At the Foot of a Tree

hn. lyonga

These thoughts are not simply theoretical or conceptual. They are actual ways of living and respiring in certain parts of the world. This essay holds notions, traditions, and trajectories of the Bakweri people of southwest Cameroon. And the very true experiences of some of the women in my family.

I was raised around trees of diverse sizes. Some are robust, with leaves the size of moving eyebrows – when looked upon from the ground. They stand like Goliath, towering single-story bungalows, shielding them from unfamiliar elements. Others threw themselves on the face of the earth, picking and contenting themselves with what little they can find – they too watch and live in perpetual service to land and self. Where you can find and meet them: in isolation, on hilltops, in long-abandoned woodlands, on chosen human settlements, etc. They had gotten to these places either by coercion or by choice. Some were bestowed and saluted with names that planted them deep into the soil. Others were not. Jabayah, Mojoko, Ngowo, Namondo, Nako, were the ones I felt most close to. They stood at attention, stretched, and lined up across my grandmother’s compound. They were not gendered by function, only by name. They were prescribed names to remind spectators that they too have lineages they must care for. And that somehow, they needed to remind themselves of who belonged where and for what reason. Some carried fruits while others did not. Their significance to place or land did not lie in their ability to act as sources of nourishment. Nor did it lie in their usefulness to humankind. It lay in something entirely different. Something hidden away from man’s comprehension. For this reason, they stood upright and bent exclusively towards the sun for guidance. 

People do not sit idly at the foot of a tree. They sit with purpose. At the foot of a tree, rituals are held. A chicken lays its eggs and feeds its young. The family gathers for palm wine to remember spirits. Here, elders congregate to discuss matters of the land, drawing up plans for their next harvest. It is a woodpecker’s medium of choice to knock humans back into the realities of daylight. It is where the seed in a placenta lives – where a body is made whole again. At a tree’s foot, a baby gets its name. It is where mothers pound away plantains, yams, cassava, and pumpkin leaves as they enmesh themselves with desires and hopes. There is something that speaks in a tree. In it is achieved the language of the land and the taste of soil. In it, things are entangled, inextricably. A tree dreams, conjures and imagines the people and the land it stands on. It has its own body, consciousness, and mechanism. In every country where mouths loomed over throats, the way of the people was the tree. There are questions like: Is she at peace, or is she simply reliving her loss all over again? When a body is laid at the foot of a tree, does it enter into an alliance with its roots, can it thereafter travel up its veins? Does a new life emerge, will it recognise its ancestors, will it have a tongue of its own, will it remember its mother’s loss? 

In Bimbia, where my family’s origin can be traced back, people understand trees. You can tell the number of children a woman has lost by counting the number of trees she lives with. Here, people understand the language the soil speaks. They understand that some sites remain etched in our psyche because they are doused in the sentimentality of an eroded history. They live with their ears to the ground and make available their bodies to the elements. They hear the cries of crickets that announce the arrival of the sun season. They smell and hear the first drops of rain and the joyful voices of trees that welcome them with open arms. As farmers, they have learned to listen closely and to wait on and stay connected to the earth. They are not simply stewards of the soil; they are harbingers of epistemologies and prophecies. In these prophecies, their bodies, living and dead, have entered into alliances and morphed into new forms. 

On my grandmother’s compound, a second and third mutation happens after a death. The second one happens moments before a herbalist pronounces and labels the body of a loved one dead. Just before the first howl that whips a community into a state of mourning leaves a mother’s lips, before the community convenes to bear witness to a horrible truth, before the gravity of what has just happened is understood and registered by spectating bodies as a loss, as a deletion of life – a stimulus is set to sail. By the time a mother’s body hits the ground in shock, a separation becomes apparent, previously existing bodily ties are severed, and new paths are forged in memory and truth. Gallons of tears are spent. A day and a site are chosen. The community convenes again, to return dust where it belongs. The third one happens at the foot of a tree. It begins with the tradition of giving back to the earth that which is alive no more. A body and a seed are lowered into the ground and watered with libation and eulogies. Energies and elements enter into matrimony. When a new seed grows through a placenta or a body, another pregnancy announces itself. Flowers on the windowsill bloom, anoint, and announce a new dawn. A new body is registered in a song, a hum, a name, or a place where it can now be found. In between the memories of ourselves and our mother’s tears, aliens become temporary; they vanish in the banality of truth. In my grandmother’s compound, she has five trees beaming with life and five graves announcing names and dates of birth right next to them.

hn. Iyonga is a Black, Queer, multi-genre writer, poet, and curator of notions and trajectories who works at the intersection of postcolonial literature, critical race theory, and social transformation, with an interest in anti-Black racism, language in Black speculative fiction, anti-colonial approach to nature, and fixity of land as infrastructure.

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