Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New Years, New Yearnings: Discourse, Time, and the National Voyage to a Becoming


Obododimma Oha

"What can be said in New Year rhymes
That's not been said a thousand times?
The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.
We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.
We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.
We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our prides, we sheet our dead.
We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that's the burden of the year."
        --- Ella Wilcox.

I stayed awake in the night of 31 December, 2011, as I have been doing all these years, to witness the transition from a retiring year to another taking over. I wanted to witness that split moment of transition that made the difference between an old year and a new one. I didn't notice any difference; I didn't even realize that any change had taken place. I looked and listened; only the sound of fireworks and hooting of triumphant entry into a new year filled the air. Always the same noise of triumph, with varying embellishments. In our Igbo village, I recall, such witnessing of a transition to another year had some interesting folk ritual performances to go with it: the villagers usually plucked leaves and marched round the village in the final hour of the dying year, chanting.

Afo gbara aka laa oo!
Afo gbara aka laa oo!
Afo gbara aka laa oo!

Roughly translated as:

May the year go without a mishap!
May the year go without a mishap!
May the year go without a mishap!

In its literal translation, the chant actually says: "May this year go empty-handed!" This end-of-year ritual, called ichu afo, considered an important deployment of the powers of human speech, indeed communal affirmation, means expelling whatever evil that is waiting to strike anybody in the community. The forces of evil, it is traditionally believed, always stand by waiting at that strategic moment like a year ending, to poison the joy of the community with terrible grief. But a communal speech, representing the power of the many endorsed by Chukwu-abia-amuma, can foil such a spiritual conspiracy. So, no one needed to be reminded to join in the communal ritual and "chasing away" the old year, asking the old year to go empty-handed. 

So, caught in the unfortunate demands of my profession in the urban Nigerian environment, I was unable to travel home to my village to join the larger family in driving away the old year. That also came with the idle reflection of wanting to know what made the difference between an old year and a new one. An alienated soul is wont to seek such deep things, against its own happiness. And so it seemed to me that the idea of a "new year" is a mere fiction which human beings find convenient in trying to reassure themselves that a future is real, and that they are moving into it. 

A new year supposedly calls for newness, for a renewal, at least. Coming on the heels of the birth of Jesus the Christ, whom Christians consider the Son of God and savior of the world, the New Year celebration becomes a moment for the renewal of vows, or the making of resolutions. For Christians, it involves renewing the vow of living the life of the savior and depending on the grace of God to experience greater blessings in the next eleven months and after. Christians and non-Christians make resolutions, which are supposed to be serious statements about what they must do to show that the year has some newness and difference. Whether the resolutions are kept or not is another matter, but the fact remains that many would like to be part of that ritual of moving into a future that is different from its past. 

New years still have the old yearnings. When I look at the resolutions and prayers made on Facebook by my friends, I find that these old yearnings about personal dreams of greatness, of experiencing better days as a citizen in a troubled country and global environment, of overcoming the drawbacks experienced in the year just gone.

Here are some interesting randomly-selected samples of New Year wishes and messages posted on Facebook on January 1, 2012 and January 2, 2012:

