Know your history (2) 

By Akin Osuntokun  

‘For the modern Yoruba intelligentsia, Ifa is the index of Yoruba wisdom and cultural excellence”-Robin Horton 

Epega classifies into three groups, those interested in Ifa. 1) Professionals (Ifa priests and diviners. 2) Ifa Devotees-Worshipers. 3) Philosophers-wisdom and knowledge seekers 

‘Founded on the beliefs of the earliest Yoruba, Ifa was systematised during the Oduduwa Era. It is regarded as the repository of Yoruba traditional body of knowledge embracing history, philosophy, medicine and folklore”, So says Jacob Olupona ( Professor of divinity at Havard University). Wande Abimbọla added, It is our own encyclopaedia which is held orally. It is a testimony to the fact that the human brain can retain a lot of information without having to write anything. It was no surprise to learn about the severity and the protracted nature of the training required to get certified as Ifa priest. It consists of a pre initiation training which takes anything between ten and twenty years and another five years of post initiation training. But without olodumare, from whom all else emanated, there would have been no Orunmila and Ifa.

Olodumare is the unique, omnipotent and omniscient creator. Directly ranking under him is the Trinity of Qrunmila-Obatala-Exu. ‘Below this trinity are the other Orixa representing natural forces or spiritual ideas. Some are wrathful like Ogun, Xọngo, Xopono, A won Iyami (witches) says Abosede Emmanuel. Obatala is said to be at the top of this trinity symbolising the Yoruba adage that a tripod ensures stability and order (adiro meta kii da obe nu). In order to acquire this philosophical stability ‘man is taught by Ifa to observe the ethical rectitude of Obatala, to allow for the unpredictable element in life, represented by Esu and to approach problems with the wisdom of Orunmila’. It is from Obatala that the Yoruba derived the role ideation and perception of themselves as urbane, mature, gentled-natured people. (Bolaji Idowu).

Ifa is a victim, first and foremost, of colonialism and its inherent requirement to delegitimize the precolonial history of Africa. Jean-Paul Sartre calls it ‘the sinister strategy of erasing native identities in which the aim is to supplant Indigenous culture with the colonisers own, leaving the population in a vacuum of identity’. It is a measure of the success of this delegitimization that it was with considerable reluctance that I ultimately decided to enter it as a fit and proper subject of public communication beyond the rarefied precincts of academe. 

Now let us proceed with the most contentious of the lot, Esu. Orunmila is his closest friend and confidante who is distinguished for his habit to routinely mock himself and his friend. In a broadside at his friend, he said those of you going to request Esu to bless you with a house, have you forgotten that Esu himself has no house and lives permanently on the streets?.

The original damage to the reputation and locus standi of Esu was inflicted by the mischaracterization of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther in his mistranslation of the Bible to Yoruba language. In his relative ignorance and religious fervour, he wrongly equated the Biblical Satan with Esu.The tragedy of Crowther’s life was the racist refusal of the Anglican communion religious establishment to accept his elevation to the Bishopric. If Christianity was all virtue as he believes, he would not have suffered this rude awakening. 

That said, you have to understand the  context within which Crowther was operating. First, unless he was an initiate, his knowledge and understanding of  Esu was essentially limited. It is in the nature of those days that premium is placed on opacity and secrecy in contraposition to the universality of knowledge and information culture that we subsequently  inherited. Esu”is the neutral locus between good and evil as moral categories” and finds metaphorical analogy as ‘Inspector General of police who reports regularly to olodumare on the deeds of the divinities and men, everyone lives in dread of him lest he takes bad reports to Olodumare”.(Idowu). 

Èṣù láàlú does not have an English name just the way Ṣàngó, Ògún, Ọbàtálá, Ọ̀ṣun and others don’t have an English name. Èṣù is Èṣù! He is only a Messenger who delivers whatever messages he is sent,  be it positive or negative. Eṣù láàlú does not have all those bad features ascribed to the Biblical Satan. People should therefore stop judging Yorùbá Traditions, Customs, Beliefs and Spirituality as “Sinful”, in the Judeo-Christian  biblical sense. 

