* ‘The history of slave trade should never be swept under the carpet’
* ‘State of the African Diaspora as Africa’s offshore assets still untapped’
By Anote Ajeluorou
Vothuno: The Chief Priest of Badagary is Babatunde Olaide-Mesewaku’s first fictional work that deals with one of Africa’s major raw points – what happened on this side of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade before the slaves were shipped off to America, Europe, the Americas and the Caribbeans during the over 400 years of the continent’s unimaginable plundering by European powers. In this interview with AnoteArtHub, Olaide-Mesewaku (retired Permanent Secretary, Lagos State Ministry of Arts, Culture and Tourism) laments Africa’s failure to memorialise the horrendous tragedy and welcome with open arms the descendants of the men and women their greedy ancestors sold off for mere trifles, arguing that an underlying sense of shame is at work
What is Vothuno and why did you choose it as title for your first novel?
VOTHUNO in our native Egun language means the chief priest of the shrines like we have pastors and imams in charge of worship centres like mosques and churches. In Badagary, the shrines are managed by the Vothuno. So, they are the custodians of voodoo, the religious entity handed to us by our forefathers. The white man sees voodoo as something evil, but we don’t see it from that perspective. It’s the religion of the people and it is as old as the history of the people. That’s the religion with which our forefathers lived their entire lives, and handed over to coming generations to this moment. So, the custodian of that religion is called Vothuno.
In the novel, Vothuno was not only the chief priest of Badagry, he was also the chief market master during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Badagary. So, he doubled as the religious guardian and custodian of our people and chief market master of slave trade business in Badagary. He’s the major protagonist in the novel. The book is about the interface, the chaotic interface that existed between the slave trade, the missionaries, and voodoo religion symbolized by Vothuno. When slave trade was introduced to Badagary in the 15th Century, or thereabout, by a white man called Flemingo, the voodoo religion at the time never saw anything bad in the trade by the way and manner in which it was introduced, and the systemic way in which it was ingrained in the culture and psyche of the people.
Like I said, the religion never saw anything bad in it until it was too late, before those in the voodoo religion discover that the slave trade was actually not good for us. But before then, and because of the atrocities activities of the slave traders in Badagary, the missionary were attracted to Badagary who desired to put an end to the evil trade, as well as change the people from voodoo worship. The market master and chief priest Vothuno resisted the missionaries who had come to change the minds of the people against his voodoo religion, and the trade that had brought so much affluence and influence to the well-to-do within the community, which the missionaries now wanted to abolish. So, it’s more or less like the missionaries were coming against the well-to-do, with Vothuno as head. These are the major phenomena that play out in that book.
From this side of the slave trade saga, there is very little or no literature because Africa didn’t have written records as a people – our forefathers depended on oral transmission of information that gets lost over time. But now, you’ve recreated something that happened centuries ago. How were you able to do this? What materials did you rely on to write this book?
The first thing we should realize is the fact that I was born in Badagary, and it is an ancient slave port and market where slaves were bought and kept before being exported to other parts of the world. So, the early history of Badagary stands for that. While growing up, I came to be aware of this history and I noticed that not much is talked about it. And not much is written about this history, as you’ve rightly observed, and I discovered that there is a tacit understanding among Africans, especially African governments to sweep this history, which has, whether we like it or not, become part of Africa’s heritage, under the carpet. So, not much is being said about it. It’s like they want it erased from our memory completely, which is not the best thing for Africa to do.
I also learnt about the Holocaust of the Israelis in Nazi Germany. The estimated number of casualties was just six million, but today in major cities around the world, you have holocaust museums. What does that mean? It’s to educate the world, to educate humanity that such a thing should never be allowed to happen again. But the slave trade, if you want to compare the span of time, the duration and the number of people involved, and even its psychological effect to this very moment, the Holocaust is far, far below it, but we are not doing anything about this horrendous experience peculiar to Africa.
Why would you want something like that erased completely? But the beauty of it is that this terrible experience has produced communities all over the world! So, there is no way anyone can erase it, no matter how they try. We have brothers and sisters in the diaspora wanting to come back to Africa, wanting to return to their forefathers’ homeland. So, if we say we want to erase it, how complementary will that be? What happens to the people that are by-products of this experience? The history cannot be erased. So, it’s in a bid to resuscitate that history in our memory that this particular book is produced to inspire.
