ANDREW “OGUNDELE” APTER Nigeria is a Vibrant Place, Especially Yorubaland

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Andrew “Ogundele” Apter is a professor at the Department of History and Anthropology, University of California, Los Angeles and Director of UCLA African Studies Center. Apter’s ethnographic research focuses on Yoruba culture and works on ritual, memory, and indigenous knowledge as well as colonial culture, commodity fetishism, and state spectacle. Bayo Akinloye Interviewd him during his recent visit to Nigeria

 

You’ve been visiting Nigeria since 1977. What has kept you coming back to the country since then?

Nigeria is a vibrant place, especially Yorubaland, and although it can be exhausting and even intimidating for an oyinbo unaccustomed to its norms of intense interaction, it is also addictive. I soon got ‘hooked’ and would spend extended periods in the countryside and in Lagos. Once I developed some proficiency speaking Yoruba, I couldn’t replicate the richness of my experiences elsewhere in Africa where I didn’t speak local languages. And once I developed relationships with Nigerians of all social levels and walks of life, well, those relationships took on a life of their own.

 

What is your experience of Nigeria of the late 70s and the 80s? You may also want to talk about the early 90s.

When I first visited Nigeria during July-August 1977, the oil boom was kicking into high gear, and I was simply astonished. Nigeria was on the move! The dollar was worth $1.60, and I was happy to get one-to-one on the black market! Imagine with such a strong currency how the imports flooded in. I was 20 years old, a university undergraduate, and I had never seen anything like it. I knew that Nigeria was well off in relation to other African nations, but I was simply unprepared for the dizzying spectacle of Peugeots and Benzes, proliferating constructions projects, lavish parties, and the pervasive good-times vibe.

During that time I visited Twins Seven-Seven in Oshogbo while travelling with a cultural group from UNILAG. We rode in a fancy FESTAC bus. The Oshogbo scene was hopping, with a cosmopolitan crowd of Americans and Europeans, blacks and whites, coming and going. The Osun festival was my first exposure to the dynamic energy of the orishas, and I got fixated on talking drums.

For some reason, Twins really liked me and invited me to his mother’s town of Ogidi in the Akoko area in what was then Kwara State. That night we got a bit boozed up and he complained of a ring that had grown into his finger. He begged me to help him, so I took out my Swiss Army knife and had to cut through his flesh and then through the ring. It took about three hours, with Twins moaning and hitting theogogoro as the friction of my knife blistered his flesh. That guy could withstand pain! I still have the knife, with its notched blade, as a memento of that surreal evening.

The next day Twins took me to his onisegun, who gave me a very heavy medicine calledagbonadero (‘hot becomes cool’) and oju mejo (‘eight eyes’) because it neutralizes hot attacks and sees in multiple directions and dimensions (front, back, left, right, up, down, future, past). I fed that juju an egg every month until years later it decided to go back home (that is another story!). But when I first received it as a gift, Twins told me he was so jealous that I couldn’t stay in his Oshogbo house any longer. So when we got back to his home studio, I had to sleep in a tent outside which he provided. He was a real character, and so talented.

As for the ‘80s and ‘90s, well, the oil boom gradually burned low, precipitating a number of linked crises compounded by structural adjustment: UPN riots against NPN electoral rigging, coups, and counter-coups, the baneful abrogation of the June 12 elections, the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa. I have written about all of these issues, but I also got kidnapped by 419 thugs posing as SSS officers and managed to talk (and spend) my way out without getting stripped naked (not a pleasant proposition under any circumstances, but especially dreadful on Ikorudu Road!). Back in ’84, I remember watching pubic executions on Bar Beach broadcast live on television and feeling very nervous since foreigners were getting busted for changing money on the black market. Part of the War Against Indiscipline.

 

Tell us, what’s your attraction for Yemoja and Sango, two mythical Yoruba gods?

Well, you don’t choose the gods, they choose you. I don’t go public with this question since the last thing I want to personify is another oyinbo ‘gone native’. That is nauseating for so many political and ethical reasons.

My focus on Yemoja and Sango developed during my second extended trip to Nigeria, from 1982 to 84, when I conducted doctoral dissertation research on the politics of orisha worship. I set up in the historic Ekiti kingdom of Ayede, where the Yemoja cult was vested in the royal dynasty and housed Sango and multiple other deities, including Ogun, Olokun, Bayoni, ati bee bee lo. The top priestesses were Yeyeolokun (the Yemoja priestess) and Iya Sango (the Sango priestess). Whereas the aworo and priestesses of the other two dominant cults—Orisha Ojuna and Orisha Iyagba—initially regarded me with suspicion and distrust, Yeyeolokun and Iya Sango felt something in me they liked, and took me under their wings. They gave me extraordinary access to their shrines in the town and bush, allowed me to record and photograph (and later videotape) all manner of private and public events and sacrifices, but of course, they would never tell me what in ‘meant’ because it was all protected by secrecy.

