(Published in the Nigerian Tribune on Monday, 23 October, 2023)
Susanne Wenger was famous as Adunni Oloriṣa. The BBC in 2008 described her as “white priestess of ‘black magic.’” A Nigerian said she was “white priestess of an African goddess.” Until her death in 2009, she was the custodian of Osun Osogbo grove and everything connected to its sacredness. But that task was not what Wenger came to do when she planted her nimble toes in the soil of Yoruba land around 1950. She came as an artist and wife of a linguist. She, however, did more than visual arts; she was a culture connoisseur, a critic of art and literature. As a critic, I found her words very thrashing, almost rebuking. ‘Olorun’, the Yoruba name for God, was translated as “Owner of the Sky” by an oyinbo author of Yoruba myths. Wenger read that author and, in a scathing review, flew into corrective rage. And, in firing back at that writer, Wenger curtly pointed out that “Olorun is God. Just as (Christianity’s) The Lord’s Prayer does not begin with ‘Our Supreme Spirit in the Sky, so Olorun’s etymology has nothing to do with the sky.” Further, she wrote: “Ol’orun means ‘the one who is, has, proceeds through, sustains, manufactures, inheres, etc.’ (li) ‘heaven’. Wenger did that correction 47 years ago in her 1976 review of Harold Courlander’s ‘Tales of Yoruba Gods and Heroes.’ The old lady was mythical in shattering myths.
I remembered Wenger’s rebuke of Harold Courlander’s work when I read the Oluwo of Iwo, Oba Abdulrasheed Akanbi, online last week asserting (without proof) that the biblical towns of Sodom and Gomorrah were geographically and historically in Yoruba land. The oba is said to be writing a book. He has not published the book but he has published its title which he calls ‘Our Origin’. The claim above is from a ‘snippet’ from what he is writing which he sent to some journalists in Osogbo. Oba Akanbi made sure that in that excerpt are claims – cultural and historical – about Yoruba land conflating them with scriptural assertions. I read it and the first missile there is: “The original Biblical and Quranic Sodom and Gomorrah were in Esie.” Oba Akanbi made that declaration with the conviction of an eyewitness. Esie is an Igbomina-Yoruba town in Kwara State. The oba said he had been there; he knew what he was saying and he said more. “Esie is the only place (on earth) where humans turned to sulphuric ash,” the oba asserted further while suggesting that whatever location anyone finds on this in any other source couldn’t be correct. “Western historical writers altered the names and locations …to suit their interest,” Kabiyesi Oluwo said.
The story of Lot and his wife, and of Sodom and Gomorrah is well known. Both the Bible and the Quran say Sodom and Gomorrah were cities of sin and wickedness. Both books say they were ultimately destroyed by God with sulfur and fire. The tragic drama of those two cities reached its climax and got its denouement in Genesis 19: 24 – 26: “Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven;/ And He overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” That is the story as told in the Bible which Oba Akanbi has decided to locate in Esie, Kwara State, Nigeria. Or is the oba saying something in metaphors about the crimes of our state and the coming flood?
How not to write a book is a phrase I first got from my late literature teacher, Professor Wole Ogundele – a prodigy in knowledge, deep, with an elephant’s profoundity. Then I stumbled on Keri Smith’s ‘This is not a book’ – a Penguin-published volume of mostly blank pages. It is cheery that a first class oba is writing a book on ‘our origin’; and, I assume by ‘our origin’ he means the origin of the Yoruba. Oluwo needs every encouragement to get his effort done but it should be a book of facts. A book of self-deceiving untruths is a volume of empty sheets. The oba needs some nudges. That is what I am giving here – an expression of preemptive exclamations of horror at his conflating of (or even confusing) myth with fact. Because an oba is said to be a custodian of culture, tradition and history, a book by an Oluwo of Iwo may be seen as gold by some strangers to our truth; aliens may pick and quote from what Oluwo is writing in 50 years, 100 years’ time when we’ve all gone. The grains of his effort can still be weaned of toxic weevils of embarrassing gaffes before it is kitchen time. Fortunately, millions of Yoruba people have some understanding about that town, Esie. I also have an idea of what the oba is trying to theorize on.
