(Lecture delivered at the annual public lecture series of Afenifere Renewal Group USA Chapter, Detroit, Michigan. September 24, 2011)
I’d like to thank Mr. Taiwo Oladotun Ogunleye, Coordinator of Afenifere Renewal Group-USA, for accepting the punitive assignment of finding and inviting me to this event on behalf of your organization. It was a punitive assignment because even my most generous friends would readily concede that Harry Houdini, that legendary American escape artist and magician, was my elder brother from another mother. Hence, I plead guilty to being as difficult to reach or pin down as my American sibling. I must also congratulate the executive board and, indeed, all members of Afenifere Renewal Group-USA, for convening this public lecture series. I am honoured that I have been asked to deliver this “inaugural lecture” of sorts since this is your maiden event.
Any doubts I might have entertained about being able to honour your invitation because of scheduling conflicts – I am in the middle of intensive book promotion activities - were quickly brushed aside when I saw the names of the three other invited speakers: Yinka Odumakin, Dipo Famakinwa, and Omoyele Sowore. These men are national leaders whose praxes and social vision make my own modest intellectual investment in Nigerian public discourse worthwhile.
Every waking day is a struggle not to give up on Nigeria. Every waking day is a struggle not to let Nigeria destroy your sanity. And when you approach the sort of psychic ennui induced by worrying endlessly about the senseless rape of our own dear native land by the world’s most irresponsible political elite, you think of the inspirational struggles of the Odumakins, the Sowores, and the Famakinwas of this world; you think of the force of their conviction; you think of their determination to deny the traducers of our collective hopes and aspirations the final word in the unfinished argument that is Nigeria; you think of all this and you know that you dare not give up. I thank these men for their service, leadership, and inspiration.
The personal examples of these three men bring me to my topic. Those of you who are sufficiently familiar with my public writings and lectures should know that I am D. O. Fagunwa’s Itanforiti, the storyteller. Thus, when Mr. Taiwo Ogunleye gave me a topic, “The Decline of Omoluabi Ethos in Yoruba Land”, with the caveat that I was free to play around with it, he must have suspected that he was tempting Mr. Itanforiti to fly here all the way from Canada and regale you with stories.
Stories of things not remembered and the road no longer taken in Yoruba land. Stories of how bastardized and countercultural versions of omoluabi ethos have swept aside the real deal in Yoruba land, giving a satirist like me a bumper harvest of material such as the stuff I served you in “Bode, Tibi Nko?”, “Dimeji, Wahala Wa O”, “Dimeji’s Yams”, “The Lonely Charlatans”, “You Be Tief, I No Be Be Tief” and many other satirical sketches that are still travelling virally online. The more I thought about how realities in Yoruba land have supplied the thematic core of my omoluabi satires for Sahara Reporters and Nigerian Village Square, the more I realized that the decline of omoluabi ethos is in part a consequence of our inability to probe and listen to our own stories. I thought of the aptness of one biblical declaration.
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”. This beautiful line from the psalmist of the Christian imagination enters the Yoruba Bible literally as “ti Oluwa ni ile ati ekun re”. As is the case in most instances of culture contact, the universe of meaning contained in that Christian message is at variance with the Yoruba imagination. A worldview that responds to Christianity’s surrender of the way, the truth, and the life to the singular subjecthood of Jesus Christ with a democracy of choices and options summed up in the proverb “ona kan o w’oja” (multiple roads lead to the market) cannot be expected to surrender ownership of the earth and the fullness thereof to a single deity.
Thus, the Christian “ti Oluwa ni ile ati ekun re” (the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof) is often replaced in Yoruba popular culture with a version that responds more effectively to the pluralistic impulses of its cultural context: “ti Oluwa ni ile ati awon ti o mo itan re” (the earth belongs to the Lord and to those who know its story). This is where we get to the call and response part of this lecture. Ladies and gentlemen, from this point till the end of my speech, you will please oblige me with the refrain, “ati awon ti o mo itan re”, whenever I say “ti Oluwa ni ile”. I am sure you all remember your Fela of “when I say panpala you go say bo lo o ya”?
