I’ve been reading M. C. Atkinson’s book, ‘An African life – Tales of a colonial officer’. Atkinson was an English colonial administrative officer in Nigeria between 1939 and 1959. The book is a memoir of his time in Nigeria, working in various districts.
It’s an interesting book if you like a bit of Nigerian history, and I do. What stayed with me though was a chapter about an event in Ilaro, in the western region, where he was the District Officer for a time. It is related to art, at least tangentially, which, I suppose, is why it stayed with me. But there’s also something about the whole episode that just seemed emblematic of the Nigerian situation.
So here’s the story. A group of witch hunters known as the Atinga Society had come in from Dahomey, now known as Benin republic. They had been operating in Dahomey for a while and had run afoul of the authorities there so had decided to move to Nigeria. They probably also figured this was a bigger market anyway. They came into the Western region and proceeded to move from community to community identifying and cleansing witches. Have you noticed that it’s usually witches rarely wizards? I imagine there’s a socio-cultural reason for this gender bias.
The Atinga, it seems, were actually quite good at marketing. They didn’t sell their services to anyone. You had to come looking for them and make a case for their visit—a financial case, obviously. If any community wanted their services, that community usually had to pay a sizeable fee to them.
Then they’d show up with all their fireworks. They’d cut down Iroko and Baobab trees in the community. These were apparently witch trees. Then they’d kill a few animals, collect the blood in large vessels, dip kola nut into the blood, then sell the kola nut to the community to ward off small pox, spells and the like. All this while there’d be a drummer constantly drumming to ward off pesky evil spirits.
As an aside, in my youth service year, I’d occasionally get on one of those so called luxury buses from Lagos to Enugu to see my parents. A salesman would appear a few minutes into the journey and ask everyone to pray. People would pray with him. I didn’t understand why I’d want to pray with someone who was just about to try one on me. But, apparently, to most of my fellow travellers a call to prayer was never to be ignored. After praying, the salesman would then brandish his drugs for sale and proceed to narrate the many incredible pharmaceutical abilities of these drugs. These would be a proper panacea drug—malaria, yellow fever, constipation, worms, a low sex drive, sexual maladies resulting from a high sex drive, maybe even mental health issues. At this point I’d have gone from mild interest to irritation, then revulsion. And then to fascination as people gleefully paid money for this drug. ‘Unbelievable’, I’d mutter and shake my twenty-year old head.
But back to the Atinga Society. A few days after their entry, the main event would begin. Some young Atinga boys and girls usually between 8 and 15 would get to the business of witch identification. The drummers would show up, the boys and girls would dance themselves into a spiritual frenzy—glazed eyes, foaming mouth and all. Then they’d start to identify the witches. When they were done, the Atinga would retire. It was then left to the family of the witches to convince them to confess and surrender their items of witchcraft. If they did, the Atinga would, for a fee, cleanse them.
Those that insisted on their innocence would face a further test. A chicken would be killed, its throat would be slit lightly. It would then trash about for a while and die. If it died on its back the woman wasn’t really a witch and was free to go. If it didn’t. Bad news. She simply had to confess. Her family would threaten, cajole and assault her until she did.
Then for a fee the Atinga would cleanse her.
They were phenomenally popular. Every community wanted them over with their magical Kola nut and witch-identifying powers.
Atkinson, the DO of Ilaro, wasn’t having any of this though. He tried to arrest a few of the Atinga leaders. This arose such resentment amongst his community that he had to ask for Police reinforcement to keep the peace. The Atinga were doing so well by this time that they were recruiting new boys and girls at a furious pace from the local communities for their witch identification.
Then hubris took over. They decided that they were much more than the finder of witches. They were also the arbiter of religion. All the old idols the villagers worshipped were useless and had to be discarded. The people dutifully began to throw out all their wooden idols. This is the art end of things. This trashing of the old gods created a huge mound of discarded antiques—Gelede masks, Ibeji statues, Ifa divining boards, Sango axes. One great mountain of unfashionable wooden objects.
Atkinson got in touch with Kenneth Murray, the Director of Antiquities. Apart from preserving and recording Nigerian antiquities, Murray was instrumental in the development of contemporary Nigerian art and encouraged many of the early Nigerian contemporary artists like Ben Enwonwu. Murray showed up, stuttering and drooling at this insane stash of antiques. He eventually left with three lorry-loads of these antiques. Atkinson thinks many museums in Nigeria, Britain and the United States would have benefitted from this haul.
Atkinson didn’t have to solve the problem of the Atinga himself in the end. That year, 1951, there was a brutal small pox outbreak in the West. Many people encouraged by the Atinga and their blood-dipped kola nut hadn’t been vaccinated.
Many of them died, unfortunately.
The kola nut simply did not work.
It dawned on everyone. This was a scam. The Atinga knew the game was up. They packed their bags and returned to Dahomey. And everyone thought ‘What were we thinking?’
Except it seems that whatever they were thinking then, we still are thinking today. The cast might be different. But the story is the same. We are still too enamoured of the instant spiritual solution.
Except there’s no precious antique to throw away, sadly. I could do with an antique haul myself.