Courage, Scholarship and the Revitalization of Traditions: The Life and Legacy of Professor Sophie Bósèdé Olúwolé



Jacob Olupona

My deep appreciation goes to the family of Professor Sophie Bósèdé Olúwolé for inviting me to give this commemorative lecture on the life and times of Auntie Sophie. Permit me to begin with a personal tribute to the deceased.

As human history has shown, there have always been, in every generation, unique individuals who speak in prophetic and visionary voices and with a high sense of urgency and moral authority, alerting the people of impending social danger and calling them to action. For example, Yorùbá mythical figures and ancestors such as Òsun, Ajé, and Móremí in Yorùbá ancient society are embodiments of this ideal. Indeed, in the not too distant past, women of the Southwestern region, such as Mrs. Fúnláyo Ransome Kútì, Mrs. Akíntúndé Ighodalo, and Chief Mrs. Victoria Oni, my own teacher in secondary school in Ile Olúji, who was as knowledgeable in English literature as she was in Mathematics, followed in the same lineage as the mythic ancestors. In our collective memory, these remarkable women seemed to defy description, and as such were often wrongly regarded as witches by men and women who could not fathom the source of their brainpower. In the human imagination, they were extraordinary, unconventional beings who pushed the boundaries of what was possible for a human to do and to be. In the book of Proverbs, examples of these extraordinary beings are described as virtuous women, and in Yorùbá society, they are called Àkàndá Obìnrin.

Such was my aunt Professor Sophie Bósèdé Olúwolé, whom we have come to celebrate today. And if you are wondering why I call her my aunt, since we are not blood relations, it is in reference to the Yorùbá idea of òre debí—when the bonds of friendship transform and link people as family. My first encounter with Prof. Olúwolé was in 1967, when my parents, Reverend (later Venerable) and Mrs. Olúpònà, were privileged to serve as Anglican missionaries in her home church, St. Paul’s Church, Ìgbàrà-Òkè, in Òndó State. Her parents, Bàbá and Màmá Alóba, were their parishioners at the time. They visited my parents one day and expressed their desire to bring their daughter, Bósèdé, back home from Lagos to teach in the Anglican Grammar School in the town. So through these contacts Auntie Sophie was recruited to teach at the Ìgbàrà-Òkè Anglican Grammar School, then under the Principal Mr. (later Chief) Ilúyemí. There and then, Auntie Sophie and her àbúrò Professor Fred Olúwolé Alóba became members of our family, and we became acquaintanced with their extended family as well.
Two years before the passing of Professor Olúwolé, Professor Fred Alóba wrote to me, in our regular email exchange, asking that I speak with Auntie Sophie and advise her to slow down. She was 81 years old at that point, and still very much active in her research, travels, and public engagement. I never delivered that message, even though I shared the concern, because I knew that Auntie Sophie would never agree to such a request. I could see that she was in the last phase of her long and sometimes tedious endeavor to deploy her prophetic voice and scholarship to speak to a country of unusual people, a people who too often celebrate their heroes only after they have gone. The Yoruba in their wisdom describe such responses to death as Ìgbà a bá kú là nd’ère, ènìyàn ò sunwon l’áàyè (humans are rarely appreciated in their life time but at death they become more precious than gold and literally idolized). Although I honoured Auntie Sophie greatly during her life, I did not deliver the message because I understood her mission, ambition and quest. She felt that time was running out, and she still had so much to do in order to accomplish her vision- speaking to the men and women of Nigeria about how the nation could and should move forward. The numerous responses we have seen to her death, and the tributes that have accompanied her transition, are significant testaments to her vision as well as to her accomplished and unfinished work.

