Prof. Leticia Mbaivernyitse of Benue State University, Makurdi, was one of the keynote speakers at the Nigerian Oral Literature Association (NOLA) National Conference recently held at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State. In her paper, 'Blossoms in the Desert: The Sprouting of Female Composers and Performers,' she called for women empowerment. The English language teacher spoke to OMIKO AWA on the new media, Nigerian films, oral literature and other issues.
Some communities in the West African sub-region see oral literature as a domain reserved mainlly for the male folks. What is NOLA doing about this?
We are now in the 21st century. So, we expect things to change for good. Even the cultures we knew of or were born into are changing. This will one day change, too. Record has it that, at a point, our ancestors walked about naked; they never had cloths, but things have changed and all is past. Also, there was a time people had to trek for two, three, four days to get to where they were going, but today, we have cars and other facilities that have eased movement, which is a new thing. Culture is expected to go that way too, have some changes.
But it is surprising that our behaviours and values, especially the negative ones, have not changed. When you talk about the population of Nigeria, it is debatable whether women are more than men. But the last census said women were 49 per cent of Nigeria's population, while male had 51. So, if we are talking of women almost being in the same number with men, is it not right for these women to be allowed to participate in those things that bring development for our society? Women should be empowered for development and betterment of the society.
Is James Aggrey's axiom that 'if you educate a man you educate an individual, educate a woman, you educate a whole nation' applicable to Nigeria? What is your take on the notion that women are more profligate than men?
People would always believe whatever they want; that is the problem with beliefs. It is difficult to change. But the truth is, as men that have been empowered messed up in leadership positions, so also have women that have been empowered, too. But would we say that since men that have been empowered have messed up, we should stop empowering them? I think if a woman is given the opportunity to do what she is able to do, she will add value to the society and her family. If the women who married men who are old than them were not empowered (didn't go to school), what would have been their fate and that of the family, when their husbands are retired and depend on pension that would not even come?
For me, I am still working and I think my family is not aversely affected economically. If you go to the market in my community, you will see that more than half of the traders are women and their reason for trading is that they want to complement their husbands to provide for the home. If you progress, the best thing to do is to empower your wife to contribute to the society.
Some people believe that when a woman works outside the home, it affects the children. But if you read the Bible, you will see that Proverb 1:8 says: 'My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother.' It is the father talking to his child. So, the work of socialising the child is primarily the work of the man. Why is it that when a woman goes out to do something outside the home, people would begin to say the family would break up, yet the men do those things and the family does not break. I'm yet to get an answer to this question. Most men have abdicated their roles and they claim it is the woman's duty to bring up their children. Who said so? Both the man and the woman are to take care of the children.
How much of this orientation have you been able to impart on your students?
We can only try to mentor, give them good example, that as women, we must be very hard working. In my school, for instance, I'm the immediate past Director of the Centre for Gender Studies. We used to enlighten our students, especially the female ones. We give them talk every week, through the university radio station, to make them realise that some of these things that seem unchangeable can be changed. I'm sure when Mary Slessor came to Calabar, it looked as if twins had no need to live. But over time, we realised that there was a wrong approach to what happened in the past.
It was not that twins were bad themselves; they were just a phenomenon (the people didn't understand). We also encourage the boys to behave properly to the girls, because for a boy, there is a sister, cousin, aunty and a niece and he would not want any man to treat any of them badly. Two year ago, during the International Day for Women, we brought the male and female students to debate and we awarded prizes to winners. It was one of our programmes to create harmonious relationship for both sexes. We also encouraged them to come together and work in harmony for the development of the community, which is for the overall good of the country. Films have the potency to effect change.
Why is it that some of the solutions NOLA has proffered on the new media are yet to be reflected in Nigerian movies?
