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reimagining the enchanted universe

"Magic is the keynote on which the lives of the Ekoi are attuned. The river itself is magical..."

P.A. Talbot In the Shadow of the Bush, 1912

I did not set out to write a fantasy novel. But my writing, which has always bordered on the fringes of fabulism, magical realism, and the speculative began to create a fictional new world based on an ancestral one. The Ejagham (or Ekoi) are an ethnic group in southwest Cameroon and southeastern Nigeria. "Ejaghamland" stretches across the Cameroon-Nigerian border over a region known as the Cross River. My ancestors were likely from the tropical forest area in Southwest Cameroon. A forest whose canopy is so dense that there are few words or tales for the sky, the stars, and the heavens. Instead, the universe and its mysteries unfold in the gem-like dew drops clinging to creamy petals of the balsam flower, in the restless nightsongs of creatures in their cathedrals of vaulting tree limbs and veils of lichen and mist.

The ancient god of the Ejagham, Obassi, is one Creator Being with two natures, often depicted as two seperate deities: Obassi Nsi and Obassi Nsaw (Osaw). Nsi representing the divine feminine, mother, earth and Nsaw/Osaw the divine masculine, father, sky. There is a seamless grace, a quiet elegance to the magic and cosmology of the Ejagham. Something that I am finding hard to recreate in the novel's world-building. The Ejagham have traditionally followed a cosmology that imbues almost all matter with some kind of spirit, life, magic potential. Today, most Ejagham people are Christian and yet the old beliefs still find their way in everyday rituals that are increasingly dismissed as superstition or a kind of village "backwardness". Still, the Ekpe leopard masquerde leaves its spirit realm and finds itself in church sanctuaries each Easter Sunday, trailing the cross of Jesus Christ in a lively, other-worldy dance procession.

The Ejagham do not have a pantheon of gods or even lesser dieties and demi-gods. Yet the cosmology is plush with ancestors, clever sacred tricksters, magical animals and natural forces, hungry ghosts, a legion of spirits and of njomm. In his 1912 book In the Shadow of the Bush, PA Talbot describes njomm as:

"...all uncomprehended, mysterious forces in Nature. These vary from elementals, so powerful as to hold almost the position of demi-gods, to the "Mana"......of herb, stone, or metal. In another sense the word also includes the means by which such forces may be controlled or influenced, secrets wrung from the deepest recesses of Nature by men wise above their fellows, or mercifully imparted to some favored mortal by one or other of the Deities."

Thus, njomm is really no different from "the force" or any other countless real and fictional belief systems that hold an enchanted worldview. A worldview that was discredited by Western modernity. It's a worldview that I don't hold as person steeped in the scientific knowledge and technology of my time and place, here and now. How can I see the enchanted universe of my ancestors? And when seismic changes occured like slavery, how was is experienced through this enchanted worldview? It seems a strange line of questioning. Yet, as I attempt to build a world from scratch, I am striving to understand what kind of people, what kind of culture, what kind of practices, rituals, and behavior might emerge from a perspective grounded in the inherent magic in all things. Eighteenth century writer and abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano recounted in his slave narrative how he and the other enslaved people aboard the ship believed the boat to be powered by magic.

"They told me they could not tell; but that there was cloth put upon the masts by the help of the ropes I saw, and then the vessel went on; and the white men had some spell or magic they put in the water when they liked, in order to stop the vessel. I was exceedingly amazed at this account, and really thought they were spirits. I therefore wished much to be from amongst them, for I expected they would sacrifice me; but my wishes were vain -- for we were so quartered that it was impossible for any of us to make our escape... At last, she came to an anchor in my sight, and when the anchor was let go, I and my countrymen who saw it, were lost in astonishment to observe the vessel stop -- and were now convinced it was done by magic." (The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, The African)

Of course, we know that what was perceived as magic by Equiano and the other enslaved Africans with him, was basic sailing technique and physics. But I am interested in how the perception of magic, the understanding of magic being at play, shaped the societies and experiences of my ancestors.

