By Rudolf Okonkwo in his column – Correct Me If I Am Right.
My father died on June 19, 2009. One of the first things I did, as soon as I came out of the shock, was to read the manuscript of his uncompleted autobiography, Onyenkuzi.
For years, the work was hidden inside a safe in my room. Days after he died, I started to read the handwritten pages. Like in all relationships there were things in the book that I did not know about my father.
One of those things that really surprised me was when he wrote of his fear of the dead. It appears in his account of his first day as a 19 year-old ‘small boy’ teacher at Ekwulu/Unubi Central School in 1951. After unloading his luggage, he looked around the premises of the school.
“What struck us first,” he wrote, “was that the burial ground was almost adjacent to the teachers’ house; and on looking closer we noticed that there was a recent burial at the cemetery. The traditional belief that the dead would, during the first seven days after their burial, sit on top of their graves before finally going down to rest, reared its ugly head in my mind. I was overwhelmed by this thought and I forgot the joy of starting my teaching career.”
Before I read that, I always thought of my father as a man who believed in sound reasoning. His arguments were supported by exhaustive analysis. I never heard him make an assumption that did not come from deep contemplation. He did not accept anything at face value. His intellectual inquiries were propelled by the desire for testable truth.
I grew up upholding the virtue of science, that area of study that deals with organized knowledge which can be evaluated to provide explanations beyond mere superstitions.
In my quiet moments, I wonder if Nigerians can emerge into modernity without first passing through their own Age of Reason, Age of Rationalism, and ultimately, Age of Enlightenment.
As a young man, I read the French philosopher, Rene Descartes. Descartes wrote The Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences. In the book first published in French in 1637, he wrote, “Je pense, donc je suis,” meaning, “I think, therefore, I am.”
The publication of Descartes’ book was seen as the real beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. Descartes rejected any appeal to the Divine or Nature as an explanation of natural phenomena. In his approach, he stated that, “The first was to include nothing in my judgments than what presented itself to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I had no occasion to doubt it.”
Did belief in a dead man sitting on his grave for seven days present itself so ‘clearly and distinctly’ in my father’s mind?
While the rest of the world is still trying to understand the meaning of life, in Nigeria, whole masses of people have foreclosed their minds. The confusions of our forefathers created their superstitions. Circumventing these superstitions soon got the labels of abominations. Even in these modern times, we continue to be governed by our forefather’s fears. We ought to be free from all superstitions on the basis of insufficient evidence. But no. We continue to see dead people.
Belief influences behavior so much that you would think that we question what we believe in.
A typical high school student today knows more than Isaac Newton knew in his time. But a typical Nigerian is still ruled by dead people whose understanding of the world, long gone, still governs his world of today.
Nigerians who cannot make ordinary pencil claim to know the master plan of heaven. It is for the same reason that those who understand the laws of thermodynamics still believe that 72 virgins are waiting for them in heaven if they succeed in blowing themselves up.
Dogma cripples intelligence. Conviction without evidence is the warehouse of superstition. When something does not make sense, the religious authorities call it holy. When something does not make sense, Nigerians call it magic.
A society where children are seen but not heard; a society where children are not allowed to question their elders, is a society of dead people.
How is my father’s belief that the dead sits on the grave for seven days before going to rest differ from the belief that on the third day, Jesus rose from death? How is it different from the idea of Immaculate Conception?
My parents were teachers. I understand teachers. Teachers of culture, religion and life are not moderates. In fact, there are no moderate teachers. All teachers are extremists. It is necessary for a teacher to be an extremist if he wants his students to follow him. A moderate teacher is one who has no student.
Those who avoid the empirical approach to experiences, observations and inquiry see dead people.
I see dead people. And so do you.
Source: Sahara Reporters