Tuesday, July 05, 2016

A Folkloric Navigation around the Weaverbird’s Skilfulness in Nest-making


Obododimma Oha

Folklore continues to challenge humanity with interesting connexions and interpretations of experience. Indeed, it constantly invites us to look at life and its situations more closely to see how one aspect could be an interesting paradigm for the other. Is it what the folksongs convey in simple but profound philosophical statements or what the proverbs seem to legislate? Is it even in the silent speech of the wall mural in the shrine or the full concentration of the dibia afa the diviner while reading the signs of the seeds of insight on the divination tray? And what about new media folklore, both the tech-mediated and that which develops from the interaction among virtual lives? These open up interesting trajectories, but I am particularly interested in the present essay about how traditional Igbo folkstory offers insight on skill acquisition values in the context of training, addressing the need for patience, humility, concentration, and foresight -- this time from the mythical angle on how two birds attended a training programme on nest-making and why one produces a nest that shows amazing skilfulness, while the other produces something that is terribly disappointing.

I initially meant to write a blog article featuring only a folkstory my late father once told me about how Ahịa the weaverbird and ọkịrị the talkative bird went to Udude the spider to learn the art of weaving. I principally intended to explore the use of folkloric forms in teaching the ethics of skill acquisition in postcolonial Africa. Other things, unfortunately, took away my attention, after the initial brainstorming. But on Sunday 3rd July, 2016, my interest in Facebook folklore (I like that concept!) reconnected me with the desire to write about the story of Ahịa and ọkịrị in a more relaxed, less academic style, offering a suitable response to the discourse initiated by the Facebook update shared by Egbe Henry (as matter of fact, the photograph has been shared by thousands of people on Facebook, the last after Egbe's being a sharing by Chukwuemekalum Francis Nwosuh, which contained Egbe's assertion). The interesting update featured a photograph of my friend, Ahịa, saying “MEET THE ARCHITECT THAT DID NOT ATTEND ANY SCHOOL.” Obviously, as typical of Facebook updates, Egbe’s post would like the Facebook public, especially his friends, to reflect on Ahịa’s nest-making skills, appreciate the amazing creativity, and consider the nest-making in relation to human schooling as a means of gaining knowledge and skills to do things. For one thing, the post has timeliness as public discourse, considering the fact that there is a current global concern about the application of knowledge gained at school in accomplishing tasks in the workplace. In Nigeria, particularly, there is great worry about school graduates not possessing the skills needed for assignments in the workplace. Egbe’s statement anchoring and complementing the photograph of the bird as visual communication immediately brought back what I had heard from my father about Ahịa my friend, and fired my interest about the bird’s training and folk certification! I am, indeed, trying to issue a certificate to Ahia on behalf of Igbo folklore that collected it from Udude and has been holding it in trust!

It is important at this outset to point out that I am not necessarily trying to prove Egbe Henry wrong in respect of the update on Facebook; in fact, I owe him a debt of gratitude for re-igniting my interest on the need for the discovery and activation of mental facilities while learning something. Indeed, Egbe, by that post, emerges as a very contemplative person that looks at things and considers their ramifications and how they connect to other things; someone particularly interested in the idea that we as individuals possess a number of mental resources which we can utilise to make our existence worthwhile. Chineke the Creator has endowed each person with enormous mental ability which some people in this world are utilising positively while some others either refuse to discover and use them or discover them and use them for wrong ends. It brings up the issue of the Parable of Talents told by Jesus the Christ in his teachings. Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 25:14-30:

... it will be like a going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. To one he gave five bags, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. So also, the one with two bags gained two more. But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five bags brought the other five. “Master,” he said, “you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.”
His master replied, “Well done good and faithfull servant. You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness.”
Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. “Master,” he said, “I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.”
His master replied, “You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scatterd seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
“So take the back of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (New International Version)

As it is with individuals, so it is with communities of people: each has resources, especially the mental, which could be used in creating miracles of progress. It is important to note that, even though the resources may not be the same in every case or equal in distribution among these entities (the servants received different amounts of gold), this is not a discriminatory practice, not an attempt to disadvantage or cheat an entity. That narrative says: “each according to his ability”! The money was not given to them to spend on their pleasures, to squander! It was given to them to grow the wealth! It was indeed a test of the readiness to grow resources given them! Anyone that is unwise in managing the little, cannot be wise in managing the much. It is true that meagre resources could hinder projects, but the attitude to the resources matters. Should the entity not begin by designing projects that could be executed with the available resources?

So, Egbe Henry was (indirectly) right. What we need in accomplishing great things could come from what we hardly consider. It is important for us to read the Ahịa narrative beyond what Egbe’s statement suggests. If anything, as I try to show, Egbe’s statement challenges us to find out if Ahịa indeed had some training and what kind of training that was. Of course, a close observation of the life of Ahịa shows that the bird, once it hatches from the egg, begins to learn many things – from the communication codes through feeding to the flying lessons. (Ah, the flying lessons! I used to enjoy watching the baby weaverbird fly and fall, encouraged by the mother Ahịa. And within few days they had become experts avaitors!) From the flying lessons to navigation and mastering of the trees and other creatures’ ways, and to nest making. Essentially, like all animals, it learns by observing (others of its kind), especially the mother bird. It is from the mother that it learns to encode and decode signals, feed, fly, etc. Yes, there are also the innate knowledge and physiological adaptations that facilitate the nest making.

