J. F. Odunjo and the hunger this time | Festus Adedayo

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One phenomenon that cannot be denied in Nigeria today is hunger. Nigerian people are hungry. Very unusually, no one – politicians, elected government functionaries or their appendages – has been able to allege that this general cry of hunger is politically motivated. So many occurrences have been painted with the camwood of that word, “politically motivated”. It is worse for some of us who write. We must have taken overnight instructions from political baron opponents to paint government black. Or, our views are hangovers from ancient hatred and bile. But, hunger seems to be in a class of its own. It is borderless.

Hunger is like death. Permit me to cite a line of a song I have cited severally which relates to one of death’s innumerable cognomens. It is the line in a song of Ibadan master singer, Awurebe lord, Alhaji Dauda Adeeyo, a.k.a. Epo Akara. In an elegy to General Murtala Muhammed on his assassination by Colonel Bukar Suka Dimka, Epo made an evergreen quip. He sang, “Ikú tí ó p’eni à ńpè, á p’eni tí ńpe ni” – death the leveler is the one that will kill the chanter and the enchanter. Hunger is such a monstrous and awesome phenomenon, so much that Yoruba promoted it from its inanimate to an animate being status. In doing this, they conferred on death the cognomen, “ebi òp’àgbà f’owó m’éké”. I have struggled to defrost this deep Yoruba saying of its inscrutable meaning. The farthest I have gone was to explain it. In ancient society, when people were hungry at home, all they did was look heavenwards at the ceiling rafter, as if looking unto Eledumare – God – for redemption. It was almost as if Hunger had turned into a huge snake which crawled up the eké wood, up to the rafter. All that the hungry did was look towards the ceiling, the àjà.

In this piece, I want to take liberty to talk about hunger, poverty and connect them with Chief Joseph Folahan Odunjo. Odunjo was known simply as J. F. Odunjo. His highly celebrated poem, Isé l’òògùn ìsé – Work is an antidote to poverty – is my referent. I chose Odunjo so as to analyze his poem which can be found in the famous Alawiye series. That poem was used in syllabi of primary schools in the 1970s and 1980s. By the way, who is Odunjo? Literary colossus, educator and politician who was best known for his works in Yoruba children’s literature, Odunjo, in 1951, won a seat in the Western House of Assembly and was later appointed Western Region’s first Minister of Lands and Labour by Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In his immense literary prowess, Odunjo communicated Yoruba values through folklore and myths.

Africans used folklore as a strong imprint from the past. Odunjo then deployed those folklores to relate to our present social and sociological conditions. Like D.O. Fagunwa, Odunjo was greatly respected for having shaped the minds of generations of Yoruba of western Nigeria, especially through his highly famous Alawiye series. The series transformed into a book from the oral folklore and stories of traditional society told at moonlight after dinner. With this, he was able to communicate the values, beliefs and literary skills of the people. Using fictive characters (human or non-human) like Trickster Tortoise (Ijapa, his wife, Yannibo and their son, Irere), ghomids, (ebora) streams, animal kingdom, human kingdom, etc., Odunjo intermixed ìtàn (traditional mythology, history and philosophy.) and ààló (beliefs, customs and stories of a community passed through generations through words of mouth). Ìtàn was more believable because they are factual, dependable and historical than myths, in conveying the reality of the time.

Like all other ethnic groups, Yoruba have very many epistemological stands on hunger. In their paper entitled Poverty alleviation in Nigeria: lessons from socioeconomic thoughts of the Yoruba, four scholars, Joel Babalola, Adesoji Oni, Ademola Atanda and Benedicta Oyejola-Oshodi did this. They examined how Yoruba distinguish between three seemingly similar concepts of “òsì”, “ìsé” and “ìyà.” While ÒsÌ is unending chronic poverty, ìsé is acute, transitory poverty and ìyà is suffering, hunger, psychological torture and shame. The three are borne out of denial of essential needs necessary for the sustenance of life.

In Igbo philosophy, poverty is ụ̀bị̀àm̀. Igbo believe that hunger is the complete erosion of human dignity. A man who is unable to feed himself and his family is éfűléfụ (a worthless person) and Igbo see hunger and poverty as a disease, expressed in Ụbịam bụ ajọ ọrịa or ágūū bụ ọnyà – hunger is a sickness of its own. To them, evil or human suffering comes from interplay of man and their personal god, the Chi or the machinations of some known or unknown mischievous spirits. Igbo cosmological study seems to agree that human suffering cannot be fully explained and as such, human suffering is a mystery.

Aminu, M. L., in a then-unpublished doctoral thesis, entitled The Hausa Metaphysical World View: A Paremeological Exposition, submitted to the Department of Nigerian and African Language, A.B.U. Zaria, after scrutinizing 230 proverbs, came to the conclusion that the Hausa identify the chief goal of human life as peaceful living, what is called Zaman lafiya. He also found out that there are fourteen attributes of world life. Poverty, called talauci, is a variety of pain, expressed as drinking, like in sunàa shân wàhalàa, literally meaning, drinking trouble.

