We must Recollect, Preserve and Share Our Stories.
It was when I began seeing the chocolate water, waving forests, ripening farms, canoes dancing to miming waves, curling creeks curdled by creek towns and the orange lights of gas flaring cast on black skies, that I felt the depth of how much I had missed. A wave of bittersweet memories arose in my mind.
So much hadn’t changed about the place that is my home. After years of being away and grappling with homesickness, I was finally in my hometown — somewhere down the creeks of Bayelsa — for the holidays. Though I look forward to sharing specific memories of mine, this piece is about the disputed memory of a clan over 200 years old.
During my short visit to my riverain home, I had the benefit also of reading the recent judgment of the High Court affirming community A’s ownership claim over an expanse of land that is home to crude oil. Perhaps you should save your congratulations and instead, pray that another community in my clan will not join the league of the restive and most polluted areas on Earth, as it is in the pipeline to become, if not already being, sacrificed on the insatiable altar of Nigeria’s oil-reliant economy. To be clear, my hesitation to join in the celebration is not coming from a place of dislike for “progress and development”. Rather, it is founded on the track records of oil exploitation in the Niger Delta.
Aside that, some things are worrisome about the oil-smeared dispute. In disputing community A’s ownership of the oil-infested land, communities B and C alleged that community A does not belong to the clan; that the latter’s founder, having allegedly emigrated from another Ijo clan into the clan, was hosted by towns B and C and allowed to stay only as a tenant and that his children were therefore trespassers in the disputed land.
It was in evidence that community B and C placed reliance on a certain J.C. Potter’s Intelligence Report in making this argument. On the contrary, town A’s claim was that, their founder and progenitor was also one of the brothers of the progenitors of towns B and C, and was the rightful owner of the disputed portion. Upside or downside, the court believed town A’s oral tradition over towns B and C’s reliance on the J. C Potter’s Report.
My first worry is that this judgment might not mark the end of the dispute, and I say this not only because Community B and C might proceed to the Court of Appeal but also because it may, if it already hasn’t, cause a rift to erupt between the sister-towns, particularly those who were involved as either witnesses (through paramount rulers and chiefs) or parties in the tussle over the land in question. This means bad blood flowing in the hitherto chocolate creeks that connect the clan.
Thus, while community A may feel unloved by her sisters due to a perceived jealousy from them over her newfound “fortune”, the others may harbor embittered feelings of having been “defeated by a stranger in their land”. Suspicion. Estrangement. This is both dangerous and ridiculous, because most members of the clan can trace their roots to at least three, if not all, of the about six communities in the clan!
The second and by far most worrisome thing is that, this rift would be created by the reliance of certain communities on a history about the clan as documented by the said J.C. Potter, a white man! Imaginably, had the court agreed to J.C. Potter’s conjectures, town A may have been sent packing or allowed to stay only on such conditions and terms as may be suitable to towns B and C. Imagine a scenario where an entire community that had lived in a particular place for over 200 years, is subjected to such absurdity! Although it was in evidence that J.C. Potter’s “inside” source had later brought drinks to apologise for giving a false hint on community A’s origin, it was too late; the spear had already left the hand of the tribesman and could not be called back. I only hope that the spear will not tear its target — the over 200 years old coexistence of the clan — apart.
But there are unanswered questions. How did this happen? What may have caused the inside source to give the white man that false hint? If it were true that community A were strangers, how come they had been allowed to stay in the clan and partipate in the traditional affairs of the clan, like having representatives in the council of chiefs and even being privy to the deep secrets of the cults and worship system of the clan? And for all those years? I do not intend to answer for someone. I certainly will not insinuate anything as to why that inside source did what he did. Yet, there is an actual or seeming failure on our part to collectively preserve, promote and protect our way of life as found in our library.
The library of the Ijaws, like every other traditional African tribe/society, is the memory of their aged. And that is why it is said that when an old person dies in Africa, an entire library has been burnt down. When I was little, I didn’t have the opportunity to sit down with my grandmothers or grandfathers to listen to moonlight stories. So unfortunately, some had embraced their night when my sun arose, and the others had lived faraway from us. God bless their memory. I also didn’t have that from my parents. But I wasn’t totally deprived; I had older cousins and playmates who had tapped from the memories of other old persons and, when we gathered under the moon, they would share with those of us who didn’t have stories to tell, and we too would then have stories to tell. Regrettably and with apology, as an adult I do not have so many of those stories in my memory now, though I am making efforts to recover them again.
Oral tradition is subject to the downsides of human memory and prone to manipulation. In my experience, no moonlight story was ever told exactly the same way under two different moons. Usually, with every new moon, the story became sweeter with slight adjustments and embellishment from the teller. This night the tortoise may have fallen from the sky to land on rocks and broken his back, the following night he would land on broken utensils to break the same back. Thus, the same story may have as many versions as there are storytellers, although having the same essence and lessons. In present times, this constitutes a disadvantage rather than an advantage to our culture. It allows for anyone to tailor oral tradition to suit his purpose.
The situation becomes graveer as the culture of recovery of memory, like many others, is now gasping for breath in our communities. Nowadays, children hardly sit down with the old to ask and listen or share time together in the moonlight (or even under the electric bulb). We are losing our memories. We are losing our lives. I will not rush to blame someone or something for this. But I know that, by not recovering our memories and telling our stories consistently and as accurately as possible, we lose ourselves and become what/who strangers say we are.
Our stories are precious. they can be shields as well as swords, sometimes against us.
And so, here we are as a clan. We not only wash our dirty clothes in the public view, we do so with borrowed soap and, like children, rub the resulting foam in our eyes. I am immediately reminded of Achebe’s words in Things Fall Apart: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably…we were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together. We have fallen apart.” This is the story of many African clans. I hope not for this one.
Long live the riverside.