Much of my research on traditional Ejagham culture as it might have been centuries ago has come from combing through two texts: PA Talbot's In the Shadow of the Bush (1912) and Alfred Mansfeld's Urwald-Dokumente: Vier Jahre Unter Den Crossflussnegern Kamerun (1904). Talbot and Mansfeld were British and German colonial administrators in Nigeria and Cameroon in the early 1900s. The problems with using this source material are complicated and challenging as I work to learn more about my heritage and also mold a fictional world inspired by it. I have also intentionally relied on the work of contemporary Nigerian and Cameroonian researchers and scholars as well as anthropologists and scholars of African diasporic cultures.

A few years ago, at my grandfather's funeral, I connected with a historian from my ancestral village of Eyumojock in the Manyu Division of the Southwest Region of Cameroon. We've had a running WhatsApp correspondence over the last couple of years. He is a respected culture-bearer and elder in the community. He has co-authored papers and book chapters with esteemed European scholars. But he has lacked the necessary resources and support for decades. He has recently left Cameroon to seek a better life for him and his family. Currently the Southwest Region of Cameroon is embroiled in a complex conflict and uprising that has destabilized parts of the country and endangered the lives of many. For my part, I barely understand what is happening on the ground right now and I grapple with the ethics of focusing on the past, on the fantastical and magical, when the stark realities of many are so dire. What is my responsibility? And how is the past I'm exploring connected to the present realities, the future possibilities?

I recently told my parents how much I hate that the only full-length books dedicated solely to Ejagham culture were written over a century ago by colonists. Yet, the books are thorough and if you can hold the problems inherent in their historical context without screaming, I have a hunch they got some things right. Fables and fairytales only known through an oral tradition have been recorded in these books as have practices now long gone from contemporary Ejagham society. Nnedi Okorafor actually included Talbot's book in her celebrated young-adult fantasy series, The Nsibidi Scripts. Okorafor's own book reimagines the magic of the Ekpe Leopard Society and Nigerian myths to create what many have called the "African Harry Potter".

Writing a fantasy novel in the Own Voices era is also fraught. While my ancestors were Ejagham, is Ejagham culture my "own voice"? And what does it mean to base a fantasy world on an existing culture? There are ethcial and political considerations I navigate everytime I go to the page. As an anthropologist, I want to get the culture "right", render it "seen". But often I wonder if I am the best person to do that or if it matters in fiction writing, especially fantasy fiction. I am also trying to tie together historic threads and issues around the Transatlantic slave trade that are complex and unweildy.

Still, I believe the past and its magic can teach us something. Our world churns and shifts, transforming underfoot with every passing second. As an anthropologist, I have always understood that change is really at the heart of understanding culture and the human experience. I feel so exiled from my cultures and heritages, resentful that I must rely on books and scraps of secondary knowledge. But the digging feels like its own heroic quest. I hesitate to say healing. Yet I feel that there is value in gathering all this information, in weaving these seemingly disparate threads and spinning them into an epic story that surpasses my own needs and intentions for it. A spinning that takes an unmarked elephant road deep in the heart of a forest few will ever see and have it open up a portal, a magic bridge to something beautiful and universal.

I've leaned into the fantasy and the speculative of it all because I am compelled by the "what ifs?". What if there was a Land of Ghosts? What if there was a magical force and a people who could weild it known as the Njommi? What if masquerades were actually fanstastical creatures who could cross the lands between the living and the dead, between past and future? What if there were diviners who could time travel? What if nchibbidi/nsibidi was not only a script, but a tool for spell-casting, conjuring, and ultimately change-making, alchemy? Now, what if these Njommi existed in the Riverlands and Bushlands of the Cross River region and the black sand coastlands of Cameroon? What if the Njommi existed when the first slave ships arrived? What if the slave trade and all the traumas it triggered kicked up its own supernatural evil? What if someone could travel through time and change things? What if, what if?

I've decided to vault headlong into the abyss of questions and gaps in knowledge that I may never know the answers to or "truth" of. I've invited my imagination to build a world in that primordial goop of mystery and questions, to plant my "what ifs" into the deep red soil and water it from the river in which once, perhaps, just maybe, an ancestor might have caught a sacred fish.


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