Thursday, 30 April 2015

Crash Between Tradition and Science: The Journey so far

From explicit curses to ancient instructions, myths and beliefs continue to shape people’s opinions and decisions, writes

Clockwise: Enimade, Aliu, Adeyanju and Adewebi 
Jobi Enimade has lived all his life in Ode-Irele, Ondo State. The civil servant, who works with the Federal Ministry of Niger Delta Affairs in Igbokoda, another community some kilometers away from his hometown, returns to his house and family at Ode-Irele every night.
Though he has been a part of the community from birth, Enimade says the recent death of 23 people within hours of taking ill is unprecedented.

But Enimade is not buying the findings of the state government which claims the deaths have been linked to methanol poisoning in Ogogoro, local gin usually consumed in the community.
Sudden deaths were recorded in Ode-Irele community recently when a number of men had complained of headache and fever, while their health conditions quickly deteriorated, leading to blindness, and eventually death, all within a few hours.
In a comprehensive report released by the state government, the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Dayo Adeyanju, said the deaths might have roots in methanol poisoning. He ruled out Ebola Virus Disease and any other haemorrhagic fevers, declaring that the disease, which has yet to have an official name, is not infectious.
As for Enimade, the sequence of illness and the swift progression to death has only confirmed the anger of Malokun, a local deity revered in the community. The popular belief in the community is that Malokun is on a vengeance mission after a group of men invaded its shrine, reportedly carting away artifacts and other materials belonging to the deity.
Enimale, a Christian, says, “Many of us in this town do not believe that the deaths were caused by ogogoro. How can somebody die of chemical poisoning and his complexion turns black afterwards? No matter how light-skinned the victim was, he turned as black as charcoal within an hour of death.
“You know, the state government just had to come out with a report. Malokun is not what you can experiment with. But we are not going anywhere. This is our home. We have appeased Malokun and no new case has been reported in the last few days,” he says.
But speaking to one of our correspondents on Thursday, the Commissioner for Health, Dr. Dayo Adeyanju, says the matter is way beyond the wrath of Malokun. According to him, scientific findings have indicated methanol poisoning. He adds that two of the persons affected have even regained their sights, while others are still receiving treatment.
“The residents were only talking about Malokun when there were five deaths. But they knew better when the casualty rate shot up to 23. This is beyond Malokun; more so, we had a patient who came from a faraway local government.
“It became clear to the villagers at that point and they have all agreed it was methanol poisoning. The traditional ruler also accepted that it was methanol poisoning. It was a particular batch of the local gin that was sold in the area. About 33 people were affected but 23 died, 10 people are receiving treatment and two have regained their sight,” he says.
Adeyanju, a medical doctor, refutes talks that the deceased persons turned black. “These are myths and superstitious beliefs. No one turned black. Essentially, methanol goes straight to the optic nerve and destroys it. That is the nerve which sends signal to people to see and it becomes destroyed,” he explains.
Malokun shrine
Malokun shrine
Enimade is however sticking to his guns. A son of Malokun’s former chief priest, Frederick Adewebi, shares Enimade’s convictions. While conceding the right of the state government to seek a scientific solution, Adewebi, like many residents of the town, insists that the deity had a hand in the deaths.
“My father was a chief priest of Malokun before his death. I remember that I visited the current chief priest and he told me that some people broke into his house and stole N5,000 and aso ebi (uniform ceremonial wear). He thought it was an isolated incident until another priest reported the same thing.
“They were curious and decided to check the Malokun shrine. It was there they discovered that some people had also burgled the shrine. Thereafter, they decided to lay a curse on the burglars,” Adewebi relates.
Enimade and Adewebi’s assertions go against the grain of science. According to medical encyclopaedia, methanol is a non-drinking type of alcohol used for industrial and automotive purposes. Its symptoms, according to the online resource centre, include blindness, convulsions, low blood pressure, headache and abdominal pains, among others.
“Methanol is extremely poisonous. As little as two tablespoons can be deadly for a child. About two to eight ounces can be deadly for an adult. Blindness is common and often permanent, despite medical care. How well the person does depends on how much poison is swallowed and how soon treatment is received,” it says.
But Malokun is just one of the deities that enjoy adulation and reverence from people and communities in Nigeria. From Delta State to Edo, Osun, Kogi, Ekiti and others in the country, deities still dictate the pace and way of life in many communities.
In Ojirame Afekunu, cleanliness is law
Just as in the Ode-Irele case, it only took an incident to resuscitate the long-held belief held by many people in Ojirame Afekunu, a village in the Akoko Edo Local Government Area of Edo State.
Many people in Ojirame Afekunu still believe in the potency of their traditional gods and goddesses. Indeed, Ojirame Afekunu was not given the award of ‘Sanitation Village’ for the fun of it. This is because being neat in this village is a culture, as dumpsites are forbidden.
Villagers are compelled to keep their environment tidy at all times as Attah, a popular deity in the village, abhors dirty environment. An indigene of the town, Mr. Jude Ishelowo, says village women sweep compounds and streets each morning.
