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Rules, Lessons and Questions. An Essay by Temitayo Olofinlua

Temitayo Olofinlua

AfricAvenir herewith publishes the essay "Rules, Lessons and Questions" by Temitayo Olofinlua,  for which she won the Heinrich Böll Foundation 'Unity in Diversity' Essay Competition.

Temitayo Olofinlua holds a BA in Literature-in-English from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife and is rounding off her Masters programme at the University of Lagos, Nigeria.  She started writing as a student. She became the Editor-in-Chief of Socioscope News Agency in 2007, a news outfit in her university. She was later elected as the Vice-President of the Association of Campus Journalists. Life through these offices taught her responsibility, integrity and hard work. Skills from these volunteer positions as a student groomed her for life outside the university.

Temitayo Olofinlua works in Lagos as a freelance writer. Her essay, “Fear—the Enemy of Gender Equality” won the Women Learning Partnership Essay Competition; She also works as the editor of the Nigeria Beehive website: nigeria.thebeehive.org. When she's not writing, editing or reading, she is thinking or discussing with some friends issues too many to mention.

Rule One
I was 13.
My mother looked me deep in the eyes “Do not make friends with Ijebu people.” She did not give reasons. It was a rule, in addition to the usual talk of remembering whose daughter I am, not allowing men touch me and facing my studies. As I left that day, I wondered if I was going to ask new friends their tribes, in addition to their names. So where are you from? Pleased to meet you!

It was a joke!

No one argues with my mother.

That was her first rule I remember breaking. The very first time I was consciously disobedient. I was a boarding student at Federal Government Girls College, Akure. My school drew students from different parts of the country. Of course, there were Ijebus in my school. My friend, Kemi Ashiru who sat beside me in class was Ijebu. I took garri from her when starvation came like a devil pulling the walls of my belly with its three pronged fork. We both laughed at the Geography teacher with his belt sitting on top of his protruding belly like a river across a mountain. I made friends with her. Did I remember my mother’s injunction? Yes, but she could not see me. I was only bothered that during the holidays, she would look deep into my eyes and find out I’d been with an Ijebu girl.

There are certain things students didn’t choose in my school: bunkmates, corner mates and class mates. It was a mix match. In life, there are certain things we can’t decide: our place of birth, our family, our national and ethnic backgrounds. They are chosen for us. By whomever you believe. Or by chance. These differences should enrich our humanity; they should make us better. They should be stepping stones not stumbling blocks.

The Beauty in Diversity
Nigeria’s diversity reminds me of a huge tapestry: each thread carefully knitted to make a beautiful whole, no part claiming responsibility for the beauty of the embroidery. Nigeria’s diversity is hidden, not in her over 200 tribes. It’s in the 200 tribes, each with its own unique culture. The beauty lies in each one of us accepting that no tribe is superior to the other; neither is any inferior to the other.

My Culture is better than yours!
Lie! Big lie! Bigger than Rivers Niger and Benue combined.
My friend Chizobam offered me akpu with ofe n sala. She asked if I wanted it Yoruba style (stew and meal in the same plate; a slow passing stream or a river on a mountain) or Igbo style (stew and meal in different plates). I found it interesting. We got talking. I told her how as a child my father told me not to eat okele (swallow) in two bites. Like the Igbos. Take only what you can swallow, he said.

Does my different way of eating make me better than Chizo? No.

Difference does not mean superiority or inferiority; it just means another way of doing things; another way of speaking; another way of worship.  Nigeria is a huge baobab tree with many cultures sheltered under it; it is fast becoming shade for other nationalities too. These nations have not only come, they have brought their cultures with them. There have been intermarriages with Nigerians; I suspect someday soon, there will be the creation of new tribes like Yorindians, Haujaps and Igbonese. The tree reminds me of the Yoruba concept of the sky being big enough for all birds to fly. 

Lesson One: De-stereotype your mind
In my short life, I have learnt certain lessons. I would not say that I was always like this: open to everyone regardless of ethnic associations.  No! There was a time, in my mind Yorubas were party loving garrulous people; Igbos were always looking for the next person to dupe and that Hausas were such slow and unintelligent people. However, several life situations have questioned these myopic stereotypes. How narrow-minded I was?

I do not know how I picked these stereotypes. I only remember being shocked on a certain day that a man (who from his accent I could tell was Hausa) argued intelligently with another. I was so surprised at meeting a sincere clothes seller in Yaba market. I asked again: You are sure you are Igbo? As if to doublecheck. As if to question his ethnic associations. How I was so tribe conscious?

Tribalism like its elder brother racism implies a notion “My people are better than yours” therefore “I love my tribe over yours” consequently “I am more concerned about the common good of my tribe over national interests.” We make our generalizations of certain people, tribes and nationalities based on certain experiences of them. We not only do that, we want to impose these experiences on other people. No one is better than the other! No tribe is better than another, only different.

There’s a need to do a mental detox. Delete the stereotypes of other people that exist in your mind. When it comes to stereotypes, one does not represent a whole. Be quick to address your biases anytime they raise their heads. Do not pretend that they do not exist. Only strike their heads before they affect my judgment of people or situations.

