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The Influence of Christian Values on Urhobo Culture
By Ochuko Tonukari
In this paper, Christian values are defined as those ideals or principles which Christianity cherishes. In this presentation, my aim is not to dwell on the unique worth of Christianity or its values. These are well-known and appreciated, especially in Urhobo society. My main concern is to relate and evaluate this worth in terms of a definite culture, namely, Urhobo ensemble of values. The choice of Urhobo is obvious for an Urhobo writer. It becomes attractive and obvious, too, once we identify Western, including American, culture, which Urhobos, rightly or wrongly, identify with Christianity. That is, since Western culture has been perceived in Urhoboland as synonymous with Christianity, Urhobo culture as a recipient of Western culture bears the influence or weight of Christianity on its own culture.
My second duty will be to select certain sections of this culture in order to highlight these Christian influences. To fathom the extent of the influence of Christian values on Urhobo culture some historical and sociological perspectives will be necessary as they will mirror such influences where they exists. The missionaries came to Urhoboland in the later part of the 19th Century, where they met a pattern of life not all of which ran counter to Christian principles. The spread of Christian influence was balked by such elements as the size of the area, the complete absence of roads and means of communication, as well as other harsh environmental circumstances which inhibited free movement of the early missionaries to all corners of the area. These facts may have accounted for the less universal preponderance of the Christian influence on the host culture.
Such claims as these may be seen as too lofty in view of the allegation of mass caving in of Urhobo culture to the invading European culture. But the assumptions that local culture and Christian values were polarized and conflicting and that Christian values dislodged their host counterparts can be maintained only with notable qualifications, for it must be remembered that the host culture was traditional and natural, that is, it was unadulterated, original or God-given. It approximated in part, and accorded with Christian values and to that degree was not in conflict to them. Equally important in this regard is the similarity in human nature which tends to minimize among differences among human groups. I have been purposely cautious because there were indeed areas where conflict existed between the host culture and Christian values. Nonetheless, since grace builds upon nature and nature exists in Urhoboland as elsewhere, there is much of enormous positive value in Urhobo traditions and religious consciousness.
I shall concentrate on specific areas of religion and social life in order to determine the extent of the influence of Christian values on Urhobo culture. First, let me treat religion or the belief system, the main carrier of Christian values. “Religion,” according to the Chambers Encyclopaedia, is “man’s relation to divine or superhuman powers and the various organized systems of belief and worship in which these relations have been expressed.” Further, this “belief in the existence of such relations is a general human conviction, common to all peoples and to all stages of culture.” According to this definition, therefore, the white missionaries should and did find a religion in their new found land.
Traditional Urhobo society believed in the existence of gods; each object has a separate creator; therefore, traditional Urhobo society was pantheistic in its belief. On the contrary, the Christians are monotheistic; their God is an omniscient, omnipotent, super-sensible supreme being. In the Christian sense God is accessible by reason and human spirit. To the Urhobo, the gods’ existence is both material and spiritual. His belief assures him that gods exist, and their affirmation and justification of their existence is the fulfillment of their contractual obligations.
The Urhobo man, contrary to the Christian manner, is in daily direct contact with his gods for the good of all. Religion is a personal thing for the Christian; it is for the salvation of the individual. In contrast, Urhobo traditional religion was usually a communal affair, practiced not just for the spiritual and physical benefit of an individual or his immediate kin, but for the well-being of all within the purview of the celebrant. Shrines of deities erected in compounds and in villages generally honored these deities and invited them to protect and prosper all within the compound or village.The collective erection of these shrines of deities is often a collective response to a collective responsibility.
Although the traditional Urhobo man has been invited to embrace the Christian religion which is practiced two to three times a week, as a member of the extended family he makes use of religion in his day-to-day activities. His life is religion and religion is his life: the constant and general foundation of Urhobo tradition is the spiritual view of life.
