By Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
There is a sense in which a new year comes with its own spirit, a new spirit, different from the spirit of the outgoing year. That is, a new year is seen as a break with the past, especially if the previous year was bad. Filled with incidents that we would rather forget. Filled with incidents that terrified a family, the community, or the entire land. A year in which things seemed to have spiralled out of control and everyone in the world sat on the ‘edge of the bitter precipice’ if I may borrow an expression from Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horsemen! 2020 was a year that started with optimism but ended with terrible memories for families, for us, and indeed for humanity. When Raina Rilke writes that ‘and now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been’, it is the feeling that the new year comes with new things.
On the last day of the year, people dance out to dance off the burdens of the dying year. In some communities, it is an elaborate ritual of cleansing and purification. Some religious groups and communities do ‘crossover’ services as if movement from one year to another is a physical experience. So, on the last day of the year, people celebrate the very fact that they have entered the new year, leaving all the troubles of the old year behind. The perception or understanding is that the evils of the old year would go away with the year. The underlying belief is that the year itself carries evil inside its belly. It is a year that is designed by some forces to punish a family, a community, a country, or humanity for some reason. Such thoughts govern the thoughts and understanding of some people about a leap year.
But there is a sense in which time is continuous. No break. Time, especially as we move from one year to another, is essentially, a thing of the mind. The calendar is a physical indication for the purpose of specifics. What is the difference between December 31 and 1st of January in real terms? It is a question of the mind, of perception. Remember that we all do not ‘enter the new year’ at the same time. Australia is ahead of us just as we are ahead of some parts of the Americas. The new year is a thing of the mind.
If we were to record 2020 in the affairs of humanity, we would say it was the year of Coronavirus! The devastating consequences of coronavirus are still being felt word wide. Scary deaths in the United Kingdom, Italy, and America. These are countries which have developed excellent health services and infrastructure. Yet, human beings have died like flies. Africa has been spared the tragedy of deaths. And the question is that how and why has Africa stayed above the fray?
So, for those who thought that 2020 was the year of Coro, 2021 has shown that COVID-19 is not timebound. The truth therefore is that the year is not the carrier of evil. The year is not a vehicle. It is simply a definition of time, of sequence. As a people, we should think about what to do about the events and experiences of 2020 and make sure that they do not return with anger in 2021. Our preparation for the pandemic is still troubling. We are not doing enough testing. The treatment centres are not enough. This has nothing to do with the spirit of 2020, the old and outgone year. It has to do with what we have done in the new year.
If a new year has a spirit, it is in the sense of providing an opportunity for a fresh start, a renewal of efforts to combat the challenges of the new year. That is, that should be the spirit of the new year. And it is this spirit that we should embrace, cultivate, and deploy to national development. Perhaps, this is really the underlying spirit in communities which celebrate the death of the old year and the birth of a new one. A new year carries the spirit of hope. But it must be planned. It must be worked on. It must be part of a strategic view of life.
The spirit of a new year! The spirit of an old year! There is continuity. There is an opportunity for a fresh start. The fresh start is more important than the superstitious belief that the year has a spirit that governs the events of the year. Let me quickly add that I had once argued in a new year essay that in ritual terms a new year has a spirit because through the necessary invocations, things will be different. That must be placed in context- the context of a traditional society.
2021 must be different. Both the governors and the governed need to be different. In spirit and in the letter. We cannot retain the current security architecture and hope that the security situation will improve. Kidnapping and banditry make Nigeria a nightmare. No matter the number of New Years that we have, without a practical policy of change, the spirit of the old year will remain with us. We cannot run an oil-dependent economy and expect our fortunes to change for the better. We cannot mouth anti-corruption rhetoric and indulge the fat cats of the state. Clannish appointments at any level are antithetical to a new spirit, the spirit of starting afresh which the first day of the new year could represent.
Let us hope and pray that the spirit of the new year will make our leaders do things differently. We can only keep our fingers crossed. Hope is the flame that keeps humans going. May it keep us going till we ride the storm of 2021!
–Professor Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha writes from the University of Lagos