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(Swans - October 4, 2010) My maternal granny of very blessed memory gave me an injunction that I took dearly to heart, and which continues to guide me today. Never stay in a place where there are no strangers, my grandmother told me.
Looking back some forty-something years later, her words continue to make eminent sense. A reason must be responsible for a community not to have a single stranger in its midst. And indeed one must be a crazy banana to want to stay in such a place.
Two proverbs best encapsulate my Yoruba people's attitudes towards human migration. One is: Omi ni eniyan. The second is Ibi ti aye ba gbeni de, la npe layede.
The first means that human beings are like water, which flows wherever it can find its level. The second one means that it is where destiny leads one that we call home. I shall have more to say about the latter proverb later.
I grew up in a town in the Yoruba part of the country called Nigeria. As those who follow this column must have read, Nigeria is a mish-mash of national and tribal entities the British amalgamated in 1914 to satisfy their imperial ambitions.
Before colonization, the disparate groups (there are more than 250 linguistic groups in Nigeria) have self-governed themselves for thousands of years. Yoruba is one of the three biggest national groups in the Nigerian make-up. They traced their origins to Canaan and many of the words in their language have their roots in Old Egyptian languages. Among these are Baale (the Biblical baal which means a sub-chief/lesser god and RA_wo which means star/star-god).
The Yorubas are, in turn, made up of several sub-groups, among which are the Ekitis -- a people noted for their very deep sense of justice above everything else. For reasons that I have not been able to ascertain, the Yorubas happen to be Africa's most cosmopolitan people. Most of Nigeria's largest cities are to be found in Yorubaland (Ibadan, Lagos, Osogbo, Ogbomosho, Oyo, Ile-Ife are among the bigger ones).
What is equally striking is that in all Yoruba cities, towns, and villages are to be found sizable settlements for non-indigenes. Lagos, which served as Nigeria's federal capital until 1995, is so cosmopolitan that it has long ceased to be considered a Yoruba town.
As children, even though we are conscious of our identities as Ekiti and Yorubas, we were also very conscious of the identities of the OTHER people who sojourn among us. To us, they are "eniyan," human beings who deserve all the dignity of a fellow being.
Although like most people many Yorubas suffer from a superiority complex, they do not take kindly to anyone taking advantage of strangers. My own observation is that the Yoruba are the least clannish or tribalistic people in the world.
In my grandfather's hometown of Ikoro-Ekiti, the Hausas (the second of Nigeria's Big 3) from northern Nigeria have their base in town where they trade in kola nuts, which they buy and consume in large quantities.
Although the kola nut trees grow abundantly in our forests, we use the nuts sparingly and mostly on festive occasions.
Actually, Hausas is our generic name for anyone that comes from the north of the River Niger which, together with River Benue, dissect Nigeria (Niger Area) into three parts.
It would take long before I learnt that, unlike western Nigeria, which is monolithically Yoruba, the Hausas are but one group in the many that make up the vast northern region. Sadly, it is a mistake that many, including educated Nigerians, still make today.
We learnt early that although the Hausas are fond of the bitter nuts, their land is not suitable for its growth, hence their coming to our land. Apart from the commerce in kola nuts, the Hausas are also noted for selling tea and khebab in the bigger towns. It was a great treat to visit such towns and partake in such yummy enterprises. You instantly become a local hero if you have such tales to tell. The Hausas are also used as "maiguard" (security guards) in various installations and at the affluent homes of those who thought that they needed guarding. They also thrilled people with their art of snake charming.
Then there were the Urhobos, who are mainly farmers and palm-wine tappers. The Urhobos make garri, a staple food in West Africa, and they are also noted for distilling the potent Nigerian liquor, Ogogoro. We called them Isobos -- a generic term with which we cover everyone from the Niger Delta. Like in the case of the Hausas, we mistook every Deltan for "Isobo."
We also have the Igbos (the third of Nigeria's Big 3 -- they fought the Biafran war in their unsuccessful attempt to secede from the Nigerian federation between 1967 and 1970) -- we called them Ibos. Again, we mistakenly thought that everyone east of the River Niger is an Igbo!