You said African governments have not taken the slave trade history seriously, and overtly there are efforts to erase it. Why do you think this is so? Why is there no effort to bring back the children of this horrendous evil against our kith and kin, to bring them back to Africa and reintegrate them into the African society? Why do you think this hasn’t happened?
I see it from the point of view of inferiority complex — the stigma of selling our brothers and sisters into slaves brings. That past stigma, I think, is what is our own problem. Today, whether we like it or not, Europeans still see us as a people not measuring up to their standards; they are the ones that brought civilization and whatever good things we enjoy today to Africa. They believe that they brought us out of darkness. Therefore, Africa feels that it’s better we forget about being one time slaves to Europe, and that we allowed them or that we were part of the madness that allowed our people to be stolen and taken into slavery to other parts of the world. So for those in leadership positions, they feel it’s better we forget about the ugly history and open a new chapter…
So, there’s a sense of shame that their ancestors did such a horrendous thing to their own people, isn’t it?
That is it. It (Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade) lasted for more than 400 years. They see it as a source of stigma, a shame that should not even be mentioned. African leaders just want to forget about it and move on, but how can you forget about the past, your history and think you can make a good tomorrow? Before you can move on, you must understand your past and destiny before you can face today, and then plan for tomorrow. It’s very unfortunate for us, because today, the by-products of this calamity that befell us are our own people who are living in America, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe. In fact, I regard them as Africa’s offshore assets that are still untapped, because if you want to talk of technology, education, politics, science, we have them among these offshore assets in their thousands, waiting to return and help our floundering continent stabilise and grow.
In your view, what’s the quantum of loss that the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is to Africa?
It’s unquantifiable. We are losing so much and we found that it’s high time we came to our senses and bring our brothers and sisters back home, because the awareness is that these African descendants in the diaspora, the victims of this calamity want to connect with their forefathers’ roots. They know that over there (where they are) they are not being accepted as full indigenes; they are still being treated as slaves, and the stigma is still on them. So, they’re not enjoying the same opportunities as citizens whether in America or Europe, and it’s the same everywhere. They’re not seen as part of those societies. As such, they have a perpetual longing to reconnect back to Africa. Africans should make hay now. A lot of them have constituted a diaspora African government, with their affairs being run centrally by that machinery of government.
What is this government called?
It’s called ‘State of the African Diaspora (SOAD)’, a conglomerate of all peoples of African descent whose ancestors were taken as slaves during the infamous slave trade. This is the government that is recognized by the African Union (AU) and other world bodies. They are building smart communities (cities) in various African countries; they are planning to come back. They are making efforts to reconnect to their roots. But Africa is still giving them problem, not ready for them, because they are still not totally accepted by governments of Africa, or the African Union, in spite of the fact that AU recognizes SOAD, and the fact that they’re coming back to start investing or doing something important on the continent. For instance, they introduced a (digital) currency with the objective of liberating Africa from debt burden. But I can tell you today that Africa still hasn’t recognized that currency.
What’s the name of the currency?
It’s called Lumi, a digital currency. It was introduced with the mind that if this currency is accepted in Africa, the continent’s debt burden will be removed, not even reduced, but African governments still don’t see it that way at all.
Your book Vothuno: The Chief Priest of Badagry is also being considered for a film adaptation. Why that attraction and which production company is handling it?
The attraction is obvious. It’s the fact that the history of slave trade should not be swept under the carpet, because it’s our history and it has become our heritage. So, we must do something to preserve it, and through that vision of preservation, to ensure that coming generations know about that history, know that such tragedy happened to our forefathers. The way things stand, many people don’t see the slave trade as something serious; they just laugh over it. But I tell you, it was a tragic event that happened to Africa for over 400 years. We don’t pray that Africa experiences that again. It was a horrendous suffering for our people.
When you talk of slavery, people don’t really know what it meant to be a slave, especially in the context of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Those who were taken as slaves that we are talking about were our great, great grandfathers, our ancestors; they were our own people. I don’t understand why those who sold them saw them as different people, why they failed to see that they were selling their own brothers and sisters. And that’s our main problem and part of the problems Africa is still having today where we don’t love ourselves, why we distrust each other. Our able-bodied men and women were taken away. Most of the ones that were taken away were the intelligent ones. When the slaves got to the shore, to Badagry shore (and others shores where slaves were bought), they conducted tests on them. Those who were weak were rejected, and those that were not good were killed. So, the ones that were good were the ones that were taken away. Africa was plundered. The best of our people was plundered.
