Dearth of Wisdom – The Age-Long Practice of Seeking Counsel From Elders in Nigeria is under Threat

In the beginning, all the wisdom in the world belonged to the clumsiest and slowest of all animals. The Tortoise. But this favored animal was so unwilling to share his wisdom with mankind that he decided to hide all the wisdom he possessed away. ‘I will find a gourd and put all the wisdom inside and keep it in a place where no one knows, except myself,’ he thought. So, he got the gourd, put all his wisdom inside, sealed the opening and proceeded to look for the tallest tree around.

On his way, he met several animals that noticed the unusually large gourd the tortoise was struggling with and offered to help him. But the tortoise ignored all of them and continued on his mission. When he finally found the tree most suited for his plans, he un-slung the gourd and proceeded to climb the tree. But he had a problem; he found out that he was unable to climb up the tree with his gourd. Just then an old goat came ambling by and noticed the fumbling tortoise, and also inquired what was going on but the insolent tortoise rudely told him to mind his own business.

After several attempts, he finally hit on the right method to get himself and the gourd up the tree. He succeeded until he got halfway up when he lost his grip and fell. All the tortoise got for his troubles was a broken neck. The gourd was smashed to a thousand pieces on the ground and all the wisdom inside were scattered to the four winds of the earth.

Wisdom, in Nigeria is considered to be a divine gift from above, restricted to that set of individuals – the elderly- who are better disposed to share and dispense of it in meager but useful bits. The act of sharing or dispensing wisdom, which is known as ‘giving words of advice and encouragement’ to others, is the most important stage in the age-long process of bringing guidance to the ways of men.

The sure sign of wisdom in an elderly person is the white hair on his head. This is a most revered symbol at that stage in life. And it is held in such an important cultural esteem that people literally swear by it. The average Nigerian is blessed with uncertainty, and we are often unable to take firm specific steps on life-defining issues, and cannot decide on which type of trade to practice, or the type of career to pursue, the kind of girl to marry or when to buy a land and build a house without seeking out the counsel of the elders – who might happen to be an aged relative, an uncle or aunt, grandparents or even a biological parent.

In this light, old people by tradition feel bound by duty and obligation to give advice to the younger generation. In which case it is a point of honor and pride on the part of the elderly person to carry out this duty and afterwards “Seal” it with prayers. And a mark of respect on the part of the young person to approach his elders to seek their advice on an issue, and most important obey whatever advice given to him. Any elderly person approached as such regards it as the ultimate compliment. This centuries old system ensured that up-coming generations were kept on the right path and were eventually groomed into successful, dependable and well-respected individuals. It is also interesting to note that young people of a restless and adventurous spirit were not tolerated.

But what elevates the elders to such a position that young people from all walks of life are obliged to seek their counsel? Surely, it is not just the amount of white hair they have growing on their head. The truth is, during the course of their lives, they have passed through experiences, sometimes tumultuous and difficult. They have witnessed several happenings, made mistakes and learnt by them through the hard way. And therefore, in the twilight of their years they are better placed to impart their knowledge on the younger
generations. There is a saying that “there is no longer anything new under the sun.” New events are just a repeat of former happenings. Unfortunately, this is soon destined to be a cultural bygone. In recent times, several cultural habits are dying fast. The reasons are clear enough, but no one it seems, has the power to stop or do anything about it.

The growth rate of civilization in Africa is perhaps the fastest is history. One hundred and fifty years ago, Africa was the Dark Continent. Now where lush virgin forests once stood, we have mega cities approaching the scale of New York and Tokyo. We are still reeling from the shock of the cultural catch up.

It seems the first cultural victim of “Modernization” is the break-up of the traditional African family structure. With the younger generation migrating to the urban areas to seek employment, the elderly are left behind in the villages. This sequence of events has accumulated over a long period of time, a situation in which there are no elderly person around to consult, decisions are taken on the spur of the moment by immature minds and thus have resulting fall outs.

During a recent trip, I undertook back home with a friend, I met an old uncle who was inquiring about long gone cousins and other relatives. He stressed the need for them to come home often, ‘to bring their problems back to us,’ he said. Looking at the grizzled and frail old man, nearing life’s end, I wondered at the rich throve of unused experiences and advice lost in his mind.

Lets look at it this way: if our friend, the tortoise had stopped and taken a word of advice from that old goat, maybe he wouldn’t have lost all that wisdom. There is a saying in Yoruba language in Southwestern Nigeria where I come from. “Omode e te eti si oun ti awon agbalagba n so.” The English translation is, “Young people listen to the words of the elders. They just might have the right answers to our nagging problems.” Why don’t you try and stop that elderly relative you meet and tell him yours.

-Funso Ogunnowo

January 21st, 2004 by