The Church and the Happiness Index Puzzle in Contemporary Idomaland
It was always a shocker to consistently observe that much of vibrancy and high spirit among the folks. Relative to their material condition, there should be gloom and long faces all over. But, on the contrary, the natives can be observed to be in high spirit. It does not correspond to their material state of existence. The puzzle has always been about what and where the coping magic is coming from. Witnessing three recent burial ceremonies has produced a tentative conclusion that the church fundamentally accounts for this high happiness index across Idomaland rather than any other explanations – psychological make-up/Idoma mind thesis, economic activism and the spatial peculiarity thesis which traces the happiness index to the mindset of a pre-industrial locational orientation unbothered by the things that define happiness for the elite or the urban dwellers. Evidencing this overarching claim from the three recent burial ceremonies will form the bulk of the rest of this report.
A high happiness index has been recorded for Nigerians by a research finding that many people laugh to scorn. Perhaps, for that reason, it has not been a popular journalistic or academic endeavour to find out the truth or otherwise of that finding. It is also possible that when one observes the degree of material poverty in the slums of urban Lagos or rural life in places such as Ife, Zaria, Ogoja, Ikom and in Jigawa State, it looks pointless to give credibility to what must be a misleading research finding. This is particularly so if one shifted the gaze to Idomaland in general and Edumoga District where attendance at the three successive burial ceremonies informing this write – up restricts the reporter to.
Poverty might be common to most of rural Nigeria. But if we take Ikom in Cross Rivers State, for instance, life (as in the early 1990s) was on absolutely a higher lane because bush mango, for instance, provided a viable source of irregular income for boys and girls. It is a long time now but as in most border towns, the people around the area cannot be as impoverished as Idomaland where peasant agriculture is on the decline while there are no industries to link farming to processing and some definite output.
The comparison is not different if we take Jigawa State. There is poverty in Jigawa State. That is not open to argument but the livestock component of the average farmer in Jigawa means that he or she has protein in his or her meal more than most part of Idomaland where the bulk of agricultural attention is on tubers, grains, to some extent and garri which has assumed the centre of the economy because it can fetch cash to solve immediate problems. But, like oil, it is a buyer’s market. And sometimes, the buyers can collectively decide to hold everyone to ransom till late evening when the sellers would have no choice but to sell at whatever price the buyers offer.
Most Jigawa elite would object to this analysis. Their objection used to be the subject of hearty informal ‘debate’ in Government House, Dutse but they probably need such stance to attract resources to plough into the development of the state in such areas as secondary schools and health services delivery. Otherwise, they are better off in terms of the milk, beef and chicken content of the feeding of the average family across the state. To that list, add sugar cane, onion, tomatoes and assorted grains. These are much more nutritious than tubers and garri. Agriculture has generally declined in rural Idomaland. Fewer and fewer hands are left to do it because it is back breaking and it is not assisted much. Cassava brings money but with where are the inputs that could sustain it at a mass level? So, taken together, rural Idoma must be materially much poorer, comparatively speaking. It is an empirical rather than an emotional issue. With this material level of group existence which is very poor, it is easy or tempting to conclude that they must be an unhappy lot. But are they? The answer is no if one defines happiness strictly in terms of the degree to which long faces and gloom is absent among a population that has a history of being on their own.
As the point of the crystallisation of this observation was the three recent burial ceremonies under reference, evidencing the claim from the burial ceremonies will form the bulk of the rest of this report. The first of the burial was that of Dominic Sunday Ijika, the irreplaceable, go-getting communal activist. His burial was at Ingle Centre on October 19-20th, 2016. This was followed by that of Anthony Agbo aka ‘Tosema’ on October 28 – 29th, 2016 at Amufu in lower Edumoga. Tosema was equally an activist, politician and professional rolled into one. As a medical laboratory technologist running his own lab in Makurdi, he was a first point of call for both the masses and the elite in health matters. He too is irreplaceable. The last was that of the venerable Okpani Francis Adah on November 18 – 19th, 2016 at Ogene Amejo in upper Edumoga. The real Okpani Adah is not known to most of the younger players of today because of the generational gap but it is to some of them in that generation that the credit for contemporary communal activism is traceable. Of course, they did it in tandem with demands and constraints of their own time.
