Favoured by the Orisa

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Jacob Olupona, Harvard University Professor, extols the fine qualities of Wande Abimbola, Professor Emeritus and former Leader of the Nigerian Senate, who turned 85 recently

The Awise Agbaye, Professor Wande Abimbola has, by the benevolence of the Orisa and Olodumare, attained the ripe age of 85. More significantly, he has achieved what is considered the three blessings of life in Yoruba cosmology: the blessings of children, long life and prosperity. He achieved all three to a remarkable degree and should be considered highly favoured.

We need to examine what his life means for the Yoruba people and Nigerians, the world community of Orisadevotees, and what it represents for the tradition he embodies, which is Yoruba traditional religion and Ifa divination. He is among very few scholars and leaders of thought who have unapologetically laid claim to these traditions and proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Yoruba religion is alive, works, and demonstrates what Yoruba religion and culture could be for our society if not for the intervention of Western culture, Christianity and Islam. Yoruba traditions have nothing to do with the accusations leveled against occultism that many perceive to be the tradition itself. In the real sense of the term, Yoruba traditions uphold the highest moral standards in the practice of religion in our society today, particularly when compared with other world religions.

Abimbola is a native of Oyo and was steeped in Orisa traditions from his birth as his father was the leader of the hunters’ guild and his mother an important title-holder within the worship of Sango, Yoruba divinity of thunder and lightning. Born on December 24, 1932, Yoruba traditions have been a part of his life. His mother was plagued by what the Yoruba call abiku or a child who is born and subsequently dies only to come back and die again. His family followed all the necessary stipulations to break the abiku cycle, and at the early age of four, Abimbola began his study of Ifa. He was also the first in his family to seek Western education, and found truly impressive success in that area, first by studying History at the University of Ibadan, and eventually traveling to Northwestern University in the US for a Master’s in Linguistics and becoming the first PhD in African Languages and Literature granted by the University of Lagos.

Abimbola is of course also famous for becoming one of the most beloved and successful Vice-Chancellors in the history of Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly the University of Ife), and has also held several other prominent positions such as Senate Majority Leader, President of the Orisa World Congress, and adviser to President Obasanjo on Traditional Matters and Cultural Affairs, not to mention his work with UNESCO on Ifa and of course his famous title as Awise Agbaye, the spokesman of Ifa to the world.

His life is truly impressive and there are lessons to draw from this towering figure. We will examine his life through several lenses: as an educationist and intellectual, as a devout servant of the Orisa and as a leader of thought and champion of the proper practice of Yoruba culture.

Educationalist and Intellectual

Abimbola’s work has greatly enhanced the standing and practice of Orisa traditions not only as a religion of the Yoruba of Nigeria where it is less publicly-practiced, but many other societies all around the world including Benin, Cuba, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, the USA, and several others. Through his work, the stone that the Yoruba builders have refused became the cornerstone in many other places around the world. Abimbola’s work and publications have become living canons. More than that, he has also shown us how to reconstruct scholarship in indigenous terms. As extensive as his written body of work is, he still has a lot on Ifa in his head to offer.

This is a reminder on how much we have missed as Africans in our emphasis on written and European forms of knowledge. As we examine the increasingly poor performance of our students in the educational sector today, as Prof. Sophia Oluwole, a philosopher of significant scholarship, has reminded us, when a child is taught in the mother tongue, he or she grasps the material much more readily. Until we acknowledge and take action on this fact, our children will continue to perform poorly in national and global examinations.

We also must discuss Abimbola’s life as a VC at OAU. He served for two successful terms without any crisis on campus, and is viewed as one of the most productive, perhaps after Oluwasanmi’s reign.

While most people have explained this in the terms of saying he was using juju or oogun, the truth is that it was rather due to his employment of native wisdom, having its roots in his mastery of the deep Oyo and Orisa traditions. Another assessment of Abimbola as an individual is how an Oyo indigene has managed to champion the Ifa tradition in Ile-Ife. This is a true mark of his astuteness. I remember his relationship with the late Ooni of Ife, Oba Sijuade Olubuse II and his pivotal role in elevating the status of Oketase and the Ifa tradition outside of Nigeria in both the public and academic arenas.

