Monday, July 4, 2011

Oriki: ‘The Call of the Head’

by Kehinde Ayeni

Oriki is ‘The Call of the Head.’

It is poetry loved by the Yoruba of Western Nigeria and perhaps other parts of Africa and had been taken by the black race into the Diaspora because a vestige of it was featured in the movie “Ali,” in which the character of Drew Bundini Brown played by Jamie Foxx, repeatedly sang poetry to Mohammed Ali before, during and after his fights, calling on Ali’s ‘head.’ There is a poignant scene in which Ali had kicked Brown off his entourage after he admitted to selling Ali’s championship belt on the street for $500 to feed his heroin addiction, Brown shows up to beg for his job back and he was clean of drugs; Ali relents when he starts the call of the head poetry—“Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee,” and the two of them finished the poem in unison.

At the lips of talented orators, it is something to behold. An example was the Premier of Western Nigeria in the early 1960s Chief S.L. Akintola all of whose political speeches be it state of the union address, canvassing for votes, cursing out his enemies, or lauding his supporters were poetic orations powerful enough to hypnotize a person.

Oriki includes family history, praise, warnings, admonishments and admirations. It is not flattery, but based on real accomplishments and failures of the family. It goes back many generations, thus each family has the Oriki unique to them. It is sang for a person usually by his parents and loved ones in times when he/she is depressed, challenged, going through trials or tribulations, or after the person has accomplished something remarkable like moving from one threshold to another, or as an appeal to the person. If the individual is in despair, it reminds the person whom he is, where he came from, and where he is hoping to go. It is one of the rituals to accompany the person through the challenging tasks of life and for him/her to know that others have faced the challenges before and have succeeded.
It is an oration that is in the province of the gods and it is sung as an obeisance and in humility before a power that is unconscious and as such unbelievably powerful. The Yorubas sing them in the worshipping of gods like Ogun— god of Iron, and Sango—god of lightening and thunder. It’s a parallel to Greek mythology as recorded by say Sophocles complete with the verses and the choruses.

Winnicott asks “Is it not from being gods that we become man?” and actually Oriki tells us what is possible in the human realm and as such humanizes us. This is because when we are unconscious we are identifying with the gods and Oriki takes this into consideration and gradually shrinks the psyche of the individual down to its appropriate human size without ignoring the potentials that are inherent in him/her.

It is so embedded in Yoruba culture and language that almost everyone has amongst their six or seven names an Oriki, usually given to them by their grandmothers as her way of saying to the child, “this is how I see you, a child to adore, cherish and spoil,” which is what grandmothers do. Examples of such names for girls are Ajike—this is a child that I will cherish each morning that I awake, Asunke is the child that I will cherish even as I sleep, Aduke, this is a child that I will compete with others to cherish, Abeke –for this child, I will plead for the opportunity to cherish her and Ashabi—this is a child that was highly selected to be born and she continues to select the best for me. And for boys are names like Akanni—I especially selected him to be mine, Isola—He creates wealth for me all the time, and so on and so forth.

‘Head’ in this context is the depository of all that makes the person the human being that he or she is. It is our fate, destiny, and in psychology, we ‘ll say, the unconscious contents of the persons psyche which though not consciously known by the individual, nevertheless directs the person hither and thither as if he/she were under the control of a puppet master.

That it is ‘the call of the head,’ shows that the contents of the person’s unconscious are being called upon for them to become conscious and thus dynamic for the ego; the contents in terms of deposited family history/legends.

Freud said “There probably exists in the mental life of the individual, not only what he has experienced himself, but an archaic heritage. The archaic heritage includes not only dispositions, but also ideational contents, memory traces of the experience of former generations.”

I was excited to find scientific and confirmatory explanation in a psychoanalytic paper on the function of Oriki (though it wasn’t called that, and not that I needed the confirmation, I have benefited from its function all of my life), but according to Lynch(1991), “it is a kind of idealized merger in which the self-object provides a certain level of calmness and reintegration of the self structure of the [child], especially at times when the child’s self structure may have been somewhat fragmented as a result of some trying experience, failure or upset in his or her world. The idealized self-object restores the enfeebled self of the child to a new level of cohesion or maturity. Over the long term, this kind of idealization can gradually help the child internalize the idealized self-object image and assist the child in later years in the formation of internalized goals and ideal for itself.”

What this is saying is that growing up is hard and painful and we need all the help that we can get. As a child is growing up, or as the child in each of us regardless of how old we are is being hopeful and reaching out for whatever it is that we all reach out for all the time, be it ambition, love, friendship, happiness and etc. we are putting ourselves in a very vulnerable position for rejection or loss or even the uncertainty that we will get what it is that we are hungering after, or that we even deserved it. The ego is that part of our psyche that does the desiring and it may in the process despair or be terrified.

But there are a lot to us, there is that part of us that do deserve these great things that we want, and these great things are in us already, but as unconscious potentials. And they are in that part of us that had been in this world forever and for generations and these parts of us are the inheritance from our ancestors who have gone before us, and tried these things and had their results one way or the other, and this is because everything has been tried before.

So when our mother or grandmother or aunt ‘calls our head’ because they can see that we are anxious, afraid, holding back or that we are facing something major, that ‘call’ tells us that it is possible and that it has been done before, or warns us how it is that the people who tried it before didn’t succeed, and when we hear this, it brings together, the part that is fragmented off and terrified with the part of us that can do it, and the parts of us that wants it and where these wonderful things really are in us but as potentials, and the coming together of all these parts lifts us up to a new height and our heads actually do swell, and it is a huge reassurance.

It is also a good way to apprehend our family history, both from our fathers side and our mothers side of the family, because in these histories are the treasures that we have inherited and are thus deposited in our unconscious, because regardless of how history might have been re-written by living ancestors for their own individual and personal reasons, the Oriki which at the core doesn’t change from generation to generation contains the concrete truths.

Ann Ulanov (Female Ancestors of Christ) said, “If we know who our ancestors are, we can live in unbroken continuity with the past. That in turn grounds us in the present, protecting us against being blown this way and that by every new wind of religious fashion or political movement. Continuity roots in something beyond our own time and nourishes our sense of dignity and duty in living creatively with what tradition has bequeathed us. Just as we can entertain our different complexes imaginatively and thus protect ourselves against psychic splits and dissociations, so our culture in honoring our ancestors may connect what we were with what we are and may suggest what our children may become…”

She continues, “Looked at causally, a genealogy gives a vision of the originating source from which we can trace a line of development to our present life, to this day. Looked at prospectively, a genealogy enables us to ask what will be breaking in upon our present life from the future.”

For me, I have had my ‘head’ called by relatives, neighbors and friends for a lot of reasons, from my fathers side of the family, my mothers side, for being a twin, and for being a breech birth, yes there is a ‘call of the head’ for that too.

This is a verse from the ‘call of the head’ of my father’s side of the family, and like I said, it is poetry with many levels of interpretations and associations that if I were to begin to break it down, would take up about twenty pages:
“It is a house of wild horses, 
A house where every herb is healing medicine,
In that house, they are so gentle that they are able to bring you a goat, a meek sheep or a cockerel if you asked for it,
But if their household lion goes berserk, they are able to rein it in as well.
I only plucked one herb for my medicine but when I processed it, I was able to get 200 healing medicine out of it.”




Kehinde Adeola Ayeni, MD. is a public health physician, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. She was born in Nigeria and now resides and practices in Farmington Hills, Michigan. She is the author Feasts of Phantoms, a novel that explores the damaging effects of genital mutilation.


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