By Senayon Olaoluwa
THE narrative on the invention of Africa, as VY Mudimbe would have us believe, must begin with an acknowledgment of the various exogenous influences to which Africa has been subjected, especially in the last 500 years. Located within the broader dynamics of the postcolonial consciousness and the imperative of the imagination of communities in the evolution of modern states, Benedict Anderson postulates about the agency of mobilizing narratives, among others, for the articulation of sentiments that bind people of different groups as the substance of nationalism, and sometimes transcending the physicality of geography to appropriate the more intimate experiences through which identities are constructed and affirmed. Despite all these, the Caribbean-born British scholar Stuart Hall cautions about the danger of dominant narratives as hegemonic and exclusively representative. Invariably, he instead affirms the difference in postcolonial history from space to space by asserting that we are not all “equally postcolonial”.
It is against the above backdrop that I consider myself privileged to have been selected as a reviewer of the novel, Vothuno: The Chief Priest of Badagri written by Dr. Anthony Babatunde Olaide-Mesewaku. Indeed, Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, Armah and other African writers have imaginatively written the African slavery and colonial experience into global reckoning and prominence in ways that stand their works out as classics that appeal to a wide range of readers and audiences across the African continent and the global spectrum. However, the primacy of the peculiarities of the experience in relation to distinct peoples and cultures cannot be over-emphasised. It in this sense that Olaide-Mesewaku’s Vothuno offers a fresh dimension to Africa’s postcolonial experience at the centre of which is the critical reception of the Ogu people of Badagri and Nigeria. If the creative project sounds dated because of its thematic focus, a quick critical search beyond the surface indicates that it is as relevant as it would have been if published decades ago as it is before our very eyes today. The reason for this claim is not far-fetched and also transcends the fact about the everyday-currency of literature because, as Robert Young reminds us, the “postcolonial remains”. What then are the remains of colonial experience in Badagri among the Ogu that Olaide-Mesewaku’s Vothuno unearths? What are the entailments of the remains? How do the remains resonate with the larger body of work on postcolonial literature and experience? In what ways does Vothuno project the experience of an otherwise undermined and marginalized group into the Nigerian, nay, African social imaginary?
Divided into 14 chapters, the novel Vothuno opens rather dramatically with the privileging of the moonlight tale tradition at the centre of which is the narrator, Thaagbo, a man described as the oldest in Badagri and reputable for being the most credible repository of the people’s collective history and memory. A narrative strategy such as this on the part of the author creates ample ambience for not just listening to the tales by Thaagbo but for their interrogation, as young children from far and near—including from places like Ajido, Topo and Ganyingbo– are enthralled by the specific dimension of “the story of Badagri and the slave trade”. By painting the picture of a pre-slave trade era Badagri that operated on its own terms of freedom and social dynamics, Vothuno hints at the disruptive agency of the introduction of the slave trade to this extant social order. The opening chapter also draws attention to the nuances of power relations in the introduction of the slave trade by Fremingo, a Portuguese slaver who arrives the shores of Badagri via Whydah. By the symbolic import of the power relations, the Badagri people consider themselves inferior to the white man with the arrogation of supernatural existence to the white race. Seeing Fremingo as a spirit appearing in human form, the concession of superiority to the white man subsequently determines the relations and the valuation of European goods such as guns, mirrors, mugs, gin, etc. This much resonates with the extant intimations in African literature generally in the rendition of the encounter of Africans with the white man.
The next three chapters offer an insight into the totality of the violence that the slave trade precipitates in the Badagri society. This insight is demonstrated in how the author re-enacts the strategic capture of both the land and the sea, which speaks to the totality of life and geography in Badagri. Not only does the first violent slave raid take place when the community is most vulnerable during a celebration such as Agogbo; it also strategically targets Zangan, the chief security officer of Badagri. Captured and killed in the most brutal way and his corpse displayed by the riverside to all to see because of his resistance, the psychological impact of this on the people leaves them with a sense of subjugation. The subjugation is perfected in the fourth chapter where the capture of the land has been extended to the night capture of fishermen on the lagoon. Even the subsequent organized resistance led by Awuse and which is sustained for a period of time, eventually gives way because the forces—internal and external– against such resistance is far-more sophisticated. As the novel shows, there is a local elite complicity involving Vothuno, the king, the chiefs and the white slavers, and in which what matters is the prioritization of slaves as capital and legal tender. The execution of this plan is hinged essentially on the supply and deployment of superior arsenal against Badagri people and forces of resistance. It is in this sense that one begins to come to terms with the qualification of Badagri as prominently constitutive of the Slave Coast in West Africa. As Thaagbo explains to the children, considering the level of vulnerability, in no time “The solution our people found was that gradually and steadily everybody became a partaker and it appeared that was the only way out to be free from being captured as a slave, to become relevant and be somebody in the community.”
