The Dangerous African Marriage of Religion to Tradition

(NB: I will be illustrating my points with reference to Yoruba traditions: other African traditions and cultures are available.)

Increasingly, we see culture, religion and tradition being used as justification for legislative actions, administrative actions and executive policies. The effect of this is a blurring of the lines between the personal and the political spheres in African society. I suggest that this confusion is dangerous as it ignores necessary demarcations and leads to the abdication of responsibility for making measured and logical decisions for the good of the state. To understand how we arrived at this pretty pass, we have to understand the history of religion in Africa.

Prior to the European intervention in internal African affairs, most African polities made no distinction between religion and tradition. Which is why you would see sayings such as the following proverb:

Ibití ènìyàn kòsí, kò sí imalè

Literally: Where there is no person, there is no divinity

Meaning: There is something divine – supernatural – about humanity

Such belief systems conflated the natural and the supernatural, but worked well for smaller political entities. This was especially so because the understanding of the divine was predicated upon the cyclic understanding of society. For example: The core value of Yoruba philosophy is based on the concept of the good person or person of good character (ìwà rere), known as Ọmọlúàbí. The good person is defined by her good character, knowledge, humility, respect, hard work and wisdom; in this sense the value ascribed is cyclic. This is because the preservation of community is paramount; the community consists of good persons, however it is the duty of the community to collectively ensure that individuals become good persons. A person who is not good, ọmọlasan, is of no social worth to her community; the community thus has self-interest in discharging this duty to create people who conform to the standard of ỌmọlúàbíỌmọlasan is a shame to the community, because it means that the community has failed in its duties.


This changed when Eurocentric Judaic religion was introduced to Africa, and vice versa. External religions introduced a rift between culture and religion and between individual and community that Africa is still trying to grapple with. This was compounded by arbitrary state creation and the introduction of socio-political institutions incongruent with pre-existing ones.

So African find it difficult to separate religion from culture/tradition. We try to attribute the immutability of religious mores to the fluidity of cultural expectations. African traditions religions (ATRs) were not inalterable and responded to the needs of society. Since the wants of society were paramount, ATRs were essentially flexible. As shown in the following proverb:

Kán-ún ni ọmọ Hausa; asárá ni ọmọ òyìnbó; gombo lọmọ Onírè.

Literally: the Hausas love Potash; the white man loves snuff; the Ìrè person loves his facial marks.

Meaning: Different peoples need different things.

However, Judaic religions are very much built on firm adherence to specific rules, rather than a tolerance or openness that accepts that individual needs within a community will differ. So this marriage is evidently an inter-species one.


Secondly, this marriage fails to account for linguistic limitations and variations. Languages carry a people’s worldview. Therefore, when we translate religious texts from one language to another, we unwittingly transplant different and disparate worldviews. Religious texts of necessity will occasion dangerous marriages because of failures in communication. Texts written in Hebrew, translated into Latin, Greek, English and then Yoruba, entertain unintended and mostly unobserved mingling of worldviews.

Let us take the word ‘head’ for example, in English this could mean, the upper part of the human body, chief; principal. or to be in the leading position on.

In Yoruba, rendered as ‘ori’ it could mean the upper part of the human body. It also alludes to the principle of human divinity and predestination, as well as individuality.

Another example is the English word ‘husband’ which means, married man considered in relation to his spouse.

Translate this into Yoruba, you get ‘ọkọ.’ which also means married man, but it also means ‘person exercising domination over something or someone.’ As in the phrase- ‘òfin l’ọkọ ọràn.’ Which means, ‘the law is made to overcome trouble’. So we see that words and translations have inherent connotations that we fail to account for without in-depth thought or analysis.


Finally, due to the fact that cultures are very much an integral part of society, there is little choice open to members of society but to adhere to them. Non-adherence to societal norms leads to isolation within society. Conversely, religions are (or should be) mostly preached as predicated on choice – the choice to believe, to have faith. Logically, you cannot be forced to have faith. By marrying culture with religion we have a situation where being non-religious leads to isolation. Political arguments are also predicated on religious normativity rather than communal needs.

As a postc0lonial decolonial Afro-feminist, who is also a Christian, I recommend an amicable divorce of African religion from African cultures. Africans can be religious and cultural if they want, but we must understand the difference between the two. Africans can be cultural and non-religious, or religious and acultural, or neither. We should always have a choice. What we should not do is destroy our societies and ourselves by acting in ways that misunderstand what it means to be African. We should not impose our personal beliefs on other people. Africans have always had a sense of the divine, we have always believed that humanity itself is synonymous with divinity. But we have always had a sense that our collective happiness supersedes individual discomfort or pride. The innate African inclination to perpetuate collective happiness is the casualty of this unsafe marriage. And the evidence is all around us, like so much blood on the ground.