“The community is very neat and everybody adheres to the traditional code of cleanliness. You dare not go against it because there will be repercussions. If you are the type who falls ill all the time, it is not unusual for people to tell you to check your environment first before seeking alternative solution. They believe that the deity may be dealing with you,” Ishelowo says.
The river of fertility
In Erinjiyan, Ekiti State, the Erin River flows with myth. Like the popular Osun Osogbo in Osun State, whose faithful visit for different kinds of blessings, the Erin plays host to people from different places who believe in its spiritual powers.
Women who are fertility-challenged, for instance, go there. As one of our correspondents learnt, they take ceremonial bath inside the water, with the belief that it will act as a catalyst to their achieving pregnancy.
An indigene, Pa Fredrick Ajayi, says the river never disappoints such people. The 65-year-old says, “Many of them come back the following year with their babies, thanking the Erinjiyan for what it has done.
Perhaps the biggest myth about the river is the fact that indigenes and visitors alike are forbidden from catching any of the big fishes inside it.
“If you take home any of the fish here, if you cook it for the whole day, it will not get done,” Pa Ajayi adds.
Despite the high esteem in which the Erin is held, however, several young folks were seen washing clothes inside it.
Why Asaba and ogbono don’t mix
Ogbono seed is from the African trees in the genus Irvingia. Unknown to most people visiting Asaba, capital of Delta State, for the first time, it is a taboo to either eat or sell the much-sought nuts in the town. For this reason, it is impossible for a visitor to walk into any restaurant in Asaba and expect to find ogbono soup on the menu.
Two accounts explain why ogbono is forbidden among the natives of Asaba. The first one is traceable to Nnebisi, believed to be the founder of the town. Oral history says that Nnebisi had to leave his ancestral home – a place called Nteje in what is now known as Anambra State – out of frustration to find a new home west of the River Niger.
Before he left Nteje, Nnebisi’s mother gave him a clay pot containing a powerful charm for protection and good luck. Also, she instructed him to carry the pot on his head and to settle whereever it fell down.
Shortly after Nnebisi crossed the Niger, the medicine pot fell down and broke. He named the exact spot ‘Ahaba’, meaning ‘I have made the right choice.’
A few years later, Nnebisi’s mother paid him a visit and discovered that ogbono trees had sprouted around the spot where the pot fell down. Then she revealed that the charm she had given to him had contained some ogbono nuts. Before departing for Nteje, she warned Nnebisi that his descendants must never eat or trade in ogbono.
On the other hand, the second account says that Onishe, the river goddess and principal deity worshipped by the natives of Asaba, was served a meal prepared with ogbono at a wedding feast.
While she ate, the beautiful white dress worn by the goddess was ruined. The stain might have been unnoticed until she found the other guests at the feast mocking her.
Onishe left the gathering in anger and made straight for home. She tore the dress, burnt it and decreed that nobody should eat any meal containing ogbono from that day.
Oral tradition insists that the goddess actually placed a curse on anyone who disobeyed her instruction. And then, she vanished from sight. Never to be seen again.
Most natives of Asaba still believe in the potency of Onishe’s curse. Apart from abstaining from eating ogbono, they do everything possible to ensure that the ban is enforced among visitors also. Defaulters are usually heavily fined and made to undergo a ritual meant to cleanse the town of the offence.
A stream with catalogue of restrictions
Ala village is tucked between Ijebu-Ode and Idowa, in Odogbolu Local Government Area of Ogun State. Ala is a tiny village, with less than 10,000 inhabitants. It boasts of a secondary school – Ala Grammar School; and a primary school. It also hosts a giant Anglican Church, and a small Catholic Church.
It has a small local market that remains practically empty all the time except on the weekly market days which come up every five days; yet the deity that allegedly watches over the market receives regular sacrifices f rom villagers.
Ala is an agrarian town. Highly behind in terms of modern amenities, villagers have no access to free-flowing water and have to make do with water from the streams for domestic purposes.
Out of the three flowing streams that serve the people of Ala, Ogbe is in a class of its own. Located in the outskirts of the village and inside a pristine forest that also serves as the shrine for certain Egungun cult, Ogbe stream is as foreboding as could be.
Walking the footpath that leads to Ogbe is daring, what with the occasional eerie noises that come from strange birds that inhabit the thick forest. As the stream becomes visible, you feel spooky, being confronted with a large stream that spreads out in front of you.
About 500 metres into the expansive stream, animals – mainly goats – that have been sacrificed to the Ogbe goddess line the road and are in various throes of death. Those of them that are still alive are tied to the stakes, with accompanying sacrificial objects such as assortments of kolas and solid pap soaked in palm oil in earthenware pots.
Inside the Ogbe stream is the shrine of its goddess, which make it more unearthly.
The greatest attractions here are the large fishes that swim about freely, competing for space with children who swim in the river; while women who delve into further end of the stream to get clean water take great care to avoid stepping on the restless fishes.
Of the various myths that surround Ogbe, two of them are distinct: you can’t catch the fish for food; nor can you use the water for building construction.
