Defence of lasting values- Niyi Osundare
Let us begin by deliberating on the choice and import of the word “still” in the above title. A temporal, somewhat contrastive adverb, the word carries connotations of the relationship between time past and time present, with possible implications for time future.
It purveys significations of an idea, an act, a condition, a circumstance, a plague, a pleasure that once was but has refused to go away, or has been prevented from doing so. In my personal deployment of that word in this lecture, I have imbued it with a dose of stubborn insistence, a heady never-say-die spirit, a somewhat inexplicable tenacity, a delicate optimism borne of a visionary impulse. It is emboldened by what is (or used to be, alas,!), a globally recognized Ekiti Ideal (More on that later).
For, the title of my lecture today has been with me for almost two decades, and its spirit had lived in my consciousness long before that. “In Defence of Lasting Values”: that was the title of my acceptance speech at the 2001 Amoye Grammar School Alumni Award ceremony. Almost one decade and half later, I had to update that address for publication in a special magazine by the same school. And curiously enough, while racking my brain for a fitting subject for today’s momentous event, that title popped up again, and I began to feel something akin to the urge to complete – no, continue – an unfinished business which will never stop agitating my mind until the task has been done. For, a frightful lot has happened to Ekitiland since 2001 when my first Values lecture engaged the attention of my fellow Amoye Grammar School alumni. Our state has see-sawed from light to darkness, darkness to light, and back to darkness again, as we fumbled from gubernatorial tenures marked by civility and visionary idealism to others characterized by primitive despotism and medieval barbarism.
We became the only state in Nigeria clamped down under a state of emergency and humiliated with the imposition of a unilaterally appointed sole administrator, even in a civilian dispensation. In spite of all this, where then did I get that audacity to prelude my “Defence of Lasting Values” with that word ‘Still’ with its obstinately recurrent import?. What “values” am I talking about, and what is responsible for their much touted resilience?
Values are that body of beliefs, principles, norms, and mores which undergird custom and convention, and are the major determinants of a people’s way of being, thinking, doing, behaving; their perception of themselves and others, their recognition of their place in the world. They are the building blocks of major societal institutions such as religion law, politics, and the economy.. In many ways, the relationship among these institutions and the value system could be seen as symbiotic, mutually referential, and mutually reinforcing. Value consciousness, or what I am inclined to call value literacy, plays a vital role in the determination of what society categorizes as acceptable practices and protocol
of behavior, much as it shapes what gets ostracized to the territory of abominations and taboos. This is why the aakii; an in in Ekiti dialect (we do not…..; it is not done) principle in Youruba proverbs and other wise sayings is so potent, at times to the point of legal prohibition. In the thinking of many elders, the flagrant flouting of the aakii principle is largely responsible for the social anomy and cultural degeneration that pervade Yoruba society today. It is also the cause of the rampart, ostensibly uncontrollable corruption that is the bane of our social health and economic sanity. The value system provides the determining tool for judging greatness and its opposite, for heroism is determined by the aggregate of those achievements and salient aspects of behaviour considered highly treasured by all, but achievable by only a few. The hero is the instantiation and practical demonstration of these ideals, their exemplum and enviable champion.
Our value options define us even as we define those options. “Show me the value system of a society, and I will tell you what kind of people it contains”. A society given to materialism will measure people’s self-worth and importance by their possession of hefty bank accounts and/or the size and number of their cash-loaded Ghana-must-go’s, the palatial superfluity of the family mansion, the exclusive location of their residence, the trendy, foppish extravagance of the wardrobe, the number of automobiles in the family garage and driveway and their ‘awesome’, exotic make/class, , the model, size, of the family private jet, and, these days, the pedigree and jaw-dropping price of their mobile phone/handset. And, of course, these material acquisitions never come without their socio-economic, political, and ethical correlatives. For, a well oiled, satanically orchestrated regimen of sleaze and corruption is required to keep the personal wealth going – and increasing - and ensure that the control of political power remains in the hands of those that are certain to maintain the haemorrhaging of the commonweal in order to guarantee the in-flow of public wealth into private pockets. After all, the money invested in the installation of lackeys through the rigging of a civil election, or change of government by means of coup de tat has one principal goal: the maintenance and sustenance of that evil nexus of economic power and political dominance to the benefit of the powerful actors and the eternal detriment of the citizenry.