Academics as Optimistic Shoe Salespeople

A paradigm change can sometimes feel like a physical thing. I can remember the first time I found out about the story of the optimistic shoe salesman. I was in the Law Faculty of OAU Ile-Ife, having a moment of quiet contemplation. Very few places are as well suited to mental rumination as a faculty shaped like a cruise liner. I still believe that this is one of the most beautiful buildings in Nigeria. It was definitely an honour and a privilege to spend 5(+x) years in it as a student of law. In a country that prizes ostentation over aesthetics, the beauty of such a building is often ignored.


But I digress. I was trying to tell the story of a sales person. So I was standing in front of the CLASFON (google it) noticeboard , when I decided to read the homilies printed on it. Near the bottom was the story of the optimistic salesperson which ran as follows:

‘Two shoe salesmen were sent to a town to see if there was a market for their product. The first salesman reported back, “This is a terrible business opportunity, no-one wears shoes.” The second salesman reported back, “This is a fantastic business opportunity, no-one wears shoes.”

At the time I thought to myself that it would never have occurred to me to see the non-wearing of shoes as an opportunity. But this story changed my perspective about possibility… entirely and completely. This change has helped me many times to visualise the seemingly impossible. It strikes me that as academics in a post-factual world, the optimistic salesperson is aspirational. In a world where emotional appeals and emotive decision-making are becoming the norm, we seem to be only people ‘selling shoes’ (who have the facts). Rather than view the postfactual or post-truth as reasons for despair, I believe this means that we are in a moment of fantastic intellectual opportunity. Rather than lament reality, we should be revealing the reasons for the possibility of our reality, and charting a path that unveils the possibility for change.


Underpinning the idea of possibility is the existence of hope. Hope of a world of possibility. Possibility that the world can accept the shared value of equal humanity. Possibility of peace in a world of conflict. Possibility of mutual respect in a world of hate. Possibility of joy in a world of despair. As Paulo Friere suggests in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, our pedagogy (academic practice) is meant to unveil the oppression of ignorance by acknowledging our common humanity. I believe that as academics, we have a responsibility to shine a light into the darkness of post-truth, to reveal the illusion of postfactuality. Therefore, we should not give in to despair, because in our despair we are immobilised, forced into inaction and stasis. In stasis, we are assured of one thing and one thing only – destruction. Our action, our realisation of the fantastic opportunity to ‘sell shoes,’ allows us to offer the one thing the world needs right now – hope.


The Big Chop: Intersecting the personal and the political

‘Is your hair still political?

tell me

when it starts to burn.

Audre Lorde

So I am contemplating ‘The Big Chop’… I have been turning it over in mind for many weeks, months, years… The Big Chop is a cornerstone of the natural hair movement. It is ‘the point of no return’ in the transition from chemically treated hair back to natural hair. A redemption of sorts.

The natural hair movement recognises that according to global beauty ideals, black hair is the least desirable. Black hair does not sell products. Black hair is ‘not professional.’ Natural black hair is often banned from work places and schools. The myths about black hair have led black women to mutilate and thus erase a distinctive part of their identity – their hair. This means that black women would put extremely harmful chemicals in their hair to straighten it. Or buy expensive weaves of dubious provenance to cover their stringy mop-like curls. Or attack themselves with blazing iron rods that removes kinks from tresses. The natural hair movement (which encourages women of African descent to keep their hair natural afro-textured) has been with us for quite a long time. However, social media (which I have argued is a dynamic tool of Pan-Africanism) has put the argument for natural hair in communicative spaces previously not considered. This has ensured that global consciousness has become more aware of the natural hair movement.


I find the ‘question’ of black women’s hair to be very intellectually interesting. It is one of those issues (probably the most prominent of its type) that affects only black women. This explains and illustrates the necessity of intersectional approaches. ‘Intersectionality’, as originally advanced by Kimberlé Crenshaw, speaks to an understanding of the complex and multiple ways in which various systems of subordination can come together at the same time. In the case of black women’s hair the two systems of subordination are gender and race. The liberty (I say liberty and not right) to be an adherent of the natural hair movement is a gender issue but only applies to black women. So it illustrates that relying and positing margins of freedoms that do not account for positionality is an incomplete exercise. By not accounting for how the freedom to wear natural hair affects black women specifically, we silence and erase the black female experience and thus do epistemic violence to her.


I have previously set forth the guiding principles of epistemic violence as set forth by G S Spivak. Simply put, epistemic violence is the cognitive inability to engage with the truth of another group’s social experience. Any measure that restricts the black’s woman’s freedom to treat her hair as she wishes, may be said to be a form of epistemic violence. Spivak argues that epistemic violence can only be defused when the intellectual represents the silenced. This means that for a black woman, the freedom to wear natural hair is an intellectual issue as well as a  matter of personal beauty. In fact as has been seen in some South African schools, merely wearing the hair one is born with is a sign of protest.