As it happened, my father served as a colonial policeman at Abakaliki in eastern Nigeria in the 1930s/40s and he spoke a smattering of Igbo. His first wife was more fluent -- as most women are in matters of languages. They both spoke very highly of their Igbo hosts during their sojourn in Igboland.
We had five or six Igbo men living in our house -- actually a compound as it consists of several houses. And we grew up speaking Igbo with our... difficult to find the appropriate word since "tenant" does not do any justice to the very complicated relationship we have with the strangers in our midst. Of course, not only did they not pay any rent, but they partook in household chores like any family member. While they are not truly family, we had with them relationships that are so complex that it defied definition for non-Africans.
Among the first thing we learned was that although the sojourners differ from us in several cultural respects, they are also human beings -- creations of the almighty god and are therefore to be accorded full human respect.
The Yoruba word for humanity is eniyan; a human being is omo eniyan, which translates to "child of humanity." Eniyan is gender, tribal and racial free; a human being is simply a human being. Eniyan is a child of Olodumare (the supreme creator in Yoruba spirituality). More importantly, you are a human being only because others are too.
This philosophical outlook, shared by many African people, is what is called UBUNTU in many southern African societies. Let Wikipedia explain.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered a definition in a 1999 book: A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu further explained Ubuntu in 2008: One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu -- the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality -- Ubuntu -- you are known for your generosity.
Nelson Mandela explained Ubuntu as follows: A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn't have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu but it will have various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?
I understand fully what Saint Mandela and Archbishop Tutu tried to explain as my maternal granny until her death always put a portion of food aside every evening. Her reason was that she would find it shameful for a visitor to come into her home and starve. More often than not no visitor came calling, but granny religiously kept her devotion.
In traditional African society, it is a strong taboo to have the person or property of a stranger violated. And woe betides the one that abused or try to take advantage of a stranger. It shows not only bad manners but gross sacrilege to steal from a stranger. It is considered the shame of the whole town for a stranger to lose valuables while passing through. The whole community will move heaven and earth not only to retrieve the lost item but also to inflict the heaviest of sanctions upon the culprit.
Ibn Batuta, among other historians, chronicled how the security of person and properties of travelers were guaranteed in old Africa. In those days, the gods of Africa were believed very powerful and people tried not to displease them.
When we come to consider it, this African approach makes eminent sense. Since we all want to be treated decently wherever we find ourselves, it only make good sense to treat those that live among us decently.
Moreover, in Yoruba mores a stranger in your midst is believed to be a sign of good omen as he brings with him things that could only enrich you.
This type of community was the norm in those days. So it is beyond belief to see people in Nigeria today killing one another on ethnic grounds. And they were supposed to have had the benefits of education and civilization! That was the Nigeria, sorry, the Yorubaland of my youth.
In 1984, at age 24, I found myself in the Netherlands seeking higher education. I had made some friends among the many Dutch people who were in Nigeria to help enjoy the oil boom. It was the belief in those days that very high quality education was possible only in the Western world.
Europe confirmed to me the truism of the Yoruba saying that Bayi la nse nibi, ewo ibomiran ni, which means that what is cultural here is a taboo in another land.
In several respects Europe was, for me, a huge disappointment. If the ignorance and racial arrogance was simply galling, the racism, especially in Germany, was too irrational for me.
The European idea of family also seems funny to me. I came from a culture in which the words "cousins" and "nephews" simply did not exist, and it seemed strange that people enclosed themselves within a nuclear family.
Another thing that bothered me in Europe was what I considered the stinginess of the people. To give an example: It took time to reconcile myself to telling my Dutch girlfriend that I was hungry. Where I came from, you did not ask your guest if they wanted to eat. You brought food and placed it on the dining table.
I would come back from school dead-beat and my paramour would ask me whether I was hungry. Of course, my African pride would not allow me to admit to such thing... Infuriated by such parsimony, I would take my bicycle and go back to my pad where I could treat myself to a real meal worthy of a true-born African.
