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Awo suku Awo “O’much aa Caitch Tiday?”

Awo suku Awo “O'much aa Caitch Tiday?”

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Johnston Erubamie Williams was born in Sierra Leone in 1890 and came to Bathurst circa 1929/1930 as a career teacher sent on a colonial support programme from the Government of Sierra Leone to education in The Gambia. One of Williams’ conditions for accepting the job was that he would bring members of his Odeh hunting unit with him since he could not abandon his creation in Freetown without a leader.

Williams brought several men with him; some were teachers in the education programme while others were his associates from varied walks of life. Williams immediately went to teaching at the experimental Mohammedan School for English and Islamic education. He became headmaster (Master Williams) and his students admired his left hand writing across the blackboard. One of those students was a bright young lad from Barajally named Saihou Almamy Jawara who won the coveted Photograph trophy prize as the top student at the Standard Seven Examinations in 1937. That boy, Jawara, became Prime Minister of The Gambia in 1962 and President in 1970.

While making such strides in the teaching profession Master Williams had also set immediately to establishing the Blue Diamond Hunting Society. His men were outstanding in their uniform of blue trousers, white coats, and blue felt hats. The unit’s leading ladies such as Jerredine Charles (Mama Charles), petty traders Emilia Coker, and Amba Williams came out in matching blue skirts and white blouses. Krio culture was alive in bubbling energy and colour during ceremonies and celebrations and dancing around elaborate Hunting masquerades.

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Master Williams’ son, Emmanuel (former city councillor “Manu Kumba”), born in 1945, is a keen teller of his father’s story: “My father was a magician, a witch doctor, healer, in the order of the Odeh Hunting craft. Often, during masquerade displays his passions would run wild and in frenzy would chant into his cupped palms and out popped a white chicken clucking or crowing as the case may be. My father would tie the pullet on to the horns of the dancing masquerade and people would swoon with awe and admiration. When he was done he would make the chickens disappear again. Sometime it would be pigeons or small chicks but he would simply chant and they would disappear.”

What, or how much, must a boy understand of a father who spent every Thursday night at the cemetery? Whether alone or in the company of other craftsmen, it wasn’t clear but every Friday he would return early just before dawn, whistling the shrillest as he came with every hearer in their bed saying: “That’s Master Williams coming home from the graveyard.”

This school headmaster of the most intriguing character would never lock his house; he would be gone for the longest time with not a single padlock in place or any doors drawn. But any unwary visitor who walked into his house would never leave until he returned to release them; intruders simply sat as if in a state of hypnotic compulsion and none would be able to leave no matter how much they wanted to.

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Soon then everyone would hear Master Williams, the old prankster, coming home and from out on the street he would ask aloud most playfully: “O’much aa Caitch Tiday?” meaning: How many have I caught today? And there would be three or four forlorn and nonplussed adults entreating him to release them because they hadn’t known he was out when they entered his house. Sometimes he would heighten the drama a little by asking for a chair to be brought to him in the yard feigning that he was a bit exhausted from his outing; he would have such rascally fun while the poor visitors begged to be released, which they were as soon as he entered the house.

However, Williams was not alone in the craft of bush medicine. There were several units of Ojeh Egun-gun societies under master practitioners from the rapidly growing population of immigrants steadily arriving from Sierra Leone and Nigeria to live, work, and raise families in The Gambia. Those were generally people of Muslim Yoruba origins from Fourah Bay, Fula Tong, and Freetown proper.

Since Williams, a nominal Christian, was the first to open an Odeh hunters’ unit in Bathurst he held sway without competition in his discipline until one day when misunderstanding erupted between him and Dragenburg A. E. Cole, one of his main acolytes, over some particular dark demands of the craft at its profound depths.

Whatever it was the dispute was pointed enough for Cole to quit the Blue Diamond. However, he, still wishing to practice bush medicine had no ready Hunting organisation to join. There were only a couple of Ojeh Egun-gun units at play among doyens such as the master keeper of the shrines, a highly revered man named Pa Haruna John, of Louvel Street, who would father Ebun John who professed Odeh and became one of the best known in his time among the Odilleh hunters. Pa Haruna was famous for etching tribal body marks on the chest, arms, and cheeks of people, Muslim as well as Christian, who sought his help for fortifications against epidemic, witchcraft, or demonic invasions.

In New Town, not far from Master Williams’ abode at No. 12 Thompson Street, there was an Ojeh unit headed by another craftsman named Ismaila Martins. Cole, in search of a bush home, joined Martins in this different line of medicine culture than his original.

A truce followed but it was short, broken by a dire error when Martins’ Ojeh unit dressed seven Egun masquerades for ceremony but by some miscalculation had ignored the precious rule of full recognition of territory when they came out: Ojeh and Odeh outings must never cross each other’s lines and, besides, Williams’ shrine was just up the same street, and whose master was still sore from Cole’s defecting. 

