THE BINI - IFE JOURNEY: IN WHICH DIRECTION? PART 12
Wed, 7 Mar, 2012
BENIN/IFE: A DEFENCE OF ORALITY AND MYTH
In writing his autobiography, the Oba of Benin, Omo N'Oba Erediauwa II, has set a wonderful example. It is right that those who have led memorable public lives give their account, allowing us to hear from the horse's mouth, so to speak. It stands as testimony in the face of history, helping to illuminate our understanding of the factors that shape the lives of great personalities, and their times.
The Omo N'Oba's book has been especially successful, not so much for appraising his life and reign - that will come later - but in causing us to look again at the histories of the Yoruba and Benin peoples. In the fallout from the publication of the book, I Remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant, endless column inches have been filled by individuals offering their views on the matter. The Ooni of Ife and the Oba of Lagos have had their say in the debate, which shows no sign of abating.
Consequently, some have questioned the relevance of such a debate in today's Nigeria. The average man does not care whether the Benin version is the right position, or the Yoruba worldview on the matter, they say. Our monarchs' time would be better spent looking for solutions to the myriad of economic and social problems confronting us today, is another point. In short, what's it got to do with the price of rice in Oyingbo market? Well, everything.
The past, in the words of James Baldwin, is what makes the present coherent. The past filters into the present, and the issues at stake in the controversy over the Benin/Ife origins go to the very root of who the peoples are. This is the collective memory of races we are talking about here, not what happened last year. We are nothing without a sense of our history. It is the knowledge of our past that gives us the grounding to tackle today's problems head-on, mapping out the way for the desired future. The matter is therefore important, and as the vanguards of our history, traditional rulers must help steer the debate.
Beyond the specifics being argued over however, I am more concerned here with a worrying thread coming out of the debate, namely the apparent willingness of some to dismiss the oral traditions and myths upon which much of the ongoing controversy is premised. These people, speaking from the position afforded by their grounding in Western education, believe any talk of historical origins that are not based on hard, provable facts to be a primitive indulgence, mere hocus-pocus. Prove it or lump it, is their message.
In the same vein, it is suggested by some that the Omo N'Oba's position on the Benin/Ife connection is sacrosanct, by virtue of its being set down in writing. But is it? Does something acquire the status of being regarded as the incontrovertible truth just because it is written down? Does this argument, essentially the view of one man and a school of thought, cancel out the wisdom of ages, both on the Benin and Ife sides? Those who argue this are ascribing too much to the written word, especially in our country where that which presents itself in writing is often outrageously false.
Over and above the issues surrounding the contested origins of Benin and Ife, the current debate could be seen as a clash of civilizations as represented by the written and oral traditions. The written tradition, of course, is the tradition of the West, which recent history and modernity by accident or design have caused us to embrace. But we, like most non-European cultures, are of the oral tradition, which worked very well for us before the white man came. So, the written word is convenient for the lives we live today and lends itself very easily to verification, but, does it render our past in the oral tradition invalid?
The oral tradition represents our folk aesthetic; and the alchemy of the spoken word is as great as it has ever been.
"In the beginning was the word", this eternal line is true even for we whose beginnings are chronicled in no biblical texts or ancient scrolls. Our ancestors, afterall, knew nommo - the power of the word - and exercised it. In the days gone by, systems were in place for the cultural archiving of human experience. Even those on long journeys that took years, or from which some never returned, left their stories with the villages and people encountered along the way. The stories they told helped define the characters of their individual groups, mapped out boundaries of feeling, expressing their will to survive. These stories provided the foundation upon which each group has constructed a sense of reality, a way of knowing, and of perceiving themselves in the world. Oral histories are the breaths and footprints of our ancestors, our cultural memory.
Nearly all of the oral histories currently being debated have several versions, raising the question of which to believe. The mutability of oral history is only natural since as it filters down, some things are taken away, others added on, and also because we all tell stories differently. Nevertheless, oral histories retain a measure of truth, which we disregard at our peril. We are Africans, people whose memories extend beyond the reaches of any book, so why ask for proof of our earliest histories? What proof do people want? To ask that every stage of our history conforms retrospectively to the rigours of the written tradition is to strive for the impossible and seek to engineer time.
Oral tradition and its co-traveller folklore are, according to Ralph Ellison, the basis of all great literature. He acknowledged their seeming crudeness, but found them profound in that they represent a group's attempt to humanise the world. The written tradition has taken over the world, but some of the greatest writers currently living, from Toni Morrison to Salman Rushdie, are constructing their novels in such a way that the oral tradition is reclaimed even on the pages of a book.
Those dismissing the oral histories contended by Benin and Ife are merely succumbing to the intellectual constipation that can sometimes afflict the highly educated. It is through the oral tradition that our ancestors have expressed our true selves. A rejection of that tradition amounts to a rejection of ourselves, and our past.
The main point of contention in the current debate, that of the origin of Oduduwa, calls us to consider the role of myth. Did Oduduwa descend from heaven with a chain, or was he Ekhaladeran, a fugitive Benin prince who surfaced in Ife, having wondered for years in the bush after escaping the hangman's noose? What does it matter when there is no proof, some have suggested. They ignore the very simple fact that 'myth' and 'proof' are contradictions in terms.