Lasting Impact and Influence
The trajectory of Professor Sophie Olúwolé’s education and career may be briefly outlined thus. Her parents were of Ado- Ìgbàrà Indigenes in Ìgbàrà-Òkè. She was born in 1935 and was a junior sister to the legendary journalist, nationalist, and founding member of the Zikist Movement, Chief Abíódún Alóba (whose pen name in the old Daily Times, The Nigerian Morning Post, The Nigerian Observer, and later The Kwara Herald was Ebenezer Williams). Her parents were ardent Christians, and Auntie Sophie, as we came to call her, married at a young age. She travelled as a young woman with her husband to the USSR (Russia) and (Western) Germany. She spoke both Russian and German fairly well, and was undoubtedly introduced to Russian and German philosophy during her travels there. Auntie Sophie returned to the University of Lagos for her first degree in Philosophy, earning a Second Class (Upper Division), and was subsequently appointed to the staff of the Department of Philosophy. While there, she began her graduate studies in Philosophy at the University of Ibadan, ultimately earning her Ph.D. in 1984, the first female to earn the doctoral degree in Philosophy in Nigeria.
As a lecturer and later a Professor at the University of Lagos, she served as the Dean of Student Affairs and the head of the Department of Philosophy. She also taught at the Lagos State University, during which time she served as the acting Dean of the School of Communication (2004-2006). There, she was credited for developing a BSc. Mass Communication curriculum for the institution, among many other achievements.
It is impossible to convey in this brief lecture the enormous range of Prof. Olúwolé’s work. She was concerned with many things, but most particularly, with education, women and gender issues, indigenous knowledge—which she approached through her magisterial works on Ifá divination narratives in philosophical discourses—and, of course, the significance of native language in early childhood education. Though she mastered the discipline of philosophy, she was not a conventional scholar. However, it was only after her official retirement from the University of Lagos that she had the opportunity to fully put her ideas into broad use.

The Doctrine of Women Agency
In addition to her wide ranging academic pursuits, one of Professor Olúwolé’s missions was to empower women, particularly the young ones, to develop confidence in themselves and to maintain a strong sense of their agency. She was not just saying this in the abstract, as a public intellectual; she ensured that her philosophies were put into practice. If I may, I would like to refer to her relationship with my parents once more to drive home this aspect of Professor Olúwolé’s life. Over the years, she maintained a strong bond with my parents, particularly my mother, with whom she seemed remarkably in tune. Recognizing the toll that many years of mothering had taken on my mother, who had lost two children during her previous mission post, Auntie Sophie supported her desire to return to teaching to augment the meager salary my father earned in the church. My mother fulfilled her wishes in 1969, when she was hired to teach in the Anglican Primary School in Ìgbàrà-Òkè. Years later, she registered for a higher teacher’s certificate course in Ibadan. If I hold Professor Olúwolé’s life and work in such high regard, it is because my family has personally experienced and benefitted from her encouragement, her belief in the contributions women can make to the larger society, and her labours of love.
The truth of the matter is that only very strong, visionary, and creative scholars could maintain their stand on such principles in the Nigerian environment of those early days. The Yoruba often speak of women who daily don the gèlè máwobee (the head ties of defiance), a metaphor for the creative stubbornness women like Auntie Sophie needed to get things done. Ìgbàrà-Òkè is also known as a land of agile women warriors, and I believe Auntie Sophie embodied this aspect of the tradition quite well.

Her Life and Work
Prof. Olúwolé’s work provided significant respectability to the central Yorùbá tradition of thought. She was keenly aware of the threats to indigenous traditions posed by competing ideologies, particularly Islam and Christianity, but rightly reminded us of the value of Yorùbá pluralism, which has sustained Yorùbá civilization for centuries, and which is now under attack.

One of the ablest scholars and teachers of her generation, Professor Olúwolé’s early interests in Ifá divination poetry and tradition led to the publication of a number of articles and books on various aspects of Ifá. However, in a country that conflates deep scholarship with the practice of faith, very soon her work began to generate controversy and name calling—she was called Mamaláwo, Ìyánífá, and even a witch. In this, she was part of a long line of misunderstood women. I have always marveled at how the people of Ìgbàrà-Òkè, her home place, are praised as “omo eléye, íse weye weye” (the descendants of Eléye, that is, descendants of the powerful women of valor often nicknamed erroneously as Aje —witches). It was in Ìgbàrà-Òkè, in my childhood years, that I first saw women drummers in Yorùbáland, who rolled out their drums early on Saturday morning calling their compatriots to gather for the women’s association and lineage meetings. These are certainly the trademarks of great achievers in community history. Auntie Sophie’s resolute will and courage, the intellectual insights and striving energy that characterize her rare and dynamic life and work, should always go hand in hand.
Her first major work, a book titled Witchcraft, Reincarnation, and the God-head, tackled a broader question beyond what the title of the book connotes. In the popular imagination, her book’s title refers to the problem of evil in our society, which is often erroneously associated with Ajaa witchcraft, in Yorùbá thought and life. This misperception harms older women and now even children, thanks to the Pentecostal zeal to eradicate all kinds of evil from the world. Prof. Olúwolé recognized the need for an ardent intellectual response to the conflicting attitudes towards culture and life, a response based on a true understanding of the Nigerian cosmology and worldview. In this book, therefore, she attempted to probe beneath the stereotypes that have so often come to define public discourse.

