Nigeria is a better place than its image outside
Posted by: GBENGA ADERANTI
on April 27, 2013
in Saturday Magazine
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Dr. Paula Gomes is the only white face in the palace of the Alaafin of Oyo, Oba Lamidi Adeyemi 111. Fast-pacing, quick-talking Gomes first visited Oyo 20 years ago; and ever since, she has been going and coming to the ancient town. Recently, the Alaafin of Oyo noticed her interest in the culture of Yoruba people and the monarch honoured her by making her his Cultural Ambassador. In this interview with GBENGA ADERANTI, this Portuguese shares her experience in Oyo in the last 20 years and why she has embarked on a crusade to preserve Yoruba culture. Excerpts:
What do you really do for Alaafin?
I’m the Culture Ambassador for Alaafin.
How did you meet Alaafin?
My first contact with Alaafin actually was the beginning of last year, but I have been in Oyo already for a while, coming and going.
What were you doing in Oyo before now?
I came to Oyo because of the culture. I used to come to Nigeria while I was a student of History about 20 years ago. I know Yoruba land though I cannot say very well but quite well; 20 years ago was the first time I came to Oyo and I thought there was no more culture in Oyo. When you talk about culture, culture is in everything, food, literature, the way you dress. All this time while I was a student, I always shuttled between Osogbo and Oyo. With time and mixing together with people, I saw that a lot of cultures came from the ancient town of Oyo Ile. That is why I actually came to Oyo to make more research on it.
Does that mean you are leaving Oyo after the completion of your research?
No, I’m not going to leave, I’m just telling you that while I was a student, I used to come to do research and after that I came to Oyo not on my private interest to know more but because Oyo had nothing to offer more about their own culture. If you go back to the history, you will know that Oyo Empire dominated all the kingdoms in Yorubaland and you as well know that it was when Alaafin Sango was a very strong king ruling, actually during the 7th or 8th century, that the influence of Oyo Empire in Yorubaland was massive. And much of the culture in our day not only in Yorubaland but also in the Diaspora, everything was connected to Sango. That was why I came here to know more about him and like I said, I have been around for four years. There is a lot here to be preserved because that is the history of a ethnic group that has survived outside and is really appreciated.
In Europe nowadays, we are looking for the ancient culture that has something to give to the humanity because what we are expecting from life is to live long and to live long with quality, you can have a good car, you can have lots of money but if your body is not in the equilibrium, if you die young, what is the essence of life? Life is long life with quality and quality means first of all, your body has to be strong, has to be healthy and the philosophy and the knowledge of the Yoruba is like the philosophy and culture from India and China.
Acupuncture from India is based on lots of ancient culture, they are very similar to Yoruba culture. What we are looking for is that deep knowledge of Yoruba which they have about the nature, that you can find the equilibrium between the body and the spirit, because Yoruba believe that there is one God who is called Olodumare. Then this Creator has created, and when He created the earth, He sent the energies to the earth which are divided into four elements and these are known all over the world: water, you cannot live without water; air, you cannot live without air, that is oxygen; fire and earth.
These are the four elements that the Yoruba people believe and if you go to other ancient cultures, all of them are the same. They are all talking the same language. So the Yoruba people like to personify those energies like other ancient cultures and they believe that if the body, which is the aye; the material life which is also aye and the spiritual life, which is orisa. Orisa is not God; orisa is what you cannot see, it is invisible. You have the visible world which is aye and the invisible world which is orisa, people used to think that orisa is another God, it is not. It is not the correct translation because when you say orisa sango, orisa osun, all the 401 orisa are the invisible power of the nature. They are everywhere in the world. You cannot live without water, you cannot live without air, so people should be very careful when they translate.
We don’t say Olodumare Sango, Olodumare Osun . When you have the equilibrium of the invisible world, aye and not visible world, orisa, you have what you need to live, you have ase, you have power; it is very simple. These people have philosophy, these people have a very strong knowledge which is given through Ifa. It is an oral history coming from very ancient times like all the other ancient cultures, and these need to be preserved. That is why I’m here, to try in my own capacity to show the Yoruba people that they are very valuable.
How vast are you in Yoruba language?
Mo ti gbo die die, sugbon Yoruba ko rorun (I understand smattering Yoruba, but it is not easy).
