THE DIBỊA WHO MADE ME BELIEVE IN HIS GODS. By Asomugha Gbochi John
There is this man in my village. He is dark coloured with scary eyes; short, powerfully built with a taut skin. In his what seems to be late eighties, he still walks with the firm steps of a man with young blood. He is a staunch traditionalist who neither knows what a church looks like nor is abreast with the many burning issues in the semantics of the Christian faith.
Owelle is a renowned dibia who is revered by men in my village who know his whims and caprices. Some religious men and women fear having to do anything with him because of his native practises and heathen lifestyle. They believe he is the harbinger of all the atrocities being committed in the village ̶ the untimely death cases, strange illnesses, pussy meow cries and screeching noises on rooftops at midnights and many other evil omens.
Owelle is married to a woman who died while giving birth to her third child. The rumour around the village spread thus: “he had used his witchcrafts to kill his wife at child birth as a sacrifice to his strange gods.” Even those who do not know the truth of this matter including neighbouring villages spread this news with unwavering certitude.
Towards the left side from the entrance to Owelle’s hut is a thatched shrine. It is a house of straw that looks scary. One who is passing by can even see some traces of it from the outside because the fence of his house is a bit too low. On strategic points of the shrine are straps of red cloth draping in style around its corners and edges. At the leading entrance to the shrine are wooden splinters pegged to the ground; the clay floor marked with white chalk and inside the shrine are various totems sitting on the floor and hanging halloween masks representing the very image of the gods.
When I was growing up, I had a single story of this man called Owelle. The story was of how bad and evil he was. My mother would always warn me saying; “never play with the children of Owelle, and whenever you see Owelle on your way, never cross roads with him, either return home or find another route.” I thought then of how bad this man could be that parents avoided him and persuaded their wards to do the same. When I asked my father about this same notorious man, he was a little bit not too restrictive to warn me about relating with either the man or his children. He rather said to me; “he doesn’t go to church and has remained stiff-necked as regards conversion to the Catholic faith since the missionaries came. He is heathen.”
When Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie began her search for a real African identity, she firstly was careful to correct the stereotype mentality about Africa that has almost filled the mainstream Western thoughts. In one of her TED talks titled: ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, she emphasized how dangerous this stereotypical denigration of Africans by the whites could be. She believed that the men who read about and visited Africa while keeping a fascinating account of their voyage were jaundiced in their view that they ended up writing incomplete and inauthentic stories. Some of these men are John Locke who sees Africans as ‘beasts who have no houses, people without heads, having their mouths and eyes in their breasts.’ Also, Rudyard Kipling who was so much derogatory in his remarks to say that Africans are nothing but a ‘half devil, half child.’ And for Adichie; “the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
However, the result of this Afro-fashion is based in part on the stereotype of the poor starving Africans in need of salvation by the West. This is quite not true because she believes there are other interesting stories that make Africans who they are and where they are going.
As I grew a little bit older in age, I decided to clear myself of some of these prejudices and feelings of contempt about this man ̶ to learn about his other stories. On a particular day, I courageously with an overwhelming fear made inroads into Owelle’s shrine. It was an experience filled with awe and uncertainty; thrilling and at the same time fearsome. My steps were slightly quivering as I entered his house. My heart was heavily beating, bidding me either to continue or turn back.
When I raised my head from looking at my shaky feet, I saw him seated on a traditional ọkwa stool inside his shrine. As I approached the shrine quietly, he was muttering words I never knew their meaning but which seemed like incantations to his gods. Cold shivers ran down my spines when immediately he interrupted my steps by saying: “bịa nwata a, were azụ wee bata n’ime okwu mmụọ!’ (This translates; ‘this boy, make your way into the shrine with backward movements. However, this is the traditional pattern for entering any shrine in my part of Igbo land).
At last I entered, sat on the floor staring into his eyes. He never said a word. He rather brought out cowries and as he called out the Igbo four market days, he dropped them systematically on the floor. As he offered me kola, he called my father’s Igbo name and asked if I was his son. I answered ‘yes’ but wondered how he came to know about my father’s Igbo name; a name he has dropped long ago since he got baptized by the missionaries. He probed further by asking me if either my father sent me to convey a message to him or that I wanted to pay him a courtesy visit.
At that point, his mien was a little too friendly. I gained a kind of confidence and said, ‘Nna anyị, my father did not send me on an errand. I rather wanted to come to you to learn more about you and the traditions of our land, makana onye ajụjụ adịghị efu ụzọ.’ He was delighted by this, and surprised to hear that proverb from me. He then engaged me with the stories of himself and of our land.
Let me not bore you with the details of our long encounter. But, I’d rather confess that from him I learnt what it means to be authentically African. His is really a custodian of my most cherished culture. He is rather far from what people thought him to be. He is just a sweet gentle soul.
I come from a great little town bathed in culture and tradition, protected by a picket fence of taboos and abominations. From this man I have learnt that culture prescribes and proscribes. It says ‘do not do this’ or ‘this is how you do this’. It is one that is quite open to change and revision because of its dynamic nature. This culture of mine hardly makes sense to foreigners because they see nothing in it but mere fetishism and superstitions. This is not our culture. Our culture isn’t fetish. It is rather my and our new identity.
