19 February 2013

Nigeria: On the Trail of the Orisas

I want to share a wonderful surprise I found during my research at home into our orisas and traditions not too long ago. This journey took me to many towns and cities in Yorubland that I had never been to. I, with my Harvard undergraduate daughter (some bragging rights here) in tow, went to palaces, shrines, churches, and universities. We talked to our Obas, chiefs, orisa priests and priestess, and professors.

At Igboho which used to be the capital of the Old Oyo, I sat down to talk to the kings of the town (there are 3 kings in Igboho). It was a journey we took with extreme anxiety because not only was Igboho reputed to be in the back of the beyond, the road was said to be so bad it took a day to go from Ibadan to Igboho. We got on the road having made contact with the necessary people there. To our surprise, the road was very good. The governor who was looking for votes in those parts since he was not very popular in Ibadan had just paved it. It was a very scenic drive, peaceful and restful.

We sat down talking to one of the Kabiyesis, chit-chatting before the real interview began when he said something about Orisa school. I had to ask him again if he said Orisa school, a place where children systemically learn about our orisa in a structured environment. He said yes. The olorisas in the town started the school so the knowledge and worship of our gods will be transmitted to the children. It is a strategic response to the onslaught of Islam and Christianity. I begged him to delay our interview so someone could take us there. And he did. We traveled for some time because the road was a typical Nigerian road but we got there. It was an elementary school which reminded me very much of my old elementary school in Igede decades ago.

We looked for the principal who explained to us how learning about the Orisa is integrated into the general curriculum. The kids still learn their Arithmetic, Reading, Writing and the other stuff on the curriculum, but they also learn about the Orisas, their orikis, the meaning and how of the belief system and rituals. We were there during the recess time for the kids, but they were called in to come and meet us to display their dexterity in learning about our orisa.

Their teacher, an orisa priest, asked them several questions about some of our orisa and the kids politely raised their hands and answered. Then they were asked to recite some of the oriki and prayers. They first said the prayer which the school starts with daily, and they proceeded to recite the complex, long and beautiful oriki to several gods.

I was completely blown away. The parents who started this school are non-literate, poor and have little political influence. But they struggled to preserve their belief system which they think might die with them if they did not transmit the knowledge and practices to their children.

It was a breath of fresh air for me. Yes, it proves the case that we can learn our science, math, English, Geography and still be faithful to our traditional religion. The olorisa school has a high school component and it is now being partly financed by the local government.

Also in Oyo, there is an Ifa Institute staffed by professors from several universities, many of them retired. Prof. Wande Abimbola heads it. The students in this institute are older and they graduate with a diploma. UNESCO and the Federal Government finance it.

At Osogbo, we met with Iya Osun, (the successor to Adunni Olorisa) and for the first time, I (with my sweet daughter) visited Osun Grove, a gorgeous reserve full of beautiful artistic sculptures done by local artists. Iya Osun is a pretty, gracious and very knowledgeable young woman who graduated from the University of Ibadan with a Master's degree. She took me to the Ataoja, who I would have had extreme difficulty in seeing because as you know hoi polloi like us cannot just walk into the palace. The gate-keepers are ready to make you wait for months. Iya-Osun is a princess of Ataoja House.

The palace reception area was full of people who had come to see the king for one reason or the other. We took our place to wait and then it was our turn. My daughter and I explained the purpose of our visit, and we were well received. I was stunned to see how much Igede-Ekiti featured in Osun mythology. Osun is reputed to have come from Igede, and it is in her Oriki to this day. When I introduced myself to Iya Osun and mentioned my town, she was so delighted to see "awon ara wa" as she called us. Igede is a special town to Osun devotees. We have since become very close friends, and Iya Osun has visited us here in the U.S. several times, doing public speaking in the university here about our orisa, and also traveling around the U.S. to attend to the needs of Osun children all over. Yoruba gods and goddesses are very international. The worshipers here are not Yorubas, they are people of every race and nationality. Many of them make the pilgrimage to Nigeria to get initiated. It is an interesting phenomenon for me to watch as an Ekiti/Yoruba woman that our people are consumed by Pentecostal Christianity while many people in the West look to our orisas to find meaning and purpose in life.

That was how Susanne Wenger (Adunni Olorisa) got to Nigeria in the first place. She and Ulli Bier, her then husband left Europe because of the great disillusion they felt about Europe after the Second World War. 6 million human beings had been annihilated by Nazi Germany, roasted in ovens and gassed to death. Children, women, doctors, bankers, old people, babies, as long as they were Jews, were rounded up and murdered. In Christian Europe! Looking for spiritual solace, Suzanne and Ulli ended up at our shores, and there they found what they were looking for. They got involved so deeply in our religious traditions and our arts. Our spirituality touched them in such a profound way that they devoted their lives in promoting Yoruba culture and traditions. Ulli just died. I regard him and Susanne as our ancestors.

We got to Igede and went to see our Oba, who was very kind and generous to give us time. We asked him about Osun and Oba Aladesuru said she was a princess in Igede who married Sango, the then Alaafin of Oyo. Sango ran into trouble in Oyo and so Osun was heading home to Igede when she stopped in Osogbo. The thing about this narrative was that he spoke about Osun as if she is with us now, as if this just happened recently. It was the most natural thing for me to hear.

There are other delightful findings on this trip. If you are ever in these parts, stop by to greet my Osun. I do have an altar to Osun in my house, set up for me by Iya Osun of Osogbo and a Brazilian priest. Osun is the goddess of fecundity and love. She is beautiful and wise. Her favorite colors are yellow and green. She likes iyan, vegetable soup and honey.

I am also now known as Osunremi.

Ms. Bunmi fatoye-matory was educated at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and the Harvard School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She now lives with her family in North Carolina, the United States.

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