Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Gods in Quarantine

by Andras Corban Arthen

Wande Abimbola is from Nigeria. He has been a professor of African cultures, religions and languages at several universities in his homeland, as well as in the U.S. He has also served as majority leader in the Nigerian Senate, and as a special advisor to his country’s president. In 1981, a council of respected babalawos from various parts of West Africa chose him as the Awise Awo Agbaye --- the official world spokesman for the more than 30 million practitioners of the traditional Yoruba religion. In other words, he’s quite a big deal.

I had met Abimbola a couple of years ago at the World Interreligious Encounter in Monterrey, México, where we both spoke. I was struck by his presence, his quiet dignity, and his obviously vast knowledge and experience of the Yoruban traditions. When the Parliament convened a task force to select international speakers for the Indigenous program track in Melbourne, Kusumita Pedersen (my colleague on both the task force and the Board of Trustees, who had also met Abimbola previously) and I immediately and enthusiastically nominated him as a representative of the African traditions, and impressed upon the other task force members, who were not familiar with him, how important it would be for us to bring him to Melbourne. Abimbola subsequently was named one of the Parliament’s major speakers.

On the day before the event was to start, two members of the Task Force went out to the airport to meet the Abimbola family’s plane and bring them to their hotel. They waited and waited, as other passengers from that flight gradually came through the Customs doors and made their way out of the terminal. Eventually, the arriving travelers trickled to a stop, with no sign of the Abimbolas. The greeters called the Parliament’s headquarters to see if there had been any message or other news about the missing guests; no one knew anything, so they were advised to wait a little longer and to try to find someone from the airline who might shed some light on the situation.

Finally, the metal doors of the Customs area parted one more time, and Wande Abimbola, his American-born wife Ifaboyede, and their eight-month-old son made their way into the terminal, looking troubled and dismayed.

“They have taken our deities away,” they informed their greeters.

The Abimbolas were scheduled to offer several presentations on the spiritual traditions of the Yoruba, and they were bringing with them several objects which manifested particular orisas, the ancestral spirits whose veneration is central to Yoruban religion. The objects are not considered to be mere symbolic representations, but extensions and abodes of the orisas themselves --- sacred emanations of sacred beings, to be treated with honor and respect. But this was obviously irrelevant to the Australian Customs agents in Melbourne, who unceremoniously confiscated the objects.

We had been warned that Australia has very restrictive and harsh policies regarding what may and may not be brought into the country, and even between one state and another. This is understandable, as many foreign species of animals and plants have been recklessly introduced into this land over the years, often with disastrous results. Rabbits and red foxes, brought over by European colonists in the 1800s for the purpose of “sports hunting” have become notorious pests throughout the countryside. The poisonous cane toad, introduced in the 1930s in an effort to eradicate the agriculturally-hazardous cane beetle, has proven to be far more of a liability than a blessing, eating just about anything in its path (except, it seems, cane beetles) and bringing a considerable number of other animals to the brink of extinction. Feral cats, descended from escaped or abandoned domestic animals, have become such a threat to other species that they are routinely poisoned, trapped or shot, and their pelts (heads included) are frequently sold as souvenirs at roadside stands along the Outback. Perhaps as a result of such disastrous and embarrassing examples, some local friends theorize, the Australian government has overcompensated with a vengeance to ensure that no invasive species of any sort will enter the country.

The Parliament had gone to great lengths to make sure that all our invited Indigenous speakers were clearly aware of the Australian restrictions, and also engaged early on in negotiations and conversations with the federal government and the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) to let them know that we were bringing a number of international Indigenous spiritual leaders, many of whom would be transporting sacred objects. All of the Indigenous speakers received official letters of introduction from the Parliament specifically identifying them to customs and quarantine agents, and AQIS officials assured us that there was a special dispensation in their regulations which addressed the question of Indigenous dignitaries visiting Australia.

But this was of no help to the Abimbolas, whose deities had been impounded by government agents who apparently did not know or did not care about the negotiations and understandings that had been in place for months. After some amount of dickering, the Melbourne AQIS agents decided that one of the sacred objects could be allowed into the country, but only if it was first irradiated. The Abimbolas consulted the orisa involved, who had to be propitiated with an offering of gin before he would agree to the procedure. The other sacred images, they were told, would need to be irradiated much more thoroughly, at a cost of several hundred dollars; until the fee was paid and the irradiation completed, the gods would be kept in quarantine.

