LOUD WHISPERS: The Value Of What Is Ours

In December 2006, I attended a Ford Foundation philanthropy retreat in Bahia, Brazil. My first visit to Brazil was in 2004 to attend a conference in Rio de Janeiro, and even though I enjoyed the experience, I felt I had missed something by not being able to go up to Bahia which has strong African roots, being home to millions of descendants of African slaves.  At breakfast on our first morning, we went to the buffet stands and saw a woman frying  Akara (bean cakes). There was also Moin Moin (steamed bean cakes) available. It turned out that it was the day when Yemoja, the famous Yoruba goddess was being celebrated across the country in a festival on December 8th. Throughout the day we ate dishes of beans, fish, yams, some made with palm-oil, prepared in ways which were no different from back home. There was also a lot of dancing and drumming, and if you listened to the songs carefully, you could make out one or two Yoruba words.

The Ford Foundation team had arranged  site visits for us to see the work of some of their grantee organisations in the area. I looked through the list of projects to be visited and there were initiatives on HIV/AIDS, Agriculture, and Youth Development, which probably had black beneficiaries but I saw nothing led by the black community in Bahia. One of the members of the local organizing committee was an old friend of mine, Sueli Carneiro who I had met through the Black Women’s Cross-Cultural Institute in the 1990s. I asked her why there was no black project listed to be visited and she told me that they had thought about it, but were not sure if the participants would be interested in visiting such a project. She said if we were interested, arrangements could be made for us. I saw this as my opportunity to accomplish what I had been unable to do on my first visit to the country. I got some other ‘rebels’ on board and we visited three projects in the black community – a women’s center, a youth program and the last port of call was a community center. This was the most inspiring of all. In the main hall of the center there was a large mural on the walls, which had a number of African cities such as Dakar, Maputo, Lagos, Nairobi and Accra depicted on it. When we asked what the significance of this was, our hosts told us that those cities were in African countries, populated and run by Africans. Their dream was to have their own city in Brazil that would not just be populated by black people, but would be owned and governed by them – like those African cities they had put up on their walls. According to them, they would be able to own their community agency, have freedom of cultural and spiritual expression and would be treated with equality and dignity. Our group was made up of senior philanthropy practitioners from various African countries. We were all taken aback to find out that in a part of the world, there was a group of people who saw our affliction-prone countries as their own El Dorado. It was such a humbling and moving experience.

Over the years we have excelled at plundering our own treasures and laying them to waste. We had an excuse when the colonialists and invaders carted away our cultural artifacts and placed them in museums in Europe and the US where people pay good money to go and view them. What excuse do we have now? For the purposes of this article, I will focus on what is happening within a community I am very familiar with – my Yoruba community.  The Yoruba culture thrives in many countries in the Diaspora, and what I witnessed in Bahia is a typical example. With all the tools we have at our disposal today for the documentation and retention of our very rich cultural heritage, we seem to be in a race to divest ourselves of our inheritance. Western education, Christianity, Islam, the mobility of people and other influences have taken their toll in quite devastating ways. Some people express surprise when they hear me speaking up in favour of our cultures and traditions, assuming that as a feminist, I should be happy that many of these practices are being eroded. Being modern Africans does not mean that we should forget who we are. Cultures evolve, they are not static, but they should change for better and not worse. We have negative cultural practices such as expressions of misogyny, female genital mutilation, treatment of widows, forced marriage, human sacrifice, harmful myths and superstitions and so on. We also have deeply valuable practices such as communal solidarity, good  manners, respect for elders, accountability and the prioritization of a good name and integrity over unexplained riches. Sadly, we seem to have perfected the art of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I am in my fifties, and many of my western educated peers do not know how to name a newborn baby the Yoruba way. The old ways of naming a baby with salt (to symbolize a life of value and worth), water (a life with no enemies), honey (a life of sweetness) bitter Kola ( longevity) Pepper seeds (fruitfulness) and other items depending on the community, are no longer in vogue. These practices are now considered ‘fetish’ and ‘putting the child in bondage’. Traditional wedding ceremonies have  been taken over totally by hired hands and not the women of the respective families. These ceremonies have now become a mishmash of relentless money collection, and the hired hands known locally as ‘Gagers’ sometimes outdo themselves in their crassness and total disregard for cultural protocol.  To make matters worse, there are now ‘Gagers’  from the Christian community  who have taken the pomp, fun and pageantry out of the ceremonies and have turned them into a mini church service, devoid of most of the culturally symbolic aspects. I attend these events almost every week and I could write a book about the disappearance of the beautiful Yoruba traditional wedding ceremony.

