The king, dearth of honour and the rest of us
“For the whole universe is interconnected.
If something is distorted, the other things connected with it suffer”
– Walda Heywat.
“A community without honour is not better than a gang of thieves”
– Yoruba maxim.
Olori stared at Kabiyesi in utter surprise. She had seen the king half-naked more than a dozen times; none was in daylight, full glare view of the most revered king. She couldn’t tell how long she had stood drown in thoughts. The roar of “gba (take)!” from the naked Alaafin startled her. She took the bathing sponge from his outstretched hand and began to scrub his back in rhythmic vertical motion. Gentle friction of the new sponge created tingling sounds that filled the bathtub. Kabiyesi was enjoying the early evening shower. But the small back and the entire slim frame continued to gnaw Olori’s mind. It betrays the larger than life regal status known of his majesty when seated on the throne. “What a small construction”, she heard in her head. She was close to laughter now.
The young Olori was the blunt type. But wisdom has it that where the mouth cannot or should not speak, one should rather pass in silence. Not for this Olori. Unable to shut her mouth, she found a way to frame her dilemma: “Kabiyesi, why are you so feared and revered by the whole kingdom and beyond?” It was the turn of the king to be shocked. Oko-Ilu (husband of the kingdom) repeated the question as if it answers it. It was an intelligent inquiry, though a difficult one. No one has ever asked such of Kabiyesi. Why now? Kabiyesi smelt a sinister underpinning; there must be more to the question than had been inquired? He opened his eyes and wheeled 45-degree in her direction,
“why did you ask, Olori?” “I was just wondering why Olowo-orimi is most dreaded,” she dropped the clanger, “when you are not more than this (in size)!” His mouth fell like a curtain and could not close it.
All-night the king did not sleep a wink. His mind kept feasting on the insolence and its audacity. He has never felt that insulted all through his reign. But it should not have been from his household; not the young Olori, the most adorable of his wives. Was it a crime to have invited her into the bathroom to assist with the ends where one’s hands could not reach? But that is a common practice among the elderly to date, especially among those that do not trust factory-made loofah and shower nets. Even in this modern age, there is a large population of those that still believe in both therapeutic and spiritual effects of bathing with black soap and traditional scrub sponge, and occasionally inviting their wards to assist with the scour. The king didn’t find his fault. He took the affront as a challenge. Why is the king so revered? Daybreak will settle it all. He would need to prove himself. Eni pe ‘kini Oba o se?’ ni Oba n’se han.
The king sent for Abenilori (the hangman) at dawn. The errand shocked ‘the messenger of death’ too, but who is he to question the Alaafin? Without much delay, Abenilori returned with the message, carefully tucked in a calabash. The palace was already on the edge. The presence of Abenilori is always a bad omen. The king called for Olori and offered her the calabash. “That is my answer to your question, Olori,” the king said in a malevolent voice. Olori’s trembling hand lifted the lid, she screamed in horror. It was the decapitated head of her Baami (father) in the pool of his own blood! “I only decree it and it comes to pass,” the king offered. The event shocked the Old Oyo Empire, and remains popular in Southwest Nigeria to date.
You be the judge: the Alaafin was such a wicked king, isn’t he? Granted that the Olori crossed the line, was the extreme punishment of decapitation meted to her father justified? Was it a crime deserving of capital punishment and bringing a bathtub conversation to a disastrous end? What is the big deal in being a king, being revered and respected as Olori inquired though carelessly and with the wrong choice of words? Adebayo Faleti that recounted the story in Basorun Gaa didn’t chew on these ethical questions and they are neither to be treated with simplicity. This piece aims to unravel these questions, as it digs deeper into one the long forgotten traditional virtue of owo (honour, reverence, respect, humility). Compared to the Old Oyo setting, a lot of things have changed in modern day. But inquiring from history will help contemporary minds to understand the past and why things worked then, however imperfect they were. And also deepen understanding of the now, why things derailed and even worsened.
Back in the days, before the incursion of colonial interlopers, the kings and elders of the land were that powerful and highly revered. The elders in the primitive African society were generally revered. From the class of elders were the ba’le (father of the house), ba’ona (father of a clan), baale (village head), chiefs and other representatives. Cast your mind to the Ogboni confraternity, an esoteric community of elders among the Egbas in Ogun, or their Osugbo contemporaries in Ijebu and Lagos. They are at the apex in the community of elders. Their memberships were noble men of great influence, and they complement the king to make the society better.
The traditional governance structure did not emerge out of the blues. For clarity, our forbearers in the primitive African societies evolved concepts to make meanings of the world they live in, and such understandings guided their conducts accordingly. They were illiterates but well-educated. Theirs was knowledge by awareness. The world was their school. The reckoned, like Manly Hall once wrote that, ‘to live in the world without becoming aware of the meaning is like wandering about in a great library without touching the books’. That was centuries before the coming of colonialists, formal school system and the writing culture. So, Africans have their creation myths, notion of spirit, forces, matter, life and death and so. Those meanings stand shoulder to shoulder with indigenous concepts anywhere in the world.
Indeed, the African cosmos is governed by a myriad spirits and spiritual forces. The world, as Africans see it, is the interplay and interpenetration of good and evil forces. It is a pre-established harmony and order that has a place for everything and everyone, denoting all as spirits or forces. Peace reigns when each entity maintains its place in the supernatural scheme of things. The corollary is crisis, chaos and disaster when roles are usurped and equilibrium subverted on the cosmic hierarchy. The point is the human society is governed by cosmic hierarchy, and across the rungs are powers and influences. At the apex is Olodumare, who has all the powers but rarely interferes in human affairs. Next in line are the 401 orisa, or deities, the representatives of Olodumare, who see to the day-to-day affairs of human beings on earth. Human beings are next on the power hierarchy, and the first among equals is the king and elders of the land.
The king is Igbakeji Orisa (second-in-command to the gods). On ascending the throne, he assumed the status of an Orisa too. He is the primus inter pares among the elders of the land that also act as checks and balances to the king. In Oyo, for instance, the Alaafin is Iku baba yeye. He is the custodian of truth, iye (life) and embodiment of culture, owo (honour), nobility, integrity and authority as a god among men. He is accountable to the deities and also to the elders of the land. He is an example or role model for all as he is a terror to evil tendencies. A popular saying has it: Iyi ni Oba n fi ori-bibe se, Oba kii m’eje (kings are not blood-thirsty, but may decapitate to preserve honour). It suggests the primacy of traditional virtue of honour, reverence and respect in the making of social order. Clearly, and as the opening narrative showed, the king wouldn’t mind going the extreme to defend and promote honour in daily interaction. But why is honour so important and where has it gone in contemporary socio-political settings?
To be continued next week.