By Tonye Princewill
IF I had the “leaders” in one room, I would also try to make them understand and appreciate the importance of symbols—subtle but powerful communication media, to which we pay little attention in this country.
Symbols represent beliefs. They are, therefore, clues to what goes on in the psyche. They are abstract indicators that cue us into what course of action we ought to take in a given situation.
It is ironic, and somewhat amusing, that many Nigerians—including me—wince when biologists and anthropologists remind us that we are “primates”.
We don’t like to be told, for instance, that we are, genetically, 98 per cent chimpanzee!
I’ve never read W.S. Gilbert. But I recently saw these two lines from one of his poems, quoted in a book on primates: “Man, however well-behaved/At best is only a monkey shaved”!
The author is, of course, taking more than a little poetic license. But beneath this hyperbole is a very important point. It is that we are, indisputably, primates. And we are governed by the same natural laws as them.
You may have figured out, by this time, where I’m headed. But before I proceed, permit me to digress and clear up a widespread misconception.
“Primate” is a taxonomic category, which the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus created in 1753, as a way of distinguishing higher mammals from lower ones, like dogs, cows, cats, etc. It simply means “first among mammals”.
The term “primate”thus places us above other animals in the kingdom, rather than putting us down, as most people mistakenly believe.
Anyway, symbolism has long been observed among primates. In fact, many archaeologists and anthropologists believe that symbolic communication, the use of signs and gestures, is the creation of our primate ancestors—not us.
Respect and reverence for symbols is a crucially important survival mechanism. Symbols extend communication beyond the spoken word—passing on important ideas from one generation to the next, without resorting to speech.
Nationalism and symbolism are interrelated. Symbols such as flags, coats-of-arms, uniforms, insignia, national attire and music are the fuel that feed the ever-simmering emotional fires that burn in the heart of every nationalist.
But this is not automatic. The power of symbols, their ability to fuel nationalist fervor, is learned. The meaning of national symbols ought to be taught, along with the language and the history of the state system.
More importantly, national symbols should reflect the history, culture, ideals, ambitions and psychic orientation of the people—their outlook on war, peace, sexuality, love, hate, etc. I don’t need to tell you, that this is hardly the case in Nigeria.
Indeed, this is a country in which “History” is not taught in most schools! Consequently, we don’t know who we are or where we came from or how we got to where we are—not to mention where we are going as a nation.
This certainly needs to be corrected. History should be taught in every educational institution, public or private, and at every level, right up to university.
In certain situations, for example, the mere sight of the U.S. flag (“Old Glory”) or the sound of the Star Spangled Banner (the national anthem) can send an American’s emotion soaring and even elicit tears. Notice they have names to symbolise unique identifiers?
That’s because national symbols, the flag in particular, express, in concise terms, the history, values and collective goals of U.S. citizens. The bald eagle on U.S. currency and in the Presidential Seal, for example, is not there just for embellishment.
The bald eagle is from the North American environment, a fixture from the past but it tells a story; and it makes a statement about the future. The aggressive and predatory habits of this bird expresses American ideas about trade, diplomacy and national defense.
Nigerians care next to nothing about symbols, whether our own or somebody else’s. We are simply too literal in our outlook—too practical and pragmatic for our own good. The meaning that is implied in art or symbolically expressed escapes us.
Consequently, we don’t really know who is a threat to us and who is not, who is friendly or who is hostile and have aggressive intent. We remain in a state of “ever sceptical”. Yet such moods, emotional postures and political outlooks, are usually indicated by the symbols a nation, individual or interest-group adopts.
The Nigerian coat of arms says a lot about our level of symbolic awareness. It contains two white horses! Not only is the colour “white” anomalous in a nation that is entirely black, but the horse is alien to our environment–having evolved in North America.
It apparently matters little to our policy makers, that everybody rides horses! Maybe that’s why the whole worlds sometimes seem to be on our back, including our leaders who to all intents and purposes have ridden off into the sunset on many an occasion with all our loot!
Another anomaly is our national flag. It contains no indication, whatsoever, that Nigeria is a Black country. We are not represented symbolically on our own flag!
“Black” should be on the Nigerian flag, not only to represent the racial group that owns the land but also to connect us symbolically with our Brothers and Sisters elsewhere on the planet.
This includes the ancient African explorers who migrated to Europe, Asia and other places as early as 120,000 years ago. The Nigerian flag could have been forgiven for containing one or more “stars” , to indicate that we have a cosmic vision and a sense of presence in the universe. If we felt it right to change our anthem, one would have thought it right to extend the symbolism that little bit further to a symbol above all symbols – our National Flag.