As we come to the end of the year to begin yet another, the question I would hope we each ask ourselves is: Am I at home with my spirit or have I become a stranger to my soul? The Edos of Nigeria have a saying; “ Ehi mwen su mwen – My spirit leads me”. Can one’s spirit really lead if one is estranged from it? When and where might a personal spirit intersect with a communal spirit? These are the questions this blog will explore.
Three months ago, in September, I gave an invited lecture at the University of Ibadan Medical School as part of their annual research conference. My lecture was focused on a theme of ‘knowing who you are without what you do’, particularly when addressing health issues within the context of culture. In the past few years, my deepened scholarly engagement with the theme has led me to focus on the intersection of leadership and culture, captured under the theme – Claim Your Space.
In my lecture at Ibadan, I moved away from the typical approach in the health field that focuses on what is absent today in individual and collective health of the people. Instead, I framed my questions in terms of what is and has been present and why this should be the core of efforts to address health issues in Nigeria and indeed in Africa. What is absent or present is not only in the context of health and disease as we know them, but also in the context of our values and spirits represented in both personal and contextual wholeness. In this way, one’s spirit may lead at both the personal and collective levels. Although spiritual well-being is a key component of general health and well-being, as advanced by the World Health Organization, the notion of personal spirit, encoded in ehi for the Edos, is not well understood and therefore absent from the discourse on health behavior.
During my lecture at Ibadan, I cited examples of what has been and remains present, but which we have forgotten. This, I consider to be the ‘soul of healing’. The first example, which I gave, was the pioneering work of the late Professor Adeoye Lambo whose work in The Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Aro, Nigeria (known simply as Aro Hospital), was my first introduction to engaging community in seeking solutions to health. Lambo noted that the people of Aro village, near Abeokuta, unlike staff of the hospital, did not stigmatize a mental patient, but instead included them in daily discussions while recognizing that they were still part of the family, even though these patients saw reality differently. If nothing else, the community was not afraid of the mentally ill. In what became known as the Aro experiment, we came to appreciate the relative value of convention since what we consider to be normal may be viewed otherwise by those suffering from mental illness. What was normalized in the community was humanity, acceptance and a sense of community that existed in Aro, in spite of the challenges faced by families and care givers of mental patients. This early work was a core foundation that fueled my commitment to promoting community based participatory research and health decisions within the contexts of cultures.
The second example I shared was about culture and innovation. It was about how innovation is more likely to occur when the new product is anchored in the society’s ways of knowing, producing and consuming. I shared the case of Professor Olusoji Ofi who retired from the University of Ibadan many years ago having served as Vice-Chancellor. This is a story of a remarkable Nigerian who actually invented the process of turning yam tuber into yam powder in a lab at the University of Ibadan in the late 70s through a series of experiments. Professor Michael Adewumi, Vice Provost for Global Engagement at Penn State University, shared with me how, as a graduate student, he was an active participant in the focus groups for each phase of the evolutionary process in the experiment. He observed the commitment and dedication of Ofi who foresaw the importance of this new product to the Nigeria of tomorrow.
According to Michael, as soon as the product was refined and commercially ready, Professor Ofi began selling it as a pilot test to those within the university community. They bought it, prepared and consumed it, thus validating the product for Professor Ofi. Following the successful piloting of the product, Ofi decided to seek the support of the Federal Ministry of Industry (FMI) for its approval for a patent so he could begin the commercialization. In response, the FMI did not support him but instead dismissed him with disparaging comments that no one is interested in ‘Iyan’ that is not pounded. These officials went further to mock him as “doctor of Iyan”. In the absence of a patent, other individuals started to copy his method and soon afterwards, the market was proliferated with yam powder, but with no credit given to Ofi as the inventor of the process. Today yam powder is used for ‘fufu’ by generations of people, many of whom have not even seen what a yam tuber looks like since they know only of the powder form.
The case of pounded yam in Nigeria was particularly poignant since this is a main staple for millions of Nigerians from several ethnic groups. This was different from the case of other products like cocoa or coffee in which cultivation may be local, but consumption of the final product is not organic to the majority of population that produce it in Nigeria as was pounded yam.
A child of the land innovated a process that would accelerate the broad distribution of a local cultural product for consumption. A process of having pounded yam without a mortal/pestle to pound was a telling example of why culture matter in innovation and why our spirit matters even more in affirmation. Ofi gave us a spirit of tomorrow for the society but those who controlled the system of approval were stuck in the desire of yesterday. A system that relies on convention to support and encourage innovation is bound to consign its future to other peoples’ yesterday. The examples of Lambo and Ofi represent what has been and continues to be present but forgotten. What follows represent what is present and yet should perhaps be forgotten. It has to do with the spirit of our contexts represented in the lecture hall for my presentation.
