Know your History (1) 

By Akin Osuntokun  

Ifa  is the embodiment of the soul of the Yoruba nation and the repository of their knowledge, religious, historical and medical-Epega 

As anyone who knows me well can attest, I have been engaged in the study of Yoruba prehistory, especially the Ifa aspect, in the past few years. Hitherto I had embraced this subject matter as a hobby. I transited from this leisure occupation to become a serious student of the subject at the University of Oxford where I was privileged with a one year fellowship at the School of Global and Area studies. I have always been predisposed towards the demystification of social reality, to shed light where there is darkness. This preoccupation has acquired a sense of urgency when it dawned on me that we are on the verge of losing the core of Yoruba history to a warped sense of post colonial modernisation. 

In an excerpts from “The destruction of Black civilization”, the young traveller asked the old man, “What happened to the Black people of Sumer? For ancient records have it that the people of Sumer were Blacks. What happened to them?”* “Aaaaahhhhh!!!!” sighed the Old man, “They lost their history, and they died.” 

Thoroughly beguiled by residual colonial mentality, self-willed ignorance and lack of self-confidence, people actually take pride in being perceived as detached from the moorings of their heritage and supplant same with the hypocritical posture of pseudo Christianity and Islam. They find it funny that anyone can publicly commit himself to the study of Ifa. Not knowing that the joke is actually on them.This is how successful the legacy of colonial brainwashing has become. They will pass off their immorality and decadence with the affectation of being born again Christians. Less than a month to her nemesis at the Ministry of humanitarian affairs, Betta Edu was waving her Christian identity in our faces and attributed her ministerial appointment to the intercertion of her spiritual father, Bishop David Oyedepo of the winners chapel fame. It will be interesting to know the disposition of Oyedepo to the uniquely fraudulent nature of his God daughter. 

Irked at the persistent and prevailing defamation and demonisation of Ifa, Professor Wande Abimbọla retorted “There are people we call Onisegun, they are not Babalawo. Babalawo does not do evil and if they stray from the straight and narrow path they become liable to the severest punishment.

My friend, Taiwo Lakanu, a retired Deputy Inspector General of police, related an experience he had while serving as commissioner of police in Delta state. They caught up with a notorious gang of armed robbers who had proved elusive for a long time but were unable to catch up with their spiritual mentor, a Babalawo. Of his own volition, the babalawo voluntarily gave himself up at the police station having come to terms with his ultimate fate of death by firing squad. He frequently came to chat with Lakanu who sought to alleviate his anxiety by giving him a false hope of reprieve from capital punishment. He waved off Lakanu and told him that he knew he had two options. One is summary execution and the other is the fate that Orunmila had reserved for him for betraying Ifa with his evil conduct. He said Orunmila told him that he was going to run mad and would be conscious of his insanity. Given the two options, he had no difficulty opting for summary execution. 

In his monumental work (Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief) the former Primate of the Methodist church and pioneering scholar on Yoruba culture and tradition Professor Bolaji Idowu asserted that the predominant canon of Ifa is that good character (iwa) must be the dominant feature of a person’s life “..a person of a good character is called Omoluabi (one who behaves as a well born)..In odu ogbe ogunda, Orunmila once sought the means of success in life and was told that the only way was for him to marry iwa. He accordingly married iwa and became very successful. Hence everyone has been seeking after iwa, with the result that iwa became the mother of many children..” 

Idowu bore the testimony that the greatest obstacle to efficacious worship is impurity of heart. “Thus moral and ritual cleanliness have from time immemorial been accepted as a prerequisite of Yoruba worship”. It is laid down that a babalawo must not abuse his office in any way..Therefore no babalawo should use his position to enrich himself in any way; he must not refuse anybody his service on account of money-if any person is too poor to pay the customary pittance for divination, the babalawo must divine for him free of charge; or if the person cannot afford the prescribed sacrifice, the babalawo must take whatever he can afford….it seems, in fact, that the babalawo is under a vow of poverty, to spend himself in service of the community…now that materialism is the order of the day, this sacred injunction is largely disregarded, and there are many who appear  not to know it at all. Charlatans abound ” 

He counselled that ‘we must begin to think deeply about our indigenous philosophical traditions, history and culture, and relate them to the present”. Several decades later, Chiamanda Adichie echoed Idowu “If we reclaim our past, it will give us the confidence that comes from knowing who we are, we need more stories so that we can turn our myths into memory.”. It is noteworthy that the preponderance of earliest writers on Ifa were Christian clerics. These were Reverend Samuel Johnson, The Reverend E Lijadu, Bishop James Johnson, Dr J.O Lucas and Professor E. Bolaji Idowu, ‘who, regardless of being ordained priests of the Anglican communion, were able to free their minds of Christian prejudice, to undertake an examination of the merits of their native culture’. 

