The Awise Agbaye, Prof. Wande Abimbola, tells OLUFEMI ATOYEBI that he did not know his birthday until he became the Vice- Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife
How was your childhood experience?
I was born in the premises where I live now. My father’s apartment is in the front and I was born in one of the houses in the premises on December 24, 1932. But I did not know the exact date of my birth for many years.
When I was at Baptist Boys High School, now Olivet High School, Oyo, our class teacher one day asked for the date of birth of everyone in the class, so I had to travel seven miles to our village to ask my parents. They said they did not remember the date. They said that they could not recall the date because four other boys had been born before me and they did not survive beyond few months. The Yoruba refer to them as Abiku; that is children who don’t plan to stay long because they were probably on a visit.
I was seen as an Abiku too because they did not know if I would live. That was why they did not remember any detail pertaining to my date of birth.
Several decades later when I was the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ife, now Obafemi Awolowo University, I came home to see my mother, who died 11 years ago at the age of 107, and my elder sister, who is still alive. My sister said I was born on a Saturday. She said that Saturday happened to be a Christmas Eve because on that day, some Christians in the next village were dancing.
I thought that could be a clue to my date of birth. When I got back to school, I asked the librarian to find a Saturday in the 1930s that fell on a Christmas Eve. He said there was one in 1932 and another one in 1938. I knew it could not have been 1938 because I started school in 1945. I could not have gone to school at the age of six at the time. You had to be at least eight years old. I came to the conclusion that I was born on December 24, 1932.
Which other schools did you attend?
I was admitted to the University College, Ibadan, now University of Ibadan, in 1959. I was a state scholar. At that time, the best students in each faculty enjoyed full scholarship. They would also pay stipend to your parents and three children. That was in the colonial times. I studied History.
One of my classmates was Prof Oloruntimeyin. Before my final examinations, there was an advertisement for the employment of a junior research fellow in Yoruba Study at the university. Yoruba as a course was not available at the time. When Oloruntimeyin saw the advert, he advised me to go for it and I was selected.
One of the criteria for the appointment was a Master’s degree certificate in either divinity, anthropology, English or literature. I was not qualified in any way. A week before the interview, the director of the Institute of African Studies, the late Prof R.G Armstrong, dropped a note in my pigeon hole at Melamby Hall. He wanted to see me. When I got there, he said that he saw my application and asked why I applied when I did not even have a first degree.
After more than one hour of discussion, he was impressed with me and said he would short-list me. There were 11 people who had Master’s degree that were invited. I was called in first. When I discovered that the interviewers did not know anything about the subject, the session became a lecture and I lectured them. Four days later, I got a letter of appointment and a note for me to choose an accommodation among the houses available on the campus. That was how I became a junior research fellow in Yoruba Studies even before I wrote my final first degree examination.
I occupied the position for more than two years. While doing it, I started wondering why there was no degree programme in Yoruba. There was a friend who had scholarship to study Linguistics in Birmingham. We discussed the issue when he arrived back in Nigeria and we decided to start a degree programme in Yoruba. But before that, I had to travel to the US to do my Master’s degree in Linguistics. My plan was to return to Ibadan to start the Yoruba programme but on my return, I went to the University of Lagos. I met Dr Adeboye Babalola and another person there and we started a degree programme in Yoruba.
I later did my doctorate degree on Ifa. There were just three of us that bagged the certificate in 1970 at UNILAG and it was the first time the school would offer doctorate degree. The three of us did different programmes.
Which date of birth were you using before you knew your actual date of birth?
On the date that the teacher asked for our birthday, he said it could be at the back of our parents’ Bible but my parents were not Christians. I just told him that I was born on June 26, 1936 when I could not get the date. I used that date until after I became the Vice Chancellor at OAU.
What influence did your parents have over your choice of religion?
The influence of my parents looms large in my life. I was born into a traditional family. My late father was the Asipade of Oyo land. He was the leader of the Ogun community. He was a veteran of the First World War, fighting alongside the allied army that captured Cameroon from Germany.
My grandfather was also a soldier that fought in the Ijaye War of 1858 to 1862. He was the leader of the Alaafin of Oyo army. He fought alongside Basorun Ogunmola and Ibikunle, who was Ogunmola’s superior.
My mother was a Sango worshipper and she taught me how to chant Ijala and Ogun songs. She could render the chants of 15 Orisas (deities). In those days, people were educated in traditional matters through interaction with parents. My mother could remember details of what happened 90 years ago.
Before I went to school, my father enlisted me as an apprentice with the famous Oluwo of Akiitan called Fadairo. I studied Ifa there for eight years before I went to school.