The early 1990s saw myself, my girlfriend, and my best friend (the late Luis Janssens RIP) making a trip through West Africa.
In about five weeks we breezed through seven West African countries. What was most fascinating for me, apart from the sheer beauty of Africa, was the friendliness of the people. Total strangers easily became instant friends, willing to help and to share -- even when we, obviously, had more than them.
I never saw my friend Luis so happy and so totally relaxed in his life. Of course, his mood was massively buoyed when he got himself an Asante beauty in Kumasi (Ghana) where we lodged for a few days. Not believing his good luck, love-smitten Luis day-dreamed through the rest of the trip. He couldn't wait long enough to get back to base, so that he could start processing the papers that would allow his girlfriend to visit him in Holland. Unfortunately Luis died from a massive coronary shortly after his wedding -- a few months after we came back to the Netherlands.
Another thing that struck me during the holiday was the presence of my Yoruba people throughout West Africa, where they appeared to have collared the petty trading business. In almost all the central markets in all the cities and towns we visited, Yoruba women seem to have cut a niche for themselves as the regional petty traders.
The highlight came at the border town between Niger and Burkina Faso when we patronized a restaurant. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that it was a Yoruba restaurant. My two Dutch friends could only keep shaking their heads about the mysteries of Africa. I got to talking with the owner and asked what on earth brought them all the way there. Her reply was: Omo mi, ibi ti aye ba gbeni de, la npe layede. It means, "My child, it is where destiny leads one that we call home."
Having spent five good weeks in Africa -- with all its rustic majesty, beauty, color, and sound, leaving it was difficult.
In Africa I had been accorded all the dignities of a human being. It shouldn't be difficult to imagine that I wasn't exactly thrilled to be going back to a place where racist politicians (it was the late Jan Maat in those days) were openly spreading their message of racial intolerance.
The major question for me when we returned was should I continue to stay in a place where my very presence seemed to irritate some people?
The big dilemma however was that the military were in control in my country, Nigeria, and many fine Nigerians were already in exile. Living under a military dictatorship was not an appealing prospect to me.
I have seen much of West Africa and I have liked what I saw.
Ghana beats the other countries in my estimation. Both Ghana and Nigeria were former British colonies so the language barrier is automatically eliminated. And I know enough history to know that two of Ghana's largest ethnic groups (Ewe and Ga) are of the same stock as my Yoruba people of Nigeria, with the Ewes being our closest cousins.
I made other trips to Ghana and finally settled on the mini-UN settlement town of Kasoa. Okay, I exaggerate a little; Kasoa is more of a mini-AU (African Union) town. Kasoa means "market" in the Hausa language - which can be considered the Pan West-African language.
Kasoa is truly a very cosmopolitan town the growth of which was truly phenomenal. Within ten years, my favorite town has mushroomed before my eyes into the largest city in Ghana's Central Region.
Very few mid-sized towns can compete with Kasoa's cosmopolitanism. Many Kasoans easily speak five or six languages. A Syrian supplies the water in my neighbourhood; a Togolese is the general factotum. The cattle business is dominated by people from Niger and Burkina Faso. Nigerians are also here in large numbers. And lest we forget, the sprawling Buduburam Refugee Camp -- home to about 40,000 Liberian refugees, is a suburb of Kasoa.
Kasoa truly vindicates the Yoruba proverb that it is where destiny leads us that we call home.
Jump to the short story by Peter Byrne.
A voice from Africa worth hearing... Please consider a
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About the Author
Femi Akomolafe (see his profile on Swans) is a computer consultant, a writer and social commentator, an avid reader, and a passionate Pan-Africanist who lives in Kasoa, Ghana. Femi is known to hold strong opinions and to express them in the strongest terms possible. As he likes to remind his readers: "As my Yoruba people say: Oju orun teye fo, lai fara gbara. It means that the sky is big enough for all the birds to fly without touching wings." Femi Akomolafe's views, opinions, and thoughts can be accessed on the blog he maintains: http://ekitiparapo.blogspot.com/. (back)