A subject-matter I bandy around a lot is the concept of autochthony. (Autochthony is the belief or claim that a group of people are indigenous to a particular land or region). So when we commend autochthony, we are saying that a state should derive from the indigenous society and that to the extent it does not, is the extent to which it will likely fail. For instance there was not a prior Nigerian society from which the Nigerian state originated and that it is the extent of this deviation that Nigeria has failed. On the other hand, a potential Yoruba state would have fulfilled the sociological requirement of autochthony because there is a prior indigenous Yoruba society from which it has evolved. It is in this respect that we talk of continuity and discontinuity. So there is state-society continuity in a potential Yoruba state which is lacking in the Nigerian state. To put it in the words of Chief Obafemi Awolowo “Nigeria is not a nation. It is a mere geographical expression. There are no ‘Nigerians’ in the same sense as there are ‘English,’ ‘Welsh,’ or ‘French.’ The word ‘Nigerian’ is merely a distinctive appellation to distinguish those who live within the boundaries of Nigeria and those who do not”

It is with regard to the Nigerian state-society discontinuity that I theorised that there is a psycho-cultural disconnect between the governing mores of the indigenous societies comprising Nigeria (on one hand) and the British-begotten values of the colonial legacy baby- the Nigerian state (on another). In many respects, you can no more psychically separate a European from Christianity than separate a Yoruba from the Yoruba cosmological order.This notion taps from Carl Jung’s analytical concept of the collective unconscious and the subconscious retention and transfer of collective institutional memory. Alexander Roob describes the phenomenon as “accumulated wisdom of the past” “a rich world of images which has etched itself into the memory of modern man, despite the fact that it is not available in public collections”

Flowing from the above is, as deterrence, for the Yoruba, the consequences of breaching his oath of office is more effectively conveyed by Ogun, the implacable Yoruba god of restitution than the Bible and Koran. To quote a Nigerian correspondent “They say when (It is said that if) you want an African to tell the truth, make the African swear to an indigenous divinity—not to the Bible or the Quran”. Pastor Tunde Bakare recalls, ‘To bring conclusiveness to the allegation, they called an ailala priest, with esoteric insight into how to catch a thief. He recited some incantations over a cup of water and asked everyone to drink from it. “Anyone who drinks this water and has stolen the money will die from a gunshot wound ” he warned. They all drank…Years later, Bayo, my nephew, who had stolen the money,  had gotten married and was a successful auto repair technician. One day, while testing one of the vehicles he had repaired, assassins who had been sent after the owner of the car, shot at him, mistaking him for the owner. Unfortunately, Bayo died..”.

The bad and good news is that while Ifa has travelled all over the world, Yoruba people, who are the real owners are ignorant about it because somebody brainwashed them.’There are white people who are now Babalawo and some of them have private jets from the practice.“ In New York, there are more than 2000 Babalawos and in Miami, there are more than 100,000. Some of them own banks and function in the legislative house. There are thousands of them in Cuba and other countries.”

The irony is that as African indigenous religion was steadily losing legitimacy and acceptance at home, a contrary trend ensued in the diaspora especially in South America where ‘African descendants in Brazil adopted the Yoruba religious culture (as Afro-Brazilian) and built an all embracing African identity around its universal character’. Could this be what Orunmila meant when he declared that ‘Ifa o le parun. Atelewo la ba ila, a o mo eniti o ko” (Ifa cannot lapse into extinction. The marks we bear on our palms, do we know how it got there?)

The trademark of Orunmila is a self-deprecating acknowledgement of his fallibility. We find a lot of this in his deference to Ori, the God of destiny. Here we go. “Ko si Orisha ti dani gbe lehin Ori eni ( no orisha can bless you without the concurrence and consent of your Ori). When his never-do-well, ward (Akapo) reported him to olodumare for not helping him to succeed in life. Orunmila explained to God that he had done all he could for Akapo but his Ori did not concur hence the futility of his intercession. On another occasion, he taunted “nigbati Ori n gbe ni, nibo ni orisha wa, e ba je ka fi orisha sile, ka bọ Ori eni ( when Ori was blessing you, where were the orishas, you had better forgo the orisha and worship your Ori). In their collective dread of Sango and self-mockery he said “orisha ti Sango o ba le mu, ere lo mo sa (whichever orisha that Sango cannot deal with, must be a good sprinter). Ipin ja ju oogun, ori je ju ewe lo (Ori supersedes any other spiritual intervention) Oogun lo ni ojo iponju, Ori loni ojo gbogbo (ifa may help alleviate momentary adversities, ori is the eternal guarantor of a fulfilled existence)

If the responsibility is accepted, the task is cut out for the Yoruba intelligentsia to take up the inevitable challenge of fostering the widening of the boundaries of ifa ownership through a programmatic iteration of its thematic and pedagogical emphasis on morality. Rationality demands that you need to understand precisely what is it you are running away from before taking to your heels otherwise you will ab initio be running blind. Let me now leave you with a prayer from Orunmila. Ihoho larin wa aiye, edumare ma je rin Ihoho pada sorun. Ekun lasun wa aiye, edumare ma je ki asunkun pada sorun. Inu eje la to waiye, edumare ma je ka to inu eje pada sorun (we were born naked, may we not return to heaven in nakedness. We were crying on arrival at earth, may we not return to heaven crying. We were delivered in blood, may it please edumare that we do not return in the midst of blood)

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