The church was the single most dominant player at each of this key communal event of burying the dead. Unlike the five days that burial ceremonies took in the 1970s down to late 1980s, it is now a two-day affair. Throughout the two days that burial ceremonies now last, the members of the church animate it all round. The women in particular sing and dance throughout. There is never a dull moment. It is incredible where they have got the energy for the vigorousness that run through. In the past, there were all sorts of dance groups but except the last day of the five day ceremony, dancing was mostly in the night. Now, it goes on throughout the period. The question that props up may be how this, in itself, provides evidence of a high happiness index.
A summary statement on that might lurk in contemplating how many more cases of cross over into prostitution, cardiac arrests, strokes, insanity and even suicide would have been there if not the comforting promise of the key words in the songs? Although words such as ‘Ada’; ‘Ondu’ or ‘Omenyinyi’ as employed in the songs come off as literal interpretation of and direct plea to God for individual and collective liberation from the conditions the folks perceive themselves to be in, they nevertheless create hope and endurance. In other words, there is a silent role religion is playing for the people there since the message of the key words are exclusive to the Bible. Karl Marx must have had contemporary Idomaland in mind when he said that religion is the opium of the masses but he did add that it is also the soul of a soulless world. This is what any deconstruction of the turn of phrases in the songs makes clear.
Second, there is the emergence of the church as also the foremost social arena for collective self-expression. The village republic has collapsed to the contest of space among adherents for whom the church is the avenue to demonstrate claim to doctrinal integrity. It is a healthy competition, healthier than most of the alternatives even as that has not stopped evil, criminality and wickedness from multiplying in the land and even within the church. That does not challenge the validity of the primacy of the church in the explanation of happiness index in Idomaland but should actually re-enforce it. For, the range of activities in the church does not lead to just participation at the level of individual members, it also leads to the formation of groups along specialised lines. That is the third point.
One such group that attracted attention at the burial of Dominic Ijika is the Achi-oba group and their Acheoba performance. Veronica Ijika, (no relation of the deceased), the team leader told Intervention that the performance evolved over time. In other words, it is still a dance in search of identity within the Edumoga cultural space but, clearly, it has elements from Ikpanke, Aja and Ilanga dances. They can perform at any occasion, she said but it is not commercial. All they may get is whatever anyone sprayed them with, particularly children or relations of the dead. The essence is to lift every burial ceremony with their own blend of dances into a performance. For some of their members, the educational dimension is the attraction. They go to receive lessons at Ingle Centre, the local primary school. Where this education is not literacy, it is such skills in handling the musical instruments in the church. The chaps who handle these are a spectacle to behold when at it. So, in a sense, every level of the church has some sort of an educational development tied to it.
The predominance of the church across the land should have been foreseen. After being so pervasive in the provision of education and health facilities in the area, it was obvious the church would eventually predominate even culturally. Even now, minus the schools established by the church, there will be nothing called education in the area. Of all the leading elite from the area today, those who did not attend a secondary school established by the church can be counted on finger tips. Till today, the Catholic Church in particular holds the ace. A Contributing Editor for Intervention drew everyone else’s attention to a speech at the burial of Bishop Athanasius Atule Usuh last July that provides the strongest evidence for this claim.
The speech was given by Chief Steven Lawani, the immediate Deputy Governor of Benue State and who, according to the Contributing Editor, handled the government’s relationship with the Catholic Church between 2007 and 2015, being the most senior Catholic in the Gabriel Suswam administration. When the late Bishop Athanasius Atule Usuh died, Lawani was understandably a key speaker at the occasion. And in the speech, there is a portion where Lawani was praising the late Bishop for allowing the creation of four more dioceses from the old Makurdi Diocese during his reign. Justifying why such was a big deal for which Atule should be praised, Lawani said that “the creation of every diocese is also the creation of development through the schools and social provisioning in which the Church is historically very involved in this part of the world. What the creation of the dioceses under Bishop Usuh translates to is that he was not only totally humble and unselfish, he was equally very developmental”. Being a 2016 statement, Lawani’s contention completely validates the linkage between the church and the educational development of Idomaland.