For years I hung out with them, and the other orisha cult leaders came around to invite me as well, maybe for prestige reasons, but never with the same degree of access. People say I was lucky that these powerful women gave me such access but believe me I also earned it—by spending a lot of time with them, and by being generous and showing genuine respect. At the end of the day, it comes down to respect. I saw things I can’t write about, or even believe myself, but I know they happened.

The first book that I published, based on my dissertation, is Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society (University of Chicago Press, 1992). It focuses on the realm of deep knowledge (imo jinle) as a ritually sanctioned space of contesting authoritative political claims. Orisha festivals generally reproduce the political order, but under extreme conditions that can also transform it. Thus the power they wield is ‘real’, not just symbolic. Priestesses literally take the king apart and put him back together. Unless of course, they don’t reassemble the components of sovereignty, and he has to ‘depart’. The same holds for other chiefly orders.

 

Did your first visit to Nigeria in 1977 have anything to do with FESTAC ‘77? What lasting impression did that leave on you?

That is an interesting question because even though I first visited Nigeria in the wake of FESTAC 77, I hardly paid it any attention. Its soundtrack dominated by King Sunny Ade literally filled the airways, but I wasn’t interested because at the time I because still pursued the colonial myth of an ‘authentic’ traditional culture untouched by modernity. FESTAC was all about modernity and I would later come to appreciate its relevance to the anthropology of cultural production.

I think FESTAC simmered on my brain’s back burner for fifteen years before I saw how inseparable it was from the oil economy, and in fact, illuminated its contradictions. In 1993 I returned to Lagos and worked on FESTAC using the CBAAC and National Library archives in the National Theatre, the National Institute of International Affairs newspaper clip file, which was an extraordinary resource, and by conducting interviews and oral histories of major participants, including Dr. Garba Asiwaju and President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had presided over FESTAC as grand patron.

The book came out as The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria (University of Chicago Press, 2005). It not only describes the bumpy path of how the festival was produced but interprets the festival as a mirror of oil-fueled development, a kind of spectacle or mirage of money without real growth backing it up. Viewed this way, the festival itself becomes a form of historicity.

 

It won’t be out of place to ask: Why Nigeria? Was your first coming to Nigeria a happenstance or a deliberate choice because there are many African nations you could have visited back then?

I grew up with Yoruba art in my house (my father, David E. Apter, was an important Africanist political scientist) including some beautiful ibeji dolls, and in university, I wrote a paper for the famous Yoruba art historian Robert F. Thompson on Gelede festivals that I wanted to develop further based on primary research. I won a summer research grant that funded my costs. Nearly two decades later my wife and I had twins.

 

You speak Yoruba fluently. Can you tell us how you learnt the language?

It came in stages. First, as a postgraduate anthropology student at Yale University, I took beginning Yoruba taught by Femi Euba who was studying Theatre Arts there at the time. He had a great spirit but was not trained in language instruction and I didn’t learn more than a few greetings. Then I studied intensively with Dr. Karin Barber and what was then the University of Ife—three months of intensive training. She understood language pedagogy and even wrote a textbook Yoruba dun-un so that became the guide for our sessions. But the real education came living in Ayede-Ekiti for twenty months, soaking up the language through osmosis, bargaining in the market, and eventually interviewing and collecting oral histories in Yoruba. I have a good ear and really hear the tones, but I still operate on limited vocabulary and syntax.

 

Share with us the places you’ve visited in Yorubaland.

Well, I have been all over ile Yoruba, including Lagos, Ife, Oshogbo, Oyo, Ila-Orangun, Abeokuta, Ijebu-Ode, Ilesha, Owo, but I am happiest in Ekiti land—the towns and kingdoms around Ayede such as Ado, Isan, Itaji, Ilupeju, Aramoko. I am basically anara oko.

 

Talking about politics, in ways is President Buhari’s Nigeria similar to President Trump’s United States of America?

