It’s the sound of a new morning, heralded by the cock-crow. The day is in its pure youth and expectations were high for the ‘BullsEye radio programme’ anchored by its Archer Edmund Obilo. For the natives of Ibadan, Edmund’s programme has become like the morning sunlight streaming through our windows, illuminating our political landscapes as a voice of reason and highlighting dark areas of governance. Today’s edition promised to be sensational; a serving honourable of the house of representatives in response to a previous interview called the Alaafin (a revered traditional ruler) ‘a criminal’ with all confidence. I salivated to hear the background story of this tasty interview after several promo excerpts got my attention.
Alas, it was barred from airing! The town criers crushed my hope announcing (without vetting programme content,) that the interview was ‘disrespectful, and also condemnable to our traditional institution and value’. The Alaafin was sacred, revered and must not be tarnished even at the expense of justice and accountability. Our dear radio journalist became the scapegoat; under fire with the politics of trivialities. Like the journalist in Kongi’s harvest, he is a watchdog that should only bark at selected humans; he is either compliant or he is expelled from the kingdom.
I was hopeful that through that interview, I can indeed boast that we are progressing towards the exercise of social equality, respect of freedom of speech and human right which invariably serves as critical indicators of true democracy. My dashed hope, called for more reflection and questioning. In that politically motivated act, I am reminded that though our traditional rulers may be modelling costumes and customs and thriving outside of time, they are not just a museum piece. I am also left to consider the fabric of our political landscape with fragmented system of governance that recognises the conflicting values of traditional leadership and modern state governance. As we strive to establish enduring political system, how much room does the immunity shield we give to traditional monarch institutions allow for the true practice of rule of law? Just in the thick of my reflection, the rhythm of my thought reminds me that we are still in the season of Kongi’s harvest.
Written in 1965, Kongi’s harvest by our dear Wole Soyinka is a tough but sweet drama, reflecting Nigeria’s political trails, highlighting the fact that democracy may remain a pseudonym of the traditional system of governance, and at worse a phantom. The Nobelist was at his best here allowing room for readers to discover their own meaning engaging the spirit of this book. He presents a raillery of the engineering of our political system, sadly considering our political trajectories, we remain stung by this mockery.
Deposed Oba Dondola harasses the national sanctity of President Kongi’s democratic leadership which disbanded his conclave of elders and arrested him. Oba Dandola desecrates the national flag taken from a flagpole, making of it an under-wrapper worn beneath his Agbada. He is soon stripped of it, leaving him struggling to cover his semi-nudity. Oba Dondodola is projected as lacking respect for constituted authority. But where there are two relevant authorities (the traditional and the modern), how do we negotiate what power prevails at a time? The existence of this conflicting dualism that forms the kernel of our political structure, hampers good judgement.
This book of drama, presents a ridicule of the Western style of governance and the dilemmas of transition. Here, the old order changeth, there are more democratic princes with the intent of creating an image of a youthful elders of the state, a conclave of modern patriarch replacing the disbanded ones. We are given an impression of change in governance where there is none.
At the core of the conflict is President Kongi’s new vision to harmonize and replace the old institutionally structured festival with a state ceremony governed by the principle of enlightened ritualism. To achieve this, the traditional institution ruled by retrogressive autocrats will have to be more ceremonial and less relevant to power like a masquerade without spirit or substance. A public display of the final transition was necessary and crafted into the planned harvest festival of which President Kongi must preside as the spirit of the harvest in pursuance of his Five years development plan. President Kongi insists that Oba Dondola must bring to him the New Yam with his own hands as performance of customary spiritual functions. Oba Dondola the reactionary leader is resistant and difficult to break with all forms of appeasement. He was not willing to give up the last thread of relevance in that singular public act that will symbolize the supremacy of the state power over their traditional spaces and authority.
The drama Kongi’s harvest tells of the pathway that led democracy to become more vibrant, commanding greater legitimacy than the traditional autocratic systems. It cleverly advances that despite their waning powers, the relevance of the traditional rulers and their power is not to be shaken off as a man brushes off cobweb. The intrigues of politics were at its best in this book, portraying the dilemmas of change and power relations. This conflict and struggle for relevance continues even in modern governance.
Arguments on the role and relevance of traditional ruler remain in contest within the terrains of political discourses. Some people percieve them as symbols of natural governance, custodians of native customs, as spiritual fathers and an enduring part of a people’s heritage. Despite their waning influence of power, these perspectives of them had given them some constitutional relevance. Traditional rulers in African countries for example, still hold power over substantial economic and financial resources like land and forestry.