How old are you now?
Normally you should not ask a lady how old she is.
You should be…..
(Cuts in) I will not tell you.
What about your family?
I have my family, like I said, I go and come back but I have been here for two years without going home.
I’m talking about your husband and children?
Well, I will not like to go to my private life; you know that is very private. I will just like to talk generally; I will not like to say anything about my private life.
Some people spell your name Gomez why is yours Gomes?
My name is a Portuguese name, it ends with an ‘s’ it is Portuguese but if it is ‘z’, it is Spanish.
Have you read anything about Suzanne Wenger?
Yes, I know her very well. Like I said, I’ve been coming for 20 years, I used to be in Osogbo, so I knew Suzan Wenger very well. Actually I can say that she was and she is an inspiration for me because she really tried for Osogbo and Osun State, especially Osogbo. Today, what is there, people should be very grateful because if not for her who fought for it, it would have gone long time ago. She really preserved what people who said were the bush, the history of Osun Osogbo. Every people has its own history. People are crazy to travel abroad to go and see our culture, let me tell you, you have to appreciate your culture as well because we preserve our culture, so you have to preserve your culture as well. That is what I’m trying to do. I know Suzanne very well.
Don’t you sometimes feel you are going Suzanne Wenger’s line?
Look, I’m not Suzanne, I don’t want to follow Suzanne’s line, I want to follow my inside. I want to follow what my inside says. Suzanne did what her inside said; me, I’m doing what my inside tells me. So I can never be Suzanne because each individual is unique and special, so I don’t want to imitate Suzanne and I don’t want to be Suzanne. Do you understand me? Suzanne is Suzanne. She was a great person that I have in my heart; I only follow what my inside tells me, so I can never be Suzanne because if I try to be Suzanne, I’m not myself. I’m just doing what I feel is correct to do. I’m not an artist, Suzanne was an artist so I can never try to be an artist but I have passion for this culture because I believe it can give a lot to humanity; the way India people and Chinese people are, they are already giving to the humanity.
I believe that Yoruba people can give as well but for that to happen, Yoruba must be proud of themselves and they are not, they are losing their own identity, the Indian people are not like that, they preserve their culture and they are proud of it. Chinese people, they are proud of their culture. They teach their own children to continue and today, if you go to Europe, if you’re a VIP, instead of you to go to hospital, you go for alternative medicine. Because we got to a point that we realised that all the chemical medicine you take will cure one part and destroy the other part.
Actually what you want in life is to live long, it is through the natural thing that your body can stay longer, do you understand? People want to go to Europe, people want to go to America, what kind of life do we live? A lot of people are dying too young through heart attack; the life we live is to go to work and come back home. You know we are an old continent but now we are turning the thing around. We want to go back to what we don’t have anymore; we want to eat bio-ecological, we are tired of plastic food because of cancer.
If you put a Yoruba child who has nothing inside one compound and you put a white child, which one is stronger? Why do you think Europeans live longer? It is because we have access to medicine for free because the society is organised, but if we don’t have access to medicine and the hospital to maintain us alive, we cannot live the way you people live because you are too close to nature.
I know you are not in the Niger Delta area, but foreigners are constantly being warned to be wary of Nigeria, do you sometimes get scared that you could be kidnapped too?
Look, let me talk about myself, I do go to Delta State, I’m not afraid to go. I think that the image which is given to the outside world about Nigeria is different from actually what is happening in Nigeria. I’m not saying that it is not dangerous but Nigerian people are very nice. I think the government should rebrand. For example, when you think about Brazil, you think about football and carnival, but there are people who are still eating from the garbage. There are people when you go outside they will steal your things.
But when you talk about Brazil, people think about football and carnival, people don’t talk about those who eat in the garbage or people robbing people. I’m in Oyo, nobody robs me, I travel, I don’t have any trouble with anybody. But when you talk about Nigeria, you think about 419; they tell you it is a bad place, why don’t you rebrand it? Nigeria has many things to offer the people outside. People love your culture, people really appreciate your culture but they are afraid because of the image that have been created. If government rebrands the country, I believe that bit by bit, people will start coming because of culture. So there is need to rebrand.
