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On culture: Ebalu Aluụ

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The Esan people of Edo State have a very interesting saying, “Ebalu alụ.” It simply means, “What we do is what we do.”

I have seen this statement deployed to almost devastating effect in a funeral situation when the proverbial (and literal) village people were trying to extort money from a friend of mine (and his siblings) who were simply trying to bury their father. The village people were making rather unreasonable demands and justifying those demands by hiding behind ‘culture’. When the inevitable pushback came, my people were told, “ebalu alụ,” and that was that.

Recently, an online movie entrepreneur, Jason Njoku, made a comment about not teaching his children the Igbo language in favour of Mandarin and French. Many people attacked Njoku, and one thing that kept coming up was that “he does not value our culture.”

What is culture?
Anthropology defines culture as the ways of living built up by a group of people and transmitted from one generation to another. No story to me illustrates the concept of culture better than the story of the monkeys, so let me tell that one, and another…

A researcher puts some monkeys in a cage which has some bananas on top of a ladder in the middle of the cage. As soon as they get in, the monkeys go for the bananas and the researcher sprays all the monkeys with freezing water for five minutes. Each time a monkey inevitably tries to go for the bananas, the researcher again sprays all the monkeys with cold water for five minutes.

After a while, the monkeys connect going for the bananas with getting an ice bath and stop attempting to go for the bananas. The researcher then puts the hose away for good. But when another monkey tries to go for the bananas, the others attack him to prevent him from climbing that ladder. They are afraid of possible punishment.

Then, the researcher replaces one of the monkeys with a new monkey who was never sprayed with water. As soon as this new monkey comes in, he goes for the bananas, and the other monkeys attack him. If he tries again, they attack again, and eventually, he too learns not to go after the bananas because he’ll get attacked if he does.

The researcher replaces a second original monkey. When this new monkey goes for the bananas, the others attack him, including the first new monkey who was never sprayed with water. One by one, the original monkeys are removed from the cage. Each time a newcomer goes for the bananas, the others attack, including those that never received the cold water bath. They have learned not to go after the temptation of the bananas, and have learned to punish those who go after the bananas. This is their culture in the cage. Ebalu alụ.

Both the United States and Canada had reasonably similar beginnings in that they were both settled by Europeans in various colonies, and grew up to a point where they were strong enough to let go of their mother countries. Despite this overarching similarity, however, the US has developed a gun culture, while Canada did not.

In the US, the settlers rebelled, violently, against their colonial overlords, the Canadians had a more benign move to independence from the British, and as a result did not need to raise a militia, with a Second Amendment, to ‘defend our freedom.’ Ultimately, two countries with very similar beginnings took very divergent paths and built different cultures due to the nature of the means by which they achieved independence. That is how cultures are born and handed down through generations. There is nothing immutable about cultures.

In Nigeria, we get too caught up in these sentimental arguments about how great our cultures were while forgetting that there is a reason that some of these habits (which became culture) were pretty bad habits, which only changed due to the arrival of our colonisers. I’m Igbo by ethnicity. What if the Igbo had blindly held on to a ‘culture’ that was prevalent 150 years ago? I happen to be a twin, would I have been able to write this?

The world is in a constant state of evolution, and if your culture, whatever it is, does not evolve, then it will die. Language, dances, et al, are just parts of culture, and they too have to adapt to realities, or they die. Sometimes, an old language has to undergo a change, or be subsumed, so a new identity can blossom. The Igbo language, for example, has not adapted to a changing world. In my lifetime, I have seen the word “ngaji” get supplanted by the English equivalent, “spoon”. Is that a tragedy?

In parts it is. But language and other parts of culture are living things. So are nation-states. Nigeria is still a geographical expression. To use the American motto, “e pluribus unum,” or “out of many, one”, to create a Nigeria, our various cultures will all have to give up something. You cannot say, “ebalu alụ,” and expect Nigeria to thrive.


In this article:
CultureEba AluEdoEsan
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