By Femi Osofisan
In Yorubaland, as in other parts of the country, stupidity has become a routine ritual, and we all partake of it gleefully, unconscionably, like accomplished zombies.
Will it be different tonight, I wonder? The question gnaws at mind now as we arrive on the street.
It is the cars that tell us we have reached the right address. Parked on the pavement on both sides of the narrow road, they sit huddled against one another like disordered tombstones, barely leaving room for other traffic.
But I have anticipated this, that there will be some difficulty on arrival to find a place to park. The deceased that we have come to mourn was a sister to the current Senior Special Assistant to the country’s President so it is logical to expect the crowd to be large. This is why I brought a driver along to drop me.,
I get down now, and he drives on to find a parking space.
It is one of these sultry evenings. More cars are arriving; there is a lot of hooting and hullabaloo; but everything is nevertheless in surprising order, no doubt because of the heavy presence of policemen, many of them bearing guns.
Two of their lorries, flashing blue and amber lights, stand conspicuously to the right in a kind of barricade.
I turn like others towards them, noticing that they have blocked the main entrance into the street. But they usher us on with unfamiliar courtesy through a side gate. I am impressed.
However it is still a long walk to the venue.
The street is in one of the city’s elite neighbourhoods. Most of the buildings are two-storey affairs, unpainted though, as if still unsure of their final look. As you walk past, they glare at you furtively behind their walls like suspicious sentries.
Ii is the same street, I now recall, where the playwright, Zulu Sofola, lived years ago, until she and her husband, right in the prime of their lives, passed away one after the other rather dramatically, in a scenario reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
There are more vehicles now, and more police personnel as I pass. But their forms are already receding into suggestive ghosts in the falling dusk.
At the bottom, where the street turns sharply to the left, a lone singing voice suddenly wafts towards us over some microphone. And now I see them, at the far end of the close, the crowd I’ve come to join.
Lit by a few bulbs hung on surrounding walls, some marquees become visible now at the far end, in front of which are rows upon rows of white plastic chairs on which the guests are seated.
I select one of the empty ones at the back and fold myself into a quiet anonymity.
I can make out the figures more clearly now from my seat.
The man singing is the leader of the choir obviously. Behind him, shadowed under the marquees, are his choristers.
Directly in front of them are the officiating priests, seated behind a covered table.
Facing them, on the first row, and about thirty lines of seats away, are the immediate members of the family of the deceased. I am unable to distinguish them clearly from the back.
Closer to me, I recognize here and there some familiar figures from the academic community in Ibadan and Ife. The skin of our foreign colleagues glows dimly in the half light.
In a very short while the seats around me fill up with new arrivals.
One of the priests has stood up to make an announcement. The service is yet to start, he says, because the copies of the official programme, which have been printed somewhere, have not arrived.
The priest does not say where the printing has been done, but it is an easy guess, given the family’s present links with Abuja.
Now I understand why the choir master is singing alone—he and the choir have been asked to improvise something while we wait.
He is a good singer, with a rich, sonorous voice. And he evidently relishes it. With the microphone in his hand, his voice drowns out the others completely, to his evident delight. He is the self-adoring hero of the evening.
The audience however is disappointed, one can see. They have come not just to listen, but also to perform and participate.
Indeed the main reason they are here/—why the ‘Service of Songs’ has become a popular social event in Yorubaland—is precisely this fact that it has become a kind of soporific, communal rite.
As the people sing together and sink deep in the swampy bog of their grief, something strange happens, something close to catharsis. They achieve an illusory state of bliss, and it shelters them for a while from their trembling fear of tomorrow.
The Service of Songs has become popular precisely because of its capacity to induce amnesia and, even if briefly, provide relief. It is our opium against the anguish of Sudden and Violent Death, now in flagrant rampage in our land.
(After the songs we sit and drink ‘tea’, a misnamed concoction of cocoa powder saturated with milk and sugar, which has become a favourite with mourners, and whose sweetness is also an emblem of our penchant for quick nostrums.)
Hence the audience is not much impressed by the choir master’s virtuoso performance. It is robbing them of the chance to shed their desperation, and escape into oblivion.
But finally, to everyone’s relief, the priests decide to start without the programmes.
Everything proceeds smoothly now. The hymns are announced an sung; the prayers follow in appropriate sequence; the sermon is prompt.
Nothing falls out of place; priests and audience are on the same familiar page. It is a ritual we perform every week.
For, according to the Christian calendar that we have all accepted, funerals take place on Friday mornings; and are preceded on Thursday evenings by the Service of Songs.
Everybody who is here now was probably there last week at another service; and will be there next week at a similar wake. That is why the ceremony has become mere routine; why all the songs and Bible quotations are already part of our memory, to be recited at the slightest prompting. We do it every week.
The service comes now to the interval assigned for tributes to the deceased. Speaker after speaker remind us tearfully of her pleasant personality and of her precocious, glittering achievements. They speak of her soft but impressive presence, her gracefulness and her religious devotion, and of her cherubic face, a feature that seems common to her family. For many of us, Foluke’s loss is a deep, deep wound that nothing can heal.
Then the priests proceed to the final prayers. Soon it will be time for tea.
I am trembling with anger where I sit. In all the speeches and lamentations, not once have we heard about the unacceptable circumstances of her death.
No one has thought to mention that it was this same kind of senseless death that brought us out sobbing last week; and that will certainly assemble us again this coming Thursday, for the same hapless dirges. Why?
Our roads have become the most rabid killer of our people in recent years. Every week accidents take the lives of our youths in the hundreds, to the extent that—even though the statistics are not exact—the toll surpasses that of the Boko Haram warfront.
So why are we not angered by this horror? Why do we take it so meekly, as the inexorable will of providence? If our God is omnipotent and munificent, how can we believe that he would sanction or authorize such unrelenting carnage? Oh is it not stupid indeed, to celebrate the departed for their goodness and virtuousness, and yet see it as normal that their ends are so gruesome?
The simple truth is that road accidents do not just occur, least of all through some divine will. They happen mostly because our roads are bad; the vehicles in terrible shape; the drivers careless or incompetent or outright insane. None of these is the work of any god.
Let the roads and vehicles be better maintained; let the drivers become more sober, more enlightened, and less intemperate, and a half at least of all those who perish daily on these roads now will be reaching their destination unharmed. Widows and orphans will decrease abruptly.
Is it not galling that we know these facts but still prefer to gather every week to wring our hands and cry our eyes out and bawl ineffectual hymns?
I mean, just think of the vast Christian dominations along the Ibadan-Lagos expressway for instance. Instead of serving us this monthly diet of massive traffic jams as they do, suppose they decide instead to organize what we may call, say, a monthly Road Safety Enlightenment Campaign?
They would flood the roads with their congregations on a chosen week, to teach drivers about proper road behaviour, arrest the reckless ones and hand them over for proper driving lessons, help identify and demobilize rickety vehicles and put them out of service, and so on. Above all, they would embark on a vigorous campaign in all their parishes for the fixing of our murderous roads.
Just imagine the impact that two or three months merely of this kind of constructive Citizen Action by the churches alone would have on the present death toll! Think of its spreading impact on other groups and associations across the country!
So why do our priests prefer to be fine experts in the management of funerals instead of the promotion of such life-enhancing initiatives? And why do the rest of us not demand it of them?
I rise to go. Morituri te salutamus! We will keep attending these weekly rituals till it is our turn to feed the famished throat of the road.
FEMI OSOFISAN is Emeritus Professor of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan, and Distinguished Professor of Performing Arts, Kwara State University, Malete, Ilorin, Nigeria.
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