People go to America; me I don’t have anything to do in America. I studied in America, I went back to Europe because if you go to America, you have to be careful, if you are not careful, somebody may follow his gang and they will shoot you. You train your children to shoot because they can just come and kill you. Do you understand? Everything has to have an equilibrium, Nigeria needs to be rebranded because it has a lot to give to people. I cannot talk about Hausa and Ibo, I can only talk about Yoruba, that is what I know. Yoruba people are beautiful, the culture is beautiful, people are friendly and they should not lose their identity because if they lose their identity, they will never find it. They can never be white, I cannot be black. I have to accept who I’m and people should be free and be proud of what they have.
The introduction of foreign religion has eroded the belief system of the Yoruba people, what do you think will happen in the nearest future?
I don’t like to talk about religion because for me it is a private thing, religion is like politics, you are a Christian or Muslim, you are ACN or PDP or whatever. Religion is something that is private, but you know if you go back to the history, it was always a problem with religion, religion tries always to dominate and control and when you talk about Africa, especially West Africa, it has suffered a lot, through the slavery, families were destroyed, alot of blood in the name of money was shed. Religion for me, I respect everybody, I don’t look at people from their religion, I respect people because everybody is special and everybody is a creation of God. So, that is why I don’t want to go deep into religion.
Religion is a personal belief it is not only going to be today, it is yesterday and going to be tomorrow and the process that is going on now in Nigeria was in Europe before. Life is a mystery and because it is a mystery, people try to control people through religion. Me, I don’t believe in anything, I believe in what I feel because I’m a creation of God but I respect everybody and every belief, if you tell me now that this is what you believe, this chair, I will respect you.
You were talking about your support for nature and local herbs (agbo), Yoruba herbs are from nature, do you drink agbo?
Yes of course, it is not only Yoruba, we Europeans we use herbs, we have different herbs, different teas. Why do you eat efo (vegetables), why do you eat all these vegetables? Why? Because you need vitamins and minerals, so the herbs are here to help us but the new sicknesses that are in the world, they are killing people. They are sicknesses that you can cure or maintain but you destroy other parts of your body. This is not a belief, this is science, that is natural science not a belief, a belief is something you cannot prove, but 1+1=2, that is science. Yoruba herbs are science; they are natural science, not a belief. If you are feeling something, you take the herbs, like a natural tea, if you feel better, your body has eliminated what is not good.
It is not only the Yoruba people that use herbs, if you go to my country, we have alternative medicine which we are preserving, we use alternative medicine. We are no more going to doctors and Yoruba have big knowledge in this science and they are putting it as a belief because culture is part of everything, what you eat is part of your culture.
At times I wonder why people like you will leave your comfort zone for a place like this where you have to struggle to get things done. What was on your mind when you were coming here?
It depends on what you call comfort. What is comfort for you?
Light, good roads etc.
In life, we cannot have everything, if you have light 24 hours, if you have good roads, we have everything, we stay in AC office, and you leave for AC cars. Lots of people are getting sick because AC is provoking problems in the lungs. A lot of people in Europe are now putting the AC off and now open their windows. I do say we’ve given the experience to them and we want to go back to olden days. In the office we have the AC, we have the car, we don’t have to walk too much. We take the car, we go to the supermarket. We have everything we need from the supermarket, we go home, we have the TV, we get the quality of life. We human beings are meant to live up to 120 years, but at times we don’t live more than 50 and 60 because we need comfort of life, we have no exercise and we eat junk food. Lots of children are born already with diabetes and cancer because they want comfort of life.
In life, there are positive and negative sides. The individual is responsible for his own life . So we have to look the other way. Most people in our own generation in Europe, we want freedom, they want to live long. We are tired of all this imposing life style, we want freedom, we want relief, we want long life. Most people in Europe are isolated, they live alone, is it not better to live in community? We should live together. Are we meant to live alone inside houses?
A lot of people in Europe have problem with depression, they have neurotic problem because of the life they live. They are not living the life creature gave us. We are living a plastic life, we are staying alone isolating ourselves, in front of television 24 hours. No exercise, is that a good life? Can our bodies live long? It is not possible. Good life is fresh air, to breathe, to exercise. Good life depends on the concept of each individual. I love privacy, but I want to live long.
The last time I saw you, you were not wearing Yoruba attire, today, you are not still wearing Yoruba attire, why?