Lesson Two: Many Roads Lead to Heaven
Who is God? This question is answered in diverse ways God himself would be surprised if he peeps at the creations humans have made of him. Different people hold on to strong opinions of their God. It does not matter if the religion was transported across miles of sand or ocean. Nigeria is a complex society where world religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism exist with Traditional African Religion. We are also quick to create sects and denominations. This is diversity, in a way; yet we have taken to guns to defend our gods. Aren’t our gods powerful, why do we fight for their honour? Religion unites yet we divide ourselves with it.

Nigeria is a secular country, according to the country’s constitution. The Constitution guarantees individuals the freedom to profess and practice their religion. Many of the religions believe in unity and peace yet it makes me wonder why we draw the sword at the slightest provocation? Many of the religions preach selflessness, yet why is the ‘self’ always at the centre of our daily interactions? Why do we refuse to see everyone as parts of one body?
I remember that in my childish mind, I thought that the Bible was the Quran written in English; the Quran on the other hand was the Bible written in Arabic. There was so much similarities between both books: Isa and Isaac; Mohammed and Jesus; Miriam and Mariam; I thought the difference was just the language. Our religions have one thing in common: they preach love and peace. So, what separates us so? I forget that something exists in theory does not mean that it exists in practice.

Lesson Three: Politrickal Principles of Divide and Rule
Nigerian history is filled with various attempts at national unity. In 1914, the Northern and the Southern protectorates were amalgamated by Lord Lugard. Since then, it’s been series of mergers and acquisitions aimed at forging a unified political entity out of over 200tribes. It is thought that unity could be reached by ‘lumping’ sets of people with similar cultural beliefs. Now there are 36 states. There are still clamors for new states.

Why have these activities not succeeded in getting us closer to true national unity? Why have they only showed us how unalike we are rather than celebrate the diversity that exists among us? There is a continually increasing desire for personal enrichment as politricktians grab a chunk of the ‘national cake’ which never reaches the populace. It is lost in the huge ‘agbada’ of the Yoruba politricktians, the’ red chieftancy caps’ of the Igbo politricktians, and the long ‘Senegalese’ of the Hausa politricktians. Everyone scrambles for power at the centre; they say to better the lot of the nation. Usually that translates the good of their ethnic groups over the nation. That translates the betterment of their families over the nation.

This leads to neglect of other parts of the nation. Soon, other parts of the country start crying under the weight of marginalization while the politician’s people (that translates his family, ethnic group or state—in that order!) live in stupendous wealth. They soon begin to feel insecure. The way I used to feel as a child tucked between four children—neither here, nor there; neither young nor old. When they were sharing stuff for adults and there were only two, the quick excuse was that I was too young. When they were buying toys for the younger ones, it changed and became that I was too old for such things. Talk of being lost in the middle.

Lesson Four: Look Within!
Nigeria’s cultural diversity is hidden in its history. A look at history will show that each tribe has its civilizations: the Igbo Ukwu in the East; the Benin Masks in the Mid-West; the Nok Culture in the North and the Ife Heads in the West. How many Nigerians know of this glorious heritage? How many Nigerians know about the prowess of empires like the Oyo Empire, the Benin Empire, the Sokoto Caliphate and the Kanem Borno Empire? How many young people know about traditions and festivals like the Eyo and Osun-Osogbo Festivals in the West; Argungun festival in the North and the Iri ji in the East?

How can a nation be so blessed, so rich yet unaware of it? How can she have so many beautiful cultures yet we focus on the things that divide us? How can my unborn children and grandchildren be aware of the beauty of this tapestry called Nigeria? How can knowledge of the country bring pride, not shame?
We are not taught. Even when we are, we are not taught to celebrate the beauty of these cultural traditions. We are told that they are fetish. They are backward. They are barbaric. We are taught about other people’s cultures, about everything that makes them look perfect.

Even among ourselves, we have stories based on stereotypes in history about other tribes. Individual efforts at learning other peoples’ cultures cannot be overemphasised. Maybe then, the negative stereotypes would gradually be erased. Maybe we would begin to see that a tribe is a collective of unique people with individual potentials. How will you know if you wear a shade of stereotypes? 

Only in looking within will we find ourselves. Only then will we be able to appreciate the beauty that lies in our diversity.

Lesson Five: Re-Orientation
The best way any nation can get lost, in history; can be easily forgotten is to forget its cultures.  We are gradually forgetting and quickly getting lost in other people’s cultures. There is a need for massive re-orientation. Our native ways are not barbaric neither are they exotic, so no one has a right to look at me like a goat on sale when I decide to wear my native Iro and buba. No one should look at me as an infidel when I decide to spend my whole day at the Tafawa Balewa Square watching the Eyo Masquerades.

