Osuwo, osuwo, osuwo

Egere (crocodile) the symbol of Warri in Nigeria

To anyone to has read a little modern philosophy or come across the writings of either Koestler or Jung, the concept of synchronicity will be familiar. Synchronicity, put very simply, is the occurrence of seemingly random events, either physical or mental that have a powerful connection in meaning, even when there seems to be no possible physical explanation as to why they might be connected. A simple example, which I’m certain that most us have, in one form or another, experienced is that of a powerful memory of a friend or acquaintance that appears in our mind and then shortly after a phone call or a letter arrives from that person. It’s easy to think of many others.

The critique that is usually deployed against notions is that such instances must, by necessity, be either co-incidences or delusions is because no physical or materialist explanation can be found that links them, and therefore they cannot possibly be “ real”. Jung’s explanation for this, developed also by Koestler, is that we must let go of the notion that for the events to be grouped together there must a physical connection, rather they hold that it is possible for events to be grouped by meaning even when they cannot be grouped by causality.

The occultist and mystic Aleister Crowley had an alternative explanation for this, by holding that just because the current state of science cannot explain a link between two events it does not follow logically that that link does not exist – he points out that Newton’s laws contain no explanation of why objects observe the inverse square law – he merely presents the evidence that they do, and we believe him. Crowley had an entirely different outlook on mental experience. He held that just as our dreams are in reality a phantasm generated by our sleeping mind to explain the emotions we experience as we slumber, so our waking experience was a bigger, and more powerful, illusion created by our conscious mind to explain the tsunami of perception that we experience through our senses and mental capabilities. In his writings on, for instance, the meditational technique of The Lesser Beatific Trance – who lays out powerful lessons on just how real synchronicity can be once you can let go of the idea that there must be a physical connection that can be measured independently. His solution to the “physical connection” problem was that the events were not actually connected, rather the trance unlocked mental attributes that caused you to be more likely to notice certain things who’s meaning could be linked and gave clues to an underlying, more elusive reality accessible only through the mind.

Whatever the truth of this I shall offer my own, very humble, experience of synchronicity which, whether scientifically true or not, certainly made for an enlightening and fulfilling weekend. Anyone in the UK right now will be drying themselves out after one of the most soggy and rain drenched weeks that most us can remember. In my part of Bristol this was accompanied by a spectacular water main burst on the street outside that sent a veritable river down the street and uprooted at least one paving stone. Meanwhile my intellectual activity, in between helping with the care of my two young children, and to fill the idle hours left over was to complete a transcription of a dictionary of a little known African language into an Access database so that I can search it and look for connections as an aid to my, eventually, learning to speak it.

The language is the native tongue of my dear wife and her sisters who share our house and is called Ijo (sometimes pronounced Ijaw) and is the mother tongue of the Ijo – Nigeria’s fourth largest tribe. An essential safety mechanism for me, since I understand their pidgin English so well that they have to drop into their native language if they want to keep stuff out of my hearing.

And the connection to water ? – simple really, the traditional religion of the Ijo people is that of the water – spirit, unsurprising for a race of seafarers and fishermen who live on one of the world’s largest river deltas. The water spirits, known as Owuamapu, are considered to be both good and bad having the same qualities and faults as human beings do. Humans are believed to live in the waters among the spirits before being born and the Owuamapu are periodically invoked by human activities, especially song and dance and spread a beneficent, if somewhat mischievous, influence among the dancers and audience. I saw a powerful example of this with my own eyes at my wedding party on xmas day 2005 in the heart of the Ijo country while my wife and her sisters performed a traditional dance for the revellers. As the rhythm of the music  reached its crescendo one of the dancers, a young woman, suddenly became agitated, first laughing, then crying for no apparent reason before starting to scream and wave her arms about hysterically. She was led gently from the room by her sisters before she eventually calmed down, with no apparent memory of what had happened. I was informed by one the older members of the family that we had had a visit from an Owuamapu come to pay their respects at my nuptials, and that I should be honoured. And I was.

