Akinwumi Ogundiran is Chancellor’s Professor and Professor of Africana Studies, Anthropology and History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, US. He is the author of a new book, ‘The Yoruba: A New History’ that would be discussed at a panel of this year’s Lagos Studies Association conference. The academic talks about the seminal book in this e-conversation. Excerpts:
Congrats on the publication of this seminal and interesting work titled ‘The Yoruba: A New History’. Could you please let us into how it came to be? The conception and execution?
I’m a field archaeologist, anthropologist, and historian. I began my career in the mid-1980s as a student at Obafemi Awolowo University, where I studied under the late Dr. Omotoso Eluyemi and Professor Babatunde Agbaje-Williams. I was trained in archaeology, oral traditions, and cultural history in the ancient city of Ile-Ife. When I moved to the University of Ibadan in 1990 for my Master’s degree, Professor Babatunde Agbaje-Williams encouraged me to develop a research project focused on the Ijesa region.
I continued with that focus through my PhD research at Boston University. During my teaching stints at Ambrose Alli University (Ekpoma), Delta State University (Abraka), and the University of Benin between 1989 and 1993, I also researched in Esan towns and villages, Benin, and Warri. Since 2003, I have carried out major archaeological and historical research in Osogbo, Ede, Ile-Ife, and other parts of Osun State and the ancient Oyo-Ile and Koso in Oyo and Kwara States, respectively. Likewise, my research efforts have taken me to Ekiti State. My research assistants also helped me collect valuable historical records in other places as far as Yagba and Iffe-Ijumu areas, Ijebu, Ikale-Ilaje, and Yewa areas.
I didn’t set out initially to write a book on Yoruba history. I was only interested in questions relating to Yoruba regional interactions and the impacts of global political economies on Yoruba history. My earlier publications reflect that interest. However, I realised that my research’s cumulative results are not consistent with some of the canonical stories we are familiar with in Yoruba history. I was uncomfortable fitting my findings into those existing moulds that the pioneer historians have created for us.
Archaeology and History are social sciences. Science thrives on asking questions, seeking the truth, and pushing the boundaries of knowledge to discover the truth. The more research I did, the more compelling it became that I must use my discoveries to expand our understanding of Yoruba history. Moreover, I was tired of listening to many imaginative but inaccurate stories that people tell about Yoruba history partly because the study of Yoruba pre-colonial history has stagnated for so many years in our higher institutions.
So, in 2009, I decided to put many other projects on hold and devote my time to write this book. It took me about ten years to get it done. In essence, I did not initially set out to write this book. It is the cumulative result of my research over many years that forced the book on me.
How do you feel now that it’s in print, and what are your expectations for the book?
I am relieved. Scholarship is a labour of love. You spend days, months, and years trying to solve a riddle and write about it. I hope ‘The Yoruba: A New History’ will answer some of the questions that the public, scholars, policymakers, and the stewards of our traditional institutions, have about Yoruba history. Of course, I pay homage to the previous works that have been done on Yoruba history. Without those works, my book would not be possible. Samuel Johnson’s ‘History of the Yorubas’ will always be a classic. Likewise, Professor Adebanji Akintoye’s ‘A History of the Yoruba People’ and Professor Isaac Akinjogbin’s ‘The Cradle of a Race’ are important reference books.
My book is a contribution to this long lineage of Yoruba historical scholarship. However, there would have been no reason to write the book if we already know everything about Yoruba history. This book fills many gaps, corrects some of the things that previous scholars got wrong, and provides a new way and style for imagining and writing Yoruba history. I hope a new generation of historians would find my approach to writing this history useful to broaden their methods, research questions, theories, and conceptual frameworks. The book is more than stories about people and events, the standard subjects of history. It is also about ideas and practice.
In other words, ‘The Yoruba: A New History’ is a book about the intellectual, economic, political, cultural, and social history of the Yoruba people over two thousand years. It is a pleasure for me to take on this broad view of Yoruba history to have a deep understanding of how our traditions and cultures evolved over a long period. I pray that this type of deep historical thinking would inspire new arts and performances; and a new awareness of who the Yoruba people are and the process of their becoming.
Most importantly, I hope that the book will inform the contents of new textbooks on Yoruba history. I would also like to work with our school boards and universities to develop guides on how history teachers may use this book to develop appropriate history curriculum contents for elementary and secondary school students.
