By Lasisi Olagunju
Today’s Yorubaland is a very reluctant part of Nigeria. But it is also the most conflicted of the parts. Its goals are difficult to define – even by itself. A friend from the non-Yoruba part of Edo State asked me at the weekend if the serial declaration of today as a public holiday in the South-West was not a step towards self-determination. I laughed. There is actually supposed to be a Yoruba national day but there has been no agreement when it should be. Instead, four of the six states in the South-West are on holiday today in celebration of what they called Ìsèse Day. Outsiders may not understand what this represents; even many of us inside do not know what purpose the Day serves beyond the justice of “what is good for Muslims and Christians should be good for those who are neither.” The truth is, there is a disconnect between today’s Ìsèse Day and majority of Yoruba people’s contemporary concerns and interests.
Should today’s Ìsèse Day be costumed as a competition with Muslims’s Sallah and Christians’ Christmas? Before you say anything, ask what the word Ìsèse means, literally. It means ‘the beginning.’ And, what is the place of ‘the beginning’ in Yoruba’s belief system? That question was asked centuries ago by the elders: kí l’a kókó se ní’fè ká tó s’awo? (what did we consider first in Ile Ife before worship?). Those who asked the question provided the answer: Ìsèse l’a kókó se ní’fè ká tó s’awo (Ìsèse was considered first in Ife before worship). They explained further what makes up the conceptual Ìsèse :
Ìyá eni, Ìsèse ni (one’s mother is Ìsèse ).
Bàbá eni, Ìsèse ni (one’s father is Ìsèse ).
Orí eni, Ìsèse ni (one’s head is Ìsèse ).
We are not focused on celebrating all the above. Instead, the discussions are about how best to do the impossible: alienate Islam and Christianity in Yorubaland. The celebration of something foundationally key as what we are told Ìsèse is should not suffer thematic and functional deficiencies. The excitement that shrieked across the cyberspace over today’s holiday should have concrete contents. But there is none. Instead, what we’ve seen is an Internet buzz punctuated with a full stop. Whose idea is the choice of today as Ìsèse Day? If it is about celebrating the essentialities of Yorubanness, is this hollow holiday all the Yoruba can do? We could start from little but fundamental things. There is a Yoruba anthem inherited from Obafemi Awolowo. The opening lines state the responsibility of every Yoruba person: Isẹ́ wà fún ilẹ̀ wa/ Fún orílè ìbí i wa (there is work to do for our homeland, the land of our birth). The anthem also contains lines of equity and fairness: “Ìgbàgbó wa ni wípé b’áati b’ẹ́rú lab’ọ́mọ” (It is our belief that the freeborn and the slave are born equal). And the closing lines: Ọmọ Oodu’a dìde, bọ́sí ipò ẹ̀tọ́ ò rẹ/ Ìwọ ní ìmọ́lè gbogbo adúláwọ̀ (children of Oduduwa, stand up and take your rightful place (because) you are the light of the black race). Anthems are not fancy songs. We forgot, this morning, to set aside a few minutes to sing that song across Yorubaland and reconnect our orí inú with our heritage of ancestral goodness.
Will it be wrong if we repackage the entire Ìsèse bouquet infusing it with the creative energy of the Yoruba of all faiths home and abroad? The Indian Diwali is celebrated by Indians of all faiths everywhere around the world in remembrance of their victory over forces of darkness. They do it with lit lamps of peace and liberty. What fundamentals of our culture is Ìsèse Day celebrating today? It is not religion. If it is about promoting the artistic parts of our culture and tradition, we have enough to make the holiday worth having. We can reform the form, reinvent content and learn orderly process from outside. The promoters of Ìsèse Day have so much to do beyond competing with Muslims and Christians on the number of days we are officially off work. There is a lot of clean-up to do in form and content for decent people to identify with whatever Ìsèse represents. I witnessed Olójó Day in Ile Ife twice during the reign of Oba Okunade Sijuwade; it was a struggle against law and order. This year’s Òsun Osogbo Festival in Osogbo claimed lives and limbs. The Edinburgh Fringe Festival holds over three weeks every August in the United Kingdom. The British Council celebrates it as “the world’s biggest arts festival” featuring hundreds of “stand-up comedy, dance performances, theatre, art exhibitions, circus, spoken word, opera and much, much more.” There is also the Belfast International Arts Festival which “brings the world’s best and most innovative artists to Belfast every year from across the globe in a celebration of contemporary arts – dance, music, theatre, visual arts, film and music – with an international outlook and artist base.” I won’t be surprised if the Yoruba play major roles in those festivals.
We should also use this day to ask questions about our politics and why things are as they are. Fortunately, the president of Nigeria is from one of the states celebrating Ìsèse. If Ìsèse approximates orí and all it does, then the leader can use today to reset himself. The Yoruba is told to propitiate the orí and let the gods take care of themselves. There are Nigerians to whom Bola Tinubu’s presidency is still a dream. How did he pull it? He became president, then chose his ministers and assigned portfolios in ways that raised queries and asked questions. I have heard and read words demanding why Lagbaja became Tinubu’s minister and why Tamedo got nothing. People who say things like this have probably not heard the story of Ajé, the struggling man who woke up one morning with the ambition to go to Otu Ife and become Olówó (king of money). Ajé knelt before his orí, his Eléda, and prayed to have his wish granted. But he is soon told that life is give-me-I-give-you; what the Romans, in three syllables, elegantly couched as quid pro quo. The Yoruba say ‘bùn mi kí n bùn o’ is Toad’s monologue at the river bank. What the ambitious want from life is always determined by what they give to life. Ajé was told to add two plus three as sacrifice to the Customs and Immigration officers of life. He did as he was told and in three days he became what he said he wanted to become: Olówo, king of money. The world looked at the crowned Ajé and at the unrewarded struggles of his friends and told itself: “ogbón ju agbára.” How do I translate that? Ogbón in Yoruba means wisdom (or is it guile or money?) which trumps agbára (force). Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (page 116) contains a quaint variant of that translation: “‘Tis knack, not strength, that does it.”