As eerie as it is, dead fish float on the stream, and are left to be washed away, presumably at the goddess’ convenience.
Villagers contend that any house that is built with water fetched from Ogbe stream would be destroyed by thunder. As such, water from another stream, Asasa, is used for such purposes.
Ogbe stream stinks, considering the various environment-unfriendly activities going on there.
A villager narrated the story of a foreign-born teenage indigene boy who dared to kill fish in the revered stream.
According to the middle aged woman, Nurudeen was born in Benin Republic where he was raised until his teenage years when his parents decided to bring him to Ala for his secondary school education.
The French-speaking youth lived with his paternal grandfather. Within days of his arrival in Ala, he followed other villagers to Ogbe to fetch water for domestic use. Without asking questions, on seeing the large fishes, he went into action and killed as many fish as his bucket could contain.
Eyewitnesses were struck with terror, as no one had dared such as far as the alarmed villagers could recall.
And before Nurudeen could step out of the stream with his loot, the priest of Ogbe stream had arrived, angry as hell and with a baleful expression.
The questions came in torrents: “Who are you?” “Who is your father?” “Who authorised you to kill those fishes?” and so on. The affrighted youth was speechless.
After much plea, Nurudeen’s guardian was mandated to offer sacrifices to the river goddess. And to make his contrition real, he was made to kneel before the shrine with his head touching the stream as the Ogbe priest made incantations that were meant to avert the deadly anger of the goddess.
Asked why the Ogbe fish could not be eaten or why the water could not be used in building construction, villagers say it’s the myth they grew up to know. And, as it were, no one has dared to confirm the veracity apart from Nurudeen.
A stream of fertility in Kogi
Iyemoja is the name of the stream that creates much fear in brides marrying into any family in Odo-Egbe, a town in Kogi State.
It is believed that any bride who has not drunk from this ‘fruitful stream of life’ would continue to suffer miscarriages and remain barren. In fact, it is mandatory for the new bride, wherever she hails from, to take a bath with the water from the stream three days before the wedding night, when the marriage is expected to be consummated.
According to the Head of the Olorunponmi clan in Odo-Egbe, called Baba Onile, the Iyemoja stream has superficial ‘womb healing’ and ‘rejuvenation properties’ given by the gods, and would help a woman to conceive quickly.
He says, “It is the gods that blessed us with the Iyemoja stream in Odo-Egbe because it has made many of our women to laugh. In those days, our fathers’ compounds were the biggest because all the wives who drank from this stream were fertile and they had many children.
“The water does not taste like any other water; it is a bit salty, and this prepares the womb, even if it is not good enough to carry a baby. If you marry our sons and you don’t drink from it, you will suffer miscarriages. Nobody should joke with the Iyemoja stream.”
Baba Onile also explains that women from other clans are not allowed to partake in drinking water from stream, as they could suffer a similar fate as women who refuse to go with the tradition.
“The water is just for women in Odo-Egbe; you just don’t come and drink it anyhow. There are some sacrifices you must offer to the gods of the stream through the elders in the clan before it is acceptable.
“It is not a cure for barrenness, because many people travel from other states to come and have a taste. It will not work for them; rather, it will work against them. It is a taboo,” he says.
But an indigene of the state who spoke on condition of anonymity discredited the claims. She confided in one of our correspondents that she married into one of the families in the clan but refused to partake in the tradition.
“There is no science to show that the water from Iyemoja stream causes miscarriages or helps women to conceive. I refused to take it when I got married to my husband 20 years ago and they even threatened to ostracise me. I am also from Odo-Egbe, but we stood our ground. I have three children right now and I never miscarried. If you don’t believe in it it can’t affect you,” she boasts.
Walking the tight rope of science and tradition
The executive secretary, Nigerian Academy of Science, Dr. Doyin Odubanjo, has, however, said it is possible for science and tradition to co-exist. According to him, culture and science do not often clash and a challenge can only arise when lives become threatened and safety is compromised.
“You cannot totally remove our tradition and culture because they are our ways of life. It is only when they become injurious that you have something to worry about.
“We had a challenge during the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease because people believe that dead bodies had to be washed and certain rites performed. We had to find a way to intervene and we spoke with pastors, imams and other stakeholders. We provided guidelines in that respect. There is not always a clash,” he says.
In his response, actor and culture advocate, Mr. Jimoh Aliu, warns that it could be dangerous to trivialise issues related to culture and tradition. He adds that matters of culture should be separated from religion.
“We must respect our culture and tradition. There are kings in Yorubaland who must not see newborns. If you are told that something is a taboo, know that it remains a taboo.
“When I was a child, it was said that a razor must never touch my head. When I got to school and teachers forced me to barb my hair, I started seeing maggots on my head.
“To respect our culture and traditions does not stop us from worshipping God. When something is forbidden, it remains forbidden,” he says.



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