We must change the way we live!

Continued from yesterday


MORE substantively, what happens if, as Governor Adams Oshiomhole said, in a recent interview in TheNews magazine, you are not considered citizen enough in your place of primary domicile to be allowed to hold a position of public trust? How get fellow Nigerians to accept that what is mine can only be ours if what is ours is also mine? How does withdrawal from or refusal to participate in communal organizations contribute to improving value systems and language formats, eschewing neglect of cultural artifacts, altering demobilized communal solidarities, enhancing general education, not to talk of education in folk history?

Over the years, these are the kinds of issues and concerns that have raged beyond the old hermeneutics which picture community and ethnic organizations as bastions of tribalism and atavism. They challenge us to view cultural and other differences in a different light: to provide, not so much a warrant for the application of different moralities to our fellow countrymen and women, but to challenge ourselves to evolve and design equitable accommodation for all comers.

At any rate, for one who has travelled far and wide enough, at home and abroad, and to virtually every local government in this country, it is already too clear that there are no differences that justify the fear, the envy, the resistance to camaraderie that is the source of so much talk of tribalism. As an individual, I have grown to see that the disposition and sense of identity of one group is so much like that of the others. The aspersions cast by one against the others merely reflect the unchanging similarities between them. To have a cast-iron notion of difference or distinctiveness, as chips that many of us must carry on our shoulders, is merely a culture-clash way, an unreliable way, of denying that we are all products of the same factors and needs.

Some may manage to hide this by embossing characteristics that are supposedly unique. You can hear it as a whistle in the grudge voiced by many legislators who have lost the ethical capacity to make laws for a whole state or the country at large, after arrogating undue executive powers to the legislature in pursuit of their own stomach infrastructure – a form of solidaristic corruption. It is a worrisome phenomenon when it leads to indifferent monitoring, and ‘over-sighting’ of the work of the executive, in the face of Action Governors who may sink boreholes that dry up too quickly, water taps that need to be augmented by tankers, dry season roads that do not last more than one rainy season, electricity corporations that dispense darkness, and supermarkets that are built merely to sell goods produced by other countries. In these days, when South Africans are teaching Nigerians the happy fare of shopping without strain, we are confronted by the spectacle of former industrial estates where factories that closed down long ago are becoming warehouses and malls for imported goods, and many have been turned into churches where workers who used to go on a three-shift a day system are now forced, under fear of going to hell, to pay tithes to pastors riding private jets in competition with governors.

Equally worrisome is when the uplifting of the people that is taking place merely pampers or flatters communities without laying a basis for them to be more self-reliant, and able to interact with the rest of the world as producers rather than inveterate consumers. I take these as the important issues. What most of our people need and demand are usually so basic that it is disturbing that they are made to get involved in their own affairs, mainly in un-mobilized formats, as mendicants in Town Halls, beggarly demanders of more and ever more allocations; sponging ultimately on the oil producing areas in the country that, for the luck of being domiciled in places of bounty, have long been slated for internal colonialism and exploited as by soldier ants performing a blitzkrieg.

Beyond rhetorics, this is why the concern we bear our communities deserve to be turned into platforms beyond business-as-usual, outpointing the kinds of development that governments impose. It is about generating the means of not merely surviving but thriving; building and sustaining cooperative and associational activism that rely on the communal control of resources in a given environment for the purpose of transcending the backwardness and hardships that maul people’s lives. It is about people knowing that they owe themselves responsibilities which ought to be met even if governments, at whatever levels, fail to meet obligations. The better way to put it is that we should be able, in our own communities, to upgrade life chances without forgetting that other people and communities have their own life chances that we must honour and respect as part of the harmony that makes society liveable. It is about Justice too which lies in being able to struggle for and demand equitable distribution of public goods within principles of ownership and sharing that all of us can, more or less, consider fair. Unless this is the case, it will always matter where you come from or where you belong.

