Gods and Heroes By Oladele Olusanya

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Reviewer: Bunmi Oni

In this 500-page trilogy novel cast in the genre of historical fiction, Oladele (Dele) marries extensive historical research with lots of fictional imagery and characters to weave an engaging treatise that tells stories from 1000 years of Yoruba history. Factual historical events are presented in a lucid manner interspersed with creativity using a mix of his own family icons and a large dose of imagination to seamlessly create a storyline that reflects the way “our people” lived their deeply superstitious existence. Such style is akin to that of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, originally published in 1869, Walter Scott’s Black Arrow and James Michener’s The Source, which is a historical survey of the Jewish people and the land of Israel from pre-monotheistic days to the birth of the modern State of Israel. Large sections of Dele Olusanya’s Gods and Heroes are a rich mixture of philosophical discussion andnarrative that conveys eloquently the manner in which oral tradition cascades the essence of the history of a people.

The novel chronicles the history of the Yoruba nation who now inhabit the south west of Nigeria from their origins in a land far, far away in Nubia, a region along the Nile river encompassing the area between Aswan in Southern Egypt and Khartoum in Central Sudan – a story spanning several millennia as told by the Old Woman (and later in the book, the Old Man), who herself is without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life. It is a story of migration that almost parallels the Biblical Exodus, and explorations. It is also stories of intra-family and communal feud, pride, rebellion, civil war, conquest, rise and fall of kings, and, well, fable – from the exploits of Lamurudu and his unknown progenitors through succeeding generations of warrior kings like Oduduwa, Oranmiyan and the many dynasties across distant lands created by their restive offspring each in search of his own kingdom; not to forget the sacrifice that made Queen Moremi into a legend. As these dynasties grew, so did rivalry and struggle for supremacy and territory. The Yorubas fought many civil wars culminating in the Kiriji war. The name Kiriji is onomatopoeia derived from the sound of guns that echoed through the distant hills. The booming guns used for the first time in war sounded krríí-jì-jì-jì-jì-j-jì, so it was called Kírìjì. This war that ended all wars in Yoruba land raged sixteen years from 1877 to 1893. It was the days when men fought for freedom and glory with dignity. They either conquered or fell on their own swords. But beyond this, the book narrates elements of the rich culture and belief system of the Yoruba people, much of which was steeped in mythology and the occult. Through various means of dispersal, including slavery, the Yoruba culture is experienced in faraway lands across the great seas.

The documented history of the Yoruba people begins with the Oyo Empire, which became dominant in the early 17th century. The older traditions of the formerly dominant Ile Ife kingdom are largely oral in nature, and this has expanded the scope for creative license in a work like this.

The people who lived in Yoruba land at least by the seventh century BC, were not initially known as the Yoruba, although they shared a common ethnicity and language group. The historical Yoruba developed out of earlier (Mesolithic) Volta-Niger populations, probably in the firstmillennium BC. Archaeologically, the settlement at Ile-Ife can be dated to the 4th century BC, with urban structures appearing in the 12th century (the urban phase of Ile-Ife before the rise of Oyo, ca. 1100-1600, is sometimes described as a “golden age” of Ile-Ife)
The Yoruba eventually established a federation of city-states under the political ascendancy of the city state of Oyo, located on the Northern fringes of Yoruba land in the savanna plains between the forests of present Southwest Nigeria and the Niger River.

Following a Jihad led by Uthman Dan Fodio and a rapid consolidation of the Hausa city states of contemporary northern Nigeria, the Fulani Sokoto Caliphate invaded and annexed the buffer Nupe Kingdom. It then began to advance southwards into Ọyọ lands. Shortly afterwards, its armies overran the Yoruba military capital of Ilorin, and then sacked and destroyed Ọyọ-Ile, the royal seat of the Ọyọ Empire. Afonja the Kakanfo fell by the lance of Abdulsalam his former friend in this putsch

Subsequently, Ọyọ-Ile was abandoned, and the Ọyọretreated south to the present city of Oyo (formerly known as “Ago d’Oyo”, or “Oyo Atiba”) in a forested region where the cavalry of the Sokoto Caliphate was far less effective. Further attempts by the Sokoto Caliphate to expand southwards were determinedly checked by the Yoruba who had rallied in defence under the military leadership of the ascendant Ibadan clan, which rose from the old Oyo Empire, and of the Ijebu city-states, where we pick up the connection with Dele Olusanya’s ancestors.

However, the Oyo hegemony had been dealt a mortal blow. The other Yoruba city-states broke free of Oyo dominance, and subsequently became embroiled in a series of internecine conflicts that soon metamorphosed into a full scale civil war. These events weakened the southern Yorubas in their resistance to British colonial and military invasions. However, archaeological evidence in the form of, among other things, the impressive architectural achievements like Sungbo’s Eredo (a system of defensive walls and ditches in Ijebu Ode) that are centuries old, and added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tentative List in 1995, confirm the greatness of their ancient civilization.

In the closing chapter, the book invites readers, especially of the Yoruba extraction, to deeply reflect – in the words of Hubert Ogunde who sang the famous song Yoruba Ronu. He asks rhetorically if any lessons had been learnt by those who went through the cataclysm of those times that led to the fall of the great Yoruba empire and the eclipsing of the golden age of the Yorubas. History, he says, has a way of repeating itself, and something predictable and sad in people would ensure that things would always repeat themselves. “It was the curse not only of the Yorubas but of all mankind”

I have known Dele Olusanya since we were twelve, as a multi-talented person. In the over five decades since we arrived as freshers in Government College Ibadan, he has grown from just being an extremely bright student, avid reader, music collector and philatelist, with gifting in fine art, to become a successful family doctor, author, philanthropist and story-teller.

Strongly recommended reading by anyone, young or not-so-young, who is interested in the unfolding story of the Yoruba; and for those who appreciate excellent literary presentation, this book does not disappoint.

Bunmi Oni, MON
Lagos, July 2018
Bunmi Oni is a management consultant, and author of a forthcoming book “Path to Leadership”. He is a distinguished member of the Order of the Niger.