Globally, homogeneous and culturally diverse country’s model of governance still allows roles for traditional rulers designated with numerous nomenclatures. Considering the architecture of national population where more people are rural based, these traditional institution seem normative and this has further enhanced their resilience.
For contemporary thinkers, traditional rulers are but relics that don’t glitter any more as they belong to antiquity. With a closed and orchestrated model of leadership entrenched in patriarchy, a succession structure that happens by ascription in place of popular election, it promotes supremacy of one man lording over the affairs of all. Their shielded style of leadership has been noted to be an instrument of oppression and capitalism, aiding and abetting all sorts of crimes and corruption. In the past, their weak leaderships notably gave way to colonialism, slave trade and all forms of exploitation that continues to define the fabric of the black man, endowing us with turbulent history. Their dwindling prestige tells that they must exist outside of present times and operate outside the formal structures of modern state power.
To abolish or not; these arguments persist. But we must remember that bad leadership is bad leadership, whether it clads military uniform, traditional regalia or civilian attire. I have no problem with the existence of traditional political leaders who exercise political power at ethnic or sub-ethnic level. As long as customary laws exist and have relevance, traditional political leaders will thrive. But in seeking constitutional relevance and also interfering in democratic processes of state power as is the case in Nigeria, there is inherent complexities.
In a nation’s struggle to establish a strong democratic system, what conflicts does the values of autocracy underpinning the traditional institution present? How relevant are their undemocratic values to the exercise of accountability, transparency, free speech, public debates, partisanship and elections, all of which are critical to true democracy? How can this be recreated within the fabric of existing political systems?
The season of Kongi’s harvests that promotes fragmented governance and structures which privileges traditional political leaders with some sacredness to perpetuate injustice must now end. I contend that, whether within or outside the hinterlands, traditional leaders who seek or have constitutional relevance must not be endorsed to sacredly disobey rule of law or be insulated from justice. They have no right to interfere in democratic processes if they will not be governed by it. In the era of growing social change,we must all thrive within the framework of constitutional democracy. Against the backdrop of the suspension of democratic interventions like the ‘Bulls Eye Radio programme’, traditional institutions must learn to submit to known standards of scrutiny and accountability, understanding that in democracy, it is the people that decide. This is instructive in engineering true democracy.
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye
The Praise singers said to Elesin “Elesin, we placed the reins of the world in your hands, yet you watched it plunge over the edge of the bitter precipice. You sat with folded arms while evil strangers tilted the world from its cause and crashed it beyond the edge of emptiness”.
So the King is dead, and this time, the chief horseman will not ride with him to the grave. Maybe Elesin’s escape from following the king to the grave is an act of the Gods or maybe it’s just an interruption of people’s culture by Mr. Pilkings (the Colonist/District Officer) who does not understand it. What precisely does the conflict of the play portray?
While the King waits for Elesin, many interpretations have been drawn from this dramatic work of fiction. Most of them in my view may be prompted by the author’s preface while others will just be a case of different people’s positionalities. Wole Soyinka warned against an interpretation that portrays a theme of cultural clash. His prefatory explanation for the conflict at the core of this play is that of the metha-physical with a thredonic essence making Mr. Pilkings interruption of Elesin’s death ritual a mere catalytic incidence. This explanation according to critics, depoliticises the work while also limiting its interpretations.
Intriguingly, 34 years after this intensely complex play was published, the author in an interview with Andrew Gumbel of the Guardian UK, expressed his response to a Chicago cast that couldn’t master the script and were challenged with the rigours of the Yoruba dance steps. ‘I told them they were just as ignorant of African culture, African politics, African rhythms as everyone else,’ he says. What then is the message of Wole Soyinka’s Death and the Kings Horsemen?
While the divergences persist, I will be making my own interpretations of the conflict in the interruption of Elesin’s death ritual by Mr. Pilkings from a development perspective. Perhaps this is not far from the struggle for meaning which permeates every scene in this drama. On this premises, I can draw inferences that the core conflict, characterizes the struggle and ongoing debates on the epistemology of the development concept and practice. The power relation for the legitimacy of meaning may be reflected upon through the conflict of this work. I cannot fail to see the tension of two cultures inherent in this conflict, one that raises a question on the struggle for meaning and its legitimacy. It encapsulates the tension between the cultures of development built on its theories against the culture of the rural communities which is built on their tradition.
No one is allowed to commit suicide peacefully in many cultures, but the Yoruba culture in this context permitted it. Just like Mr. Pilkings could not easily understand the act that Elesin was to undertake without a good grasp of the Yoruba culture, so also development practice has over the years experienced challenges of understanding the characteristics of some culture they intervene in.