Pope Paul VI was simply amplifying Bishop Shanahan whose conclusion on the life of the African people was that the average native was admirably suited by environment and training for an explanation of life in terms of the spirit, rather than of the flesh. He is no materialist, indeed nothing was farther from his mind than a materialistic philosophy of existence: it had no appeal for him. For the Urhobos, to be is to be religious in a religious universe.
From the above, it can be seen that there have abounded — and still do abound — areas of similarity between Christian values and Urhobo values. Differences surely existed in the application and in the living of some of these values. Probably, the traditional Urhobo extended family system was defective in that it failed to value, to the same degree, all men the world over and adopted a different attitude towards those who did not come from the same “town.” According to many Urhobo traditions the sacredness of life cannot be applied universally to include every human being to the same degree. The killing of human beings, for example, was common in the olden days, either during funeral rites as a means of providing attendant spirits to accompany a dead chief or hero into the great beyond, or as a sacrifice to atone for sins. In each a case, the victim was someone procured from a distant town. Acts of injustice committed against a “non-native” belonged to a different moral species from that committed against one who was a son of the soil. Towards a foreigner of equivalent status, injustice had no longer the same character as against the elders or brothers of a clan, to kill whom was a crime and abomination against the earth god.
Other anti-religious practices such as the killing of twins and the ostracism of their mother, local slave trade, child-kidnapping and human sacrifice existed partly on account of defects in the extended family system, attitudes regarding the value of man and ignorance or superstition.
It is true that the traditional religious practices of the Urhobo are anthropocentric in the sense that all the religious practices invariably point to one objective, namely, human life and its preservation. Prayers and sacrifices offered to the gods and the ancestors all have one end in view, namely, the welfare of man. However, it was not until the advent of Christianity and its interaction with the native culture that the extended family system took on macro-dimensions. All human beings, irrespective of race or ethnic origin, are seen and accepted as members of this extended family, that is, as children of God and hence members of one family. In other words, man is now given his value simply because he is man, and is not discriminated against because he hails from a different area.
Some aspects of Urhobo culture have been civilized by wholesome interaction with Christian values which have had a purificatory effect. It is due to Christianity that today twin babies are no longer destroyed, that their mothers are no longer tabooed and ostracized, that the practice of local slave trade, child-kidnapping and human sacrifices have been dropped, and that the frequent local community feuds and bloody clashes have been immensely reduced or, in some localities, even totally abandoned.
Similarly, such acts as robbery, arson, rape and burglary, which were considered to be acts of bravery if perpetrated against enemies, but as horrible crimes when committed against members of the same community, now receive general and objective condemnation as crimes and evils wherever and on whomsoever they are committed. This extension of the scope, meaning and application of the traditional Urhobo extended family system is a benefit deriving from the contact between Christianity and Urhobo culture.
Religion and Social Life
Turning to the second phase of the problem, let me examine the influence of Christian values on Urhobo social life. Here close examination reveals a situation similar to an injection which was intended to procure life, but instead brings death to the patient. Rather than the complimentary and revitalizing role which Christian values played on some of the religious spheres of Urhobo culture, their relation with certain aspects of social life permitted no compromises.
Generally, Christianity crushed Urhobo beliefs and methods of social control such as divination and such dispute-settling methods as the consultation of oracles. The place and authority of dead ancestors were doubted and shaken. Like what my father once said, the Osedjos (Chief priests) were ashamed as their craft is now in danger of being exposed before the light of Christianity in the eyes of their long down-trodden vassals. He told me about how glad he was to see the converts throw away the traditions of their homeland in their enthusiasm to embrace the new faith. Actually, a lot of converts give testimony to the overpowering of Urhobo culture by an invading Christian one. It is equally a testimony to the fallible nature of the early Christians who failed to look into the social control and cultural values of the Osedjos before uncritically imposing Western religious patterns.
Religious intolerance is more manifest in the dealings of Christianity with such aspects of Urhobo culture as marriage. Almost all the Christian churches have refused to recognize polygamy within the Urhobo context. Others refuse inter-denominational marriages involving their members. The Urhobos regard polygamy as a healthy institution which insures respect for husbands and love for wives, assures social security, and checks flirting or prostitution. The insistence of Christianity on monogamy is an arbitrary imposition without adequate consideration of the raison d’etre of the traditional institution of polygamy which sustains the extended family patterns and assures continuity, the bedrock of the traditional ancestral worship.
