Tag Archives: Ogoni

Sira Syndrome among the Ogonis

During my field research in Ogoniland I came across a cultural practice I haven’t encountered anywhere else in Africa. In some Ogoni communities of Rivers State the oldest or only daughter in a family is not permitted to marry or leave her father’s house, and she is socially (not physically) wedded to her father for life. She produces offspring with one or several male community members, offspring who take her own father’s name and become his heirs. The purpose of this is for her to have as many children as possible so they can work the family’s plot of land. Children are labor, labor generates income, and so fathers’ keeping their daughters at home is an income-generating practice. The tradition is called “Sira” and these daughters are described by some as having “Sira syndrome.”

I have spent some time thinking about the origins of Sira. I briefly hypothesized that perhaps in past generations male mortality rates were so much higher than that of women that there simply were not enough men to go around as legal husbands for single women, which is the historical explanation for the implementation of Islamic polygamy after many Muslim fighters died in religious battles in the 7th century. But if this was the case, why didn’t the practice spread to neighboring communities with a similar sex imbalance? Also, I think it is safe to say most men would like more family income, so why is it a uniquely Ogoni tradition? I haven’t found any answers to this question of how it originated.

Currently, the dynamics of the Sira households with which I am familiar vary. The woman may or may not have say over with which men she procreates, and the woman’s own father may be the one to make the decision. In some instances Siras freely take on one informal “husband” who fathers all or most of her offspring, while in other homes Siras have different fathers for each of her children. It is my understanding that in some communities, men may bring an offering or there can be a ceremony when a Sira “matches,” while in others it is strictly a numbers game in which the greater the sexual partners the greater the chance she will have many labor-producing progeny. Since such courtship is a delicate matter to discuss so I wasn’t able to learn much about how Siras match with their sexual partners.

It did seem fairly clear to me however that the practice is slowing dying out. Like most social changes I observed in Nigeria, rapid urbanization undermines such a tradition. Women moving into the city of Port Harcourt for work would be logistically unable to maintain the institution of Sira, and such a life experience would possibly alter their views of their filial obligations to stay as the social property of their fathers. I have noticed that rural-to-urban migrants also may distance themselves from traditional practices they consider too “bush-like” (their term, not mine). The gender differential in rural Rivers State, in which men have left farms in droves to seek city employment, may also affect how Sira is practiced, as women outnumber men in rural areas. Additionally, some I spoke to described the Sira practice as unchristian, as in, “This village stopped practicing Sira because we are Christians and the Bible says one man and one woman should marry.”

The practice of Sira presents a paradox in which culture is simultaneously a constricting but in a sense almost (but not quite) privileging force. It fundamentally violates the daughters’ right to choose their partners and have autonomy over their bodies. It is an oppressive practice because it infantilizes adult women. Being socially married to their fathers limits their choices, and for students of development theory, choices = development. Having their fathers’ determining their sexual partners violates their dignity, and for students of human rights theory, dignity = human rights. Yet at the same time, being a Sira did not appear, to me anyway, to be considered shameful. Ogonis did not speak of Siras in derogatory terms, nor did Siras complain to me about their status (although a life without many life choices often teaches us to accept our lot). I have met Siras with university degrees, some who work white-collar jobs, and others who have led protests and are politically conscious. Could these particular women have actually experienced more personal freedoms because they did not have a legal husband making demands on them? It also occurred to me that being a Sira could be a partially beneficial status because it is a purely Ogoni practice, so perhaps this status makes such women symbols of their ethnic group’s character, unique bearers of collective identity in their communities. As a self-identified feminist I maintain that the practice is detrimental to the status of women and I look forward to a time when the institution no longer exists; however, I have to admit that there are plenty of women in Africa and across the globe who have freely chosen their husbands and currently live under more subjugating conditions than some of the Siras I encountered.

The lesson for me: The tradition of Sira and similar practices of controlling women’s sexual behavior does not oppress such women on its own, but rather poverty, lack of education, misogyny and patriarchy combine to oppress women, and such practices are actually an effect of such oppression and not a cause.

No weddings for Siras…

Thoughts? I would love to learn more from my Nigerian readers who might be able to add any detail or illuminate any of the questions I asked above.

Democracy Now’s Video on Kiobel

Along with same-sex marriage and affirmative action, the Supreme Court will re-examine the issue of the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) as means for foreigners to sue American corporation in U.S. courts. The new 8-month session began this week and the Kiobel case remains on the docket, in which 12 Niger Deltan petitioners are suing Royal Dutch Shell Petroleum. This case has been discussed in previous posts here.

Daily bread v. liberty

A long-standing (but perhaps unnecessary) debate in the field of human rights is that of economic security versus political freedom. States that stress collectivism such as China and some Islamic states, argue on the global stage that without financial security, political freedom is meaningless. They see sound economic conditions as a precondition for the enjoyment of political freedom. What good is the vote if the people have no shoes in which to walk to polling stations? Conversely, advocates of the latter argue that individuals can use free speech and their own autonomy to create the conditions that lead to economic prosperity for themselves and society as a whole. This notion is highly compatible with laissez-faire free markets and cultures of self-sufficiency, e.g. Western European countries and the U.S. It is far better that some people walk barefoot to polling stations on voting day than not have a voting day at all.

