of the most important Iyoba in Edo history is the Iyoba Idia who fought on the battlefield in ancient times, for whom the title was created. 

 

Ogbono - African bush mango seed. Used especially in Southern Nigeria for soup.

 

Òy' èsé - “It’s okay.

 

(4)
 

Kpele 

By: Adesuwa Olumhense

 

“It’s not personal,” Ebonekhui starts,

standing tall and proud 

in clothes your father would scoff at.  

His English burns your ears. 

 

He will not meet your eyes until the ceremonial paint is gone 

So you turn, head high for all who care to see your light

And you wash. 

 

When your tears clear the paint

all that remains on your naked face is your iwu. 

And he cannot remove the marks that hug your skin

Kiss your face 

 

You turn, smile, and greet your nieces

Tell them the story of each curve in every scar.

 

If their history cannot live on their face, 

It must burrow its home in them somehow. 

 

“It’s for their safety,” Ebonekhui claims quietly, void of apology. 

"We won't eat sacrifices."

Your arms wilt in the kitchen

bags of packaged food dangling at your sides. 

 

Do you tell him?

The blessings you murmured over the stew 

Can be heard at the Oba’s own table. 

 

Do you tell him? 

You plucked the ogbono seeds for the soup yourself 

Stood in the kitchen for hours 

Stirring and singing your mother’s favorite songs 

 

Do you tell him?

As you look at his daughter’s grinning faces 

Full of joy and devoid of the markings 

the Iyoba wore with pride. 

 

It’s not your God who grew this food, you want to shout. 

It’s not your Queen that fought our wars. 

 

Does your God know our language? 

Could your God sing our songs?

 

Does it matter?

Because there you both stand 

stuck between the powers that be 

and the powers that bend. 

 

The truth flails on the wrong side of your tongue 

And you pity it. 

So you swallow, smile, and say 

“Òy' èsé.”

 

(5)

God’s Gift 

Adesuwa Olumhense

She no longer walks on coals, but she still tempers her steps.

She walks a slow, trembling gait, aware of each toe that hits

the earth, murmuring to the grass her apologies. She walks,

and watches as you take your first step, your fourth, your ninth,

into the pure madness that is freedom. Freefall. She pauses,

mouth stretched wide to warn as the sink gathers a dish overnight,

then a pot, but the drums of war have not started. Her world is

buzzing, not from hands, not from names, but from the

vertigo of the rollercoaster’s climax. 

 

And this is peace, the far echo of a mourned lullaby, the warm

brush of sheets on a bed you bought with your own money. This

is peace, as the kitchen gathers forbidden spices and flavors,

as you create your own recipe for life’s magic, splatter it across

nonstick pans on a Wednesday evening and call it art.

 

(6)

One last secret

Adesuwa Olumhense 

Do not fear; The child inside you never died. 

She wanders, barefoot, through your veins

Hikes up your back as you section your hair 

just to slip down the slide of your spine in the shower

 

She mimics your silly faces at each baby on the street

Stumbles right beside you to pronounce ingredients in the African market 

Asks the questions you don’t dare voice aloud. 

 

If you listen just right to the wind and its laughter 

You’ll hear her, giggling right back.

 

(7)

Forward

By: Adesuwa Olumhense

 

Your world did not end in one day.

When the fabled day passed, no white flag was thrown. 

The mourning doves chirped quietly to themselves.

 

Instead, you face this 3 am version of you

husk and human 

Paper skin wrapped around crackling bones 

gripping your shaking knees

 

It ends like this: 

 

When they pull your fingers back 

To tell you that you should watch your figure

So you shove your hands into your school uniform

(you weren’t that hungry anyway—)

 

 When they say your skin will burn and blacken in the sun

Too dark, too dirty, too ugly 

And you wrap yourself in shade and sorries. 

 

                        Like this 

 

When they pull your hands away from the steering wheel

For your brother to push forward. 

“Save his pride,” your father says.

“His little sister cannot drive first.”

 

When you can no longer bear to make silly faces in the mirror

So you turn away from your sun. 

 

When you look into your mother’s face

And a thousand ghosts stare back.

Your world did not end in one day

It will not restart in one either. 

What is the cure for a lifetime spent dancing with the dark? 

 

When it begins again

    Your world will not start with a pale dawn.

 

You scream your way to a new beginning

Vision blurred, fists trembling

And new truths buzzing under your tongue

 

Your first battle, a distant “no,”

You barely hear yourself

Your opponent rears back from the blast

 And a part of you yearns to do the same

 

You lay by the beach

read the words of your sisters

 Until your skin matches the deepest of soils

And it is no longer sin, but sacred

 

But still, sometimes,  you tremble

A mosaic of misery

That 3 AM version of you creeps back

Hugging shaking knees to a heaving chest 

 

But never forget the wonder of watching ivy crawl up the garden wall

For the versions of you, bruised, trying, grieving

Countless hands clenched tight on a near forgotten daydream

 

Your world did not end in one day

It will not restart in one either. 

 

But on the nights where you continue your dance with demons 

On the nights where demons leave and you continue your dance alone

Remember this.

 

With each step, know your aunties smile that little grin, bright enough to make their iwu glow

Know your grandmother hides her laugh in the cloud of palm oil smoke

Know your sisters will turn to greet the mirror like an old friend

(Like you, dearest, like you)

And smile.

 

(8)
 

When they say “Get over it”

By: Adesuwa Olumhense

You must never claim the sins they shoved under your skin.

A jagged gift tastes of terror.

A Trojan weapon will not outgrow its design. 

 

But when you remove the rot, excavate the essence of your soul 

Free from weight, full of grief, drenched in promise 

You will pull gravel from the depths of the spirit 

Pebble by pebble, tear by tear 

Shadow screams at sunlight, and the shards will try to take you with them. 

 

You must fight! 

From the depths of the ruin, with the strength of one thousand ‘cans’ to their army of ‘cannots’

From the blackest tunnels they left you in

You must fight, because you have waited your entire life to bloom. 

 

Shadow screams at sunlight, and the shards will not give in. 

But you tend the gravel, coax it from your rich soil.

Call each bit of rubble by name and set it aside. 

 

For the Sun has always resided in you

And what is Earth, but an immeasurable beginning? 

The light will shower its rays of wishes 

And you, dear heart, are the heir to it all. 

(c) Adesuwa Olumhense for The Untold Narratives

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