Title: Crows of the Yellow Stream
Author: Odili Ujubuonu
“A writer is like a camera or a screen. You must regularly go back to your past and replay the tapes so that people of the present will see what happened . . .” said Odili Ujubuonu, in a 2013 interview in African Writer. It is a view that seems to the define trajectory of his fiction.
This personal connection with history, culture, and traditions of times past runs through his novels, from the ANA/Jacaranda Prize-winning The Pregnancy of the Gods to his most recent novel, Crows of the Yellow Stream. Here, he takes us through a saga about the origins of a place, a people, and the traditions that define their existence spanning more than two hundred years.
At the center of the story is the mutual haughtiness and antagonism between the Umuisiani and the Nekuhu who are the earliest settlers of Odoro land. The author takes us through the origin of the settlement of the Odoro plateau and the myth that develops from generations of the suspicious relationship between Nekuhu and the rest of the Odoro clans. The climax of this conflict is foretold by an old Nekuhu man who tells the young Agwadana:
“The Crow’s Stream has an invisible door leading to a cave of precious stones. The white ones who will visit our land in the future will be willing to give so much to have these stones. We have smartly planted the spirit of an albino at the stream to await their arrival in the future . . .”
Consequently, the Nekuhu makes sure that one of their midwives steals the key to the yellow stream cave from the hands of a newborn. These are the kind of stories that teem the pages of the novel.
Characters like Dim and his mystical wife Nneuwa set the pace for the actions of their descendants such as Okeke-Mgbo, who became Ume Ikpeamaeziokwu as a titled man, and the Ezubere who merge two generations later with the Umuisiani. The complex relationships engendered by clan loyalty, traditions, and the seemingly endless genealogy of families makes the novel an important repository of the culture of Igbo people and their origin. The concept of “igu aro”, Igbo calendar, festivals, family histories and genealogies, and other cultural practices such as the Igbo Odinani religion are given prominence in the novel.
We encounter many powerful deities that the people venerate and the myths surrounding their existence. The evil Nekuhu clan, for instance, do not fear oath-taking because they have a great deity that protects them from the adverse consequences of being guilty of crimes they knowingly swore an oath of innocence on.
The author’s purpose is myriad. He creates a world where humans and animals live in harmony. And it is a strange creation, this world where mystical crows sing by mystical streams where they guard mystical stones that hold the key to great knowledge. It is a world where humans can turn to apes and leopards at will. The Nekuhu are the ape people while the Umuisiani clan, who almost suffer extinction after they break a pact they have with leopards, are the leopard people.
The beings that throng Odili Ujubuonu’s new novel can be bizarre but these are stories and legends that can be found in many parts of Igbo land. The story is one that defies easy labels. In places, it reads like a historical novel or a generational saga; in other places, it reads like a long dream full of bizarre happenings and hallucinatory images. Here is a worthy successor to the outlandish hyperbolism of Amos Tutuola. But more than anything, it is Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Bottled Leopard and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road that the novel echoes, especially in its use of animist realism:
A “vessel of immense size and weight” is lifted with relative ease by a seemingly frail woman. When Dim visits an old dibia, the old man tells him to turn around and “Dim did as he was commanded, and when he turned to face the old man again, they appeared somewhere totally removed from his compound.” This is something that happens in the novel in different fashions. We meet a leopard that talks. Nneuwa at some point turns out to be the mother leopard, for when the leopard dies, she dies also. The curse that ensues from the breaking of the pact Umusiani has with the leopards’ results in their instant extinction.
Many of the traditions and the events in the novel are predicated on the Igbo belief that one must live one’s life well for the sake of posterity; that whatever good you are doing today, you do to keep up a decent legacy for posterity.
Odili Ujubuonu’s novel, Crows of the Yellow Stream, brims with so much knowledge about precolonial Igbo history. The story seems to drag atimes under the weight of so much information but the Ujubuonu’s story of life in Igboland before the colonial experience is worth the time.
About the Author
Chimezie Chika has been published in journals and anthologies including Aerodrome, Brittle Paper, Praxis Magazine, Selfies and Signatures, The Kalahari Review, The Shallow Tales Review, The Question Marker, amongst others. A finalist for the Africa Book Club Short Reads Competition(2013), he was a participant of the 2015 Writivism Workshop and a 2021 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writer’s Residency, Iseyin. The Incident of the Dog, his first book for children, was published by GriotsKids, an imprint of Griots Lounge, in 2020.