Although my interview subjects in rural Nigeria have not heard of this debate, they struggle with it all the same, just framing it in different terms. I asked them a series of questions about how the oppressive military rule of the 1990s, namely that under General Sani Abacha, compares to today’s democratic administration, albeit a less-than-flourishing one. It was in the 1990s that many of the most notorious human rights abuses were committed in Nigeria, and Ogonis in particular suffered some of the worst. During this decade Nigerian dissidents were killed, tortured, disappeared by state agents, women were raped as a means of asserting political power, and there was virtually no free speech. Today, endemic corruption debilitates government and for the majority of citizens, Nigeria continues to be a really…unfair place to live. However, political freedom is vastly improved from what it was 15-20 years ago. Surely Nigeria must be a better place for Niger Deltans now than it was then, right?

From the perspective of most of my respondents, it isn’t. All but three of my interview subjects said that either there is no change at all now from how the government was under military rule, or even more surprisingly, almost half of them told me that things were better in the 1990s. There are several explanations for this. They may have wanted to make their current conditions seem as dire as possible because they hoped for money after the interview, or because they viewed me as representative of some Western power that could help them. Some research indicates that people tend to remember the “good ol’ days” while their current difficulties seem more salient. For my middle-aged research subjects, they may not have had the adult responsibilities or political consciousness to view the state in the same way then that they do currently. For example, a 20-year-old may not think about the importance of fair taxation in the way that that same 40-year-old supporting a family later on thinks about it.

Of those who told me that life was better in the 1990s, there were two types of answers. One smaller group said that society was less chaotic then and the public sphere was more orderly. The strong arm of Abacha ensured that petty thievery was minimized and that economic transactions were regulated. Women described markets where they sold goods as being more organized and predictable. They said they could plan out their family diets better because they knew how much goods would cost in coming weeks and months.

A more common answer though was simply that things were cheaper in 1990s relative to their income. That’s it. The women I talked to wanted food, medicine, clothing, and housing to be affordable. They viewed inflation and unstable prices today as infringing on their well-being more than the threat of village pogroms and extrajudicial killings of family members. They care about fair elections far less than they care about the availability of zinc roofing. They care about the number of independent media sources far less than the amount of cassava their naira can buy. Although I think their responses are a reflection of political marginalization of Nigerian women and the widespread notion that politics are a male realm, they also indicate that their current economic conditions are so precarious that they are willing to living under tyranny to be able to purchase more than a day’s worth of food at a time.

I haven’t done the background reading on this finding yet, and I am sure other research out there has found the same in the global south. It makes me wonder how vastly different human rights deliberations at the EU would be if they weren’t dominated by rich men and had a few rural African women present.

Related articles

Women roasting cassava for gari.

Prayers and fasting among Ogoni women (I)

I had the lucky timing to arrive to Bane, Nigeria, the hometown of Saro-Wiwa, on a Thursday morning. This was fortunate because every Thursday at 6 a.m. the women of the area, and a few men as well, conduct their weekly prayers and fasting at Saro-Wiwa’s tomb. The event lasts until the afternoon, and includes singing, dancing, reading of bible passages, and even a nap when the temperatures rise.  It is a sight to behold, a completely unforgettable experience to be a part of.

Before Saro-Wiwa’s death in 1995, members of the Ogoni movement fasted with him once a week. After his execution the gathering became more popular and community women incorporated prayers to a greater degree. Today, around 25 women continue to gather once a week and it has become almost indistinguishable from a Christian church service.  The attendees take turns touching the grave, the language used is derived heavily from the bible, and women refer to Saro-Wiwa as a martyred living Christ. Their purpose in coming together is to pray for another “messiah” (their term) to bring them out of their conditions of poverty.  They also spend all day Sunday at church as well, meaning that two whole days per week are spent in worship for some of them. They bring all Ogoni flags designed by Wiwa, all wear matching t-shirts depicting Ogoni pride logos, and some also have matching wrapper tied around their waists.  Because of the high level of Ogoni identity inherent in the prayers, I was happily surprised at how open the worshipers were to an outsider like I am.  I gave a speech about my interest in Niger Deltan history, answered their questions, and they welcomed me warmly.

The two days per year when the tomb is visited most are November 10, the anniversary of Saro-Wiwa’s death, and Ogoni Day on January 4, which attracted a reported quarter million people on its first celebration in 1993. The grave site is kept locked and sometimes guarded on days other than Thursdays and these two holidays, so my arrival couldn’t have been more fortuitous.

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Saro-Wiwa's Tomb.

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Singing hymns.