And this brings me to the crossroads of personal and political. When existence itself becomes protest, the personal is politicized. This brings into question the variable autonomy and sovereignty allowed black women. When the lines between the personal and political are blurred, personal decisions are fraught with political cogitations. For example: As a postcolonial decolonial pan-African feminist (yes, that is a thing…) do I not owe a scholarly duty to be an adherent of the natural hair movement? (In essence to practice what I preach) As an autonomous person, do I not have the freedom of choice to do what I want with my hair? Natural or Textured? But how free is my choice when the structures of society implicitly support one choice over the other? And therein lies the problem and the solution. The natural hair movement will always be political. And that is not a bad thing, because freedom is political. But freedom is life. Freedom like a skylark flies upward. Freedom is aspirational. Freedom is worth fighting for. For humanity. The struggle is everlasting.

A luta continua, vitória é certa


Ohio School Apologizes After Attempting To Ban ‘Afro-Puffs’ And ‘Twisted Braids’

Racism row over South Africa school’s alleged hair policy

Until recently this school in South Africa told black girls to chemically straighten their hair

‘Wear a weave at work – your afro hair is unprofessional’

The ‘Dead Cat Strategy’ in Nigerian Politics

One universal trait of Nigerian social media warriors is an entrenchment of political amnesia, which manifests itself in an inability to persist with any social cause to resolution. This makes us highly susceptible to the ‘dead cat’ strategy, which is illustrated in the following quotation cited by Isabel Hardman:

‘Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate”.
‘That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.’’ 

So rather than sticking with issues like the plummeting economy, food crisis in the North East, due process failures, massive abduction, infrastructural failure, institutional decay, security paralysis, we are talking about the dead cat of a marriage spat that may or may not be stage-managed… we will allow ourselves to be distracted, and we focus on anything, anything at all, except for the failings of the government. Because who wants to talk about the things that matter?


Dearth of Humanities Scholarship in Nigeria: A Farce

We know that in Nigeria, there is really only one profession. Medicine. If you are not a Medical Doctor you are inferior. The only other question is how much more inferior than a doctor do you want to be. Slightly inferior =Engineer; or You are not in the same species inferior = Music. So for the uninitiated let me explain how career choice works.  Secondary school is separated into Junior and senior secondary, in junior secondary school you all do the same subjects. At the start of senior secondary, that is the last three years of school, that’s when you decide whether you’re going to do a combination of science subjects that will make you a doctor or engineer or something less worthy. You do an exam at the end of junior secondary school, if you pass you are put in the science class, and if you barely pass you are put in the arts class and if you do just okay you are put in the middle (commercial). Everyone (and their parents) wants to get into the sciences classes. So we start out from this stage by ensuring that the smartest people are only scientists. How does this make sense? We do not even think about what people are best suited to study. The university admissions system further makes a mockery of the whole thing. I have made a short list of areas in which we need the best and brightest, but which we seem to think does not require mental exertion.

Economics: a social science concerned with the factors that determine the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. A country is basically a big company which must make a profit to survive. But no! We must have only doctors. Tell me how will these doctors work when the hospitals are poorly equipped?

History: the study of the past. I have written previously on how the failure to study history is an act of national self-destruction. How do we steer a ship of state if we do not the ship’s history? The state could crumble but we must have only doctors o!

Linguistics: The scientific study of language and its structure, including the study of grammar, syntax, and phonetics. Specific branches of linguistics include sociolinguistics, dialectology, psycholinguistics, computational linguistics, comparative linguistics, and structural linguistics. Nigeria is reputed to have 521 languages. I have met very few Nigerian linguistics. Linguistics has an increasingly important impact on other fields as diverse as psychology, philosophy, education, language teaching, sociology, anthropology, computer science, and artificial intelligence. We have no understanding of how the use of language in schools either impedes or helps the acquisition of knowledge. If we had more linguists they may help us to get better trained doctors.

Sociology: the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society. Nigerians tend to make up facts about our society. Since we have no one to contradict those facts, or theories, we argue about them incessantly. But at least we have doctors. Not realising of course that some medical problems can be prevented by societal changes – crime, gendered violence, group violence etc

Psychology: is the study of behavior and mind, embracing all aspects of conscious and unconscious experience as well as thought. It is an academic discipline and a social science which seeks to understand individuals and groups by establishing general principles and researching specific cases. I believe that you can never truly understand the world until you have understood yourself. We have no response to rape culture, domestic abuse, hive mind, game theory. But we have doctors. So we are all grand right?

