Sunday, December 25, 2011

Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All for Wealth: Igbu Ozu and the Spirit of Christmas

by

Obododimma Oha

For more than a thousand years, Christians all over world have been celebrating Christmas, a remembrance about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth who is recognized in Christianity as the Son of God and savior of the world. Christians value Christmas as a celebration of the love and mercy of God, as well as peace to the world. They attach particular significance to the name given to Jesus -- "Emmanuel" (God with us) -- as indeed a statement God is making through the birth of a savior, his son, who, as part of the Trinity, is also God Himself. So, if God is with us, how can we want in a country where politicians see their election as an opportunity for them to loot or share public funds? How can we be afraid of bomb attacks, abductions, armed banditry, etc?

Christmas, for some people, is not just a celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ who is a symbol of love. It is also a moment to think money and how to make the other surrender it, willingly or unwillingly. This dimension, however, is often not considered in thinking about Christmas as it is celebrated today, or is lost in the dominant discourse on "joy to the world"! The fact is that someone makes someone pay for sharing in this joy to the world. Christmas thus largely become a commodity, as well as context for exchange of commodities. Many business persons pray and expect to have a large volume of sales, with significant profit. For aviation workers, it is high season and fares have to be high to "compensate" for the heavy traffic of clients. In a country like Nigeria, the expectation for prices of goods to rise has almost become normal and even acceptable, especially among business people. Priests and other religious gatekeepers give us the impression that they discourage this merchandizing of Christmas, but they themselves also do not fail to harvest from those who have come to share in the joy of the new-born king. They expect the offertory takings to rise beyond normal at Christmas season services -- especially on Christmas Day. There has to the Christmas thanksgiving, where every worshipper must come and financially express gratitude to God for "living to see another Christmas." One thanksgiving procession would not do; two, no three separate thanksgivings. And then the main offertory for the service. And then the special offertory for the church building. And then the offertory for church office. And then the "offertories" as may be required by the bishop. And then the special thanksgiving for those "abroad" (that have returned for Christmas, if it is a church in the local area). We don't see these people often; now that Christmas has brought them home, we must really bring them home! After that, members of the congregation can begin to troop out of the church showing their new clothes and running from the fireworks...

And what about those more eloquent settings of modernity where Santa Claus jingles the bells of the little town of Bethlehem? Surely, they have practices that signify that Christmas is still Christmas, not so? Discount sales in shops during Christmas, for instance, which many see as a show of goodwill, for some who do not have to be able to afford the cost and be able to share with others during Christmas. Perhaps in some cases there is such genuine motive behind discounting sales during Christmas. But in many cases, it is part of the strategy to deal with competition in the market, to attract more customers, to clear the old stock and prepare for a new season of getting people to buy. Furthermore, some that buy from discount Christmas sales also do so to be able to stock what they would use elsewhere to make more gain -- whether monetary or non-monetary. So, even discount sales are not always given to the spirit of Christian love. 

Even if Christmas discount sales are that attractive and heartening as  being in tandem with the message of Christmas, its contrast applies in some poor African countries where the orientation is to hike prices -- from fares to cost of chicken parts. At least in that respect, we may be reminded that the world isn't really any fool's global village. What we do here for Christmas isn't exactly what you do there for your own Christmas. Those who celebrate Christmas are symbolically being told by their exploiters -- who may also be Christians wishing to celebrate Christmas in a big way -- that they must pay dearly to have a merry Christmas.    

The Nollywood movie, "Onwa December," in a very panoramic way, presents a sharp critique of what Christmas has become in postcolonial Nigeria. Instead of being a celebration of love, it has become a moment when some individuals enact their heartlessness in their exploitation and dispossession of others of their lives and property. In a society where being wealthy attracts respect, where not many people bother about has that wealth has been acquired, many individuals -- who incidentally bear Christian identity -- would want to be celebrated as they celebrate Christmas, even if they have robbed and killed other citizens, if if they have engaged in ritual murder, even if they have made away with valuables entrusted in their care, etc. As indicated in an Igbo slogan, igbu ozu (literally "committing murder') is their only creed. 

Igbu ozu, figuratively, indicates a sudden and amazing acquisition of wealth. Often featuring in discourses about wealth among modern Igbo business persons, this slogan captures almost literally the lack of feeling that goes with arriving at such sudden wealth. Incidentally, igbu ozu, though shocking to our sense of decency and ethics, is very attractive to many young business persons who have almost lost confidence in the ability of God to intervene in their circumstances. It is quite clear that the choice -- a very costly one -- that they are making is to do just anything to get wealthy. Quite clearly, using one's igbu ozu to welcome Jesus the Prince of Peace and Saviour of the world is not just contrary to the Christian message; it is also against reason. One cannot use what Christianity does not stand for to celebrate Christ's birth. 