I believe that her book was also a treatise on the philosophy of religion and an explanation for the simultaneous existence of good and evil as complementary entities in the world. Here we have a demonstration of Olúwolé as a deep thinker interpreting ordinary phenomena in a very complex and insightful manner, drawing on Yoruba traditions. After all, the Yorùbá do sing ènìyàn kan ò lè gba ire, kó má gba ibi; Tibi tire la dá ilé ayé. This is to say that good and evil are intertwined and are equally forceful entities. Each has its own agency, consistent with the Yorùbá worldview. Interpretations like these are uncommon, pushing the boundaries beyond quotidian understandings of difficult philosophical concepts. The late literary icon D. O. Fágúnwà says, Bí òwe bí òwe là nlu ìlù àgídìgbo, ologbon ní njóo, omàràn ní sìí moo (The Àgídìgbo talking drum is like a deep proverb, understood only by the knowledgeable one and known only by the wise listener.) Olúwolé’s philosophical works were like the proverbial Àgídìgbo drum that requires uncommon intelligence and brilliance to comprehend. Too often in Nigeria today, our public and academic discourse is reduced to oversimplified, binary, antagonistic paradigms. Professor Olúwolé’s work demonstrated a more useful, rich, and sophisticated way of understanding the world and our place in it. She did this precisely by drawing on Yorùbá traditions and knowledge. In so doing, she has given us all the gift of her understanding, as well as a yardstick with which to measure how far our national culture has fallen. I have repeatedly called her and her work prophetic, and I would like to punctuate this reflection on her first book with the biblical phrase from the book of Revelation saying: “he that hath an ear, let him hear.”

The enterprise of scholarship is quite different from the world of faith. This is because the Bible is not only a sacred scripture from which believers draw inspiration and guidance. It is also a compilation of literary texts that offer us uncommon insight into the minds of the writers and the worlds of the faith communities they talked about. As Yorùbá, we must begin to think beyond the concept of Ifá as a cultural artifact characterized by narratives of gods we have demonized. Let me now appeal to you to practice the phenomenological exercise of epoché—bracketing your preconceptions and stereotypes of the Òrìsà so that we can benefit from the insights they provide into our understanding of the Yorùbá mind. This is what Prof. Olúwolé was trying to tell us.

Her approach to the interpretation of culture was innovative and demonstrated an uncommon knowledge. She was one of the few scholars who took Ifá studies out of literary academic circles and even religious studies, in which it was grounded for so long, moving it into philosophy and indigenous epistemological and hermeneutical contexts, arguing that as a universal system of thought, Ifá could be applied to all human spheres of life, which is ironically what practitioners have claimed since time immemorial. Therefore, Ifá could be pursued in the context of the humanistic, social, and natural sciences.

Ten years or more before she transitioned, Prof. Olúwolé further turned her attention and energy to innovative philosophical inquiries that also have practical applications. Her major inquiry was how we can deploy the deep knowledge of Ifá to respond to existential concerns and address problems in health, education, arts and history. Her widely acclaimed work Socrates and Orúnmìlà should be viewed as a classical work in the comparative philosophy of ancient wisdom.

This book, in which she delved into fields of knowledge where men fear to tread, has become a classic in the study of philosophy. In this book, she presents Socrates and Ọ̀rúnmìlà as fascinating case studies. Not only was she aiming to give African philosophy the legal tone and identity it deserves by comparing Ọ̀rúnmìlà to Socrates, but she also reflected insightfully on the important contrasts between African and ancient Greek philosophy. What fascinates me about the work is that unlike many other scholars who spend ample time on prolegomena in the study of African philosophy, Sophie Olúwolé plunged straight into the debate to explicate the problem. By so doing, she showed the world of learning how Africans engage philosophical inquiry, thus creating for us prestige and honor that are often only begrudgingly granted to black scholarship.

