‘Yoruba is not a racial identity; it’s an identity based on knowledge’

by Araayo Akande
It was time well spent for culture and history enthusiasts on Saturday, May 8, when Chancellor's Professor and Professor of Africana Studies, Anthropology and History at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, US, Akinwumi Ogundiran, read from his new book, 'The Yoruba: A New History' at Pages Bookstore, Allen Avenue, Lagos. 
Publisher of The Culture Newspaper and ex-Lagos State Commissioner for Tourism, Arts and Culture, Steve Ayorinde, engaged him in a stimulating conversation for three and half hours at the event. We bring excerpts of the illuminating chat. 

Anything about Yoruba history, what comes to mind is Samuel Johnson, and to some extent, Professor Saburi Biobaku. Now we have you, and the world is celebrating you? But some would wonder, why a new history? What did the others forget to write? What did we forget to document? Who needs a new account, by the way? What new perspectives are you trying to explore and project?

There is always a story behind a story. There is always a story that informs a book like this. I will start with the story of being a researcher, a scholar. I did not set out to write this book initially; I was researching different topics about the Yoruba people. I’m an archaeologist, historian, anthropologist. I’m a field scholar; I go out looking for evidence on different types of questions. I was interested chiefly in regional interactions and how Yoruba political institutions developed. 

But as Mr Ayorinde mentioned, there are pioneers like Samuel Johnson, Saburi Biobaku, Professor Akinjogbin and Professor Akintoye. Both of them were my teachers at Ife, and many other scholars have written on the Yoruba. In doing my research, I used the template they have provided to interrogate Yoruba regional interactions and political development. And there are certain canonical researches or topics that we don’t question because we felt they are already settled. But at a point, I realised that the information I was discovering was not consistent with some of the canonical narratives that we have in the template. That took me a long time to come to terms with the reality that the template is not what I have been told. 

So, about 10 years ago, I then decided to write this book. That means I had to return to the field several times to fill the gaps. By that time, I had abundant materials, but in the process of writing the book… I was planning to write the book from 1500-1800; then I realised I need to go back to the beginning of Yoruba history, and that beginning was about 300BC. That is why I titled it ‘The Yoruba: A New History.’ A new history that does not take away from what the pioneer did but has added to it and, at the same time, challenges all the things we think we know or we know as scholars. As scholars, we are always asking questions; we are never satisfied with the answers. New answers lead to new questions. That is what we do as social scientists. In this book, I challenged us to think about what we think we know. Then, we can have an open mind on Yoruba history.

I can’t recall coming across the name Lamurudu in the book, and some others would say Nimrod and others. But you dwell so much on Oduduwa and Ile-Ife. The Oduduwa Group versus the Obatala Group. In essence, I’m saying that you traced the history of the Yoruba to Kogi State, and maybe that explains the interest of the Nupe as at that time in confronting the Yoruba. Is it a question of the turbulent history we had, or the name Yoruba itself is traceable to another community and culture?

You will not see Lamurudu in this book; you will not come across Mecca. You will come across Arabia in this book. You will not see Sudan as the origin of Yoruba because the Yoruba did not come from Mecca, Sudan. We did not come from the Jews. In this book, I put together so many sources that no other book has ever done because I’m an Archaeologist. Still, I’m also interested in other fields. Historical linguistics, for example, is an integral part of this book. I tapped from geochemistry. I worked with geochemists because material science itself is also a form of history. I studied festivals, movement of people in the landscape. Ritual is history. I go to Ogboni Temples because these are our archives. The archive of our history is not in London; it is not in the National Archive, Ibadan, Kaduna or Enugu, which will only give us the history of colonialism. If you want to understand the deep history of Yoruba before colonialism, you have to go to those archives, temples, and ritual sites.

Our history began about 4000BC. That was when Yoruba as a language community began to evolve. We always talk about climate change; no one has ever paid attention to the influence of climate change on Yoruba history. You can map Yoruba history into environmental changes in the last 2000 years. The history of the Yoruba is the history of resilience. It’s a history of change, continuity. It’s a history of how our ancestors were resilient in coping with ecological crisis; ecological crises led to the expansion of the Yoruba. 