During this current visit, I am struck by the extent to which Nigerians are still stuck in this backward versus advanced nation paradigm as if Nigeria has to move forward along a developmental pathway that culminates in the United States. I don’t think this was ever a good idea, but now it is totally ridiculous. It’s not just that Trump makes Buhari look like an overqualified genius. It’s that many of the problems afflicting Nigerians are also afflicting Americans. Unprecedented levels of corruption, terrible job market for university graduates, declining quality of public education at the primary and secondary levels, rampant ethnic violence (look at our mass shootings), compromised elections, and obscene disparities between rich and poor. America is no longer ‘first world’, but has first and third world inroads into its crumbling national infrastructure. It is still a rich country but the system is rigged to benefit the top one percent.

 

Tell us about your relationship with J.F. Ade Ajayi and the recent keynote address you delivered at the conference on ‘African History’.

  1. F. Ade. Ajayi, aka Prof, remains something of a mysterious legend. How could such an uninflated ego make such a mark on history? Founder of the Ibadan history school, VC of the University of Lagos, author of seminal studies of Christianity and Nigerian nationalism, chair of Britain’s International African Institute, an officer of UNESCO, a proponent of the reparations for slavery movement, and so many other distinguished distinctions and achievements. This is how he was honoured at the recent conference at the University of Ibadan, on ‘African History and Historiography’, hosted by the history department, the VC’s office, and the Jadeas Trust. Prof. was what you could call a quiet radical. He was old school in his commitment to scholarly rigor and intensive archival research, but he spearheaded an Afrocentric break from racist colonial historiography and recognized African agency in shaping African history and self-determination.
Prof was my advisor back in the early ‘80s when I was affiliated with UI’s Institute of African Studies as an occasional student. He was the one who sent to me Ayede-Ekiti, not far from his native Ikole, to study the political frameworks of orisha worship through their local variations. He also encouraged me to look at their historical dynamics, and that is when I came to appreciate the importance of ‘deep histories’ associated with itan, histories that were subversive and transformative, sometimes incanted rather than recited, because they went against the grain and challenged the status quo. That is why my keynote lecture was entitled, ‘Jacob’s Ladder and Oduduwa’s Chain: Myth, Ritual, and History in the Yoruba-Atlantic World’, showing how the ‘deep’ aspects of Yoruba myth, ritual and history trajectories of emancipation through transplanted orisha associations in the black Americas.   Jacob’s ladder refers to the methodological rungs that Ade. Ajayi had me climb to get gain an understanding of this history. Oduduwa’s chain is the cultural framework of princely dispersion through which original kingship disseminated from Ile-Ife and throughout the world. Y

ou’ve been visiting Nigeria since 1977. What has kept you coming back to the country since then?

Nigeria is a vibrant place, especially Yorubaland, and although it can be exhausting and even intimidating for an oyinbo unaccustomed to its norms of intense interaction, it is also addictive. I soon got ‘hooked’ and would spend extended periods in the countryside and in Lagos. Once I developed some proficiency speaking Yoruba, I couldn’t replicate the richness of my experiences elsewhere in Africa where I didn’t speak local languages. And once I developed relationships with Nigerians of all social levels and walks of life, well, those relationships took on a life of their own.

 

What is your experience of Nigeria of the late 70s and the 80s? You may also want to talk about the early 90s.

When I first visited Nigeria during July-August 1977, the oil boom was kicking into high gear, and I was simply astonished. Nigeria was on the move! The dollar was worth $1.60, and I was happy to get one-to-one on the black market! Imagine with such a strong currency how the imports flooded in. I was 20 years old, a university undergraduate, and I had never seen anything like it. I knew that Nigeria was well off in relation to other African nations, but I was simply unprepared for the dizzying spectacle of Peugeots and Benzes, proliferating constructions projects, lavish parties, and the pervasive good-times vibe.

During that time I visited Twins Seven-Seven in Oshogbo while travelling with a cultural group from UNILAG. We rode in a fancy FESTAC bus. The Oshogbo scene was hopping, with a cosmopolitan crowd of Americans and Europeans, blacks and whites, coming and going. The Osun festival was my first exposure to the dynamic energy of the orishas, and I got fixated on talking drums.

For some reason, Twins really liked me and invited me to his mother’s town of Ogidi in the Akoko area in what was then Kwara State. That night we got a bit boozed up and he complained of a ring that had grown into his finger. He begged me to help him, so I took out my Swiss Army knife and had to cut through his flesh and then through the ring. It took about three hours, with Twins moaning and hitting theogogoro as the friction of my knife blistered his flesh. That guy could withstand pain! I still have the knife, with its notched blade, as a memento of that surreal evening.

