Still, in defence of lasting values

Let us begin by deliberating on the choice and import of the word “still” in the above title. A temporal, somewhat contrastive adverb, the word carries connotations of the relationship between time past and time present, with possible implications for time future. It purveys significations of an idea, an act, a condition, a circumstance, a plague, a pleasure that once was but has refused to go away, or has been prevented from doing so. In my personal deployment of that word in this lecture, I have imbued it with a dose of stubborn insistence, a heady never-say-die spirit, a somewhat inexplicable tenacity, a delicate optimism borne of a visionary impulse. It is emboldened by what is (or used to be, alas,!), a globally recognised Ekiti Ideal (More on that later).

For, the title of my lecture today has been with me for almost two decades, and its spirit had lived in my consciousness long before that. “In Defence of Lasting Values”: That was the title of my acceptance speech at the 2001 Amoye Grammar School Alumni Award ceremony. Almost one decade and half later, I had to update that address for publication in a special magazine by the same school.

And curiously enough, while racking my brain for a fitting subject for today’s momentous event, that title popped up again, and I began to feel something akin to the urge to complete – no, continue – an unfinished business which will never stop agitating my mind until the task has been done. For, a frightful lot has happened to Ekitiland since 2001 when my first Values lecture engaged the attention of my fellow Amoye Grammar School alumni. Our state has see-sawed from light to darkness, darkness to light, and back to darkness again, as we fumbled from gubernatorial tenures marked by civility and visionary idealism to others characterised by primitive despotism and medieval barbarism. We became the only state in Nigeria clamped down under a state of emergency and humiliated with the imposition of a unilaterally appointed sole administrator, even in a civilian dispensation. In spite of all this, where then did I get that audacity to prelude my “Defence of Lasting Values” with that word ‘Still’ with its obstinately recurrent import? What “values” am I talking about, and what is responsible for their much touted resilience?

Values are that body of beliefs, principles, norms, and mores which undergird custom and convention, and are the major determinants of a people’s way of being, thinking, doing, behaving; their perception of themselves and others, their recognition of their place in the world. They are the building blocks of major societal institutions such as religion law, politics and the economy. In many ways, the relationship among these institutions and the value system could be seen as symbiotic, mutually referential and mutually reinforcing. Value consciousness, or what I am inclined to call value literacy, plays a vital role in the determination of what society categorises as acceptable practices and protocols of behaviour, much as it shapes what gets ostracised to the territory of abominations and taboos. This is why the aakii; in Ekiti dialect (we do not…..; it is not done) principle in yoruba proverbs and other wise sayings is so potent, at times to the point of legal prohibition. In the thinking of many elders, the flagrant flouting of the aakii principle is largely responsible for the social anomy and cultural degeneration that pervade yoruba society today. It is also the cause of the rampart, ostensibly uncontrollable corruption that is the bane of our social health and economic sanity. The value system provides the determining tool for judging greatness and its opposite, for heroism is determined by the aggregate of those achievements and salient aspects of behaviour considered highly treasured by all, but achievable by only a few. The hero is the instantiation and practical demonstration of these ideals, their exemplum and enviable champion.

Our value options define us even as we define those options. “Show me the value system of a society, and I will tell you what kind of people it contains.” A society given to materialism will measure people’s self-worth and importance by their possession of hefty bank accounts and/or the size and number of their cash-loaded Ghana-must-go’s, the palatial superfluity of the family mansion, the exclusive location of their residence, the trendy, foppish extravagance of the wardrobe, the number of automobiles in the family garage and driveway and their ‘awesome’, exotic make/class, the model, size, of the family private jet, and, these days, the pedigree and jaw-dropping price of their mobile phone/handset. And, of course, these material acquisitions never come without their socio-economic, political, and ethical correlatives. For, a well oiled, satanically orchestrated regimen of sleaze and corruption is required to keep the personal wealth going – and increasing – and ensure that the control of political power remains in the hands of those that are certain to maintain the haemorrhaging of the commonweal in order to guarantee the in-flow of public wealth into private pockets. After all, the money invested in the installation of lackeys through the rigging of a civil election, or change of government by means of coup de tat has one principal goal: the maintenance and sustenance of that evil nexus of economic power and political dominance to the benefit of the powerful actors and the eternal detriment of the citizenry.

Differential values. Differential goals. Differential accomplishments. Differential valuations. Contrary to the scenario laid out above, a society which places its priority is on knowledge, the wisdom which brings it into being, its generation, dissemination, and purposive command, is most likely to be made of a sober breed. While the money man flaunts his wealth, beats his chest, swears by the sheer super abundance of his possessions even as he sways and swaggers across his empire, the knowledge-seeker is priest in a different temple. The book and other purveyors of knowledge are his prime possession, the library his mansion, his study his altar, the universe his canvas, Justice his abiding brief, Humanity his infinite charge. Ideas do not only rule the world. The world was invented by them and they have never ceased re-inventing it. For ideas are mercurial, potent, uncontainable, unkillable. They make the past present; they make the future look like the past. Inalienable offspring of the Imagination, they are the compost-bed of the most wondrous germinations, the fertile mother of all inventions, the forever intriguing cohabitation of fact and fancy. Very much like the architect, they live in houses before they are built.

Here, then, these two houses: the one built with cash and concrete, stone and steel, the other with dream and fancy; the one ruled by the netherworld of appropriations and appetites, the other by the invisible but eternally nourishing manna of the mind; the one hanging from the tinsel top of a golden rack, the other tremulous like that chord that strums the universal harmony; the one brash and brittle, the other made of supple clay; the one loud and rude, the other solemn and soberly reflective.

Differential values, differential adulations. The ideals you extol reveal the kind of person you are and your grammar of values. Once upon a time, Ekiti weighed these contending options and had no problem in knowing which to choose and where to go. That was when the world knew us as Alagidi Ekiti (Stubborn Ekiti people); when the happy synonyms of ‘alagidi’ included words such as ‘proud’, ‘tough-minded’, ‘principled’, ‘dependable’, ‘tenacious’, a people who knew their rights and how to defend them without trampling on the rights of others. That was when our heads stood straight on our upright necks; for we knew, without being told, the difference between wrong and right; between fake and true, between the dissembling demagogue and the genuine leader. That was when we knew the difference between night and day. That was when an abomination called stomach infrastructure had not replaced our brain with our innards.

To be continued tomorrow.
• Prof. Osundare, a prolific poet, dramatist, literary critic and a laureate of Tchicaya U Tam’si prize for African Poetry and who teaches stylistics at the University of New Orleans, delivered this paper at Governor Kayode Fayemi’s inauguration lecture.

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