Courtesy of the International Mission Board, Richmond, Virginia

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Excerpted from the novel A Different Sun, forthcoming from Berkley Books April 2, 2013 


“I plan a safari into town tomorrow,” Emma said, she and Henry with bowls of morning coffee.

“Ask Jacob to go with you. I’m meeting with a local chief tomorrow,” Henry said.

“I’ll ask Duro,” she said, sorry her husband had not offered to come with her.

As different as Yoruba land was from Georgia, it was still possible to anticipate an outing if you had the energy after coping with the heat. Emma would not see church spires or admire the city gardens, but once in Ijaye’s open-air market she had found European china. Anyway, walking was her bent. Her great-aunt Helen had been a walker until she took a stroll on her ninety-sixth birthday and never came back. That was a story her father told. As a boy, he had been sent to look for her and when he found her, she was faceup, next to the goldfish pond at the center of a boxwood grove. Her hat was still on, just a little askew.

That evening Duro came in limping. He had twisted an ankle in the countryside turning up yams. That left Jacob to accompany Emma on her safari. The next morning, Abike and Wole were waiting with him in the outer compound. They all stood at her approach, and she was surprised again by Jacob’s height and the smile hovering in his eyes and along his cheekbones that did not suggest obedience. She thought the golden key to the African mind was in that smile.

“I haven’t given much thought to our direction,” she said.

“We can begin,” he said.

She drew on her gloves.

As soon as they passed through the gate and stepped into the street, a band of children appeared out of nowhere, gathering around her as if she were a great odd bird. It was hardly a new experience, but she was disappointed that Wole and Abike simply stepped aside for the throng, unaware of how they betrayed her. “Whew,” Emma said to no one. The houses were as predictable as day: uniformly mud, one story, thatched roofs. She smelled bean cakes frying in palm oil. Here and there stood a palm or pawpaw tree or great shading hardwood. Roosters and goats dawdled; a black-and-white pig tripped past. The lane was clean and open. Some boys sauntered by, pretending not to look at her. Then an old farmer passed so close she could smell the earth on his hoe, but he took no notice of her, as though he had no mental picture she might fit, and therefore she did not exist. When they had traversed the equivalent of three city blocks, a tall woman stepped into the road with the clear intention of intercepting them. Her calves were straight and lean and she seemed of some indefinite and eternal age like a character in Virgil. Emma felt her heart beat in her temples as the woman made a little speech. She used the word funfun. A number of the woman’s neighbors stood silently in the shade. “What did she say?”

“She says your skin has been rubbed off and is white like raw cotton,” Abike said.

Emma was again seized with the sense of discord she had felt when first in the country and her color was called out, not for its loveliness but its absurdity. It made her angry with Abike to be reminded. “Jacob, ask if we may visit,” she said.

Jacob addressed the woman, who had put a hand to her cheek as if all skin might now be in jeopardy. In a moment, he turned back to Emma. “She invites you to her house,” he said.

“Tell her first, while we are here in the street, that my skin has not been rubbed off. God has made us different for the glory of His creation.” She reached for Abike’s hand and gave it a good squeeze.

When Jacob translated, the woman went into another speech, her voice moving about on the scale and landing on such unexpected notes that it put Emma in mind of a xylophone.

“What is she saying? Have you vexed her? Tell her I am Mrs. Bowman.” A goat came close to her skirts and made ready to do something unbecoming, and Emma shooed it away.

“Mistress Bowman,” the woman said, waving Emma toward her.

They followed her through a small room, out the other side, and down a narrow yard where a pawpaw tree hung heavy with oranging fruit. As they walked, children joined them, all in a line. The group stepped through another passageway and out the other side into a large yard and finally to the room the woman had in mind for her visitor. Emma was delighted. This was just as she imagined. She was entering a new stage in her development as a missionary. God was with her and had provided this woman for her first real evangelism in Ogbomoso.

The room had a window of all things, shuttered with a gatelike contraption but now propped open. Their hostess captured a stool out of the corner and offered it to her guest.

Joko,” she said.

Emma gathered her skirts and aimed her hind side for the low seat. Once settled, she looked up to see sky. “Your window is fine.” She spoke slowly in her best Yoruba, hoping to communicate her admiration.

The lady was arranging herself with a pretty green scarf. Then she took her own seat, a stool so worn the wood was ashen. With clear authority, she told Wole and Abike to take seats on a mat and left Jacob to decide his own fate. He stood leaning against the wall. When a native beer was offered, Emma tried to resist. But the hostess insisted and then filled her gourd twice. It must have been fresh because the taste was finer than usual. As Emma let her legs float out in front of her, she thought of Jesus taking wine with ordinary people as he ministered. After a moment, she beckoned Wole and then pushed him forward in the fine new shirt she had sewn. The woman took the boy’s hands and swung his arms out and back with hers, like girls might do in play. She said something longish and delicate, and the boy nodded in agreement. Jacob translated because Emma didn’t catch it all.

