My Children Won’t Suffer What I Suffered
By Tunde Odesola
The tale of the scorpion is in its tail. Here’s the tale of Erelu Bede, a woman who lived in the time of Orunmila, the Yoruba deity of wisdom and divination. The Araba of Osogbo, Chief Ifayemi Elebuibon, told me this tale in detail. The tale grew popular and became a collection in the series of Ifa teachings called Ogundabede.
In this article, I intend to use the tale of Ogundabede aka ‘Ikunmú àgbà’ as a metaphor that weaves the power of language and culture into a tapestry, like a hairdresser using the ilari cutting comb to part the customer’s hair into three per time before weaving each three it into strands of knee-length box braids. ‘Ikunmú àgbà’ is the mucus in the nose of the elderly, difficult for the young to point out.
Hear foolish parents raising children in their fools’ paradise, “I don’t want my children to suffer the suffering I suffered!” Ask them what ‘suffering did they suffer’, and they tell you how they trekked to fetch water from the village river every morning before trekking to school kilometres away.
These parents fail to realise the difference between labour and indulgence. A Yoruba proverb believes labour doesn’t kill, overindulgence does. The freedom and choice of adventure is the reason why ‘local’ chicken is sweeter than ‘agric’ chicken. One is given the free range to roam while the other is locked up in the cage for safety. Overprotection inhibits flourish. And nothing ventured, nothing gained. The most expensive cutlery in the world cannot give the taste and tactile feeling the palm gives when it helps pounded yam explore edikang ikong soup for ponmo, crayfish, bokoto and snails.
It’s absurd how some industrious parents overindulge their children in the good life, losing the essence of hard work, diligence, perseverance and consistency in the process.
Erelu Ogundabede lived in an era when baby mama-ing wasn’t a badge of honour among female survivors of dysfunctional relationships. An impending doom loomed large for Erelu. She must perform a series of sacrifices to avert the danger of having three kids for three different husbands, warned the gods. The ingredients of the etutu (sacrifice) were three goats, three pots of cowries and three sashes (òjá). She must perform the sacrifice three separate times.
The prophecy that made the heart of Erelu skip hippity-hop would have been a cause of celebration among the younger generation of today, male and female. But Erelu Bede lived in a time when morality defined marriage. Erelu became sad because she had no money to procure the ingredients of the sacrifice. She devised a plan. Only kings have such money to throw around.
So, she went to King Alara and told him her story. Alara married Erelu and performed the first round of sacrifice for her. And she begot a son. Erelu urged King Alara to perform the other two rounds of sacrifices but the king told her to tarry awhile. Erelu was unhappy that Alara couldn’t solve her problem, so she left the king after naming her son, Igara, meaning that the king maltreated her.
She went to another king, this time, the Ajero, and told him her story, and King Ajero married her, performing one of the rounds of sacrifice for her. She urged the king to complete other rounds of sacrifices but the king told her to tarry because there was a paucity of funds. Erelu begat a son, whom she named Òfòrélé, the son of Ajero. Òfò is calamity in Yoruba.
Worried about the last sacrifice, Erelu went to King Orangun, told her tale, and the king, Owarangun Aga, married her. She bore another son to Owarangun, whom she named Amuni nje amuni.
Thus Igara became the first bandit in the human race. He teamed up with his two other half-brothers to form a formidable gang of robbers, attacking people on market days. One day, they waylaid Aje, the wife of Orunmila, and snatched all her money. Aje reported her calamity to Orunmila, who gave her a bag to sling across her shoulder on the next market day. The three-brother gang struck again, snatching Aje’s bag.
They went to their rendezvous under the Iroko, where they shared their booties. The bag was heavy, must contain more cowries, they thought. Igara unfastened the bag and dipped his hand into it. Haaaaaa! He threw the bag to the ground and ran off in pain. Òfò and Amuni felt Igara had run off with some money. Both struggled for the bag. Òfò snatched it from Amuni. He dipped his hand into it. Sss-hh-aaa! Òfò flung the bag away and ran off, too. Amuni was glad he had the whole bag to himself. He slung it across his neck and dipped his hand into it. “Yeeepaaaa!” he wailed and struggled to throw the bag off, running a short distance before slumping to a painful death, like others.
A cobra snaked out of the bag into the forest. Erelu couldn’t have all her children for one man because she failed to perform the three sacrifices in one fell swoop.
If we blame Erelu for impatience, we should blame the kings for jibiti because she came clean with her problem; the kings shouldn’t have married her when they knew they didn’t have the money for all the sacrifices. This is my personal view, may the gods not twist my mouth for blasphemy.
The lessons inherent in this tale are many. One of them is the preeminent place of mother tongue in teaching. Another is the beauty of culture as the custodian of customs, traditions, habits and practices. No African, nay Yoruba son or daughter with understanding, wouldn’t relate to this tale more than they relate to Shakespearean language, more so if it was told in Yoruba.
It is ridiculous that Nigerian leaderships since independence have failed to evolve comprehensive curricula that would promote learning and teaching in Nigerian languages. This would aid assimilation and develop native languages.
I often wonder what is the essence of speaking in foreign languages in our mosques and churches, only for interpreters to translate what’s said in foreign tongues into English or local languages. Why don’t you preach in Nigerian languages and skip the hurdle of translation and time-wasting? In the kingdom of God, there’s no language imperialism as God understands all tongues.
I wonder when Nigeria would break the shackles of self-imposed mental slavery and stop barring workers from wearing bùbá and sòkòtò to the office all through the week, except Fridays and weekends. Bùbá and sòkòtò are smarter than suit and tie. If you’re in a suit and tie, please, don’t argue with a bus conductor.
Anytime I wear Nigerian clothes in the US, heads turn in admiration, mouths open in compliments. Americans, whites and blacks, love diversity and many are quick to ask where they could get African clothes.
Wave-making Nigerian music stars including rave-of-the-moment, Asake; Flavour, Phyno, Tiwa, Yemi Alade, Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, Olamide, Portable employ Nigerian languages and cultures to deliver their messages. Many of these stars enjoy regular airtime on American airwaves. It’s ironic that many parents home and abroad don’t encourage their children to speak Nigerian languages but they enjoy songs in Nigerian languages. Understanding one’s language and culture has a cutting edge.
I wish Nigeria a quick restoration to its old glory. I wish the ‘Japa’ syndrome would cease so that the country could stop losing its future leaders to foreign countries. Many Nigerian kids abroad have lost their mother tongue. They speak English better than native speakers. Whose gain? Whose loss? When Nigerian kids abroad grow up, they don’t fit into the cutthroat existence of Nigeria anymore. Whose gain? Whose loss? Is ‘Japa’ truly another slavery?
Whatever you do, wherever you are, encourage your children and wards to embrace their language and culture. There’s something about Nigeria that the world would soon wake up to – if our leaders fetch their thinking caps quickly enough.
Written by Tunde Odesola and first published in The PUNCH, on Friday, October 20, 2023.
Facebook: @Tunde Odesola