Last week we took a break from our series on spirituality and religion to publish a different article – a tribute by a dear friend to commemorate my 83rd birthday on the 1st of January. This week, we’ll pick up from where we left off exploring the concept of spirituality, religion and the impact on the way we live our lives.
In Africa, we believe in reincarnation. In some cultures, they are called Abikus and in others, they are called Ogbanje; both meaning, the ones who come to go. All these are immersed in spirituality and religion. You see, Africans and specifically Nigerians are deeply spiritual. I will make bold to say also that humans of all nations, races, and demographics are deeply spiritual in one form or the other. The percentage of the population of any community that spends time under spiritual guidance may differ and be a matter of disputed discourse now, in the past and in future. The fact remains that human beings can exhibit their spiritualism when they choose to, or as a way of life.
I am intrigued about spirituality as a way of life. To some of us, it is a first nature as we practice spiritualism without even trying, without knowing it. Our spiritual journeys start off at birth. The circumstances surrounding the birth of a child, be it from the union of the parents, the conception of the child, the delivery of the pregnancy, the position of the child in the family, all play roles in the naming of the child. This is the origin of the proverb in my place that interprets as ‘Your name awaits you.’ Or ‘Your name guides you.’ A person’s given name denotes circumstances around his/her family, both immediate and extended. But such names in most cases always denote thanks, hope, and repeated visitations from reincarnation, and supplications to a higher power.
In many parts of Nigeria, families and communities believe in reincarnation both of the dead and of the living. Peoples’ characters and traits have been known to be replicated amongst family members so much so that the reincarnated person is clearly identifiable by majority who have encounters with such children or beings. In most cases, especially in my culture, this is seen as a good thing that we even pray for. We beseech the gods to send back to us those who have left beautiful and indelible marks on the lives of others. When a child successfully looks after his or her parents, culminating in befitting burials when they depart, the elders will ask the gods to allow the departed parents to come alive in their children’s homes in the future. This belief is so strong that even when these favoured children are past child-bearing age, the prayers are willed to be answered in the lives of the grand and great grandparents.
But there is also the reincarnation of the third kind, which in most cases brings palaver. In this case, the Abiku and the Ogbanje readily come to mind. Akwaeke Emezi is a talented writer and one who identifies as Ogbanje, in a book titled ‘Freshwater’, they talk about the experience of coming into a body, the feeling of being absent and present and their connection to the earth goddess Ala. Here’s quote from Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater:
“Sometimes, you recognize truth because it destroys you for a bit. The world in my head has been far more real than the one outside—maybe that’s the exact definition of madness, come to think of it. The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.”
When I was sixteen, I lost the only sister I had from my birth parents at the young age of thirteen. I was not informed of her death until a few months later. After I heard of her passing, I began to see her in my dreams, sometimes even while awake. I would even hear her voice. It happened for years. I would daydream about having a conversation with her. I would feel her presence, like she never really left to a point I convinced myself that I was lied to about her death and was hoping to see her or have her visit me one day. This of course never happened but at the time, everything I was experiencing felt so real and I could not explain it because I was far away from home or anything that reminded me of her, at a place she has never been to.
When I was a lot older, I finally accepted her death and went to my people who had been present at the time of her death and burial to inquire about where she was buried but they told me that they had forgotten her burial place since it had happened in a community burial ground. These made me resolve to keep a fragment of her in the form of DIDI Museum, after a sister that lived for so short a while. Sometimes, I walk around the museum and can almost feel her presence almost as if our spirits are connecting.
It was Emperor Haile Selassie I who I quoted in the first part of the article that said ‘Spirituality does not come from religion. It comes from our soul. We must stop confusing religion and spirituality. Religion is a set of rules, regulations, and rituals created by humans…Spirituality is simply a way of life, pure and original as given by the Most High. Spirituality is a network linking us to the Most High, the universe, and each other.’
This is clearly reflected in our culture as what we believe as permitted by the higher beings finds its way into our marital affairs, human relations, and culinary habits. In my culture, one is not allowed to marry his or her cousins three times removed. On the culinary scale, people from Umolum quarters in my town do not eat tortoise. Okpanam indigenes are said to abhor the eating of rams, but the sheep is fine meat though for them. Also, Asaba indigenes will not touch Ogbono soup, but will devour Okra in any form.
A woman who has indulged in adulterous affairs may never cook for the husband until she is cleansed of her sins. He would also not sleep with her until the right rituals are carried out. If he knowingly continues to eat from her well and kitchen while in her state of defilement, he shall become sick, and may die if he does not desist from such associations.
A careful observation of life in the communities and their governance culture will reveal the belief systems rooted in these norms and practices. Prior to the advent of the missionary colonialists, our people had their own ways of life steeped in a deep reverence of the ancestors and the Most-High God, Chi-Ukwu or Chukwu. There is recognition of a higher authority that must be reached through our ancestors who have laid down the processes of connectivity, worship, intervention, and appeasement. The superiority of humans and the sanctity of life are acknowledged truths. Equally acknowledged are the mediums of approach between us and our Chukwu (Almighty God). These are the faith healers, the chief priests, the soothsayers, and oracles.
Interactions with these mediums usually happen when the wise men of the communities observe that there is trouble or malfeasance in the land. They would then elect to seek divine guidance for the truth. Inquiries are sought from the mediums who will pronounce the penance after due consultations with the gods and ancestors. These penances may be in the forms of appeasements, sacrifices of livestock and produce, philanthropic gestures to the needy, and apologies to those offended (compare with the confessions and penances of the Church, or the Jewish sacrifices at the Temple).
To be continued…