About 300 BC, the Yoruba were the smallest group of people. When I say the Yoruba, I’m talking about the proto-Yoruboid who lived around the present Kogi State, on the south-western side of River Niger. To the north, there were Nupe. This proto-Yoruboid gave birth to three major languages today; the Igala at the other side of River Niger, the Itsekiri and the Yoruba dialects. These are based on history linguistics. The climate change of 300BC is what we called ‘The Big Drive’ that led to the proto-Yoruboid expansion. Climate change does not have to lead to societal collapse but could lead to societal expansion and brought us to Ile-Ife.

These migrations led to innovations; political innovations. It led to the first kingdoms around 700 AD. That’s when kingdoms like Oba, in the present-day Igbomina stretching to the present day Akure, were developed. My argument in this book which will be controversial is to say that Ekiti people are not the product of Ile-Ife; Ile-Ife is the product of Ekiti region. 

Now, we know why you say The Yoruba: A New History.

Yes. Some of the innovations that happened in Ile-Ife in the last two centuries of the first millennium between 800 and 1000 AD were already taking place in different places. Ile-Ife was not the first kingdom in Yoruba land. It was the last of the first generation of kingdoms. Ile-Ife benefitted from what other previous kingdoms have been doing. When Ile-Ife, now spearheaded by Oduduwa and Obatala, there was a conflict between the duo. 

It was about power and control and a vision about the future for the people. Oduduwa took the leadership and transformed what was already there into something new. But what he did not do was to relegate other people that were there with him. Oduduwa did not come from Mecca; he was there. I always joke that how can someone travel from the desert and just landed in the rain forest? It is not possible because people don’t migrate that way, and you don’t migrate by yourself too. You move to an ecological zone you are familiar with. It is only when something is chasing you that you go to a place where you cannot make a living. Fishers will not go to a desert because there is no water in the desert. An Arab will not come here; he might even die before he gets here. There was no aeroplane in those days. So, for our children, who are learning the history of other people, we need to elevate our narrative and tell believable stories. We are teaching our kids to be rational thinkers, acritical thinkers; our history must also be consistent with what we are challenging and asking people to do. 

READ More  Kadiri Alex Wins 2020 Quramo Writers' Prize

The pioneer historians, I’m not saying they get it wrong. The limit of their knowledge is what they used. Today, I’m using the limits of my knowledge as well. The young lady here, maybe, tomorrow will change the story on the new frontiers of knowledge. So, this book is based on the new frontiers of knowledge.

Later Stone Age people were living in the rain forest of the region before the Yoruba began to arrive around 500 AD. They met this later Stone Age people in Ile-Ife, who were later known as Ugbo. They were scattered people; they were fishermen. If you look at the topography of Ile-Ife today, you will realise that it is in a bowl, like a depression surrounded by hills. When the Yoruba arrived, they were living on the slopes of those hills. In the hollow itself, it was very swampy. The Later Stone Age people, the Ugbo people, were living in the swamp. Some of them were fishermen, but the Yoruba were farmers. 

Initially, there was a symbiotic relationship between the two. But around 800 AD, they began to see changes in the ecological landscape. Things became dry; the optimum weight ecological climate that started about 300 AD came to an end between 800 and 900 AD. That means that the riverine areas before began to dry up, and then the Yoruba began to move into those areas. Of course, they were moving into the homes of other people; the Ugbo. And that is the foundation of the conflict, first between Oduduwa and the Obatala groups, who were both farmers and leaders in their respective areas. But Obatala had more charisma, more prominent position in Ile-Ife than Oduduwa.

Prof, the Oduduwa and Obatala that we encounter in this book, were they people? Were they real?