You make some bold assertions in the over 500-page book that some people might take issues with and dispute. Contrary to popular belief, you assert that Ile-Ife was not the first place where the institution of kingship (with beaded crown) developed, and it was likely not the first urban centre either. Does this not go against the grain of the accepted Yoruba History?
Historical scholarship is not about belief. It is about evidence, fact, and plausibility. Historians don’t (or should not) write orthodoxy. Some people believe that God created Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden somewhere in the Middle East, and the whole world originated from there. The Yoruba believe that Ile-Ife is the cradle of humankind. These are the stories we expect a Pastor, an Imam, and a Babalawo to tell in the church, mosque, or Ifa temple. They are beliefs in faith communities. Historians, like scientists, seek truth and what is knowable. After all, we are not writing about God. We are writing about people and human actions in the past and what these mean for the present. Through the pursuit of truth, we can improve our awareness of who we are and our understanding of the world.
Ile-Ife occupies a very important place in the history of the Yoruba people in particular and West Africa in general. This ancient city features prominently in my book. You are right that I made several claims about Ile-Ife that may run contrary to the common belief and general understanding. The first questions we must ask ourselves are: how do we know what we claim to know, and what is the evidence for the belief that we hold dear? Trying to answer these questions may reveal that what is widely accepted is sometimes not the most accurate.
One of the points I made in the book is that historians tend to confuse or conflate two things when they talk about Yoruba origins. They usually conflate the origins of the Yoruba-speaking people with the origins of Yoruba classical civilisation. These are two separate things and events. The ancestral Yoruba-speaking people originated in what is now the Okun region (between the present-day Yagba and Ijumu in the Niger-Benue Confluence). Between 300 BC and 300 AD, they began the great migrations that resulted in the Yoruba region’s present-day geography, from Nigeria to Togo. The Igala on the other side of the River Niger, and the Itsekiri on the Atlantic coast are products of those same migrations. We are all from the same ancestors.
However, it was in Ile-Ife that the Yoruba classical civilisation, as we know it, was consolidated about a thousand years later. When we talk of Yoruba classical civilisation, we refer to the attributes of high culture that define what the Yoruba people became known for and serve as the basis of Yoruba tradition today. These attributes include divine kingship, urbanism, Ifa literature/divination, and the Orisa pantheon. My research led me to conclude that all of these cultural attributes developed in different places at different times between the Okun and Ekiti regions. In fact, it was in Igbomina-Ekiti axis where the idea of divine kingship and sociology of urbanism first developed.
An ancient Oba kingdom straddled the present-day Igbomina and Ekiti, where these two cultural forms took place before they became evident in Ile-Ife. The late Professor Ade Obayemi alluded to this in the 1970s and 80s. My argument in the book is that it was in Ile-Ife, where these disparate cultural innovations from other places were consolidated and given unprecedented clarity. Ile-Ife was the last of the first generation of kingdoms in the Yoruba world between 750 and 1000 AD. It is the akẹ́hìndé gbẹ̀gbọ́n (the junior who became the leader) who benefitted from the two hundred and fifty years of political, cultural, intellectual, and sociological experimentations and innovations that took place in the Ekiti-Igbomina axis. Uniquely, Ile-Ife synthesised all these innovations and universalised them.
In this regard, Ile-Ife proclaimed itself as the centre of the world and universe. This is a manifestation of imperial thinking. In the book, I demonstrate that ancient Ile-Ife was not a city-state, as most scholars have proposed. My evidence points to the fact that Ile-Ife was the first empire in West Africa, south of the River Niger. The beginning of this empire was contemporaneous with the end of the Ghana Empire around 1050 AD and the beginning of the Mali Empire in 1250 AD. At its peak in the mid-fourteenth century, Ile-Ife’s political boundaries reached the River Niger and Oke Ogun area and as far as the Atlantic Coast and present-day Benin. So, the book does not take anything away from the prime position of Ile-Ife in Yoruba history.
What I have done is to explain how Ile-Ife came to occupy that position. The intellectuals, scientists, and political leaders of Ile-Ife created the ideology that made their city the beginning and end of time, not only for the Yoruba people but also for their Edo-speaking neighbours. They also created an export economic system that was based on the high-skilled manufacture of glass. No place in Africa at the time achieved that feat. It is a fascinating story. In chapter 3, I explain in detail how all of these happened.
Obatala is believed to be a god, but you personalise him and narrate his conflict with Oduduwa after the building of the Ife wall. Does this also not contradict what most Yoruba people believe?