Considering this, the debates on the epistemology of development comes into spotlight as it focuses on the dynamics of understanding. Whose development, for whom and by whom? Critics of development have argued that development interpretations are purely Western with no participation of the recipient nations or culture. This presents development as an exploitative ploy of the former colonists to depoliticize the beneficiaries. The act of intervening in people’s culture and lives claiming to know what is not good for them by development technocrats is not legitimized and the ethics are questionable. These biases impede the objectives of development.
In literary sense, what legitimacy does Mr. Pilkings have to stop this cultural practice? The rather well meaning Mr. Pilkings must have temporarily saved Elesin’s life in that moment, but he also destroyed Elesin’s dignity and self-identity as a law abiding Yoruba man as Elesin is seen to commit nonfeasance. Could the implications of prevailing in a culture he (Pilkings) does not understand be the death of Elesin’s son Olunde who takes on the suicidal death ritual before his father who is delayed in jail?
This raises the question on whether having good intentions alone is enough for development interventions? Suffice to say that such good intentions has saved so much; well meaning interventions have contributed to the end of twin killing which are well captured in literary works in the past decades. Amongst other achievements, it helped tremendously in managing health issues like HIV/AIDS and its various consequences.
However the negative cost of poor power relations and misunderstanding inherent in some project implementations is not negligible. Such are represented in the death of literary fiction characters; Elesin’s Son had died in his father’s place. In a similar way, Okonkwo in Achebe’s Things fall apart has also committed suicide as aftermath of an unrest created by a clash of understanding.
Olunde before his death says to Jane the European, “I discovered that you have no respect for what you do not understand”. Obierika in response to Okonkwo’s death says “That man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself; and now he will be buried like a dog…”
If there be one thread running through all these words, it’s the expression of regret for interruptions and failure to stick to indigenous values by the people.
An antidote to such conflict and lose is personified in the character of Mr. Brown in Things fall apart. Through his exceptional approach, we could see that not all missionaries worked with prejudice. Mr. Brown, was well respected because he lived amongst the natives and tried to understand their culture. He takes advantage of this understanding of the Igbo faith to convert people. A fanatic intrusion into people’s life and faith was not going to work here; he found a way to synergize his need for converts and the community’s need for participating in the new power arrangements.
Mr.Brown’s strategy was not validated by the other missionaries, but such approach surely improves power relations. That way, the beneficiaries of many development projects will not be viewed through this predisposed lens that facilitates conflicts. They will be seen as people who have something to give, and from whom experts can also learn. An appreciation of all these in reality, may have influenced the shift in development understanding, causing a focus on participatory development. Hence the era of project blunders in development seem to fading as beneficiaries find relevance for the interventions in their lives and legitimize it.
There is the danger of trading the characterization of the colonists for development practice in the context of this column. This indirectly transfers all the negative and maybe positive attributes of colonialism to the motives of development. That is not the aim of the comparison I have done here. I hope that the infusion of a development perspective into Wole Soyinka’s Death and the Kings Horse men portrays how all human institutions struggle for cohesion in understanding.
Reading the Lion and the Jewel as a child, I saw an old Bale Baroka that was in contest with Lakunle to marry the otherwise beautiful Sidi. That was all I saw. Reading this rather complex drama with so many themes and interpretations again this year, one phrase stuck to my mind, ‘the stranger with a one eyed box.’ What strikes me most is the interpretation I could readily give this in the context of development.
Lakunle captures the character of the ‘stranger with the one eyed box’, the man from the outside world. Lakunle who detests the idea of paying Sidi’s bride price, takes photos of Sidi and hitherto, a picture book is produced about the village. There is the picture of Sidi on the front page. Sidi is overjoyed that she graces the cover and other leafs in the magazine, and her beauty will be announced to the world. To note precisely how well placed she is in the magazine, she asks ‘Is not Bale’s image in the book at all?’ The response was ‘oh yes, it is. But it would have been much better for Bale if the stranger had omitted him altogether. His image is in a little corner somewhere in the book, and even that corner he shares with one of the village latrines.’
Metaphorically, the above narrative addresses the power of representation. I imagined it to capture the western process of representing Africa with the picture of its unassuming children floating on their screens as a tool for fund raising. Many times the power of the lens to capture, prove and evoke a particular perception has been used severally by unethical western photographer to create and reinforce the identity of a poor Africa through the faces of the children gracing the papers, television screen amongst other mediums.
You know what I am talking about, those pictures that rape a child’s dignity. Those pictures that go with captions of poverty, hunger, the picture of a teary black child, clad in pants or maybe dirty clothing, with grimy hands, with a little startle and helplessness all over his or her face.