I know that Obatala was a person. That is not in doubt because we know where he lived in Ile-Ife. His original home is Idita. It is an archaeological site; it is a spiritual site that is still there. If you dig down through the Ora tradition, go to Ifa literature and ritual narratives, Obatala was a person. He was the Chief Priest of Ora; Oramfe. Ora is like the avatar of Orisa-Nla in Ile-Ife. The idea of Orisa-Nla was already prominent among the Yoruba before they even began their migration from the Okun area. Orisa-Nla simply means Orisa Oke: the Supreme Deity who occupies the hills of Ekiti, of Okun. When the Yoruba arrived in Ile-Ife, they maintained that tradition, but the local manifestation of Orisa- Nla in Ile-Ife is Ora. That is why Oke Ora is still important today in the ritual calendar of Ile-Ife. Obatala was the Chief Priest of Ora; he achieved many things. Obatala was also a patron of artists. When he died, he became elevated, what you call apotheosis or canonisation. Eventually, Obatala became the same as Orisa- Nla. That is why till today, in the Yoruba pantheon, we consider Obatala as Orisa- Nla. After his departure, he became the same with Ora or, let me say, Orisa Nla. So, he was a person.

As a scholar, I will be reluctant in this forum to say that I know for sure that Oduduwa was a person. I say that because, as an archaeologist, I look for tangible evidence. It is possible that Oduduwa was a person. But it is also possible that Oduduwa was a collage of many experiences that coalesced into one person. That is why I argue that the conflicts that engulfed Ile-Ife in the 19th century were not a one-generation conflict. It was a conflict that pitted two visions. The Obatala group represented one vision, while the other vision was represented by the Oduduwa group. For a conflict that lasted that long, I know that Obatala would not have lived for 200 years, neither did Oduduwa live for 200 years. Eventually, the vision of Oduduwa won the day but accommodating the Obatala group because they are the ones who know the landscape.

(Pauses to read an excerpt about the conflict and how the Ugbo, who lost out alongside Obatala, became aggrieved and took up guerrilla warfare. The passage also concerns Moremi’s role in freeing Ile-Ife from the Ugbo)

Are we talking about Oba Akinruntan’s Olugbo?

Yes, we are talking about those people. Now, as there was no Olugbo in Ile-Ife at that time, the Ugbo were not organised into centralised political communities. They were scattered. As I said, they were descendants of a Later Stone Age people. So, they did not have the political sophistication that the Yoruba brought with them. They did not have the idea of a city-state that the Yoruba were trying to build in Ile-Ife at that time. We are talking about how migrants, people with a sophisticated political organisation, overran people with a small scale political system.

Some of the descendants of the Ugbo of old are still living in Ile-Ife?

Yes, they are. Today, they are one of the six powerful religious blocs of Ile Ife. They were integrated. Igare is one of their names, but the general name is Ugbo. We also call them Oluyari. But those who were troublemakers were expelled. It appears that because they were fishermen, some of them gravitated towards the riverine areas. That’s why you have the Ugbo, where the river is.

Oh, I see

I want to use this forum to ask our traditional leaders to be more sensitive to history. I wrote this book because I was tired of people just simply making up narratives that do not exist to suit their interest. I think our traditional rulers should not be partaking in that kind of discourse because they are leaders. We look up to them to know the history and not to mislead the younger generation. I also want them to provide funding for historical research instead of making up stories because of their superiority. That’s not going to help the Yoruba agenda.

Is there a Yoruba agenda, Sir?

It will not benefit the African agenda. Maybe that will be a better way of putting it. Considering the importance of Yoruba history and culture in the global affair, many people who are not Yoruba are interested in Yoruba history. There are many people outside Nigeria, outside West Africa, who pay attention to what happens in the Yoruba region. They are always asking, what are your kings saying? They do not expect our kings to behave this way.

I know there would be many questions and interrogations as we move along, especially on the Yoruba agenda. But let’s establish historical facts first. Using the example of the young girl you used earlier, if we will describe the Yoruba to her, with one leg in Kogi, an arm among the Itsekiri, and our cousins in Porto Novo, Dahomey etc. Who are we?

We always use the tribal model to discuss African history. The tribal model is a European imposition that claims that we were trapped before their arrival. We were living on the tree. We were gyrating; we had no sense of the past, so we were trapped. One of the things I established in this book is that the Yoruba have been global in their thinking before the Europeans arrived. So, I used the term ‘Community of Practice’ to describe the Yoruba. That we are a people who privilege knowledge as the basis of identity. 