“She says one’s true nature is like smoke; one cannot hide it in the folds of one’s garment.”

Emma might have found the woman’s proverb a challenge if she hadn’t been so relaxed with the beer. Instead she was open to its wisdom—open like the window. “Who is she?”

“She is the mother of the town,” Jacob said, “not simply iya but Iyalode, woman governor. Women with trouble come to her.”

“How wonderful,” Emma said. She did not recall that Ijaye had included a female governor, but right here she had stumbled across the most important woman in Ogbomoso, well, apart from the pagan priestess. The Iyalode could help her reach other women through a sewing circle. Teach trade, Henry said, and the church will follow.

The woman nodded her head back and forth as if she were, through some sixth sense, in possession of Emma’s own thinking. A child’s head appeared at the window but quickly disappeared.

“The Iyalode wishes to know if you have a title,” Jacob said.

“Not exactly.” She wanted to try her Yoruba again, but this sentence could be spoken only in English. “I have a college degree that took several years of study.” She peered at Jacob, wondering how he would translate. It took him a while.

“She asks if only women go to college,” he said.

This was almost as fine an idea as a women’s government. “No, not at all,” she said, thinking she might explain women’s and men’s colleges. But Henry did not have a college degree, and it wasn’t such a fine idea to explain that. “My husband is an ordained minister, an aluffa of the true God,” she said. Unfortunately the Iyalode seemed not as impressed with this as college. Emma thought she must press on in the direction of the gospel, even if just briefly.

“The one God,” Emma said, keeping it simple and using her own Yoruba, “sent His son to live with us and open the road to eternal life. His name is Jesu Kristi. He brings hope to the poor and all who suffer. My husband and I have come to Ogbomoso to share this true faith.”

The Iyalode adjusted her headdress. She talked back to Jacob.

“She wants to know why this God-on-earth was preferring the poor.”

“Because the poor are most in need of God’s mercy.”

Again the woman went through Jacob.

“She says big men also need God; who will come to them?”

This question had not been put to Emma in Africa. She thought of most everyone as poor. “Of course, if the rich man is willing to give up everything to follow Jesus, then the way is open for him.”

The dialogue continued to move through Jacob, and Emma was glad to have him. He was a better interpreter than Duro.

“She says the rich man has a responsibility to keep his wealth so that he can distribute it to his wives and children and other members of the town in need.”

This was vexing. Emma thought the woman might prove a challenge. She flexed her fingers in her gloves. “As long as the man’s primary allegiance is to Jesus and loving God and if he lives a good life, giving freely of his wealth, he can enter the church and be saved,” she said, thinking, That should do it.

“The Iyalode wishes to know what else is in your head,” Jacob said.

“I know mathematics.” Emma put him in a stare, meaning to convey that the talk was a little drawn out. “I’ve studied poets, gurus, astronomy, zoology, physics, and Latin,” she said. “I can show her a picture of her own country.” This possibility bloomed in her mind like a white morning glory. She could promise to bring it on a future visit. Her back was starting to hurt from sitting so low, and her dress felt snug in the middle. The Iyalode stood, without any apparent effort. Wonderful. They could leave.

“She says you can show her,” Jacob said.

“Yes, when we return.” Emma had nothing to get hold of, to lift herself. Jacob held his hand out. She looked at it hard and grasped it, feeling her hand small in his. When she was up, standing before him, she was startled to see how clearly handsome he was. For a moment she forgot what they were doing.

“Now,” he said. “She says you can show her now.”

“Now?” Emma stammered, feeling all tossed up. The Iyalode was out of the room, talking this way and that to children who had converged at the door. Emma struggled with her skirts and adjusted her hat. She drew in a breath. “Very well,” she said. “I’ll need a good stick.”

Out they filed into the yard. Jacob sent a boy to fetch a drawing stick. Everyone else took seats on the veranda. Shortly, the boy was back, his chest puffed out as he passed the stick to Emma. “Where to begin,” she said, and took her gloves off. Her hands were already freckling; her mother would be horrified. “Yes, your country, of course.” She started with the vast curve of West Africa, remembering it from her father’s globe. Blue blue blue. Down she went to southern Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, up the eastern coast to the horn of Ethiopia, up toward Egypt. Her Africa was a little irregular but she kept going, straight across North Africa, smoothing it out as she went. What princes and sheiks and mighty Moors did she topple with her driving Herculean stick-pen, shaving their kingdoms back? Briefly she glanced at Jacob and then on she went, the last lap, all around and back to her beginning place. West Africa was a bit too large, really, about twice its size in relation to the rest. “Now,” she said, straightening herself, “we are here,” and she made an X on the Yoruba country. “Ogbomoso.”

The Iyalode waved her hand over the continent and Emma understood her question.

“This is your larger country. Africa. Surrounded all by water, odi. It’s called ocean, okun.”

The woman stared at the dirt. She wrung one of her ears out with the tip end of her little finger, as if the image had done something to her hearing. She moved to stand in the middle of the continent, out of the ocean.