At this juncture, it is necessary to comment on the enormous materialities of the trade in ways that reinforce the salience of the assertion by the Congolese historian Jacques Depelchin that, stripped of emotions, history as a discipline is unable to account for the seriousness of the crime committed against the black race by the West. For this reason, he recommends literature as a better textual strategy of coming to grips with the enormity of the violence perpetrated against black people by the white race. In no other area is this evident in Vothuno than in parents exchanging their so-called stubborn children—boys and girls—for bottles of the white man’s gin. This is despite the fact that Thaagbo, the narrator, reminds us proverbially that among the Ogu, you don’t hand over your child to the tiger on account of his or her stubbornness As it turns out, the experience is extremely treacherous to the point that even slave raid gangs become as vulnerable, as they can be captured by rival groups and sold summarily into slavery. The contradictions of the proverbial assertion in the conduct of the slave trade then pinpoints the extremes of the violence meted out to Badagri and the Ogu people during the centuries of the slave trade. It is also important to state that the terror of the trade would eventually extend to the hinterlands in the novel, as Badagri organizes raid groups to sack communities in as far places as Ilaro and Oke-Odan in present-day Ogun State, a situation that shows among other things the implication of Ogu history in the history of its Yoruba neighbours. In the sixth chapter, not only do we come to terms with the grim realities of the trade, Olaide-Mesewaku’s novel also draws attention to an otherwise neglected history: that of ‘area boys,’ which may not have begun in Nigeria with motor-park louts, but actually with those described as ‘scoundrels’ during the salve trade. As we are told, “As soon as a transaction was concluded on a set of slaves, there were always a couple of scoundrels moving around in the market to assist Europeans slave merchants to sort out and drag or pull the slaves purchased to the lagoon shore.
The journey towards abolition, Christian mission and British colonization in the novel underscores the tensions, intrigues and treacheries that characterize radical social transformation, especially when the collaborators, in this case, the Ogu elite and their white slavers are violently opposed to the idea of abolition. This is the preoccupation of the remaining part of the novel as we encounter the tedious and Herculean task of confronting the contradictions of transformation and the associated dilemma as illustrated in the life of Vothuno, the chief priest whose violent opposition to social transformation in collaboration with his white cohorts leaves him irredeemably trapped to the point of transmuting into an effigy instead of succumbing to death, unlike Okonkwo who commits suicide in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. His realization of his extreme response comes rather too late, especially because of the havoc his resistance to abolition constitutes. His life and its dilemmatic tragedy plays him up as a hero condemned both by the foreign forces of abolition, Christianity and colonization as well as those internal forces of Vothun for which he is the chief custodian. The Oma – protest culture – that plays out when Vothuno is unable to present his son Hotepo for Vothun initiation in continuation of the spiritual tradition because he has become a Christian convert is an illustration of double tragedy of Vothuno.
At the launch of Vothuno with the author Dr. Babatunde Olaide-Mesewaku (3rd from right) and other dignitaries displaying copies
As the novel winds to its conclusion, one import that stands out is how Olaide-Mesewaku is able to offer a nimble critique of the violence of the slave trade, Christian missionary extremes and the inevitable advent of colonialism in Badagri. The memory of the violence and its intimacy in the psyche of Badagri people substantially inform their resistance to Christianity, having witnessed first-hand the dishonesty of the white man for several centuries in the prosecution of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The reluctance about the human angle to abolition and Christianity is therefore a response to the legacy of unreliability in the pedigree of the white man. As the concluding Ogu Christian song shows, places like Abeokuta and Lagos might have subsequently offered warmer reception to Christianity, it does not change the fact about the place of Badagri as the cradle of Christianity in Nigeria.
Finally, it is important to note that Vothuno is not only about the history of the slave trade and its abolition in Badagri. It is also and perhaps more importantly about the successful attempt on the part of Olaide-Mesewaku to offer a seminal literary piece with an outstanding tincture of original Ogu anthropology. To understand the history, dance, names and naming, culture, sociology, music, dance, folklore, justice system, occupation, death, dying, post-natal care-giving, support system, loss, gender relations, animism, mourning, public sphere discourse, celebration and Ogu peoples’ relations to their neighbours and to the Nigerian state, Vothuno is recommended as the classic text.
Overall and on a personal note, I cannot but commend the singular and individual agency of Olaide-Mesewaku for his consistent and resilient advocacy for the projection of Ogu history and cultural patrimony into the larger canvass of Lagos State, Nigeria, Africa and the global milieu. What with his scholarly works on the history of Badagry, to the other publication on tourism, to his agency in building a global reputation around the organization of Badagry Diaspora Festival through African Renaissance Foundation (AREFO). It might also interest many to know that even his doctoral research for which he has now been awarded the prestigious PhD of the University of Ibadan was also focused on Badagry and the Ogu. To this illustrious son and scholar of the Ogu, Badagry, Lagos State and Nigeria, I join others to say hearty congratulations on these achievements!
* Olaoluwa is Acting Director, Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan