Friday, August 27, 2004

Tradition and Modernity

A very good article on tradition and modernity by Justus Amadiegwu in the Guardian going over the nexus between superstition, tradition and modernity in Nigeria - this applies equally well to what I've lived through and know of Africa.

I thank God I am still here

I should be dead by now; my twin brother is. You could say I am living on borrowed time, but I prefer to say I am blessed.

Decades ago, my mother committed the then unpardonable sin of giving birth to twins. To western couples, particularly those on IVF, the joy of multiple births is tempered only by recalculation of the household budget; to an Igbo parent in those days, however, there was only one outcome of bearing twins or triplets: the babies' instant death.

There can be no greater contrast of cultural norms than the one between my life as a Nigerian in London and my Igbo upbringing

I am from Imo state but my wife is from Okija, Anambra. The town hit the news earlier this month when 50 bodies and human remains were discovered in the latest ritual killing. Some of the victims were mummified but at least four had been killed recently.

The international media were enthralled by the body count and tales of 'black' magic. It had taken a common murderer fraudulently plying his trade as a dibia, or witchdoctor, no time at all to traduce the traditions of the Igbo people.

The practice of worshipping idols is embedded in the culture. It was part of our ancestors' way of life for hundreds of years before the arrival of the white man and the Christian religion.

Paganism, idol worship, consulting oracles: I have practised them all and seen many things in the process, though I am now a Christian. [...]

Although I have moved away from many of the traditions of my fathers, there are some that remain with me and that I hope to pass on to my own children.

For example, Igbo tradition requires that before a couple who profess to be in love get married, the background of the potential family must be investigated.

If the family are found to belong to the Osuhs or Ohus, they are immediately rejected and the marriage proposal is automatically annulled. This is also the case if there is a history of sudden deaths, madness or long-term illnesses such as MS, leprosy or sickle-cell anaemia.

Talkativeness (especially in women) and flirtatiousness are equally undesirable characteristics and further causes for rejection.

Once the investigation is complete and the family has been cleared of all these traits, the couple receive the blessing of both families to proceed with the engagement.

Yes, mumbo-jumbo - ogwu, otumokpo, juju, voodoo - really does exist in some Nigerian traditions

I have lived through some of these things and I thank God that I am still here to tell the tale.


The context for the article is a touch morbid - ritual killings - obvious fodder for the tabloids - I would have wanted an unprompted commissioning of such an article since this is well worth discussing at any time. He does touch on the guts of the issue: that there is such a thing as culture and tradition and it is a powerful force in human affairs and it informs, competes with, and sometimes overwhelms those other forces in modern life: science, and mathematics, religion, capitalism, economics etc.

What's in the cultural mix as you grow up often translates into your so-called 'values' and has a great deal of influence on your behavior. Thus superstition is alive-and-well even in the highly developed West: What is the fear of Friday the 13th, after all? Why do so many buildings not have a 13th floor? Why is there no #13 in my apartment building? Opportunist politicians the world over exploit these tendencies in the rhetoric of their nationalistic/populist appeals. Dismissing people as pagan or primitive barely captures their essential complexity.

Superstition looms large in African popular culture. In appealing to local, oftentimes rural, audiences, the artist in traditional societies needs to draw on the motifs the audience is dealing with. Consequently African films, music, poetry and fiction cover this territory incessantly sometimes poking fun at these traditional belief systems sometimes lamenting their loss as they intersect with the modern world. This seeps out also into daily life, take for example this recent piece
Panic at Nigerian 'killer calls'

Nigerian mobile phone users have been anxiously checking who is calling them before answering them in recent days.
A rumour has spread rapidly in the commercial capital, Lagos, that if one answers calls from certain "killer numbers" then one will die immediately.

A BBC reporter says experts and mobile phone operators have been reassuring the public via the media that death cannot result from receiving a call.

He says that in such a superstitious country unfounded rumours are common. A list of alleged killer numbers has been circulated but no-one is reported to have died from answering the phone.

The BBC's reporter in Lagos, Sola Odunfa, says that the current scare story is reminiscent of a rumour that spread a few years ago that a handshake could cause sexual organs to disappear.

That rumour turned to tragedy as mobs rounded on people accused of making organs disappear. Despite the massive public interest, no-one was found to have lost their organs.


My uncle used to teach a course on these issues 30 years ago at the Harvard Law School looking at it from the legal standpoint (namely how to negotiate issues of law in the context of traditional authority and mores). To this day, this is probably what his students most remember him for, not his legal acuity or insight, but rather this meaty and almost sociological issue and the endless conversation and anecdotes it evokes.

My dad's friend, the philosopher Kwame Gyekye, has the standard academic works in this area at least as it relates to Africa: the general textbook African Cultural Values: An Introduction and the more heavyweight research Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections on the African Experience.

Both are well worth reading to brood over the essential complexity of human behviour. Although I've now lived 2 thirds of my life outside Africa, I can't deny the powerful appeal of some of those traditions. I may live the hi-tech software engineer's life, pose as the jaded and skeptical intellectual but African cultural traditions, warts and all, still contribute to this Koranteng's Toli thing.

See Also: The Nigerian Elections - A matter of confidence

File under: , , , , , , , ,

1 comment:

Jason Mulgrew said...

intense!

love,
jason mulgrew
internet quasi-celebrity