Culture and the Nation

Publié le par hort

Culture and the Nation

9 September 2007
By Obi Nwakanma

FIRST, let me begin from the premise that has animated many theorists of nation and national culture: the idea that the "nation" is imagined into being, by an archive of memory that makes it redolent and even transcendent.

This idea of the imaginary as the consecrating force in the meaning and evolution of nation is not new. What is potentially new is the sense that nations exist within the relationship of both the aesthetic and the instrumental principles of production outside of which there may never be what the Indian cultural theorist, Homi Bhabha has called "the time of the nation."

National culture is defined by a number of things, within this proposition, namely, its capacity to reflect the sense of a "national belonging," as well as its potential to create the transcendent mythos of the nation and the meaning to which that nation aspires. Nigeria's formidable scholar and literary theorist MJC Echeruo in his famous book, Victorian Lagos, touches upon all these, and all the factors later elaborated upon by other theorists like Benedict Anderson in his own book, Imagined community.

Echeruo's book provides us with an invaluable insight into the formation of the urban culture of Lagos, from the 19th century, and the reflective agency of the newspapers that brought this culture to being. The first point to note in all these is that the people and their culture are the same. Culture, Amilcar Cabral writes, is "simultaneously the fruit of a people's history and a determinant of history, by the positive or negative influence which it exerts on the evolution of relationships between man and his environment."

In other words culture is the organic character of a people's footprint through time. The centrality of culture in the formation of nation is as imperative and categorical as the fact, again of Cabral's view that, "it is easy for the foreigner to impose his domination on a people. But...whatever may be the material aspect of this domination, it can be maintained only by the permanent, organized repression of the cultural life of the people concerned... In fact, to take up arms to dominate a people is, above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least to neutralize, to paralyze, it cultural life."

I have quoted Amilcar Cabral in full to establish an important claim here, that at the roots of the crisis in the Nigerian soul is the destruction and domination of its indigenous culture by external forces and the residues of its experience of colonialism. The twin cultures of the global East and the global West have ensured that Nigeria is culturally driven and dominated by two contending forces of contemporary history: Ch ristianity and Islam and their global or imperial ambitions. The base of every culture is its expression through ritual, or what we generally call religion.

Every religion, including Christianity and Islam, is simply put, ancestral worship. It is the affirmation of the memory of a race, and its moral view of the world. Today, much of the indigenous religions and the indigenous cultures that make up Nigeria are under siege, and about to be wiped out completely. Islam did this very early in its conquest of indigenous Habbe or Hausa culture which is extinct.

Islam has wiped out the culture - its religion, its moral code, and its art and knowledge producing system - out of the face of the earth. Habbe culture is now only in fragments, and in a hybrid language. In real fact, there is no real Hausa man or woman on earth today: they are either Moslem or in some cases Christian, certainly not Habbe.

The impact is the kind of ambiguity that created a vast army of peasants and a small aristocracy of priests and rulers. Perhaps a revival of Habbe culture may free this population locked down by a history of domination and teach them that the ancient ways of their ancestors were not quite savage, but that it had poetry; it had reason; it had its own notions of humanity. The same cultural genocide is about to be enacted among the indigenous cultures in the South, particularly the threat of the complete erasure of indigenous Igbo religion and culture (Odinala/Odinani) and the Yoruba (Orisha).

In the case of the Yoruba, however, there is admirable resistance to the ravages of this intrusion, for the Yoruba it seems, learnt early to subdue every other impulse to a higher Yoruba impulse. So that it does not matter what a Yoruba person claims - Christian or Moslem - their primary identity is Yoruba. The Orisha and Ifa corpus is at the primary base of their religious and cultural expression. In other words, for most Yoruba, Christianity and Islam, are secondary identities; lower in the order to the sacred teachings of Ifa. That is why you may have a Yoruba Pentecostal priest by day, and an oblate of the Ogboni by night, and there is no contradiction.

The Yoruba have gained from the work of their intellectuals like Wande Abimbola, who has codified the Ifa corpus, and many others who have done the enormous work of cultural renewal. That is why Yoruba culture - its religion and its language - is likely to survive. Its religion - the Orisha - is one of he fastest growing in the world, especially among the Black Diaspora in the Americas. Today, for instance, you have a slow but steady increase of African-Americans re-identifying themselves as Yoruba, and have established a town known as Oyotunji in South Carolina. There is the annual Yoruba festival, "Odun-nde" in Philadelphia.

These are admirable developments. Yet we also have incidents of threats, like the example of religious zealots in Offa, who dismantled the shrine and statue of Moremi in the town, for which the playwright and Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka called for a protection against the savage acts against cultural symbols. The Igbo are not faring too well. Indeed the Igbo seem to be suffering from cultural psychosis. Two important developments reflect the crisis in the Igbo soul: one is the emergence in the Igbo culture area of the monarchy, in a society that was culturally opposed to the rule of the individual.

Igbo established democracy and the rule of law long before the Greeks. Indeed some serious scholars of the Igbo world are beginning to believe that the Greeks, in their well reported travels among "the land of the gods" might have come to Igbo land to borrow the light of their own enlightenment.  

The Igbo religion, Odinala, after all says that its Igbo practitioners were direct descendants of the sun god, Chukwu; that their life on earth is a journey ("ije uwa") towards the fulfillment of their deity. The traditional Igbo believed they were god-men and lived according to the sacred laws of the divine. It was the only culture and religion in which the individual dedicated a shrine to himself/herself ("ihu chi") as soon as they established their homestead. The traditional Igbo say, "Mu na chi so" ( I and God are one).  

It was therefore not out place for the Greeks who encountered them and their religion of peace and their codes of individual liberty and the rights of the free to call them "gods." Today, the descendants of these god-men have been bent, in ignorance, to an alien god and a pagan religion, retailed by Pentecostal adventurers.

There are reported incidents of these ChristiaNazis, setting upon ancient sacred groves and burning down ancestral shrines, destroying the culture: its language, its rituals, its festivals, its material expression, just to wipe out the Igbo memory of itself.

I daresay that any culture that wipes out its memory of the self, lives to be a slave culture and condemns its future to the mastery of others. It is thus important, that the ministry of culture, begin to take a closer look at resuscitating these endangered cultures, and creating laws to protect their sites of heritage as national resource.

Tourists who may come to Nigeria would not come to see skyscrapers, they would come as pilgrims to verify the sophistication of alternative lives and spiritual traditions from which to learn something of value, and even escape the fierce decay and spiritual paralysis of post-industrial society.

Publié dans culture

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