Her commentaries and her expertise in education, language, indigenous life, particularly of Ifá, are all indicators of the breadth of her knowledge and her deep approach to learning. She reminded us that Ifá narratives, as the source of the all-encompassing knowledge of the Yorùbá people, deserve our attention even if we have received the seals of Christian and Islamic conversion. The inherited Western Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, she realized, can serve as molders of individual and collective virtues, including public and civic virtues. We have failed, however [not that God has failed us], to inculcate these positive virtues in men, women and the youth. Yet again, Auntie Sophie’s scholarly voice, like the prophets of the Old Testament, called upon us to remember a time when our national life was more properly in line with our values.

The Public Intellectual
Prof. Olúwolé was a great advocate of teaching and learning indigenous languages, believing that the growth of children comes through their exposure to their mother tongue in the early stages of their educational development; indeed, she believed that one’s mother tongue was the foundation for strong socio-cultural development. Another primary principle that underscored her entire life’s work, including her writings, speeches, and public appearances, is the cardinal significance of ideas.
Her writings and public speeches stressed the significance of ideas both in scholarship and in practice. This may not sound revolutionary at first glance, but think about how often we receive information without proper context or encounter policy that is not driven by or linked to a broader, intentionally designed narrative or goal. The ideas behind a body of knowledge, informational framework, or action plan are what give them purpose and direction in human life. Without ideas, we stumble in the dark. Once more, Prof. Olúwolé used her public voice to jolt us into an awareness of the importance of the life of the mind. But she also believed, as a public intellectual par excellence, that knowledge should not be contained solely within the corridors of the university, but that ideas should be foundational to the generation of policies that benefit society. Prof. Olúwolé modeled for all Nigerian scholars our social responsibility. In her compelling and entertaining newspaper commentaries, radio and television interviews, keynote addresses and lectures, we see evidence of her moral influence on the Nigerian academy.

Scholars of her caliber are very rare. And when they appear, it seems that they meet the same fate and share the experiences of their compatriots. Remember also Professor Ayọ̀délé Ògúndípẹ̀, whose PhD thesis for Indiana University in 1976, titled Esu Ẹlẹ́gbárá: Change, Chance, and Uncertainty in Yoruba Mythology, became a classic reading, influencing scholars like Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, among others. We owe a debt of thanks to the late Professor Abíọ́lá Ìrèlè, who brought this work out from obscurity to the circle of learned scholars through broader publication.

What lasting tribute does Professor Olúwọlé deserve at this critical period in Nigeria’s national life? Recall the proverbial Christian pastor, who preaches at a funeral that his sermon is not about the dead being buried, but, rather is for the living present, so that those with ears to hear will, in fact, listen and remember how to live well. Similarly, Professor Olúwọlé’s work and scholarship are lasting gifts to those of us she left behind. Her ideas are a wellspring of answers and strategic solutions that will pull us out of the current situation in which we have found ourselves, particularly in the educational sector, where our nation’s decadence is most noticeable and where lesser endowed African countries have managed to put their houses in order, while we remain stuck in our old ways.
Auntie Sophie did not want anyone to recognize her while she was alive, though. What she really wanted was for others to appreciate the depth of her research and continue from where she left off. She wanted to convert her hearers and followers to the truth of her discoveries and to tap into this deep knowledge that she was freely sharing with all and sundry so that her words of truth could serve as a message of redemption for others. Acknowledging these messages, taking to heart her prophetic injunctions, could help to save the country from our social and cultural crisis.