Igbo folklore supplies the following myth (which, of course, indirectly asks us to learn from the fictional weaverbird). Ahịa the weaverbird once went with its friend, ọkịrị the talkative bird, to Udude the Master creative artist, to learn the art of weaving. Ahịa paid full attention as Udude explained in great detail the priniciples and techniques of weaving. ọkịrị, on the other hand, demonstrated the most annoying form of attention disorder; it was restless and impatient. Midway into the training programme, it announced that it had grasped the art fully and could figure out how the rest of the teaching would go. Ignoring all entreaties to stay on (even from Udude), it flew off to celebrate noisily its mastery of the art of weaving, while Ahịa stayed on, gaining from udude the full system of knowledge on design and fortification. When ahịa had learnt the art satisfactorily, Udude the Master certified it ready, and gave it leave to go and weave wisdoms in order to survive in a world of terrors. And so Ahịa left, rejoicing and richer in the head.

The joy of a training is in the practical display of skills. No training is worthwhile if the so-called trained person cannot practicalise the knowledge. So, Ahịa set to work and produced a wonderful architectural form that protected it and its young ones in rainy and hot weathers. The beautiful nest also provided adequate security in its location in the trees. Indeed, the technology of Ahịa’s making of its home became a source of admiration to other flying birds. Even the hunter and the farmer saw it and were greatly inspired on how to make their thatch houses better. (Humans learn from animals all the times!). Ahịa simply became a mode in building technology.

Ahịa the Master Nest Maker (Photo credit: Egbe Henry, Facebook Update)
Now, what about ọkịrị? When it flew off from the learning centre bragging, it did not even bother to start building, to see if what it boasted that it knew was what it actually knew. It said that it was all in its head and would be dsiplayed when necessary. And soon it became necessary when the rains came with the merciless windstorm. ọkịrị hastilty got some twigs and sticks and tried to build a nest. It dawned on the bird that it had forgotten even the little it knew, which it had magnified! So, it arranged the twigs and sticks and squatted on it. The windstorm came shortly and scattered both twigs and the squatters. ọkịrị just narraowly missed being killed! It looked with envy as Ahịa’s home withstood the storm. The Ahịa family did not even get wet or catch cold. Then, after the rain it went to Ahịa to beg to be given a make-up tutorial, but Ahịa said it was too busy with things, that it should go back to Udude and relearn the art. But ọkịrị did have the courage to go and beg Udude, after all its annoying bragging and premature exit from training.

The story ends by saying that till date, ọkịrị follows the Ahịa community around, trying to convince them to teach it the art of nest making. So, from the angle of Igbo mythology (indeed, the story is a myth, because it tries to explain why something is as it is – why ọkịrị follows the Ahịa community around), Ahia had sound architectural education (on nest making), which, as expected, it has continued to pass on to other Ahịa through peer education. They do not have to return to Udude; they are busy teaching other Ahịa!

There is something about the trainer in the story, too. Udude the Master artist (also called Ududo or Udide in some other Igbo dialects) is featured as a model mentor and trainer: it is really interested in getting its pupils to know the art, really interested in having them know every bit of it and more. Udude’s joy as a trainer was that it had succeeded in getting someone to know the art. Its pupils were its success as a trainer. It would continue to reign as a Master in the success story of its pupils in the future! One is not surprised then that Udude features prominently in Igbo folklore in discourses on skilfulness as the symbol of the highest values in creativity. The Igbo would identity someone’s skilfulness analogically as Nka Udude or Ikpa Nka Udude (demonstrating the creativity of the spider). Although literally referring to the spider that is known for making the intricate web (which, again, is analogised in the term “Web” referring to the complex World Wide Web), Udude is further imagined in Igbo folklore as a creative spirit that designs and animates the mmonwu (masked spirit). Udude, in a sense, rises to the rank of a divinity associated creativity, and could be seen as a mystical manifestation of the awesome nature of Chineke the creator in weaving diverse forms of living and non-living entities. That power to create is therefore transmitted by Udude through the mentoring of another creature, the Ahịa, that is patient to learn, ready to deploy its mental resources to continue the work of creating amazing and useful things.

ọkịrị emerges in the story as a symbol of the bad pupil that tries to make training a frustrating experience, that tries to make the transmission and continuation of knowledge in others difficult. Like the lazy servant in the Parable of Talents, ọkịrị has not used its mental resources well but has buried it in sands of pride. What has stood between it and the mastery of nest making is not only pride but mental laziness. Yes, mental laziness could manifest as impatience and an unwillingness to think critically or even to question one’s assumptions about one’s abilities or what one asumes to know. Pride prevents one from questioning one’s abilities – not necessarily doubting that one could do great things but honestly examining how well one could do it.

Chineke the Creator has endowed all human groups with adequate mental and natural resources, to make the world more livable and advance humanity further. In a sense, we, as humans, are participants in the work of creation through our efforts in civilization. Lazy individuals and societies bury their gold or misuse it and turn around to accuse their creator of selfishness and wickedness. They probably do not understand that the master’s business is their business, that they are they ones to inherit and enjoy the gains they make, not their master. To their shame, they would continue to follow others around to provide them with guidance or put the blame on another. I pity ọkịrị the noisemaker. It tries to borrow technology but forgets that it boasted that it had it captured magically and stored in its head. Yes, creative skill is in the head and being properly guided, with humility, helps to bring it out. It is when it is brought out of the head and made part of life that it thrives well and lasts, not when it is a borrowed technology.