On one recent Thursday morning, I, as I always do on mornings when I’m in Lagos, was listening to Smooth FM’s FreshlyPressed. Two assured analysts manned the mics, alongside the irrepressible duo of Sope Martins and Mazzino, Mezzino, something-or-the-other Zino. One was Cheta Nwaze. The other was Rotas, Rotus, Ro-something-or-the-other. The subject of the traditional ritual dimensions of the Ooni’s ascension into the rafters came up. And as always, it stirred up a bit of controversy. Naturally.
Interestingly enough, I had only just read Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman the previous day, in which the Abobaku – the Elesin, in that case – didn’t quite abscond, as we hear the Ife one has. No. A combination of factors – none bigger than the “redemptive” colonial officer – precipitated his inability to fulfil his abobakuness. Tragedy ensued. The Elesin’s son took his place, voluntarily – opprobrium on the Elesin. More on the Elesin’s son at the foot of this piece.
In his introductory notes to the play, WS stressed the need to ditch the familiar numbing comfort of the clash-of-cultures construct in coming to terms with the play. I agree. And I had formed this opinion before reading Horseman anyway. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart marked my maturity into critical contemplation qua critical contemplation of literature. It brought me to the realization that what we roll up and brand culture and tradition is not as straightforward. Our culture. Our tradition. Do we even know what those words mean? Are we sensitive to the workings of those words? Are there power structures tied up and revealed in those words?
I ask these questions because Cheta brought up an interesting topic – that of Mary Slessor and the abolition of the killing of twins.
First, to assume that Mary Slessor unilaterally ended the killing of twins is somewhat absurd. I know we were fed this mean gruel as kids. But we were kids then. The one thread that runs through the practice and the abolition of twins-killing is violence or the threat of violence. Mary Slessor would have failed spectacularly if she hadn’t had the backing of guns. And there would have been indigenous dissenters anyway. But they would have had no choice but to fall in line because dissent means death, at best ostracization. I can’t quite recall Koku Baboni’s plotline and themes, but I think it foregrounds this twins-killing motif in indigenous dissent.
Second, the killing of twins was not tradition or culture, not in the monolithic sense that we seem to understand culture and tradition. What, you say?
But, wait. I can explain.
You will follow my argument better if you have read Things Fall Apart – who hasn’t? Like WS’s Horseman, the most fruitfil way to read TFA is not to read it as a clash of old and new, as many seem to do, conditioned by the foolishness of early Nollywood. TFA is not necessarily even a dialogue between old and new. The “new” is merely a catalyst for the resolution of inherent disparities in the worldviews of a people (although the tragedy that has since ensued owes to the fact that this catalyst disobeyed that cardinal rule of catalysts: it took part in the reaction).
Therefore, a chief’s wife – I forget her name now – was the first convert to Christianity that the “society” hadn’t exactly considered dregs – like the osu and allied efulefus. Even at that, “society” quickly closed ranks against her; after all, hadn’t she given birth to too many sets of twins for comfort? Now, listen carefully. She converted to Christianity because some paradigm was finally here that did not consign the fruits of her womb – twins – to premature, ultimately fatal residence in the Evil Forest. Enoch tore off one of the egwugwu’s mask because it was now relatively safe to do so. Enoch’s action is justified easily enough: the women of Umuofia (and others undoubtedly) had always doubted the preternatural pretensions of the egwugwu; one of them had the springy gait of Okonkwo, who is definitely not a spirit. There’s an interesting parallel to this in Rev. Samuel Johnson’s sweeping history of the Yorubas:
The whole body from head to foot is concealed from view ; the Egugun seeing only from the meshes of a species of network covering the face, and speaking in a sepulchral tone of voice. The women believe (or rather feign to believe) that the Eguguns came from the spirit world (THOTY 29).
If that woman’s story was too hidden away to catch, Obierika’s constant philosophizing was at least visible enough. And he did not need Mary Slessor-type messiahs to question the apparent meaninglessness of the death of his own set of twins. If he hadn’t been as adept he was at walking cultural tightropes, perhaps he would have assembled a rebel army to forcefully put his views across.
Therefore, in any society, there are always dissenting views to “tradition” because “tradition” and “culture” is more often than not foisted by one group on other groups.
What’s the point of all this?
Well, inherent disparities in the worldviews of a people is the stuff of cultural change. So the Abobaku took a walk. To the discerning, this is cultural change in play. At a different, bygone period, the Abobaku may have proceeded triumphantly to his sacrificial death. But not anymore. I don’t imagine that the next Abobaku who may be required to journey with his ascended king would stay around for that untimely journey either. The institution of the Abobaku thus becomes something like a dead-letter law, a ferocious tiger (of a requirement) confined to glossy leaves of a children’s book. It’s a tiger alright but well, paper tigers haven’t been known to bite. Eventually, the institution will die a natural death. Life is sweet.
(This tangent is directed to the students and aficionados of Literature. Is it not possible to read the Elesin’s son as an embodiment of Negritude? I mean, it is Soyinka’s play after all, and we know that he apprehended Negritude’s unqualified, romanticized nostalgia as intellectualized primevalism.
Irony of all ironies.
Assisted by the colonial officer, the Elesin’s son had flown the coop to start with, which was sacrilege in itself. Of course, England would have sharpened his unquestioning appreciation for home in all its ramifications; sojourns in foreign lands tend to do that. The aspiring doctor should probably know better but then, like Senghorian lines unreservedly extolling the virtues of a bygone “Africanness”, a deafening, blinding, arrogant nostalgia makes him offer himself as atonement for his father’s sacrilege.)