Ti Oluwa ni ile… I can’t hear your response, let’s try again: Ti Oluwa ni ile… ati awon ti o mo itan re! Of all the possibilities in this world, why would the Yoruba accord co-ownership of the earth and the fullness thereof to those who know the itan (the story); to those who remember; to those who do not forget? Why are the owners and rememberers of the story so crucial to the nature of things? Beyond my obvious writerly bias for stories, the answer, I guess, lies in the fact history avails us of no example of a culture or civilization that has ever risen above its own narratives. The loss of omoluabi ethos in Yoruba land is therefore also the loss of the narratives that enabled that vital aspect of being Yoruba. Ti Oluwa ni ile…
Ati awon ti mo itan re. I remember. My earliest encounters with the story entitled Obafemi Awolowo. No, it wasn’t via the first television station in Africa; no, it wasn’t in the classrooms of free education; no, it wasn’t on the pages of his prodigious intellectual publications. My earliest memories of Chief Obafemi Awolowo are locked up in the drama of years of a pre-adolescent struggle against sleep. In the cornucopia of elderly voices that come together to raise a child in the typical village setting came the urban legend of Obafemi Awolowo’s chariot racing across the face of the moon in the dead of night. I am sure you are all familiar with that story. Somehow, only the elders in the village were ever fortunate enough to catch the fascinating sight of Awo riding his chariot on the moon. As kids, we were hungry for that sight. And we would keep vigil with the elders during tales by moonlight. Ti Oluwa ni ile…
Ati awon ti omo itan re! No matter how hard we tried to keep awake, Awo always managed to appear after we had fallen asleep. The elders made sure of that. In the morning, when each elder made the obligatory “k’aro, o jire” passage by our house on his or her way to the farm, they would chat with my parents – always making sure that we , the children sweeping the compound, were within earshot – about Awo’s chariot across the moon the previous night. Every elder had a detail to add, a variation on the theme of Awo’s quasi-celestiality, such that so much jara, so much curry, and so much tomapep was added to the story. The exaggerations would make us take a painful measure of what we missed and determine to stay awake next time to try our luck.
That good luck never came. Ti Oluwa ni ile…
Ati awon ti o mo itan re! Now, years later, I look back on that Awo narrative and try to remap the thought processes of the elders who deployed it as a key component of the pedagogical tools with which they raised us in our formative years. By constructing an imaginary that situates a Yoruba national hero on the moon, the elders’ goal was to sensitize us to the fact that our possibilities in life were limitless if we made ourselves amenable to the principles of omoluabi and its corollary – “bibi ire”. What propelled Awo to the moon – what our elders and parents wanted us to imitate – was the profundity of the personal example that his life represented. And that personal example had at its core the constitutive elements of omoluabi. Ti Oluwa ni ile…
Ati awon ti o mo itan re! The connection between Awo’s moon myth and omoluabi is not tenuous when you consider the core elements of omoluabi. In his brilliant paper, “Human Personality and the Yoruba Worldview”, Ademola Kazeem Fayemi, a philosopher at the Lagos State University, citing authorities as divergent as Wande Abimbola and Sophie Oluwole, identifies the following characteristics of omoluabi: oro siso (spoken word), iteriba (respect), inu rere (being of pure thought toward others), otito (truth, sincerity), akinkanju (bravery), ise (hard work), and opolo pipe (intelligence). Ti Oluwa ni ile…
Ati awon ti o mo itan re! Obviously, any Yoruba can expand this list of omoluabi ingredients but most people would agree that the father of them all is iwapele or iwa rere (good or gentle character) and that is why Professor Ademola Fayemi suggests that iwapele “is ultimately the basis of moral conduct in Yoruba culture and a core defining attribute of omoluwabi”. So important is iwapele that Yoruba Christians have lifted it from the territory of omoluabi and grafted it onto the persona of Jesus Christ. Let’s see how many of you can sing this Yoruba Christian praise song along with me:
Mo fe dabi Jesu
Ninu iwapele o
Ko s’eni to gboro ibinu
Lenu re lekan ri o
(I want to be like Jesus
Good and gentle in nature and character
No one ever heard him speak in anger
Not even once)
The Yoruba Christians who composed this popular chorus obviously forgot that Jesus spoke in anger at least once and even used his whip for good measure on the moneychangers who defiled his Father’s house in Jerusalem but that is a story for another day. Suffice it to say that Yoruba Christians recognize the importance of iwapele and that is why they render it indissociable from the nature of Jesus Christ. Bearing that in mind, what do you think Suberu Oni, the famous juju maestro of the 1960s and 1970s, is doing in this song that I am going to ask you to sing along with me?
Eni ba ri Awolowo ko ma ki ku iroju
Eni ba ri Awolowo ko ma ki ku iroju
Ile ejo ni Baba wa ni igbati Segun ku
Sibe sibe Baba o bara je
Eniyan bi Jesu l’Obafemi o Awolowo
(If you see Awolowo, commiserate with him
If you see Awolowo, commiserate with him
Baba was in the middle of a court case when Segun died
Yet Baba never lost his composure
Obafemi Awolowo is indeed like unto Jesus)
So, Jesus is iwapele according to Yoruba Christians. And Obafemi Awolowo is like unto Jesus according to Suberu Oni. Translation: iwapele, the father of all the attributes of omoluabi, is the site where Jesus and Awolowo converge, at least in the Yoruba imaginary. This explains why Awolowo’s already daunting achievements in the spheres of politics, economics, and social welfare in Yoruba land and in Nigeria pale in comparison to the suasive power of his life as the example that parents across Yoruba land transformed into a pedagogy of omoluabi to raise their children. “If you want to reach the moon like Awolowo”, they would say, “you have to do this, this, and that.” Ti Oluwa ni ile…
(To be continued next week)