Preserving Nigeria’s Evil Forests

forest
Throughout history, cultures around the world have created the concept of the evil forest, a dark, scary place where bad things happen. In Europe, these were places where witches or wolves (or even werewolves) attacked the lone passer-by. In Igbo areas of Nigeria, the Ajofia, or bad bush, still exists in some communities, although they are rapidly disappearing with development. Their potency to scare the population into line has also faded with younger generations. In these places, the traditional culture that created them has transformed in the face of modernization and a growing consumer culture. In a session at Dumbarton Oaks’ conference on cultural landscapes in Sub Saharan Africa, Ikem Stanley Okoye, University of Delaware, explained why Nigerians should start thinking about preserving some of these unique cultural landscapes.

Okoye said in contrast to what European colonialists in Africa believed, Africans did produce landscapes that were visual representations of complex concepts. Europeans believed that Africans were “not invested in their landscape,” and really had no indigenous landscape art or architecture to speak of. “Africa was contrasted with the West, which was viewed as having thought-out philosophy, landscapes, and architecture. Africa art was never seen representing landscapes.” This belief was convenient because it enabled colonialists to then occupy and ransack local resources for their own use.

Indeed, those powerful landscapes that Europeans were clueless about are still shaping the culture in Nigeria. In Okija, a Igbo traditional village in the Anambra state of southern Nigeria, priests were arrested in an Ajofia in 2004 after 30 plus corpses were discovered at the site. Amid fears of human sacrifices, the police rushed in and destroyed the forest shrines. The entire “visually spectacular raid whipped up a media frenzy.” There was “intense anxiety” about another “traditional eruption,” which, ironically enough, said Okoye, was how Western missionaries used to respond to aspects of traditional culture.

The Nigerian media and much of the public basically rushed to judgement, said Okoye. The criticism was, “why can’t they use their forests like other communities use theirs?” He thinks the priests involved “probably did nothing illegal, or beyond their own traditional Igbo norms.” It’s unlikely that missing persons were killed and buried there; more likely there were burials according to Igbo traditions over many decades. But what really shocked Nigeria was the hidden list investigators found, which showed how many of Nigeria’s rich and powerful were somehow involved. “There were scores of names, from governors to chiefs of police.” There were very public firings of officials found on the lists, and the president eventually had to intervene to protect some careers. Okoye then wondered whether the Ajofia, which was viewed as powerful because of its “impenetrable secrecy,” actually had any efficacy to keep people in line anymore, particularly given the harsh media condemnation. Almost ten years later, the Nigerian press is still interested in the story.

These days, the evil forests are actually diminishing. “The fiercesome wilderness now has limits.” Every village in southern Nigeria Igbo areas has a market and, close by, an evil forest. Towns are in effect divided into places that reflect good and bad, so some places have to represent negative powers and therefore become evil themselves. Okoye said these forests became dumping grounds for all of society’s ills. Suicides, who are anathema in Igbo culture, used to be simply dumped there to rot, unburied. Twins, who are bad luck, used to be left there. “This is place were they dump cultural garbage. This is a negative space.”

It’s also only a place priests can go. “They can enter and leave unharmed.” Once in the forest, they harvest plants, roots, and herbs to make traditional medicines that help ward off evil. “For everyone else, this is a fearful place, a place to be avoided.” And to this day, the cinema of Nigeria, which is often called “Nollywood,” often features horrifying forests with witches.

Funnily enough, Okoye said when the European colonialists arrived, the Ajofia were the first land the Igbo gave them, so to this day, you often find churches within Ajofia or next door, simply because they carved a road through what was previously a larger evil forest. The early Christians simply didn’t care that the land was deemed tainted.

Within the active Ajofia, which Okoye courageously examined on foot, there are “evil people art objects” and even landscape architecture. Claustrophobia-inducing paths cut through dense vegetation provide access points for priests who gather medicines. There are pots and vessels, which are often left at shrines at the edge of these places. An arrangement of twigs and organic materials spookily hanging from a string is actually a microcosm of the larger evil forest. “It is a landscape within a landscape. The landscape is also seen as an object.”

Okoye said, unfortunately, these fascinating places are getting taken over by development. “There is no constituency for these forests anymore,” except perhaps among old Igbo who still believe in their power. Interestingly, with the eradication of these places, crime has also risen in the villages that used to have them. Okoye thinks that’s because the power of the Ajofia to keep the community in check is waning. “There’s no present reminder of what will happen to you if you are bad.”

Okoye called for saving these places because they are “great archeological resources.” More and more archeologists are actually investigating garbage dumps and the negative spaces of society because those places tell them a lot about society – what those people valued or threw away. There is a rich history there: Many Ajofia appeared where “trans-atlantic slavery was particularly intense.”

Image credit: (1) Evil Forest Shrine / Linda Ikeji’s blog

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