In school, how did you relate with pupils who were either Christians or Muslims.
In the whole of Oyo town at the time, there were just five churches and the faithful were not fanatics. So we related well. The Muslims were even far lesser. Indigenous religion was widely practised.
The free primary education that the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo started in the 1950s propagated foreign religion in Yoruba land. Our minds were changed to look down on our own culture as evil and invalid. They called traditional worshippers candidates of hell. It was propaganda that killed our traditional religions.
They found a way to convert the children who also went back home to convince their parents. Some children told their parents that if they refused to convert to Christianity, they would not give them befitting burial when they died. So many parents converted to Christianity.
It is not a mistake for people to practise a way of life different from the one practised where they were born. The problem comes when you reach a stage and throw away your original way of life. It is not a problem if someone travels to Mecca and returns with the Arab traditional cap. The problem comes when he decides to burn his traditional clothes because they are no longer good for him. That means the man is insane. We have taken foreign religion to a level of insanity.
The decay we are seeing everywhere in Nigeria is the result of the large scale abandonment of the traditional way of our fathers and mothers. We have condemned our way of life and embraced foreign culture. You can be a Christian or Muslim and still see some values in the way of life of our forefathers. Today, parents give their children Mary, Michael, Rasheed or Isiaka. Where are our own names? That kind of life is ruining our culture and our view of the universe in which we live. It leads to hopelessness.
What exactly do African traditional religions connote?
Don’t call it African traditional religion. It comes from Christian mindset. What that means is that it is not really a religion but tradition. Why don’t they say Christian or Islamic traditional religion? I call it indigenous African religion because every religion has its own tradition.
I taught at Boston University for seven years as a professor of divinity and at Harvard as a professor of literature. I taught in 10 American universities and I always tell people that that appellation is not right.
What is Ifa in real sense?
Ifa is one of the orisa (divinity) of Yoruba people. It started in Ile-Ife since the beginning of Yoruba race. We know of Obatala, Ogun, Oya, Osun and so on. Ifa is one of them but it is different because it has more extensive literature than any other divinity. All the chants of Ogun can be rendered in two volumes; like the size of a Bible.
But that of Ifa is versed. There are 256 odus (books) of Ifa. Each odu contains 800 stories. The first book is Ejiogbe and it has 800 stories. In all, we have a total of 204,800 stories. That will fill the size of a large library. There is no other literature in the world that has such volume. Ifa is the greatest heritage of Africa. It talks about everything. It is our own encyclopaedia which is held orally. It is a testimony to the fact that human brain can retain a lot of information without having to write anything. Unfortunately, a lot of it has been forgotten but a good deal of it is still alive.
I have written 10 volumes on Ifa alone and is being used around the world. Nigerians don’t read books. In schools, they just read handouts or a few texts given by the teachers. About 25 years ago, I noticed that some of my books were not available, so I re-edited some of them. One of such books now sells for $1000 per copy in the US.
I gave some of my books to bookshops in Nigeria and encouraged them to sell on return basis. After a year, none of them reported the sale of the books. Some even lost the copies. Odusote Bookshop in Ibadan sold a few copies. In Nigeria, we would rather read newspapers.
Are you also a Babalawo?
Of course I am. I studied Ifa as a youth in Oyo and studied more in Ile-Ife and other places. In 1971, I was initiated as a Babalawo. Ten years later, all the Babalawos in West Africa converged on Ile-Ife to install me as their Awise Agbaye (their mouthpiece).
The job of a Babalawo is to cast Ifa. There are instruments of Ifa like the divining chain, Ikin which is made of sacred palm nuts. The palm nuts have between three to 16 eyes so they can see. When Orunmila or Ifa was alive, he had two eyes in the front and two at the back. A Babalawo will cast and see everything that will happen to the client. It is completely scientific.
It is different from being possessed by orisa like a Sango or Osun priest. After feeding and dancing to those orisa, they can possess you and you will start saying what they ask you to say. Babalawo does not function like that. He uses verses of the odu that he casts.
You can only help your client when you have memorised many verses. Not all of them know all the verses and that is why they work in group. Each of the Babalawo in the group will know different verses and they can chant for more than an hour while attending to a client.
There is an Awise Agbaye who is the lord of Ifa. If he is around, he will interpret the verses for them. Ifa is the greatest African gift to the whole world. Unfortunately, while Ifa has travelled all over the world, Yoruba people, who are the real owners are ignorant about it because somebody changed our minds. There are white people who are now Babalawo and some of them have private jets from the practice.