The igbu ozu, as a means of achieving self-flagellation, is, however, considered a means of impressing one's local community which, on its part, has turned the Christian feast to a moment of comparing and contrasting between Okeke and Okafo, and celebrating individuals from whom they can receive a handsome piece of pottage. In this case, instead of encouraging a sense of community as known in Igbo traditional festivals, the new Christmas has becomes a poison that endangers community. And, indeed, some who travel to their villages to display their igbu ozu, or to know who has achieved igbu ozu, may become the ozu that would never return to their businesses in the cities. The igbo society, it must be acknowledged, encourages genuine industry and healthy competition with one's peers. Igbo persons that refuse to work hard to catch up with their peers (as one finds in the life of Unoka, Okonkwo's father in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart) become a disappointment, indeed a source of shame, to their families and communities. So, this spirit of struggling to be a success is already part of what igboness means. But its misapplication in the form of igbu ozu is quite an embarrassment and a scandal that the contemporary Igbo society should be interested in confronting, as one finds Igbo cultural productions, for instance the movie, "Onwa December," already doing.

Those who celebrate igbu ozu within Christmas essentially try to subvert the message of Christmas from salvation to damnation and also destroy the sense in which community feasts in Black Africa help in servicing the spirit of community. Communities that directly or indirectly encourage igbu ozu have become like nwanza the bird that prefers to eat beyond measure and later fall dead on the road. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

This Netizen Is a Virus

By

Obododimma Oha

I have read about Netizenship becoming an addiction, indeed a mental health problem, since such Netizens cannot have peace of mind until they have read or responded to this or that material on the Web. Of course, responding to a post on the Web -- say a Status update on Facebook or listserv post -- also invites its own condition of loss of peace of mind, since the Netizens responding have to return again and again to read responses to their own responses. Their work lives suffer tremendously too, which is one reason employers of labour want to block Social Network access in their organization's Internet networks. Not that Social Media like Facebook, LinkedIn, etc have no relevance to productivity in the workplace. But when an employee can no longer concentrate on specific tasks in the workplace and spends most of the work hours chatting with friends or fighting listserv wars, it becomes a big problem for an organization.

Netizens that cannot resist responding to issues on the Web could, figuratively speaking, become viruses, infecting other Web users' minds, luring them into endless controversies on the Web. We are in need some immunity against such virus infections. First, one needs self-control to be able to resist responding to such viruses that come in the name of free speech, even when one or one's group is directly mentioned in the message. 

It is also important for one to be sufficiently discriminatory in consuming messages found on the Web, or messages that come into one's inbox. Indeed the Web -- let's say a listserv specifically -- witnesses a deluge of messages, most of them quite distracting and injurious to one's orientation to decency. The option then is to IGNORE messages with subjects that relate to controversies. Virus Netizens like and do circulate such controversial messages and wait eagerly to get responses. Indeed, they set traps for particular targets, hoping that such targets would lose their cool and get involved. 

Virus Netizens belong to various web-based groups and often unethically circulate posts featured in some groups mainly as a way of spreading the controversy beyond the borders of specific groups. Proliferation is their orientation. In other words, virus Netizens could cause an epidemic, a discourse epidemic. From a legal angle, such mass distribution of group-based discussion or post without permission from the group, or from the specific authors of the posts, in the name of quoting them, should attract litigation. It is a violation of rights to privacy in discourse. You don't eavesdrop to a person's (or group) conversation and then rush to the marketplace to retail it! If "The Web is a free place to die/A dead place to be free," as I have reflected in a poem, "Online Lines," published in Sentinelpoetry, #40, December 2006), it is also a place where a Netiquette exists to differentiate personal freedom from lawlessness and recklessness. The core rules of Netiquette, taken from Virginia Shea's book, Netiquette, are as follows:

THE CORE RULES OF NETIQUETTE

Rule 1: Remember the Human
Rule 2: Adhere to the same standards of behavior online that you follow in real life
Rule 3: Know where you are in cyberspace
Rule 4: Respect other people's time and bandwidth
Rule 5: Make yourself look good online
Rule 6: Share expert knowledge
Rule 7: Help keep flame wars under control
Rule 8: Respect other people's privacy
Rule 9: Don't abuse your power
Rule 10: Be forgiving of other people's mistakes
          (www.albion.com/netiquette/corerules.html )

Individuals operating on the Web have a right to be left undisturbed (a requirement covered by Rules 4 and 8 above), in spite of the fact that the Web is constructed as an open highway, or even a marketplace where one is free to sell one's wares. But you don't get to this highway and begin to drive recklessly, making it impossible for other road users to enjoy their use of the road. You also do not get to the market and impose your wares on the market folks. You don't even have the right to make so much noise in the market, even if you are a gbanjo-gbanjo hawker brandishing a bell in a local African market. You simply do not have the right to intrude into the peaceful lives of others, to ruin such lives with noise and rancor through cross-postings and mass-circulation of messages.