How can this be done?
As much as it still remains with the individual to decide what he wears or what religion s/he practises, it is important that we are aware of the many options available. It is important to know that for every bucket of Custard there are many wraps of our native ogi. That for every pair of Jeans, there are yards of Ankara. That for every word spoken in English, there are many local words that cannot be translated into English. Well, the English Dictionaries haven’t found the best words to describe them (case in point—Yoruba words like yinmu and e ku le; Igbo words like ogbunigwe, chi).  Oh, I hear you say that the pap is not as sweet or well packaged as the custard; that the Ankara is not as sexy as the pair of jeans, wait a minute, how will you appreciate the value of something you don’t even know? Why would you exalt another person’s values (automatically their economy) when you have yours?

Every media outlet should be used to inform the Nigerian populace about the beauty of our culture. No longer should we be pleased with aping other people’s language, a tongue we can never speak perfectly. So why not let’s speak our own languages well? You ask—how many people speak Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo or Itshekiri? I hear you say that learning to speak your native language will destroy the fluency of your English? But I ask how many English people have learnt to speak your own language? How many of them even know that you have a native language?

The agents of re-orientation are already available: The Nigerian film industry, radio, TV and the internet. No longer will we be satisfied to see only the negative sides of our culture portrayed through media instituted by us. CNN and BBC have done their bit to show that we have no (good) history, why are we enforcing their points?

Lesson Six: Education
In primary school, I remember the threats of punishment for speaking ‘vernacular.’ In secondary school, the punishment was a fine of 5naira during the English week. We never had a Yoruba/Hausa/Urhobo Week. Education has a way of subtly saying that my culture is inferior and theirs is superior. Those supposedly ‘small’ things do not make Nigerians value their traditions. Our education Curriculum should be reassessed in such a way that it celebrates our diversity as a nation. This change can be influenced by incorporating Nigerian history and culture from the elementary stages of education. 

All agents of education should be used: classroom education, extra-curricular activities, informal education, studying books about national heroes and our cultural traditions. Even parents have a role to play. Never tell your child not to speak your native language lest we sell our soul to another man’s culture. I would like to see my children know much of Nigerian history in its totality. I would like to see my children understand the basic concepts of the many religions practised in the country. Maybe they would begin to see the beauty in many colours and not think that one religion or culture is greater than the other.

Maybe then, we will see that we are not more special than the other person because they belong to another tribe but as unique individuals. Maybe we will begin to see and appreciate the variety in our society.

Lesson Seven: A Cultural Revolution
Our nation is rich in cultures and traditions, many lost in time. There is no better time to uproot and celebrate them. This further reinforces that our festivals are not fetish. They are ours, they should be celebrated. We should be proud of being associated with them. This emphasizes the need for a cultural renaissance. There may be books in celebration of our heroes from the pre and post colonial times. These become records no one can take away from us. Records written not only in ink or performance but on hearts. Records passed from one generation to another. Records that will ensure that a time won’t come when we would have children that would not understand and appreciate the beauty of diversity that binds this nation as one.

Rule Two
I am 25 years old.

I am Yoruba, from Ondo state. I was born in Ogun state. The Ijebus are based in Ogun state.

It’s a standing rule in my house: no one should bring an Ijebu person, an Igbo person or Hausa person home for marriage. It is a spoken rule. Sometimes, I make my mother angry. Frighten her a little.  I tell her that I have found an Igbo boy I want to marry. She freaks out ‘You are not bringing him to my house.”

I ask questions about how she reached her conclusions. I have gotten answers. Unclear answers. She says “the Igbos are very opportunistic. Selfish. The Hausas carry daggers under their jalamias. The Ijebus are wicked. I later find out most of these conclusions are based on fear, answers grounded in stereotypical views of other people. Her reasons are valid, to her. Her good friend was married to an Ijebu man, who showed her pepper, who almost killed her. Another friend got her promotion delayed because she was not an indigene of Ogun state. And our own example, we woke up one day to find a ‘calabash of sacrifice’ right at our doorsteps, freshly boiled eggs and palm oil, I remember. As though it were an ‘oritameta.’ As though the gods met at our doorsteps.

My mother became more prayerful; praying longer and louder. I wonder sometimes, if when my mother prays “Dear God give my marriageable daughters good husbands;” does ‘good’ embrace Igbo, Hausa or Ijebu? Does it include these people so marked by her stereotypes? Today, I have great friends from different Nigerian tribes. Daily, I learn about something, a culture, a song, a story, I never knew. Maybe, I would marry one of them!

New Questions
I am no longer disturbed by witching spirits. Different questions haunt me now; they keep me awake at night: why would one human kill another in the name of a religion? Why would people hack, burn and destroy in the name of a God of love and peace? Why is the political zoning such a big deal anyway if we are one? Why are there lower marks for students from catchment areas? Why would we be more content with focusing on the things that separate us rather than those that unite us? Why all these, if we are one nation?

Chizobam taught me an Igbo proverb: Egbe belu, ugo beu nke si ibe ya ebela, nku kwaya which translates: let the kite perch, let the eagle perch. The one that says the other should not perch, let its feather break! The tree is our nation; we are the birds, unique in our differences. Let our uniqueness glorify our existence as one, not destroy it!

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