Dr Chris Anyokwu
By Chris Anyokwu One is always fascinated by the cultural ritual of the child naming in traditional societies in Africa, especially among the Yoruba in southwestern part of Nigeria. For these people, a child is given a name which reflects the circumstances of birth, family history, outlook on life and hopes for the future, among other things. Thus when a child is named Tokunbo, what does it mean and why? A morpho-semantic analysis of Tokunbo is therefore in order at this juncture. The root word okun in Yoruba means “sea”, a huge, awe-inspiring body of water; an ocean, if you prefer. Nigeria, for instance, is crisscrossed with streams and rivers such as the River Niger and River Benue, River Ethiope, River Nun, the Osse River and the Osun River. However, the coastal areas to the south are completely flanked by the Atlantic Ocean, a truly mind-blowing body of water. When one was growing up, one’s mother used to take one and one’s sister to the hugely-popular Bar Beach on Victoria Island in Lagos. Coming in from the cold, or rather the famished road of the Bendel (i.e. Edo) hinterland as a callow, wet-behind-the-ears and impressionable village boy in secondary school and seeing the mountainous ocean surges of the Atlantic was too much for one’s mind. One had at the time felt light-headed and disoriented merely watching the awesome, spine-tingling ling splashes and the back-and-forth waves.
Much later after one had grown up enough to be married and blessed with children, one had felt at yuletide like taking one’s family to regale the kids with nature’s wonders a la Bar Beach. Thereupon, whilst savouring the smells, the sights and the sounds of the fun-dazed motley crowds on the sandy beach, we were shocked to our bones when nature bared its fangs, demonstrating that it could also be red in tooth and claw. The okun (ocean) had literally swallowed up right before our eyes a full-grown man who was swimming with such devil-may-care insouciance, entertaining the bemused and swoony onlookers with his jaw-dropping stunts on the crest of the capricious billows. When he suddenly disappeared, a sepulchral hush had immediately descended upon the world. You could hear a pin drop on the hitherto boisterous beach. We were told that in three days, okun would vomit the dead swimmer, dumping his corpse on the brackish beach for his family – if he has one – or the local council officials to cart him away for burial. The wrath of okun was new to one at the time, but reflecting on that rather unfortunate incident much later, it gradually dawned on one that the okun has always been something of a two-edged sword: at once a boon and a bane. As far as the former goes, the ocean has always been fascinating for a plethora of reasons not least for being among others a source of mobility, a veritable gateway to the outside world. The name “Victoria” after which the Island is named is replete with meaning in this regard. Not being from these parts, Victoria could only have found her way to the “heart of darkness” by navigating the world on the back of okun. Victoria, to be certain, is a name that has been etched in our collective cultural memory, since those “days when civilisation kicked us in the face, when holy waters slapped our cringing brows, [when] vultures built in the shadows of their talons” (“Vultures”, David Diop). Plainly stated, Victoria is an audacious memorialisation and monumentalisation of the African past; of the ignoble atrocities and horrendous indignities of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and, of course, the Colonial Conquest and now of the neo-colonial present. Appositely, the Saint Lucia-born Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott asks in one of his poems: “Do you want to know my history? Ask the sea”.
Indeed, littering the ocean floor of the roaring yet reticent sea are blanched bones of millions of African slaves, most of who had defied the yoke of slavery, and, preferring to die with dignity, had jumped overboard into the waiting sea… Among these illustrious dead were virgins and married women who would rather die than tolerate for a moment the filthy fingers of white lechers, bearers of venereal diseases and violators of virginal dreams. They also included able-bodied young boys and men who, like Kunta Kinte, hated the manacles of thraldom in every material particular. The bones of these proud sons and daughters of Africa lay buried in the Atlantic (i.e., okun). Hence, Walcott asks the poignant question: “Do you want to know my history? ASK THE SEA”! For millennia, the West has always sought to beguile us with its tinsel. Firstly, in those slavery days, it was rum, sugar, tobacco, and gunpowder. Our ruling elite at the time would give just about anything for these material things in exchange for human life! Secondly, the sly and slimy Caucasians had brought more eye-catching toys such as mirror and life-size portraits of potentates such as the one they had presented Oba Ovonramven of Benin in 1897. All these meretricious toys and tinsel brought to Africa through the seas (okun) have over the years created in the Black African mind a patently disingenuous image of Western excellence, racial superiority, supernal beauty and, in short, something of a Holy Grail to which we must “labour to death” to gain. We are socialised through culture, language, even religion to imagine that Western World as heaven on earth, their men and women and children as angels in “white” skin, swimming in milk and honey interminably. We are mercifully offered a privileged glimpse into the essence of okun (read: overseas/abroad) through oyibo inventions, facilities and infrastructure. Take, for instance, the road trope as semiotised in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God: “We are talking about the white man’s road”, said a voice above the others. “Yes, we are talking about the white man’s road. But when the roof and walls of a house fall in, the ceiling is not left standing. The white man, the new religion, the soldiers, the new road – they are all part of the same thing. The white man has a gun, a machete, and a bow and carries fire in his mouth. He does not fight with one weapon alone” (p. 85, Heinemann, 1986). The catalogue of items mentioned in the quote above merely indicates the elementary metaphors of white ingenuity framed within the incipient rays of post-coloniality. We may add to these items of white wizardry contemporary scientific and technological inventions such as airplanes, ocean-liners, yachts, jets, laptops, smartphones and drones.
