By Sunny Awhefeada
One of my childhood preoccupations was to watch my maternal grandmother, Mama Omorona Urhobojavba, at sundown every 31st of December carry out what was her end of year rite. It was in the December of 1983 that I first noticed it. From that moment, I would, each year, stay vigilant at that time of the evening when she would walk to the corner of our house facing the direction of the sun in its pale westward journey. With muttering lips and solemn look, delicate and deliberate steps, she would fix her gaze in the direction of the setting sun and raise her hands upwards. It was not until two years after I first observed her that I made out her intercessory utterances. She thanked Oghene Osolobrugwhe for preserving her life, that of her children and grandchildren in the year that was about to end. She would then entreat Oghene to do the same in the New Year that would begin the next day. She would, in particular, mention her only son describing him as the sole palm fruit that must not get lost in the fire. As a polyglot, my grandmother usually uttered her supplications in Urhobo, Edo and Yoruba. Satisfied with her intercession, she would turn and walk into the house as solemnly as she did before the prayer without talking to anybody. I was to observe her doing this, every end of year, for many years before we relocated from Evwreni to Ughelli and then lived apart.
My grandmother’s end of year rite gave me so much fillip and sense of security. I held on to it as the reason why everything was good. Like most children, I was shielded from the vicissitudes of life in their physical, psychological and philosophical manifestations. The older folks never spoke openly about their misfortunes. If they did, they did so in idioms which we didn’t understand. So, every end of year I looked forward to my grandmother’s supplications so that the New Year would be good for us. It was much later that I got to know that every year, since I was born, including those during which my grandmother interceded, was laced with challenges that made the world and life more difficult.
Each year was good and bad ala annus mirabilis. The challenges are constituted by our failings, our errors of judgment which the Urhobo call iroro aje cho, what we needed to do that we failed to do or didn’t do on time and of course existential challenges over which we had no control. People lost jobs and fortunes. People took ill and died. Government policies failed. Natural disasters occurred. Individual and collective setbacks followed. These factors made up the tragedy of our existence. I was also later to discover that there was none for whom all was well. The rich also cry just as the poor also enjoy mirthful laughter. Our lives undulate with hills of hopes and valleys of impediments.
Many years later, end of year religious retreat or crossover worship and prayer supplanted my grandmother’s New Year eve’s rite. The religious programmes have their attractions as buffers against the fear of the unknown. The prayers offered are usually for personal and collective good. The self and nation take centre stage in the supplication to God. But again, every year misfortunes abound in different ways. Some are self-inflicted, avwe obo so, while others are as a result of circumstances beyond our control. This was the case with the year, 2020! It has been described as one of the most traumatic years in the annals of humanity. As the curtain for 2019 was drawn paving the way for 2020, the accustomed hope for a happy and prosperous New Year dominated our consciousness. But as the days went by, the hope dwindled and anxiety took over. From Asia to Europe and America and finally Africa, the world snowballed into turmoil. The bogeyman was an unseen virus that bred a plague codenamed COVID-19. It arrived in Nigeria in the last days of February 2020! It altered our lives. It tempered with our work and livelihood and changed nearly everything about us. It came with debilitating illness and those who were unlucky were taken away by death.
2020 was particularly traumatic for Nigeria. It was a year dominated by extreme trepidation. The much touted Vision 2020 or Vision 20:2020 was not realized. It was a year nobody will forget and generations unborn will be told the story of how sickness and death stalked the nation. The frightening tragedy of COVID-19 was its defiance in the face of science and medicine. Although, vaccines are now available to combat it, there is still a measure of skepticism surrounding its efficacy. 2020 took away some of our best and brightest, young and old, and in some cases husband and wife. Even as I write, we hear echoes of lamentation over the passing on of a loved one. We have lost count of the dead. If COVID-19 was an existential threat over which we had no control, the same cannot be said of the other misfortunes that buffeted Nigeria. Nigeria became a vast killing field irrigated by the blood of those cold-bloodedly murdered by terrorists, bandits, kidnappers and security forces. Death has become so commonplace that people no longer gasp at gory details while government officials not only lie to the world, but justify such killings saying that people should obtain permission from soldiers before going to their farms.
An incident that ruptured Nigeria’s fragile socio-economic reality was the #ENDSARS protest against police brutality. Inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter protest in the United States of America, the #ENDSARS protest was ranged against years of mindless police criminality. Many years of complaint against the rogues in uniform didn’t birth the needed reforms until the youth decided to kick and the police became the hunted. Fuelled by accumulated anger and justifiable deep hatred against the police, the protest rocked the nation and the state showed its hands of terror. Security forces mowed down youths who carried the nation’s flag and sang her anthem. The protest further destabilized the very weak economy and threw it into a depression which government officials denied with doctored statistics of a flourishing economy.
Nigeria is daily receding into the realm of the ungovernable. Bandits, terrorists and kidnappers are on rampage and largely unchecked. Killings and kidnappings have become daily incidents. The economy is prostrate. We are confronted by massive unemployment, grinding poverty, acute hunger and a huge moral crisis to the extent that most citizens now see the country as an entity to be cannibalized. What is most tragic is the incapacitation of government as it seems that those entrusted with piloting the affairs of Nigeria are deeply asleep. The citizens are thus at the mercy of two excruciating tendencies. One, which is the pandemic, is beyond their control, while the other is the failure of governance. Had governance not failed, the impact of the plague would have been mitigated. But government failed on all fronts. So, Nigerians are assailed by double jeopardy. So, much has been said about the ordeal of 2020. A telling passage, from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which speaks to the tragedy of 2020 has been making the rounds in both the social and conventional media. That passage has been useful in my engagements with young people. It also ennobled me as a postgraduate student in the darkest days of military dictatorship. The essence of it is that tough times don’t last. This too shall pass. Let us embrace hope and the comfort it brings. Can anybody peer into the crystal ball and wager about 2021? The many prophets and stargazers who usually “see tomorrow” are silent. They cannot risk a wrong conjecture. Market is bad for the spiritual merchants. As we walk into 2021, God willing, let us do so with less trepidation and a measure of equanimity. Let us remember as Horatio Spafford did write “When peace like a river attendeth my way/ When sorrows like sea billows roll/ Whatever my lot/ Thou has taught me to say/ ‘it is well/ it is well with my soul’. Yes, my dear readers let us heave and look 2020 in the face and say “It is well” Do I now say “Happy New Year?” the keyboard gave no answer! It is well!