Philosophythe rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct. I believe everyone who goes to school should study some philosophy. Nigerian social media sometimes make me fear that rational thought departed from Nigerian shores along with brain-drain and a sense of human consideration.  Philosophy teaches the ability to think and write clearly, the ability to bring to light unnoticed presuppositions, to explain complex ideas clearly, to tease out connections and implications, to see things in a broader context, to challenge orthodoxy. I give thanks to Professor Fasina for making this subject fascinating. But we don’t need logic as long as we have doctors. Shebi?

Others: Music, Creative Writing, Languages, Fine Art, Performance Art, Anthropology, Religion, Political Science, Accounting, International Studies… (caveat: this is not a closed list and I have not listed the subjects here or the ones above in order of importance)

The truth is, Nigeria needs more medical doctors, but we also need more of every profession. Most importantly we need the best of the best doing the best of their best. That is what makes a viable state.



A Nigerian Prayer: May We Wake One by One

Almost 20 years ago, a very good friend of mine used to say that prayer to me, every night, before we climbed our bunk-beds. I was quite perplexed the first time I heard her say it. ‘May we wake one by one.’ We were about to go to sleep, in our over-populated room in Moz Hall OAU, Ife, lulled to sleep by a cacophony of Lepa GaouAyefele & Montel Jordan. As a southern-northerner my Yoruba was functional, but colloquial south-western usage puzzled me. I asked her what that meant. ‘May we wake one by one.’ She said that during the night, if all goes well, everyone wakes up at their own time – one by one. However, if there is a disaster in the night, we all wake simultaneously in response to it.

‘May we wake one by one.’ It is a prayer against sudden disaster. I can remember naively laughing at the time. But with the billows of life the prayer becomes more meaningful. Nowhere is that prayer more meaningful than Nigeria – the land of sudden and preventable pestilence. Like the many times when fires threatened to engulf our halls of residence at night, and the time when we were awakened by gunshots and running feet, or the many, many times we were awakened by candlelit processions to commemorate the lives of dearly departed students; or outside of school when we were awakened by raiding, or thieves, or just angry people.

‘May we wake one by one.’

Sometimes it seems that our Nigerian lives are defined by avoidable disaster, man-made-malaise. But they are still lives, human lives, with all the attendant human needs, desires and cravings. We still yearn as they do in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Berlin or Birmingham. But it is the marrying of normal with peril that defines Nigeria; joy and sorrow are wrapped up in indistinguishable garments. The combination of the modern trappings and age-old death fuse together and walk with us. The universal quest of love that culminates in a marriage that could be destroyed by an accident so fatal that we could see the smoke from several kilometres away. Watching ‘How I Met Your Mother’ only to be interrupted by a brutal home invasion. Studying Donoghue v Stevenson and duty of care, sweat-dripping onto your notes, and then the Student Union bosses forcefully disrupt your class on the pretext of a boycott. Heads slashed open during a student union vote. Rape under the shadow of darkness. Students taking a video of a public lynching and murder of other students on the very latest Android phone. Knowing that no matter how expensive your Jeep is, each time you enter into it, you may never come home, because the roads are lamentable and the police are trigger happy.

‘May we wake one by one.’

Because in Nigeria, violence is normal. It is expected. It is always waiting. My father had a game plan for how to respond to a home invasion. We discussed this very pragmatically. Because in Nigeria, the question of a home invasion is not answered with ‘if’ but ‘when.’ And this violence can come from anyone. And for women in Nigeria there is almost no escape. It is believed that 95% of women and girls in Nigeria have been subject to at the very least some form of sexual harassment. I would like to know the 5% and their secret. Almost everyone has encountered police brutality, everyone would have come into contact with abuse of office.

‘May we wake one by one.’

This is why our stories matter. Even if the world is not listening. These stories are for us. These stories are how we heal. This is how we dismantle oppression. Unveiling the monsters we have leashed upon ourselves upon each other. Monsters disguised in cultural robes, monsters parading in religious regalia, monsters purveying violence as their mother-tongue. These are things we don’t talk about. We do not talk about how our souls die in the face of constant violence. But we pray.

‘May we wake one by one.’

May we wake one by one.’

May we wake one by one.’

May we wake, before it is too late.

For Nigeria: Anthem from Chess

No man, no madness
Though their sad power may prevail
Can possess, conquer, my country’s heart
They rise to fail
She is eternal
Long before nations’ lines were drawn
When no flags flew, when no armies stood
My land was born

And you ask me why I love her
Through wars, death and despair
She is the constant, we who don’t care
And you wonder will I leave her
I cross over borders but I’m still there now

How can I leave her?
Where would I start?
Let man’s petty nations tear themselves apart
My land’s only borders lie around my heart