Yoruba believe that the human personal intervention is key to arresting poverty and hunger. This is why they express it in “bí ebi bá kùrò nínú ìsé, ìsé bùse” (by removing hunger from poverty, you have defeated it). To curtail poverty, individual effort is necessary. The people however also believe that, no matter how harrowing and persistent the pangs of poverty may be, whether for 20 years or 30 months, once poverty does not lead to death, it has an expiry. So, they say, “Ìsé tó sé omo l’ógún odún, ìyà tó je omo l’ógbòn osù, tí kò bá pa omo, á dèhìn léhìn omo.” No matter how difficult poverty may be to man, the people still believe that you can wrestle it and conquer. This speaks to the capacity of human intervention in existential travails.

From whatever human prism you may want to look at it, food security is sine non qua non to human existence. Yoruba even made the stomach, a deity. They did in such statements as, no god demands propitiations as the god of the throat – òrìsà tìí gb’ebo bí òfun s’òwón. This is why the sky-high cost of living that has made food scarce on Nigerians’ table, as well as unprecedented inflation, are causing untold hardships in the country today. However, the above dips into traditional epistemology of hunger have shown that, while governments of all cadres are complicit in the mass hunger across Nigeria, as individuals, we seem to have abandoned what used to be done. This has resulted in the unusual happening. Our situation today was painted by William Butler Yeats’ 1919 poem, The Second Coming. In it, he said, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” I am sure we all have recollections of our personal gardening in the 1970s and 80s. This was at a time when, comparatively, Nigerians were not hungry. This has almost totally dried off now.

Odunjo’s evergreen poem teaches that work is the only antidote to poverty (Isé l’òògùn ìsé) and hunger. It tells us that hard work and self-reliance have pleasant ending. He also counseled that hard work is the only pedestal to the top (Isé la fií d’eni gíga). Today, this virtue has gone to the dogs. Indolent but street-smart Nigerians are the ones at the top, exploring tact and terse energy to sustain their leeching leverage. In those days, resolute persons, who though were bereft of helpers, were recorded to have made it in life, as the poem says (Bí a kò bá r’éni f’èyìn tì, bí òle làá rí, bí a kò bá r’éni gbékèlé) in which case, we needed to work harder (A te’ra mósé eni). Odunjo frowned at reliance on parental wealth (Ìya re leè l’ówó l’’ówó/ Bàbá re leè l’ésin l’éèkàn/Bí o bá gbó’jú lé won/O té tán ni mo so fún o). Today, people don’t suffer for the attainments they get. You only need to be a politician or Yahoo Boy. But, Odunjo has a word for them: Whatever accomplishment that is not complemented with sweats has a twinkle-of-an-eye endurance (Ohun tí a kò bá jì’yà fún/Sé kìí leè t’ójó). It is only what is labored for, the – Ohun tí a bá f’ara sisé fún/Níí pé l’ówó eni – that endures, he says.

Odunjo also counsels on total reliance on our strength (Apá l’ará/Ìgúnpá n’ìyekan). The world only loves you on account of your material accomplishment (B’áyé bá ńfé o lónìí/Bí o bá l’ówó l’ówó/Ayé á má fé o l’óla). They can also love you if you occupy a prestigious position (Tàbí tí o bá wà n’ípò àtàtà/ Ayé á máa yé o sí t’èrín t’èrín). However, the day you become poor or lose that position, (Jé k’óo de’ni tí ń’rágó/Ayé a máa yínmú sí o) you will be a recipient of their grimaces. Odunjo then ends the poem by canvassing the eternal essence of education (Èkó sì’ńso ni d’ògá/Múra kí o kó dára dára) and the need to flee the midst of those who mock education (Bí o sì rí òpò ènìyàn/Tì wón ńf’èkó s’èrín rín/ Dákun má f’ara wé won). The consequences of abandoning education, he says, are dire (Ìyà ń’bò f’ómo tí kò gbón/Ekún ń’be f’ómo tí ńsá kiri). Finally, Odunjo pleaded with those who literally turn their youths into casino to get off the wastage of their youth because time waits for no man (Má f’òwúrò se’ré, òré mi/Múra sísé, ojó ńlo). An Apala musician, Ayinla Omowura, in his elegy to Murtala, later adapted this poem to say that when a man (I add, a woman, as well) wakes up early in the morning and he is not being pursued by anything, he must pursue something because of the finality that dusk poses for hard work. Whoever works conquers poverty – eni bá s’isé jàre òsì, he says.

I gave the above as keynote address yesterday at a Rotary International, Ibadan, Oyo State (Ring Road) Investiture of Rotn. Bolade Ipadeola. Government cannot claim not to know that hunger is killing Nigerians. I completely share Igbo philosophical understanding of hunger as a complete erosion of human dignity. Most Nigerian men have become éfűléfụ, de-masculinized by the Bola Tinubu government. There is a strong link between hunger and deconstruction of hard work today. Families must rise in defence of hard work. This deconstruction has made the Isé l’òògùn ìsé which Odunjo canvassed in his poem to be a mere rhetoric. Work is no longer an antidote to poverty. Yahoo-Yahoo is. Political positions are. Hard work must return to its pride of place in Nigeria. Let us teach our children that hard work is king.