Friday, August 03, 2007

Human Right Violations in your neighbourhood

If we look back to what were considered traditional values, and the violations they imposed on certain individuals, it would not seem inappropriate to call for truth and reconciliation panels to seek redress for the victims. Obviously, some of those practices were instituted on misconceived or selfish premises. It has since become common knowledge that some of the so-called oracles that had to be consulted for pronouncement of certain impositions were themselves mere conspiracies of charlatans and criminal-minded rulers. Most of the laws were designed to keep enemies and/or suspected competitors at bay. Was it not ignorance, suspicion and fear of the unknown that prompted the oracle in Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" to decree the cold blooded murder of the white missionary and to bind his 'iron horse' to the tree lest it ran away to tell?
My mother was 12 when she had to be betrothed to a 40-year-old king from a neighbouring clan, just because she was a princess and the two kings wanted to consolidate their political treaty, using the innocent girl as a token. The cruelty she had to suffer from both sides was better imagined. On the one community, it was forbidden to accept back a female child once she had been married out. On the other, it was a taboo to keep a woman that delivered of twins. My mother was trapped between the two barbaric traditional practices, for no sooner had she settled into premature motherhood than she delivered of a set of twins. Because she was the King's wife, they did not have to carry out the prescribed custom to the letter. Otherwise, both mother and the twins would have been killed immediately. The oracle had to be consulted. The charlatan who had been eating my mother's food by virtue of his being the King's personal physician and fortune-teller had the audacity to pronounce that the twins must be killed. My mother, who had endeared herself to the King's heart, proved very stubbord for once. She had insisted on keeping her twins or die with them, knowing very well that her husband would not want to loose her either. While the controversy lasted, another consultation had to be made to see if there was a way of pacifying the gods. Unfortunately, precedents had already been set with previous elimination of many sets of twins and their mothers; and the law is no respecter of persons. This particular case proved very knotty because there was another custom that forbade any son of the land from shedding blood of any member of the royal household. Any violation of this law attracted death by sacrificing the culprit to the shrine. This impasse re-echoed the question of "who will bell the cat?" After protracted consultations amidst murmuring by impatient members of the community, the oracle reluctantly came up with a verdict of banishment of mother and the twins into the evil forest. This was a piece of land that had not been explored or exploited since time immemorial. It was there that unwanted property of dead people had to be deposited in case they would need them. People who had had to pass through that forest at noon or by night claim to have heard sound of clattering of utensils or pounding of mortar, which reinforced the notion that dead people actually carried on their activities there. Paws of wild animals like hyenas and wolves had been identified by hunters along the foot track. Only very powerful native doctors did venture into the inner parts of the forest in search of rare herbs and barks of medicinal trees. They, too, had testified to the existence of ghosts in the forest. Some even talked about a pond of fresh water which could pass for a lake. Water drawn from that lake was believed to cure stubborn diseases. But drawing from that source was not easy because all those wild animals and pythons did go there occasionally to bathe and drink from. It was into this evil forest that a teenage mother and her twins had to be banished, wearing only a piece of wrapper and nothing else.
The fact that she survived four days and nights in that jungle cast a shadow of doubt over the authenticity of the stories surrounding its evilness. She had found shelter within the cavity of a tree trunk. Her food consisted of palm-nuts, wild manioc tubers and fresh familiar leaves. She recalls that at one time during her incarceration, a pregnant antelope had ventured onto her abode and layed by her side as if to comfort her and her twins. She had felt really comforted because that was the only time she could manage to take a nap during which the neighbourly antelope had wandered away. By her third day in the forest, she had woken up to find the uncovered twins stone dead as a result of exposure to cold and insect bites. She had dug a shallow grave as far as her strength and bare hands could go and buried them. Tears and sweat from that task and the sorrow it entailed had soaked her cloth so much that she could squeeze out enough to douche up herself later. By this time, she had decided that she had no reason to remain in that god-forsaken solitude any more. Going back to her parents was out of the question because of that obnoxious custom that forbade the return of a daughter once married out. She had to risk wandering along the path to see where fate would lead her. It was at that juncture that she encountered one young man who was returning late from farm. The sorry sight of an unkempt lady who wore the distinguishing royal bead on her neck and wrist aroused the young man's curiosity. This farmer was not in the habit of passing through that road, but on that particular night, he had to because in spite of the mystery surrounding it, it was closer home, and he needed to get home fast. As they entered into conversation, it had become clear to him that she was not yet another ghost that had assumed human form to entice an unfortunate and unsuspecting victim. Her story evoked so much compassion that the young man could not resist the urge to offer her shelter even for some temporary period of time. It had been decided between them that she concealed of her regal paraphernalia in order not to attract attention and to save the young man's head. Days ran into weeks, and weeks into months, until I was born. Today, my modest bungalow is standing on the very spot where the tree that housed my mother and her twins had been. There are a dozen of other houses within the one-time evil forest. The rest are very fertile farms. One would wonder where those ghosts had moved on to. Or was it only a myth?
Now that some of those belief systems and practices are on the verge of being dismantled - thanks to religion and civilisation, what manner of restitution can adequately compensate for the wrongs they had inflicted? I do not expect an answer except to open our eyes to the fact that more heinous practices than my mother's unfortunate ordeal still abound all around us in the likeness of child slavery, forced marriages, dedication to deities, debt bondage, sex rituals purported to cure epidemics, perpetual female confinements, female genital mutilations, and a number of human right abuses; all in the name of upholding traditional values. In all these scenarios, women are the most vulnerable. I am therefore, inclined to quote a nineteenth century American writer and human rights activist, Mary Baker Eddy: "In olden times it was the Amazons who conquered the invincibles, and we must join hands with their daughters to overcome our allied enemies of evil and to save us from ourselves." (Pulpit & Press, 1925) Italics mine.

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