Lawani’s statement is a reference to all the notable schools in the area such as St Francis College, Jesus College and Wesley High School, all in Otukpo and the Holy Rosary College, Adoka. These were followed by the second generation such as the pair of Emmanuel Secondary School, Ugbokolo and Saint Anne’s Secondary School, Otukpo and Methodist High School, Igumale. Today in Okpokwu LGA, for example, all the two standard bearers now at the level of secondary schools are all owned by the Catholic. Of course, there are two government secondary schools and several community secondary schools which are very, very recent developments. The educational intervention and role of the Catholic Church was so powerful that, sometimes back, there used to be what was called the Catholic Common Entrance Examination, (CCEE). That was how to be admitted to the leading secondary schools in the state then such as Mount Saint Gabriel, Makurdi; Mount Saint Michaels, Aliade; John Bosco in Adikpo; Saint John at Amoke, etc. It is thus not surprising that the church would emerge such a dominant player in the social and cultural life of the people. Not if the Church has gone beyond immediate responsibility in filling the educational gap as well as providing the only pressure point on power in the state, thanks to the late Bishop Usuh who successfully kept the Church and the state government apart. And thanks too to others such as Bishop Apochi in his unsparing attitude to politicians.
But all things good come with their own contradictions. The primacy of the church in the happiness index puzzle is bound to have its own sticky fallouts. The church has its own doctrines and practices which it sees certain cultural practices as the anti-theses. In other words, what looks like manifestations of a ‘Clash of Civilisation’ can be observed. This reporter was witness to an interesting conversation between an elderly Church leader and his questioner in one of the above burial ceremonies about the impending demise of a particular chant that closes the burial rites in the old Idomaland. In Edumoga District, for instance, it is called ‘Ida’. It has different names in different parts of Idomaland. The questioner was asking the lone elder who can recite the ‘Ida’ in that village today why the elders could not organise to transfer it to younger ones, a process that would involve identification and grooming of such younger ones. The elder was emphatic that it could not be done. It can only be done from the top, he said. By the top, he meant the hierarchy of the church, the source of the last word on what the folks regard as allowed and what is not.
But the church has not officially banned ‘Ida’ as such. The issue is that with the current wave of conversion into Christianity across Idomaland, even the elders who can recite the ‘Ida’ have all been absorbed. As church leaders in their own right, they can no more recite it. In any case, almost everyone else is now buried according to the Christian liturgical funeral rites. Not only is there no one to transfer the knowledge or consciousness to, the avenue for reciting it is no more there. The members of the younger generation have no idea of it, not to talk of reciting it. In the village where the above conversation took place, only one elder is still alive who can recite it. At his death, that would be the end of anything about ‘Ida’ in that village. Is this what happens to certain cultural artefacts across the world where Christianity met a previously non-Christian culture? In the age of death of languages, are the nuggets of truth regarding genealogy, migration, self-understanding, world view and the likes in the chant expendable? Is there nothing worth preserving there?
Reverend Father Ehatikpo, the lone Catholic priest in Idomaland that Intervention succeeded in talking with before press time referred this reporter to another colleague of his who is the head of Christian Liturgy in Idomaland. All efforts to get through to this priest and two others failed. But Nicholas Akwanya, the University of Nigeria’s Professor of English and Literary Studies who is also a Catholic priest spoke on the issue. Akwanya thinks there is poetry in the chant that needs to be preserved as an artefact belonging to the community. That means it is not the rituals associated or implied by the chant that is being preserved but the poetry because, in his argument, there must be values there, including ethical values, to consider. Additionally, such work is important to be preserved because it is also about the language itself.
For him, the first challenge is to get the chant transcribed. Then there would begin a complicated process of translating or interpreting it. Akwanya puts the complication he foresees to the contestations that attended the effort to make sense of such chants elsewhere.
Professor Akwanya must be right. It would take very well established authorities in Anthropology, History, Linguistics and Religious Studies to arrive at a consensus in making sense of ‘Ida’. The disagreement in this respect will not be the same grounds the church might not have paid attention to it. It is doubtful if the particular chant is even pagan in origin even as it has ritual components. The conflict of interpretation will arise with some of the claims about origin, migration and genealogy. The language is elusive but, clearly, it is a genealogical reminder to the dead vis-a-vis the journey he or she is embarking. But experts on such interpretations should be able to penetrate the narrative, identify the nuggets of truth in the History it embodies.