The next day Twins took me to his onisegun, who gave me a very heavy medicine calledagbonadero (‘hot becomes cool’) and oju mejo (‘eight eyes’) because it neutralizes hot attacks and sees in multiple directions and dimensions (front, back, left, right, up, down, future, past). I fed that juju an egg every month until years later it decided to go back home (that is another story!). But when I first received it as a gift, Twins told me he was so jealous that I couldn’t stay in his Oshogbo house any longer. So when we got back to his home studio, I had to sleep in a tent outside which he provided. He was a real character, and so talented.

As for the ‘80s and ‘90s, well, the oil boom gradually burned low, precipitating a number of linked crises compounded by structural adjustment: UPN riots against NPN electoral rigging, coups, and counter-coups, the baneful abrogation of the June 12 elections, the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa. I have written about all of these issues, but I also got kidnapped by 419 thugs posing as SSS officers and managed to talk (and spend) my way out without getting stripped naked (not a pleasant proposition under any circumstances, but especially dreadful on Ikorudu Road!). Back in ’84, I remember watching pubic executions on Bar Beach broadcast live on television and feeling very nervous since foreigners were getting busted for changing money on the black market. Part of the War Against Indiscipline.

 

Tell us, what’s your attraction for Yemoja and Sango, two mythical Yoruba gods?

Well, you don’t choose the gods, they choose you. I don’t go public with this question since the last thing I want to personify is another oyinbo ‘gone native’. That is nauseating for so many political and ethical reasons.

My focus on Yemoja and Sango developed during my second extended trip to Nigeria, from 1982 to 84, when I conducted doctoral dissertation research on the politics of orisha worship. I set up in the historic Ekiti kingdom of Ayede, where the Yemoja cult was vested in the royal dynasty and housed Sango and multiple other deities, including Ogun, Olokun, Bayoni, ati bee bee lo. The top priestesses were Yeyeolokun (the Yemoja priestess) and Iya Sango (the Sango priestess). Whereas the aworo and priestesses of the other two dominant cults—Orisha Ojuna and Orisha Iyagba—initially regarded me with suspicion and distrust, Yeyeolokun and Iya Sango felt something in me they liked, and took me under their wings. They gave me extraordinary access to their shrines in the town and bush, allowed me to record and photograph (and later videotape) all manner of private and public events and sacrifices, but of course, they would never tell me what in ‘meant’ because it was all protected by secrecy.

For years I hung out with them, and the other orisha cult leaders came around to invite me as well, maybe for prestige reasons, but never with the same degree of access. People say I was lucky that these powerful women gave me such access but believe me I also earned it—by spending a lot of time with them, and by being generous and showing genuine respect. At the end of the day, it comes down to respect. I saw things I can’t write about, or even believe myself, but I know they happened.

The first book that I published, based on my dissertation, is Black Critics and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society (University of Chicago Press, 1992). It focuses on the realm of deep knowledge (imo jinle) as a ritually sanctioned space of contesting authoritative political claims. Orisha festivals generally reproduce the political order, but under extreme conditions that can also transform it. Thus the power they wield is ‘real’, not just symbolic. Priestesses literally take the king apart and put him back together. Unless of course, they don’t reassemble the components of sovereignty, and he has to ‘depart’. The same holds for other chiefly orders.

 

Did your first visit to Nigeria in 1977 have anything to do with FESTAC ‘77? What lasting impression did that leave on you?

That is an interesting question because even though I first visited Nigeria in the wake of FESTAC 77, I hardly paid it any attention. Its soundtrack dominated by King Sunny Ade literally filled the airways, but I wasn’t interested because at the time I because still pursued the colonial myth of an ‘authentic’ traditional culture untouched by modernity. FESTAC was all about modernity and I would later come to appreciate its relevance to the anthropology of cultural production.

I think FESTAC simmered on my brain’s back burner for fifteen years before I saw how inseparable it was from the oil economy, and in fact, illuminated its contradictions. In 1993 I returned to Lagos and worked on FESTAC using the CBAAC and National Library archives in the National Theatre, the National Institute of International Affairs newspaper clip file, which was an extraordinary resource, and by conducting interviews and oral histories of major participants, including Dr. Garba Asiwaju and President Olusegun Obasanjo, who had presided over FESTAC as grand patron.

The book came out as The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria (University of Chicago Press, 2005). It not only describes the bumpy path of how the festival was produced but interprets the festival as a mirror of oil-fueled development, a kind of spectacle or mirage of money without real growth backing it up. Viewed this way, the festival itself becomes a form of historicity.

