The first time I tried to climb up the Olumirin Erin Ijesha Waterfalls, I was 18 and incapable of telling anyone “NO” because I was obsessed with them liking me. I was just entering university, “straight”, and in love with my best friend. I was physically fit and in the best shape of my life, a member of my church’s choir and quite the church devotee: the perfect obedient rule follower.
The second time I attempted to climb the Olumirin Erin Ijesha Waterfalls, things were remarkably… how do you say it? Different. I was 27, definitely NOT straight, had four years of working experience under my belt, had mastered the fine art of pissing people off with my opinions, relished telling ANYONE that would intrude on my space or my peace of mind “NO” as a full sentence. I—was quite the agnostic, broke ALL the rules and had gained 40 pounds. I was definitely not in the best shape of my life.
So why would my slightly overweight ass decide to drag myself up a waterfall that had not one, not two, but SEVEN levels? The answer to that is pretty simple. My asshole friends told me to take a break. Doesn’t make any sense? Maybe it would be best if I took you to the very beginning.
It was April, 2017, a couple of days before Easter which thankfully came with certain perks when you live in a country that is as religious as they are hypocritical. The perks? We get the Easter holiday off! Now, my friends and I aren’t the most religious people — . It’s hard to reconcile believing in a just God when the average Nigerian Christian likes to wield the bible as a weapon against “the gays”. Of course there are the queer Nigerians who have learned to separate the God they serve from the hypocrisy of his followers, and that is a fortitude I applaud. I on the other hand, walked away from Christianity without looking back about five years prior, and was learning to connect to the earth and the world around me. I also had a fascination with the African Traditional Religion, which the average Nigerian Christian considered a taboo. My sexual orientation already made me taboo in their eyes, so what was more thing to add to the list?
So for this Easter holiday, a couple of queer friends and I had decided not to go to Church and pray for the cleansing of our sins like everyone else, but instead to travel from Lagos to Osogbo to visit the shrine of the Goddess: Osun. An added perk? We were going to end the four-day visit by climbing up the Erin Ijesha waterfall.
I planned the trip to the minutest detail, to make sure nothing went wrong. It was my getaway from not just the hecticness that was my work life but also the heteronormativity that was a constant all around me. There’s just something about being constantly surrounded by straight folx, the constant folding in of yourself, the constant biting of your tongue during conversations. It’s hard being wholly and utterly you in the company of people you know might turn on you in a heartbeat the minute they discover a part of you that is none of their business but that they’ll make their business because you don’t conform. It’s bad enough that I’d started getting the “when will we meet your boyfriend” talks and the “don’t you want to get married and have kids?” interrogation sessions. And oh, there was the “you’re too stubborn, too headstrong, too proud, too opinionated. How are you going to find a husband?” I live in a society where people would rather I sit down and be docile, bite my tongue, go with the flow, accept what everyone’s pushing towards, who everyone’s suggesting I be.
So, the chance to go on a road trip, to let it all go, to be myself, my newly queer-accepting self, it was a chance of a lifetime and I was not about to let anything fuck that up.
I made the calls, obsessed for weeks until the plans for the trip was perfect. Our red, 2001 Toyota Sienna had a busted air conditioner, but it fit all five of us comfortably, even with our luggage. Plus, it allowed us to take in the passing scenery as Lagos passed us by and Ibadan beckoned. I closed my eyes, breathing in the scent of home and taking in the rusted roofs that were as part of Ibadan as the amala I suddenly started craving—I hadn’t been back in years and was certainly due a visit—and then, Osun was an hour’s drive away.
We made it to the hotel by noon after leaving the park at 7:30. After paying for our rooms, we changed, then spent the day chilling by the pool, gulping down several plates of hot peppersoup and washing it all down with some cold bottles of beer.
I’d picked a hotel that was close enough to town, but not too close to the capital of Osogbo, so we had a lot of privacy and a lot of peace and quiet. None of us were in a relationship so we also spent the afternoon and evening bemoaning our lack of a romantic life, commenting on just how hard it is to date someone in a country where you can’t casually kiss your partner or hold hands for too long. (It’s more acceptable if it’s two women holding hands, though they have to concede to a femme-ish dress code. If you look butch then everyone’s eyes are present, watching and judging). It’s difficult to even live together for an extended period of time. Dating is hard — although not impossible; one just has to work their way around things. We acknowledged that, and wished we had partners in our lives with whom we could work out such things out.
By morning, we were done bemoaning our lack of a love life and were totally and completely focused on getting to the Osun shrine in Osogbo. After having quite the hefty breakfast of fried yams, peppered sauce, fried eggs and several cups of coffee, we were ready to begin our pilgrimage.
We were at the shrine in an hour being greeted by monkeys, some of whom were creeping up on us to see what they could possibly steal from our bags. Our guide was a man well versed in the history of Osogbo and how the initial settlers intruded on Osun’s sacred grove. He talked about her command to them to leave and settle outside her domain, even as she promised to bless them and their lands. The humans in turn promised to come and offer a sacrifice to her, once a year in what is popularly known as the Osun-Osogbo festival.
