Watching Soyinka IV

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Finding a home for Obatala, Mother of the Gods

Now we are at the year 1998. In this year I was volunteered by a group of Returned Volunteers to contact Wole about a return of the Peace Corps to Nigeria. And in a substantial fashion: I was proposing 1000 teachers, immediately, to help revive and rebuild Nigeria’s then moribund educational system. But could the Peace Corps, now a calm and aging boutique agency of little consequence except to its Volunteers, come smartly off the mark in the spirit of it founders?

Googling, I finally found Soyinka at Emory University. In an email I explained the opportunity to encourage, if not force, the Peace Corps back into Nigeria after the dust of President Sanni Abacha’s death settled. Good luck, because, as an American Embassy staffer in Lagos told me, “I agree with you on the good things that the Peace Corps is capable of doing and applaud your bold initiative, but the Peace Corps will insist on a period of tranquility after the return to civilian rule.”

I ask you, where is there tranquility in today’s world? Peace Corps has still not returned to Nigeria. And likely will not.

But Wole, ever-there, had written me, “I applaud the new initiative. You are free to associate me with a statement of support. Again, I can only provide moral support for the overall idea for now. If the right civilian head of government comes in, I should be able to speak directly to such a person and render more concrete help.” Given the dozens and dozens of such requests that he must field every year, Soyinka is a stand-up guy. And he is still waiting for the right civilian head of government.

A year later, of course I wrote for help again. I was then involved with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer project to help aging Returned Volunteers like myself effectively transfer ownership of any valuable African artifacts they still kept, to a museum. Many, like myself, knew their own families wouldn’t much treasure them so we hoped to find a museum home for them. I asked Wole to write a letter of support to the project, which he readily did. As it turned out, no American museum would touch this project because most museums now will only absorb collections that are sponsored or have their archival costs pre-paid, up-front.

When this effort also failed (have any succeeded?), I decided to sell my most important piece, Obatala. This kneeling figure of a woman with mighty breasts was a full 18 inches tall, carved in oroko, a soft white wood used by all carvers in Yorubaland. The offering bowl (the body of a chicken) she was holding in her lap was missing it’s lid, but the feet of the chicken at the base of the bowl had been mostly eaten away by termites, one indicator of age and traditional usage. The carver was most certainly of the famous Fakeye family of carvers, whether by the master carver Lamidi Fakeye, or not, I don’t remember.

Back in 1963, I once went to the Fakeye compound to purchase a small hafted chisel or hand-axe like that used by all major Yoruba carvers. Looking at the carvings in the Fakeye compound, it was clear to me that my piece was a Fakeye—you can tell by the inherited strong jaw line. The Yoruba scamp who sold me the piece also said it was a Fakeye. (The Fakeye clan was just then emerging into the cultural limelight.) But this piece is of great interest because it was done for a traditional client, for traditional religious purposes, before there was much of an art market, per se.

To sell the carving, in January 2001 I first called the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. In the office of the director, Roslyn Walker, a helpful assistant suggested that as Dr. Walker was a Yoruba art specialist, she might be interested in the piece. Enclosing a photograph of the Obatala, I then wrote Dr. Walker, explaining that after almost forty years in my possession, I was interested in selling this image into an appreciative home and could she advise me. I said that the object I owned was an image of the orisha Obatala and that it was a ceremonial image, not a commissioned piece and not carved for the tourist trade. And that it had likely been carved by Lamidi Fakeye.

As background, I explained that just as my Peace Corps tour was ending in 1964, I had carried my Nigerian art collection to Lagos for a formal adjudication at the Federal Museum. This was to determine what I could take home and what should stay in Nigeria. The result of my cooperation was that, predictably, the bulk of my collection was kept for the Museum. But while this image of Obatala was a traditional one—with traces of sacrificial chicken blood upon it from Yoruba ceremonies—I was allowed to export it because of its then-relative youth. The Federal Museum director also confirmed that it was a Fakeye. Ending my letter to Walker I wrote,

“As we both know, today Nigeria is on the ropes. But as late as the 1960s, it was a fabulous place. It’s music, art, scholarship, it’s larger-than-life political leaders, it’s sheer joy in living. . . . I miss it all, still. In any case, I hope you like this lady. If you have any suggestions as to what I should do with her, please contact me as soon as it is convenient.”

She wrote back quickly enough, but explained that while she liked the piece, the Smithsonian didn’t purchase “transitional art,” art that bridges the traditional and the modern. How dumb I thought, their loss. I did send the Smithsonian my Fakeye hafted chisel for use in their educational program.

Then I thought Wole Soyinka might have an idea. He did. What I didn’t know was that while he was in exile his own personal collection of Yoruba art, tragically, had been sold off by a member of his own family. I emailed Wole a copy of my letter to the Smithsonian. On August 22, 2001, I heard back from him:

Hallo Tom,
Couldn’t get back earlier because I was doing some FINANCIAL CONSULTATIONS—I love that phrase, so beloved of my countrymen tycoons. I have raked up some money [he gave a fair figure]. It looks as if this is the best that can be done. Can this make it happen? In the end, the piece will go home with me. I’ll understand of course if you decide to go back on the market, but do let me know as soon as possible.
I like that sad expression of yours to the lady–a nation on the ropes. And your evocation of Nigerian of the sixties—that made me feel at once nostalgic and enraged. People find it difficult to believe that the nation was once a place of creative ferment. Even I sometimes wonder if it was another world, another space on the planet.