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Ken Saro-Wiwa's grave.

Prayers and fasting among Ogoni women (II) [video]


 

Here is a video of the weekly prayers and fasting that take place around the grave of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Bane, Rivers State.  After the ceremony, I asked a passerby how the body came to be interred there, since Saro-Wiwa was executed hurriedly and the military regime certainly would not have turned over the body.  The man told me this, almost verbatim:

After he was executed on November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was buried in a mass grave in Port Harcourt cemetery, unmarked. The Ogoni people then used their mysterious powers to exhume the body of Wiwa specifically and take him home. His body was brought back only a few days after his execution and burial.  The day they brought his body back, there was very serious rain and nobody could come out, yet some were still able to bring his body back to Bane.  He was given this tomb near farmland so that it could be a pilgrimage site for visitation, but also to respect Ogoni beliefs about death. In the Ogoni tradition, anybody who dies under mysterious causes, like drowning in the sea or because of some accident, the family will bury the body away from home, especially by water. This is because the nature of the death was dangerous, so bringing the body to the family compound for burial, as is usual in a natural death, might affect those who are still living in that house.

The Ogoni and Andoni Conflict

Português: Monolito Shell

I typically try to triangulate my blog posts by checking with several different sources on most things I write. However, for the few posts about my fieldwork in Ogoniland I purposefully won’t be doing that. I am trying to process the data that my subjects have provided me with on its own merit.  In trying to solve the puzzle of how and why Niger Deltans choose the mobilization strategies they do, I am trying to view their communities and the state from their perspective. Intentionally, these posts may be biased, but this one is particularly so.

In Ogoniland one of my preferred political events to ask my interview subjects about is the conflict they had with the neighboring Andoni community from 1993-1994. Ogonis had been “looking for trouble” (a common Nigerian term) for a year or two before this, as Ken Saro-Wiwa had returned from abroad to try to mobilize the Ogonis to assert their rights against oil exploitation by Royal Dutch Shell in partnership with the Nigerian state. He had led marches, sit-ins, and rallies.  Churches in the area had begun to use services as a time for praying to God to assist the Ogonis in their struggle.  In contrast to other groups who sought jobs, social amenities, money or other positive rights from companies and the government, the Ogonis were unique.  They were the only group demanding autonomy in the form of their own kingdom.  If this could not be realized, then they would settle for their own state within the Nigerian federation. Saro-Wiwa was a learned man who preached to them about the power of the pen.  The Ogoni movement was avowedly anti-violence, which made it difficult for the government to find a reason to clamp down on them.

From the perspective of the Ogonis I have spoken with, the Andonis were coerced by the Federal Government (FG) to create violence that would serve as a pretense for a crackdown.  Most Ogonis are not clear whether Andonis were fed false information about their neighbors, or whether they were paid by the state to start fighting, or if they were simply armed and that was enough to make Andonis lead the initial attack.  Although the Ogonis and the Andonis had lived side-by-side for generations using the same fishing rivers, in mid-1993, probably around September, the Andonis attacked a boat of Ogoni fishermen as they came back from sea. This territorial dispute marked the beginning of the conflict.  As Ogonis tell it, Andonis raided the Ogoni villages where I conducted my interviews, with my second site, Kpean, suffering the worst.  My respondents were unclear whether it was Andonis or actually federal soldiers who committed the acts, but over the next nine months or so half of Kpean’s homes were burned and much of its property destroyed.  Soldiers began inhabiting the houses, as all the residents had fled into the bush.  They would sneak back into the village at night or times when they thought the soldiers were gone in order to grab food or personal effects, or to try to sleep. No one agrees on how many people died, as I just repeated heard, “too many” or “uncountable.” My respondents said that they felt the conflict ended because the Andonis depleted their resources and the federal government no longer feared collective action in the area.

Half of those I spoke with felt the war was started by the state in order to excuse their use of violence in stopping Saro-Wiwa’s movement.  The other half felt that is was purely territorial, because Andoniland offers prime access into Ogoniland’s oil sites. By paying Andonis with weapons and allowing them to plunder their neighbors, the state was buying geographic access to Ogoni oil. No respondents felt that the Andonis had acted on their own.

I think that conflict has forever shaped the way the people of Kpean view their government. Rightly so, they seem to avoid interaction with the state at any cost.  They avoid police, courts, lawyers, soldiers, or national politics.  Most feel comfortable with chieftaincy, but increasingly look to church as a means of problem solving. Pastors have become the sole mediators and the guardians of conflict resolution mechanisms for many clans. Although there have been no eruptions of violence between the communities since there, tensions persist, and pastors simply do not have the power to reign in such conflicts if they escalate.  When the state feels like an aggressor instead of a protector, and chiefs may be suspicious of other chiefs, it seems difficult for communities like Kpean to remain peaceful.

A building in Kpean reportedly burned by soldiers during the Andoni conflict.

The grave in a family compound of a woman killed during the Andoni conflict.