Monarchs of Kindness  
Segun Ojewuyi
Professor of Theater and Artistic Director PreemptiveSeven 2010 World Tour.

Complex is the polity of our time.  Ambitious was the idea of travelling the world in these times of terrorism, militia angst and wobbly democratic transitions.  We, a company of scholars, writers and professional performing artists, pulled from different posts across the United States, left one early morning of June 23 in search of the world.  We were travelling for an exchange of cultures, ideas, and ways with African lives in the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.  But Nigeria the chosen country of visit in Africa, was always the sore point with real and imagined fears ranging from the fear of kidnappings, to identity theft scams, exposure to diseases and the big risk of Americans visiting a country with terrorist potentials (Mutallab and Jos as points of reference.)  I decided to take with me two productions for performances in formal and informal theatrical spaces. With tours and performances concluded in Barbados and London, we left the United Kingdom for Nigeria on July 9.  We were spending our first six days in Lagos and we would set out on a multi-state travel across Nigeria.  It was this part of our world tour that now forced us into the potholes of history; the muddy and slippery gullies of politics and the jagged roads of culture and civilization. 

Africans still live in these dazed spaces, trapped between a broken spirit and a resilient history of struggle.  As we combed the lands of Nigeria, it was neither the political class nor the corporations of fecund wickedness, nor even the (un) diplomatic foreign missions that became our signposts into the hearts and souls of the people.   Those who stood tall, those who paid the honorable dues on behalf of the people; who rose from the bellies of the world with outstretched hands of compassion and wisdom, to warmly present Nigeria to this young group of the world were often the monarchs of culture, tradition and reason.  Our tours of the crossroads of Nigeria was anchored by kings crowned in faith and absolute trust as the sole custodians of the peoples wealth, culture, politics and spiritual well-being.  

In Lagos, we observed the earnestness in Fashola’s “Eko O ni baje” and how the people have responded with renewed and determined followership. After our Lagos performances at the MUSON Centre and a still-derelict National Theatre, we hit the road in pursuit of the intersections of politics, culture and performance as woven into the fabric of common and uncommon slides of African lives.  We started in the palace of Oba Babatunde Akran the Aholu Menu Toyi 1of Badagry, whose chiefs led us through a quick class on the origins of the people.  We were then handed to the guides for our tour into a land named Gberefu (nothingness), beyond where laid the “well of attenuation” At the well the slave traders made the enslaved drink some water whose efficacy was in the thinning and rarefaction of the well of human memory.  The enslaved is made to forget his/her history and identity before stepping into the point of no return.  The enslaved was marched through the mashes naked and bound.  The enslaved was rid of name, whipped in shame and laid on the bare floors of the ships, away in Gberefu to the lands of whiteness.  I observed the progressive listlessness of the group.  The ground was waterlogged, there was mud and we were advised to hop on the infamous “Okadas”.  Some chose the ride, others chose to walk.  Chris Collins (Caucasian) and Cortez Johnson (African American) chose to walk bare-feet so they could walk the same earth as the hundreds of thousands who were marched into the unknown of slavery. The heart bled as the imagination processed a journey made by the enslaved into the heart of darkness covered in unfriendly whiteness.  How, I quietly wondered, was man able to conjure such depth of inhumanity against a fellow human?  How also has the kingdom of Badagry been able to accommodate the continued exploitation of an infamous history by the family of the Sheriki whose industry brought slavery’s commerce to Badagry in the first place?  The stomach churned at the thought of being asked to pay before I could step into the Sheriki’s chambers, for the “privilege” of seeing where his atrocities were perpetuated.  I demurred and instead gave praise to the generosity and kindness of this monarch of Badagry who perfected the concept of truth, forgiveness and reconciliation before Mandela’s South Africa.