Abimbola studied under Prof. Babalola at UNILAG and came to Ife where he joined other scholars such as Sope Oyelaran, Pierre Verger, Akinwumi Isola, and a host of others to build the African Languages and Literatures department where the Yoruba language was taught and used for people to write PhD theses. The several faculty positions, not to mention the many PhDs, numerous courses, and excellent research that have been done on the Yoruba language and its cultural usage can all be traced back to this important figure and his colleagues mentioned above.

Realizing that for the future of Ifa, it would be important for it to be integrated into modern educational institutions, he went and founded an Ifa Academy in Oyo which is funded by UNESCO and the Nigerian Federal Government and structured around both Ifa knowledge and Western education in similar fashion to the Islamiyya schools developed by Muslims in the past. In the Yoruba tradition we used to praise some Muslims clerics and elders as Akewu-kawe for their mastery of Islamic and Western education. Abimbola is producing scholars in this same vein. He has mastered Western education and went through one of the most prominent Baptist high schools, and in this sense I believe we could identify Abimbola as one of the very first Akofa-kawe.

We should not consider the study of Ifa as limited to the worship of the Orisa, but it includes indigenous education, indigenous medicine and healing, and other forms of knowledge that have sustained our ancestors for centuries before Islam and Christianity came. Whether we are Traditionalist, Christian, or Muslim, we all have Wande Abimbola to thank for having preserved, demonstrated, and promoted this cultural patrimony. Only last month, a young Nigerian graduate asked me why the Yoruba with all the boastful history and knowledge of tradition cannot stop the menace of the herdsmen who are increasingly rampaging their farms and villages. If more people were to have followed Abimbola’s example, perhaps this question would never have been asked in the first place.

Servant of the Orisa

Now we will look at Abimbola’s role in the service of the Orisa. He has given Orisa traditions the status they deserve in the world parliament of religions. His position has taken him to different faith centers around the world, including Rome, where he has participated in global conferences on religion so that he could speak about African indigenous traditions. I recall in the 80s when I was still a lecturer at Ife, at many of the conferences we attended in places like Seoul, Tokyo, Puerto Rico, Portugal, and many others, he gave the keynote addresses because he was recognised as the voice of African religions all across the world.

Abimbola is also a remarkably charismatic man whose presence thrills those around him, and every moment and encounter with him is an opportunity to learn new things about Yoruba tradition and culture. Without necessarily being his student, many of us, including Olabiyi Yai, Rowland Abiodun, Karin Barber, Babatunde Lawal and a host of others regard him as a mentor. He has a unique ability to pass on knowledge in the traditional Yoruba fashion in bits and pieces only after one has proven him or herself ready and worthy to receive and carry it. One such moment I shared with him was at Sacramento, California at a conference organized by the Yoruba Heritage Association. We went for lunch with him and some of his fellow diviners.

At a light moment, we were discussing Orisa traditions, and he chose to tease me by saying, “Akowe, what is your Orisa?” While one may think that he did so to embarrass me, knowing that I am the son of an Anglican priest, this was not the case. My response to him was “Baba, how can you ask me for my own Orisa when you know very well that I am Kehinde and thus an Orisa myself?” All of the Babalawo began to laugh, and Prof. Abimbola said, “Did I not tell you about Akowe and his knowledge of Orisa tradition?”

Abimbola was also able to cultivate wonderful friendships over his illustrious career. One such friendship was with Prof. John Pemberton, a distinguished Professor of African Arts and Religion at Amherst College, USA, who came to Yorubaland to conduct excellent research as a result of his relationship with Abimbola. In this way, apart from his own devotion to the Orisa, Abimbola has been of central importance in identifying and encouraging other scholars to promote the research and understanding of the Orisa both in Yorubaland and abroad.

