By Yinka Odumakin
I WAS ruminating on the death of democracy which the recently concluded elections in Nigeria represents when the sad news came to me on Sunday from Bola Akanbi that my friend and brother, Prof Pius Adesanmi, was among the dead passengers on the Ethiopian Airlines aircraft that crashed six minutes after take off.
Just like the Nigerian malady, the death of Pius is a monumental tragedy that I cannot find words to capture yet. I met Pius in the U.S in his late thirties and marveled at the fecundity of his intellect that I had to invite him to Nigeria to deliver the Save Nigeria Group inaugural lecture after discussion with Pastor Tunde Bakare. He held his audience spell bound. It was not long after that he became a regular in many discussion events in Nigeria.
In celebration of the life of this great intellect who has now joined the ancestors, I present the text of his maiden lecture in Nigeria. May his soul rest in peace.
What Nigeria Owes The Tortoise —Pius Adesanmi
Protocols!-My hosts, Pastor Tunde Bakare, esteemed convener of the SNG, and Mr. Yinka Odumakin, irrepressible spokesman of the group, must be used to thankless jobs by now. After all, they were both at the forefront of a recent epic struggle to restore constitutional order in this country by liberating a self-declared formerly shoeless compatriot from the chains of uxorial fealty to the wife of his boss. The woman in question had held us all to ransom, running a ghost presidency, cabalized (apologies to my bosom friend, Patrick Obahiagbon) all the way from Saudi Arabia. As you all know, the Save Nigeria Group was at the forefront of that patriotic struggle. No sooner had the Beneficiary-in-Chief of the said struggle been liberated and helped to his rightful constitutional station in Aso Rock than he assumed the role of the nine ungrateful lepers who forgot to return and give thanks to their benefactor in the Bible.
But Nigeria’s own incarnation of the nine ungrateful lepers does more than just walk away from the scene of his blessing. He soon surrounds himself with the usual suspects, always the worst and perpetually recycled characters in our polity, who hastened to convince him to spit on the same people on whose backs he rode to constitutional validity. Down the road, when the same people rose up in response to another historical imperative of struggle, he had been sufficiently tutored in the art of placing a knife on the rope of the people’s legitimate struggle. Thus, in one fell swoop, Pastor Tunde Bakare, Yinka Odumakin, Femi Kuti, Seun Kuti, Joe Okei-Odumakin, and all the patriots who tirelessly conscientized our people in Lagos and the rest of the country to the task at hand were contemptuously dismissed as mobilisers of a motley crowd of sufferheads bribed with food, bottled water, and comedy.
You must understand, therefore, why I started by saying that my hosts here today, Pastor Tunde Bakare and Mr. Yinka Odumakin, must be used to thankless jobs. Indeed, so used are these gentlemen to the thankless job of patriotic nation building, so inured are they to the insults and sorrows of the terrain, that they may not even find anything amiss if I went straight to the heart of this lecture without first thanking them for the extraordinary honour and privilege they have accorded me by taking the baton of the distinguished SNG lecture series from Professor Niyi Osundare, Africa’s most decorated poet, one of my immediate mentors in the business of thinking and writing Africa, and handing it over to me. By inviting me to deliver this lecture after my mentor’s passage on this same podium a few months ago, SNG has saddled me with a near-impossible act to follow. What makes my task bearable is the redemptive rite of passage known in my culture as iba!
To Niyi Osundare who was here before me – iba!
To Pastor Tunde Bakare and Mr. Yinka Odumakin who invited me today – iba!
To Mrs. Priscilla Kuye, Chairperson of this gathering – iba!
To you whose ears are here in this hall to drink my words – iba!
I pray you,
Make my young mouth harbor the elder’s tongue
On which the kolanut blossoms to maturity
Grant me, I pray, the wisdom to render unto the Tortoise
That which belongs to Ijapa
Now that I have poured cold water in front of me, may my feet be rewarded with the kiss of cool and soothing earth as I set forth in this lecture! Pastor Bakare, Mrs Kuye, audience, have I earned the right to proceed with this lecture? Thank you. Nigeria’s betrayal of a certain Caesarian covenant with the Tortoise is at the root of every problem that has made responsible nationhood and statehood a mirage since October 1, 1960. If you are in this hall and you are above the age of 40, then you belong in a generation of Nigerians raised on a diet of folktales and other forms of traditional pedagogy. If you are not an “ara oke” like me and you grew up in the city, you may not have memories of returning from the farm with your grandmother and waiting patiently for storytelling sessions after dinner. However, you probably still got your own dosage of folktales from NTA’s Tales by Moonlight.
