"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
November 25, 2014
When Traditions Become Liabilities
by Imo Eshiet

Africans cherish traditions, and many of these have much to recommend them.

However, some of the traditions handed down by ancestors for centuries through oral communication to moderate chaos and keep order on an even keel have now lost their particular resonance. Some have their original simplicity replaced by so much ostentation that those who originally designed them anciently would now shudder with shock and revulsion.

Sadly, many have become real liabilities with their values fading into utterly stupefying wretchedness. Bluntly, some like bride price, head-hunting, human sacrifice, expensive burial ceremonies, and assaulting wives and children have no place in modern civilization.

A short while ago, a friend wrote to me about how he dealt with one evil cultural tradition.

At work, he received a text message that his father had passed. Grief stricken, he hurried home to consult his folks on burial arrangements.

First, the elders demanded a cow from him because the father was a high chief in the village council. This was in addition to seven goats, twenty five tubers of choice yams, thirty cartons of assorted beer, fifteen crates of soda, some boxes of cigarettes and snuff. For other items they couldn’t readily name, the young man was asked to shell out five thousand dollars in cash.

His kinsmen and women demanded bales of cloth to sew and wear as uniform during the mourning period and another set of dress materials to wear at the burial ceremony.

During the month-long mourning period, he would feed the entire village thrice daily. He would slaughter a cow on alternate days and have several bands on stand for entertainment.

The dead man’s church in turn added an endless list of demands to the family’s agonizing anxieties. These included a cow for the officiating pastors, another for the women’s group and yet another for the men. The church choir asked for five goats, some quantities of drinks and packets of cigarettes. Of course food for the church for the duration of the mourning and burial was a given.

Meanwhile, the church said it had several bodies lined up for burial and could only find an opening in its calendar in six months. The family was to embalm the body and keep it in the house until then. It did not matter that deadly viruses were taking a dreadful toll on lives, and leaving a corpse for months in a house where entire families lived was extremely hazardous.

Before now, my young friend had been unemployed for years after graduating from the university. He coasted along foraging for the barest gleanings, which barely put a shirt on his back. He became the target of rude jokes and mean mockery in the village.

Undaunted, he kept applying for jobs until he landed one at an oil company. With his new employment he kept himself and his extended family just above water. And then, the father fell ill and he had to pick up hospital bills in addition.

At his death, the family was virtually penniless. So when these various groups made the senseless demands, my friend was aghast.

Crestfallen and confused, he called his immediate family to a meeting. He presented the bewildering situation to them and asked for opinions. Some suggested selling their family home to meet the demands. Other said to borrow money from the bank.

After listening to all suggestions, the young man flatly rejected the extortions. Churning with double disappointment, the loss of the father and the heartless pressures by those from whom he expected compassion and solace, he laid out his plans before his siblings. That night he bought a casket. He and his brothers dug the grave so they could bury their father the next day.

In the city where he lived he had joined a church that ordained him into the Melchizedek Priesthood, with authority to officiate in certain matters of life and death.

He would consecrate the father’s grave and bury him if the dead man’s church and villagers would not show up. Everyone agreed it was the thing to do. The next morning, he sent for the church, the extended family, and the village council.

He announced their decision and welcomed those who wanted to stay and witness the burial. Some people left while others stood by.

Done with the burial, he left for the city to resume his job.

I sweated as I listened to his story. As a family head and a high chief myself, I was awed by his wisdom and courage and absolutely approved his decision.

If available information on the age of continents is true, Africa is the most ancient of all. If this is so, it follows then that some of the oldest human traditions are to be found in there.

Many of these traditions, the family, for instance, are the basis for communal memory. We have from experience found that by banding together and standing as one we can better deal with challenges.

Thus we developed over time, strong tribal and family bonds to enable us to survive threats to our personal and collective security. Since we have not worked out the insurance systems that cover people against calamities, we, however, have kinsmen and women to come to our aid when fires ravage our property or when storms blow off our roofs.

Our folk act as undertakers when we die or caregivers when we are ill. In rural Africa and even in our cities, there are no homes for the aged because our elderly live with relatives to the end of their days.

We are also a people faithful in the gospel. We necessarily hold on to the hope the gospel offers because we are mostly neglected if not altogether abandoned by our governments.

But sadly enough, many previously time-honored traditions have been corrupted into orgies of greed and repression.

How can a church by any name demand from mourners, those in need of help, comfort, and succor? To whom, then, can those beset by unfortunate circumstances turn for solace? Are our churches thus not fulfilling the prophecy that many shall be led astray and many shall call good evil and evil good?

Paul saw our times with clarity when he blasted it as “perilous times” when many will be without “natural affection … incontinent,” that is, lacking self-control, and “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.” Such perverts, he added, would have “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof … Ever learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

The demands made by tradition and by most Nigerian churches as they exploit the vulnerabilities of ignorant folks are as reprehensible as the fundamentalist decrees of Boko Haram.

These horrors remind me of a cult in the village I was raised. When a member of the Ekpo cult died, members went berserk, visiting violence on women and anyone else without clout in village affairs. They whimsically slew animals and with the same caprice, chopped down plantain and banana trees even when the fruits were not ripe enough to be eaten.

What good could such cruel custom possibly serve?

Traditions were intended to give balance and control to society. But having lost their vital impulses, many now reinforce tyranny, and as Thomas Paine remarked, “Tyranny, like hell is not easily conquered.”

Although we have great virtues to share with the world, we also have tyrannies to take down. Tyrannies everywhere make man less than human. We must refuse to be hedged in by bad traditions, and expensive burial can hardly be justified in a land beleaguered by hunger, disease, and death.

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About Imo Eshiet

Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.

Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North Carolina Stake.

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