(1) "We've stepped into a brighter light.
    Happy new year, friends."
          (Olisakwe Ukamaka Evelyn, posted 12.55am on Jan. 1, 2012)
(2) "01-01-12 watching my goodies coming."
         (Ayobami Omonijo)
(3) "I wish all Nigerians a Happy New Year. Now let's be reminded that this is a new year and in 2011 Nigeria suffered because we politicized religion. In 2012 this trend must change and we all must make a conscious and proactive effort not to repeat the mistakes of the past year."
        (Pat Utomi, Jan. 2, 2012)
(4) "My New Year Solutions, Not Resolutions
    This Year I want to be a monkey
    Jumping from tree to tree
    Next year I can be a donkey
    Why can't I be a bubble?
    Blow away and disappear
    Instead of getting into trouble
    Making resolutions every year."
        (Orok Duke, Jan. 1, 2012; 3.24AM)
(5) "This is the 12th year of the New Millennia (sic), let's write our 
    future with Big Ideas, enquire into all problems that afflict us. 
    Happy New Year, folks, friends and compatriots."
         (Abdul Mahmud, Jan. 1, 2012; 1.13AM)
(6) "Finally, 2012. Finally, a year with new clothes. Happy new Year 
         (Chitzi Ogbumgbada, Jan. 1, 2012; 1.04AM)
(7) "YES!
     Time to knot my shoe lace. 
      2012 ... another desert to be fertilized.
      As the journey begins!"
       (N'Time Joseph, Jan. 1, 2012; 12.55AM)
(8) "Thank you GOD for today -- jan 1st, 2012. 2012 the year of the 
     Dominion and Manifestation of the WORD. The WORD. The WORD. 
     The WORD. Happy New Year. This year is for you, by the power 
     of the WORD."
        (David Ishaya Osu, Jan. 1, 2012; 12.43AM)
(9) "Welcome to the Year of the Dragon. This also shall be the Year 
    of Sacrifice, and if it pleases the gods, a man who was born in the
    Year of the Dragon shall return through the Path of Thunder, and 
    a People shall either rise like humans, or perish on their knees like 
         (Olu Oguibe, Jan. 2, 2012; 7.38AM)
(10) "I wish all a New Year filled with personal growth and 
     professional accomplishment. And may the year be marked by 
     peace and an end to senseless violence."
        (Okey Ndibe, Jan. 1, 2012; 8.54AM)
(11) "... he said to me 'drop ur map for this year (2011) cos tmrw u 
     shall take up a new identity, and a new map for the new year. 
     dust ur coat and tighten ur boot ... by this time tmrw, u shall be
     on the cool blue sea drifting on ur feet, without a boat, without
     an oar, without a lifejacket nor a float tyre ... cos the angel on
     the other side of d sea wud ve locked them in his barn.... but ... u 
     shud fear no tempest, for thou at (sic) with the wind and a fair
     weather to comfort u ... a thousand shall drown by ur side and 
     ten thousand by your right hand but shall not come near u, only 
     with ur mind eyes shall u perceive it "...but he quickly added,    
     'make sure ur eyes re closed thru d journey and only see with ur 
     senses ... if you opened (sic) ur eyes, d fishes ll call ur name, d 
     crocodiles ll give u gifts, d seagulls ll sing u a melodious hymn, 
     and d sea ll wink at u ... then u ll go dancing after them ... then 
     ... u ll begin again from d very start and the tempest ll rock ur 
     nerves, and d wind ll not be ur friend and all ll conspire and give 
     u a fear jacket ... but with eyes closed, u shall get to d other 
     side of the sea and only God ll be mighty in ur inside.
           (Alake Titilope, Jan. 2, 2012.)
(12) "May 2012 be better than 2011 for those who believe!"
           (Hope Eghagha, Jan. 1, 2012; 8.49AM)

Light-Dark images feature in the communication of the New Year wishes, indicating that indeed the main issue is about the picture of the new year that we create or carry in our heads, pictures that reveal whether we have fears or hopes, whether we have chosen an optimistic orientation or a pessimistic one. It is particularly interesting that the new year, which represents a future, is  configured as a sea of uncertainties in one of the Status posts. The sea has always featured as an archetypal imagery of fear in writings by poets, sometimes along with night, suggesting in a rather amplified way the magnitude of trouble for which deliverance is sought. This desired deliverance is imagined as Dawn or Light. Thus we find in Olisakwe Ukamaka Evelyn's post a resonance of that deliverance/hope imagery: stepping "into a brighter light." It is also noteworthy that her expression of deliverance is cast in a comparative degree -- "brighter" -- which suggests that we are already out of the zone of trouble; we are already in the "light" and not in the Dark.

