Where the Waters Recede. Rotimi Olaniyan (2019). London: Apex
Publishing, UK. 310 pages
ISBN: 978-1-9160263-1-5. Available on Amazon.
Reviewed by Chido B. Nwakanma, School of Media and
Communication, Pan Atlantic University
Good literary works benefit from serendipity. Serendipity was at play in
the coincidence of the ending of Chinua Achebe’s fiction in A Man of The
People and the real-life first coup in Nigeria. It is an interesting
coincidence that the storyline of Where the Waters Recede, embedded
in history, coincides with the happenings across Nigeria and in the South
West featuring Fulani herdsmen and the indigenous people.
Rotimi Olaniyan’s first novel is a masterful historical fiction that takes in
several epochs in the history of South-West Nigeria. It deals with the
transatlantic slave trade, the invasion of Yorubaland by the Fulani,
banditry, the Yoruba Wars, as well as the incursion of the foreign
religions of Islam and Christianity. It shares the myths and details of the
strengths and weaknesses of the many gods of the land and the deities
the people worshipped.
The life and times of Omitirin, a young woman devoted to the goddess
Yemoja, is the vehicle for exploring many issues in history.
Upon attaining puberty, Omitirin’s parents’ hand her over to the service
of Yemoja. She goes into a convent for preparation for over three
months. As she gets ready with the traditional ritual bath at the river at
the end of her initial training, her first, slave raiders kidnap her. They
take her on a bewildering journey. One trader passes her over to
another, and thence to another. She escapes rape the first time at the
hands of drunken sailors by the assistance of a woman ostracised for
witchcraft on the false allegation of a trade debtor. The lady kills the
sailor as he fights to rape Omitirin but ascribes the murder to Omitirin.
Young Omitirin, age 14, is branded. Her protector hands her over to the
palace of Oba Osinlokun, son of Ologun Kutere of Lagos. The king
brings in Ifa priests who advise that they handle Omitirin with care and
show mercy. Oba Osinlokun would not but rather hands her over to an
Oyo warlord, Balogun Ijeru. She suffers through a failed effort to escape
the warlord’s harem because of his brutality.
The story takes a turn when fate brings Omitirin together with the
captured missionary Graham Thomas. Balogun Ijeru assigns her to the
task of nursing Graham back to health based on her knowledge of
herbs. Based on the counsel of the Ifa, Balogun Ijeru releases Omitirin
and Thomas the missionary. Twenty-five years later, they return to
Akindele, her village in the Egba heartland only to learn of the
destruction of the community by an infestation of smallpox.
The novel is set in the 18 th century but stretches to today. We meet the
Abolitionist Movement that fought to end the slave trade, William
Wilberforce, Samuel Adjayi Crowther and the early kings of Lagos as
well as the warriors of the Oyo Empire.
Where the Waters Recede teaches about the 400 Orishas of
Yorubaland. It dwells only on a few. They include Oya, “goddess of the
Tapa River and deity of the tempestuous harmattan wind” who was also
the wife of Sango, the god of thunder and Osun, “goddess of the Osun
River who protects her worshippers from epidemics, loves children and
gifts goodies to people”. Then there is Yemoja, the deity of the Ogun
River who blesses women with fertility and the land with abundance.
Also treated is Ori, “the Yoruba deity in charge of one’s destiny who
amongst the Yoruba was represented by one’s head”.
Details enrich this novel. Rotimi Olaniyan goes into great descriptive
details that provide picturesque views of things. The Yemoja figurine has
a face “etched with Ile-Ife tribal (identikit) marks, a torso with ample
bosom and cowrie beads on her neck” while it carried a boy and a girl in
Where the Waters Recede benefits from prodigious research that
breathes in the rich details. The enquiry covers the history of the slave
trade and the abolitionist movement, the creation of Freetown as home
for freed slaves, and the church movement in England. There is much
study and interpretation of the Yoruba Wars, the infighting of the children
of Ologun Kutere of Lagos and the impact of the conquest of Ilorin.
The many wars also make this book a mini treatise on leadership. Each
ruler must watch his back, calculate his moves and loyalties. Leadership is fraught with many trials, including the vaulting ambitions of persons
such as Balogun Ijeru.
Where the Waters Recede runs through a prologue, four parts and an
afterword. It is a book of many stories. As Iya Agba, wife of the Balogun
Ijeru tells Omitirin, “Stories celebrate the moments of our lives. We might
be blessed to live through each in the present, but how quickly they are
spent, to become only memories that we spend the rest of our lives
protecting with all our might, from fading with time. So, let us create
memories worth fighting for” (p287).
Where the Waters Recede “creates memories” and lends itself to
explication deploying several theories. Theories deepen understanding
of phenomena as well as organise the existing knowledge in specific
areas. The obvious ones are the Narrative Paradigm theory of Walter
Fischer and Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory as well as Lev
Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory.
In his afterword, Dr Olaniyan states: “The themes that I have explored in
this novel are ones that have fascinated me and I hope that in some
way, the telling of this story helps them find a valuable place within your
thoughts and conversations. It is important that Africans come to terms
with the need to reconcile their culture with their history. It is even more
important that these powerful human stories from our past, locked within
the ethos of Africa’s various artefacts that were mostly lost or stolen
duing the colonial era, and now lay imprisoned in the various museums,
galleries and private collections in the West, be allowed to find their way
back home. Because it is only then tht Africans can truly finish telling the
stories of their past”.
Against its noble mission, Where the Waters Recede occasionally falls
into usages that put down Africa such as “in the dark African heartland”
on the blurb, “primitive art” and “Ile-Ife tribal marks” rather than Ile-Ife
Rotimi Olaniyan schooled at the Universities of Ife and Lagos, as well as
Lagos Business School. He received his Doctorate in Business
Administration from the Nottingham Business School in 2015 and now
teaches there as a member of the Marketing faculty. He worked in brand
management at Cadbury Nigeria plc and Colgate Palmolive Limited and
owns an experiential marketing business in Lagos.