The recent funeral of the late Aku Uka of Wukari, the traditional ruler of the ancient Jukun empire, one of the oldest in the Nigerian territorial areas in Nigeria. Thanks to social media and the democratization of audiovisual and photographic technology, many of us got to watch it unfold in real-time or real-time videos of it.
Already, instead of celebrating this beautifully passionate display of an ancient, traditional African funerary practice and its self-affirming and proud survival in the face of colonial and postcolonial pressures, I see derisive and dismissive contempt for the rites from the usual suspects.
The sight of thousands of men, women, boys, and children dressed in the traditional, hand-woven Jukun tie-dyed loincloth and adoringly marching, singing, and ululating to send their beloved king to the other side is remarkable.
But not everyone is impressed. The Pentecostal crowd is out in full force, condemning what it sees as demonic, cultic funeral rituals of the late king’s transition to the land of the ancestors. The problem I have with my Pentecostal brethren is that they sometimes have a hard time accepting a world where people of other religions can find their path to God or spiritual happiness. And they insist on applying the logic and exegetical rules of their faith to other religions and belief systems.
The traditional religion of the Jukun is just as legitimate as Pentecostal Christianity. It is older. Both are paths to God, one through the messianic status of Jesus, the other through the mediatory agency of ancestors and their spirits. The practitioners of the Jukun religion are just as confident of their access to God as Christians are of theirs.
The contempt for elaborate, mysterious, and ill-understood Jukun traditional rituals is part of the general perception of conventional practices as inferior fetish and Christianity and modernity as foreign and superior, even though these two phenomena are neither foreign nor superior. And even though the Bible itself clearly states that people who believe differently and follow a different path to God will be judged according to their deeds, values, and beliefs on Judgment Day.
Many critics hide their bigotry and contempt behind the image of the body of the late Aku Uka riding on a horse tied to a man said to be the person, as tradition demands, to accompany him to his final resting place. This is a euphemism for the man possibly dying and transitioning with the king.
The horse riding escort (Atobe) belongs to a unique family of royal courtiers and servants whose job is to groom male members for the role of escort so that when the time comes, one or more of them would eagerly volunteer to accompany the Aku Uka on his journey into the forest to be “delivered to his ancestors.”
From what I’ve read, the Atobe alone will ride on the horse with the corpse of the King to the final resting place deep in the wilderness, where he is expected to “deliver the king” to the gods and, depending on several factors and the decision of the gods, will return or not return from the honorable journey to Nando, the land of the ancestors.
In reality, many of the “sacrificial” companions return home, spared by the gods. Only a few do not. The idea is that if the gods wish, they could take the life of the king’s living companion during or at the end of the three-day journey deep in the forest.
In that case, the family would take some solace in the prepaid financial compensation but, more importantly, in the honor that their brave, self-sacrificial member is now a companion of the king in the afterlife. If the escort returns home, he achieves heroic status. He is lionized and revered as a person who accompanied the king to the other side and returned with supernatural powers and blessings from the gods and the ancestors.
Despite the effort of some secular, Christian, and Muslim critics to portray traditional religious practices as irrational superstition or esoteric fetish, there is logic, rationality, and functionality in every one of these practices, and in most documented cases, those who participate in them do so enthusiastically.
In the case of the Pankya transition ceremony of the Aku Uka, being the horse riding escort of the king is a coveted position of masculine honor and prestige, something that members of the designated family crave because, whether or not the person makes it back, the family and the horseman are forever credited with doing the bidding of the ancestors and thus bringing blessings and fortunes to the community.
That brings me back to the horse rider. It is considered a mark of great individual martial accomplishment and distinction to accompany the Aku Uka on the three-day journey and make it back because it indicates three positive facts in this cosmology. Firstly, the person is a great warrior who might have encountered wild animals and evil spirits and defeated them. Secondly, the surviving horseman is a man with a clean conscience and pure love for his community; otherwise, the gods would have killed him to save the community from the repercussion of his evil deeds or intentions. Thirdly, the gods are happy with him and the community because when he returns from the forest, he brings blessings, powers, and positive messages from the gods.
