Last year Bolatito Onanuga flew into the country with her two sons, Terry and Tony, for summer vacation. They had an idea of the kind of holiday they hoped to have while in the country. One of the places earmarked for them by relatives was the National Museum, Onikan. She was surprised to see that the museum had been refurbished; it looked different from when she had visited it a couple of years ago. Then, according to her, most of the artefacts were dust-ridden, showing years of utter neglect. “I had thought my kids could learn about the rich cultural heritage that Nigeria has to offer,” she says of that first visit a couple of years back, “but I was disappointed at the state of things at the museum. That gave me the impression that we are a country with no sense of history.”
Onanuga and her kids are just few of the many Nigerians in the Diaspora who believe Nigeria should be able to give them a sense of history and belonging after years of sojourning in foreign lands. But most of them have been disappointed by lack of documentation of the past for generations yet unborn.
As a History teacher, Akinlawan Toluwalase says Nigeria, like so many other modern African states, is the creation of European imperialism. Its very name, after the great Niger River, the country’s dominating physical feature, was suggested in the 1890s by British journalist Flora Shaw, who later became the wife of colonial governor Frederick Lugard.
“Nigeria as a political state encompasses 250 to 400 ethnic groups of widely varied cultures and modes of political organisation. The history of the Nigerian peoples extends back in time to some three millennia. Archaeological evidence, oral traditions, and written documentation establish the existence of dynamic societies and well-developed political systems whose history had an important influence on colonial rule and has continued to shape independent Nigeria. It’s a pity, however, that in modern times we don’t document history anymore. Even the old relics are rotting away; no one cares for them,” he laments.
According to him, Nigerian history is fragmented in the sense that it evolved from a variety of traditions, but many of the most outstanding features of modern society reflect the strong influence of the three regionally dominant ethnic groups – the Hausa in the north, the Yoruba in the west, and the Igbo in the east.
Akinlawan explains that there are several dominant themes in Nigerian history that are essential in understanding contemporary Nigerian politics and society, and which are also good for record purposes. For him, guns used during the civil war should be displayed at the museum; same for pens used by late elder statesmen. This, according to him, is what will serve as a guiding light for other generations.
“The creation of the Sokoto Caliphate in the jihad (holy war) of 1804-8,” he says, “brought most of the northern region and adjacent parts of Niger and Cameroun under a single Islamic government. This was documented in history for our generation to read, but what do we have as legacies for generations yet unborn? Second, the slave trade, both across the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic Ocean, had a profound influence on virtually all parts of Nigeria. History recorded this. Third, the colonial era was relatively brief, lasting only six decades or so, depending upon the part of Nigeria, but it unleashed such rapid change that the full impact is still felt in the contemporary period. These things are there for us to see. As the most populous country in Africa, and one of the ten most populous countries in the world, Nigeria has a history that is important in its own right but that also bears scrutiny if for no other reason, at least to understand how and why this nation became as it is today.”
Chinedu Nnaji, an attendant at the Old Skool bar in Festac Town, Lagos, says the bar is so-called because they want customers to feel at home and at the same time recall what the country was like in the 1960s and 70s; hence old models of cars are parked at the bar entrance to signify this. “When there is no legacy to leave behind, history seems to be forgotten. In today’s world, it is not just history, but the heritages, norms, even language and all that make up the fabric of a people’s existence seem to be fast losing its grip on people. Though there are still some cultures that hold their sense of existence tenaciously and with pride, the individuals that play in these cultures are becoming less careful in keeping with the tenets of their culture,” he says.
Some years back, people with tattoos on their bodies seemed to regret coming into the family of their birth because of the various drawings their parents made on their skin which they felt marred the natural beauty of their skin. Some whose names were written on their skin queried the essence of giving them names when people could read them on their bodies. The facial marks that identified people of particular ethnic groups without further inquiries are all but gone. Those were some of the beautiful ways of preserving history and cultural heritage in the past.