Virus Netizens indeed try to turn the playground into a battleground. If they cannot win at a given battleground, they try to infect other groups, ruining their ongoing civilized conversations. They infect you to make you their weapon (even against your own interest, when you become a virus Netizen too). 

I would suggest to moderators of listservs not to be in a hurry to subscribe individuals to their groups for the sake of expanding their membership. They should first research the background of those intending to join. Since virus netizens cannot hide on the Web -- indeed they expose themselves on the Web -- they can easily be identified through a simple Google search. Since it appears that a cure for this human virus is difficult to find, the best option is to keep the virus out. As always, prevention is better than cure. Prevent the virus Netizen from attaching self to your group and to your civilized mind. 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Hiding Place for My Dough

By

Obododimma Oha

Money, bucks, quids, dough ... Call it anything. This lexical field is very productive in English and other languages, the reason being that it features frequently in our lives, its connotations therefore proliferating. In the same way, its many hiding places are so varied and do communicate the values, fears, and interests of those who own or keep it. The safe, the wallet, the pocket, the bag, the woman's bra, the underwear....

The word "safe" -- a noun for where the dough is kept, either in a bank or house -- already suggests the underlying factor of fear about what could happen to the dough. Its housing speaks about its security. Where it is kept speaks about the fear of its owner.

Growing up in a world ruled by the power of dough appears to require having some education on how to accumulate and protect one's dough. And so our parents introduced us to the culture of nche ego, the money keeper, which in our own case was either a small box with only a small hole through which the pennies passed, or a small clay pot with a similar hole. The real test was the fact that one needed the pennies but had no access to them except when one eventually decided to break the pot or force open the box. But it was always at a time one was convinced that one had saved enough, or when one was forced by circumstances to retrieve and use the pennies. In our own case as children, that moment of need was mostly a festival period, when the "little adults" would proudly demonstrate to their parents that they could save to provide their own needs.

In those days, the akpa nwancholonwu, that plastic pouch highly prized by the girls in town -- looking much like the vagina -- housed the precious pennies for the village belle. The name nwancholonwu -- captured it all -- the purse received the rewards on behalf of another "purse" -- and the person who carried it "wanted" something -- that something was a metaphoric death -- "onwu." Sex was a figurative death. 

In those days, too, a man's pair of pants was never properly sewn if it lacked the akpa alaehe -- that small shallow pocket that rested right on the right side of his groin and in which the precious pennies and farthings took refuge from the risky banters. A man's pennies needed to be closer to his penis. A man guarded his pennies with his penis, with his life. Even when banks have promised to take over the risks of looking after a man's dough, he still feels uncomfortable that his pennies are far from the daily watch of his penis. 

A woman's attachment to her dough is even exceptional. Just as she is narrated in the culture as not just a bringer of dough but indeed the dough, she seems to have all her life in her dough and in what she uses in hiding her dough. She has her reasons.

The woman's dough is never safe in an environment policed by patriarchy. A married woman and her possessions belong to a man, it is assumed. She is his possession and so has no right to keep her money away from his reach. Anyway, she is not pleased releasing her dough to him, especially if she has to share his favors with another woman. If he has many wives, she knows she has to keep and guard her dough to her needs which he would not provide readily. But he still has his eyes on her dough, just as his heart guards her other secret places.

 He borrows from her, promising to repay, but never does. "Are you on a business trip to MY house?" he would ask her sometimes. So, she gets wiser and guards her dough determinedly. She ties the dough at the end of her wrapper cloth, which is tied around her waist, and watches over it the way Eke the sacred python watches over her eggs. Anyone who wants it must first untie her wrapper -- and that means untying trouble!

Well, the knot at the end of her wrapper is now well-known as the knot of treasures. So she has to think of other safer places, other riskier places! The bra, which keeps her other untouchable treasures, is a good candidate. She squeezes or folds the dough and packs it away inside her bra. There the nipples of her breasts watch over the treasured currency notes. Any thief that dares go to the zone must explain what he is looking for. The touch is criminal enough. The search for the dough housed in the bra is simply scandalous. 

Ok, if her man, by virtue of the license granted him by culture, extends his voyage of exploration to that sea route to India and finds the dough, other men unlicensed simply cannot dare. And by the way, she is wise enough to relocate the dough before the explorer arrives!

I have heard, too, that some women, knowing the adventurous and daring nature of the predators, even "bury" their dough deep in their underwear -- indeed in the thicket of their sacred gardens. No explorer dares get to that sacred garden, unless such an explorer is looking for trouble. 

