Sometime a couple of years ago, during the Christmas season, I was at a bank in Ibadan with a friend. A man came into the bank sometime after us with three children. My friend looked at the kids who were busy tossing a filled balloon over their heads and asked if I still felt the thrills of Christmas. I remembered, at that moment, how I used to feel whenever Christmas approached.The Christmas season was a time for ‘Aso Odun’ – cloth bought to be worn on Christmas day. It was also time for a few new toys. Thinking about it now, I wonder how it came to be that a major feature in the Christmas presents package was a toy gun – water or dart toy gun. I always looked forward to it. When we were much younger, we all wore ‘anko’. We would be dressed in the same fabric, sown in the same style, for Christmas day. I remembered how much I hated it. After a while that stopped and we simply had Aso Odun, which could be anything, as long as it was bought to be worn on Christmas day.
I turned to the oldest of the children who came to the bank and asked whether he was looking forward to Christmas. He replied Yes. My friend said that he didn’t have that old thrill any more. I said the same thing for myself. The man who brought the children to the bank said that he still looked forward to the Christmas season, not because of Christmas itself, but because it was a time for family members who have been away from home for a while to go to their villages and see their family.
This reminded me of Germany. I had learnt that Christmas is a very family affair. People go home to their families and have a family dinner together.
The man went ahead to say that his father was a Muslim but that he himself had converted to Christianity. He said, however, that he continued the tradition of going back home during the Eid el Kabir celebrations to kill a ram for his Muslim family members.
My friend pointed out that this was due to a very important element of the Yoruba traditional religious system, something that Yoruba people have managed to carry on to when they adopted Christianity and Islam. In the Yoruba traditional religious system, one could have each member of the same family worshipping a different god, without any person persecuting, or even trying to convert another. That, my friend said, was a great indication of tolerance. It, my friend continued, informed why the man we met at the bank still gave presents to the members of his family who were still Muslims, during an Islamic ceremony.
I was reminded of this at a talk by J.D.Y Peel a few days ago. He is an eminent anthropologist of Yoruba Christianity and Islam. His talk was about Yoruba Islam. Through a brilliant presentation of the modern history of Yoruba Islam, he showed the co-existence of Christianity and Islam, the issues that tied and continue to tie them together and that has made them co-exist peacefully. He also showed the different ways they have borrowed from each other, and the ways they have adapted their rhetorics to each other’s rhetorics over the decades. To be sure, there have been conflicts, but none has escalated to the point of attracting much attention.
The fact that there is often inter-marriage between the faiths is also another very interesting point. I remember how shocked my grandmother was when she learnt that my aunt’s husband was converting to Christianity. He was born and brought up a Muslim, and my grandmother, a Christian, could not understand why he would want to convert to Christianity. My grandmother quickly ascribed this to faulty upbringing.
Like my friend with whom I went to the bank in Ibadan, I think this tolerance is due to the history of tolerance in Yoruba traditional religion. As we all know, many things that are Yoruba and considered traditional are disappearing. I hope that the tolerance that allows this kind of peaceful living does not disappear along with other things that we can see and feel disappearing.