It’s true that during the ceremony, there is a foreboding possibility of the horse rider not returning, hence the prepayment of a ritualistic token compensation to his family. He goes to the mission fully aware of this possibility yet proudly embraces it as a free-willing adult eager to honor his king. How, by the way, is this different from the honorable and heroic kamikaze Japanese pilots of World War II, or the honor suicide of falling on the sword, or the practice of young men and women signing up voluntarily to go to war in defense of their country’s or king’s honor knowing fully well that the odds of returning alive is against them? We will never fully understand such traditions of heroic self-sacrifice, but there is beauty, nobility, and honor in the mystery.
As with every tradition, the mystery is an essential element, so trying to rationally explain or understand every aspect of it using the empirical logic of verifiability is misguided. The story, in this case, is that the gods and ancestral spirits take the life of the horseman undertaker as a sacrifice if they wish. Often, in these types of traditions, such stories serve to mystify further and thus entrench the tradition once the practice has become accepted. Without such mystifying stories, future generations might do away with the practice or invent a new one, so there is a perfectly rational political and social explanation for the story. It is a powerful technique to preserve the tradition beyond the people who invented it.
As one interlocutor, Zainab Ali explained, the real explanation may not even be mysterious at all and may have to do with the simple fact that in the old days, a man who rode a horse deep into the forest by himself unarmed was unlikely to return because of wild animals, thirst, hunger, physical injury, and climatic vagaries. The community knew this, but that explanation would have rendered the enterprise mundane and robbed it of its spiritual power. Therefore, in many such instances, even in the Western and Eastern monarchical and sociopolitical traditions, the people construct elaborate myths about gods, spirits, and forces in forests, in water, and in the sky that kills and spare as they wish.
Often such myths kill the proverbial two birds with one stone because, sticking with the current example, apart from sacralizing the possible disappearance of the horseman undertaker, further adding to the mysterious allure of the event, the story mystifies the monarchy, helping to consolidate it, forging obedience to it, and discouraging rebellion by putting fear in the hearts of subjects.
Despite Jukun people and those with intimate knowledge of the religion explaining that the Atobe is a royal servant who signed up for the role, many of the critics (from both the Christian and secular modernist perspectives) have pounced on this aspect of the funerary ceremony to condemn the religion of the Jukun as a vicious cult. Cultures are not static. They evolve, and in the Jukun, people may review any aspect of the ceremony they want to, but that is their prerogative; after all, heroic self-sacrifice, probable or assured, has been part of human history and culture for millennia and have become integrated into notions of patriotism and martyrdom by modern nation-states and religious groups.
Moreover, the existence of the Atobe tradition is not a reason to condemn, wholesale, the beautiful ancient funerary practice of the Jukun people, to deride the intense traditional religious devotion of the people, or to disrespect the sacred throne of the great Aku Uka.
For those who do not know, the Kwararafa/Jukun Empire, the postcolonial remnant of which the Aku Uka presides over, was the political cradle of most of the peoples and polities in Central Nigeria (Middle Belt), with the Idoma, Igala, Ngas, Eggon, Berom, Alago, Tarok, Ebira, Awe, and many other ethnic groups in the region tracing their origins or that of their kingship traditions to the great empire.
Jukun diaspora groups in Gombe, Adamawa, Nasarawa, Benue, Plateau, Kogi, Niger, Kano, and several other states. The Kwararafa empire headquartered in Wukari was so vast that it directly or indirectly ruled over a territory that briefly included Kano and left profound influences on many peoples, cities, and towns across Northern Nigeria.
It is possible to express one’s discomfort with some aspects of the funerary rites without condemning a beautiful, resilient religion, an excellent kingship institution, or the legacy of an ancient, glorious kingdom.
The author can be reached at [email protected]