The Urhobo practice is to bury an elderly person soon after death with preliminary ceremonies; after a year or more the second burial takes place with more vigorous and detailed ceremonies. It is this second burial which helps the spirit of such a departed individual to join and rest happily with the ancestors in the land of ancestral bliss. Without it the spirit of the departed hovers about in the air and may harm its kindred living members. But once this second burial is performed, the spirit of the departed assumes his place in the land of ancestral ecstasy where he can plead effectively with the gods for the well-being of the members of his family.
The missionaries’ attack upon this tradition was two-pronged. The attack upon second burial was aimed at neutralizing traditional belief in ancestral spirits, Ese Ide. This Christian effort may have been motivated by simple evangelistic enthusiasm to uphold the doctrine of monotheism, but the final outcome has not augured well for either Christianity or Urhobo culture.
Another traditional institution that underwent pressures from Christianity is the taking of chieftaincy titles. This ethically and socially elevated traditional title was condemned as pagan, and true Christians are not allowed to take the title in spite of the enormous social control principles associated with this institution. The most disturbing aspect of the whole matter was the total rejection without prior consideration of the meaning or sense of these traditional institutions.
Morality is another area where there is considerable proximity between Christianity and Urhobo culture. This is probably due to the fact that morality flows naturally from religious creed and that man, in both the Urhobo and the Christian cultures, has a hereafter whose condition is determined by the quality of one’s present life. According to Urhobo culture, to gain that hereafter as a place of comfort one must behave in ways consonant with the endless demands of the divinities and ancestors. In this way one’s actions and behaviours must not precipitate calamity for oneself, one’s family and or for society at large.
The dwindling moral life in Urhobo society today may well be traced to the weakness of Christianity in punishing evil. It reserves punishment postmortem and in camera as far as the living are concerned. Urhobo traditional religion believes in punishing evil and condemning any immoral act immediately. The idea of an eternal hellfire or punishment hereafter for all evils is strange in the village. The sick and the aged who cherish fire for the provision of heat express their delight and desire for the eternal hellfire. As for reward in heaven, they query whether heaven is an insurance company?
Having destroyed belief in, and fear of, the wrath of the gods and the ancestors through the Christian faith’s insistence that such gods do not exist nor possess any powers, Christianity creates doubts, confusion and vacuum in the minds of the people. It has, in the words of John Okpako, generated “doubt and unbelief.” On account of this uncertainty and chaos, which contract with Christianity has brought into the belief system, an Urhobo man attends communion at the same time as he believes in the potency of traditional magic; he ties up in the same handkerchief the rosary and the traditional ebo, charm. Urhobos get themselves baptized Christian, send their children to school, and come to terms with modern technology by buying a car and learning to drive it; yet they insist that the car is not just a mechanical device but also a force whose control properly belongs to the god of iron whose emblems and charms they therefore display on the car.
The influence of Christianity has caused certain Urhobo customs and beliefs to be discarded or modified, at the same time that it has caused others to be retained by one level of community while on another level new alternatives are being accepted. In other words, Christian influence on Urhobo culture has been selective; it has not been systematically complete or effective. Thus while human sacrifice, the slave trade and the killing of twins have been discarded and old and new ideas have been amalgamated in the sphere of religion, the European ideal of monogamous marriage accepted by the Christianized elite exists side by side under the law with the institution of polygamy among the urban and rural masses.
