It is generally believed that tradition defines an ethnic group, and on a deeper level individuals belonging to that group. Igbos have New Yam festivals, African Americans jump the broom, Yorubas perform ‘Ewi’, the Chinese have tea ceremonies, Indians have their classical folk dances, the Fulani have coming of age rites of passage and the list goes on and on. Few know the origin of these customs. A historian dedicated to studying that particular ethnic group might give a detailed explanation, probably better than a person who adheres to the custom.
Traditions and customs are important and a way of life for many but are we really defined by the traditions we were born into? I have found a lot traditional values that have no place in my life. I have found holding on to them can be destructive, so I choose not to follow particular customs. A sin against my ancestors? Probably, but I can’t help myself.
A few traditionalists might be offended that a person dares to challenge customs, hundreds and hundreds of years of a way of life that unites us as a people such as weddings, funerals, baby-naming ceremonies, engagements, introductions and so on and so forth. My father is one of such people, a staunch believer in tradition. He has never wavered on the ideologies held by his father and his father’s father. During my sister’s traditional wedding, he was adamant she should perform the “wine carrying” ceremony. This is where the bride-to-be carries a jar of palm wine through the streets en-route to her father’s home and pours wine for anyone she meets along the way. My stubborn sister said, “not going to happen pa.” A shouting match ensued. Or rather my father threatened to stop the wedding while my sister tapped away at her black berry, worried about mismatched chairs that arrived for the guests. When I finally managed to convince her to go a few yards from the house and perform the ceremony for people I staged at strategic points, my uncle pointed out she was not wearing an ogodo. According to tradition, the bride-to-be had to be decked in full traditional wear. My younger sister, Patricia was wearing a pair of jeans I loaned her. Another shouting match ensued as the entire family joined in the ‘should she or should she not’ debate. Patricia went back to tapping on her blackberry, muttering, “not going to happen.”
“What izi long wit hah? Enh?” asked Uncle John, a distant relative.
“What does it matter if she wears an Ogodo or not? Allow her to get this over with because she is already stressed with all the preparations,” I replied, angry that all my hard work in getting Patricia out of the house was for nothing.
“You go Amerika, now you wantu tellu us how we live? She mustu weeyah ogodo!”
“If she does not wear ogodo, will the sky fall?” I asked in annoyance.
“It izi ome n’ana (custom). She mustu do it or no igba-nkwu!” Uncle John raised his voice even higher, jabbing his index finger in the air.
I hissed and walked back into the house. It took another 20 minutes to convince Patricia to loosely tie a wrapper around her waist and walk back out of the house. We nearly made it out of the gate when Uncle John stopped us again.
“Iti has to be recorded. We havu to show she didi it.”
“What the…?” I started to say. Patricia had a frown on her face that could have stopped a pitbull.
“The law ofu the land has been disi way for hundureds of yeahs.”
“How are we to record it?” I asked.
“Camela or vidiyo,” he replied.
“But the camera man is not here yet.” Patricia said.
I rushed into the house and grabbed my coolpix camera before Patricia had a chance to abandon the whole thing altogether. We made it two paces out of the gate when Uncle John called out again and stopped us.
“Datu sumall camela willi notu do. We havu to havu camela manu.”
“Screw the camera man. By the way how did our grandparents record their own ceremony henh? Show me the technology they used to do it!” I yelled at him. Patricia walked back to into the house, whipping out her blackberry to send another text message to the DJ who had not yet arrived to set up his equipment. My father stood on the balcony, holding his head in his hands. His daughters had succeeded in humiliating him in front of everyone. I was still yelling at Uncle John to show me the recordings of my great-grand father or any recordings he could find from the last hundred years, matching his upward finger jabs with my own finger jabs. My mother stood quietly shaking her head. Patricia stood in the doorway, pecking away at her blackberry muttering, “not going to happen.”
A few days later, another incidence made me question our allegiance to traditions we know to be somewhat foggy. My parents wanted my sisters and I to pay for the funeral of two people that owned part of the land our family home was built on. According to the lease agreement, my father got the land free on the condition that he gave the former owners, now dead, a proper funeral. He agreed. That was 22 years ago.
“Why are my brothers not paying for this? After all, they will inherit the house, I will get nothing,” I said. My sisters nodded in agreement.
“You know how hard it is to get money from your brothers. It will take forever if we rely on them. It affects all of us, oh. Imagine what people will say!” my mother replied.
“I don’t give a rat’s tuckus what people will say, that is a lot of money for a funeral.”
“You can put down half now and half later. You don’t have to pay it all.”
“That’s not the point. We have other pressing matters at hand. We have a wedding to finish paying for and Sam wants to go to medical school. Grandma’s medications are not cheap. Our priorities should be right.”
But I knew I was not going to win this fight. What people would say was more important than what we needed to do.
Last week my mother called and said the family was planning a thanksgiving mass and reception for my grandmother who had just survived a serious ailment. I am all for that, but I made it clear we would not be killing any goats or cows, buying no bags of rice and renting no refrigerator truck for beverages. But I have a feeling the Ogoni women who will be doing the marathon cooking and the truck have already been rented, and my pocketbook will take a serious hit this month.
These most recent incidences regarding our tight hold on customs are simply absurd. There are values that are rich and beautiful and there are those that should be carefully observed so as not to hinder the progress of its people that have those values. I look at how much we spend on birthday parties, chieftancy titles, aso ebi, and more. And I look at the sorry state of the environment we celebrate in. How do we hold on to traditions that we can’t find any use for? When is it okay to let go and not be judged for it? Does letting go mean I am no longer a real Nigerian? A real Igbo woman? Does defining yourself without being tethered to tradition make you a sell-out, Americanized, too western, lost in the diaspora? Or am a pragmatist?
These questions plague me constantly and sometimes I lose myself in the uncertainty of my place in the world. What set of traditions and customs in particular make me who I am? If I abandon those customs and traditions will I still be who I am, or will I be a watered down version of what my father wants me to be? I want honest opinions.