Friday, August 28, 2015

Wrestling with Chukwu


Obododimma Oha

And Chukwu the Most High presents a stone to Tortoise His visitor, saying: “This is kolanut. Break it for us to eat.” Tortoise ponders over this and, realising Chukwu’s game, decides to play it. He goes outside, rolls a pad and puts it on his head. Approaching Chukwu-abịa-amụma his host, he says: “Help me to lift the earth and place it on my head.” “How can you carry the earth on your head? Is it a piece of luggage?” Chukwu queries. So, Tortoise looks Him in the eye and asks in return: “How could you present a stone to me your visitor and ask me to treat it as a kolanut? Is a stone a kolanut?”

And Chukwu smiles and gives Tortoise a warm handshake. “You are really welcome, my friend,” he says.

There is something in the narrative above that excites me: Tortoise (a trickster figure in Igbo folklore) engages his Maker in a game of wits and succeeds in proving to the Supreme Being (who is supposed to have an upper hand as the source of wisdom itself) that he could match wisdom with wisdom. Thus levelled, both shift from the cultural tenor of superior-versus-inferior to a situational equality (friend-visiting-friend, buddies with mutual respect for each other), indeed a marvellous shift in power difference. An interesting part of the narrative is that it is Chukwu the Most High that initiates this game of wits, apparently to test Tortoise and not necessarily to humiliate him (as a visitor). Of course, Chukwu knows that he is superior in intelligence, having created Tortoise himself. Perhaps testing Tortoise is like testing an object one has invented to see if it works well enough. One cannot push a poorly functioning product into the market. Such a product would speak badly about its producer!

Chukwu must be happy to have a visitor to play with, the kind of visitor that inspires him, not a dumb and depressing type. I believe that this is the kind of visitor he would want to have again and again, across time and space, a kind of visitor he would want to listen to. Igbo folklore partly humanises Chukwu, the Most High God, providing anthropomorphic representations that indicate the tendency to draw closer and understand Him, instead of distancing acts of a terrifying and indescribable being that speaks through earthquakes, pillars of fire, and thunder. The Igbo folk imagination presents our human affinity with Chukwu and, in fact, celebrates our contact with Him, especially when we are shown as mobilizing the wisdom that the Maker installed in us. This folklore often draws attention to human courage to accept the test of wrestling over wisdom with Chukwu. The fact that one Igbo proverb says that one does not challenge one’s chi to a wrestling bout (Mmadụ anaghị echere chi ya aka mgba) does not mean that one cannot accept to wrestle with one’s chi, if this chi wants to find out whether a weakling says it is associated with it. To refuse to accept because one is afraid could even constitute a disgrace (for the chi before other chi). Imagine what it means for a spirit to be laughed at by other spirits because his human copy has proved to be spineless!

Igbo folklore is ambivalent in its attitude to Tortoise as an archetypal trickster. Although in many cases, the deeds of the trickster are presented as bad, indeed as ịrụ arụrụ ala (being inclined to mischievous and scandalous acts), the trickster’s cleverness is nevertheless admired. One is discouraged therefore from using this gift of cleverness as arụrụ ala and pursuing selfishness, but one is subtly advised to be clever enough to escape falling victim to others in the politics of daily living. Tortoise therefore represents those dark and bright sides of humanity that people have to be aware of in themselves and others, and to manage these attributes effectively. Tortoise is featured as a common criminal in cheating other animals, ensnaring others and even feeding on them. But he is also featured as one whose wisdom and cleverness could destroy another larger creature like the lion who terrorises the kingdom, the Obodo Iduu na ọba. Isn’t he a wonderful invention of Chukwu, an invention that suggests that even the bad guy still has his usefulness in the community?