When I was young, a maternal  Aunt of mine got married in Ilara-Mokin, Ondo State. As she was being led out to her husband’s family, the women of the family did a  beautiful rendition of local poetry and praise singing known as Ekun Iyawo (the cry of the bride). This performance stuck with me for years, and anytime I asked my Aunts about it, none of them knew how to do it. Only the very old women know, and younger women are not interested  because there is no ‘market’ for such things anymore. Ironically, one of the foremost authorities on Ekun Iyawo is an English woman, Professor Karin Barber of the Center for West African Studies, University of Birmingham. Just as we have with the naming of babies, there used to be symbolic items used for special prayers for a bride and groom. Salt, honey, water, pepper seeds, bitter kola, gin and so on all had a purpose. At the end of the ceremony, kolanuts would be broken up and given to everyone to eat to symbolise that we had all served as witnesses to the marriage contract between the two families and we were invested in its success.

We have become strangers to our own language, music, dances, songs and creative expressions. In  2011 I helped organize the first Ekiti State Festival of Arts and Culture. It was a very successful program, but I was deflated a week after when I got a visit from one of the local church priests. He had come to register concerns that the festival had encouraged ‘fetish practices’ such as a Masquerade Parade! I pointed out the benefits of cultural products to boost tourism and create job opportunities but I am sure he was not convinced.

Even some of our traditional rulers have started to distance themselves from their obligations as royal fathers to protect our cultural heritage. Whilst some are good at the balancing act between tradition and modernity, some of them have gone to the extent of banning ‘idol worship’ in their palaces. Acknowledging and celebrating ancestors is not the same thing as worshiping them, and if you are not prepared to protect the legacies that have been bequeathed to you, why are you on the throne of your forefathers? A bit like wanting to take a shower without getting wet.

I celebrate all my identities as a feminist, African, Nigerian, Yoruba woman, wife, mother, traditional chief, Christian and so on. Yes, there might be contradictions every now and then, but I am perfectly comfortable with that, life is full of contestations. I am making the case for an African identity that is modern, innovative, respects human rights, values the community and enhances opportunities for all. I am talking about a fierce pride in who we are and what has been bequeathed to us. We do not value what is ours enough, but half way across the world are millions of people who celebrate a connection they ought to have lost long ago. In the academies in Europe and the US, African Studies continue to wax strong, while over here, we struggle to keep History on the curriculum in schools. There are some rare, tall, beautiful drums in a palace in an Ekiti town that are brought out and beaten only by women on special occasions. I am sure a young white student will get a research grant somewhere to study these unique drums. That is if they are not burnt by a ‘born again’ King one day.

If we are not careful, a hundred years from now, our descendants will have to go across the Atlantic to learn what it means to be African. When that happens, we will truly be lost. The future is happening now.

 

Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com

 

 

 

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16 Responses to LOUD WHISPERS: The Value Of What Is Ours

  1. Olakunle Olajide February 20, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    Thank you for penning this down ma. The Nigerian culture is more or less going into extinction gradually most especially in the cities. While i was in the University, i see white folks studying the Nigerian languages and they will communicate with us in those languages. I just hope we won’t have to beg to get what is rightfully ours in the nearest future.