Among the Yoruba, there is indeed something of a paradox in the contradiction between the subconscious individual belief in the relevance of Ifa to the resolution of any resurgence of crisis in human experience and a conscious social and collective disavowal of its reality. It is a paradox that is borne out in the ambiguity of individual and private accommodation of Ifa by those who simultaneously profess Christianity and Islam. Newell S. Booth observed that whilst 95% of the Yoruba professed Islam or Christianity, the answer to the question of what percentage practice the traditional religion was equally 95%!. it is widely agreed that while only a small minority of the Yoruba identify themselves exclusively with the traditional religion, a large majority still relate to it for some purposes.

Abimbola lamented “It is not a mistake for people to practise a way of life different from the one practised where they were born. The problem comes when you reach a stage and throw away your original way of life. It is not a problem if someone travels to Mecca and returns with the Arab traditional cap. The problem comes when he decides to burn his traditional clothes because they are no longer good for him. That means the man is insane. We have taken foreign religion to a level of insanity”  

On the philosophical concept of the cycle of birth and rebirth, three sages consulted Qrunmila and asked why man should suffer death at all. Orunmila replied “The creator has bestowed death to man as a blessing. Life is a stream that flows out and flows back. When it flows out men call it Death. When it flows back they call it Rebirth. If the stream does not flow out and flow back, it becomes a cesspool stagnant with shameful impurities. Without Death there can be no Rebirth. And Rebirth is the invalid that travels out only to return home with newfound health”. 

It may also come as a surprise to many that Ifa recommends and prescribes monogamy. Consistent with his rational disposition and persuasion, Orunmila recommended it as rational behaviour not as scriptural doctrine or dogma. His recommendation is encapsulated in the following odu. “Okan soso pere l’obinrin dun mo nile oko. Bi won ba di meji a d’ofofo; bi o ba di meta, won a di eta n tule, won ba di merin won a dika, won ba di marun, won a di aje…Translation:

The ideal choice, therefore is one wife. When they are two, they resort to gossip; when they become three, they destroy harmony in the homestead, when they are four, wickedness is let loose, when they become five, they embrace witchcraft etc

These were my ruminations when I was suddenly distracted by the recurring controversy on the related subject matter of Oduduwa and Oranmiyan and the allied supremacist struggle between Ile-Ife and Benin. The important element pertaining to this struggle is that the creation myth of both communities is almost synonymous. Against this backdrop I want to introduce another dynamic to the foggy contention over the emergence and reckoning of Oduduwa. This perspective does not reckon with the chicken and egg conflicting accounts of Ife and Benin as claimants to the paternity of Oduduwa. I contend that the relationship between Ife and Benin was quite close and intimate for whatever reason. There is, however, the suggestion that the true nature of the relationship will constitute an embarrassment to either party. To preclude this eventuality both parties resolved  that neither of them must reveal the truth of what actually transpired between them and binded the resolution with the oath of fidelity and secrecy. They thereby deliberately contrived opacity and obfuscation of the true story. 

This is what the Yoruba call imule (covenant) and the practice was rampant among the Yoruba, both ancient and modern. It is a recurring theme in Yoruba theatre and arts and whoever breaks the oath is liable to the severest penalty, usually death. It is not a coincidence that both parties commonly share the same creation myth. It is an evidence of how fraternal they were and might have instrumentalized the creation myth to supplant the awkward migration myth. Up to this day, no one knows the true story of the treasonable felony trial and conviction of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. Mum is the response of the alleged participants especially those who went to Ghana to get militarily trained. Those who act this way are routinely believed to have enter into a covenant never to reveal the truth of their assignment.  

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