Many years ago, when I was still in secondary school, we were watching a Nollywood movie—my family and I.
So, in the fashion most common to Nollywood movies, the girl got pregnant. To a child that has no knowledge of the science behind conception, it would have seemed as though the girl got pregnant by disobeying her mother and letting a boy hug her. Movie starts with an obedient prayerful girl. Girl falls in love and begins to disobey parents. Girl rushes out of the house one morning and starts vomiting (meaning she is pregnant).
However, that disinformation isn’t even the point of this post (more on that later).
The main ish that day was that the girl was indeed in love with the boy and wanted to marry him. In fact, it seemed she got pregnant on purpose, to force her parents to consent to the marriage. Her parents vehemently refused. She threatened to pack into the boy’s house with or without the marriage ceremonies, and her mother threatened to personally come to the house and drag her back home, if she did that.
The issue was that the girl and the boy were incompatible by status. The girl was a Freeborn, and the boy was an Osu (outcast).
And so they were doomed to calamity if they dared to marry.
I said something about how ridiculous the whole thing was. Something along the lines of: “These people are stupid. If I was this girl, I’ll simply catch a bus into town with my guy, march to a marriage registry and wed him.”
My mother was quick to say, “Shut up o! Don’t say that o! You will marry well o.”
And this immediately sparked an argument. On one side was my mother and father, and on the other was me and my siblings – my elder brother and younger sister, those of us old enough to understand and hate the Osu caste system.
My parents’ argument was that even people that campaign against the caste system, after all their activism, marry within their castes. And I and my siblings’ arguments were varied.
Ours is a religious family, so all our arguments fell well into a religious reality.
None of us said: “There is nowhere in our evolutionary history, as a species, that such a discrimination was biologically imperative.”
No one said: “Um, well, Osu are supposed to be descended from slaves to shrines and their deities, and there is no evidence that those supernatural forces exist or existed outside the imagination of people who believed in them.”
Instead we said things like, “So it’s not the same God that created them? So they do not share an equal inheritance in our earthly dominion?”
The argument dragged on. I don’t even remember what eventually happened to the love-crazed girl because the movie stopped to matter.
At a point, my brother said, “But what kind of Christians are you people na, if you hold up such pagan institutions?”
To which my mother replied that even God did something very similar in the case of Isaac and Ishmael. Do we think He was stupid when he did that, she said. Some things in this life cannot just be understood.
My sister asked, “So if I find someone I love, you people will tell me not to marry him?”
“You will not fall in love with an Osu, my dear,” my mother declared.
“But what if she does? Are you going to tell love when and with whom to happen?” I asked.
“God will give you what your mind wants.”
“My mind wants to fall in love with someone without caring about some evil cultural practice,” my sister rejoined.
“It’s not perfect. But our people knew why they started it.”
And my parents believed this. My father still believes this, that our ancestors weren’t foolish and they must have had a valid reason for whatever whimsically ridiculous thing they did.
And that there is my problem with African spiritualists, fundamentalist traditional worshippers and Christians and Muslims who share the belief that our ancestors were exceptionally wise, even wiser than us. This belief is a flattering one, and if I were to hazard a hypothesis, I would say it developed as a way of keeping people in line with traditional customs, and it persisted as a resistance to imperialist oppression.
But it is wrong, and egregiously so.
Our ancestors ran a cohesive society that worked, but they were in many cases exceptionally foolish and ignorant, like all other civilizations of the time. They, like many other pre-industrial societies, believed in dangerously inaccurate things, and passed down myths that were cruel and inhumane. They weren’t bastions of knowledge. They were just people, without a lot of the knowledge we have today.
Depending on which part of Nigeria you come from, your ancestors gave children as sacrifice to pacify gods. They buried innocent virgin girls with kings and other important men. They killed twin babies or left them out in the forest for wild animals. They subjected women to inhumane rituals as punishment for widowhood. They buried men alive to cleanse the earth.
Granted these institutions weren’t put up out of malice or wickedness, but out of sheer ignorance. So why are we still clinging to some of their harmful ways as if they knew even half of what we now know today?
I’m a feminist because I believe men and women are equal, in essence.
—That’s not how our forefathers did things.
I’m in love with someone and I will marry him whether or not his genealogy can be traced to a girl that was forced to become the slave of an oracle.
—That’s not how our forefathers did things.
I’m not going to spend excessively on a burial because this person is already dead and I need money for my family members that are living.
—But he was titled. That’s not how our forefathers did things.
In those days, a boy of nineteen did not know half of what I know now. He might be able to differentiate between poisonous and edible mushrooms (which I can’t), and he would be more dexterous with his hands seeing as he farmed and made tools and tapped wine and hunted. But I know more about the biology of those mushrooms and have the information to grow the edible ones in tonnes. I can farm way more productively with heavy duty tools, and have much better knowledge of the biology of the animals he hunted including their evolutionary history and the reasons for their behaviors. (And in case I didn’t or forgot any of this information, it is still at my disposal with a single tap of my phone).
So why do we still keep lying to ourselves with all these useless and harmful practices? Why do people still delude themselves into believing in ridiculous things such as the Osu caste system?
You would think that at least the educated will be spared this inanity. But no. In fact, they are the ones writing silly posts about how modernism and westernization has corrupted our “perfect” African way of living. Note that those two words – modernism and westernization – are used in a derogatory sense.
If westernization means that all humans are given equal opportunities, then why is it a bad thing? Not that I agree that those ideals are exclusively western anyway.
If people can just be people without invisible discriminatory factions, and this is what modernism is, then why is that such a bad thing?
Why is it an insult to accuse someone of having abandoned the way of his ancestors that believed that epidemics could be solved by slaughtering a dozen virgin girls, or that a human being needed to be buried alive with a dead king?
Why is our educational system failing us? People go to the university and meet new information and turn into skeptics that question things, and think with rational rigor – but here, we go in and come out unchanged. And then continue the vicious cycle of oppressing ourselves with the myths of people that had long since died.
We—the Nigerian youth—aren’t making any progress. We are making all the mistakes previous generations before us made. The intellectuals with advanced degrees aren’t any more sensible than the uneducated. Nigeria can be better but first it has to change. We have to think more, as opposed to accepting anything handed down to us. And we have to use the knowledge at our disposal to refine our thinking.
We cannot keep holding on to some of the rubbish our predecessors believed and practiced. They lived their lives within the confines of the information available to them, and they are gone. It’s time we start living ours.
Written by Kayode