Jonathan ook Copy

For that matter, if our communities appear forgotten by the powers that be, it does not prescribe self-forgetting. We need not forget ourselves because others, who may have a self-organizing ethic for their own turfs, have forgotten us. Those who tell us in such circumstances to become ethnic neuters and to prove our detribalized status by not participating in communal organizations may be taken as merely excusing the existing structure or style of power or the hegemony that is its core reality. On the contrary, we must find a way of managing the affairs of our communities so that all who live in them will have due accommodation that makes no one a loser even when some of us may momentarily be trussed up as winners.

I must say, it is in pursuit of such circumstances that I have come to Ikolo Esan, knowing that our history is full of paths not taken, and of ambushes that must be avoided with a clear sense of the goals we must aim for. It calls for the kind of civic education that successive administrations in our part of the world have made impossible. Which is why my theme for getting on the good path is the simple proposition that we must change the way we live. But how do we change the way we live?
II As a way of prefacing my answer, let me be upfront with it that I am a poet, a writer.

I write in the English language, the lingua franca of our country rather than in Esan, my mother tongue, a dialect of the Edo language. Time, circumstance, and the crudities of the National Policy on Education, have kept both the dialect and the language in limbo, acquiesced to by the native speakers themselves. Partly, this is why I have written only one poem in Esan all my life. As it happened, that poem, never published, came from the insistence by organizers of an Israeli poetry Festival that I read a poem in my mother tongue as a virtual qualification for being invited. It was a poem that was quickly translated into Arabic for an Arab hip hop group in Tel Aviv to perform during the festival. Indeed, I must confess that the exhilaration of being part of that performance was dampened by the fact that, back home in Nigeria, I had not managed a context for pursuing my art along similar lines.

Not that I ever stopped thinking of how to create the context. Often, I have weighed Esan against English, and have had to admit that there is so much in my mother tongue that the English language cannot encompass. Truth be told, the overwhelming seductions of the English language are not that easy to temporize. The unalterable reality is that I have grown to love and to owe a lot of emotional commitment to the English language because it enables me to traverse sundry boundaries between all the 501 mother tongues in my country. I admit it: that, to get on in the world, I have had to luxuriate in the great beauty of the language; Yes, I continue to write in English, because the language has interacted, and remains a much greater means of interacting, with more of the other languages of the world than my mother tongue.

English has absorbed so much more of how the world works. Through translations and outright pillages, all thanks to imperialism, English does indeed offer more than it could have promised as a mere mother tongue. I cannot deny it: I am intrigued by the facility with which poets in the English language gained so much of a niche as nature poets, through allowing their knowledge of flowers and of plants and animals in general to obtrude on their mastery of their environments and of the world at large. It happens to be true that many African poets, using the English language, have had quite a sneering tendency to dismiss this love of flowers, of nature, that is part of the proclivity of the English language poet. In my undergraduate days, it used to be quite a matter of cultural nationalism to bounce off the predilection of English poets who loved and wrote about daffodils. It got quite embarrassing however because those doing the sneering could not tell the names of the flowers around them in the indigenous languages. Arguably, African writers sneered because writing about flowers was supposedly not as grand, relevant and magisterial as the big issues of our time. But the big issues could not tell us the names of the flowers around us.

As it happens, Ododo is a generic Esan word for flowers. It has a banal singularity that truly embarrasses when you are confronted by the wide variety of flowers crying to be given their proper names. Ododo does not tell us how to name particular flowers. Or plants. Once upon a time, in the University of Ibadan, a correction for this ignorance was found in the practice of putting little plaques on shrubs, plants and trees so that if you were impressed by the look of any of them, you could move close to find out the names in Latin, English and in as many indigenous languages as possible. If you knew the names of some of the plants in the indigenous languages you could, in some cases, tell which had the power to heal or kill. Today, if you go to the University, the plaques have since decayed with the cultural renaissance that once made it important to go after them. Somehow, we who used to snigger at the quaint English tradition of drooling over daffodils have long quit sneering.