Needless to say, this news upset me greatly, as it did Kusumita Pedersen. It was not, admittedly, a blatant case of racism, or of cultural or religious discrimination --- there were far too many official regulations and protocols in place to provide a legal justification behind which such prejudices could safely hide --- but it certainly felt like it. One is hard-pressed to imagine, for instance, that a white Roman Catholic bishop bringing the relic of a saint to Australia would have been subjected to a similar ignominy. Later on, this sentiment was supported by comments from Australian friends and some local Parliament staffers regarding the intense racism present among some segments of Australian society not only toward the Aboriginal peoples of this country, but specifically also against African immigrants and visitors.

Kusumita and I, as the Abimbolas’ initial sponsors, felt a certain responsibility about this situation, so we attempted to do whatever we could to resolve it. We spoke with the Abimbolas, who told us they had already filled out the necessary form to retrieve their sacred objects, and had handed it to another member of the Indigenous Task Force; all that remained, apparently, was for someone to take the form to the airport with the required fee and rescue the quarantined deities. Kusumita and I offered to pay the fee out of our own pockets if necessary, and arrange to borrow a car to get them to Customs and back.

Then, we found out that the Task Force member who had the form had given it to someone else, who in turn gave it to another. We wound up spending two days trying to track down the paperwork and find a suitable time to get the thing done in the midst of the madhouse of conflicting schedules that is the Parliament. The next time I caught up with the Abimbolas, some three days into the event, it was evident that they had resigned themselves to carry on their programs without their captive orisas. They did so with grace and professionalism, and their style of shared presentations while taking turns caring for their young son provided an inspiring model of family collaboration.

I am happy to report that the Abimbolas were able to retrieve their orisas on their way out of the country without further incident. For me, though, this episode continues to ring a sour note in what was mostly a very harmonious event. It’s very easy, when attending a function such as the Parliament, to get so wrapped up in the beauty and idealism present all around us that we can forget some of the harsh realities that lie in wait just beyond these walls. The quarantined gods of the Yoruba were, this time, a constant reminder of the arrogance, the prejudice and the fear that continue to cause so much conflict among nations and cultures, and a reminder as well of how much we need to continue to talk, and teach, and learn from one another, as we do in the Parliament of the World’s Religions.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I am unclear- why were they impounded? Do the religious objects in quesiton have an organic component?

  3. Hi Andras,

    Thank you for blogging this incident in what appears to me to be a very fair and balanced manner.

    Let me say first that I am very sorry to hear of the distress that the Abimbolas experienced due to this matter. I am glad at least that they were able to retrieve their sacred objects and return home with them safely.

    Australia does indeed possess strict quarantine laws. I remember as a child coming back from overseas, and the plane cabin being sprayed with insecticide prior to passengers being allowed to leave the plane. This was standard procedure back then. (The gods only know what cancers are quietly incubating in my system thanks to my childhood exposure.)

    I presume that the sacred objects in question had an organic component, such as wood, leather, bone, hair, shell etc. I am quite unsurprised that these were confiscated. A great deal of emphasis is placed upon control of micro-organisms and pathogens, as Australia is free of many diseases that afflict other parts of the world. Objects with such organic components would raise immediate red flags with any customs official, no matter who was bringing them in.

    It would be worth knowing what written advice had been received from AQIS prior to the Parliament. "Assurances" is a fairly nebulous term when dealing with bureaucracies in Australia or anywhere else - paperwork rules. I suspect that it would have helped matters greatly if the Abimbolas had been able to present a copy of any AQIS correspondence advising them or the PWR Board of special dispensations being extended to PWR delegates.

    As it is I don't think it would be fair to claim overt racism in the decision to confiscate these sacred objects. At this distance, I would not want to make the mistake of presuming to weigh the heart of another, especially when there are genuine issues of quarantine to consider. Your point about a Catholic representative bearing a religious relic is very well taken, but I think that's more an issue of the CC's size, wealth and recognition in Australia than a matter purely of race. And I would certainly hope that a Christian relic would be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as any other religious object.

    I suspect that your average customs official would never have heard of Yoruba or understand the significance of the objects in their possession.

    And this educational aspect, surely, has to be part of the valuable work of the Parliament.

    Gavin Andrew