READ More  African Literary Community Reacts to Reported Shooting of Nigerian Protesters

In this book, I argue that many people were not Yoruba speaking before but became Yoruba due to their interactions with Yoruba speaking people or as a result of Yoruba Empires like Ife was the first Empire in Yoruba history, not Oyo. Oyo was the Second Empire. As a result of empire formation, the Yoruba could incorporate other non-Yoruba speaking to become Yoruba. So, I call the Yoruba a ‘Community of Practice’. 

That’s why when you look at Yoruba oriki, there are people like Nupe that became Yoruba without their oriki as part of Yoruba history. Likewise, there were people like Bashorun Gaa that we celebrate or hate for his role in Yoruba history. He was a man of Ibariba descent. Even the name Gaa is not a Yoruba name, but because of the role that the Ibariba played in the formation of the Oyo Empire, they were incorporated into Oyo Empire and therefore, they did not lose their Ibariba ancestry but became Yoruba because they became Oyo.

We have Mossi from present-day Burkina Faso, who became Yoruba as well. When you look at some of the facial marks that we bear, and I discuss it in this book, a facial mark like ‘gombo’. Tell me the etymology of ‘gombo’. It has none. We have facial marks like Toure; what is toure? These are facial marks that other ethnic groups brought into Oyo Empire. They celebrate their identity because the Yoruba are city people. We are city builders. City builders don’t discriminate. A city is like a corporation. A corporation always celebrates diversity because you want to attract the best talents to come into your city. You will always look for skills that other people have and integrate them into your city. This is what the Yoruba are, and it’s why the Nigerian question is a setback for the Yoruba. 

The Nigerian question is a setback because becoming subjects of the British Empire meant that British colonialism transformed us into tribes. We were cosmopolitan. We were urban people who brought other people in, and that’s why you have different groups among the Yoruba. That’s why I call the Yoruba a ‘Community of Practice’. We had a system of integrating non-Yoruba into the Yoruba agenda. That’s why we have facial marks from Ibariba, from Mossi in our country today. Likewise, our culture influenced those other people. That’s why Benin was a member of the Ife Empire, no matter what people may say today. I know there are some revisionist history being written in some parts of Nigeria. The Royal House of Benin knows that they are part of the Empire.

The current Oba of Benin acknowledged his ‘Yorubaness’ openly, or shall we say Yoruba origin.

Yes, when I was teaching at the University of Benin and you go to the palace, they were speaking two main languages; Edo and Yoruba. So, there’s no doubt about that. And Ife Empire spread to where we call Oke-Ogun today. So, in this book, I tried to locate some of the earlier empires and kingdoms like Owu. The Owu that we talk about today, if you want to find where it is, it is somewhere between Saki and Kisi. That’s where the first Owu was.

The monarchs still living off the relevance of the past; you mentioned that they need to be careful in the things that they say, in the manner that they conduct themselves trying to merge the relevance of the past with their significance today. Where we are today as a people, we know that things have changed. Even in the monarchical system these days, a local government commissioner can remove any monarch. Is there a reason we are still holding on as part of history or archaeological relevance the custodians of the empires that have fallen?

Let me start with the British. They have a monarchy, one of the oldest monarchies in the world. The Empire has waxed and waned, and it’s still there. You can’t have the English identity without the monarchy; it’s still there. I see the relevance of our monarchs; they are relevant, but they also not need to embellish what they are not. There are only two Oba in Yorubaland that can use the title Imperial Majesty. And that would be Alaafin of Oyo and Ooni of Ife. Any other king who is using that is pretending. 

I’m speaking as a scholar, not as a partisan person, because this is what my research has shown. I think the question is, how are we binding our new monarchs with the institution’s history? This is a revered institution, by the way. An Oba is a deity. I discuss in this book that the Yoruba have a fascinating philosophy, and it is that every person is a manifestation of the Orisa. All of us in this room are the manifestation of the Orisa. That’s why the Yoruba preach ‘Iteriba’, ‘Ifarabale’, ‘Tito’, ‘Ooto’ because these are the things that would transform you into a deity. The Yoruba believe that when you die, you become a deity, an ancestor. 