Of course, Wole Soyinka received the Yoruba Obatala. At some juncture his ESSAY foundation will receive my remaining Yoruba art—from another world, another planet.


One Nigeria? From a current CIA Country Study:

There are 250 to 400 or more recognized Nigerian ethnic groups, many divided into subgroups of considerable social and political importance. Most important ethno-linguistic categories: Hausa and Fulani in the North, Yoruba in the Southwest, and Igbo in the Southeast, all internally subdivided.

So why not three independent, cooperating nations? Let’s get down!

An admitted Yoruba chauvinist, I have long been tainted with the thought that a Yoruba cultural and political revival is essential to any decent outcome in the Bloody Bight of Benin. This came back to me recently talking with a Yoruba taxi driver in Portland, Oregon. He was going on about how Nigeria just could not work, but that it had to work!

“Nonsense, the trouble in Nigeria belongs to you Yorubas! Until you settle your own fate as Yoruba tribesman—make peace with yourselves—nothing good can happen in your benighted land. Like Athenian Greeks, you Yorubas are too proud, arrogant, unscrupulous, talented, and weak, but you are key!” We both laughed, knowing this was true.

Even before I left Nigeria in 1964, despite the insistent nationalism of its leaders, I saw Nigeria as a politically impossible and failed state. For their own administrative convenience, the British had simply lumped together those 250-400 separate ethnic peoples who had been living adequately in various forms of independence on a large land mass and then abruptly cut and ran, “Ta!”

So, as opposed to George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism, “government by Africa by Africans for Africans . . . with state control of the basic means of production and distribution,” or other failed political isms, I came to believe in flat-out, unapologetic Tribalism: “tribal consciousness and loyalty; exaltation of the tribe above other groups; a cultural practice of behaving in a manner to benefit one’s own family or tribe.” White man, black man, Yorubas look you in the eye as equals, if not superior. I always figured they felt sorry for we uptight Englishmen and Americans, believing us to be not quite human. It’s not that we don’t have as much rhythm (mostly true), it’s that to such Africans westerners are somehow shy of flesh and blood humanity. Westerners are not complete. We are no longer tribesmen brought up in a coherent society. The loss of tribalism is a desperate condition for us all. You see, the Yorubas have never been peasants. All thirty million of them. In 1853, a visiting representative of the British crown visiting Abeokuta described this Yoruba city-state and its system of government as “the most extraordinary republic in the world.”

To me, the grand Yoruba cultural and political forms and institutions—which trace directly back to pharaonic Egypt with strong elements found today in Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago—are very apt for today’s world. I never met an Oba—Yoruba king—I didn’t respect, in some fashion or another. While the individual Oba might be flawed, behind him clearly lay centuries and centuries of practical political and cultural development, with the king’s great local power bound up by an array of wonderfully devious checks and balances. In today’s synthetic world, such depth of humanity is dear beyond reckoning.

On the internet I just found this 1997 exchange about the condition of the Yoruba between Soyinka and the old Yoruba hand, Uli Bier. Soyinka:

“There is a lot of hope left. I’ll give you an example: when I recently gave a lecture in Ibadan I explained certain aspects of Yoruba beliefs, the role of the orisha. The reaction, the forcefulness of response which I could see on the faces of the young people was really very encouraging. It was more than just an expression of their misgivings towards the way in which they were brought up, more than just a feeling of deprivation. These young people are really looking for new directions in their lives. I believe there is real hope. On the other hand, what you said earlier on about Yoruba scholars and their reluctance to come terms with Yoruba religion, it is a very curious phenomenon.” Not so curious. I live with the exact same on my Indian reservation: 150 years of unanswered sorrow, anger, and denial. Most American Indian Tribes have little real cultural preservation—their children also carry that “feeling of deprivation.” But last year, at the request of the Umatilla Tribal executive director, I developed a detailed plan to create a Tribal Department of Cultural Heritage. Naturally, no action has been taken. But, hope springs faintly, if not eternally.

In any case, it seems to me that a well-funded International Institute of Yoruba Studies or somesuch would be useful now. For example, how could traditional Yoruba political forms be rejiggered to make them useful for today? How does one get a cultural revival going? Can it happen? Do they work? But it beats wasting another century to make Nigeria work-o. And Wole Soyinka? Like South Africa’s first new-era president Nelson Mandela or Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, Soyinka would be a fitting, meet and proper president, of the Yoruba First Republic! But at his Inaugural Ball, after drinking much good palmwine and with the shade of Amos Tutuola—Emu, emu! E je ka memu amu kara! (Palmwine, palmwine, let’s drink palmwine with all our might!) watching over us—someone from the old days will stand up and sing the old Yoruba song, Mo gba je bu re le, oh mo lau rao. The gist of which is, Don't buy a watch from an Ijebu man. Yoruba checks and balances. FINISH

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