I would have agreed with Oluwo if his writing had been a prophecy of doom – like World War Two’s Operation Gomorrah of July 1943 – for those who have turned Nigeria to a country of stranded people. But he says his account is a piece of history, a factual look at the past. That is where the problem is. First, the historical Sodom and Gomorrah, according to Encyclopedia Brittanica, is located somewhere around the Dead Sea in today’s Israel. Second, the oba needs to know before his book goes to the printers that there is no “pillar of salt” in Esie. What Esie has is a huge collection of figurines, tens of hundreds of man-made stone statues presently housed in Nigeria’s first museum built in 1945. Because the first settlers of the town found the statues in their forest and could not explain how they got there, they created a myth around their existence. The dominant myth says it was some misbehaving “pale-skinned strangers” (Oyinbo) who were turned to those stone statues by Olodumare (God) because they exceeded the instructions He gave them. That is the myth which the Oluwo is passing to us as history. Indeed, a professional who looked at the carvings noticed that “they all have Tapa (Nupe) facial marks – three parallel and horizontal straight lines.” I recommend to the respected oba and his handlers F. Daniel’s ‘The Stone Figures of Esie, Ilorin Province, Nigeria’ published in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, January – June, 1937, page 43 – 49.
That an oba says he is writing a book should ordinarily be commended. At least, it shows that kings in a democracy do something with their time and are not, stricto sensu, museum materials. I have friends whose thoughts on kingship are iconoclastic; they attack and seek to break all images of royalty. Because of this thing called democracy, they say we should close down the palaces exactly the way we’ve closed down factories of goods for factories of myths. Because of the inanities of some, they say we don’t need the obas. And, each time they say so, I ask them if they think we need the parliament and the courts when the president, right in the royalty of his bed, creates executive orders, interprets the laws and enforces them.
Now, can our kings leave history for historians and fiction for writers of fiction? Can they make themselves more relevant by joining in using their thrones to wear out the cause of injustice? Why did Oluwo decide to write a book of myths of origin, of a very distant Lot and his wife and a pillar of salt? Why Sodom and Gomorrah and why not verses with imageries apt enough to incite God against creators of sin cities here in Nigeria? Why not a book on today’s unpleasant realities of existence in the oba’s domain and beyond his domain? Or why do people write at all? Why do I write? American writer and journalist, Joan Didion, thinks writing is the act…of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying ‘listen to me, see it my way, change your mind’. She thinks writing is “an aggressive, even a hostile act.” There is no running away from this (f)act. Some, Didion says, are clever and “disguise its aggressiveness…with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” My mind could see Oluwo and all writers of fact and fiction smile as they read Didion.
If you’ve ever fallen for the charming enchantress and you know what beauty means, you will agree with one of George Orwell’s own reasons for writing. He calls it “aesthetic enthusiasm.” He believes every great writer writes to create beauty. Orwell mentions “words and their right arrangement” as a motivation for the creative genius. He says good writers take “pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.” George Orwell gives other reasons for writing. These reasons he calls impulses which he says “war against one another, (and) fluctuate from person to person and from time to time” among all writers of prose. He calls one of the reasons “historical impulse.” And, by this he means “the desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.” Another is “political purpose…the desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive for.” But a writer’s very first reason for writing, Orwell says, is the desire to please his ego. He calls it sheer egoism; the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.” I see here everyone who writes – or who pretends to write. And, in case you want to say the man lied, Orwell is quick to add that “it is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.” While insisting that all writers are vain, selfish…he concludes that “at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
Australian writer, Merrion Frances Fox, in 1988 published a piece with the title: ‘Notes from the battlefield: Towards a theory of why people write’ (Language Arts, 1988: 65 (2). She thinks writing is war and a writer is “a bloodied and wounded soldier staggering around a battlefield in an attempt to conquer the blank page.” I ask questions every week as I struggle through the Nigerian conundrum. A flood of suffering is submerging the nation; save-our-soul is the noise of battle for Nigerians outside the circle of power; the song of victory is in the mouth of principals and principalities who minister hunger and uncertainty and misery to the people. Yet, the Nigerian system wonders what demon makes you write weekly instead of you simply hopping into the ruling caste’s Noah’s Ark and keep quiet. The myth of competence is what rules us. We are asked to carouse it, ignore its dingy, unpleasant reality and its stark ugliness. Like Fox, you ask why competence is silent amidst rank ineptitude, ineptness, inability. You take repeated looks at the battlefield Nigeria has become. The casualties are not just the fallen in battle; they include all who can but refuse to speak out against evil. You review the situation and go march with Fox (quoted above) as she wonders “why there are so many deserters out there, refusing to take up their pens and write alongside me. Is it because the wages aren’t good enough? Is it because there’s nothing worth writing for? Is it because it’s only a pretend battle with pretend rewards for pretend winners?”