He took us through the grounds, showing us the different sculptures that littered the compound — from that of the first Ataoja, to that of the hunter that discovered the grove, to the gong that carried the message from the king to the people, to masquerades that represent the different deities and all their shrines as well.
We followed the path the royal virgin who bears the sacrifice to Osogbo takes, all the way to the stream and get on the bridge that separates Osogbo from Illorin. And we wrapped our tour by ending up at the souvenir store where I, as always, gravitated towards the items denoting Esu—the trickster god.
Walking tired us out, so we ended the day at a restaurant, digging into several wraps of amala and gbegiri mixed with ewedu soup and struggled to keep our eyes open by the time we got to our rooms.
The next morning had us awake at 9, and ready for a day of mountain climbing.
We got to Erin Ijesha at noon and the thundering sound of the waterfalls welcomed us in. But, even as the sound thundered all around us and I saw the small clusters of people attempting the climb to the top, realization hit me faster and harder than the waves pounding down on the rocks: I hadn’t brought suitable climbing shoes.
You see, somewhere at the back of my mind, I’d convinced myself that attempting to pull my slightly overweight and totally out of shape ass across the seven levels that made up the gigantic waterfall was an impossible dream. Years of well-meaning friends and busybody colleagues constantly criticizing my weight and talking about how out of shape I was becoming had taken their toll. And even though I was slowly getting to the point where I would love my body for what she could do, rather than what people thought she should look like, I hadn’t arrived at that point yet. So while everyone was excited about the forthcoming climb, I faked my excitement, and swallowed down the fear that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. And now, I stared up the waterfall, realization cascading around me that my shoes didn’t have the right grip to support the climb. My palms started to sweat. But I was not about to admit that to the young man who was taking us on the tour.
Getting to the first level was backbreaking work. We hadn’t gotten to the climbing portion yet, just following the steps laid into the rock’s surface. But the steps were small, and by the time we crossed the first level, I was sweating, and panting and my thighs were shaking.
I took a deep breath and settled down on the ground, needing a moment or two to catch my breath. My friends watched me, amused and then told me in the way of men who like nothing better than to tell women to “ease up” that after all, what was I really trying to prove but that I had a death wish that would certainly end with my neck broken?
Before I could blink or think of a suitable reply, they told me to settle in, dropped their backpacks all around me and continued the climb. There was a ringing in my ears. And I wish I could say the force of my rage got me to stand up, but my body was tired and I was exhausted and so angry, I couldn’t move.
Until a voice cut in. It was that of an old man who had decided to join his family on their climb up the waterfall. He had the co-conspirator grin of someone who understood what I was feeling and who was aware that my body just wasn’t ready to move. And so he had his entire family wait for me, and held out a hand. “You can do it.” My thoughts picked up on where he left off: and if at any point in time you want to stop, you can simply… go back down. But don’t you want to at least say you tried?
I took the hand he held out, pulled myself up, begged those waiting for their loved ones to return to please keep an eye on the bags and set off after my friends. They’d had quite the head start: about thirty minutes, if my sense of time was right. But there was no way in hell I was going to let them get to the top of that damn waterfall and leave me behind like some fragile thing whose body just wouldn’t let her keep pushing forward!
It was hell. My thighs ached. The stairs had given way to dirt and trees and stone and I gripped everything I needed to drag my aching body, step by step, level by level, until I heard a familiar sound: voices that about two hours prior had left me behind.
I called out. Their gasp was pretty audible. “Noria? You made it?”
I hissed. Couldn’t help but toss out the little dig, “Yeah. Some people knew I just needed the extra nudge. And actually waited for me. You know, unlike certain friends… ”
You would think at that point, my “friends” would wait for me to catch up with them right? They didn’t. They continued their climb and I was left with my force of will, my mind and my aching body. The latter wanted to just give up and rest. The former two didn’t want to give those assholes the satisfaction.
So I crawled and I breathed deep, and murmured mantras that I do not remember; all I know is I put one foot in front of the other, held out one hand above the other and slowly dragged my way to the top.
I got to the sixth level and saw Osun in all its leafy beauty spread out in front of me. Clusters of people were all around; hands spread wide open, taking in the view. I placed both hands on my thighs and grinned.
It had taken me longer than the others; I was in terrible shape, but my mind, my will and that body that I’d spent so many years trying to force into smaller clothing and smaller spaces pulled off something that my 18-year old self couldn’t. She brought me to the top of the Olumirin Erin Ijesha Waterfall.
I was still raring to go, ready to tackle the seventh level — but that was going to be a three-hour climb in itself and it was already past 5PM, and unless we wanted to risk breaking our necks climbing in the dark, we had to start heading down immediately.
I was heartbroken. But I also wanted to stay alive so I joined the others on my way down. I took an extra minute to stare at the rolling green hills one more time. I’d done it. I’d proven to myself that I could do it. That there was nothing that was insurmountable. And that no matter how much society would want me coddled, or muted or docile or small, I got to decide who and what I was going to be.
And what I was going to be was ME.🗺️
Edited by Rachel.