The more enterprising amongst us, angling for a better way to grasp the extant knowledge with the aid of biologists seeking to best the old colonial text books, may be able to do it well now only by going to the herbalists, dibias, obos and ologuns, alfas, and witch hunters whom misguided Christian and Muslim purists and fundamentalists have been doing their damnedest to demonize, criminalize and wipe out. The demonizers do not know how much science and hard knowledge they are outlawing in the process. But it suggests why we should all refrain from precipitate action whenever we are confronted by fundamentalists of all shapes who are intent on wiping out shrines that we have not managed to give proper study.

What needs to be borne in mind is that the popular ignorance that goes with such urges to wipe out what we do not understand remains a blot on our much vaunted efforts at modernization. These days, when we can all get distracted by an over-generalized discussion of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, it is not out of place to draw attention to the many indigenous plants, flowers, fruits and food items that are so well known in the indigenous languages but do not enjoy any recognition in the English language and therefore get, as it were, off the radar. Innumerable fruits there are, that we ate as children but are now mere memory only.

They are begrimed by the reality that whatever you do not have a name for or have given up for lost, leaves your scheme of knowledge, and, therefore, cultivation. Which is why many plants that ought by now to enjoy special culturing, plantation economies, because of their value in the food chain and in pharmaceutics, are being left to go to waste or go extinct or get consumed by arrant harmatan fires. How do we get back to that traditional diligence and scheming for value according to which a bush of rare plants could get deified as a conservation plan? The point is that there could be more uses for such plants today because of new knowledges that can be added to traditional conservation schemes. It says much for why our modern institutions need to integrate such traditional methods if only because they have implications for agro-industrial planning.

In essence, let us admit that the assault on knowledge, which the easy demonizations constitute, stand among the reasons for the poverty of science around us and why many diseases for which there were once cures have become tropical fixtures. We do not know the old cures enough to have them universalized. Those who still care about the knowledge are not being properly encouraged to share with research institutes and universities. At any rate, the institutes and universities are not being properly funded to make a meal of the knowledge that is available. I remember, on this score, how much nationalistic pride we built up as students upon knowing about the confident naming of newly discovered organisms – Onabamiroid Iwoyensis – by Professor Sanya Onabamiro, before politics stole him away. He named them after himself and his hometown, Ago Iwoye. Such arcane knowledge takes a while to filter into popular culture.

Well, the time it takes obliges us to worry that the better funded foreign researcher comes over to break the grounds that we are guardians of. Otherwise, thanks to Ebola, we would not have known how much proficiency still abounds around us. As for the foreign countries that would rather not share medical or security information with our home based researchers, we know too well how their distance relates to the neglect of our research institutes. It heightens the old prejudice which treats knowledge as Western and ignorance as African thus inducing us to wait for others to dream for us. Properly speaking, such self-deprecation and neglect creates hermeneutic disorder that turns environments into economic sinkholes instead of raising natural resources all around into decided assets.

It goes to show how those who do not take their languages and culture seriously, often neglect the bounty of nature, and may have no inclination to create industries for survival and wealth-making.
This was brought home to me recently when a cosmetic manufacturer, on the same flight from Abuja to Lagos, gave me education to the effect that, given our peculiar tropical ecology, the luxuriance and prolixity around us, Nigeria could match Venezuela in the production of cosmetics if only we had condensation plants to add value to the raw materials for beauty fare. The cost, as he figured, was not prohibitive. The question was how to convince the political class to wrest the economy from the consumerism they are drawn to and to re-think investments along genuinely futuristic lines.

Of course, beyond beauty fare and pharmaceutics, are other challenges that Nigerian scientists and entrepreneurs, farmers and marketers could engage. Or, consider the poor attention paid to common palmwine – yet to gain entrance into the modern scheme of beverages and wine-making. I have a strong inclination to add a soft drink to my personal wish list; a soft drink with a simulated kolanut taste, made by a grand uncle at Aba, before the civil war intervened. God knows how his formula could be retrieved and defended from this distance. In an over saturated market for soft drinks, with energy drinks from China, Korea, and the United states toning up the market, an un-protected cultural geography like ours, with fruits that the rest of the world may not have heard of, ought to engage economic intelligence along lines that can turn shared tastes into communal prosperity.