Myths are stories of beginnings the most popular of which, the creation myths, can be found in all cultures of the world. From Japan to India, myths have helped give birth to nations, form societies, and define identities. In seeking to explain the 'how' of things, myth could be termed the earliest form of science; in explaining the 'why', it is akin to religion and philosophy. Myths have been, and still are, a mode of ordering human experience, helping to set out the natural order of things. To disregard the role of myths in the narrative of the nation, any nation, is to display a gaping hole where our imagination should be.
That the myths of Europe were written down long before the pen was ever taken up in Africa does not alter the fact that they are unprovable. Even the written myths of the West call attention always to their oral origins in that there are many versions of the same exploits, heroes with alternative names. The West, bastion of the written tradition, founded upon orality and myth.
All the Western education in the world should not blind us to the myths of the West, which continue to order our existence, now and into the future. One cannot open a Nigerian newspaper today without seeing some problem or another referred to as the 'Hydra'; or an embattled politician described as having an 'albatross' on his neck. What is the hydra, if not the multi-headed snake of the Greek myth? The albatross of course comes from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Coleridge and his fellow poets of English Romanticism were reworking myths that had existed long before. Myths of the Western world, used daily, unthinkingly, to express an African reality. Yet some people will have us commit the cultural suicide of dumping our own myths.
The Hollywood blockbuster of this summer is the sword and sandal epic Troy, starring the toga-wearing Brad Pitt - a man as beautiful as a woman. Based on The Illiad by the Greek poet Homer, the film depicts the ten-year war over Helen of Troy. Would the blind Homer have known whether indeed Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world? In spite of all the archaeological and historical examinations, there is no real proof of the fortified city of Troy, the fabled Trojan horse, or of Helen. And if indeed there was a war, it was definitely not over a woman. Yet the myth is as relevant as ever. When we watch the cinematic exploits of Brad Pitt as Achilles, we are asked to look upon the glory of Troy and be inspired in our individual lives as to the possibilities of human endeavours.
In Shame, Salman Rushdie wrote about Pakistan, a country almost as corrupt as Nigeria. Faced with the problem of how to dispose of a modern dictator, the authorial voice intrudes to tell the reader that it would be done by "goblinish means". Do we object to this use of myth in resolving a modern dilemma? The author is unapologetic and challenges the reader: "You try getting rid of a dictator sometime".
We in Nigeria know only too well how difficult it can be to get rid of dictators. Looking at our recent history, we have our hydra, albatross, Achilles tendon, even the gorgon - all rolled into one in the stony despot Sani Abacha. What is the story of the death of Abacha, if not modern myth-making? Depending which version you believe, Abacha succumbed - like Adam in the Garden or like Disney's Snow White - to a juicy red apple. Or you could believe that he crowed like a cockerel and was stunned into the hereafter, thanks to the deadly exoticism of prostitutes imported from Asia. You could even believe both. In telling and retelling these theories of Abacha's death, we are engaging in the process of creating myths, constructing meaning, making sense of our world.
Asked in a hundred years to prove how Abacha died, would it be any more provable, or indeed unprovable, than it is now? The Abacha myth is itself an expression of the trauma of his regime, and the terror he struck in our hearts. We had in him our very own Herod, holed up in the impenetrable fortress of Aso Rock; unreachable, unremovable and unkillable. And so in a mythical enactment of the desperate desire of millions to be free of him, he was despatched - by goblinish means.
A man saw a snake. A woman killed it. The Yoruba proverb tells us that what matters is the kernel of truth: the snake was killed. In Sani Abacha's death, we have a relevant modern myth. Unprovable, yes; but perfect and whole.
Roland Barthes talks about myths as semiotic systems. To him, they are not stories but acts of signification which become vehicles of meaning. Myth transforms meaning into form. Claude Levi Strauss on the other hand, chose to look at the linguistic model of myths, believing them to uncover the basic structure of the human mind. This, he argues, governs the way we shape all our institutions, artefacts and forms of knowledge.
In the Benin/Ife debate, I have found the contribution by Hilary Evbayiro to be among the more intriguing. There were many good points in Evbayiro's piece, but its outright rejection of orality and myth is not one of them. Also, certain arguments in the piece betray a lack of objectivity, a charge Evbayiro levels at others. Of the royal views expressed early on, he holds up the most curious - that of Oba Akiolu of Lagos - as the most reasoned and impartial. How so?
Furthermore, Evbayiro dismisses the Ife myths as "ridiculous" but remains silent on the myths which the Oba of Benin seeks to proffer in their place. Let's face it, if the myths of Ife are preposterous, then so are the myths of Benin. Or is Benin not founded on myth?
Ultimately, Evbayiro asserts that those who with their "sophisticated Western education" are hanging on to myth are the ones "confusing people". He is not alone in arguing the point, hence the reason for this piece. Western education notwithstanding, myths are what they are, and they have their place. In spite of modernity, this is still Africa, and we know what we know.
Even the scribe who strove to record every imaginable nuance of human feeling, Shakespeare, told us in Hamlet: "There are more things in heaven and earth... than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Happily, the current debate should lead to a more exacting examination of what sections of the Ife and Benin histories can be assessed from archaeological findings and written records. The earlier, oral histories and myths of the two kingdoms should also come into play to determine which of the opposing versions offers the greater measure of truth. But the way to go about it is not to dismiss oral histories simply because they are unprovable and steeped in myth. To deny the myth of a nation's birth is to deny the nation itself.