Like western philosophers, theologians, necromancers, diviners and the lot, traditional African Yoruba society too couldn’t understand the concept of death. One of its short-cuts of explaining this gripping moment of cessation of breath is by devising what it called the concept of adiye irana. Adiye irana is a popular concept at the passage of the dead in Yoruba mythology. Elders of the land, on their way to bury the remains of a good man, with white loins strapped round their waists and the casket of the dead following them in tow, held a big and mature cock grippingly by its feet and pulled off its feathers as they proceeded to the graveyard. The cock is believed to be the emissary that buys the right of way for the dead. It is believed that the cock would buy the path for the dead good man as he embarks on his journey to the land of no return. A dead man for whom the adiye irana ritual is not made, is worthless and it is believed that it is better for a man to die young than to die without the ritual.
During the week that just ended, death stalked humanity like a leopard furtively aiming for the throat of an impala in the jungle. Nigeria, a land for which human bloodshed hitherto meant nothing, quaked as if it had been hit by a thunderbolt. Dancers’ feet suddenly went wary; mourners wore long faces and our strides slowed down considerably. It was a week that dripped of blood, with avoidable but mangled human flesh scattering round a land that has known enough of innocent blood spillage. At the end of the day, the bloodshed gave us a grim reminder of our collective mortality and the reality of death that could come in the next 60 seconds or 60 minutes; especially the fact that death had always been our neighbor next door.
First to lead the pack was Pius Adesanmi, professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada with whom I shared this writing space. He and 156 others were killed in a plane crash in Ethiopia on Sunday morning. On Wednesday, a kerosene-laden trailer which ostensibly lost its brakes, rammed into 19 traders at Upper Iweka Road in Onitsha, Anambra State. Unofficial number of victims mangled by the trailer stands at seven, while 12 others are reported to be in critical conditions. As if those were mere eerie icings on a ghoulish cake, on Thursday, a building said to have been serially marked as distressed and earmarked for demolition by the Lagos State government but being used as a school building collapsed in Itafaji area of Lagos Island, swallowing students said to be in the neighborhood of a hundred. About 40 pupils were said to have been pulled out of the wreckage alive, while twelve of these priceless heritages, at the end of the whole exercise, were confirmed dead. In the same vein, scores others are said to be currently in the hospital, battling various degrees of pains, agony and injury. Perhaps as a fitting closure of the blood-encrusted week, in faraway Christchurch, New Zealand, a lone shooter, identified as 28-year old Brenton Harrison Tarrant, suddenly lapsed into mass shooting at two mosques, in an apparent hate-filled terror attack. At the end of the rat-a-tat of his gun, 49 innocent worshippers had to confront the grim reality of their personal mortality, and the fact that that their lives had to be demanded of them midstream, even as they translated mortality for immortality.
There are so many concepts of death, from whatever prism we may look at it: Religion, tradition, philosophy and the like. There doesn’t seem to be a meeting point. Why does man die? Why do good men, rather than bad, die? Who created death? What is the rationale of its strike? When man die, where does he go? During the week, we were all forced to contend with all the above and come back to that inscrutable concept of the last breath of man. One thing that virtually all the concepts of death seem to agree upon is that our human mortality is shockingly clear, to wit that death is not a thing that lies far off from man in distance. It doesn’t occupy a distance as far as the closing scene in a movie or farther as the final chapter of a book. Its suddenness is swifter than those. Death’s strike can be at any time, in any place. It is the truth that we have had to scoop overtime about human mortality.
My music idol, Eegunmongaji Ayinla Omowura, in his last vinyl on earth, did a poetic confrontation of the concept of death. Upon Omowura’s tragic passage a few months after the release of the album, words went round that he had ostensibly had a physical fisticuff with death and Death bruised and vanquished him in the process, culminating in that very deep and luscious poetic line about human last breath. Iku, oponu olodi ab’ara dudu hoho (death, you accursed enemy with an abhorrently black skin!). Omowura had begun. He disdained death for always patrolling the nooks and cranny of the earth with a frightening club with which he clubbers his chosen victim. When another Yoruba music maestro, Yusuff Olatunji died in 1978, Omowura had, in his gripping elegy at his departure, wondered how Olatunji had allowed death catch him unawares. “Why didn’t you turn your melodic goje musical instrument into an arrow and pierce death into submission with it?” he had asked.
While seeking an anchor on the concept of death from African tradition, I spoke with the Alaafin of Oyo yesterday. Ancient Yoruba traditional philosophy constantly weaves death around human existence, he said. It exploits the fear and uncertainty about the last breath of man to enjoin humanity to do good. It says, among other things, that the capacity to do good endures in the life of man once there is still breath streaming out of his nostrils: B’emi o ba bo, gbogbo ore ni nbe, the Yoruba say, according to Kabiyesi. On the brevity of life, traditional African Yoruba society says, emi o l’ayole. For those who are atop the ladder of power and majesty, Yoruba make reference to the death of tyrannical Bashorun Gaa, himself an Alaafin and the miserable circumstance of his death as lesson for humanity to do good. Ancient
Africa too didn’t understand death. For it, death is the cessation of body but not of the soul. Yoruba believe that when a man dies, his soul travels to some other land to continue existence. The Alaafin is however of the belief that when a man is about to die, his body, spirit, soul begin to communicate the impending cessation of his existence to him, either through dreams, words that come out of his mouth, the places he goes, etc. “From what I read, Prof Adesanmi had enough indicators that his life would be brief,” Kabiyesi said. At such moments, traditional Africa employs the services of diviners to interpret strange dreams, incongruous circumstances and the like.