The retinue of Ojeh masquerades and their Otoku escorts were singing and prancing on parade down Thompson Street past No. 12, Master Williams’ unmissable shrine palace, and nerves flayed. With Cole in the rival ranks, Williams, for that or for more reasons, found enough anyway to annoy and test him. When the master approached the jubilee train at the crossing at Spalding Street, he was in battle mode.

“My father crouched,” says Emmanuel as the story was told him. “He was twisting something between his fingers and whispering incantations into his cupped hands. The crowd of witnesses watched in disbelief as all seven Egun masquerades, in their most splendid of ceremonial robes, began writhing and screaming with uncontrollable itching and scratching.”

People kept their distance for fear of Master Williams but those who realised what was going on were pleading with him: “Master leff! — Master stop! —“Master leff!”— but Williams would not until all seven masquerades conceded in desperation and came bowing—Mojuba—before him in penitent submission before he released each of them from their wild agony with a pat of concession on the head. With eyes burning red like fire, his aspect drained as if a surge of power had left his body, Williams released himself from his near seizure and shuffled back to his home.

“Awo suku Awo,” cried an admiring voice in the crowd in the tongue of the ancestor spirits that “A Master hears when a Master speaks.”

Much relieved now the masquerades wandered back to their base too; it was a difficult moment to live down. All hopes of Cole ever mending fences with Williams melted there. Cole went away and did the next best thing and established a rival unit he named the Akpata Hunting Society.

Unfortunately for Master Williams much of his following were increasingly displeased with some of his extremes in his interpretation and practice of the shrine culture. Several prominent men joined Cole, perhaps Williams’ biggest loss to Akpata being his most devoted lieutenant and rifle porter, the newspaper printer, Alexander Metzeger.

And now there were two Hunting societies in little Bathurst. However, rivalry though still keen settled into more peaceful times. Williams was aging, and retiring, and concentrating on his investments in an evening school for dropouts and adult learners of English and arithmetic. Akpata flourished drawing eager membership from prominent civil servants and business people with others supportive from the shadows.

However, so consumed was Williams with his powerful Ogun over the course of time that it was impossible for him to carry out any normal practice of his faith as a born Anglican. His whole life was riveted in ritual with animal blood sacrifices and libations poured to appease a seemingly voracious spirit. Knowing well that it would never be possible for the two practices of church and shrine to go together the medicine man made the distinct choice of serving his Ogun.

But, as the old African saying goes, death is the most certain of all things a man could expect. After one terrible episode in an encounter one night with a spirit zebra at the same street corner where he used to perform his wonders, Williams fell ill. He narrated to his son how he encountered the beast in a struggle and how he dispatched it with a resounding left-footed kick on its rearmost.

Whatever the incident entailed, real or imagined, the zebra had gone away into the night but there came a dramatic change over the old man who suddenly began to grow weaker on the left side of his body. In what seemed to everyone like stroke Williams steadily worsened as he lay in bed surrounded by his cowries, his potions, his pots and effigies. 

Certainly the church was not the place to turn to for a funeral for Williams but the rest of the muddled family sprang into action. Yes, he was a long-lapsed parishioner but he was baptized and he was a family man and an elder in the community and could not be abandoned at a time deep distress for his loved ones. A reluctant closed negotiations with the sympathetic granting of a funeral service after the settlement of the old man’s years of unpaid membership dues. The church was not taking a bribe but rather granting the most simple of final rites so that it could preach a sound sermon of warning.   

According to his son the family may have saved face but even in death Williams’ medicines were at play. “The motor hearse arrived at No. 12 but as soon as the coffin was placed on it, there was nothing the driver could do to get that engine starting. Mourners had to volunteer to push the car through the streets all the way to the church.”

But wonders would not cease, it seemed. The car engine sprung to life as soon as the coffin was removed for the service. And then what? As soon as the coffin was being mounted on the hearse after the service, the engine died again. The volunteers had to push the mute vehicle again all the way to the cemetery, nearly a mile and a half away.

Emmanuel came away with a remark printed indelibly in his memory after one of the officiating Gambian priests said to him: “This is what happens when you deal with demons.”

Although Williams was close with his son who earned the nickname ‘Papa Tail’ for going everywhere with him, he passed nothing on to him, wishing never to bother the promising schoolboy with bush craft. Emmanuel, a devoted Roman Catholic being raised partially by his mother, and already a keen altar boy at Our Lady of the Assumption at Hagan Street, grew up to become a consummate teacher in the footsteps of his father.

At last in the evening on August 5, 1965, the educationist, medicine man, and Odeh society marvel died peacefully in his bed. The family obeyed his orders and laid him in state in blue pyjamas and not in a suit; he had always told them that he wished to go away light and not in any heavy black garments. He was laid to rest with all his powers, his magic, and his Ogun with him.

Still in awe of his late father, Emmanuel, even now in his 77th year of life, remembers with fondness Old Williams’ favourite quote: “Seeth a man diligent in his business? He shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men” — drawn ironically from the Bible at the Book of Proverbs, chapter 22 and verse 29.  Awo suku Awo!

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