Obatala was a person before he became an Orisa. Unfortunately, the two foreign religions—Christianity and Islam— that currently dominate our lives have distorted our views of ourselves as Yoruba and Africans, and they have also distorted how we think of our past and indigenous religions. One point I make in the book and which I invite every Yoruba person to think about is that in ancient Yoruba epistemology, there was a purpose to living, and that purpose was to become a venerated ancestor or a deity.
The purpose of life was not to be rich and build many houses but to become a divinity. You know why? Because every child at the time of his or her birth is a manifestation and representation of Orisa Nla (the Supreme God) on earth. The goal was to return to that divine state upon physical death. So, there is no contradiction in saying Obatala is a god and was a human being. Obatala was a person who rose through the ranks and became the leader of his people, the Ideta polity in Ile-Ife. He later served as the head of all the other thirteen polities that were originally scattered around Ile-Ife. With that position, he became the chief priest of the entire Ife area. That office also made him the spiritual representative and chief priest of Oramfe, the local name for Orisa Nla in Ile-Ife. Upon Obatala’s death and in light of the political transformations that took place in Ile-Ife between 900 and 1000 AD, Obatala was not only deified, as expected of a man of his stature with so many accomplishments, but the political and religious leaders of Ife also made him the leader of the Orisa pantheon. This is what we call apotheosis (elevation of a mortal to the status of the deity). It is not different in substance from canonisation in another religion. What happened in Ile-Ife belongs to that glorious time when Africans had the wisdom and confidence to think of their religious saints in their image. Today, we imagine our saints in the image and face of Europeans and Arabs. When was the last time you see the image of Black Jesus in our churches? Don’t let anyone fool you. Every great society imagines its gods in the image of its people. We need to read history so we can know better.
Don’t forget that all Yoruba kings are Orisa although some of them don’t act that way anymore. In Yoruba culture, before Christianity and Islam, household heads, and family patriarchs and matriarchs were buried inside the house. An altar would be created right there in their bedroom or in the courtyard, which became the focus of worship, commemoration, and remembrance. Why did we do that? Because our aged fathers and mothers who transitioned were believed to have conquered death. They lived on in the memory of their descendants, who periodically performed sacrifices and invoked their names in the prayers for good health, good harvest, and good life. Those terracotta heads in Ile-Ife, hundreds, if not thousands of them, are representations of ancestors—deified people like Obatala and Oduduwa. One thing I enjoyed in this book is using Yoruba epistemology to explain the past. After all, those twelfth-century Yoruba people were neither Moslems nor Christians.
From your accounts (page 65), that means the Olugbo, Oba Akinruntan is right to claim superiority over Ife since the Ugbo people occupied the area before Ife and was an older civilisation?
Absolutely no. That will be a confusing and inaccurate way to read the story of the Ugbo in Ile-Ife. I think I am very clear about this in the book but let me use this medium to make this point clearer. There were descendants of the Later Stone Age peoples living in Ile-Ife area when the Yoruba migrants from nearby Ekiti began to arrive around 500 AD. It is not clear whether these aboriginal peoples spoke the same language or different languages, but the popular name is Ugbo. Another name is Igare. Their language was different from Yoruba. There was no Olugbo in Ile-Ife when the Yoruba-speaking arrived. The Ugbo people did not develop a centralised political system at that time. The Ugbo learned divine kingship from the Yoruba and, in the process, they became Yoruba. The Ugbo did not have a single kingdom in Ile-Ife. They initially lived in small groups, perhaps at the level of scattered households around what was then a vast marshland in Ile-Ife. We need more study about the Ugbo in Ile-Ife, but the current evidence does not support the claim by my royal father, Oba Akinruntan. The Ugbo-Ife encounter was one of many examples in human history when a group of migrants took over the leadership of a place because of their numerical superiority and sophisticated sociopolitical organisation in what was then a borderless world. The Ugbo and early Ife settlers interacted, but as a result of conflict, a group of the Ugbo (supposed troublemakers) was expelled from Ile-Ife, and another group (the seemingly peaceful ones) remained in Ile-Ife. The descendants of the latter occupy important traditional political offices till today in Ile-Ife.
Our kings should endow funds for archaeologists to conduct original research that will accumulate evidence and information that we can use to teach the world about our history. They should build museums in their palace and kingdom. Some of the excavated objects can be used to furnish those museums.
Your explanation on the development of homestead (Ile) appears to be at variance with that of the Ooni, who says it’s not Ile-Ife (House of Ife) but Ile-Ife (Land of Ife)?