In New York, there are more than 2000 Babalawos and in Miami, there are more than 100,000. Some of them own banks and function in the legislative house. There are thousands of them in Cuba and other countries.
Can the Ifa verses be documented into a book like the Bible or Quran?
People ask me that question everywhere I go. Ifa books are available everywhere. I wrote several volumes from the 1960s but people don’t read them. That is the problem I am trying to point out.
Do the white men use Yoruba to practise Ifa?
Do you have to practise Christianity in the white man’s language? The white men who practise Ifa have found a way of modifying it. They chant in Yoruba language but speak to the clients in the language they understand.
Are your children also practising Ifa?
Olodumare (God) blessed me with many sons and daughters including three sets of twins and they are either Babalawo or Iyanifa. They all followed in my footsteps. Let me clarify however that I am not saying that they might not follow other religions. All I am saying is that it is wrong to discard your own culture. My son, Taiwo, studied in Cuba. He is a Babalawo. He is known in all Spanish speaking world.
You have a white woman as a wife. Is she also practising with you?
I married other wives as well who are Nigerians. I had three wives before I married the American, we met in the US. I live more in the US and come home constantly. Some people will marry 10 wives and hide nine. Part of our culture is not to maltreat women.
My American wife speaks seven languages. She is an Iyanifa. She knows all the Ifa chants that I know and she will render them in Yoruba. I travel with her all over the world to meet world religious leaders like the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury, leaders of Hindus all over the world and so on.
Do you preach religion to them?
We don’t preach. There should be a law to regulate preaching all over the world. Why should someone come and stand in front of my house to preach that anyone who is not a Christian or Muslim will go to hell? You don’t condemn people’s religion. Whatever your religion teaches, do it with dignity.
I was in a church during a programme in the 1970s and the preacher said Babalawos would go to hell. I stood up and told him that I would not go to hell. I asked if his forefather who once practised indigenous religion was in hell. After the service, he came to apologise. Babalawo will never condemn Christianity or Islam. If you see what we are doing and you want to follow our way of life, you are welcome.
In Ifa practice, do you believe in after life in either heaven or hell?
We believe that if you do something wrong, when you get to heaven, you will be punished. From our literature, there is nowhere where hell is mentioned. At the gate of heaven and earth, people will be questioned.
Is there a link between Ifa and other religions?
Christianity and Islam call God by various names. We Yoruba people call Him Olorun or Olodumare. When Christians and Muslims want to call God in Yoruba, they call Him Olorun.
We have had cases where armed robbers would say that Babalawo did charms for them. Does a Babalawo have powers to do such things?
There are people we call Onisegun, they are not Babalawo. Babalawo does not do evil.
There are various versions of Yoruba history. How can we get the authentic history of Yoruba people?
Ifa will tell you the authentic history. Everybody knows that human lives started in Africa. The Yoruba claim that it starts in Ile-Ife. How then can someone say that Yoruba are from Egypt or Mecca?
How did you get the title of Elemoso of Ketu in Benin Republic?
I don’t like accumulating titles. The late king of Ketu in Benin Republic, Adiro Adetutu, was my friend. He gave me the title. The title means the protector of Ketu.
But I don’t let people pile titles on me. Those who do so call themselves chiefs. What does that mean? What it means is an uncivilised person. If you go to Europe or England and call yourself a chief, they might ask you to come and dance for them. Nobody in the civilised world bears the name chief.
You once had a stint in politics. Compare your time as a senator to what we have now?
I was the Senate leader between November 1992 and November 1993 when the late Sanni Abacha ousted us. But the Senate I led was not paid. Only N5,000 was paid to each of us to visit our constituency once in a month. We were all lodged and fed free at the Hilton Hotel. I have said it many times that we were not paid a dime.
Our problems are the people and not the politicians. We vote them to go and steal and bring home the loot. When Abacha drove us out, I came to my house in Oyo. That is my only house in Nigeria. I had no car, so I took a bus and arrived home at 2am. I actually had two Mercedes Benz cars that were at home for 15 years before I gave them out. I was using taxis to go out.
I went to Lagos twice in danfo (commercial bus) as a senator. On one occasion, I sat in the front seat. We entered Lagos at 5.30am. In the bus, people were talking about me. They said that I went to Abuja and I returned a poor man taking taxis each time I went out. One of them said that people like me who could not steal should not be voted for.
When the bus stopped, I looked back and greeted them. I introduced myself to them and they were shocked. The people make the politicians thieves. I don’t cherish material things. My father built the house I live in in 1918 after he returned from the World War. I only built more houses in the compound to be comfortable. That is all I have.