Differential values. Differential goals. Differential accomplishments. Differential valuations. Contrary to the scenario laid out above, a society which places its priority is on knowledge, the wisdom which brings it into being, its generation, dissemination, and purposive command, is most likely to be made of a sober breed. While the money man flaunts his wealth, beats his chest, swears by the sheer superabundance of his possessions even as he sways and swaggers across his empire, the knowledge-seeker is priest in a different temple. The Book and other purveyors of knowledge are his prime possession, the library his mansion, his study his altar, the universe his canvas, Justice his abiding brief, Humanity his infinite charge. Ideas do not only rule the world. The world was invented by them and they have never ceased re-inventing it. For ideas are mercurial, potent, uncontainable, unkillable. They make the past present; they make the future look like the past. Inalienable offspring of the Imagination, they are the compost-bed of the most wondrous germinations, the fertile mother of all inventions, the forever intriguing cohabitation of fact and fancy. Very much like the architect, they live in houses before they are built.
Here, then, these two houses: the one built with cash and concrete, stone and steel, the other with dream and fancy; the one ruled by the netherworld of appropriations and appetites, the other by the invisible but eternally nourishing manna of the mind; the one hanging from the tinsel top of a golden rack, the other tremulous like that chord that strums the universal harmony; the one brash and brittle, the other made of supple clay; the one loud and rude, the other solemn and soberly reflective.
Differential values, differential adulations. The ideals you extol reveal the kind of person you are and your grammar of values. Once upon a time, Ekiti weighed these contending options and had no problem in knowing which to choose and where to go. That was when the world knew us as Alagidi Ekiti (Stubborn Ekiti people); when the happy synonyms of ‘alagidi’ included words such as ‘proud’, ‘tough-minded’, ‘principled’, ‘dependable’, ‘tenacious’, a people who knew their rights and how to defend them without trampling on the rights of others. That was when our heads stood straight on our upright necks; for we knew, without being told, the difference between wrong and right; between fake and true, between the dissembling demagogue and the genuine leader. That was when we knew the difference between night and day. That was when an abomination called stomach infrastructure had not replaced our brain with our innards.
I never saw people starve and die in the Ekiti of my youthful days. Whoever had a little more shared the surplus with the needy and hungry. Hard work and honest labour were highly valued, and the length of your ogbausu (yam barn) at harvest time in December and/or the impressive expanse of your cocoa farm were the toast of the town, which brought honour to you and your family, and might even win you a new wife. Wealth, honestly earned, was respected; wealth from dubious sources was disdained and ridiculed in traditional songs and snide remarks. That was the time people asked: Ibi se ti reo re? (Where did he get his money from/What is the source of his wealth?). Humanity was at the very centre of our universe. One of my mother’s relations was named Eotomo (The human being surpasses money), a name I got to know before Nigeria’s 2nd Republic politics made Omoboriowo a household name. This idea also found expression in an aphoristic saying I heard quite often in those days: Eo fun ruru, e t’oniyan (Money looks so flashy, but it is not as beautiful as the human being). The electoral activities in those days had their own venal blight too, but it is surely nothing to compare with the dibokose’be, (cast your vote and earn money for a pot of soup), dibokora’le (cast your vote and earn money to buy a plot of land) racketeering of today. I remember with aching nostalgia that Ikere man who was reported to have told his wife to return to sender the portion of salt given to her to secure her vote for a particular political party, his reasoning being Me yoj’eio (I don’t want to commit an abomination). Yes, indeed, that was when moral infrastructure sustained the strength of our house of values.
Ever before the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, made that dramatic answer popular, if you asked Ekiti people in those days three items that occupied topmost place in their list of priorities, the sure chorus would be ‘Education, Education, Education’. Upcountry people with no powerful political pedigree and handed-down wealth, Ekiti wrote those lines with their belief and action before the prodigiously talented Odunjo put them down on paper:
Ti a kobar’enifehinti
Bi ole la nri
Ti a kobar’enigbeke le
The heroes of my youth were educated people – or, more exactly, people who heightened our aspirations with the sheer enthusiasm and uncommon acumen with which they acquired Western education.
