The year is 2000. I am in the car with an uncle, headed to a function of a childhood friend of both his and my father in Igede-Ekiti. I am looking forward to seeing my parents, as I had been at my uncle’s for that ‘summer’ holiday.
As we approached a bad portion of the road, the car ahead suddenly swerved. My uncle, who is racing not far behind quickly depresses the brakes, and I am jerked forward. The motion isn’t completed before I am tossed to the right just as sharply. When I finally right myself, I crane to look into the side mirror and see a mother duck waddling unconcernedly, her brood behind her and just as unconcerned. I look at my uncle’s face and cheekily ask, ‘why did you avoid the duck? It was right in the middle of the road‘. He simply says, ‘It is a taboo to hit ducks.’
Of course, I had heard that before, and I had seen cars squash chickens in my then short time of existence. My mind couldn’t reconcile why one could be run over and the other couldn’t. I had hoped my uncle, a medical doctor, would at least pooh-pooh such claims as ‘unscientific.’
As I grew up, my interest in our traditional religions grew too. I began to wonder, perhaps, if ducks weren’t the least favorite meals of Ogun – the Yoruba patron deity of blacksmiths, hunters, and people whose lives and livelihoods revolved around metal, just as dogs were his favorite. This is because, at every festival honoring the God of iron, dogs were beheaded.
Conversely, ducks could be accorded the degree of reverence it enjoys by drivers because of their seeming quiet temperament.
In one of the stories, when the world was still young, the newly created raptor didn’t know what his diet would be made of. He was advised to go consult with the gods. The priest instructed the raptor to fly around and bring whatever animal he first spied. He saw a mother duck with her ducklings, swooped, and carried off one, which he brought to the priest. When it was asked, ‘What did the mother duck do?‘, it replied with a shrug – ‘she did nothing. Only looked on as I flew away‘. The priest, in alarm, ordered the bird to return the duckling post haste. The terrified bird quickly did as he was bid, and when he had returned, the priest again commanded him to go hunt. This time around, the raptor returned with a chick in its claws. When asked about the hen’s reaction, the battered and harassed bird said, ‘she railed and screamed. She very nearly killed me. The priest then said to the bird, ‘this is what you will kill from this day forward. The duck is a taboo for you for you to eat‘.
This is one of the thousands of stories that have been told in Africa. Stories tailored for every occurrence and situation. Stories where subjects are concepts personified – pride, humility, wealth, death, joy. Stories where the weather elements are given bodies, and animals walk and live as humans would.
These make up the bulk of our rich heritage as Africans and have been verbally passed down from one generation to another. While myth, superstition, and taboos are different concepts and have differing definitions, the connection between all three might be stronger than mere definitions within the African context. And because of this, it is easy perhaps, to see how exact information may have been lost and new meanings adopted with each telling.
I should know. That particular story has at least two versions that I know of. Then again, another entirely different story might be responsible for the taboo nature associated with the rundown of ducks by cars.
The art of storytelling continues among Africans today. However, the elements reflect our current realities as influenced by the trappings of modernization, mass urban migration, a self-imposed distancing from rural settlements, and a fanatical adoption of tenets and stories from the books of organized religions.
The stories do not capture the truly fantastic qualities that writers like Achebe, Elechi, Fagunwa seemed to have referenced in their narratives – baby-providing tree spirits, shape-changing goddesses, wealth-dispensing gnomes (for lack of a translation of egbére), vengeful spirit spouses, touchy territorial ‘demons’, unforgiving water spirits – things they were exposed to, lived through or were commonplace due perhaps to their proximity to or growing up in rural communities.
Our myth and fantasy will now, probably be limited to asinine inclusions of allusions to witchcraft, ghosts, and demons of the blood-sucking variety that plague roads and cause accidents or a total bastardizing of established legends like what was done in Children of Blood and Bone. Heck, I shall not be surprised if one storyteller wakes up tomorrow to tell us vampires originated in Ilé-Ife.
It is a horrible realization that Africans took vocal narrations of our myths too literally to adapt to writing them down quickly. This has resulted in the gradual, erosion of knowledge of the heart-stirring stories and wonderful myths, sure to be lost in a couple of generations.
Because of this loss, I will probably never know why ducks cannot be hit by cars. I’m not even sure I can kill the one we were gifted last year.