As can be imagined: the big deal is to be able to evoke economies of scale; to create a shared axis for people to become collective inventors where their real interests interconnect. To be sure, the possibilities available to different communities, in relation to their neighbours, are exciting. Take the case of a farmer in Esan. Belonging to a pounded yam belt that stretches from Ijesha, Ekiti to Ebira, Igala, Tiv, Idoma, Nsukka, Ogoja axis, there is plenty of room for collective creativity. This happens to be a belt that should naturally have been expected to invent the yam pounder or to upgrade yam flour long before it happened.

Lisabi Mills in Lagos became the fore-runner in yam flour production, famous among African communities in Europe before the domestic boost of poundo yam that many home-based natives scoffed at for being inauthentic. But time and convenience have since taught many to celebrate the goodness of escaping the sweaty binge of mortar and pestle. The same time and convenience have been factors in the ongoing Cassava boom which began with a neglected cassava renaissance that a group of Nigerian peasant farmers at Elere, off the Abeokuta-Ibadan road, set off after they were conscientized to pool their small holdings in order to go into large-scale mechanized farming. Engineers and scientists at the then University of Ife, who had invented a yam pounder, produced the machine for the cassava processing. It yielded hard-grain garri, soft grain and pure flour that could service family tables and bakeries.

An added value: the garri could last beyond three rainy seasons. It all came to a sad end due to official indifference and was soon added to the long list of undefended inventions across Nigeria’s academia and research institutes. But recent events show that such great ideas never die Or, it might well be added that it is not only agriculture that fits into this challenge to our capacity for putting dreams to work.

Solid minerals is another area that the experts have for long been educating us to see as life-wire for our economic reconstruction. We have enough experts in our midst, most of them in grand disuse, who can identify, and stand up to, the global demand for many of the solid minerals around us. Do people have to await the intervention of governments in order to get involved? Not all the time. The point is that most people, because of the impact of cultural self-forgetting may not know that they are following an ancient lineage of practitioners whose legacy ought to be brought back into currency not as mere folklore but actual practice.

We do need to take seriously the basics of mining – gold, iron, copper, glass ware, not to mention textiles which can be upgraded in our age of oil and gas and polymer products. True, anyone who wishes to reach back to ancient of days may be laughed out of court. But, as I have pointed out in In Search of Ogun, Soyinka in spite of Nietzsche, there is a need to go back into myth and history to reconnect with lost kingdoms in our folk narratives which apprise us of eras when self governance implied a capacity for new knowledge that we could, today, integrate with ancient gnosis. If in doubt, I say, simply go back to the fifteen century. Egharevba’s A short history of Benin provides a tale that remains classic. Although, in that century, the many communities that supposedly migrated to escape from Ogun Ewuare’s reign in Benin city have it in their myths and folklore to describe him as Ogun the Wicked, because he was an exacting king, another picture also emerges in the high entrepreneurial challenge that was his ken. He dreamt and executed big dreams some of which could be the envy of those who wish to industrialize fast in our times.

As the story goes, Ogun Ewuare climbed onto the throne of his fathers by literally burning down the city as a punishment for those who had tried to change primogeniture, the constitutional frame of his nationality. Then he rebuilt the city, crafting the wide streets, intersecting at right angles, which the visiting Portuguese marvelled at and we can still see today, even in their dilapidated forms, as models of city planning. Of course, the ethic of Ogun required going far and wide to seek knowledge. He brought home people of knowledge – artisans, blacksmiths and medicinemen – wherever he could find them – to add to the industry of far-seeing and deep insight. He re-designed the city to match the industrial sequestration that many modern nations practice.

He did not just build a standing army that he could call upon in times of war. He had cantonments of occupational groups quartered in different parts of the city. So that you had whole conurbations of iron workers, bronze workers, textile workers, medicinemen, and practitioners of the memory arts in their special domiciles. To think of Ogun Ewuare’s feats, in this regard, is to challenge ourselves to see that every hamlet, village town or city can be re-planned and that we must develop the presence of mind to insist on pictures of the future into which we must move.
•Ofeimun presented the speech above to Ikolo Esan at Egua’e, Ekuma.