Prof. Abimbola is also a living example that disproves the common perception that our ancestral traditions are backward and incompatible with modernity. How many people can claim as fine an academic pedigree and career as Abimbola? How many have achieved as prominent an international standing, reputation, and recognition? How many have had as strong an impact on not only Yoruba but Nigerian and world culture? Not only was Prof. Abimbola able to accomplish as a Babalawo what few if any others have, his practice and knowledge of Ifa and Orisa traditions is precisely what allowed him to have such a positive impact on the Yoruba people and the larger world. What other proof of his being a truly blessed life do we need? As we celebrate that fact that he has achieved the blessing of long life, and for the blessings of children we would look no further than the fact that his own son Kola Abimbola has become a natural heir apparent to his father’s academic and priestly role as he is an accomplished Professor in his own right at Howard University.

Champion of Yoruba Culture

As we look at what is happening today in the Yoruba community, it is very clear that unless there is a cultural revolution, we will not only loose our status within the country itself but we will become a nation who has been taken over by those who claim to have superior culture. Because we have failed to take seriously some of the warnings of Abimbola, we are increasingly becoming second class citizens in our own spaces. Our children no longer speak our language properly, we have lost faith in the power of tradition to save us, our homes have now been made the domain of foreign cultures that are so hostile to our worldview, partially because we conflate idolatry and occultism with the proper practice of traditional culture and religion.

Part of the importance of Abimbola’s legacy can be read through the lens of his convocation addresses in the 80s where he explored the Yoruba system of knowledge to talk about the essential features of the good life. I recall his address on Iwa, good character, which he based on the interpretation of an Ifa text. After providing these long narratives on how the rarity of the anthropomorphized Iwa caused all mortals, kings, diviners, and so on, including the great Orunmila himself, to seek after her, Abimbola charged the graduating students that it is only good character that makes the world of learning meaningful in society. His discussion of Iwa points to what great scholars and schools of thought in ancient world religions have been saying all along, that the true essence of religion is the development of good character (Iwa lesin as the Yoruba would say). He equally focused on cardinal issues such as questions of truth, inclusivity, tolerance, and nonviolence. Abimbola by and large has been the lone voice crying in the wilderness of Africa’s moral dilemmas and contradictions where Western religion is openly embraced and manifested and yet devoid of its most significant signifier – truth, honesty, and good character.

Our houses of worship are filled with the filth of corruption, immorality, and violence and the folks some call ‘pagans’ against whom we think the gates of heaven have been shut, uphold stronger morals than most professed Christians and Muslims. The impact of Abimbola’s lectures has yet to be studied, so one hopes that younger scholars will engage in researching the impact of this aspect of Abimbola’s work.

Stomach and amala politics have taken over our lives to the extent that there is no peace in our land. The root of our crisis as Abimbola has shown is our lack of interest and faith in our traditional knowledge. Do not be mistaken that I am calling all Yoruba people to the worship of the Orisa. I am saying that the Yoruba value system that epitomizes concepts of Itesiwaju (creative innovation), Iranlowo (assistance and charity), Ifowosowopo (cooperation) that the late D.O. Fagunwa talked about in his classical texts have eluded us because of greed, hate, jealousy, inferiority complexes, corruption, and so one. These values are not incompatible with any particular religion, but Abimbola has been quite correct in taking us to task for unnecessarily trading in the substance of our traditional values for the mere form of foreign religion and ways of life.

I am not saying that Abimbola is a flawless human being. I simply want to suggest that he is an excellent example of how adherence to Yoruba moral principles can bring proper order not only to one’s life, but to those around us. Just as Muslims who memorise the Qur’an are understood to embody the values and message it carries, we can equally view and understand Abimbola as a walking exemple of the morals and values of Ifa and Yoruba culture who demonstrates their merits and what they look like in a practical, contemporary setting. One such example is the way he is able to interact with rich and poor without being any more deferential or dismissive of one or the other. This is incredibly rare in contemporary Nigerian society, and I wish more of us would take a cue from Abimbola in this respect.

I could go on and on about the achievements of Prof. Abimbola and the lessons we can learn from him, but in conclusion, while wishing the Awise greater happiness, long life, and prosperity, I am glad that our paths crossed and like many, I am proud to call him our mentor, academic leader and friend.

· Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions, Harvard Divinity School and Professor of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences