The Burden Of Tradition

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.

Written by
Rosie R.
Join the discussion

  • Word to Bennie Droese!!!!! I am currently in the same situation right now and …….its proving real tough with my dad. It is funny cos, my dad is a very educated Lawyer but….. somehow, the thought of ‘what will people say’ seems to be very profound and I am being made to return to my village for the my upcoming igba nkwu. I really don’t mind having the igba nkwu as a matter of fact I think it would be a lot of fun, but then to have it in my village, means I am not surrounded by people I love as most of my family members who have had a direct impact in my life would not be able to a part of it. Also the cost and logistics of moving those who are willing to go from the UK and Ghana to Enugu is not something I have budgeted for and I am not willing to cough out this amount of money.

    I have decided to write a case to my dad (as it is the only means of communication I think he would be willing to grant audience right now)using a lot of the ideas on this site. If you all have any further ideas I can use please let me know.

    Thanks Rosie for this. Its nice to know that I am not the only one with this issue

  • Rosie…. am waiting patiently for more articles from you… do you own a blog elsewhere on the internet? …just curious…LOVE YOUR WRITING

  • @Haba,

    What presidential candidate are you rooting for? I’ll bet every dollar in my 401k account that it is Obama. And what is his campaign buzzword? “CHANGE!”

    Why do Americans have amendments to some constitutions that were written many years ago by their founding fathers? Why do successful business owners employ the services of business consultants and evaluators to assess their operational procedures and employee customer service skills? Change! Growth!! Progress!!!

    Life is a journey-it offers you many choices and options. Change is inevitable; it gives you the opportunity to grow or remain stagnant. Customs and traditions were intended to be guidelines… rather than mental shackles and emotional chains that must bind us uncompromisingly, to a past. And since you’re so anti-western…we might as well reject toothpastes and toothbrushes and stick to chewing sticks for oral hygiene and dental well-being. We might as well shun western medicine and rely on witch doctors when we become critically ill. Hey, who needs houses that are constructed from brick and mortar when we could live in huts and caves like our forefathers? Martin Luther King may have said, “We must teach every Negro child that rejection of heritage means lost of cultural roots, and the people who have no past have no future.” Bob Marley also, once sang, “everyman’s got the right to decide his own destiny” and “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery.”


    To buck a trend that seems to serve no purpose other than an opportunity for pure display of materialism, or to stand up against aspects of a tradition or custom that do not make sense to you, does not …I repeat, does not and should not make one a sell out. Even if it is in the mind of some…who’s counting? Who cares? For what it’s worth, you can count me in too lol!) From where I am standing, methinks that you are being practical, realistic and prefer to use your God given common sense. I also think that you are an intelligent, educated and open-minded individual who realizes that there is a time and place for everything. My philosophy…It’s better to be hated for who you are than be loved for who you’re not. It’s your life, you can live it your way (happily), or their way (miserably). Either way, the choice should always be yours to make.

  • I really enjoyed this article. Rosie i am one of those young women who was born in Nigeria and arrived to the USA at the young age of 13. i have spent over 10yrs in this country. I still hang onto my Nigerian heritage by a thread but the longer i am here the harder it is to define who i really am. i am proud to say i was born Nigerian but i am also an american as this is the country that made me for i am today. i appreciate my education the most and my interacation with people of different groups. when i meet older Igbos i am defined by their standards of what an igbo girl should be but to their surprise, it does not work becuase it is quite strange to me. at my age i should be married and under some man producing babies becuase that is my role but i see that most Nigerian Americans are not even there or think like that. i am glad to be blessed by a Nigerian mother who was educated in the west and understands both ways of life. i have decided to create my own ways by hanging on to the positive aspects of both cultures becuase indeed i am the true african american if you really want to be technical about it.

  • Good write up. I believe we ve to break out of some burdensome activities called tradition. Quite a no of them from all the ethnic grps. For example, what is the essence of keeping traditional titles/institutions? when a king/emir collects 5% of the total allocation of L G’s & we say its bcos the constitition regds our tradition. One man collects 5% of the total money of all to feed his own family! I believe tmrw will be better but we ve to stop some useless things in our baggage. We really need a change. Culture is dynamic, we ve to choose which is good and drop that which is bad. Thank u for calling our attention to it. God bless u! God bless Nigeria!