It is because the financiers of the films are more interested in the financial rewards of the films than the moral or cultural aspect. And since the audience, which does not know that some of the films are bad, as we term them, and continues to buy them, the producers would continue to produce such films. I think it's time for the Ministry of Information and Culture to convoke a stakeholders' meeting of Nigerian filmmakers to let everyone involved in filmmaking know the required standard acceptable, to know that whatever people watch in films affect them and, also affect how the outside world looks at us. Because Nollywood promotes fetishism, the impression people from other countries have of us is that we are all witches, wizards and fetish people.
They believe that every Nigerian is involved in money ritual. I experienced this when I travelled outside the country. Whether we like it or not, the United States of America projects some basic facts about their country in their films. They project the American heroism and patriotism. They give you the impression that the U.S. will do anything to protect any of their citizens any part of the world. This is also applicable to Israeli films, but in Nigerian film, this virtue is lacking. I don't think we even know the values to extol in our films and what perception we want people to have of us. For as long as our films are not extoling the right values, we may be spending hundreds of millions on National Orientation and advertising, they would amount to nothing because the virtual image, which films capture, are very important; they are the immediate images that people see. We should use our films to project and promote our culture, the positive ones as well as our country.
But filmmakers are only trying to tell the story of daily experiences, as they happen on a daily basis? Don't these fetish practices and rituals happen in our different communities?
Is every Nigerian involved in ritual? Every Nollywood film has rituals. Issues that would ordinarily be handled by the police are taken to witch doctors in these films. And these witch doctors will look into their magical water or mirrors and mete out judgment, which, most times, are negative. Are the filmmakers telling the world that the Nigeria Police Force is not capable of handling such matters? That such issues are better managed by the witch doctors. You also see them running to churches for medical solutions because we believe everything that manifests in the physical has some spiritual connections. Where are the hospitals? I am a Christian; I believe in miracles, but we should not create the impression that the hospitals are not there or good enough.
How are these portrayals affecting Nigeria as a country?
It projects us as people not prepared to do things; as people that depend on God, either God in the Christian sense or in the traditional belief, to do everything for us, even the ordinarily things we should do. It shows we lack the political will to handle some situations. For instance, we expect God to come down and give us electricity, whereas, with the right policies and funding, we can get it done!
Many of our female scholars are coming up with new works and projecting some theories such as womanism. Between feminism and womanism, which would you prescribe for the Nigerian woman?
Womanism is an aspect of feminism in the sense that feminism is a whole continuum, beginning with the radical to the conservative. And within feminism, there is the African feminism. So, womanism can be situated under the African feminism. The difference is that, to the foreign, especially the Western women, morality does not really have a place when they talk about feminism. But for the African woman, you cannot divorce moral aspect from whatever the African woman is doing.
So, you find out that for the African woman, marriage and family are very important. The individuality she espouses has to be within the confines of the family. This is the reason most African women are in favour of womanism. Whereas for the westerner, the radical ones do not care for a man in the sexual sense, which is why they choose to be lesbians or unmarried and live their lives the way they want, irrespective of the person, who is unhappy about it.
What is the role of oral literature in homes, when most parents are not at home most of the time, especially as some have abdicated their roles in favour of other agents of socialisation in society?
We can only try and that is why we are talking about oral literature and the new media. It is very interesting because most of us have watched the film, Tom and Jerry, created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The cartoon is a folktale in another form. It tells us about the antagonistic nature of Tom (Cat) and Jerry (Mouse). We cannot expect our children to sit under the tree in a moonlit night, as it was done in the past and listen to folklores because they are now in a different social setting, which is the reason we encourage people to put their works of folktale or folklore in the new media. These children are fascinated with the new media, in cartoon format, for them to watch. It could as well be a way to preserve such works for the future.
NOLA, through its series of conferences in the past three years, has been on the new media. It is one of the ways to draw members attention to the new media, encourage them to learn how to use it and begin to prepare content for it. I think the major challenge is that we have been made to believe that everything that comes out from Africa is negative. We need to change this orientation if we must move forward. Some of our children do not know that the first eyeglass in the world was made by an African in Africa. If we do not act now to put our stories in the new media, someone from another continent may come, take them to his country, put them in the new media and return them to us as his/her work and, you will even find us jumping at such things!