Unfortunately, our nation has been taken over by violent politics and religious fanaticism. This hinders us from seeing the critical importance of reason and learning, and even the value of scholarship that Professor Olúwọlé’s life represents. Our illiterate masses are used to listening to politicians who control our lives, and who have stored up abundant wealth for themselves here at home and abroad in America, in Arab countries, and in Europe. And yet they find it very hard to use this wealth in promoting and supporting research, such as the Center for African Culture and Development founded by Professor Olúwọlé. Given her deep knowledge of tradition, what would she have recommended as a solution to our contemporary crisis? How should we relate to the Ajunilọ (the oppressors) of our societies? Knowing her, Auntie would probably first turn to the arsenal of Yorùbá proverbs and recommend that we beg our leaders in the name of the Almighty God and our ancestors to allow us live a decent life in our God-given land. As our ancestors would say, ẹ̀bẹ̀ ni a ńbẹ òṣìkà, kí ó tún Ìlú ẹ̀ ṣe!

The good news is that our society has also been blessed and privileged to have great cultural and social philosophers like Professor Olúwọlé and the public critic, Prof. Pius Adésanmí. Individuals like these have been sent to enlighten us, to give hope for a much needed social revolution. One can only hope that after this three-day celebration of the life and legacy of an icon, Professor Olúwọlé, we will come away motivated to embark on a much-needed social reform that could help the nation state called Nigeria wake up from her slumber and follow the path of righteousness to greatness.

So, we are here today to celebrate her life and scholarship. Not to weep for her, but to weep for the society that she has left behind that no longer values her type of scholarship; a society that does not see a reason why women of her status should be involved in seeking knowledge of tradition for the betterment of society.

Let us consider once more Oluwole’s work on Orunmila and Socrates, and particularly her philosophical reading of Ifa corpus. Haba, my fellow Nigerians, a tradition that boasts 256 Odù (chapters) of oral text, memorized by great diviners of the past and the present, must have some values worth studying, a text that when properly codified could surpass the entire Qur’an and the Bible put together. Unlike Socrates, who was accepted by Western philosophers as a pivotal foundation for Western philosophical thought, Ọ̀rúnmìlà was accepted neither by them nor by our own people. Can you imagine a world in which Westerners completely reject the work of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, or Cicero simply because they were so-called “pagans?” That would be impossible, because each of these classical figures was able to express important and timeless truths about humanity and our world. However, Prof. Olúwọlé’s prophetic work demonstrates how this outrageous situation is precisely what we have created for ourselves in Nigeria.

Prof. Olúwọlé’s intervention here was meant to address a serious crisis, what one might even call a cultural inferiority complex, which makes Nigerians and Africans reject their own sources of knowledge, giving preference to the knowledge of outsiders, specifically the ideas of a Western tradition. Are African cultures the only civilizations that suffered brutal conversion from indigenous traditions to foreign traditions? The Chinese and Japanese were converted to Buddhism, but Confucian traditions remained pivotal to Chinese and Japanese thought and culture. Therefore, Professor Olúwọlé’s work should be seen as a critical intervention, not only in the debate on the nature and meaning of an expression of African philosophy, but also beyond that — on the very existence and thoughts of Africans themselves, particularly Nigerian people, about their past, present and future. In other words, she was not only responding to philosophical questions, but also to the mindset that made our people reject their own prophets, ironically mirroring the way her own prophetic voice was not always properly received and heard. To quote from the Bible again, “A prophet is not without honour, but in his [or her] own country.”

I will try in the remainder of my lecture to lay out briefly what Professor Olúwọlé’s scholarship meant for the academic world and what her legacy will be as a philosopher, educator, nationalist, and global citizen.
The significance of her work for African scholarship is enormous. Not only has she provided an alternative understanding of the nature of knowledge and its transmission, she has also shown that the claim that Africans’ knowledge is inferior to the knowledge of the Europeans and the colonial imperialists is unfounded. Not too long ago, a young Harvard undergraduate asked me in class if the Americans and other global super-powers have been privileged to hear of the Ifá narratives and commentaries on the exploits of a man called Mr. Kankan (i.e., Mr. By-force), a figure we had just read about in an Ifá divination text published by Professor Wándé Abímbọ́lá. After I inquired further from the student why he had raised such a pointed question, he told me that he asked because he sensed that Ifá seems to be talking about the character of world super-powers, especially America. In this text, Mr. By-force enters other people’s territory, where he creates chaos and irreparable conflicts. In other words, it seems as if there is a whole theory of conflict and ultimately an attempt at peaceful resolutions, an archetypal narrative of Mr. By-force, based on the use of force that causes conflicts and aggression in the world. Before I knew it, the young Harvard minds began to use Ifá to theorize Mr. Kankan’s story and unearth the deep principles of interpretation arising from it as answers to the contemporary moment and as philosophical interventions for daily dilemmas.

