|Print | Back||January 7, 2014|
African VoiceNew Year Rites and the Children of Sisyphus
by Imo Eshiet
As a kid I survived several bombs that had been gleefully thrown by the Nigerian government at those of us who lived in the eastern part of the country. In the rain forest where we dwelled, rain is incessant and so were the bombs. We called the Nigerian troops vandals, and they lived up to it.
Escaping the three-year scourged-earth campaign alive, however, is not the subject of this narrative. What amazes me now though is that I made it through those horrendous blasts with my eardrums still intact. Even the gut-wrenching screams of those whose limbs were shattered and the inconsolable wailings of those who lost more than a million souls in the pogrom did not impair my hearing.
Since then, I have been to sites — rock quarries, for instance — where dynamite is put to uses other than killing children and their parents. I have worked at international airport ramps where the roar of jet engines, the whirring of jetway bridges and the grunts of tugs are so noisome that using earplugs and sound mufflers are so imperative that ramp agents use signs other than words to communicate.
In Nigeria, where I lived most of my childhood and adult life, I was not only driven insane by its tumultuous politics, but was constantly shoved off the road by the aggravating pestilence of sirens maddeningly blared by heavily armed escorts of presidents, governors, ministers, senators and lesser state officials and their concubines when they went on their frequent joy rides and power show on the road.
While I am occasionally plagued by the nightmare of these eardrum-bursting experiences, it is the rumpus generated when time bisects an old and a new year in Nigeria that keeps ringing in my ears even though I have been physically away from the land. One reason goes back into the past. Another is of a more recent vintage.
In the past, among the Annang tribe in eastern Nigeria, there used to be carrier myth lore. This involved some cleansing rites, ceremonies and rituals performed at the end of the year to enable a land cluttered with guilt and burdened by misfortune recover from experiences that were against their moral code.
Folks feared that broken taboos had dire spiritual consequences for individuals and the group. Any taboo that had been broken was likely to incite ancestral disapproval that robbed the living of sleep. Disease, barrenness, crop failure, drought, famine and other natural or social dysfunctions traceable to human defaults were compensated for in this ritual so that the land could be reinvigorated and its people strengthened to go about their day-to-day businesses.
An animal, usually a goat or cow, was fattened and kept for years for this purpose. After sacred preparations (including ritual bathing and herbal fumigation), the sacrificial animal would be paraded through community pathways. Folks chanting and intoning magic words would then throw on the poor creature, ashes, scum and trash symbolic of their violations and hurt.
Following this, the animal would be expelled either by being let loose in the jungle for predators to feed on or by being set adrift at sea in a little dug-out canoe. It was believed the rite would have the effect of communal restitution. Folks believed in place of aridity they would now have fertility and instead of death, life, renewal, and unimpeded progress.
Following urbanization and the drift of people to the emerging cities, folks had to find another vehicle to cast out the demons that haunted them. Without the support systems of the tribe, the folks were broken. In addition, they met in the cities what they did not bargain for: frustration and disappointment.
Life in the cities was not only the antithesis of life in the country, but it was also so appalling it was like living in hell’s waiting room. Where in the villages the people could raise crops and animals at a basic subsistence level, in the cities they were largely unemployed, and so lived, breathed, and exhaled a poverty that numbed and darkened their lives.
Beaten down by misery and neglect, they urgently needed a new scapegoat to ease their uncertainty and take away the pain of their shattered lives. One came in handy in every dying year. At the end of every passing year, they pried open the black box of their bitter memories and cast their distress on the dead year. As is normal with the weak, they looked for safe targets to transfer their aggression. A dying year readily provided them with one.
Thus on the midnight of the last day of December, emblems of the poverty which they had in excess — filth, trash, rags, wilted wreaths used a couple of days back to celebrate Christmas — and set them ablaze on city streets and highways. It was their rite of purification, and they made a show of it through pyrotechnics. They who built bridges, roads with bare hands, schools and hospitals and other facilities but had no access protested their invisibility with fire.
It was a choice symbolism, for just on the night alone, they could be seen in their darkness. The fire burned with fury and vengeance just the same way the sun broke their back and roasted their skins in the day when they labored for pittance. The charred remains and detritus after the fire burned out blanketed the city with nasty layers of soot and ash.
On that night they also made sure they were not only seen but heard as well. Anything that could ring, peal, jar, clang, hoot, or generate deafening decibels of sound such as train whistles, foghorns, drums, empty vessels, broken iron and aluminum pots are all irately sounded ostensibly to mark the end of the year and to herald the new one.
When the screaming and howling human voices of the poverty-ridden 80% of the Nigerian population combined with these to reject the old year and welcome the new, the din notched towards a thunderous, convulsive ruckus. The groaning voices bemoaned and lashed out at the:
Year of death
Year of loss
Year of unemployment
Year of homelessness
Year of agony
Year of kidnapping
Year of armed robbery
Year of disease
Year of aridity and wilting crops
Year of barrenness
We cast you away
And may another like you never roll by us.
In contrast, when the clock struck 12 a.m. the chant changed from woe to hope. The New Year, they prayed, should bless them with health, abundance, gainful employment, rewarding business, and freedom from the evil eyes of neighbors and kinsmen.
They prayed that the New Year should protect them against dysfunctional schools that remain shut for a good half of the year because of strike actions by professors. They prayed that those of their children who had managed to graduate from schools should find jobs. They prayed against road accidents caused by witches, or roads in disrepair and reckless drivers.
It never ceased to amaze me how pumped up the folks were at the dawn of every New Year. Unlike me, who had grown cynical by the recurrent harsh reality in our country, the expectations of the people for good seemed inexorable.
I wondered if they knew that expelling an old year with curses and abuses and looking forward to a bountiful new year to change anything about their malignant and unsustainable condition was futile.
However, where I saw futility, the people saw hope. Perhaps if I didn’t know so much about the social process that kept us where we were, I wouldn’t have been so whipped by the awareness that in our unwarranted condition, hoping for improvement was like waiting for Godot.
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