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Gbirin-bìtì: A metaphor of solution hidden in plain sight

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Orunmila was livid. For once, he had employed the wrong guy. That the assigned task was not done is bad enough. Seeing the new employee sitting through his first day at work is worse. The last thing Orunmila needs is lazybones. He swore he would kill the culprit and fire him immediately. He did neither. The employee, Osanyin, saw what was coming. He rushed to the master with an explanation. It was convincing enough to save the day and his head too. In the end, Osanyin became the Vice President of Orunmila Group of Companies.

Indeed, appearance is often different from reality. Many are the eyes that look, very few see. So it was for Osanyin when he arrived at the plantation with cutlass and hoe to clear the damned forest that is as dense as a heap of rubbish (Gbirin-biti). He has to impress his employer to prove that he is the right man for the job. As a son of the soil, he is diligent, courageous and intelligent too. The first plant to fall presents a difficulty. It is familiar. Osanyin knows it as ewe aje; the leaf of good fortune and wealth. He could not clear it given its enormous value. He moved to the next. It is the shoot of aiku – longevity. He shelved it too. The next is the frond that cures lukuluku or extreme cold, especially when fermented with jagba and jogbo (sundry) leaves. The more he looked for what to fall the more he saw their medicinal and nutritional relevance lurking in leaves, roots, shoots and trunks.

Perhaps, he had started at the wrong end of the plantation. Or could the CEO, a man of great wisdom and forthrightness, in error assign the wrong farmland? He shifted base. The first tree that came handy was doogoyaro (neem) and mango trees. He knows these combine therapy to work against malarial and typhoid bouts. They are most potent when steamed with unripe pineapple, lemon rich in Vitamin C, and ginger for its zinc mineral. The next turn did not solve the riddle. And on and on he continued in search of the useless plant to clear without success. There must be a mistake somewhere. In conclusion, “Gbirin-biti, oko ti n o ro da? Gbirin-biti (A greenery as dense as a rubbish heap, where are the useless plants to fall? in this dense of rubbish heap)”, he asked.

Oladimeji Ajikobi in the work, Isegun Ibile: Eja N’bakan? (2013) recaptured the foregoing verse from Ogunda Meji in Ifa literary corpus. But neither Ajikobi nor the verse did tell us how long Orunmila has owned Orunmila or how frequently his workforce of thoroughbred professionals cleared the manor for other purposes. In contemporary terms he could have bulldozed the rich greenery over and over just to set up a modern shopping complex, central business district, maybe an artificial park. His choice could be a pharmaceutical plant or even an ‘uncommon’ world-class modern hospital in partnership with foreign investors. Huge sums of money – beg, borrow or steal – will go into the project, whose construction and debt servicing alike may last a lifetime! It would not matter to the people how long it takes to complete. They shall be the beneficiary of the world-class technology-transfer when the facility is completed. They dire ask questions, otherwise, they will be called ingrates. But in the interim, the ‘visionary CEO’ will have to go overseas to be treated for tropical illnesses. To get away, he would say, “You know there are no prophylaxis or curative remedies locally. All we have are plain rubbish. Solutions are there overseas. If our natural endowments are of value, we would not be investing so much to borrow funds, expertise, and technology from overseas to serve our people.”

We cannot charge Akerefinusogbon, as Orunmila was also known in Yoruba legends, for such foolery. Orunmila knows that wisdom is not to know everything but to acknowledge that knowledge has no end. The point is that everybody knows something – they only differ in subject areas. Socrates in Classical Western similarly says he is wise that knows that he knows nothing. Such uncommon realization, though a paradox, is the most fundamental and the entry point of wisdom itself. So, it could not have been difficult for Orunmila to see the treasure trove and ‘acres of diamond’ from the prism of Osanyin’s native intelligence. It became a classic case of what one is vigorously searching en route Sokoto has all along been nestling in the pocket of the Sokoto (trousers).

Osanyin too did not the only mouth the embedded value in Orunmila’s plantation. He practically demonstrated the healing properties through herbal combinations – some for drinking and eating, others for bathing or incision. Then, he had made Orunmila see the indigenous solutions – by the art of description and science of practical evidence. Osanyin’s experiments were controlled. The assumption was if domestic animals could eat a leaf, then its tree must be edible for man. But where dogs, cats or birds all avoid a crop, then it must be toxic and not fit for human consumption. That was before the writing culture and formal school setting. Yet, the same model still subsists in clinical trials to date. It is not difficult to see why Osanyin became the most valuable asset in the company of Orunmila. Mind you, his ascendancy has nothing to do with his network of connections or degrees acquired, be it higher or advanced, local or foreign, recent or yesteryears. A native intelligence that proffers the most sought solution is the king.

Ifa here teaches a model in sustainable development. It is hinged on the complementarity of indigenous knowledge, socio-cultural heritage and its pragmatic use to solve human problems. It underscores the fact that real development is native, organic and homegrown. Sadly, and as Ajikobi reminisced in his cursory review of the gross imbalance in traditional and orthodox medicine, modern Nigeria has still not come to the wisdom of cultural heritage; of using what we have to get what we need.

It is, therefore, saddening that Osanyin’s conclusion could still be preached with enormous relevance in contemporary Nigeria and attendant coronavirus pandemic-era. The pioneering trado-medical practitioner would have still find the elusive solution lurking in plain sight, several thousands of years after. A lot has changed since then, but not for indigenous solutions and their documentation because the commonsense approach of looking inwards is still lost on us. To date, the problem in the health sector is myriad, yet the solution must be foreign and as dictated by the textbook and warp curriculum to be acceptable. So, while we await vaccines from America or Europe, we can borrow the Madagascar herbal solution to tackle the global pandemic of local dimension. It is a shame!

But we must not forget that no nation or country attains self-sufficiency through handouts and beggarly mindset. A nursery rhyme back in the days says: ‘tirogo a yo, aso ni k’o ni ra’. That is, a smart beggar may eat and be full, but will not have enough to buy clothes. Examples in Asian and few African countries readily show the imperative of organic solution and homemade development.

Nigeria cannot afford to be different. There is no doubt that the plantation is still as green as Osanyin first discovered it. More so, there are many Osanyin descendants still among us today. So, in Orunmila’s wisdom of humility and selflessness, we only need to give them a chance, tap into their wealth of native intelligence on its own merit, to save the day and humanity from the grip of ravaging pandemic. As the Yoruba often say, ‘Ti ologbon ba bi’ni, t’ologbon ko’ni, ti a o mu ogbon naa lo, eni ti o gbon to baba eni, ni yoo ma mu ‘ni tu je bii isu; tun mu ‘ni sin bii eran’’. That is, ‘if one is fathered and nurtured by the wise, but fails to explore their wisdom, one will be at the mercy and servitude of those that are not as wise as one’s forebears’. The choice is still ours. Ire o!

Dr. Oyebade is a member of The Guardian Editorial Board.


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