By Angela Umoru
As a child, I watched a lot of Nollywood movies. In the Nigerian versions of epic movies or even modern-day stories with a rural setting, one of the most common lines was about ‘customs and traditions’.
From it being a taboo for a woman to be the reigning monarch or twins being abandoned in the ‘evil forest’ as abominations to women being denied access to their late husband’s property, and let’s not forget the good ole tale of forbidden love between a prince and a commoner, all because of ‘tradition’.
In my mind at the time, tradition was a set of sacred and unbending rules that must be followed at all cost and whose violation would incur serious wrath from the gods. Pretty accurate old Nollywood, yes?
The truth is that tradition is still being viewed like that today. The only difference is that the custodians are no longer the gods. They are men and women like you and I who have held on to the old ways and refused to let them go. Are they wrong to be so hell-bent on keeping the traditions sacred?
Before I go any further, let us consider what ‘tradition’ really means. At least, what does the dictionary say about it?
Cambridge Dictionary states that tradition is “a belief, principle, or way of acting that people in a particular society or group have continued to follow for a long time, or all of these beliefs, etc. in a particular society or group.”
By this definition, it is safe to say that tradition is founded on culture. If culture is the way of a people’s life then, tradition is basically culture that has existed for a very, very long time.
Now back to the self-appointed custodians I mentioned earlier.
One of the commonest cliches is that change is the only constant in life and if it holds any water then it means that people and their beliefs change and for that reason, culture evolves. I bet you already see where I am going with this.
The simple fact that culture can evolve to give room for new revelations, discoveries and understanding demands that tradition changes.
This is what I really think about tradition: tradition that has been found to no longer have a place in the contemporary world should take the back burner. This is not so much as a shirking our roots as it is about growth and progress. Let me give an analogy to buttress this.
Once upon a time, giving birth to twins was viewed as a curse. It was against the tradition in certain cultures for the children to live. Today, people literally pray for twins and even see them as a blessing. Look at that 360-degree change! What happened? People changed and the tradition changed along with that.
When we refuse to cast off old traditions for the mere purpose of ‘keeping tradition’ then we are spreading nothing but gangrene across our society, one that just might be death of us all.
Who then determines which traditions to keep and those to discard?
In my opinion, the simple litmus test is: Does it harm any sub-set of society while giving another sub-set an upper hand?
If the answer to that question is ‘yes’ then by all means, discard that tradition.
When we are all honest and willing to take stock of our societal norms then we will be able to identify many of these traditions that ought to have died off a long time ago. For the sake of clarity, I carried out a quick poll on traditions that ought to be obsolete and here are some of the responses:
- Denying women the opportunity to claim to what should be their inheritance: A friend explained that in Igboland of Nigeria, where he is from, “women don’t talk about land…so if a family has a land dispute and a male child is not available, the land goes to the brother of the deceased man and not his immediate family.”
- Bride price and wedding list: The responder explained that it puts pressure on men to pay up. She said that it is used as a measure of the capacity to ‘take care’ of the bride. When the men do not have enough to match the family’s demands, they get stressed and feel inadequate.
- Virginity testing: Aside the fact that science has shown that the basis for virginity testing (the presence or absence of the hymen) is unreliable, the idea that a woman’s worth is solely based on her ability to ‘keep herself for marriage’ while men are not held to the same standard is nothing but hypocrisy.
So, what do I really think of tradition? I say, “It has got to evolve!”
While the fear that culture and traditions such as language, modes of dressing and the likes will erode is valid, refusal to let go of traditions that discriminate against others, will only make us lose more than we gain.
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