This representation is in conflict with the posts that suggest that the "sea" of the new year on which we must travel is not the zone of light, or that it is left to us to create that future through the choices we make. The events following the removal of government subsidy on the local prices of petroleum products in Nigeria indeed indicate that Nigerians are not yet out of the Dark or tempestuous Sea  configuration. They have rather just entered a trying part of their voyage through that sea and will have to make the kind of critical choices suggested in Alake Titilope's post. Alake, in her status post, presents a very interesting configuration of the new year as a dark sea populated by dangerous creatures, such that traveling through it requires a special protection from the Almighty. In her interesting narrative, she reports that on the very night of transition to a new year (a passover night), an angel of the Lord appeared to her with a leather box containing gifts, asking her to drop her map of the passing year and take the map of the coming year. And how is that new map read? The map, as seen from the angel's narrative, says her journey through the new year is not going to be smooth, if that was what she was expecting, but that it would be a journey through a rough and dangerous sea of crocodiles. 

Alake maintains a highly engaging prophetic posture, her predictions apparently fulfilled in the violent experiences which occurred in Nigeria few days later. One, in fact, finds a disturbing relationship between the imagery of "the sea of crocodiles" in Alake's prophetic post and "the river of crocodiles," which is the English translation of the name, "Kaduna." Well, Alake might have been referring to what Nigerians would pass through generally in their journey to healthy governance and democracy, but, as in the Prophecies of Michel Nostradamus, this closeness in naming is highly suggestive, especially considering the violence and killings in Kaduna State recently, the Boko Haram terror, and the alleged conspiracies, which have set many Nigerians wondering if many people in government in Northern Nigeria are not secretly connected with the terrorist attacks. In fact, Alake uses the word "conspire" in describing the roles of certain mythologized figures in that imagined journey: "... the crocodiles ll give you gifts, d seagulls ll sing u a melodious hymn, and the sea ll wink at u ... then u ll go dancing after them ... then ... u ll begin again from the very start and the tempest ll rock ur nerves, and the wind ll not be ur friend and all ll conspire and give u a fear jacket...." Isn't terrorism about conspiracy and particularly the giving of fear (jacket)? Terrorism spreads fear, and, from Alake's prophecy (which applies to individuals just as it applies to government), this fear is meant to derail, to prevent one from focusing on one's goal and getting it accomplished. 

It is interesting that she deploys a mythical technique, effectively appropriating patterns of agency associated with derailment of mission, as one finds in Homer's Odyssey (or in Jason and the Argonauts) as well as in African folk narratives. Her "seagulls" might as well have been Homer's sirens using a melodious song to seduce the person on the mission. Could Nigerians also not be called "Naijanauts" making a journey on a dangerous sea and facing many forms of deception, distraction and treachery?

This deployment of myth in prophesying about the New Year for the nation is particularly evident in Olu Oguibe's Facebook post. The author of A Gathering Fear, Oguibe has consistently demonstrated a very radical posture in his narration of the Nigerian nation-state. Perhaps the title of that collection of poems of his utters its own prophecy which has started unfolding in Nigeria. His Facebook New Year post cited in (9) above, in a Nostradamus style, warns that: "a man who was born in the Year of the Dragon shall return through the Path of Thunder." 2012, he informs his readers, is "the Year of the Dragon." So, who could this man born in the Year of the Dragon be? 

The year 2012, according to Chinese astrology, is the Year of the Dragon. For the Chinese, the Dragon is a special animal and a symbol of power and uprightness. The following information available on the Sichuan-China.com is very helpful in this regard:

"... in Chinese astrology the dragon person born under this Chinese Zodiac sign tends to be a "doer" – they do things and achieve power by getting things done.

A dragon can breathe out fire so the person born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon can be a hothead. Watch out if you make them angry!

However, the dragon has a soft underbelly and so in Chinese astrology the dragon person born in this Chinese Zodiac year has a "soft spot" to them. They may get angry at someone who annoys them but they also show great compassion to people in need.

A dragon has a long tongue which is often seen.

So in Chinese astrology the dragon person born in this Chinese Zodiac year has a sharp tongue – they will say things that can be quite sarcastic and biting.

The person born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon can be quite a confronting person but if you can reach their "soft heart" they are worthwhile allies.

2012 is the Chinese year of the dragon. So what does 2012 hold for a person born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon?