 

It won’t be out of place to ask: Why Nigeria? Was your first coming to Nigeria a happenstance or a deliberate choice because there are many African nations you could have visited back then?

I grew up with Yoruba art in my house (my father, David E. Apter, was an important Africanist political scientist) including some beautiful ibeji dolls, and in university, I wrote a paper for the famous Yoruba art historian Robert F. Thompson on Gelede festivals that I wanted to develop further based on primary research. I won a summer research grant that funded my costs. Nearly two decades later my wife and I had twins.

 

You speak Yoruba fluently. Can you tell us how you learnt the language?

It came in stages. First, as a postgraduate anthropology student at Yale University, I took beginning Yoruba taught by Femi Euba who was studying Theatre Arts there at the time. He had a great spirit but was not trained in language instruction and I didn’t learn more than a few greetings. Then I studied intensively with Dr. Karin Barber and what was then the University of Ife—three months of intensive training. She understood language pedagogy and even wrote a textbook Yoruba dun-un so that became the guide for our sessions. But the real education came living in Ayede-Ekiti for twenty months, soaking up the language through osmosis, bargaining in the market, and eventually interviewing and collecting oral histories in Yoruba. I have a good ear and really hear the tones, but I still operate on limited vocabulary and syntax.

 

Share with us the places you’ve visited in Yorubaland.

Well, I have been all over ile Yoruba, including Lagos, Ife, Oshogbo, Oyo, Ila-Orangun, Abeokuta, Ijebu-Ode, Ilesha, Owo, but I am happiest in Ekiti land—the towns and kingdoms around Ayede such as Ado, Isan, Itaji, Ilupeju, Aramoko. I am basically anara oko.

 

Talking about politics, in ways is President Buhari’s Nigeria similar to President Trump’s United States of America?

During this current visit, I am struck by the extent to which Nigerians are still stuck in this backward versus advanced nation paradigm as if Nigeria has to move forward along a developmental pathway that culminates in the United States. I don’t think this was ever a good idea, but now it is totally ridiculous. It’s not just that Trump makes Buhari look like an overqualified genius. It’s that many of the problems afflicting Nigerians are also afflicting Americans. Unprecedented levels of corruption, terrible job market for university graduates, declining quality of public education at the primary and secondary levels, rampant ethnic violence (look at our mass shootings), compromised elections, and obscene disparities between rich and poor. America is no longer ‘first world’, but has first and third world inroads into its crumbling national infrastructure. It is still a rich country but the system is rigged to benefit the top one percent.

 

Tell us about your relationship with J.F. Ade Ajayi and the recent keynote address you delivered at the conference on ‘African History’.

  1. F. Ade. Ajayi, aka Prof, remains something of a mysterious legend. How could such an uninflated ego make such a mark on history? Founder of the Ibadan history school, VC of the University of Lagos, author of seminal studies of Christianity and Nigerian nationalism, chair of Britain’s International African Institute, an officer of UNESCO, a proponent of the reparations for slavery movement, and so many other distinguished distinctions and achievements. This is how he was honoured at the recent conference at the University of Ibadan, on ‘African History and Historiography’, hosted by the history department, the VC’s office, and the Jadeas Trust. Prof. was what you could call a quiet radical. He was old school in his commitment to scholarly rigor and intensive archival research, but he spearheaded an Afrocentric break from racist colonial historiography and recognized African agency in shaping African history and self-determination.

Prof was my advisor back in the early ‘80s when I was affiliated with UI’s Institute of African Studies as an occasional student. He was the one who sent to me Ayede-Ekiti, not far from his native Ikole, to study the political frameworks of orisha worship through their local variations. He also encouraged me to look at their historical dynamics, and that is when I came to appreciate the importance of ‘deep histories’ associated with itan, histories that were subversive and transformative, sometimes incanted rather than recited, because they went against the grain and challenged the status quo. That is why my keynote lecture was entitled, ‘Jacob’s Ladder and Oduduwa’s Chain: Myth, Ritual, and History in the Yoruba-Atlantic World’, showing how the ‘deep’ aspects of Yoruba myth, ritual and history trajectories of emancipation through transplanted orisha associations in the black Americas. Jacob’s ladder refers to the methodological rungs that Ade. Ajayi had me climb to get gain an understanding of this history. Oduduwa’s chain is the cultural framework of princely dispersion through which original kingship disseminated from Ile-Ife and throughout the world.