So, we must ask, why haven’t African political theorists considered narratives such as Mr. Kankan’s story significant enough for theoretical reflection on how to tackle African and global crises of violence and conflict? Are there no other narratives in the Ifá corpus that present ideal constructs and alternatives to, say, the Weberian paradigms? Are Nigerians aware that theory building models by professors like Sophie Olúwọlé, Rowland Abíọ́dún, Peter Ekeh, and our revered teacher and renowned sociologist the late Prof. Akínṣọlá Akíwọ̀wọ̀ have gained significant repute and global currency?

Central to Olúwọlé’s legacy is that she began serious conversations that should not be silenced with her transition, conversations about indigenous language and knowledge questions, issues involving gender and women, and general cultural questions. In the midst of the challenges she faced, her critical scholarship has taught us that in this country, in our own traditions, we have what is required to establish our own scholarship. We must take heed of the Yoruba proverb that says ohun tí’à ńwá ní Ṣókótó, a ba ní àpò ṣòkòtò wa (what we are searching for in the distant city of Ṣòkòtò, we have finally found in the pocket of our trousers).

Our scholarly community should endeavor to see the larger canvas that Auntie Sophie used to paint the challenges of our contemporary life so that we don’t miss the useful lessons that she wanted us to learn. In this context, I am reminded again of Professor Wándé Abímbọ́lá, who titled his monograph Ifá Will Mend Our Broken World. Professor Olúwọlé makes an even broader point: that the trajectory of our nation is currently infused with foreign epistemologies that continue to lead us deeper and deeper into social crises of great violence, of corruption, and other traits that run counter to our indigenous ethics.

Consequently, she would urge us to retrace our steps, not necessarily asking us to convert to the practice of Ifá or Yorùbá religion any more than Western students of classical philosophy need to worship Apollo or Athena. Indeed, Ifá and Yorùbá religion do not preach conversion, nor do they set up mission stations for evangelization. The point is rather that the pluralistic nature of our national trajectory, the holiness we are searching for in Mecca, Jerusalem, and Rome, is also within reach, right here in our homeland, in Ìgbàrà-Òkè and in Ile-Ife, the legendary home of Ọ̀rúnmìlà. If only we would sit for a moment to think deeply about our challenges and the possible solutions. This is Professor Olúwọlé’s legacy. It leads us to say that once upon a time a virtuous woman, born in the little town of Ìgbàrà-Òkè, rose to the top of her profession, and left her imprint on Nigeria and on the greater African world.

As we commit Professor Sophie Olúwọlé’s body back to Mother Earth, she will be honoured as a Nigerian and Yorùbá nationalist and as a citizen of the world. She will be remembered not for the number of national medals or fellowships that she received, nor for the honorary degrees that she was awarded, but she will be remembered as a valuable shaper of minds, for her uncommon scholarship, and for the high standards of literacy and learning that she promoted. She can indeed be described as someone who lived long before her time and who will be remembered long after her passing for her resourcefulness, her quick intelligence, and her diverse talents. In every meaning of the phrase, she was a woman unto her own self who will also be remembered as one who instilled the habits of hard work, perseverance, and discipline in her children, our youth, and the men and women who came across her path.
My condolences to my àbúròs, the children of Auntie Sophie, Olúmúyiwa, Olúfúnkẹ́, Babatọ́pẹ́, Folúṣọ́, Fúnlọ́lá, and Babátúndé, and also my ẹ̀gbọ́n, Professor Fred Olúwọlé Alóba.

Professor Sophie Bósẹ̀dé Olúwọlé is chosen for Heaven and May Heaven welcome her into the bosom of her ancestors and the Almighty God.
Sùn Re o, Auntie.
––Olúpònà, Ph.D., FNAL, NNOM, is a Professor of African & African American Studies, FAS, Professor of African Religious Traditions, Harvard Divinity School, Harvard University, USA

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