“Too small,” she said. The children laughed—perhaps, Emma thought, at her.

“It’s quite large indeed,” Emma said, “so large it would take you a year to walk across it. This is a rendering.” Quickly she sketched a human figure in the dirt, a woman with a skirt and a basket on her head. “Now. What is this?” The Iyalode pointed to herself. “Exactly. And yet she is very small, while you are large, titobi.” She pulled herself up to indicate large.

The woman looked doubtful, cupping her chin in her palm, a worried expression on her brow. Suddenly she erupted, her hand pointing to the map as if to scold it. “Where is your own country?” That would be harder, Emma thought. How to draw North America? She looked again to Jacob, but he was gazing off as if preoccupied. Gird up, she thought to herself, using a form of speech he had frequently spoken to the porters on their journey. She did her best, but the rendering of her own continent looked something like the udder of a cow. Africa is clearly more decorous from a certain point of view, she thought. She made an X where she estimated Georgia to be, just above Florida. Then she drew a line across the portion of the Iyalode’s yard that had become the Atlantic Ocean. “It takes sixteen market weeks to get from my home to the coast of your country. Be sure she understands, Jacob.” She wanted to bring the man’s attention back and for the Iyalode to know how hard she had worked to get here. “Then it takes several days’ journey overland to arrive in Ogbomoso. In good weather.” She stood back, took off her hat, wiped her brow with the gloves she had stuck into her belt, and replaced the hat. Her spurt of energy was gone.

Jacob passed on this lesson and the Iyalode continued to study, with some disapprobation, Emma thought. The woman moved across the ocean to stand inside North America. She walked the line back to Africa, disturbing the illustration with her footprints. She scratched her head beneath her headdress. Its upward slant reminded Emma of Mittie Ann from back home and the resemblance brought a torrent of memory—Uncle Eli standing at the back door that morning, his feet still whole, the little girl who wrote JESUS on a bit of bark. There was a horrible complication in the drawing, and it made Emma terribly hot. The Iyalode had walked the route of the slave trade, and it was Emma’s own route. How had she failed to see this before? Something blue, a quilt, Uncle Eli’s stars. Now the woman looked into the sky, not even sheltering her eyes against the sun. Then she held her hands, palms down, before her, arms straight, and swept the air. Jacob relayed: “She asks how you saw this vision unless you have been in the sky?”

Emma had her drawing instrument to the ground now, like a walking stick to steady herself. Her head felt dangerously hot. The Iyalode was too demanding. Let her try to understand Copernicus. Emma took in a breath and let out a puff of air. “Tell Iyalode men travel in boats around the globe, around the world, and use tools to measure the land. The earth is round”—she showed with her hands—“like an orange. People have sailed, in large canoes, all the way around her big country”—she pointed to Africa and saw Uncle Eli’s maimed foot. Quickly she pulled her eyes back, and the stick too. She adjusted her hat. “Around her country and across the ocean to my country and back.” Jacob explained at leisure and Emma boiled in the sun. Finally, she could continue. “They have even sailed all the way around the earth.” About the time sweat started running from her scalp down into her dress, it dawned on her that it took significant abstract thinking for the woman to have realized that the best place to anchor a drawing table for sketching out the earth would be the heavens.

“She says she will think some more,” Jacob said.

“Yes, I heard her,” Emma said, grateful for her own endurance. What a trial the lady was, over there shaking her head, looking out at the horizon.

“One more question mah,” Jacob said, this time with his smile.

“What?” She tried to be impolite.

“She wants to know why have you come so far to this place and left your mother?”

Emma looked at the map she had sketched, but it seemed the earth had slanted funny and the brown dirt was slipping away beneath her. With the Iyalode’s walking about the map, the area of Georgia looked like a burst pumpkin. When Emma raised her eyes, the sun nearly blinded her and she remembered for a moment swinging out under the big oak in her front yard when she was a girl, how she would let her head go back to watch the sun falling upside down through the trees. Then when she got off the swing, the right-way world looked upside down.

She put her arm out and the Iyalode caught her at her elbow. What a relief to be led to a mat under a tree. Emma took her hat off and fanned herself. Her stomach was certainly in turmoil. She looked to see if anyone had noticed her weakness. Abike and the Iyalode’s girls were comparing hair styles. Wole took turns with the children jumping from the piazza into the yard. Jacob pulled out a lobe of kola nut and was intent on his ceremony. The Iyalode’s long legs stretched before her on the mat. She began another speech, using the xylophone sounds, and Emma didn’t try any longer.

“What is she saying, Jacob?”

“She says the world began in her country. Therefore your ancestors traveled to America from this place and now you have returned home. She says you managed to leave your birth mother because your ancestral mother resides here. Otherwise you could not have come. She says you will need your mother soon.”



Reprinted from A Different Sun by Elaine Neil Orr by arrangement with Berkley, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2013 by Elaine Neil Orr.