The dough has seen things and places. The dough has really travelled. It certainly deserves the special attention many people give it. It deserves the awe. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Risen Sun That Shines Forever

by

Obododimma Oha


When some days ago Olu Oguibe -- a poet, artist, and public intellectual -- called on his fellow netizens on Facebook to honor the memory of General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, Biafra's leader who died in London recently, by using Biafra's flag as their personal profile image, it suddenly occurred to me that the Internet as a liberating medium has once more made it impossible for Nigeria to win the war that it fought with Biafra from 1967 to 1970. Of course, General Gowon had, at the end of the shooting war, proclaimed that there was "No victor, no vanquished," a statement that many interpreted as an expression of his largeness of heart, but which I see as an eternal truth that the mighty forces that control the history of humanity forced him to utter, even if he did not understand what he was saying. General Gowon had, in his experience of euphoria at the end of the war, proclaimed to the world that Biafra's "Rising Sun" had set forever. It was not just a chest-beating type of announcement; it was indeed an attempt at mocking Biafra's leaders and those that held Biafra as their pride. What Gowon did not see immediately was the fact that the Biafran Sun was shining and will continue to shine in the memory of those he was mocking. His attempt at extinguishing that risen sun was futile.

In the madness of making sure that the Biafran Sun had set forever, Gowon and his war commanders set about destroying whatever relics of Biafra that the Biafran population had salvaged from the ruins of war. Even art objects carrying the emblem of the Rising Sun were destroyed. I recall with great pain how my late father -- a leader in the Biafran civil defence corps -- was made to burn his walking stick that carried both the image of Odumegwu-Ojukwu and Biafra's Rising Sun. The destruction of my father's Biafran walking stick was for us in the family such a terrible experience, painful much like the death of a relative, for the artistically made stick was for us a representation of the Biafran vision and our pride as survivors. Years later, the Nigerian government shamelessly started looking for Biafran relics to equip the war museum at Umuahia. They started looking for objects that they had previously viewed as evidence of betrayal of the Nigerian nation-state and which they used in frightening the survivors of the war! The war after the war was extended to art and the memory of Biafra!

Now that Odumegwu-Ojukwu is dead, that memory that could not die has erupted to live in his place, or rather to live as him. Every burial provides an opportunity for a resurrection and for an idea to live forever. No one can extinguish an idea. Odumegwu-Ojukwu identified with that idea called "Biafra" and has now come to symbolize that idea itself. He was not just fighting to liberate the peoples of Eastern Nigeria, but trying to communicate that idea which even his enemies, the enemies of Biafra, were later to recognize following the liberation of Eritrea, South Sudan, etc. So, you see, it was not just a Biafran war; it was a universal war of self-determination. That's the idea!

Olu Oguibe asked his fellow netizens to make the Biafran Rising Sun, the Biafran idea, viral; to make it "occupy"" the very arena where it would continue to give stomach ache to the enemies of Biafra, the enemies of self-determination. He wrote: "Share this with your friends and on your group walls and listservs. Let's paint Facebook red, black and green with half of a yellow sun, in one rare moment of unity, and not discord." And it erupted: many on Facebook changed their profile pictures to the image of the Biafran flag. I changed mine too. i immediately became one with the Biafran idea by disappearing into the icon of the Biafran flag. The possibility of changing Facebook profile picture is such an appealing feature of the social media to people like me who would want to keep representing their unstable and multiple identities in a visual mode.

The change of the profile pictures to the Biafran flag also raised an interesting issue about visual differentiation of idenity in that virtual environment. For someone like me with three Facebook accounts, it became difficult for me to differentiate between one account and another. The three accounts -- which I refer to as my Facebook Trinity -- became one, just as I became one with Biafra, and one with other Facebook netizens that had changed their profile images to the flag!

Well, it is proper -- and indeed gladdening -- that the Biafran idea is the unifying element of my trinity, and the unifying element of Facebook netizenship. This is essentially the meaning Oguibe was looking for -- and which he signified as "one rare moment of unity, and not discord." Although Facebook netizens would have difficulty in visually differentiating one interactant from another -- since every interactant is now the Biafran idea -- one sees clearly that the Rising Sun is shining in spite of Gowon and Nigeria on Facebook today, 41 years after Gowon had proclaimed that that Sun had set forever. It is also shining in the hearts of many, more than it has ever shone before.


The option that the enemies of the Biafran idea and the Biafran memory have now is to shift the battleground from Umuahia Sector, Uli Airport Sector, Nsukka Sector, Nkpor Sector, Owerri Sector, Uyo Sector, Ikot-Ekpene Sector, etc to the cyberspace where the Biafran idea has suddenly become viral. But even if they are able to beat their chests later and say, "We have been able to make the Biafran Sun set forever," they still need to log into the disk of human mind and try to erase the memory of the Biafran idea.

I join Olu Oguibe in asking netizens to make the Biafran idea viral. If the name "Biafra" makes someone somewhere begin to experience a stomach ache, let's cure that fellow permanently by screaming the name louder!