Many times I imagine they look helpless in the face of an adult stranger clicking away their faces with a camera, seeking not their consent. If you have been in Europe and watched the television, you certainly know what I am talking about. Otherwise, you may not fully grasp this because these pictures like Sidi’s pictures are not taken for the consumption of the calibre of people objectified therein.
This issue occupies a problematic place on the theatre of fund raising in international development. Yes Aid Agencies are doing amazing jobs supporting developing countries with fund. They need funds to replenish; they need to make people donate towards helping needy countries and supporting different causes. While the intentions may be great, the medium of realising their objectives remains in questions.
Kevin Cater the Pulitzer award winning photographer of the picture of the ‘Sudanese Girl’ must have undoubtedly had good intentions, the award was even better. But the good intents collapsed under the weight of the criticisms of taking a dying child’s picture without saving her. This experience was so bad it was noted to influence Cater’s suicide few months later. The world many times judges actions and not the intentions. The act of capturing a particular moment, a particular expression, a singular scene in a person’s life and continuously recycle it even when the person has moved on from there has come into question severally. Beyond the responsibility of the photographer is an organisation that understands the implications of using the face of poor children as an emotional anchor to justify their actions.
Children in challenging or vulnerable situations in European Media always have their faces obscured to protect them and their future. There is a double standard here as this gesture is not extended to the African child. This particularly disrespects the dignity of the very lives the agencies claim to help. Is there no better way to raise funds without using the innocence of a child who in most cases is unaware of the distance his or her picture has travelled?
A striking connection is made in the fact that the pictures of Sidi like the pictures of these children are not meant for the village consumption. These pictures continue to challenge the governance of the countries they are taken from. There was a promise to put Sidi’s image on the stamp; this is comparable to the image of these children being iconic to the poor African identity. People, who are subtly pressured to give by the vulnerable positioning of another, will subconsciously see the beneficiary from a position of weakness or as a lesser person. Over the years, poverty has stuck as an icon for African countries; it has even become natural resources of the people. Every natural resource is to be paid for, there are ethics and laws guiding its purchase, but again the poverty of Africa is exploited freely. Lakunle was not going to pay what it cost to have Sidi. To him, ‘to pay the price will be to buy a heifer off the market stall’. Worthy of note, is the positioning of Baroka the Bale of Ilujinle by the latrine, the African government is ridiculed in this process as they are portrayed as powerless in protecting the dignity of their future; their children.
I imagine different scenes, I imagine the power relation between the photographer and the subject, the power behind the lense, the power to define. What will the picture of this stranger look like if the tables were turned and s/he is captured by the child? If a child was asked to tell their own story through the camera, what story will s/he tell of that moment s/he was snapped? Will they tell the story of a poor Africa or a warm Africa? The story of a hungry Africa or of their loving father, mother, brother, sister and friends? I am still imagining.
Consciously or not, the Author Wole Soyinka’s injection of the ‘one eyed box’ is a way of presenting how people select and interpret what they want from a field of many activities happening around them. The myopic perceptions created by this imagery are captured in the word ‘one eye’ which tells that the true context may not be well appreciated. In the case of children who have a long life ahead of them, these pictures, their recycling and usage have them trapped in the contest of vulnerability even when in reality the children have grown away.
To the next stranger with the one eyed box intending to click unethically at a poor child and travel with their pictures to landscapes the child may never step foot in, reflect on this. I hear the children speak in Sidi’s voice saying ‘every time your actions deceive me, making me think you merely wish to whisper something in my ear, then comes this licking of my lips with yours, it’s so unclean’.
I would think of a woman’s body as a battle ground you know, but it’s not only her body, it’s her identity and her dignity. Writing this week’s column, I thought about what makes a female a woman. I realize how many times I hear that word ‘…like a woman’. It’s either talk like a woman, sit like a woman, behave like a woman, dress like a woman… On and on it goes. I began reflecting through my first paragraph;
‘Woman! Thou art only a ribbon taken from a man’s chest. Your worth is in your dowry, your honour is in your virginity, your pride is making a man’s tummy quit rumbling with your sweet meal, and it is in sexually massaging his ego by giving freely of yourself. Your respect is in being called a wife. That is the story of your life and so has it been.’
To be a woman, you have to become an appendage to a man; this has been the predictions of our literatures from the times Things fell apart through to the days of the Lion and the Jewel. Even the Gods are not to blame for this as men alone told the stories. And what do you expect if our husband has gone mad again? He will write in a language of patriarchy, painting the world only in the colours of black or white. There is never a grey colour in between or any other colour.