The most popular film on Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is Alex Haley’s film Roots, based on what happened on the other side of the Atlantic in plantations. Vothuno as a film would seem like a complimentary effort on what happened on this side before Roots even happened. How will it be different from Roots?
The landmark work of art on slave trade today is Roots, and Haley occupied himself with the experiences of the slaves in the hands of the slave masters in the diaspora and in the plantations. But how did the slaves get to that place? They never knew. How the people were taken from Africa, how they were raided and kidnapped, how they suffered, how they were taken through the bush routes to the sea shores where they were loaded into the horrible holds of the slave ships – all these are the accounts we have articulated in this book. You want to talk about the slave routes, this book will give you that experience, how it happened. You’re talking about the routes the slaves passed, their culture, their music – the reggae, the jazz, and all that – everything about African life; this was the beginning of those works of art today from Africa.
These are the things you will find in this book, and the film company taking up this challenge is called Native Media, with Rogers Ofime (director of Oloibiri), as its chief executive officer. He wanted to do something on the theme of slave trade and thought Badagry offered an excellent setting. Coincidentally, my book came out about the same time Ofime was looking for a subject to work on. He found Vothuno an excellent book and story and took it on. That’s how the film adaptation part started. Shoot should start any time soon.
There are some horrible terms associated with the slave trade experience on this side, like the Point-of-No-Return, Pot-of-Wiped-Memory, etc. Are all these things also captured in Vothuno?
Yes. You see, what this book stands for, apart from the slave trade, is the history of the missionaries in Badagary. They brought civilization to Nigeria, and Badagary was their first point of call, where western education was introduced. This is captured in the book. The history of Badagary generally vis-a-vis the western world is captured in this book to re-establish those facts. Even the fact that Badagary was the first place in which the entity that is today known as Nigeria started is also captured, because when the British government came to Nigeria, Badagary was the first place where the Union Jack flag was hoisted, signifying British authority at the time. So, all these and many more are articulated in this book. It’s not the story of the slave trade alone; even the culture and tradition of the people. How do you talk about slave trade without talking about the people, their lives, their culture and tradition, their religion, everything? So everything is mixed together in this particular story.
You have written books on Badagary — non-fiction, documentary books majorly, but now you took to fiction for this. Why did you switch from your usual documentary, non-fiction format to fiction?
My documentary works on Badagry actually influenced Vothuno. I have written ‘Badagary: The Cultural Heritage’, published in 1999 and ‘Badagary District: 1863-1999’, published in 2001. I think majorly, these two books were the inspiration I had. It was more or less like reducing or transferring what I did in those two books into this particular fiction book, to animate it, to make it come alive. When it’s documentary, you just read it for the information, but with fiction, we are animating the story, so that more people can read and see what is happening.
But with an accompanying film, it’s another dimension to telling the slave trade story entirely. Today, we are in the world of audio-visual, and we use this to pass messages more effectively. Today, Nigerians are lazy, and the reading culture is not there. But when you say there is a film on a particular subject to watch, they are ready to watch. My previous works on documentary actually influenced this.
You have a PhD in Diaspora Studies from University of Ibadan. What influenced that line of study, and how much of that can we also find in this book?
I can also tell you that my Badagry environment has really influenced me a lot. Usually, we have people from abroad among African descendants coming to Badagary to connect with their roots, to see the slave ships and slave trade relic museum in Badagry, and they also come to our Badagry Diaspora Festival. So, these are things that really influenced me, because the issue of diaspora is something I’m very passionate about, because I always feel for these people, the victims of that horrendous trade. These are people that were uprooted from their roots; they don’t have a culture any more. They don’t belong there where they are, and they no longer belong to Africa, but they know that this is their root. There is nothing they can call their culture and tradition. So, I sympathise with them. These are some of the things that really encouraged me, inspired me to want to know more about these people, for me to explore more about these people and how they live, the history of diaspora, especially the victims of the African slave trade. Diaspora Studies is all about the victims of the African descendants in the diaspora.
You have organised Badagary Diaspora Festival for over 10 years. Are there plans for this year’s celebration?
For the past two to three years now, the pandemic disrupted it. We marked it last year, but without our guests from overseas; just to keep the memory of our people alive was why we did it last year. This year, we hope that with Covid-19 restrictions being relaxed, I think people in the diaspora will be able to attend in October.