Many people have, over the years, wondered why the legendary musician, Fela, married up to 27 women in just one night. Odega Shawa, in this piece tries to explain why.
I just heard someone comment in a rather cordial conversation that Fela is no hero to African values. He didn’t send Femi to school and he married 27 women in one day. And to this guy, who by the way is a musician of the new school, using the two reasons so stated, Fela is no hero and cannot be pointed out to the young to emulate as a role model.
To everyone that did not understand the language Fela spoke with his actions, the language of freedom and happiness, let me make it clear. Nigeria has no socio-cultural hero more prominent than Fela Anikulapo Kuti. What Fela addressed, bravely, with his life and family as example, is education and morality. Fela asked his generation two questions: What is education and what is morality? The answers he got were unsatisfactory to him, so like every intelligent person, he went out of the box for answers that satisfied him.
Let me start with education. Traditional African societies trained children, after careful observation of their inclinations during infancy, in what was referred to as occupation, a skill that is life sustaining and takes a period of tutelage to master. The pupil had his own space to move and grow, and the value of that traditional education is evident in the culture that our ancestors all left behind.
Modern schools lump everybody in one box and brands them, like slaves, as either good or bad. The bad are the F students. The good are the A students. This classification is artificial of course and does not represent the true life prospects of particular students. Schooling is just a monster agent of social chaos. Reality scorns the results of schooling, since in life most ‘successful’ people were F students in school and most ‘unsuccessful’ people were A students at school. There is just a small margin of equilibrium where the system gets it right, but not because the system is any good itself. Just because things have to balance out in any case. Fela recognised this stupidity of formal schooling for what it is and decided to try the way of his ancestors. He didn’t abandon Femi. He trained Femi to play music. And today, Femi, is one of the most globally renowned musicians out of Africa, without the contribution of the University of Lagos.
Then Fela married 27 women at once. Of course no married man today has had sex outside his marriage 27 times. And no unmarried man has had sex 27 times with either prostitutes or his girlfriends. Yeah, right. Let him who has no sin cast the first stone. But what was morality, as far as Fela was concerned? Well, for Fela morality was blunt honesty and sympathy, not hypocrisy and cruelty. He didn’t have to marry any of those women (he was already sleeping with them anyway) but he did. He married them to protect them from society’s scorn, a scorn he already understood because he has had to deal with it. For the women, Fela took them from illegitimacy and placed them under his legitimate name. People normally hide behind their churches and their mosques to indulge in secret sexual affairs. But Fela is not normal that way, just the same way he said he was not a gentleman. Fela had his affairs out in the open – and he made it all legal too.
The problem we have with interpreting Fela’s life as a role model is because he was an alternative thinker – and we are all idiots. At least you are more of that if you still imagine that we cannot teach Fela in Sunday schools.
There is a limit to the level of clarity with which an alternative thinker would choose to do a certain thing for it to become meaningful to everybody. In a world that now has more idiots than people that are ready to use their own brain people like Fela will always be treated shabbily in church and chapel conversations by people who are not even fit to untie the laces of his shoes. But that is the way of life. The guy I argued with told me that St Paul is in heaven and Fela is in hellfire. St Paul told slaves never to aspire to freedom since they would find it in heaven after they die. Fela told the slave master to go shove his chains up his own you-know-what. I don’t know how saints get chosen but if I am a black man with a sensitivity towards enslavement of blacks by whites, especially in America in the 17th century, I don’t know how St Paul is my hero and Fela is my villain. It is just a force of opinion that the same people who accused our ancestors of worshipping wood carvings will not allow me to accuse them back of worshipping wooden crosses. All of a sudden the wooden crosses meant something more than wood, but the wood carvings of the agaba masquerade, by some reason, cannot mean anything more than wood, it cannot be a metaphor for a hidden cosmology just like the cross. Just so some white christian idiot can vilify my ancestors in peace.
Fela understood the world, like our ancestors did, that we are soul spirits just having another human experience. Today we believe we are human beings that can have spiritual experiences.
Fela was ready to live the wisdom he imbibed, out in the opinion, something Pastors Chris Oyakhilome and Chris Okotie should do well to learn from. We are all Christians but we have now allowed our religion to wrap us in a mystery of hypocrisy and double life. Fela didn’t want anything to do with any double life. That is why he married 27 women and if we have any brains left in our heads we should know there is wisdom here to teach our children, and to teach ourselves.
God bless you. And bless that brother that argued with me too. Heaven help us all.
Written by Odega Shawa
When News Breaks Out, We Break In. (The 2014 Bloggies Finalist)