It was easy to do difficult things in the days “when faith was a living thing” (Thomas Hardy again!). And, truly, faith used to be a living thing. Ajé’s story is not a stand-alone narrative. In the same country where Ajé reigned over wealth and money, there was the nameless warrior who wanted to climb Ọgẹ̀gẹ̀, the tree of success. He asked his orí and was told that life’s journey to success was a contest with barbed gates and border closures. On the highway of success were dogs that barked and bit; on the road were chickens with beaks that ate the eyes of the ambitious. There were monkeys on that road with finger-nails of death and bulls with poisoned horns. They were the graveyard of all previous attempts at getting to the tree top. The one who would climb the tree of success to the very top must conquer the dogs and the chickens at the barbed gates; he must overcome the monkeys and the bulls enforcing the border closures. If the ambitious would be successful, he must arm himself with lots of bones and bowls of grains; he must have in his pouch lots of banana, and on his head a basket of fodder. In that age of wisdom, obedience was not seen as senior to sacrifice; both slept in the same bed and travelled in the same saddle. ‘Obedience’ was ‘sacrifice’ spelt differently; they were synonyms. The man who would successfully climb the tree of success did everything he needed to do for the road to accept him. Because his orí did not deceive him and his ears heard well, he had something for every enemy that showed up on the way. To the dogs baying for the flesh of his ambition, the candidate reached for his bag and threw bones; to the pesky chickens, he dropped grains; to mischievous monkeys, he fed banana, and for the bulls and their horns of death, ambition’s basket of fodder was the perfect distraction. The man who would climb life’s tree to the top must do as told; and, because he did as told, his road was weaned of the pestilence of the past. His enemies were busy having their feast of freebies while he waltzed to his prize. He got to Ọgẹ̀gẹ̀ and climbed to the top of the tree of success.
The ascendancy of this president was celebrated by his fans as a genius in the skies. Our push-back at the prebendal essence of what was coming was viewed as a perfect vindication of Jonathan Swift’s defence of geniuses against petty jealousies. They said the president was the “true genius” and we were “the dunces” stupidly in a “confederacy against him.” Money can buy thrones, they cannot sustain them. Reigns are maintained with a fine mix of goodly obedience and sacrifice. It is not enough to conjure crowns and coral beads and be king of money. Being rich enough to be president, governor or minister is a step to genuine success. How about what the Yoruba call àtubòtán, the day after? It happened to the Moon with all its glory. The Moon was asked to sacrifice so that he would have peace of mind. Golden moon laughed at the counsel and turned deaf ears to what the Divine asked him to give. And why would he not be proud? He was up there glowing in glory with all creations of the world looking up to him. Then Olodumare sent for him.
“What is it that you want me to do?” He asked his Maker.
“You will henceforth live fifteen days on earth and fifteen days in heaven,” Olodumare told him and it was a decree. The Moon was stunned but it was too late. It was the world’s turn to laugh at the one who was too big to listen. From that day on, Moon would have no peace of mind. He would be living fifteen days in the world; fifteen days in heaven (see Ulli Beier’s Yoruba Myths, 1980, page 3). The Tinubu government is buffeted by troubles on all fronts. Its headaches are its unpopular policies, domestic and foreign. I could imagine him and his ardent aides stand askance wondering like the defeated Kurunmi of Ijaiye: Are we truly wrong in these matters? The answer may not get to them so soon as it did Kurunmi with his crashing. And lovers of the president tell us that his errors might be because of his age. But his age is not his problem; his problems are the choices he made (and is making). He should beg his orí inu – his inner head – to tell him what is wrong with his ways.
You regularly watch your favourite footballer hold his/her head in regret at every goal missed. Before every contest, such player should sing along with Hubert Ogunde: “…If I have good legs, Creator, let me have good head (Bi mo l’ésè ire, Èdá jé n l’órí ire).” Yoruba’s elevation of orí above religion is therefore deliberate. They say it is what vindicates one before the deities do (atètè gbéni k’òòsà tó gbeni). It was the case with Olókun, king of the seas, who was repeatedly told by his peers that he would amount to nothing. He sought counsel from those who had knowledge and was told to appease his head. Olókun did as he was told and our ancestors said he became oyígíyigì ota omi (oyígíyigì, the rock in the waters). University of Ibadan’s Femi Fatoba (2002) celebrates well this victory over failure: “Olókun became rich and prosperous and all the other bodies of water began to flow into it. Whenever Olókun looked at the other priests who said he would never amount to anything, he surged over them and washed them away.” Olókun would not have won without his being true to truth. Tell Tinubu, the ‘ibú’ in his name means ocean depths. He must have heard it said that fish uses its head to wade through the sea bed: orí ni eja fií la ‘bú. So, tell him Abuja is not Lagos. The few who survived there were the ones wise enough to hold their heads firmly.
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