When you look at many terracottas from Ile-Ife, they are images of ancestors who are being venerated. So, when people die, they are buried inside their living room, in the courtyard. Multi-generation worshipping will celebrate those ancestors because we are manifestations of Orisa-Nla on earth and what will give us that opportunity to become deified is not how much we have but how well we lived. It’s about the descendants that we leave behind.

To become a deity, you have to die in Yoruba philosophy, but only an Oba can become a deity when he’s still alive. That’s what separates a divine king from you and I. So when our Oba are talking, I’m not sure how many Oba realise that they are venerated individuals. They are even more revered than the Pope, yes. They are living gods, which was one of the sources of the conflicts between Obatala and Oduduwa. It was a revolutionary idea that a human being could become a deity while he’s still living. 

It was revolutionary, and the Obatala group opposed that idea. ‘No way, you are supposed to die physically and then come back as an ancestor. You should not attain the level of immortality while you’re still living.’ So, an Oba attains that level of immortality when he/she because there are female Oba as well, while still alive. Our Oba needs to realise the status that they occupy. Once they realise that, they will realise that their utterances, their performances in public, and how they carry themselves have gravity unless they want to diminish that post.

I’m wondering if there’s any remote connection to the powers that the two imperial Oba that you have identified wielded. These days, you will see many honourary chieftaincy titles being given, and when they are offered to individuals, it is called something of Yorubaland. I’m wondering, based on the imperialistic nature of the two that you have identified and ought to be celebrated, does that confer any authority that an honourary chief will speak for or represent the entire Yorubaland?

First, let me say that I’m not competent to question the authority of my royal fathers to create titles and give it to whoever they want. My commentary is not to question their authority. But I’ll say that Oyo Empire did not cover the entire Yoruba-speaking world. Ife Empire did not cover the whole of the Yoruba-speaking world, but when these empires were alive and strong, they called the shots. But that doesn’t mean they controlled everything, and everyone accepted their authority. There were oppositions. Owu, at a point, used to be a client kingdom to Ile Ife, but Owu challenged the authority of Ile-Ife, and that’s why they came up with ‘Owu la koda’. 

READ More  Origins of Yoruba-speaking people different from origins of Yoruba classical civilisation – Prof Ogundiran

Likewise, Owo was not under Oyo Empire. Ile-Ife was not under Oyo Empire, so we have to be conscious/cautious when we say we give a title to someone and we say Yorubaland. The person who gives the title, the territory of that person, is the limit of that.

When did Ile Ife now become Ile Ife? (House of Ife to Land of Ife)

It’s not Ile Ife, no. Anyone who says Ile Ife should go back and study … It’s Ile. When you ask people the meaning of Ile Ife, they will say a place of love. No, let’s get down to the Yoruba language. Language is critical. For those from Central Yorubaland like Ijesha, Ekiti, Owo, when you go to an event, a party, and you return home, and people ask you how the place was. You’ll say ‘Ube fe’, meaning there was a lot to eat and drink. Ile Ife means house of abundance, a place of abundance. Because of the wealth of Ile Ife, everyone wanted to go to Ile Ife.

 It was the New York, London and Lagos of its time. It was an urban metropolis, the only urban metropolis in West Africa. People trooped to Ile Ife for economic opportunities. They needed labour, the best hands, so it was a place where people visited. At the same time, it was a place of religious importance, a place of knowledge. There were many schools established in Ile-Ife, School of Ifa, School of Orisa-Nla. For intellectualism, Ile-Ife was the place. Ile-Ife was contemporaneous with Timbuktu. 

At the same time that Timbuktu was being established as a centre of learning, Ile-Ife was also a centre of learning in the Yoruba world. It was also a Mecca, a place of pilgrimage. When you combine economic wealth with knowledge, you have a special place. A place where people would visit. So, contrary to the narrative that the Yoruba migrated from Ile-Ife, it acquired people from other places. Most people born in New York don’t go out of New York; where will they go? Most people born in Lagos don’t go outside Lagos; what are you going to do in Ibadan? 

So, Ile Ife was a place that attracted people. It means house of abundance, house of expansion. The Yoruba believe that a place is not defined by how unique it is. This room, for example, is expanding by virtue of the people who have filled it. People make a place expand, not the physical place. This place can take 1000 people, inasmuch as we give each other space. That’s the meaning of Ile-Ife. A place of expansion and a place will expand only when it has abundant things, opportunities. That’s the meaning of Ile-Ife.