Growing up in Isanlu, my hometown in Yagba East LGA, Kogi State, I got my own stories principally from my mom and my grand aunty. We call my grand aunty, Mama Isanlu. She is still alive and kicking well into her nineties. Tales by Moonlight on television was just jara, an additional icing on the cake whenever we were able to successfully rotate the antenna of my father’s black and white TV, suspended on a long steel rod outside, in the right direction for reception of transmission signals from Lagos. Mama Isanlu’s stories were the real deal. I particularly loved her animal tales. Animal tales are a sub-genre of folktales. There is usually a bad guy, a trickster figure, whose adventures and escapades kept us awake long beyond the telling of the stories. In the Yoruba tradition, that trickster figure is Ijapa, the tortoise, often trying to outsmart everybody, including his own wife, Yannibo. This is where the problem begins. You see, the Yoruba corpus of folktales in which Ijapa operates as a trickster figure presents a worldview – what German philosophers like Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel call Weltanschauung – rooted in the twin ideas of the collective good and the commonweal. If we consider that the most basic philosophical definition of the commonweal is the idea of the welfare of the public, then we will understand why “imo ti ara eni nikan”, which we shall translate clumsily as selfishness because the English language is inadequate, is one of the most serious sins and character flaws imaginable in the worldview to which Ijapa belongs. The rounded personhood concept of omoluabi, which I explored fully in a public lecture in Detroit last year, is one of the cultural matrices of that worldview and nobody who undermines the collective good can be deemed a proper omoluabi. Indeed, if the tragedians of ancient Greece were working with the folktale character known as Ijapa, selfishness, the sort which constantly seeks to undermine the collective good, would be his hubris, his fatal flaw.
So engrained is this foible, selfishness, in the persona of Ijapa that even his own wife is never spared. Thus, after years of childlessness, Yannibo impresses it upon her husband to seek help from a babalawo. The babalawo prepares a delicious “aseje” – porridge – which Ijapa is instructed to take back home to his wife. The instructions were strict and severe. Only your wife may eat this “aseje”. But Ijapa won’t be Tortoise if he didn’t err on the side of selfishness. Oh, the porridge was delicious! Oh, the aroma wafted into his nostrils! Oh, how he salivated until the urge became too irresistible. He settled down under a tree and ravenously consumed that which was meant to help his wife get pregnant. And his belly began to swell. And swell. And swell. Shamefacedly, Ijapa returns to the babalawo, singing a song I am sure most of you know very well. Those of you who do not know the song surely have heard the kegite version of it made very popular by Tony One Week in his gyration album. Pardon my poor singing talent. I don’t have the gifts of Tonto Dikeh in the singing department but here we go:
Babalawo mo wa bebe
Ogun to se fun mi lere kan
Oni nma ma fowo kenu
Oni nma ma fese kenu
Mo fowo kan obe mo fi kenu
Mo boju wo kun, o ri gbendu
Babalawo Mo wa bebe, Alugbinrin…
As it goes for Mrs. Tortoise, so does it go for the rest of the community. They are also victims of Ijapa’s selfish wiles. In a society organised for the collective good, nothing tests the solidity of the social welfare system than famine. Therefore, during a great famine that threatened to wipe out all the animals in Ijapa’s village, the villagers discovered a coconut tree that was still yielding bountifully. In order that this life-sustaining bounty might go round, it was decreed that each villager was entitled to one coconut per day.
At your allotted time, you went to the coconut tree and intoned a song which caused a single coconut to fall from the tree and drop directly on your back. Having the coconut drop on your back, I suppose, was deterrence against the temptation of greed. Mr Tortoise gets to the tree at his appointed time on the first day and sings the magic song for his share of one coconut for the day. Your chorus, this time is “oturugbe”:
Ori mo so
Ori mo so
Okan ba ja lu mi inu mi a dun, ori mo so
One coconut drops on his back. Another day, another time. But, wait a minute, says Mr Tortoise to himself, what happens if I ask for two coconuts instead of one? I’m all alone by myself. Who is here to announce to the other villagers that I took more than my fair share of this communal property? If the other villagers are all mumu and they come here each day for one paltry coconut, what’s my own wahala? Ijapa, why you dey dull yourself like this? Shine your eyes now. Let me try my luck and see if this tree will give me two coconuts jare. So, our friend listens to the voices in his own head and sings:
Ori mo so
Ori mo so
Eji ba ja lu mi inu mi a dun, ori mo so
To his amazement, two coconuts drop on his back! He went home dancing and singing maga don pay! Another time, he asked for tree coconuts to drop on his back. Then four. Then five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Finally, he’d had enough of the daily trips to the tree. The voices invade his head again. What if I asked everything to kuku drop on me? I could take the entire load of coconuts home and hoard it, abi? When the storm clams down, I could even begin to sell some to trusted villagers at an exorbitant price and make a killing. So, to the tree he went and sang:
Ori mo so –
Ori mo so –
Gbogbo re ba ja lu mi inu mi a dun, ori mo so
I’m sure you all know the end of this story. A mountain of coconuts came crashing down on Ijapa, crushing his shell and causing him grievous bodily harm. Alas, as soon as Ijapa recovers from this near death experience with coconuts – perhaps the other animals took pity on him and rushed him to a German hospital for treatment! – he was onto his next prank, this time to cheat all the birds of the air who had been invited for a feast in heaven. Ijapa convinced each bird to donate a feather to him in order to be able to fly along with them to the party in heaven.