Given the fact that we as a people love to sit on our hands and gawk at the miraculous inventions of the white man, we are also bowled over by the book culture. It is said that if you want to hide anything from a person of colour, you should simply put it in a book. The belief is that the Black person will never rouse himself from mental torpor to read the book! So, as far as the reading culture goes in these parts, it is assumed that people only manage to read to pass examinations. Even so, the whole business of the Book is steeped in okun lore. Apart from the open-ended debate over the provenance and nativity of the Book, it is believed that the Black mind is a tabula rasa regarding the DNA of knowledge production. He was simply absent in the Labour Room of knowledge production. He was not even at the christenings: the academic-cum-intellectual departmentalisation of gnosis, the theories, research procedures, research hypotheses and methodologies and the PRACTICE itself! Thus being congenitally infantile (cf: Hegel on Africans), the so-called African contribution to knowledge is at best derivative. The implication is that we lack originality as a race. Like fairly-used, second-hand automobiles brought in from Europe, especially from Belgium and Germany, vehicles known in street parlance as Tokunbo, we all are also a second-hand people. We all are Tokunbo, body and mind. Evidence of our Tokunbo status (the Yoruba term implying “one who is from across the seas”, a “Been-to” or a Westernised native) inheres in our Language of Wider Communication (LWC), i.e., the English language. In English, we live, we move and have our being. It’s called the Caliban Complex. Being a mute mass of flesh, a babbler at best, it is alleged, the white man (Prospero) came along and gave you a tongue, a medium of verbal communication; a language with which to cognise and segment experience and reality. Without language, you are blind, deaf and dumb. Ope l’ope Geesi! Thank goodness, we are all children of the Empire! Isn’t it equally interesting that the okun brought to our shores a governance model called Democracy? It is enough to remark in passing that this Athenian system of government that was originally conceived as a rope to the city of God, the polis, has been bastardized by our power elite into a noose around our neck, choking everybody to death! No, we don’t practise democracy.
Given the fact that we as a people love to sit on our hands and gawk at the miraculous inventions of the white man, we are also bowled over by the book culture. It is said that if you want to hide anything from a person of colour, you should simply put it in a book. The belief is that the Black person will never rouse himself from mental torpor to read the book! So, as far as the reading culture goes in these parts, it is assumed that people only manage to read to pass examinations. Even so, the whole business of the Book is steeped in okun lore. Apart from the open-ended debate over the provenance and nativity of the Book, it is believed that the Black mind is a tabula rasa regarding the DNA of knowledge production.
Ours is demon-crazy, a curious, logic-defying abracadabra composed of ancestral phallocracy, the diktat of the Big Man (call him Big Brother, if you prefer) and the eternal docility and inertia of the hard and enabled by prebendalism and impunity. What’s worse, the Ivory Tower itself is an echo-chamber in which intellectual parrotry and aping is its raison d’etre. Therein paper tigers and preying mantises strut their stuff, giving out loud farts as intellectual thunder. Even in the realm of culture, high and low, it’s all the same. Is it in fashion, music, the arts, culinary arts, or religion? We are all Tokunbo! Whither our authenticity? Lois Tyson in Critical Theory Today quips thus: “Many of these individuals [try] to imitate the colonizers, as much as possible, in dress, speech, behaviour, and lifestyle, a phenomenon postcolonial critics refer to as mimicry” (p. 368). Tyson referencing Homi K. Bhabha equally highlights such terms as “double consciousness” or “double vision”, “hybridity” or “syncretism” and “unhomeliness”. She elucidates: “Being “unhomed “is not the same as being “homeless”. To be unhomed is to feel not at home even in your own home because you are not at home in yourself: your cultural identity crisis has made you a psychological refugee, so to speak” (368). Thus, double consciousness and unhomeliness, according to Lois Tyson, persist in de-colonised nations even to this day. The flipside of this confounding existential nightmare is an impulsive embrace of nativism, the unspoilt wilderness of primal innocence. But we know such womb-wish is coterminous with the so-called Edenic past which Yambo Ouologuem in Bound to Violence and Soyinka in A Dance of the Forests expose to satiric excoriation. Well, you cannot step into the same river twice. The past is the past, the present, present. Although we cannot reinvent the wheel, but we can slough off our mental slavery and look into our hearts in search of lost souls, our authenticity, our originality. Look around you, and see the savannahs and the forests, the rivers and oceans. The dappled harvest. The colourful people bursting with pagan energy, waiting to explode. Here’s okun, not desert! So, let’s get up, cast aside our inertia and lassitude, roll up our sleeves and do the grunt work of collective self-recovery and rebirth. In our little corners, in our homes and places of work, let’s reinvent Blackness. But while we are at it, we must never fail to interrogate okun (the sea). After all, as the Yoruba tell us: “omi l’enia” (Humanity is water!).
Chris Anyokwu writes from University of Lagos