At what point did we lose the one name identity that ties you to your Agbo-Ile (family compound)?

In this book, I call the Yoruba house society, Ile. Let me step back a little bit and say that I explored things that have not been explored before in this book. I tried to bring philosophy, sociology to inform Yoruba history. Some things distinguish the Yoruba, and this is not a matter of ethnic jingoism. Every ethnic group has distinctive things. 

One of the sociological facts of the Yoruba is that they are people of the house; they create social networks, and that’s the secret to why the Yoruba expanded. One of the smallest groups before and then the largest territorially in West Africa. If you look at it historically, the Yoruba have the largest geography in terms of space, and it’s because of their social network. This tendency to live in a very cohesive sociological space 

called Ile, house. To the Yoruba, Ile is more than a physical building. Ile is a sociological identity that they belong to. 

So, you are not just a son or daughter of a parent. You’re the son/daughter of the community. Agbo Ile, collection of houses. And this sociology is critical in the Yoruba experience. Even when they travel outside or were forced outside, many Yoruba descendants in the Americas recreated this house sociology. They used it to become a prominent cultural group in the Americas. So, this is another dimension that I discuss in this book—this idea of creating heterogeneous social networks. When you review your family history very well, you will realise that it’s not based on buildings but on social networks. Friends become members of ile. Servants become part of Ile. 

There are also Alabagbe that become part of Ile. All the children born in that ile, despite the history of their parents, become part of the Agbo-Ile. The Yoruba have always been accommodating other groups and willing to work with them inasmuch as they do not seek to displace them.

The Yoruba was the smallest group enslaved in the Americas at the beginning of the 19th century but later became prominent through the Ile. In the Diaspora, you can see someone who claims to be a Yoruba by virtue of worshipping the Orisa. Yoruba is not a racial identity; it’s an identity based on knowledge. You can’t claim you’re Yoruba if you don’t know the Yoruba language.

Ogun, the god of Iron, was the dominant deity of the Yoruba, I think in the 15th century. Is that the reason these days it’s the Ogun symbol that represents traditional religion during oath-administration? What is the potency?

Ogun is one of the oldest deities in the Yoruba pantheon. It is one of the oldest deities because it is associated with the beginning of the Iron Age among the Yoruba. He’s likely even part of the Later Stone Age. The Yoruba crossed from the Later Stone Age to the Iron Age around 300BC. Between 300BC and 200AD, that’s when we transitioned like many other groups in this part of West Africa. So, it’s an old deity, and you will see the name of Ogun even among the Idoma people who are neighbours of the Yoruba. You go to Benin; it’s present there. Even in Dahomey. Ogun is a deity of innovation, iron technology. 

Ogun was not originally associated with kingship, political power. In this book, I talk about the transformation that happened among the Yoruba in the 15th century when Ife Empire came to an end. There were many other destructions across the region.

In the process of creating a new society in the late 15th century to the 16th century. There’s a chapter called ‘Atrophy’ and the next chapter is ‘Regeneration’. In that period of regeneration, new kingdoms emerged in Yoruba land. One of them is Ilesha. Ilesha today is located in what used to be the rural frontiers of the Ife metropolis. Ilesha is like the food basket of Ile-Ife. Some of the warriors who repelled Nupe incursion; the Nupe had penetrated to Ila-Orangun and were creating havoc, but the coalition of mainly Yoruba warriors; Oyo, Benin and Ijesha, repelled them. After the repel, some of the warriors that were returning home decided to create their kingdoms. 

It was that period that Ogun became the deity of war. Before, Ogun was a deity of technology. They promoted the deity that was justice and love to become the deity of the new generation kingdoms. Benin adopted Ogun, Oyo adopted Ogun. Though the house of Alaafin is based on Sango, Bashorun of Oyo worships Ogun because he used to be the leader of the Oyo military. Ogun was the deity of the regenerated Yoruba warriors. 

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Holler Box

Newsletter Reminder

Holler Box