Our aspirational anthem was composed of names such as Ojo Ugbole, Ogundare, Ajayi Ikole, Longe Odina Ukere, Aluko Ode, Akintoye, Babatola, Afe Babalola Ado, Osuntokun Okemesi, Ajayi UgbaraOdo, Olaofe Are, Okeya Emure, Ogundipe Ijesa-Usu, Olubunmo Orin, Esan (of Esin Atiroja fame) Ikoro….. Infinitely fascinating is the nomenclatural peculiarity of these designations: the first being the surname of the subjects, the second the names of their towns of origin. In a true Yoruba oriki tradition, these figures bore their towns’s names as if they were their surnames. They shone the light of their achievements on those towns, gave them a place in the sun, and brought them to fame and reckoning. For a long, long time, I thought Ugbole was Ojo’s father’s name. The juxtaposition of person and place and the merging of distinct, uneven identities provides a unique instance of the ways one person could extol a whole town, the curious manner a tree could make a forest.
And of course, all this was happening when the magic of Zik of Africa, Obafemi Awolowo, Chike Obi, D.O. Fagunwa ruled the airwaves. All kinds of myths emerged around these names and their Ekiti counterparts listed above, myths which gathered strength and girth as they rolled along the boulevards of time. Absolutely edifying were the personal odysseys of many of these individuals, the different ways they triumphed over their travails. Take the case of Afe Babalola who, owing to financial indigence, took and passed all his degree examination at home, and who, today, is founder and proprietor of a flourishing university.
There is the fabulous story of Ojo Ugbole who, too poor to buy books, would simply saunter into the bookshop, pick up the required book, read and commit it to memory there and then, proceed to the classroom and excel in test based on that book! Our Juvenal realities derived both fillip and fire from their myths as we strove to be like these prominent individuals and replicate their sterling accomplishments.
Yes, education was the core value and driving dream of the Ekiti of my youth. And I, standing before you today, am a grateful beneficiary of the Ekiti Ideal. Many fathers leased out their cocoa farms; many mothers sold their favourite clothes to fund their children’s education. It was universally seen as the worthiest investment, as demonstrated clearly in the following song, which was one of my mother’s favourites:
Elu o e
Elu o eee
Elu o aaa
Elu o aaa
Ku ‘kubatimomop’omo mi luleoko o (If death does not kill my children in my husband’s house)
Mo ti a p’itanijomo je o (I will one day tell the story of when I had enough to eat)
Mo ti a p’itanijo mom un o (I will one day tell the story of when I had enough to drink)
Mo tias’eye Ologun Tisa o (I will be the proud mother of the Gallant Teacher)
Particularly significant in this song is the singer’s aspiration to become ‘eye Tisa’ (Teacher’s mother), a clear indication of the high esteem in which the teacher was held in those days. An institutional figure whose role and impact went beyond the classroom by virtue of his enviable learning and education, the teacher was regarded as an embodiment of enlightenment, a community leader, public letter-writer/reader, consultant on matters many and varied, disciplinarian of the community’s wayward children, who also sometimes doubled as lay reader or choir master in the community church.
In many communities, the Teacher’s pantry was regularly stocked with all manner of farm products as a token of appreciation of and gratitude for his teacherly duties and other services to society. Yes, indeed, time there was when the Teacher was both gallant and glorious. And Ekiti society was the better for it.
The Ekiti saw education as fortune-changer and tool of empowerment, the only way out of their land-locked lot with its rural privations and limited opportunities. People worked for it, hoped for it, prayed for it. Permanently etched in my memory is one of the events which occurred in Ikere in December 1971, during the Ikere Students Union public service drive. As Secretary to the Union, I was leader of one of the bob-a-job groups, armed with hoes, machetes, brooms, buckets, and all manner of tools, ‘jobbing’ all over the town for donations to our bursary fund – an ISU initiative designed to provide modest financial relief for needy and deserving Ikere students. As our group trooped through Ikere streets, townspeople stood by the roadside greeting ‘In okun o; In sere o’; and praying ‘A ye in o; Uku a pa in’ (Greetings. Thank you. It will be well with you. May you live long