Thursday, February 23, 2017 1:38 pm
By Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi
In December 2006, I attended a Ford Foundation philanthropy retreat in Bahia, Brazil. My first visit to Brazil was in 2004 to attend a conference in Rio de Janeiro, and even though I enjoyed the experience, I felt I had missed something by not being able to go up to Bahia which has strong African roots, being home to millions of descendants of African slaves. At breakfast on our first morning, we went to the buffet stands and saw a woman frying Akara (bean cakes). There was also Moin Moin (steamed bean cakes) available. It turned out that it was the day when Yemoja, the famous Yoruba goddess was being celebrated across the country in a festival on December 8th. Throughout the day we ate dishes of beans, fish, yams, some made with palm-oil, prepared in ways which were no different from back home. There was also a lot of dancing and drumming, and if you listened to the songs carefully, you could make out one or two Yoruba words.
The Ford Foundation team had arranged site visits for us to see the work of some of their grantee organisations in the area. I looked through the list of projects to be visited and there were initiatives on HIV/AIDS, Agriculture, and Youth Development, which probably had black beneficiaries but I saw nothing led by the black community in Bahia. One of the members of the local organizing committee was an old friend of mine, Sueli Carneiro who I had met through the Black Women’s Cross-Cultural Institute in the 1990s. I asked her why there was no black project listed to be visited and she told me that they had thought about it, but were not sure if the participants would be interested in visiting such a project. She said if we were interested, arrangements could be made for us.
I saw this as my opportunity to accomplish what I had been unable to do on my first visit to the country. I got some other ‘rebels’ on board and we visited three projects in the black community – a women’s center, a youth program and the last port of call was a community center. This was the most inspiring of all. In the main hall of the center there was a large mural on the walls, which had a number of African cities such as Dakar, Maputo, Lagos, Nairobi and Accra depicted on it. When we asked what the significance of this was, our hosts told us that those cities were in African countries, populated and run by Africans.
Their dream was to have their own city in Brazil that would not just be populated by black people, but would be owned and governed by them – like those African cities they had put up on their walls. According to them, they would be able to own their community agency, have freedom of cultural and spiritual expression and would be treated with equality and dignity. Our group was made up of senior philanthropy practitioners from various African countries. We were all taken aback to find out that in a part of the world, there was a group of people who saw our affliction-prone countries as their own El Dorado. It was such a humbling and moving experience.
Over the years we have excelled at plundering our own treasures and laying them to waste. We had an excuse when the colonialists and invaders carted away our cultural artifacts and placed them in museums in Europe and the US where people pay good money to go and view them. What excuse do we have now? For the purposes of this article, I will focus on what is happening within a community I am very familiar with – my Yoruba community. The Yoruba culture thrives in many countries in the Diaspora, and what I witnessed in Bahia is a typical example. With all the tools we have at our disposal today for the documentation and retention of our very rich cultural heritage, we seem to be in a race to divest ourselves of our inheritance.
Western education, Christianity, Islam, the mobility of people and other influences have taken their toll in quite devastating ways. Some people express surprise when they hear me speaking up in favour of our cultures and traditions, assuming that as a feminist, I should be happy that many of these practices are being eroded. Being modern Africans does not mean that we should forget who we are. Cultures evolve, they are not static, but they should change for better and not worse. We have negative cultural practices such as expressions of misogyny, female genital mutilation, treatment of widows, forced marriage, human sacrifice, harmful myths and superstitions and so on. We also have deeply valuable practices such as communal solidarity, good manners, respect for elders, accountability and the prioritization of a good name and integrity over unexplained riches. Sadly, we seem to have perfected the art of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I am in my fifties, and many of my western educated peers do not know how to name a newborn baby the Yoruba way. The old ways of naming a baby with salt (to symbolize a life of value and worth), water (a life with no enemies), honey (a life of sweetness) bitter Kola (longevity), pepper seeds (fruitfulness) and other items depending on the community, are no longer in vogue. These practices are now considered ‘fetish’ and ‘putting the child in bondage’.
Traditional wedding ceremonies have been taken over totally by hired hands and not the women of the respective families. These ceremonies have now become a mishmash of relentless money collection, and the hired hands known locally as ‘Gagers’ sometimes outdo themselves in their crassness and total disregard for cultural protocol. To make matters worse, there are now ‘Gagers’ from the Christian community who have taken the pomp, fun and pageantry out of the ceremonies and have turned them into a mini church service, devoid of most of the culturally symbolic aspects. I attend these events almost every week and I could write a book about the disappearance of the beautiful Yoruba traditional wedding ceremony.
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Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a Gender Specialist, Social Entrepreneur and Writer. She is the Founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at BAF@abovewhispers.com