Panic was on the prowl as the chilling words of the U.S. Department of State floated back to mind in Benin, Edo State en route Asaba, in Delta state.  The State Department’s words state that

“The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Nigeria and continues to recommend U.S. citizens to avoid all but essential travel to the Niger Delta states of Akwa Ibom, Bayelsa, Delta, and Rivers; the Southeastern states of Abia, Edo, and Imo; and the city of Jos in Plateau State, because of the risks of kidnapping, robbery, and other armed attacks in these areas. Violent crime committed by individuals and gangs, as well as by persons wearing police and military uniforms, is a problem throughout the country”   

As I reviewed our unfolding travel itinerary, we were driving through Edo state to Asaba in Delta, from where we would go to Calabar.  A responsible nation takes good care of its citizens and the spate of violence and news of kidnappings coming out Nigeria would justify the United States government’s travel warning on Nigeria.  Even then, our collective analysis was that every nation has its fair share of safety concerns that would present enough cause for travelers to stay away.  But the landscape and the ferocious mosquitoes of old did not stop Mungo Park or Columbus or the slavers of Calabar and Badagry for that matter. Commerce always found a way around those safety concerns in pursuit of its merchandise.  That’s what brought Shell, Chevron and the other multinational oil companies to the region.  If the federal government of Nigeria had put the people first in all these years of dealings with these companies, if the companies had been more respectful of the people’s right to happiness, property, a healthy environment and a fair share of the wealth their land generated; there would have been no cause for the agitation that funds fear.  So we chose to go to Asaba, on the urging of the Honorable Commissioner for Culture and Tourism in Delta State – Barrister Richard Mofe Damijo. There was also the reassurance from the State’s Honorable Commissioner for Higher Education (a poet and scholar-artist) Dr. Hope Eghagha, that all was not perfect but well enough in Delta.  Mobile Police and private security in tow, we found our hosts in Asaba, where we performed at the State Hall and then went into the heart of Idumuje Ugboko.  In Idemuje the chests of pure, unadulterated Nigerian hospitality awaited us in folds of beautiful humanity.  We found Politics and grassroots diplomacy in Prince Ned Nwoko – an ex member of the House of Representative and a senator-in-waiting.  We found culture and Art in Prince Demas Nwoko – sage of Nigerian Theater, a Scenic Designer/Nok architect.  Lastly we found serene royalty, a blend of modernity, tradition and culture in the monarch - the Obi of Idumuje Ugboko Albert Nwoko III.

The frontage of Hon. Nwoko’s house was some haven away from the fear and chaos of the world.  Yes, we came face to face with a battery of armed vigilante, whose smiles and welcoming calm were all the balm needed to dispel our fears and underscore the fact that our visit was “essential travel” after all.  To one side was a band of local musicians playing and singing to the delight of dancers.  To the other side was an open kitchen where food was constantly cooked and served to whom ever had the need.  Soon we were touring the gentleman-politician’s farm as he told us of his love of animals, his successful law practice (where he had some 52 lawyers working for him) in London and his return home to Nigeria, to the Delta region to join his people in their cause for the common man.  Nigeria is not perfect he readily submitted, but we all need to participate in the polity to fight for a better future.  

The Obi - His Highness Albert Nwoko III was home in the palace to proudly share of the peace that reigned in his kingdom.  The Nwokos became ambassadors of the region opening up farms, homes, the town and the inner recesses of the palace.  The kindness of the two Princes and the Obi was more resonant than ten bilateral sessions between governments in fruitless diplomacy.  This was cultural diplomacy and grassroots politics riding on the abundance of love for the land and the kind generous rule of a monarch, whose feast with us was a round of drinks and kolanut.

