Myths are narratives that has been kept alive through storytelling for generations. They are tied to religious and cultural values, and we often believe them without much questioning. Some of these myths capture and communicate important wisdom about living, and something of the magic of human life. Others have had, and continue to have, a negative impact.
Humanity is evolving, and our generation has enormous amount of information at its fingertips today than anytime other time in history. To keep pace with the realities of our time, we must revisit our old myths: we must recognise the negative impact they can have on people’s lives, and debunk them while still preserving something of their joy and magic. Doing so, will help to shape our world in the way that is beneficial to our own and the next generation.
When we are consumed with our beliefs, we sometimes forget that the world is larger than our immediate experience. Because of this limited experience of the world around us, we all too often rely on the belief of untested myths as our guide.
The case of Abiku (Born-to-die)
In Yorubaland, we once believed – and many still do believe today – in the existence of abiku. Parents and community elders usually affirm the myth of abiku by repeating stories of children born with scars or other identifying marks. In fact, quite a few respected Nigerian scholars and writers have focused extensively on abiku. A couple of examples here are Ben Okri in The Famished Road whereby Azaro struggles in-between worlds. The child who has been born to the same family a few times and now decided against his egbe orun instructions to stay in the physical world. The story is very captivating and one could relate Ben Okri’s work to the geographical dislocation of living in London – the new world and leaving the egbe orun inNigeria – the country that holds much of his cultural values and beliefs but he had to leave behind. Prof Wole Soyinka in his much-deliberated poem ‘Abiku’ describes abiku in a slightly different way – as a powerful individual who is determined to go against all odds to voice out his opinions, not too consumed of the consequences that might follow, favourable or otherwise.
Abiku (Wole Soyinka 1967)
In vain your bangles cast
Charmed circles at my feet:
I am Abiku, calling for the first
And the repeated time;
Must I weep for goats and cowries
For palm oil and the sprinkled ash?
Yams do not sprout in amulets
To earth Abiku’s limbs.
So when the snail is burnt in his shell
Whet the heated fragment, brand me
Deeply on the breast. You must know him
When Abiku calls again.
I am the squirrel teeth, cracked
The riddle of the palm Remember
This, and dig me deeper still into
The god’s swollen foot.
Once and the repeated time, ageless
Though I puke. And when you pour
Libations, each finger points me near
The way I came, where
The ground is wet with mourning
White dew suckles flesh-birds
Evening befriends the spider, trapping
Flies in wind-froth;
Night, and Abiku sucks the oil
From lamps. Mothers! I’ll be the
Suppliant snake coiled on the doorstep
Yours the killing cry.
The ripest fruit was saddest;
Where I crept, the warmth was cloying.
In the silence of webs, Abiku moans, shaping
Mounds from the yolk.
The above poem explores the politics of errancy as an individual rather than part of a group, the struggle between family loyalty and self-creation. Wole Soyinka’s frustrations with Nigeria inhospitable state at the time the poem was written and his adopted home of London that provided him with enriched environment and yet was a place where he did not fully fit in. Soyinka portrays abiku as someone who is in total control of self, despite of all the external forces around.
Soyinka’s use of Abikuhere is slightly different from the way abiku is usually portrayed in Yorubaland. Abiku is seen as powerful but not in a glamourous sense, they are seen as spirit beings that have no power of their own as one person, their individual power is only stronger with combined egbe forces. After several decades of his poem ‘Abiku’, today, Soyinka through speeches and writings still maintains his stance that he could not be silenced, he is still Abiku who refuses to be ‘charmed’ or contained to the norm of the society. His voice still echoes the socio-political mess that he refuses to ignore. He is still using his voice to encourage many more Nigerians to stand up so we could put our efforts together to fight the plights for the benefits of us all.
Over the last few decades, both oral and written narratives of abiku have changed and individual storytellers have adapted abiku to suit their specific goals.
Today abiku is still very much believed in the literal sense among many Yorubas. However, what has changed is the fact that rates of infant mortality have greatly reduced. Could this be a coincidence or closely related to the improved research and medical care?
The concept of abiku no longer holds the same meaning due to societal awareness. In writings we still use it as a metaphor for culture-captive and socio-political tension around but not really attached to the infant mortality.