This remains a burning issue in international development; gender equality! It has become an analytical category for virtually every development activity. We have made a gender case for domestic violence, for agriculture, for health and every other constraints of progressive development around the world. I know many development practitioners like Gloria Steinem, are feminist. They hope for a future where everyone’s individuality and dynamism has expression without discouraging the balance of human right. Thus we continue to appreciate studies that explore the constructions of femininity and masculinity to know precisely where to focus our interventions and alter some undesirable realities in our society.
In trying to bridge the gaps between fiction and development on the issue of gender constructions, I took a look at how femininity has been modelled in our works of fiction. Works of our renowned authors Ola Rotimi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka amongst others were explored. In their books grown women carried the pot on their heads as Obiageli in ‘Things fall apart’, twisted and untwisted their waist with the smoothness of water snake like Sadiku in ‘The lion and the jewel’, competed and fought their sisters to own the man and capture his straying affection like Lizzy and Sikira of ‘our Husband has gone mad again’. Indeed, women in the era of these works were presented as having small brains, as tools of reproduction, they were possessions of a man, bought and sold by men, promoting polygamy, caressing the man’s ego and enhancing his social status. The characters of Sidi, Sadiku and Ailatu, showed that women helped men build their world. They were defined according to their responsive roles to a man and their domestic diligence. These women were always docile; rarely did they show excitement or speak from their depth to the audience in a voice that conflicts the constructions of femininity portrayed above. I have wondered why there was no woman that sometimes felt like screaming, that told her husband when she did or didn’t want sex. Was there none that sincerely got tired of her marriage sometimes? How about sharing pain and the joys of motherhood? Then I remembered that when men tell the story alone, history is altered.
Flora Nwapa’s ‘Efuru’ came into the literary stage capturing an exact voice for women, be it when they spoke of love, malice or anger. Then Buchi Emecheta was like a breath of fresh air. She brought to the scene a new model of femininity presenting women whose destination was Biafra, who could tell ‘the joy of motherhood’, who shared the pain in being ‘second class citizens’, who were working hard to sustain themselves even though it meant increasing the value of the bride price. Feminine models who questioned conventions burst the scenes. ‘God when will you create a woman who will be fulfilled in herself, a full human being, not anybody’s appendage?’ Nnu Ego cries out. Emecheta’s belief in individuality of human beings showed in her feminist view that laces all her work.
Reading through some of them three decades after they were published, it echoes strongly the thoughts of more women in this generation than in the era it was written. I am tempted to say that most of Emecheta and Nwapa’s works were forecasting and portraying different models of femininity in the future. It is a future where most women like ‘Amaka’ in One is not Enough will express their frustrations and speak out precisely for what they want. ‘… I don’t want to be a wife anymore, a mistress yes, with a lover, yes of course, but not a wife. There is something in that word that does not suit me. As a wife, am never free. I am a shadow of myself. As a wife, am almost impotent. I am in prison, unable to advance in body and soul… I don’t want to go back to my ‘wifely’ days. No, I am through with husbands. I said farewell to husbands the first day I came to Lagos.’
But how have these models impacted the world of today’s woman? Does Buchi Emecheta’s work represent a certain calibre of women while the depictions of the male authors represent another? Do we have an eclectic combination of the above models in today’s woman? The latter may be the case as our women still set very high premium on children even where they reject the roofs of patriarchy looming over the marriage institution. Like Debbie, many are tired of playing the prescribed wifely role but may play it until they know the joy of motherhood. While morality hangs on conventions of the femininity of the past, it is not seen as a strong driving force for the choices that women make today. Motherhood remains a drive in the definitions and identities women give to them self. It creates the space they need to live a fulfilled life and often their agency is expressed strongly through it. Hence being a wife is still important and honourable but is less honourable than being a mother. That seems like the story of today’s woman.
It’s amazing how two roles a person plays can strongly define the dignity of an identity. In Flora Nwapa’s character ‘Efuru’, we see how all of her success collapses under the weight of not being a wife or a mother according to a divine order. While being a wife and a mother is a role females can choose to play, it has strongly defined the identity of every female making them worthy or unworthy. I would begin to wonder how happy a female can ever be if she were none, can she just be a woman without being a mother or a wife or does it make her less human? This is the burden of identity women carry through their lives as they live in societies that hold the values that the authors have portrayed in the literatures above. Maybe one radical act a female may adopt, is to claim ownership of her body and her identity, but it seems we were groomed from the cradle not to.
-Written by Adaobi Nkeokelonye