  • Hmmm. Two different views. Enitan and Habu thanks for your responses. Habu, you mentioned that African culture is unique and should not be compared. I agree. But my main point is my piece focuses on whether or not some traditions have been bent so that it gets to be negative or has no concrete value anymore for instance the waste and excess of celebrations. My sister did not choose to perform that ceremony because she knew it was not necessary. There were no repercussions she knew of as no other person had been fined for not doing so. It was in her view a voluntary thing and she did not want to do it. Who am I or my father to force a person to do something that does not mean life or death? If she did not perform it, does it make her less of a bride? No.

  • Sister, Patricia rudeness says a lot about her exposure to outside world. Her exposure to the outside world by means of ‘western education’ led her unconsciously forgot that your father is the director of how his children should be wedded and what’s unethical here? Mind you, your dad did not question who she should marry and that’s a good thing! African culture is very unique and it must not be compared with the so called free world, the west is defining every moment to survive through their media outlet to patronize their behaviors, either by advertising or by other programming. Look around the west who owns those lands that the Caucasians are occupying? They made it so….free… and…loose that you, I and others can copy their behaviors that we eventually mentally forget ours and without consciously knowing that it’s their ways of living, and when we copy we copied terribly. That is what your sister exemplified. I am not surprised that your sister is one the statistics, and for this matter Igbo woman—the Igbos are found of ceasing theirs and our cultures very easily indirectly.

    Rosie said: 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. 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.

    African Americans for example who are robbing of their African heritage are confused for the past 400 years, and your sister who is very opportune to have cherished culture is attempting to deny herself the rights. Or just as Martin Luther King, Jr noted in one of his speeches, that, “We must teach every Negro child that rejection of heritage means lost of cultural roots, and the people who have no past have no future.” Rosie and Patricia are not good example to your offspring now and or eventually!

    The only part that I agreed with you, Rosie is the video recording, African culture has not revolutionize pictures in those times—since there was not proven records. But since someone elsewhere had a product to sell for profits and, since the absence of trade-by-barter and we Africans have come to term as excellent way to record our past for the future we should be able to use it. It’s a decision that we’ll all have take on and decide on our respective norms.

  • Rosie. I empathize with you from the depth of my heart. Tradition is generally defined as those practices, legends beliefs etc handed down through the generations, but I have to agree with you and assure you that excessive and ostentatious behavior have become the “tradition” slash order of the day in today’s Nigeria. Our old ways, our true tradition was intended to involve the community in our celebrations not to deliver an unabashed display of waste. Our ancestors never intended for us us to titillate the less fortunate amongst us with our wealth or to diminish our brothers and sisters in any way.

    Currently, everything that can be glamorized is glamorized. Our priorities are out of order. We have to a large extent lost perspective. Everybody wants to super size it and dramatize it. The vocabulary of the nation has kept up with the foolishness; events (including funerals) are described as jamborees! It is now an expectation that every event will not only cater to guests while they are at our events but will provide well portioned “take-away” packages for them to take home along with party favors announcing who presented them! There is a Yinka Aiyefele song to go with the take home mentality. Where will it stop?

    Someone has to pay for all of this… Unfortunately it not always the people who choose to put on the BIG show who pay for it. The “cash cow(s)” for lack of a better word are flattered, threatened and choked until they cough up money for what they are told is “necessary’ and “vital” custom so that the family will not be disgraced. Family members engage in matches of hysteria, threaten to disown each other and enlist like minded bag grabbers to back them up in their strong arming of the “cash cow(s)”. Some gutsy family members and “loved” ones will even shop on your behalf and assure the sellers that YOU will pay. Beware be careful.

    While tradition has its place, one should be able to choose where one will stand in the midst of all of this. When you buck “tradition” whether it is irrelevant to your life or is plainly destructive, be prepared for a fight from someone or people and be prepared to defend your position with TACT, MATURITY and HUMOR. You will be accused of everything by your own kin and other people who couldn’t care less whether you live or die and who have no connection to you but the possibility of benefit. Accusation will be directed at any possible weak spots you may have. You will be accused of being stingy, uncaring, weaker, poorer etc. Choose your battles carefully! Remember that someone has to pay for every show and it probably will be you.

    Arm yourself with the slogan – “WHO WILL PAY FOR THIS?” and watch the attackers become more reasonable or seek more malleable “cash cows” elsewhere. Do thinking people wonder why poverty and desperation continue to knock on many doors?