    Reply
  2. Femi Diipo February 20, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    This articles shows exactly just how pathetic we have become about our tribal and ethnical values. It has gotten so low that people literally laugh at those of us who can still impeccably speak our languages. Perhaps Government should play more active parts in promoting the exhibition and appreciation of our cultural values and parents should really stop speaking English to their children in homes. i think this whole thing stemmed from the seeming abandonment of our languages in the first place

    Reply
  3. Dom dom February 20, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    Such a thought provoking piece. it is always sad to note that there was civilization in this part of the world before colonization. We had arts, designs, different and varied fashion styles, system of government and several if not almost all the other aspects of humanity and culture but all these are now in almost total extinction. Something really has to be done about this. i am proud of my cultural values

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  4. DSEED February 20, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    We ate missing out already. Our culture and tradition is almost into extinction. Way out is what we can’t even figure out due to technology.

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  5. Olowolafe Olanrewaju February 20, 2017 at 9:26 pm

    Exactly ma. As you have said, the future is happening now. Right under our noise self. Western believe and traits is taken away our culture and tradition.

    Reply
  6. olakitan February 20, 2017 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you ma by bringing back to us this memory. The most painful part of these is that we don’t even see any big deal in losing our culture. We encouraged our children the more, so they no know nothing concerning there traditions and cultures. No wonder the generations of the children outside now lack respect and manners. They also misbehaved and we are blaming them. They can’t be blame just because they lack the basic of what would have open there minds to good or proper morals.

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  7. Princess February 21, 2017 at 4:41 am

    I don’t really accede to that saying that we should acknowledge ancestors, there’s no where in the bible that says that. And anything that doesn’t pertain to the Lord should be totally discarded. I know have stepped on toes by saying this, but I know every christians reading this article understands what I meant by that, may God help our understanding.

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  8. Esosa February 21, 2017 at 4:46 am

    This is a good one. Our values, norms, tradition and culture have been neglected due to civilization and religion. I want to beg the youths of this generation to bring them back, it all can start with us. Yes, we can do it.

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  9. Julie February 21, 2017 at 4:48 am

    I agree with you @ Esosa. Neglecting our traditions, morals, norms and value because of civilization is totally absurd and lugubrious.

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  10. Legzycool February 21, 2017 at 7:40 am

    I think culture and civilization are two terms wrongly placed along side. I think they are two different things entirely but we have made them so alike that the latter is trying to overshadow the former.
    I miss some cultural heritage already…

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  11. Michaels February 22, 2017 at 9:24 am

    @princess
    This is the exact thing the writer is saying. What do you mean by that? God gave us a tradition. Its not about killing someone, this is something that adds value to a ceremony which we have neglected. So being a christian means you shouldn’t give caeser what belongs to him? Please!

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  12. Maureen Adams February 22, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Traditions. I can relate with this o. I am from rivers state, but i have never been to my state, I can’t even speak my dialect. My parents just brought us up in lagos and with english. When we talk about going to know our hometown, they say, it is not necessary. God help us.

    Reply
  13. matilda February 22, 2017 at 9:29 am

    Traditions! That one is long gone in the Nigeria system o. We have been injected to be whiter than white. We are over civilised than the ones who brought civilisation and if care isn’t take, we are going to pay dearly for this. So, let us share this post so this can go viral and people can understand the value of our traditions

    Reply
  14. Lalekan February 22, 2017 at 9:30 am

    As a christian, I don’t think this is necessary. I can’t be naming my child with kolanuts. The bible is good for me.

    Reply
  15. Princess February 23, 2017 at 8:31 am

    @ Michael i understand what the writer was talking about, but the truth still remains that some traditional beliefs are ungodly and should be neglected if they are not the will of God. God’s word supercedes every other thing.

    Reply
  16. sharon dede February 24, 2017 at 9:37 am

    This so true. In my house, we don’t have any trace of our hometown, we can’t speak, we don’t visit uncles in the village because my parents think they are too fetish. etc
    we have lost traditions! it’s a pity.

    Reply

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