Jan 2, 2019, 2:50:18 PM Life and Styles

My childhood was such that did not necessarily encourage African tradition and culture that much. In fact, education was tailored to make us as English as we possibly can, so much so that you may be punished if you were caught speaking in the vernacular back then in school. I can’t remember the point at which I decided to pay some attention to the culture of my origin, and then to others but if memory serves me correctly, the culmination of that, and the direction I thought I must then go became imperative when like most Igbo residing in Lagos, and other parts of Nigeria, my father moved us back to the homelands in the Southeast for protection, to avert a repeat of the pre-civil war days of 1967, as Nigeria then, once again appeared on the brink of another war, following the annulment of the June 12, 1993 election. That exodus was termed “Oso Abiola“, and I was fifteen at the time.

My dad returned for us weeks later, after the tension had died down, but been the longest I had ever spent in the village at the time, I came to very much appreciate the way of my people. The Igbo language I hitherto had sparse command of, I made extra effort to learn and use more frequently till I could comfortably converse in and with it. Though the culture of Nigerians with whom we lived in Lagos didn’t go unnoticed by me, I began to now pay more attention after we returned. As a TV person, culture themed programs held particular interests for me, and that was how I got my first introduction to the Benin culture. The only other time, was from mentions in social studies textbooks and notes, then from pictures depicting Nigerian pre-colonial history in a diary booklet belonging to my dad. On TV, it was the POT OF LIFE

sometime in the 1990s that did it for me. I remember once we went to see a maternal uncle of mine (now late) in Ketu, Lagos on a Sunday, and how I was worried that we would miss the weeks’ episode of the program, only for my uncle to tune in to the desired station, when it was time for the program. Better still, he had a colour TV to our Black & White, which made watching that episode at his place such a great deal. I removed myself from every other thing happening around me, till the show ended, and we had to leave moments after.

I had several encounters with the Benin culture afterwards in real life, with people from Benin, and Bendel State (now Edo and Delta States) whose way of life I watched either from a distance or closely, for just about anything extraordinary, and I invested some time into reading about the ways of the people. The Benin people, unlike some other cultures in Nigeria appear to be very reluctant in subjugating their culture under any of the religions for instance, brought to them from outsiders. They seem to have kept everything at a 💯, especially as regards those things that wouldn’t be considered uncivilized to do publicly today. It was in this culturally woke state that I got to know about a Book Review, and Question & Answer Session on a recently finished book, titled: THE BENIN MONARCHY: AN ANTHOLGY OF BENIN HISTORY aka THE BENIN RED BOOK,
edited by Oriiz U. Onuwaje, an accomplished publisher, who compiled the works of several historians, anthropologists and essayists into what is today, a one-stop, and a go to- book as regards matters concerning the Benin Empire, ancient, and I dare say, modern.

With Oriiz, was Tam Fiofori
a renowned photographer (photo-journalist) who set the ball rolling on the evening of Thursday December 20, 2018 at Quintessence Gallery, Parkview Estate, Lagos (where, as my custom was, I feasted my eyes on the pieces of art, and literature amongst other artefacts on display before joining other guests under the canopy decorated with upturned umbrellas, in front of the gallery, for the book reading), by expressing delight in the fact that the book review was happening in Lagos, Eko in Yoruba, derived from the Bini for “War Camp“, which it used to be in precolonial times, from where Bini warriors launched attacks on rival states such as Dahomey, amongst others, in several locations that extend beyond western Nigeria, onto West Africa. Interestingly, both men aren’t Edo by origin (Oriiz an Itsekiri from Delta State, and Tam a Kalahari from Rivers State), talk more being Bini, even though they lived a substantial part of their lives in Benin. Like me, they must’ve been so drawn by the beauty of the Bini culture, that they thought it wise to devote so much time of theirs to pursuing the unravelling of the dynamics of the culture and civilization of this great empire that has managed to survive the harshest of periods, to this day.

An example of such a period, Tam quickly reminded us, was that of the last king of independent Benin kingdom, Oba Ovonramwen N’Ogbaisi (1888 – 1914), who suffered the indignity of been exiled by the British invaders to Calabar, for not stopping the killing of British officials, traders and their accompanying African soldiers, who had opted to ignore the Oba’s refusal to grant the British vice-consul permission to visit Benin, at the time the latter wanted because of an annual festival ongoing at the time, which precluded the Oba from receiving visitors. Tam, just like a Professor of History, Obaro Ikime, whom he quoted, believes that things wouldn’t have degenerated to the extent of killings, and subsequently the war brought on by the British, in their so called “Punitive Expedition” (which apart from the fact that more lives were lost, including of civilians, saw the looting of priceless works of art in Benin, and the destruction of parts of the palace, and the city), had the British allowed common sense to prevail over brawl, and the “might is right” philosophy. An interesting aspect of that unfortunate series of events, was that it unveiled Nigeria’s first photographer, in the person of Jonathan Adagogo Green, who’d signed the picture he took of the Oba in chains, aboard a British warship off Bonny (where I once resided for about a year, with fond memories, and had known the Greens in Port Harcourt and Bonny Island), as J. A. Green, and up till recently wasn’t known to be Nigerian.

