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MY SEARCH FOR OGUN

To begin from the beginning, the story of how I began my search for Ogun must be told. It is a factor of being born into a society in which there was hardly any written matter that could help a child growing up to answer serious questions about the indigenous culture. Before the colonial incursion into our history, before the Benin Massacre in 1897, the Edo child probably did not have to ask so many questions about the indigenous culture. The average child was a member of a family and, in the community, a member of an age grade which had clearly defined roles, into which every child grew and in which the knowledge needed for survival and interaction in the society was
shared.  But so much had happened and so much was happening that drew a sharp line between Western culture and traditional African culture. Western culture was described as a civilization because it had a written culture and was technologically advanced and therefore presumably more high-minded than our own culture which was pictured as barbaric and primitive. One mark of its primitiveness was the distance between Christianity and the traditional religions or animistic worship. In my early life, and I reckon in the early life of many of us, the tension between the two was what defined life in general. In my maternal grandfather�s house where I grew up, traditional religion or animism of the rigorous vintage was discouraged. Christianity was the religion of the house. It meant that like all other children in the family, I could not partake in heathen dances, sing heathen songs unless they were appropriately sanitized by the displacement of heathen references. Nor could I therefore get into the popular culture unless as a spectator. Even where no explicit bans existed, the atmosphere simply disavowed the animism of the herd. Although it is impossible to use the indigenous languages without being embroiled in their instinctive animistic turns, Christianity was set to undermine their pervasive hold. It was a particularly limiting kind of Christianity, although not even as fundamentalist as many current brands, which failed to acknowledge the inchoate science freighted by indigenous axioms and proverbs. Because of what its adherents thought of the fetishistic surrounds of the culture, they threw out the objective descriptions of nature, especially the behaviour of plants and animals embedded in indigenous proverbs. The knowledge contained in them was dismissed, and the culture that produced them demonized as fetishistic.  Imagine (therefore) the notoriety I earned as a nine year old in primary school when I was reported, falsely, by a  cousin, to have been left behind on the way from School while I was supposedly gawping at tortoise shells in the Ogun shrine.  It was quite a scandal in the family.  I could never hear the last of it. No opportunity was lost in drumming it into my head how my supposed fascination with the shrine and the tortoise shells constituted a betrayal of the faith into which I was being diligently schooled. Both the accusation and the hue and cry over the shrine were all so bemusing to me because the Ogun shrine  in the neighborhood was not a hidden site. It was in the front-yard of a well-known neighbour�s house on the way to and from school. It was like a blacksmith�s forge, or so I thought; but not as impressive.  At any rate, I had seen too many blacksmithries not to be awed by this particular one. But after I was accused of being literally hypnotized by it, I grew self-conscious, unable for a long time to look at it, except fleetingly. I had always to look away quickly in order not to be caught staring.  It took time for me to be able to, very discretely, position my gaze. Not that there was much to see. The shrine was a  scramble of tortoise shells in a welter of iron rods, some partly earthed, others hanging against the wall, and drums and gongbells, if I remember rightly, a-dangling from the eaves in front of the thatched-roofed house. Not much of a spectacle really. Not even when I was told that live tortoises and dogs were sacrificed to the god, with the blood of the sacrifice splashed on the iron forge, did it make any difference to me. But it was certainly unheard of for a well brought up child in a Christian home to be enticed by such heathen things. So, it took time for me to outgrow the shame of the Christian child eyeballing a fetish artifact.

 I suppose the reason it was such a scandal was that my father, who had knowingly married into a Christian family, was not a Christian.  Being a motor mechanic by trade, and a motor transport owner, he was, like all workers in iron in the traditional society, expected to be a devotee of Ogun. He was also a committed game hunter, and since Ogun is patron of hunters, road-builders, travellers and iron workers, the god had a multiple claim on him. His double-barreled gun, on this score, was a source of bonding between him and my maternal grandfather who was also not only a game hunter but a co-pioneer in motor transport business in my hometown. As hunters, with interests in motor transport business, father in-law and son in-law should automatically have been obliged, according to the wisdom of tradition, to elect for Ogun worship. But as a Christian, my maternal grandfather could not allow himself to get involved in Ogun rituals.  While his motor mechanic son-in-law never missed the seasonal sacrifice of a dog to his patron deity, he went for his holy communion in the local Anglican Church, where the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ was consumed in symbolic form to ward off the need for blood rituals. Like father like daughter: my mother was too Christian to partake of  my father�s Ogun rituals but she was traditional enough to appreciate the necessity for an iron worker to be a devotee of the god. Her understanding of my father�s indifference to the Church must have reminded  my grandfather, too often, of the loss of his daughter to, as far as he was concerned, a �certified� heathen. And to be a heathen implied �sacrilege�, a distance from �light� and modernity, �living in the old way�, a failure to take advantage of Westernization. It happened that, by some freak of circumstance, I came to share my grandfather�s view on the matter. Given that there were more educated people in my maternal than in my paternal family, I came to associate Christianity with Western education and Ogun worship with a less than  judicious appreciation of educational pursuits. And since I loved school, and I knew, so to say,  where my yam was roasted, I learnt to see the devotion to Ogun as being less than proper. If I was asked,  I would never have been able to explain to my own satisfaction why  it was less than proper.  The point is that too many questions were raised by the Christian denigration of  animistic worship which affected me at a very personal level. To have one side of my family making a commitment to a creed which damned to hell the other side of my family was not exactly a way of avoiding psychological turmoil. However, I was not torn, as they say, between the two polarities. I was simply non-plussed; distanced from both in a way that made it possible for me to go through the motions without being taken over by either. I could see that those who were good on both sides of my family shared certain common traits in spite of the differences in their beliefs. Neither the devotion to Christianity nor the commitment to Ogun worship could explain the foibles of those who behaved badly on either side. Somehow, it was clear to me that the precepts of both animism and Christianity did not differ on issues of justice, and man�s inhumanity to man. In my eyes, Christian preachifying which was more insistent because it was a religion of the Book, was the one that took my goat. It was guilty of bearing false witness against neighbours, in the sense that it made a virulent attribution of unredeemed evil to traditional religions. This attribution blocked the possibility of any genuine conversation between the devotees on either side. The sin of my growing up therefore was that I could not make a holistic accommodation of the Christian denigration of Ogun worship without nurturing some scepticism. I could never accept that the demonized traditional religions were necessarily all evil. Rather misguided, yes, ignorant, possibly, but not thereby deserving of excommunication from civilized discourses. I tripped on the implacable hunch that something was there to be understood which the attributions of evil to Ogun worship and other forms of traditional practices, were blocking from view. I did not know what it was. But I needed to know it. I had  to know what it was in order to appreciate the need to repudiate it.

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