Bird Flu And Yoruba Cultural Practices
At nine o’clock in the morning, only few traders could be seen at bird market in Oja – Oba, Osogbo, Osun State. And those ones were only around to throw banters and share gossip. They usually do before the market becomes full. The gist this time around was about yesterday trading activities: the customer who wanted to pay same amount for eggs laid by local chicken as the one laid by cageling; a broiler that refused to grow fast like others in the brood, and a sundry of old wife’s tales.
The women sat close around one another unmindful of the feathered creatures peeping from the hand-made cage littering everywhere in the market. The cages were in different sizes, and the biggest ones took an average of 15 to 20 adults birds. It was obvious the poor birds are not having a swell time in there. They indeed cut a scene such that could evoke a sense of dé-jà vu in some Africanists, especially those weaned on the diet of flicks like Roots.
Other listeners to the early morning conversation of the poultry retailers were a number of goats sharing space with domestic birds in the market. The ruminants in their reclining position appeared to be enjoying the cool breeze of the September morning. And nobody cared to send them away.
Traditional market in Yorubaland is for everyone, man and animals alike – and the spirits. That is why Oja-adie in Osogbo is a place for everyone. Even chickens and pigeons that are ordinarily kept separate in the house, except for the exigency of rain, share cage at the market. Not necessarily because the market operates by a special rulebook but for the simple reason that the two types of bird are prized choice of customers.
True, pigeon is not in high demand like fowl, but it has greater ritual value. Virtually every woman selling in the market would not exchange her pigeon for chicken. “Not everybody partronises pigeon, but those who buy it do so for special reason,” one of the women explained.
She however added that local chicken is equally cherished for ritual. “It is oyibo chicken that is not good for rituals. It doesn’t make ritual to be potent.” But there are different ritual performances in Yoruba, for which of those ones is bird considered suitable?
Chief Priest IfaYemi Elebuibon, the Akoda of Osogbo explained the significance of using birds as ritual sacrifice in Yoruba communities.
According to him, blood of animal is a potent offering to the gods. “But the blood of chickens and pigeon are precious to Ifa divinity.” He said Ifa otherwise known as Orunmila, the ancient philosopher, expressly commanded his devotees to be worshipping him with fowl. The myth had it that domestic birds betrayed the divinity and sniggered on him back in time. And the pronouncement on her by Orunmila subsists till date. And that is the reason domestic birds are favoured as sacrifice.
Thus, during the Ifa festival in October at Osogbo, several birds were slaughtered, not in the way the ordinary consumers of birds are used to. The birds had their heads yanked off before they could protest long. The spluttering of the blood was controlled into a stainless bowl placed by a set of china wares which contained other ritual items. The blood was later poured like libation on the Ifa object as the chief priest render long Ifa corpus by rote.
Each person who wanted to show gratitude to Ifa for whatever blessing received during the year had a chicken slaughtered on his or her behalf. The young man assigned to take off the bird heads had blood smeared on his hands everywhere. And after drawing blood, he invited owner of the sacrificing bird to touch his or her head with a drop of blood before he/she gave way for the next person.
Avian Influenza? Nobody seemed to be worried about bird flu here or its threat to human health. Does Ifa take any bird, sick or fit? Not a chance, the priest said. Chief Elebu-ibon explained that Ifa does not accept sick bird or one with infection or any disability. The bird must be wholesome before Ifa could accept it. Once Ifa rejects your offering like Cain’s, you can still bring another.
The market women interviewed at the market assured The Guardian reporter that local chicken is not easily susceptible to “strange disease”. By strange disease, they mean avian influenza. “They rove everywhere and feed on whatever they see on the way, yet they hardly become infected. Local birds are much stronger than their machine-made counterparts.” And this is no sales talk, it is a fact established by long history of adie-okoko, the traditional name for local chicken. Okoko traverses everywhere including mountain of filth, and still comes back home safe.
According to Chief Ogunshina Adubuyinbon, Apena of Aborigine Ogboni Fraternity in Lagos who is also an Ifa priest, there is also a myth that explains why local fowl goes about scattering heap of refuse in search of God-knows-what.
Long ago in the past, Okoko and Refuse made a vow that the former would be seeking food deliciously prepared by people in the community and would jump on it. Seeing that the food is already contaminated, the owner would have to throw it out to the refuse, and the two would share the spoils as soon as the owner turns her back. It was a perfect plan that guarantees daily meal for the two conspirators. But adie-okoko ran out of luck on a fateful day when she spoiled the food prepared for a wedding ceremony. Yes, she succeeded in making the celebrants throw the food out to the refuse, but she was captured and held days without food. By the time people remembered to release Okoko, she was almost fainting for lack of food. And when she managed to get to her friend for her share of the spoils, she got a cock and bull story instead. “And right there, Okoko vowed to always scatter Refuse to the barest level, no matter how high. And no amount of repository of dirt in a refuse heap can infect Okoko,” Apena concluded.
If Chief Apena’s tale by the moonlight is true, why were many fowls dying in drove during the outbreak of bird flu? “No”, the priest protested. “Those birds dying then were not local chickens. Government gave the impression that the bird flu affected every domestic bird, but that is not true. It was only the agric fowls that were affected,” he said with the confidence of a medical expert.
But his view was not different from the poultry retailers’ at Oja-oba market. They too believed that the local birds are healthier. The women indeed were not saying the birds are invincible, but that they survive better than poultry-bred. “And that is why their eggs are also good for sacrifice.”
With this kind of belief reinforced by traditional experience of the local people, it might be easier for the Federal Government to meet Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) before the next Christmas than to convince their people that the threat of bird flu is still as real as the blue sky on their head.
By Ajibola Amzat