You know I have to be what I’m, I can never be a Yoruba. I don’t mind, sometimes I dress in batik an indigo or adire. I’m not Yoruba, the same way you are not from my culture. I have to be who I’m and I have to dress the way I feel comfortable. That is why I’m not putting on Yoruba dressing. You people are putting on Yoruba dress because it is beautiful in you, when you put on Yoruba dress, you look elegant. I used to say that and I’m not the only person, that you people have natural beauty; even if you don’t have anything when you dress, even if you go to the market, even if you go to clean something, the way your people dress, you look elegant and it looks magical. So I have to dress the way I feel comfortable with.
Do you sometimes feel home sick?
To tell you the truth, no, I don’t feel home sick. Nobody sent me here, I’m here because I want. I feel good, I feel healthy, I feel strong and I feel I’m doing what I like. I’m not the kind of person that wants to stay in the office; I don’t want to live that kind of life people call comfort, I don’t .
Do you know anything about Ifa (Oracle)?
I know what I can feel, what I can see; I can never know it well as the native people. Number one, language; for you to really know it very well, you have to start from small because it is a knowledge which is given orally, it is not a written knowledge. And there is something that is very powerful, people from generation to generation transfer this knowledge orally. See how powerful, look, we have to write them. We have to go back to religion which I don’t want to talk about, Christians and Muslims carry the Bible and Koran respectively, and do you see Yoruba carrying anything? Their brain is powerful, you know the level of capacity assimilation you are exercising with your brain but we if we don’t write it down, we forget. The question is why are you destroying all these?
How have you been coping with the food?
I don’t have any problem. I eat everything. But I don’t like snake or this kind of frog, I don’t know what they call it, I don’t like it and I don’t like bush meat but I like okete (bush rat) if it is well cooked but all the remaining, I eat everything, eba, amala, fufu, semo. I don’t like so much, but I eat eko (corn paste), moimoi , ekuru (beans paste), ewa (beans).
What do you really do for Alaafin?
I’m trying to preserve the Yoruba culture and trying to reeducate the people that they are very important, they are very valuable, that they have a lot of value and they should preserve the culture. I’m trying to promote what is ancient, what is history because without history, how can you tell your children that you are Yoruba? People without history don’t have direction. I’m trying to promote what is in existence because if Yoruba don’t want it, the international people will appreciate it. There is no problem because tomorrow, we are ready to teach your children Yoruba and we are ready to teach your children about your own culture.
How did you meet Alaafin?
As I said, I had been in Oyo already and I asked Bashorun (one of the Oyo high chiefs) to bring me to Alaafin because I wanted to meet him. For me, everybody is important, I’m not saying this king is important, this king is not important but relating to history, he (Alaafin) is the strongest king in Yorubaland. I wanted to see him and tell him that he has to preserve his culture and if he fails to preserve his culture, tomorrow, nothing will be there to show to the world. So these were the reasons I wanted to see him.
How much of support have you gotten on your crusade so far?
What kind of support?
Nobody is helping me financially. I’m doing it by myself and now I have a foundation people can support because there is need to preserve the temple, preserve the palace. These monuments, these are culture heritage, there is need for preservation. Why do you want to go to England to see the queen and the palace? For what? Because it is history. So that is why people want to come to Nigeria and see the history of Alaafin, the history of Yoruba. This palace is the biggest and oldest palace in Yoruba land, it is falling apart. I’m trying to raise fund to repair this palace in its old originality so that Oyo children tomorrow will come and ‘say that my grandfather, my ancestors were living like this’ because I can take you to my country and tell you that my ancestors are like this.
Quite funny, why is it that it is foreigners or Yoruba people abroad that are interested in this project like this?
Go back to the history, we white people have colonised and have destroyed your culture. We brought our culture, we forced people to change inside and outside. You have lost your identity, you want to be what we are. That is why now people from outside come to support what still exists for you to appreciate.
If you go to the slavery time, look, all the slaves that went to America, if they did not practise Christianity, they would be killed. What is happening again? I believe what is happening today is that everything that our people destroyed, let’s rebuild it again, we should not be ashamed. The Europeans go to Kenya to see African culture, Africa is beautiful, African people are beautiful, why not Nigeria?