Once Mr. Fiofori was done with the introduction, the interactive session kicked in almost immediately with a question from a member of the audience, who recalling Tam’s alluding to Lagos/Eko as part of the old Benin Empire, being a Lagosian herself wanted to know if there’s any relationship between the Oba of Lagos, and that of Benin. In response, Oriiz stated his preference for staying off particularly controversial subjects, while staying as true to what is fact, as much as possible. He mentioned his alignment with the assertion by a certain Professor Alagoa that “a people have a right to their legends of history, of their origins. For instance, while the Bini believe that Oduduwa was human, and a Bini Prince who had to go on self exile for his life (and much later sent his son Oranmiyan – who married the daughter of a member of royalty -, to rule Benin as he’d become old, and couldn’t leave his newly founded kingdom in Ile-Ife), the Yoruba say he’s a deity descended from heaven to found their ancestral home in Ile-Ife. I became interested in the Oduduwa story, when in 2016, at the coronation of the current Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, he mentioned the Bini version, setting historians and royalty from both sides of the divide at each other’s necks, for a while before things finally settled, without any form of agreement.

Discouraged by the exorbitant price of the book (ranging from ₦75,000 to ₦150,000), a writer in the audience wondered if there was any plan in the offing, for cheaper and affordable versions, and if possible e-books of same, to which Mr. Onuwaje responded to the effect, that while soft cover versions will be produced, and efforts at breaking the book into parts are in the works, there’s no plan at all for making the electronic version of the book, if not for any other thing, the effort invested in time, research and finance, makes it impracticable.

To the question by another member of the audience, who wanted to know how Oriiz went about getting pictures for the book, seeing as it had been harduous a task for her, especially in Nigeria. He replied that, it was easier with museums abroad, where lots of Bini artefacts are stashed, but a different thing entirely in Nigeria. He narrated how he had to wait hours to see a Bini chief he’d been asked to see for his project, armed with a certain number of hot drinks, and other traditional condiments, but that once he’d developed a rapport with the man, his assistance was invaluably immense, and critical to the success of his project on Bini and Edo culture and tradition. This was corroborated by Tam, who said to learn about Bini culture, is to live with and be with Bini people, as nothing is easily revealed to just about any stranger whose sole aim is to gather information and leave.

Another insight I didn’t have before attending this book reading, was what Tam revealed about the Benin bronzes, which he described as the photography of the time, and how once photography became a thing, the Benin Monarchy was one of the earliest monarchies in Africa to embrace it, especially as a way to document not only the history of the Kings and their palaces, but also of their culture and tradition, with evidence abiding everywhere for all to see. It was at this point that Dr. May Ikeora a member of the anti-trafficking network in Edo State, who co-authored one of the chapters in The Red Book with Professor Kokori, arrived and immediately joined the conversation, talking about the connection between the Binis past and human trafficking today. She opined that the Bini people had been involved with slave trading as business, long before some other parts of Nigeria woke to it, and that at some point women were actively sold into slavery, so as not to reduce the number of men available for war, while meeting the quota in demand for slaves at the time.

However, she refused to accept that the history of Bini people with slavery may be particularly responsible for the menace of human trafficking that’s become prevalent in Edo State today, especially when the penchant for unusual migration that is commonplace amongst Edo youths is put into consideration. She held that “Herd Mentality” is responsible for the obsession to seek greener pastures abroad, by all means possible, where because someone had gone abroad and made it, others wanted to do same without finding out what exactly those that left for Italy, and other parts of Europe did (or whether they even had requisite qualifications for employment opportunities in Europe) before becoming wealthy enough to mount architectural masterpieces back home in Benin City and elsewhere in Edo State. So pervasive have the madness for risking everything for Europe through the Sahara to wartorn Libya become, that the Oba of Benin even had to place a curse on the traffickers, especially those who use diabolic means to hold down girls (who prostitute for them) mostly, from breaking free from their captivity. Dr. Ikeora believes that outreaches to the youths to intimate them of the dangers inherent in such adventures, as well as a reorientation will go a long way, in making the youths seek alternatives that are less risky, and less exploitative.

Other questions soon followed, and I asked the last, bordering on the repatriation of artefacts, especially those of Bini origin back to Nigeria, and what Mr. Onuwaje felt about it, considering the fact that we’ve not a society that appreciates such that much, including in terms of keeping such artefacts in safe and properly maintained conditions. His response was to the effect that he’d support the repatriation of such artefacts back to Nigeria, only on the condition that there’s a world class museum to accommodate them. The book review ended with a short vote of thanks, after which the audience mingled with the presenters to pick their brains on diverse issues of interest to those concerned. As for me, I made my way home while ruminating on all I’ve heard, and learnt that evening. Thankful, not only for the fact that the Bini despite all odds managed to largely keep their culture and tradition intact over this long period of time, maintaining a monarchy based on primogeniture where many of such have failed, especially in Europe, but that the efforts to document the ways of this great people have continued to wax stronger.




Published by m'khail madukovich

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