Friday, May 21, 2021 12:03 am
By Chris Anyokwu
Regarding the earth-shattering demise of our gods, the epochal emasculation of the empowering gnosis that originates from them, Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart threnodises: “That night the mother of the spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. It was a terrible night. Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and fearful sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming – its own death”. This short excerpt highlights a sad incident in which an overzealous new convert to the Christian faith disrobes a masquerade, thereby effectively annihilating it. Please note that ancestor worship which represents the linchpin of African Traditional Religion (ATR) valorises masking which imbricates psychomemtempsy, mediumship, necromancy and allied animistic practices.
It is thus assumed and believed that when a person dons the get-up of the undead ancestors and the gods/goddesses, he or she transmogrifies from matter into spirit or divine essence. You therefore desecrate the sanctions and injunctions of the “gods” at your own peril. The entire architecture of autochthonous morality was hinged upon this dialectical pact between the living and the undead. Such is the monumental catastrophe unleashed on the living community by the execrable disrobing of a masquerade in Umuofia. That act of desecration and disavowal is as a result of the ill-digested and poorly-theorised appropriation of an alien, exogenous belief-system, namely: Christianity.
In contradistinction to the Umuofia tragedy, in Mongo Beti’s Poor Christ of Bomba, the Cameroonian converts are quick to revert to their “idols’ and shrines at the drop of a hat because Christianity brought to Africa by the white man, is no more than a convenient after-thought in the agonistic conversation among local deities and idealities. Ancestor worship with everything else that goes with it, is “our way”, to echo Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons.
When people, therefore, appraise and reappraise no end the effects of Western colonisation of Africa, they are quick to count the blessings of our colonial subjugation and conquest. Using Achebe’s Things Fall Apart again as template, they cite, among others, (1) that the white man brought us Christianity, and hence, the Light of the Gospel, to our heart of darkness; (2) apart from delivering us from the Conradian darkness, he helped stop the barbarian cultural practices of the killing of twins, social ostracism e.g., the Osu caste; (3) he introduced trade and commerce; the modern court system for the adjudication of disputes such as land, marriage, criminal and civil cases; (4) he also opened Africa to the rest of the world and vice versa, etc., etc. But what these cheerleaders and rhapsodes of the colonial yoke often fail to recognise is the fact that colonialism equally did incalculable damage to Africa.
Briefly sketched out, it destroyed indigenous organic black communities, for instance, the complete obliteration of Abame village owing to the unfortunate killing of just one white man in Things Fall Apart; perhaps one of the most documented calamitous consequences of the colonisation of Africa is land appropriation. We all love to relay the popular anecdote given by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa who said that: the white man came to us with his Bible and said, “Let us pray”. After the prayer, we discovered to our chagrin he had our land and we have the Bible. And it has been so ever since. The greatest tragedy, in our considered opinion, wrought by colonialism is the messing-up of the African mind; sowing seeds of self-doubt in his/her heart about his gods and goddesses, demeaning them and criminalising their veneration.
All of this is premised on the mistaken assumption that the black man is naïve, unsophisticated, pliable and starry-eyed with a “follow-follow” mentality. Thus the tragedy of history, colonial history, does not really inhere in the consequent redrawing of black topographies, the change in our architecture, cuisine, arts or even our forcible adoption of foreign tongues but the desecration and destruction of our collective faith and confidence in Our Way of Life rooted over eons in our religion – how our forefathers and foremothers related with the environment, with one another and with the human condition.
Sadly, whoever succeeds in destroying a people’s way of life, their religion, rules over them forever. In the past, Africans allowed themselves to be hoodwinked and bamboozled through the labelling theory of colonial chicaneries. It was actually a classic case of the kettle calling the pot black.
Simply imagine this scenario: white people erect statues and idols to their gods, goddesses, angels and saints, notably in Roman Catholicism but Africans are routinely vilified and put down for venerating their own deities and patron saints. Westerners and the westernised “prodigals” love to denigrate and dismiss this as idol-worship, heathenism, paganism and unbelief.
Commenting on this disturbing state of affairs, Niyi Osundare queries thus: “In an arrogantly Manichaeistic vein, sharers of the Christian faith see themselves as onígbàgbọ́ (“Believers”) while those outside their fold are regarded as “unbelievers”. I have never stopped wondering what dictionary supplies the Christian definition of “belief” and “unbelief”, and the vectors of these two states of being. I have never stopped wondering why, how, faith in the Christian God and his angels amounts to “belief”, while faith in Ọ̀ṣun, Ogun, Ṣango etc. is so haughtily dismissed as “unbelief”. As Christian converts (like the Achebe character who disrobes and “kills” a masquerade) we are now donning in deeper indigo before the bereaved cry out their loss; we are more Catholic than the Pope; we now export Christianity, the Light of the Gospel, to the original owners in Europe and America in spite of our spiritual and material poverty.
