Ooni of Ife holding court in his palace

A visit to the Ooni of Ife’s palace points towards a renaissance for a city that thrived in medieval times, writes DemolaOjo

There is no doubt that Ile-Ife is enjoying a breath of fresh air with the coming of OoniAdeyeyeOgunwusi (Ojaja II). The ancient Yoruba town with centuries of history is a trending topic due to the force of the personality that now sits on the throne once occupied by the legendary Oduduwa, widely regarded as the father of the Yoruba people.

The larger-than-life image of the Ooni can be feltmiles away from Ife: billboards depicting the monarch line the Ife-Ibadan expressway as far away as Ikire, a few towns from Ife, to the first majorintersection in Ife, where the road linking Ife to Ede joins the one linking Ife to Ibadan. However, the most visible image at this intersection – formerly known as Mayfair Roundabout – is a mammoth replica of the Ori Olokun,the Yoruba sea goddess of wealth.
TheOri Olokun – one out of about 20 medieval brass sculptures unearthed in Ife – first put the ancient town on the global map a little over a hundred years ago, when German explorer LeoFrobenius became the first Westerner to set eyes on them.

The lifelike rendering of sculptures from medieval Ife is exceptional in sub-Saharan African art and the European, who could not imagine that such works were of African origin, came up with the theory that this great art was evidence of the lost Atlantis of the Greeks. He further declaredthat the Yoruba deity, Olokun, was the same god as the Greek Poseidon.

Just like the Ori Olokun, the Ooni’s palace has been around for centuries, and is a historical monument that houses various important relics.Next to it is the Ife Museum, well known for its archaeological exhibits of the Yoruba Ife art of terra-cotta and other bronze figures dating back more than 700 years.

The palace is a beehive of activities, because of the multitude that have come to see the Ooni for one reason or the other, and also becauseof heavy constructionwork going on within its expansive premises.

The black Bentley with “OONIRISA” customized number plates just outside the meeting hall is evidence the Ooni is around. The meeting hall itself bears evidence of renovation. A noticeable difference is the carpetwhich covers the length and breadth of the hall; it is purple, the colour of royalty and it has the royal insignia bearing the name of the present king imprinted on it in multiple places.

White is the other dominant colour, while there are touches of gold and brown. Leopard skin is also a recurrent motif, although this is centred around the Ooni’s sofa, which along with other seats on his elevated platform is white too. There are pictures on the wall which capture epochal moments in the lives of Oonis past and present.

At the centre of the activities is the Ooni, dressed in all white, with a white crown, white beads and white shoes to match. His palaceguards sit on the floor around him. Guests approach him, prostrate then kneel, sit or crouch as they discuss issues with him.

OoniOgunwusi is very expressive as he converses with his visitors. He gesticulates to complement his strong voice. His movements are very regal. He has a genial disposition and is also very witty; you can hear his guests laughing athis humourous statements. His background in the hospitality industry shines through. Suddenly it hits you: He is not just the custodian of the culture that has the potential to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists the world over, he is an attraction himself.

There are dozens of people seated in the hall waiting to take turns to see the king, some individually, others as a group.Entertainment is provided by court praise-singers who hail the king in Yoruba language, while there are performers with talking drums. At a point, the Ooni shows of his skills with the drum, an attestation to the fact that he’s a man with different sides to him.

OoniOgunwusiis bent on making Ife a viable tourism destination in Nigeria. This is no mean feat; Nigeria is not renowned for attracting leisure travellers, while Ife – with its heyday between 1000 to 1600AD – presently lacks many of the facilities that will make it a hospitable destination. But the monarch’s plan is not a sudden reaction to ascending the throne.

About a year ago, before any indication of him becoming king, the Ooni told some tourism journalists at his Inagbe Resort in Lagos how he planned to replicate the resort in the six geo-political zones across the country. Ife was one of the locations mentioned. The same group of journalists was at the palace as the Ooni confirmed plans to declare Ife a tourism zone.

“There are too many mysteries in this land…this is where everything started from,” he said reiterating an earlier assertion that the Tower of Babel and Noah’s Ark can be found at Oke Ora, “which stretches for like a thousand miles”. The mysteries will be rebranded so tourists will come see them. “It’s very magnetic. I already told the world a little bit of the story but people want to see. You know seeing is believing, so we will let them see.”

Central to the plan for making Ife attractive to tourists is the Ife Grand Resort currently under construction “for those coming to see the mysteries.” According to the Ooni, it is far bigger than the Inagbe Resort in Lagos. At the very least, it is expected to be as grand. It will help in filling the hospitality void, providing world class accommodation and leisure activities for those coming to experience a culture that is not only alive and thriving in other parts of West Africa, but also in the Americas.