Nobody really knows how many languages are native to Africa, but the best estimate that I can find (from ethnologue.com) reckons about 2100. On that measure 30% of all the world’s languages are African.

Africa’s languages are divided into four main groups. Afro-Asiatic (the Sahara and the North coast), which contains 375 different identified languages and are spoken by 285 million people. Examples include Berber, African Arabic dialects and Hausa (spoken widely in Northern Nigeria).

Nilo-Saharan – these cover mainly east Africa (Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania), but some west African languages such as Songhai (spoken in Niger and Mali) also belong to this group. Next comes Khoisan – a small language group with about 50 tongues and 120,000 speakers, found in southwest Africa (Botswana, Namibia and Angola) plus a few isolated tribes in Tanzania.

However the largest group of African languages is the Niger-Congo group; which may also be the largest group of related languages in world. Its divided into two groups “A” (includes Yoruba, Ibo and Fulani in Nigeria) and “B”, the so called Bantu languages spoken throughout central and southern Africa (eg Swahili along the east coast, Shona in Zimbabwe and Xhosa in South Africa). 400 million people speak at least one these languages. The Bantu were a cultural and linguistic movement that spread from a homeland in west Africa about 5,000 years ago and today their descendants dominate all of central and southern Africa. In many ways the Bantu fulfil the same role in ancient African culture as the Celts do in Europe. Many words of Bantu origin have found their way into English – eg Banjo, Bongo, Conga, Jumbo, Mambo, Safari and Zombie

Nigeria alone has 510 identified languages and dialects ranging from Yoruba and Ibo with more than 50 million speakers to Mvanip spoken by only about 100 people in a few isolated hamlets in Taraba State. Ijo belongs to the Niger-Congo “A” group and consists of a group of related dialects spoken by about 10 million people along the south east coast of Nigeria and across the Niger delta.

Probably the most well known Ijo word to the outside world is the name of my wife’s home town – Warri, a city of 500,000 people, about the same size as Bristol, located on the Focados, a major outlet from the Niger river on the western side of the Delta, home to Nigeria’s largest oil refinery. Warri means “home”, “house” or “family” – just as in English the word house can also refer to a family group (eg House of Windsor meaning the Royal family). According to tradition one of the first European sailors to visit the town asked of a local man “what is the name of this place ?”, the man, thinking that he was referring to the mud-brick building they were standing next to replied “that’s my house”.

Actually, to describe Warri as an Ijo city would be misleading – there are probably more Itshekiri (a smaller neighbouring tribe) living there. This has in the past, unfortunately, led to conflict sometimes violent – but more often these days is expressed by a vigorous if good natured rivalry and banter. My Ijo tabou (wife) assures me that Itshekiri are “not to be trusted”, whilst an Itshekiri man once told me that his people’s name for the Ijo translates into English as “illiterate.”

Some Ijo words taken at random, that in a tiny way, begin to express what this charming and beautiful race of people mean to me –

tari – love

owei – man

ere – woman

ta / tabou  – wife

yei – husband

tobo / tobou – small child

yei-nana – a woman marrying a man

ere-nana – a man marrying a woman

nana – marry, but also means own or possess

tabai – honey

and finally my two favourite words in Ijo (of the ones that I can print anyway) –

ebi – good / beautiful (also my wife’s name) and ologbo (pussy cat).

Which brings us to the meaning of this piece and my gift from the Owuamapu – it’s osuwo (“rain”)

Copyright ©2012 Savereo John


One thought on “Osuwo, osuwo, osuwo

  1. Nyland also noted that a few linguists have identified a large number of languages which also belong to this group: Numidian, Tuareg, Western Berber (Zenaga), Northern Berber (Tamahac), Southern Berber (Tamazheq), Eastern Berber (Siwa, Awjila-Sokna, Ghadames), Atlas (Shilha, Tamazight), Kabyle, Zenati (19 dialects) several of them still spoken. To this Neolithic group must also be added the large group of Dravidian languages spoken in India by some 160 million people, the Ainu language of Northern Japan with 17,000 speakers and Ancient Egyptian (extinct), including Coptic, which is still spoken as a liturgical language.

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