Another question area Professor Akwanya clarified is the burial practice which permits burial between the hours of noon and 4’ O’clock in the evening unlike before when it was either in the morning or after the hour of 4 p.m. Only people communally adjudged evil or wicked were buried ‘when the sun has not come down’. There is no surviving grounding of that practice beyond the broad notion that it is not the right time to start the journey to wherever dead people go. The only exception was children, presumably because children are pure.
Speaking earlier on this, Reverend Father Ehatikpo said the church has no specific time for burial. He acknowledged that an elderly person could hardly be buried before 4 p.m in those days but argues that pagans could observe that, not the church. When Professor Akwanya was asked what the point of departure between culture and the Church in the timing of burial might be and whether there might be something worth preserving in the timing logic in burying the dead in Idoma culture, his analysis locates the point of departure in the conception of where dead people go. The Christian sense of transition is a return to God as in the Augustinian rendition, “You have made us for yourself. Our souls are restless until they rest in you”. So, there is a principle in the Liturgy of the funeral rites in the church which is the commendation of the dead to the Communion of the Saints involving three parts: the church triumphant; the church suffering and the church militant. These refer to Christians who have achieved the sight of God, those on the way to that through Purgatory and those still struggling in the world in their call to know and serve God respectively. With this commendation, the time of lowering the dead into the earth is a non-issue once the funeral mass is over. If the cemetery is nearby, the procession leads there. Professor Akwanya says he does not know what the logic of timing in Idoma burial rites is or whether the culture demanded it in the first case but points out that if the concept of where the dead goes is anywhere physical in this world, then it conflicts with Christianity’s, whose is return to the presence of God. And the church would not accept any compromise.
From the professor’s analysis, the differential is in the conception of where the dead goes. In Christianity, the dead returns to God. In Idoma cosmology, the dead returns to join his or her ancestors who are perceived to be intercessors between the people and God Almighty. As Akwanya added, the dog ritual and the genealogy tie up in the belief system, with the genealogy implying that the dead goes to a place belonging to the clan in the spirit world, a replica of the human world but perhaps only better. Still in his own words, the dog as a speedy traveller signifies and puts into effect the speed of arrival in that other place. His conclusion is that the driving principle in all of this is sympathetic magic. That is where the gap is. But, in the event of the return to language, belief, ideas and norms as the source of truth or meaning the world over, are we dealing with a gap or with a case for a more sensitive inculturation process?
After all, inculturation would appear to have gone on well in Idomaland. Whether the Idoma case is generalisable is open to question but the sight of the traditional drum or traditional horn that remains part and parcel of the procession from one end of Otukpo to the Cathedral suggests considerable harmony. In many parts of Idomaland, many of the old traditional dances are alive and even incorporated into the church process. It is only Alime, for instance, that has disappeared except in Igede area. ‘Aja’ has disappeared too except in Ugbokolo side. A Professor of Political Science of Idoma origin claimed that no iota of Idoma culture has disappeared from the youths in Otukpo area. He said they can recite all the incantations, dirges and migratory genealogies. His claim remains to be tested. Generally, inculturation allows these cultural expressions because the Bible allows glorifying God with what one has. The exception is the Adoka, Agatu and Ochekwu sides where masquerades are out of fashion for the local variants of stilt walkers, ‘Oglinye’ and ‘Ikpanke’ or ‘Ilanga’ as the case may be. This is not to talk of ‘Alekwu Afia’ which is more complicated in its culturally involving imaginary. Interestingly, Michael Apochi, the incumbent Bishop of Otukpo Diocese is reported to have written an academic work on aspects of Idoma culture. No such work could be cited in Google and the Bishop’s contact came too late for an interview with him on the primacy of the church in the happiness index puzzle in Idomaland and its contradictions.
So far, it is a case of culture is dead, long live culture. This is in that the process of inculturation – the interfacing of Christianity and culture in non-Christian cultural spaces such as most of Africa – has not fundamentally displaced Idoma songs, drumming and dances which still constitute much of the building blocks of that marriage. The interface between culture and church is bound to be so complex. Inculturation has to remain a work in progress to avoid doing more damage to a culture that has been the object of historical vandalism.