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 in Salvador, which is the heartland of black Brazil. At breakfast on our first morning, we went to the buffet stands and saw a woman frying what turned out to be 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 8. Throughout the day we ate dishes of beans, fish, yam, some made with palm-oil, prepared in ways that 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. I saw nothing focused on the black community in Brazil. One of the members of the local organising 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 centre, a youth programme and the last port of call was a community centre. This was the most inspiring of all. In the main hall there was a large mural on the walls, which had a number of African cities such as Dakar, 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. 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 United States, where people pay good money to go and view them. What excuse do we have now? For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on what is happening within a community I am very familiar with – the Yoruba community. 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. My position is that being modern Africans does not mean that we should forget who we are. Cultures evolve, they are not static, but they should evolve for better and not worse. We have negative cultural practices such as expressions of misogyny, female genital mutilation, ill treatment of widows, forced marriage, human sacrifice, harmful myths and superstitions and so on. We also have deeply valuable practices such as communal solidarity, respect for elders, accountability and the prioritisation 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 marriage ceremonies have now 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 Anglican Church who have taken the pomp, fun and pageantry out of the ceremonies and have now 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 very beautiful rendition of local poetry 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 knew, 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.
Perhaps other ethnic groups are better at preserving positive aspects of their cultural heritage, but I am not impressed with what I see happening in the Yoruba community. In 2011, I helped organise the first Ekiti State Festival of Arts and Culture. It was a very successful programme, 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! Of course, I pointed out the benefits of cultural products to boost tourism and create job opportunities but I am sure he was not convinced.
Even our traditional rulers are in a race to distance themselves from their obligations as royal fathers to protect our cultural heritage. While some are good at striking 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, 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 halfway across the world are millions of people who celebrate a connection they ought to have lost long ago. In addition, in the academies in Europe and the US, African Studies continues to wax stronger, while over here, we struggle to keep History on the curriculum in schools. There are some rare, 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 scholarship 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 [email protected]