The Nigeria State which is supposedly secular has ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) saddled with the responsibility of organising pilgrimages to Israel and Saudi Arabia. What is more, we organise elaborate prayer sessions at public events like the Independence Day, Democracy Day, the weekly Federal Executive Council meetings, local and state government functions, schools, sport events, etc., etc. To whom do we pray? Whose God? How much gain, and, indeed, what benefit has this exogenous faith brought us as a people? What is the root-cause of corruption in Nigeria and, in fact, Africa today? Is it not the popular perception of the Christian God as infinitely tolerant, rich in mercy and forgiving? If society has seen the need to make laws to regulate behaviour, to differentiate between Good and Evil, right and wrong, why, then, do we not take our indigenous faith seriously? We claim we are a secular state, governed by a secular constitution yet we make a fetish of religiosity without purity of heart and life. Take, for instance, our Swearing-In Ceremonies: our public functionaries and rulers swear oats of allegiance to our Constitution placing a hand on a copy of the Bible or the Quran. If this were merely meant as comic relief or entertainment, it would have been okay. No matter.
But this is the very foundation of our tragedy as a country with regards to the much-vaunted fight against corruption. Public office holders glibly swear an oath on the Bible or the Quran and almost immediately after the grandiose charade make a beeline to our till, our common patrimony and cart away the heist with little or no consequence. Even when we make a show of bringing convicted culprits to book, legal technicalities such as plea bargaining, interlocutory injunctions, stay of proceedings and allied routinised legalese get in the way of justice. You hear something like: “You stole ₦100 billion? Ok, return ₦5 billion to the treasury and enjoy your loot in peace…”. Well, some drivel along those lines. It is the same wheeling-and-dealing you get in the award of contracts, project execution, carrying out of statutory duties and services in our public life.
Corruption is the name of the game, from the commanding heights of statecraft to waste disposal management or traffic control. The late President Jerry Rawlings of Ghana spoke on this serious issue of corruption in public service, not long before his passing, highlighting the urgent need for us Africans to retrace our steps in pursuing alien faiths and returning to our autochthony, our gods, so that they can help us; they can salvage the postcolony from colonial depredations, one of which is corruption. He recognised the fact that in traditional society, there was sanity, there was law and order, and the principle of due process. Should you lose any of your possessions, say, yam, money, goat or even a child, nobody would steal it. You would find it intact, waiting for you. Also, in a situation whereby a king or a prominent figure violates the law of the land, he either goes on self-exile, commit suicide or is decapitated or worse. Satirical songs are waxed for him as he goes down in folkloric obloquy. Indeed, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the gods like Amadioha, Ogun, Sango, or Ayelala. It’s instant death should you be found guilty of any offence or criminal act. That way, virtue is rewarded and vice pilloried and punished.
The institution of ofo in Igboland, for instance, is ruthless and unsparing in matters of murder, manslaughter, or culpable homicide, sexual indiscretions, incest, cheating, and oppression. Egbe beli ugo beli (“Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch”) is the cardinal grundnorm, thus creating room both for the .weak and the strong to thrive in an atmosphere devoid of molestation. Again, truth-telling was the norm in traditional culture. Hear Niyi Osundare: “To lie, prevaricate, tergiversate, engage in cant, forswear, etc. is to disrespect the word and assault its temple. It is to disrupt the universal order and the truth that holds it in balance – and anchor”. Religion is a personal, private affair. So people are free to practise their faith, and proselytise their belief systems. But government must hands off religious matters. And, if it is so enamoured of religion, then it can use our fiery and no-nonsense gods and goddesses to take oaths in Swearing-In ceremonies. By so doing, we will be able to tackle the recalcitrant and refractory dragon called corruption and sanitise our public life. Enough of the theatricalisation of faith all in the name of piety – what Chimamanda Adichie has described as “being righteous without being right”. Merchandising faith for the sake of political theatre or pharisaic grandstanding will not do.
It is wrong and unacceptable. However, a person of faith or even an agnostic or an atheist may pooh-pooh the foregoing as hogwash, he or she might dismiss African gods and goddesses, Amadioha and Ayelala included, as patently impotent and useless as Femi Osofisan dramatises in No More The Wasted Breed: “Only a happy people pay homage to their gods. We fed you with the best of our seasons, praying for peace and abundance. But instead, you brought us the white slavers, who carried off our best men to the far plantations. To anguish and humiliation. You did not shake your head, and overturn their ships on the way. You did not ask your tides to lead them astray before they reached us …” Thus, going by the logic inherent in the short quote, Nigeria’s salvation might not reside in our gods and goddesses per se, having let our forefathers down during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and the colonial conquest of Africa. If they could not save us then, how can they save us now? A plague on all houses, then? A properly socialised person, an Omoluabi should be able to rise above and beyond the lure of filthy lucre, the dazzle of ill-gotten wealth as well as other forms of compromise to serve the country in any capacity. The country now more than ever before needs such men and women of integrity to throw their hats into the ring. After all, we are gods. Cometh the hour, cometh the man!
Chris Anyokwu, PhD.
Associate Professor of English,
University of Lagos.