Such people double their efforts in whatever they do - work, education and other projects. Their natural talent and abilities should stand out with great results.

However, watch out for that temper! Keep it in check and do not spoil your good work."

So, Oguibe's prophecy is about the fact that the new year is a historical turning point for a nation, a year in which citizens will either "rise like humans, or perish like animals." The Dragon avatar returns through the "Path of Thunder" (obviously a symbol of violence, derived from the work of Peter Abrahams with the same title and later the title of Christopher Okigbo's 1968 collection of poems, later included in Labyrinths), indeed suggestive of an opportunity for redemption (which could be lost, if there is no determination and conviction on the part of the citizenry).

Indeed, the New Year celebration calls for the making of resolutions, which involves setting goals and working towards them. This is obviously in line with the idea of the part the individual or society has to play in relation to the prophecies discussed earlier. Orok Duke in his poetic status post (see sample text (4) above) deconstructs "resolutions" to register his preference for "solutions." His erasure of "re" in "resolutions" shows that desire to remake things: it points to the idea of being fed up with the tendency to plan and not execute, to make promises without making efforts to fulfill them. Thus, Orok Duke's poem, sounding like a limerick, playfully interrogates this orientation which critics of the government in Nigeria have been reiterating. As it applies to individuals in the way they have to perceive the meaning of the New year, so does it apply to governments. 

Wishing that good things come one's way (or happen to one's society) is just a prayer, which needs to be matched with action. In contemporary Nigerian life, it has become common for individuals, aided by Pentecostal narratives, to imagine a new year in various utopian forms. There are such slogans as "My Year of Restoration," "My Year of Glory," "My Year of Deliverance," or even "This Year Is My Year." The slogans are produced as stickers that are placed on automobiles and walls of buildings or sometimes printed on T-shirts. These days, they also appear as wallpaper on mobile phone screens and computer monitors, perhaps as a way of making the message so pervasive that it invades and occupies the viewer's mind. The origin is the advocacy by Pentecostal pastors that church members engage in positive thinking and positive talking, as a way of spiritually invoking good or positive things to happen in their lives. The slogans also advertise their users as being spiritually triumphant. 

Positive thinking and positive talking may have their own good psychological advantages, but may end up being misleading if they are seen in themselves as the keys to miracles. Unless people get up and work to change their lives, no miracle-talking will transform them and their societies into civilized and progressive entities. That, by implications, requires that we do not repeat the mistakes we made in the past, mistakes that included making resolutions and not working towards solutions (as noted by Orok Duke). Quite rightly, Pat Utomi in his own New Year status post advises Nigerians to make "a conscious and proactive effort not to repeat the mistakes of the past year."

Nigerian New Year yearning on Facebook becomes very significant in the light of the crisis over the removal of subsidy on petroleum products consumed in Nigeria and the terrorist attacks by Boko Haram. The discourse generated by the Facebook status posts once more brings up the idea of a virtual Nigerian public desiring, questioning, correcting, and guiding the troubled Nigerian nation and how the online forum becomes a veritable tool for mass enlightenment and consciousness-raising. 

The New Year invites individuals as well as a society to some newness, but this newness cannot happen without a reference to the past. Indeed, it may be futile to expect the past to be locked away, with a Time boundary, a rift that must not be tampered with. One must expect the presence of the past, for the present and its achievements are never complete without a reference to the past, as T.S. Eliot says in his essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent." If like Capt. Jack Harkness and other characters in "Torchwood," a BBC series, we try to prevent the unlocking of the rift and the consequent invasion of aliens (including the dead), how far can we really go? The Nigerian dead, as a matter of fact, have been discursively brought back to life in some of the Facebook posts focusing on terrorism and the possible break-up of the country. One has read several posts by Imo Eshiet, for instance, bringing back Alhaji Ahmadu Bello back to our realm/universe to say again what he had said many years ago about the Nigerian entity. So, the Nigerian past cannot be wished away easily, even in spite of the priestly advocacy about positive talking. Bringing back the past may be, in fact, very important in the project of rethinking and remaking Nigeria. 


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