So, when I think about African identity and of being authentically African, the image that comes to my head is the character of Okonkwo in Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart.’ This trailblazing novel came as a reaction to Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ which was essentially about colonialism and the denigration of Africans which advertently portrayed the African character as one that is not fully human. Chinua Achebe, with a more benign poise as a literary maverick countered this notion by revealing the African identity through history.
The ‘Things Fall Apart’ story is neither beyond the well-known tragic tale of Okonkwo nor the murder of that war booty lad, Ikemefuna. Both in style and plot, the novel had become a real African novel narrating the story of the heroic ordeals of a real African man, Okonkwo, a man built to courage, tradition and manliness. In his defence of his culture and traditions in the face of an overpowering white culture, he not only destroyed a Christian church but also killed one of the white men who was an emissary. Unable to live with the success of the white men in both his village and the neighbouring villages which contradicted his traditional ways, he committed suicide. These lines in the novel explain Okonkwo’s bitterness. He lamented: “the white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
Critics have described Okonkwo as a tragic figure. Yes, he may be. But his tragedy must be seen as exemplification of the inflexibility and unflinching character of a real African. In him, we see the desire for self-determination and African sovereignty fully realized. He was so much reluctant to key in to the white man’s rule because he believes his, was more a paradigm to be protected and at the same time revered.
So, Okonkwo is not buried as a hero, but his refusal to accept the colonial order in his era offers this strong resistance that will shadow colonialism throughout its history. His defiance later encouraged Obierika, his friend to ferociously utter his first anti-colonial protests saying: “that man was one of the greatest men in Umuofia. You drove him to kill himself, and now he will be buried like a dog…” This was more like the protest of that Native American Chief Pontiac who while loathing the British influence said also: “they came with their bible, crushed our spirit and took our lands. And now tell us to be thankful to the ‘Lord’ for being saved.”
There is always this lack of the sense of social belongingness, a people feel when they are being ruled by a total stranger. To severe them from their beliefs and what holds them together is only to rob them of their most cherished identity. There is this endearing beauty inherent in every culture. A beauty which every of its bearers is ever proud of. The Igbo culture is not an exception.
Igbo culture is lovely because it values personhood, community and consensus (Igwebụike) and hard work. The language and proverbs are beautiful and full of great wisdom. There is this character of every Igbo man that when I remember, it makes me feel deliciously heady. This is the character of resilience and intelligence. An Igbo man finds his way and survives better than any other in whatever part of weather or country he finds himself. And as some will say: “O nweghị ebe ndị Igbo anọghị.”
The beauty of this culture is what I have learnt more from my friend, Owelle. And who says that our masquerade cult is an evil practice? Masquerading has a long history. In the Igbo cosmology, masquerade which is mmanwụ celebrates the souls of our departed ones and also gives value to death. The Igbo believe that mma-ndụ (beauty of life) is always faced with the reality of death as an inevitable. So, that is why this mma-ọnwụ celebrates the beauty of this unique human feat. We grew up to think that it was the spirits that are inside the masquerades. That is what I was told, but I never properly thought why until now. So, just as today’s Igbo Christians would always say when a loved one dies “Go in peace and we will see again in heaven”, the ancient Igbos will say “we will see you again when you return on the masquerade festival.”
In my part of Igboland, the ‘ọfọ’ always represents a staff of truth and uprightness. It is exclusively reserved for men of honour and dignity who hold it and bring it out rarely only when needed to prove one’s innocence. The ‘ọzọ’ title is also an envious and most desired office an elder will like to occupy. This title is never a product of bribe. It is rather given on merit to men of integrity who will always stand for the truth in times of moral crises. Our idols and carved images represent our spiritual world. They serve as intermediaries to our Chi-ukwu. They give us that confidence that our gods, though transcendent and beyond us, are yet with and among us. After all, which religion does not make use of signs and symbols? The beauty of the entire marriage ceremony also seems largely interesting. The bride price does not say, ‘our daughter is for sale’, but that the value of the prospective wife as when compared with the broken tiny broomsticks is worth more than the negotiations of money.
These and many more are the original conceptions of what constitute my people’s culture. However, if these practices have gone beyond entertainment and celebration as some may have introduced unscrupulous elements and ill practises; count me out! And I advise you to also opt out.
Cultures hardly make sense. Why are Americans always on suit? Why do doctors wear white and lawyers in funny dresses? Why do Muslim women put on hijab, preventing them to show off their femininity with their luxurious hairstyles? The reason is simple. It identifies them and makes them unique and different from all others. It makes them authentic. The people that write our stories hardly know the culture but know too many ‘englishes’ to think it through. And to insist that there is one thing that is authentically African is to diminish the African experience.
A particular child who is taught by his parents to speak only English and abandon his native language is being schooled to see the many negative images of blackness and of Africans. If this child is taught not to have a sense of pride in his own African story, he will grow up only to become a stranger in his own world. On the contrary, this is the world Owelle has introduced me into. A world where I can feel a sense of pride for having come from my own part of Africa, the Igboland. And Okonkwo has confirmed it beyond what is easily conceivable.