Of all western philosophical schools, the existential philosophers succinctly talked about the concept of the last breath. One of them said that man is old enough to die the very day he is born. Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul-Sartre, Soren Kierkegaard and Albert Camus dwelt extensively on the transformative power of death and made the concept central thematic concerns of their works. To them, death is the only thing that brings life and all the possibilities in it into central focus. Death, for instance, is what reminds us of our being, our human potentials and the need to quickly grab all its possibilities and live up to life before death takes it away.
The Platonic school of death has what is analogous to the Christian theological worldview on same subject. Death is not the cessation of life but a journey into a world beyond, what is called an after-life, where all our acts in this world would be judged, they said. Epicureans hold a contrasting view. To them, death is absolutely insignificant and isn’t something to be taken seriously at all by man since life and death are mutually exclusive.
Prof Adesanmi was apparently conscious of this reality. The way he was in a hurry to maximize life by leaving indelible imprints, he was unconsciously conscious about the brevity of his existence. I never had the honour of meeting Pius, even though I looked forward to it. I lapped up every of his writings, scooping literature, language and the concept of society therein. He founded an online Facebook page he named Doctoral Lounge and made me member. The near-fatal road accident he went through in Nigeria about a year ago must have brought the fact of the proximity of death to him succinctly. Some members of the group, in announcing the accident, claimed that he had been admitted in an Ibadan hospital and enjoined some of us resident in the ancient city to endeavor to seek him out. Before they could find out the particular hospital, he was said to have been ferried out of the state capital. That was the nearest encounter I had of him. He was an ecumenical spirit which can never die. The global celebration of his brief life is a confirmation of the wisdom in Yoruba traditional African philosophy which celebrates a man who dies young, rather than one who dies at old age without affecting humanity.
Unfortunately for us all, we assume our own immortality, even with mortality staring at us in the face and death clubbing the next man beside us. It baffles me when I see man adorn his perishable flesh in ornaments and housing it in palaces made of gold – a flesh that will someday be feasted upon by irreverent maggots. May the souls of the departed find solace on this sojourn to eternity.
Can someone call the VP to order?
Vice President, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, is learning the ropes of politics faster than anyone can imagine. The landscape of politics is full of treachery, deceit, lies, subterfuge, backstabbing and allied evils. Undoubtedly full of energy and depth, he traversed the length and breadth of the country during the last election, selling the gospel of politics and the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) to the unconverted. His unique down-to-earth method struck some people as worthy of casting their votes for his political persuasion. To some, his guise of Tradermoni was a gambit to secure votes by stealth.
But politics has ended and so the professor of all should recline to his Aguda House official home and begin to lend his voice to all those advocacies he canvassed on the hustling, people thought Not so. Unbeknown to many people, another rat race has begun and our beloved Vice President is implicated in the trove. It is the rat race for the 2023 Nigerian presidency. Having set his hands on the plough, as Christian theologians say (which Yoruba translate to tasting the sweetness of the pudding) there is no way Osinbajo would be expected to look back like Lot’s wife or go back to Egypt, symbolizing the valley of national power. The deciders of where that plough will finally anchor need to be appeased, with everything imaginable: tomfoolery, niceties, badinages, groveling, sweet words and all that.
Osinbajo has so many principalities to contend with, the hugest of the behemoth being his mentor and ex-boss, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who himself is interested in the pudding. Very soon, you will begin to see approbation and reprobation, a Trojan fight with the newspaper press as the battleground of the fight. Yoruba sons and daughters will seek to cancel one another out.
Osinbajo has ostensibly begun his own badinage, albeit on a ribald front. A couple of days ago, he had told the world that President Muhammadu Buhari is poorer than he was in 2015. He told a very laughable tale of how he and Buhari were looking at their Code of Conduct forms and how he told the president that he was richer than him. Today, said Osinbajo, Buhari’s financial worth has dwindled considerably. First, the Vice President never obliged us with the cause of this dwindle. Second, even though Buhari, during the 2015 campaign, promised to make public his assets declaration, rumour has it that it is in his personal custody, rather than with the Code of Conduct Bureau. For a Buhari whose wife’s ADC was accused of cornering billions of naira, whose son was caught in a bike accident, the bike worth multi-millions and whose presidential election was financed with billions of naira and no one knows where the stupendous sum hailed from, Osinbajo, by telling the world that such a man is poorer, was apparently pouring libations on the grove of his 2023 presidential ambition, rather than telling a pastoral truth. As the clock ticks towards 2023, dusts hovering in the sky will herald political tackles; cries of head-butting will indicate rough hit.
This Osinbajo infelicity reminds me of that imperishable quote that once a man lays his eyes on an office, rottenness begins in him.