The tale of Baba Olodo (Father of the river)
Another example is the belief that there are spirits in our rivers and seas and lots of con artists in the past would deceive villagers to part with their hard-earned money and valuables so as to make sacrifices to the gods of the water in order to prevent flooding. This myth has had huge impact in Yorubaland as most people still run away from deep open water for the fear of being swept away. I used to believe this myself. It was only in my late twenties and early thirties that I realize Baba Olodo (and Mami Wata, and similar myths about people living in the water) must be false. I went snorkeling in the Red Sea in my late twenties – my first time looking below the surface of a real sea. I fully expected to see water-people swimming around below the surface – but no matter how hard I looked, I found no monsters.
River Isasa is said to be part of Osun River. Among a few other towns and villages, Isasa flows through Eiyentanle in Ife North local government area of Osun State. In this village, there were (and still are) different stories told about Baba Olodo residing in the river. The stories usually say that a tall and masculine man walked into the village of Eiyentale to warn villagers about possible flooding during the rainy season. Sacrifices will need to be made to appeal to the gods. These sacrifices were usually in form of animals such as goats or dogs along with the best farm produce and sometimes money. These practices were very common in the past and the villagers would be compelled to provide all that Baba Olodo had asked for. Baba Olodo usually appeared in the evening and when he departed, he would walk into the river and disappeared. This story like many myths that we grew up with are disappearing. We still have River Isasa flowing peacefully but where is Baba Olodo?
This sort of story because it is told over and over again, and as a consequence many Yoruba people have developed a phobia over time for the open water for fear of been swept away. In actual fact, we now know that if our rivers are treated nicely as nature intended, free of man-made debris and also clear our rivers of obstructions, we would not need to fear unexpected flooding. (Most of our rivers were – and still are – used as a dumping ground for rubbish!) Flooding is caused by high rainfall and bottlenecks in the river – not by Baba Olodo, and no amount of sacrifice to Baba Olodo can prevent flooding.
Although this traditional myth is still well and alive today, no one has ever produced tangible evidence of Baba Olodo, only stories about someone proclaiming himself as one and supposedly living inside the river.
We are not so much in an isolated world anymore, as we can see today, despite our uniqueness – we still have so much in common with the rest of the world.
Standing by Lock Ness River in the Highlands of Scotland on a clear day in July 2005. I stared at the river. It was peaceful, with waves caused by the cool breeze shimmering on the surface. I have heard quite a lot about the legend of Loch Ness Monster (Nessie). The story of Nessie is pretty much like Baba Olodo of Isasa, the major difference is that since the supposed sightings was brought to the attention of the wide world in 1933, there have been several attempts with sophisticated technological equipment among scientists, individual adventurers and organisations to produce evidence to the actual existence of Nessie. None to date has produced any solid evidence to support a monster in the river. Despite this, the magic of the myth is still very much alive today among those that appreciate the thrill of the supernatural being in the water.
Who knows, maybe we could do our very own expeditions on Isasa River, maybe, just maybe, we may discover our very own Baba Olodo in his kingdom at the bottom of the river. If we did, whatever we discover or failed to discover, would help us appreciate the richness of our forefathers’ imaginations to pass on certain rules to us.
In line with the theme of this colloquium, let me touch on the necessities of cohabitation among all faiths. Nigeria today is haunted by religion, which in itself has never been the problem as we are all seeking to be the best we can be given our different circumstances. We have devised a way to feel comfortable with our chosen faiths. However, given our uniqueness in Nigeria we have a few religions competing to be the best avenue to the most high god. This is not because of individual holiness but it is rather because of the insecurities of the individual who is afraid of the unknown and decides to go against any other religious teachings that is out of his or her defined norm. Religious myths have done much more harm in our society today: learning and drawing examples from outside nations that have succeeded in separating religion from the state would help us enormously.
Nigerians today work and thrive all over the world in their own way: they live among other faiths that in some circumstances are completely different from the ones they are familiar with at home (Nigeria). In most developed nations where individualism is celebrated, religion is usually separated from the state in order to maintain peace. This is because in order to create an environment for citizens to live harmoniously, the state has to be impartial when it comes to the case of religion. And because religion is a very personal issue, the state will find it extremely difficult to incorporate everyone’s opinion in to the state affairs without being seen as partial.
Now with advances in technology and our increased awareness of the rest of the world, we have opportunity to test some of our myths and beliefs – and to redefine them in a beneficial way. Life is abundant in its entirety, humans are still evolving, we are much more capable than we allow ourselves. To realise our full potential, we must change with the times and use the world’s accessible information to our advantage. We can no longer blame the myths that have handicapped us with fears – we can see through the myths to the truth, and break free of the negative fears that have held us back. It is this generation’s responsibility to share experiences within and outside our cultures and religions so as to help keep us afloat in the wild world. Otherwise, we might find ourselves drowning beside Baba Olodo.