Ilé or House is more than a homestead. Its deep sociological meaning refers to a corporation of several families linked together by land, ancestry, social relationships, and religion. It is similar to what we call lineage. There is a difference between Ilé (house) and Ilẹ̀ (land). Any Yoruba speaker knows the difference between house and land. I cannot speak to what our father, Ọọ̀nirìsà, said or what he is reported to have said. In all central and eastern Yoruba dialects, Ile-Ife is pronounced as Ulé-Ufẹ̀. This means “House of Abundance,” or “House of Expansion. In West Africa during the 11th through 14th centuries, Ile-Ife was the Lagos, London, New York, Paris of its time. It was a place that attracted many people because of the wealth and opportunities it offered. The standardisation of written Yoruba, which privileges the Ọ̀yọ́ dialect, has affected our understanding of other Yoruba dialects. It is important that we keep these dialects alive and teach them in schools, elementary through Senior Secondary, side-by-side with the standard Yoruba language. We should also create literature in these dialects, more than 35 of them.
In the preface, you wrote, “based on new questions, evidence and conceptual frameworks, this book offers the opportunity to rethink Yoruba history in new ways”. Could you let us into the feedback you’ve been receiving from fellow academics and others on this?
I am pleased with the reception of the book. I knew quite well that some of my conclusions would shock some people. But this is what scholarship is about; using new information to tell a new story. New findings may be inconvenient or uncomfortable for those who have an entrenched view of the world based on their faith in orthodoxy. As I previously mentioned, historical or archaeological research is about challenging orthodoxy based on new evidence. There is also space for others to present their findings if these contradict my conclusions. By the way, this book is not the final world on Yoruba history. It is only a contribution to it.
The book has been receiving critical acclaim. Professor Toyin Falola of the University of Texas is organising a forum in Yoruba Studies Review to discuss the book. Eminent scholars of Yoruba Studies from Nigeria, United States, and the United Kingdom will discuss the book at the Lagos Studies Association conference taking place on June 22-26. The forum is organised by Professor Saheed Aderinto of East Carolina University. The panelists scheduled to discuss the book include Professor Rowland Abiodun of Amherst College, Professor Moyo Okediji of the University of Texas, Austin, Professor Oyeronke Oyewumi at Stony Brook University, Professor Olanike Orie of Tulane University, Professor Aderemi Ajala and Professor Dele Layiwola of the University of Ibadan, Professor Karin Barber at the University of Birmingham (UK), and Dr. Abidemi Babalola at the University of Cambridge. They represent the cream of Yoruba Studies from different fields. Likewise, Dr. Abidemi Babalola is organising an Author Meets Critics panel at the African Studies Association conference in the U.S. in November. I am honored that many scholars want to talk about the book and engage me in what I believe will be fruitful and ongoing dialogues about Yoruba history. I know that these conversations will open new doors for younger people to return to the study of pre-colonial Yoruba history.
I learnt your academic interest in Yoruba history continues, and you are still conducting fieldwork; what new evidence are you hoping to unearth?
Yes, I am now collaborating on a major research project on the archaeology of the Oyo Empire. I have been working on this for several years. The focus of our current research is Oyo-Ile, the capital of the empire. I am trying to understand how the empire developed and built the largest urban metropolis in West Africa, south of the River Niger. Our research is question-driven. We hope to learn about how this metropolis evolved and how its leaders managed and distributed resources, the economic basis of the empire’s power, the relationship it had with the other Yoruba and non-Yoruba peoples, and the sources of its vulnerability and resilience. We are also working on preserving the Old Bara (now in Kwara State), the necropolis where several Alaafin, from Obalokun to Oluewu, were buried. This site is currently endangered by the encroachment of farmers and pastoralists. Our goal is to make the case to the Federal Government to declare Old Bara a national historic site. We are collecting the data that will help us achieve this, and we will work with our royal father, the Alaafin of Oyo, the Nigerian National Park Service, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments towards this goal.
How is life being a historian, archaeologist, someone in Africana studies?
Life is busy, but fun. It is a privilege and a great honour to do what I do—the pursuit of the mind’s life, teaching, training the next generation of archaeologists and historians, and researching Yoruba history. My work transcends many disciplines. These keep me on my toes but enable me to think outside the box. My location in Africana Studies allows me to see the connections between the Yoruba and the world in a long historical sequence. It also gives me the freedom to experiment with ideas and methods that do not conform to a discipline.