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The treasure we lose every day

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This week, the winning novel of the Booker Prize was announced in London. The novel is entitled The Living Sea of Waking Dreams. It is written by Richard Flanagan, a native of Tasmania, that little island added to Australia to complete the country-continent. For once, those who have been grumbling that citizens of the United States of America were winning the prize too much will be mollified. This is how the author describes his book: ‘This novel is, in a way, about all things that are vanishing, and among that vanishing even the meaning of words are becoming vaporous. Every book is about the impossibility of words and, at the same time, their utter necessity. We are always seeing through a mirror darkly.’

Furthermore, he said in a wide-ranging interview: ‘Living in Tasmania, I became very conscious that many beautiful things – wondrous, extraordinary things: animals, birds, fish, even places that I loved – were on verge of vanishing and my grandchildren would never know them.’ He then goes on to name some of these beautiful, these wondrous and extraordinary things. As a writer reading this book you understand that once a writer sees something from a particularly unique angle, thereafter the language, say English, changes for him and that book. It is the same thing with THE LIVING SEA OF WAKING DREAMS and Richard Flanagan.

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Richard Flanagan (I almost wrote Adelegan, who knows!) could be speaking for me a Nigerian Yoruba man. How many beautiful wondrous extraordinary things are we losing every day. Make a list anybody over the age of fifty. It is like that Christian song:
‘Count your blessings name them one by one
Count your blessings see what the Lord has done
Count your blessings
Name them one by one
And it will surprise what the Lord has done.’
Our version would be:
‘Count your losses name them one by one
Count your losses see what Lord Lugard has undone
Count your losses
Name them one by one
And it will surprise what Lord Lugard has undone’.

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Let’s begin with what the mouth consumes, let’s start with vegetables. How many of the vegetables you consumed as a youngster that you still consume? There is no need to begin to impose the Yoruba names on my readers. What is certain is that none of us, I dare say, consume now the vegetables that we consumed as a child.

What about fruits? Maybe mangoes because, thank God, mangoes will never go away, touch wood. If I can buy pear ati apple ati grapes, fruits for which I have no Yoruba words for on the streets of Akure, who says my grandchildren would care for pedestrian mango when he encounters it on a visit to where the natives live.

What about the various berries we knew as kids? Where are they today? Agbayun or a name to that effect was the sugar that existed before sugar came, if you catch my drift. There was eko omode, the transparent coat that encases the seed of the flowering tree whose name I no longer know. It grows abundantly in front of my house and I do not know its name.

Since we are on matters of the mouth we might tarry a little on the songs we sing. We might list the languages that we don’t speak. And even the ones we speak we do not speak them well the way the owners of the language speak them. Yet, let anyone attempt to speak our native tongue other than the way we speak it, there would be fight wallahi tallahi!!!

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What about our main dishes? Pounded yam has seen quite some history. The engineering faculty invented a yam pounder and it has changed over the years. There is a version that is doing wonderful duty at the top of Oba Adesida Road. May God bless the stew of Mama Fatasi.

We have also tried powder yam but a friend of mine from one of those tiniest villages in Ekiti swears that yam that has no felt the pound of the omoriodo in a mortar cannot call its result iyan, pounded yam yes but not iyan. At this point, he would recite the oriki of iyan, you could call it the praise names of pounded yam but it could not be oriki iyan.

From talking of songs the mouth sings to the dances the feet dance to, we can speak of ‘Jerusalema’ a song-dance that seems to challenge the world. Is Jerusalem our home? Really? Have you asked the Arabs of Palestine or the Jews of Tel Aviv? Maybe we are talking of the figurative Jerusalem, our place of ultimate rest. Can it be different from where we are today?

Somehow moin-moin survives of all our foods but ekuru does not make it to the international table. Yet, in one fable that my grandfather’s wife told, a mother who had to put her two children to servitude to different houses out of town, cooked three parcels of ekuru like moin-moin. She gave each one and divided the third in two and gave each a half piece.

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As she gave each simultaneously she made each promise to rescue the other if things favored him where they went. Whenever that story is told moin-moin substitutes for ekuru who disappears from history. How it is made with plantain flour mixed with water, garnished with red peas, a lot palm oil, salt and pepper also disappears.

I come to the end of my allotted space and we are still talking of what goes into and what comes out of the mouth. And not all of them either.
Imagine if we start to list what is in our houses, what is in our places of work, the places where we play. And the plays that we play nowadays as different from those we played in the days of yore!

What about what we wear? True, a few of us live in Europe but pass through the tropics going from the house into the car or the private jet, not plane. Then they pass through Africa walking into the office. In the evening, they go the trip in reverse. These are our air-conditioned Africans. Richard Flanagan said that people were living through these things as if nothing was happening…

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In this article:
Kole Omotoso
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