But ironically, and surprisingly too, such complaints don’t seem to be heard these days with trendy body tattoos that have become common among teenagers and young adults. As body marks resurge in form of tattoo, they are now fashionable and possibly leave the various traditions with the opportunity of forever sustaining that part of their cultural practices. By covering that portion of the body that is taken over by stretch marks with beautiful tattoos, many end up going back to their roots and playing up the cultures of their forefathers. The Fulani people of northern Nigeria, for instance, have for ages preserved their body beautification with an array of natural cosmetics that make their men look even more likeable than their women.
Different traditional attires distinguish the different ethnic groups in Nigeria and bring out the colour and splendour associated with culture all over the world. But in the face of dying culture or modernisation, some of these once revered regalia are fast giving way to jeans, suits and western fashion. Apart from the Hausa people who revere their traditional fashion to the extent of wearing the caftan to offices and formal occasions, no other ethnic nationality in the country sees its traditional wear as good enough to be on at every occasion.
As big as the National Arts Theatre that sits on several acres of land at Iganmu Lagos is, many pay less attention to its relevance. No wonder it was considered for sale during the privatisation and commercialisation craze of the last administration. But the edifice is a monument, a symbol of the nation’s rich cultural heritage, and the call for its sale depicts the deep erosion of our cultural values.
Nevertheless, those who are inclined towards preserving their existence do so in very remarkable ways. At least the traditional hairstylists are making a profession and money out of their craft. The hairdo is not cheap. Fixing weave-on and other artificial hairs is cheaper, but those that choose the weaving dream their past and try to sustain it in their present.
Equally, traditional festivities are now modernised to enable the younger generation to identify with and sustain their heritage. Eyo masquerade festival in modern Lagos cannot be as archaic as it was in the 60s. The rituals involved in some celebrations are now watered down to allow even some religious faithful to participate as well in the celebrations and, in doing so, help to sustain them.
As much as the world, particularly Africa, is losing a substantial part of its heritage to modernisation, that same modernisation is as well providing opportunity to improve and better sustain the past. Blacks in Diaspora long to keep what Africans are throwing away, and in so doing, tell Africans at home that there is nothing to learn from the western culture. On the streets on London, Paris, New York, etc, it is easy to find these Blacks wearing ‘gele’, weaving their hair, and going to African restaurants to eat such local meals as ‘amala’ just to identify with a culture so far away from their domain.
It may sound like living in the past, but many people have cultivated the habit of keeping things they bought or acquired many years ago either because they are attached to it or because they believe the quality of that particular item is much better than what obtains today. Victoria Awolesi kept some clothes she bought years ago while she was in Germany, some of which her children use today. Her love for keeping items she bought then is what she calls ‘appreciating and preserving quality’. “My daughter went somewhere sometime ago and she came back telling me how her friends appreciated the skirt she wore. She said they were surprised to know that I wore the skirt while I was young. This might sound extreme, but my first daughter is over thirty-five years old and when she had her first baby, it was the shawl I used in wrapping her as a baby that I used for her child. I love to keep things. We cannot deny the fact that the quality of what obtains now is different from that of years past and if at all you get it, it may be more expensive,” she explains.
There are other people who believe that there is the need to teach the younger ones about their history so they do not forget where they are coming from. Folusho and Yinka Olaleye make it a point of duty to ensure their children attend Yoruba lessons. “My children were born in the United States,” Yinka narrates. “They spent ten years there. Later, my husband got transferred to Nigeria, and I was later transferred too. Of course, our children are going back to the US for their higher education, but while they are here, we have decided to get them a Yoruba teacher who comes around once in a week to teach them more about the language. Their father and I are glad that they see the reason why we want them to understand their language.”
And for Folusho, “I was born here and I remember my times in the village. It was fun. I try once in a while to take my children to the village to learn and see the way things are done in the village. Due to the nature of my job and their mother’s, there is not enough time. I try to communicate with them in Yoruba and they respond too. My wife and I agreed on the idea of the Yoruba teacher and I am glad that the children are learning a lot because no matter how modernised you become, you must never forget where you are coming from.”