This position with one foot in Christianity and the other in tradition poses a serious dilemma for both Christianity and tradition. The antithetical posture sometimes adopted by Christianity and tradition on certain issues often spells doom and disaster for the belief system as a whole. Christianity understands that title-taking is essentially connected with pagan religious ceremonies or is accompanied by them, and it insists on removing the pagan elements to make Olorogun a social title.The result is the near-death of that time-honored institution that has been an embodiment of such cherished and positive ethical and social values as justice, truth and solidarity. Now dry materialism like a dry cough is attempting to destroy the society. Previously, an Olorogun titled man made a covenant with his ancestors and the awareness of the unfailing sanction from the divinities and ancestors was responsible for the prevalence of law and order in the traditional society. The destruction of this healthy means of social control has unleashed widespread armed robbery, bribery and corruption, embezzlement of public funds, sexual immorality, cases of murder, indiscipline in schools and even desecration of holy places.
Christian activities which effaced the destruction of twins and other obnoxious religious practices deserve praise and commendation. However, it is undeniable that Christians have played some negative cultural roles in their religious zeal. The Church, remarked Etaghene, often took up the role of arbiter of what was culturally correct and Urhobo ancestral beliefs were equated with the devil.This is a natural outcome where Christians behave as though there were two worlds, African and European, created by two different gods. Christian missionaries seemed to assume that Africa or the African world was created by an imperfect god, and to consider themselves as the only perfect product from a perfect God. If the whole universe — and Urhobo is part of this – is the handiwork of an omnipotent God then it has its merits and demerits as permitted by its creator.
Urhobo personality would have been debilitated and emptied had the churches gone on to disallow the use of Urhobo names for baptism. My names are, quite strangely, what we are. They are not saccharine but, like an aircraft’s blackbox, record the content or totality of the individual Urhobo. The continued insistence on the use of European names for baptism by Urhobos would have been ruinous.
Urhobo tradition or culture has its own authentic institutions and patterns of behaviour and values. It is a tradition or culture that values highly the ideals of truth, liberty, social justice, and achievement. Therefore, it would be in the spirit of Pope Gregory, that:
If Christianity has found anything in the Roman, the Gallican or any other tradition which may be more acceptable to Almighty God it should carefully make choice of the same and sedulously so teach the Church, for things are not to be loved for the sake of places, but places for the sake of good things.
This, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Runcie, reechoed summarily during his evangelistic visit to Nigeria when he admonished that the culture of the people must be respected. Indeed, respect for people’s culture is indispensable to the growth and acceptance of Christian influence.
No doubt, some havoc has been caused to Urhobo culture as a result of misdirection and misunderstanding, caused in turn by sentiment and overzeal. But since Christian influence has recently tended to take a completely new direction (by searching into some aspects of Urhobo culture prior to making pronouncements on them, e.g., setting up cultural issues committees and relaxing the rules guiding the choice of baptismal names) its destructive role has been relaxed. Recently, it has resumed its expected complementary role, which is tantamount to the purification of culture where necessary of all its destructive and distasteful elements.
I have observed the undulating influence of Christian values on Urhobo culture, that is, the good and bad effects of the influence of Christian values especially on the religious and social aspects of Urhobo culture. Some of the havoc is of a permanent nature, for example, the dismantling or divulging of the Omote kpokpor (masquerade). The knocking and shaking of others have been withstood due to the resilient forces inherent in Urhobo culture.
The effect has been a more distinctive and permanent manifestation of the legacy or influence of Christianity, which is the invisible and unofficial striving to live in conjunction with both the Christian and the traditional life. Thus, the individual Christian in his subconscious and in moments of crisis clings tenaciously to, or relapses without conflict or qualms, into traditional life. But credit must go to Christianity for the tremendous impact it has had on the advancement of knowledge and learning in Urhobo: the opaque scales that blindfolded the people have been pulled down. All now know that all men are equal before God, and probably this new thought has been the motive force behind the struggle for Urhobo unity. Ignorance and superstition have been put to flight after contact with Christianity. And this is an invaluable achievement indeed.
Canon Ed. Edmund Ilogu, “The Niger Mission and Nigeria Cultural Life” Daily News (May 19, 1982), p. 5.
Pope Paul VI in his: “Message to All Peoples of Africa on the Promotion of the Religious, Civil and Social Good of Their Continent” (Vatican City, 1968).
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