Thursday 3 November 2011

Fernando Ortiz and Nigeria

Fernando Ortiz was a Cuban intellectual who began writing about black urban culture in 1906. However, it was in 1940 that his seminal work, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar was published. In this work, Ortiz coins the term transculturation, a process that occurs when cultures collide. None remain the same. Instead, they all rub off on each other and produce a hybrid that incorporates aspects of all participants. However, before this hybrid can be produced, all the cultures involved must undergo what Ortiz calls a deculturation. In this process, which can happen under extremely harsh conditions, distinct identities will be lost as the cultures are ground into each other.

Ortiz speaks of the transculturation of the African slaves transported to Cuba in the nineteenth century.

'The Negroes brought with their bodies their souls, but not their institutions nor their implements. They were of different regions, races, languages, cultures, classes, ages, sexes thrown promiscuously into the slave ships and socially equalized by the same system of slavery.'

Under the slave whip, they would lose their Wolof, Hausa and Mandinga distinctness and become African. Their descendants would not see themselves as belonging to one tribe but to all. Years after slavery was abolished in Cuba, the poet Nicolas Guillen would write in his Son Number 6,

I'm Yoruba,
and when I'm not Yoruba,
I'm Congo, Mandingo, Carabali.

The first time we read this poem in my seminar group, I said to the class, "This man is very confused. He does not know where he is from." My teacher replied something along the lines of, "It's not that he doesn't know where he's from. It's that he's from all of them."

Nigeria has been a country since 1914 when Lord Lugard united the Northern and Southern Protectorate to simply administrative work. Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, Efik, Ibibio, we have been thrown together, cheek by jowl for almost a century and still, we continue to cling to our separate identities. We refuse to let the inevitable process of transculturation take its course. I say inevitable because we can not live together without rubbing off on each other. We cannot rub off on each other without changing. We can choose to accept the change or we can fight it and call the transcultured hybrid a degenerate creature, hearkenening back to the days of 'racial purity. We can either and accept our multitribal reality or we can fight the integration of our cultures every step of the way. The Rwandans fought transculturation. Thousands of lives later, they have abandoned all forms of ethnic identification and abolished the terms Hutu and Tutsi from public discourse. Surely we don't have to wait until such drastic measures become necessary.Why not be wise like Guillen and decide,

I'm Igbo,
and when I'm not Igbo,
I'm Yoruba, Hausa, Kanuri
Efik, Ibibio, Calabari, Ijaw,
I am Nigerian.

The historian Nancy Morejón wrote in an article,

"The history of the African continent has been plagued by thousands of tribal conflicts. Only in America [both North and South America] could Africa become a unity, due to the diaspora its descendants interwove in search of their liberation."

Why must we Efiks, Ijaws and Hausa's wait until we are in the diaspora before we know we are Nigerian? Why must we wait until we have fled a country ruined by tribal politics before we realise that being Nigerian is the most valuable of all identities.

There is no doubt that as transculturaion occurs, we will all lose a little of our 'Igboness' and 'Hausaness' and 'Efikness' and 'Kanuriness' but in doing so, we will gain our Nigerianess. Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 10:39: If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. There is a corollary for nation building in Africa. If you cling to your tribe, you will lose your nation but if you give up your tribe, you will gain a nation of many tribes.

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