Ile Ife/Osun
“Ile Ife is the cradle of the Yorubas. This Kingdom was already here eight thousand years before the birth of Christ and five thousand years before the birth of Abraham the father of the Jews and the Arabs.”  With those words the Ooni of Ile Ife, Kabiyesi Alayeluwa Ooni Sijuwade Olubuse II welcomed the group to his inner palace.  To the average Yoruba, this should be common knowledge, but to this group this was reaffirmation of the truth that had been evolving through the tours.  The truth is that beyond America where every local league is a “world series” and where the only times Africa is mentioned is in times of disasters and violence, there is a world largely unheralded by the local media and culture.  There for the group is truth that there are civilizations and democracies older than Europe and America and where tradition and culture hold steadfast even now in the destructive after-waves of slavery, colonialism and the unceasing rape of our history and cultural property.  Here sat the Kabiyesi, exuding natural nobility and wisdom.  An extraordinary ambassador for his people and for the country, his reign has been marked by a remarkable understanding of tradition and culture in the corridors and seats of power all over the world.  He has been a guest of the United States Congress and Buckingham palace. 

We had earlier been given a study tour of the palace – the court of the Aweses and of the “Temple of Wisdom” or “Ile Ase” where Ogun the powerful Yoruba hunter god of war, integrity and ore made his abode and shop, making for humans the tools with which to negotiate their existence with nature and mother earth.  He made them hoes, machetes, cutlasses and a host of other earth-derived iron, brass and bronze products.  He also made art and taught the people the art of sculpture as a true reflection of nature and life. It is now the “temple of wisdom” where the spoken word is consecrated. When German Frobenius dug up the Olokun heads in 1938, Europe could not contain its stupefaction.  Art Critic Maurice Collis in 1948 wrote that “it is chastening to reflect that in Africa…lived Negro artists whose work was comparable to the master Donatello.  What a mystery!  How did it happen?” We are to remember that Collis would have been raised on the scholarship of the time which largely stated that “Africans…had no history.  They had stayed, for untold centuries, sunk in Barbarism.  Such …had been nature’s decree…the heart of Africa was scarcely breathing.”  Kenneth Murray and Bernard Fagg – successive directors of Antiquities in Nigeria from the 1920s to the 1950s concluded and pushed the theory that these superb artifacts of Ife kingdom and tradition could only have been made from materials imported from Europe.  They conveniently ignored the role of Ogun and the existence of the “Temple of Wisdom” in the palace, not far from the Olokun shrine where the original Olokun head was excavated.   No wonder Wole Soyinka was so upset he had embarked on a covert attempt to retrieve the still missing Olokun head, some years ago.

So I sat in fascination by the continuity simply established and maintained by this monarch whose kingdom extends to Brazil, Cuba, parts of Europe, the Caribbean and even North America!  Here we were toasting to what the Kabiyesi called a return home for my American company and I.  He had returned from a trip to Lagos just to meet and spend time with us, he confessed.  “If you trace your DNA” he said “you all, white and black, would find that you came from Ile Ife, the cradle of human civilization.”  Optimal kindness was his and gratitude is forever ours for the knowledge and life-changing grace of the “Ekeji-Orisa”. One who is second only to the gods!

These monarchs rose above the pettiness and power drunkenness of politicians.  While the peoples’ lives are trapped in the mesh of impoverishment, formal governments seem to be lurching helter-skelter in waves of deception, uncertainty and greed.  In the emptiness and amidst the chaos created, a new breed of modern oligarchs emerged to exploit the void.  These I identified as the “holinesses” of evangelical Christianity most of whom have come from places afar and some of whom have come from holes near to rule our land.  Every corner carries a banner proclaiming salvation.  On every bark of tired trees lining the dangerous streets are portraits of these charlatans of faith, marketing false hope in forked tongues of fear and intimidation.  For anyone trumpeting the irrelevance of African Kings, they have not been observant or close to the true spirit of the African world.  Our trip was of building cultural bridges, fostering dialogue and communities of hope and progress among peoples.  We were interested in the possibilities of human and cultural interaction at the most basic levels.  We wanted an open, honest interaction with Nigeria and Nigerians.  These monarchs of kindness and their people met us at those intersections and for the period, the world was perfect.

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