Shame: A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.
Shameless: A lack of shame, especially about something generally considered unacceptable.
There is a cultural practice in parts of Yorubaland, mostly modern-day Ondo and Ekiti states. Every year, around the time of the New Yam festivals, communities come together to show their displeasure towards any person or group of people who did something deemed to be unacceptable during the year. Groups of young people would gather in front of the person’s house and sing songs of derision about their misdeeds. Theft, adultery, swindling, insubordination, or any other action considered unworthy of a member of the community were the common offences that would attract the unwelcome presence of a mob of taunting people. If the group showed up in front of your house, you had to go out and receive them and dance to their insulting songs and drumming. You also had to give them food, drink and money. If you refused, you would be beaten and your house could be looted or burnt. The objective of the practice was a simple one. It was meant to shame the offender. There was the understanding that everyone lived in the community bound by mutually understood norms and conventions. There were things you simply did not do. You did not steal another person’s property. You did not sleep with another man’s wife. You did not cheat on your husband. You did not rain abuses on elderly people. You did not disrespect your in-laws. You did not accept bribes. You did not cheat your workers. You did not steal and eat the eggs from the sacrifices left at the roadside. You did not attempt to poison your co-wife’s child. If you did any of the above things, you would hear from your community during that time of the year set aside for reckoning. This public outing of offenders served to remind everyone that there was a price to be paid for shameful behaviour or for shamelessness. It was a strong accountability tool. This struck fear in people, since no one wanted to be at the receiving end of such public disgrace.
Story has it that, one day, a certain man who had been accused of theft during the year was visited by the townspeople, and he decided to give them a warm welcome, with a cutlass. That was the end of the practice in that particular community, and, of course, an attendant slide into a culture of impunity.
A few days ago I was at the annual meeting of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Ekiti State chapter. My big brother and mentor of many years, the famous poet and public intellectual, Odia Ofeimun, gave the keynote address. He spoke, among other things, about the critical importance of using our own languages for creative thinking and writing. Without the use of our own languages, it would be difficult to pass on our positive thought processes, philosophy and values to the next generation. In the Yoruba language, the word Itiju means “shame.” It has a clear meaning, and those who speak the language know what it means to have Itiju or to lack it. One of the worst epithets you can hurl at a Yoruba person is Alainitiju – a shameless person. The word taboo in Yoruba is Eewo. Each community has criteria for what qualifies as Eewo, but there are common denominators such as incest, defilement of children and theft of communal property. The traditional name-and-shame ceremony I described above was one of the ways in which communities prevented Itiju from becoming normal behaviour and people losing their fear of committing forbidden acts, which would qualify as Eewo. Sadly, this has become a thing of the past.
Today, we have laws in our statute books that are meant to guide our behaviour, regardless of our status, ethnicity, religion, tradition or culture. We are not supposed to need groups of youth chanting insults to get justice and/or appease the community. Yet a culture of shamelessness continues to thrive. When it comes to the issue of sexual violence, the most painful part of it is that victims are the ones who are shamed and not the perpetrators. That needs to change.
Last week, the Ministry of Justice, Ekiti State, put out a public notice on a sex offender, one Reverend Asateru Gabriel, formerly of St. Andrews Anglican Church, Ifisin-Ekiti. He is currently serving a five-year prison sentence at the Federal Prison, Ado-Ekiti, for sexual abuse and exploitation of a seven-year old girl. He has been registered in the Ekiti State Ministry of Justice Sex Offenders’ Register. The Sex Offenders’ Register, the first of its kind in Nigeria, was created in 2013 during the first administration of Governor Kayode Fayemi, but was abandoned when he left office. According to a statement from the no-nonsense Attorney-General of Ekiti State and Commissioner for Justice, Barrister Wale Fapohunda, in addition to the use of the register, the following steps are being taken to address sexual violence in Ekiti State:
1. Pasting of the photographs of convicted sex offenders in prominent public spaces in their communities and their local government headquarters
2. Issuing an advisory to the traditional ruler of the sex offenders’ community on the status of the offender
3. Uploading of the sex offenders’ photograph on the website of the Ministry of Justice
4. Compulsory psychiatric tests for all persons on whom the Director of Public Prosecutions has issued a ‘case to answer’ legal opinion for the offence of child defilement.
When this information was shared online last week, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Some people, however, expressed concern that the prison sentence was too small for such an offence. First, considering the rate of attrition of sexual violence cases, we should be thankful there was a conviction in the first place. Second, there is an ongoing review of the 2011 Gender-Based Violence Law in Ekiti State, with a view to updating and strengthening it.
Some years ago, I came across the case of a male teacher who was found to have impregnated one of his students at a secondary school in Ibadan. When the scandal was being discussed, some of his colleagues casually mentioned that he had done the same thing to a student in another school in the same city and had been hurriedly posted out when it was discovered. How did a teacher who was found to have abused a student in one school get posted to yet another school? Why was he not in jail? Was there no way of holding him accountable? It is hoped that institutions and employers will do their due diligence to ensure that they are not letting in foxes among chickens. Every public institution, including schools and places of worship, needs unambiguous sexual offences policies as well as a whistle-blower mechanism.
It is my fervent hope that a Sex Offenders’ Register can be opened nationally and in all our states. When individuals commit sex crimes, it can be perceived as a matter of personal failing, something they need to be ashamed of and pay for. If such crimes have been enabled due to collusion, indifference and intimidating the accusers, then it is a collective failure of responsibility, and when this happens all those concerned should cover their faces in shame.
It is not only the predator who unzips his trousers and pounces on a victim who is evil and shameless. The same applies to all those who turn a blind eye and carry on with business as usual, this would mean they are all Alainitiju. Shameless. I am rubbing my hands in anticipation of the next Alainitiju whose photograph will be published.
Long Live Ekiti State. Long Live Federal Republic of Nigeria.
•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 [email protected]