The lecture hall in which I gave the presentation was a modern facility, with a well-organized space suited for the learning and sharing purpose of a conference. The chairs were perfectly rowed and the podium sufficiently elevated and placed to offer speakers a clear landscaped view of the audience. What, therefore, was present that should be forgotten, you asked? There was nothing about the space that reminded me of being at Ibadan or anywhere in Nigeria. Being in the hall was like being in a house with no sense of a cultural home. A structure with no culture. Upon entry into the hall, classical music serenaded us, as is commonly the case on these occasions. Yet, all that the music evoked in my mind was a longing for the voice of the late Rex Lawson and others of his era and genre. Imagining that I was hearing again the music of my youth in the context of this meeting reminded me of what Ben Okri meant, when he wrote in “the Age of Magic” that our most profound hearing happens long, and perhaps years, after the listening, particularly in those moments when the original words we listened to, are later resurrected in a new experience. Hearing, in my mind’s eye, Lawson had a deeper soothing meaning for my spirit now than when I heard them in my youth. The memory of their voices at this moment, years after listening to them, invoked a meditative liberation for my soul even when the language (Kalabari) that expressed some of the lyrics was as foreign to me as the numerical coding of the sounds of Beethoven. Remembering the late Lawson, in particular, at that moment took me on a quick journey through the early years of the cultural symphony for our spirits and our souls by Sunny Ade, Victor Uwaifo, Bongos Ikwue, Fela and their contemporaries. Perhaps because of the momentary recess that my mind was allowed through these memories, looking up at the tall drapes that adorned the majestic windows of the hall made the otherwise large hall looked small in imagination and bland in its esthetic arrangements. A structure with no culture is a house with no home. Afterall, we are in Ibadan, one of the most colorful cultural spaces in which one’s spirit could be at home in Nigeria. At the risk of being ungrateful to my hosts, I would note that this hall is replicated in many Nigerian lecture halls in cities and African countries I have visited and thus, the lecture hall is the rule and not the exception. Finally, the conference began with some brief introductions and welcoming remarks by those at the ‘high’ table. This process would culminate in the introduction of my co-speaker (Professor Gbenga Ogedegbe) and me. This time, it was the voice of Uwaifo in my head with Akhuan khuan and the moral of the song which reminds us to always believe in what is yours even if you have only one of it. I played this in my head just as one of our host observed in his welcoming remarks the irony of Gbenga and I, who came from the United States, as the only ones wearing African outfits amongst the 10 persons at the high table in addition to the over 200 students, staff and faculty in attendance. Culture is as much about intellectual engagement in higher learning as it is social engagement at events on evenings and weekends. It is about our spirit. Are we selectively estranged from our spirit? Our Ehi?
Ehi (Edo) (chi in Igbo) represents the core of one’s physical and spiritual being expressed in personal characters and values of knowing who you are in different African cultures. In a sense, each person has a duality or the physical self and the spiritual self. In describing chi, Chinua Achebe presented it as central to the selfhood he has described in the duality in Igbo’s personhood. The physical being and the spiritual being are represented in one – ‘When one thing stands, another thing must stand beside it’. His explanation of this Igbo cosmology parallel that of many other ethnic groups and nations within Nigeria. The duality of self is one affirmation of being, but the duality of knowing is just as complex to unpack much as the duality of self. Much of the progress noted to date in a country like Nigeria (e.g. music and movies) centers around social productions that are anchored in being at home with one’s spirit – Ehi. More on this on a future blog.
For much of what I have addressed on culture, the core principle always comes back to not simply knowing about what is new and potentially important as part of an inevitable journey, but more importantly what is forgotten about what is known as critical aspects of the spirit and soul of our personhood. This message of not forgetting what is known is most profoundly presented by Cheikh Hamidou Kane in his book Ambiguous Adventure. The desire and inevitability of new knowledge and the danger of such knowing leading to forgetting or sidelining the spirit of what is known. I must admit that I continue to marvel at the African literary thought leaders of the 60s and 70s whose powerful messages continue to resonate today. They foresaw and sounded warning bells at not becoming a stranger to both our personal and cultural spirits. Using the power of their writings to caution about the benefits and danger of what is being introduced but more importantly as a reminder to Africans about what not to forget. From Achebe’s Things Fall Apart to Kane’s the Ambiguous Adventure and their contemporaries, including Wole Soyinka and Ngugi Wa Thiong O, they were very much aware of the inevitability of the adventure into Western ways of knowing channeled through Institutions of religions and schools. The new ideas brought to Africa were never positioned to stand side by side with African ideas but instead they were to replace them. The arrival of these religiosities and schoolings became historical moments and the 60s and 70s African thought leaders were deeply moved to tell stories that warn of what was about to be forgotten – Our individual and collective Ehi. The literary message which were framed in African drumbeats forewarned Africans about becoming visitors to their souls.
Reminding my audience of the Sage of Tai Solarin in his column that was wisely penned, ‘Nigeria, May your road be rough’,…I noted that Solarin was not wishing Nigeria ill-will but simply underscoring the African saying that reminds us that ‘Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors’…That is, through trial and tribulations the path to the future must be forged. But the trial may be in how old stories are retold and relearned to never forget. That we have lessons to learn from Lambo’s Aro and Ofi’s yam powder. But the tribulation often comes in form of new knowledge that may seem as the only solution when in fact it is only A solution from which lessons can be gained but not THE solution against which all else is forgotten. Indeed, some of the most difficult challenges we face today in the health conditions in different African countries are less about not learning something new and more about forgetting what has been. Forgetting about the role of food in health, particularly when villages and towns control the means and process of producing the food (food sovereignty), rather waiting for exported foods that are mostly processed and bad for health while bemoaning the need for food security. Forgetting about relationships in families and communities that was normalized in Aro but clearly normative in African families. Indeed, it is the lessons of African family that remains the anecdote to loneliness, believed today to be a major contributor to diseases. At a later date, I will address the issue of loneliness resulting from today’s African middle class elders facing loneliness due to their success in sending their children to other countries for better lives. This is one of the lasting legacy of failed leadership in African countries. Not forgetting the benefits of cultural strength in family pattern is critical to the future of health in Africa. What are you forgetting even today, even now? Are you a stranger to your spirit? Are you at home or still waiting in a house?