To return to our narrative: Chukwu himself displays the attributes of a trickster in offering a stone to Tortoise as kolanut! Does He take Tortoise to be a dumb fool? Ordinarily, this gesture would be considered by Tortoise as Chukwu’s visitor to be insulting and annoying. Framed from the Igbo context of visitor-host relationship, Chukwu has violated the cultural value of signifying welcome to a visitor by offering the wrong thing as kolanut. We know He does not really mean it to be an offence, but a shared or common ground requires Him to offer real kolanuts (or their acceptable substitute) and not a stone. Onye wetara ọjị, wetara ndụ (The person that presents kolanut to the other has presented life). The interesting cultural semiotic in that gesture is that the presenter of the kolanut (who is normally the host) is signifying goodwill to the other, and is inviting the other to a mutual prayer for life to be preserved. How could a stone in that context therefore suggest goodwill, if not merely to taunt the other about the desire for goodwill? In the framework of H.P. Grice’s theorising of conversational maxims, Chukwu has violated the maxim of Truth (a stone as kolanut!). But Tortoise appears to manage his emotional intelligence well but suppressing his anger and approaching Chukwu with a request that countervails and ruptures the other’s position of superior wisdom. If Tortoise responds in outbursts of verbal rage, Chukwu would have won the game. It is Chukwu in His query (about the possibility of carrying the earth on the head) that rather exposes himself to ridicule, opens the space of the chessboard for a devastating move from the other, for Tortoise’s question-as-response suggests that if Chukwu is wise enough to know that one cannot carry the earth upon which one stands on one’s head, He should have known that one cannot offer a guest a stone as kolanut or break and eat a stone as kolanut. Tortoise through this question threatens Chukwu’s competence face, that desire that His ability to reason well be acknowledged. Tortoise is asking Chukwu to come clean and ready if He is suggesting Himself as belonging to the realm of reason. So, one could say that Tortoise is actually the winner in this game of wits. But in Tortoise winning, Chukwu his creator and host also wins, for He has not made a brainless Tortoise. Tortoise’s wisdom is not Chukwu’s lack of wisdom; it is its affirmation. Tortoise, therefore, is warmly acknowledged as His friend.

Whenever I think of my relationship with Chukwu who has authored me, one thing that dominates my mind is what I share with this Great Source. Is it my physical appearance? Is it in my wisdom or in my foolishness, or both? Indigenous Igbo thought (at least, from the way my late father rendered it), tells me that: “Oyiyi anyị yiri onye kere mmadụ bụ n’uche anyị” (Our resemblance with the creator of human beings is in our minds or our ability to think). And I have been wondering: What is there in thinking that makes it a special divine attribute? Perhaps it is in the fact that it searches for ways of making things possible; it makes things possible or creates possibilities. In opening up possibilities, it ensures continuity. A thinking being has a future. A thinking creature is also a creator. Creation, as an act or process, is based on thinking. In fact, it is about thinking, both in terms of thinking as tool and as thinking-about-thinking. In thinking, the creator and the created abolish polarity and are reunited.

The life of the creature begins to have meaning when this creature begins to recuperate the powers of thought mobilised by the creator – something like what the replicator does in science fiction narratives. The replicator learns to reproduce itself, no longer dependent on the creator but becoming like the creator. Science fiction narratives present frightening consequences of this independent and reproductive life of the replicator, often indicating that it might turn around to kill its human creator (a typical fear associated with the Frankenstein Monster). But this is only one side of the imagination. The human being may be afraid of pursuing goals similar to those of the replicator, especially with their representation that suggests the latter as a “mistake” or a “virus” that is so powerful enough that it kills or substitutes its maker with itself. However, it seems to be that the primal source – which various cultural narratives and languages have come to represent in various onomastic forms – is really the scientist whose experiments (call it “creative acts”) have produced beings that share attributes of creativity and thinking with Him. It is good that this Almighty Creator has shown tremendous wisdom in locating some essential elements of his creative essence in various forms of his creation. I call it superior wisdom because I see that singular act as part of the very life of the endlessness of the Maker and his abilities. Of course, one could imagine that not all the powers of the Maker are located in certain things created. I assume that at various levels, in many universes, in many worlds or realms of existence, the powers of the Maker may be manifested in higher and lower degrees. But in all, the Maker is in contact, friendly contact, with what that supreme intelligence put into motion, revising, recycling, extending, reinvigorating, remodelling, et cetera. Intelligence continues to birth intelligence; universe continues to birth universe; thought continues to extend the powers of thought.

I like the idea of resembling my Maker, even if it is in an insignificant degree. In the little that I resemble the Maker, I celebrate with pride His joy that He shares with me, His joy in befriending me, in welcoming me to share more with me, to converse with me, to argue with me, to wrestle with me. When the Maker identifies with me, or shows me that in Him I live and move and have my being, it is foolish for me to reject this good news and shrink away in fear. Of course, the fact that I am part of the Whole is enough to inspire awe and fear. But this fear is not to be understood as a denial of presence – the fact that I am an important part of that thing that is in action and is also deserving of awe and fear.

It is good that the Maker allows me to play some hide-and-seek with him (in good faith), as bosom friends would. In playing such games with me in my life, he reveals himself to me; also reveals myself to me. It is reassuring to know that my chi is pleased with me when I accept to wrestle with Him, as He teaches me how to wrestle with the challenges of life and succeed.