By Bode Sowande
I gave a public lecture at the Schomburg Centre, Harlem, New York in the late 90s and the subject of homosexuality was addressed by me, and one theatre director accused me of intolerance. The sum of my submission was, “The Yoruba do not have the word ‘homosexual’ in their vocabulary and by this reasoning, homosexuality is alien to the Yoruba nature and origin.”
Someone shouted, “Did the Yoruba have a word for television? Words are created with new things. Yoruba language would soon create the Yoruba word for homosexuality.” The theatre director who bombarded me with emails thereafter, accused me of being intolerant of gay persons. I disconnected him from my email. Was this an act of tolerance?
The Iyanifa of New York sent me back to Obatala, and I came home to Abeokuta. The Obatala Priest told me in a village: “If you must understand the worship of Obatala, remember this: It is tougher than Christianity. You must say goodbye to anger. You must say goodbye to intolerance”. How do you live a life without ever being angry? The credo of Obatala is creation, creativity, healing and tolerance. A life without anger? You will become Budha or the Dalai Lama.
In Yoruba civilization, Obatala is the only Orisha who has the virtue of absolute tolerance, because the awesome powers streaming through him to humanity prevents him from the vice of “apartness” or anger.
I was astonished when the Obatala Priest said true Obatala existential creed is tougher than the Christian one. He said the Christians he saw were devoid of tolerance. He gave me an example of his. A brand new Christian, aflame with his most recent transformation, invaded the shrine of his family Orisha and set it on “Holy Ghost” fire!
A string of tragic episodes followed in that family. Each tragedy stretched the suffering of family members beyond endurance until they came running with “Baba save us …Stop this calamity”.
The Yoruba civilisation gave man his freedom of religious choice and man boasts about it with the words: ‘Orisha, bo le gbemi, fimisile bo se ba mi’ (meaning, Orisha, if you cannot help me, leave me as you found me).
Indeed, if you are clairaudient, you can also hear what Orisha says in return to man: “Enia bo le sin mi, fimisile bo se ri mi”, (meaning, man if you cannot worship me, leave me as you found me).
Man boasts of his freedom of worship but he is deaf to the self-assertion of the Orisha.
God created man and man created all religions with each religion afflicted by primordial sentiments, all known vanities and vulgar territorial assertions.
The first attack on the religion of the other person is with the tongue, and where possible weapons of minor or major or even mass desctuctions are used on the other religion(s).
The followers of the three religions that originate from the tent of Holy Patriarch Abraham do not even peacefully unite. These three religions are the Jewish faith, the Christian faith and the Islamic faith.
‘My religion is better than yours’ is a cry you hear from all antiquities till today. Yet, mankind has never become better because the tragic history of intolerance keeps repeating itself.
I was intrigued by the assertion of the Olobatala that because Christians are intolerant of other religions, they are robbed of a virtue. What is this lost virtue?
Who is Obatala?
Wole Soyinka in the “Fourth Stage”, an essay he wrote as a scholar in his early 20s, said, ‘Obatala’s patient suffering is the well known aesthetics of the saint’.
The Yoruba call Obatala the FIRST CHILD OF OLODUMARE. (Akobi Olodumare). Olodumare makes Obatala the creator God who comes among men as the Divine Man of absolute goodness and purity. The Obatala devotees welcomed the Christians into their communal space and saw no competition with the new religion.
“What Jesus is to Christians is what Obatala is to the Yoruba and much more than this. Orisha is not in competition with any entity.” So said the Obatala High Priest as I pressed him further.
First son of Olodumare is Obatala, healer of all diseases known and unknown; the turn the other cheek Orisha’. Iwapele, the greatest rule that anchors humanity compares with ‘gentle meek and mild’ of Christ. Ever self-sacrificing only to recreate the Divine essence; this is Obatala.
Nothing new from the foreign religion but the key is tolerance in the communal space of God centred worship. Obatala is without flaw! The Obatala High Priest told me. “When Obatala’s hands slip during creation, palm wine is the culprit, and the result is the physically challenged person”.
Even Christ could not sublimate his anger, whip in hand, in the temple.
We waste time with our passions, seeking competitions between multiple ways of Divine devotion. We fail because we are crassly intolerant. The song that condemns the Orisha in the church is a cry in the darkness of ignorance. God has no religion! He does not, because HE is GOD.
Even here at this panel discussion, two young men have stood up, declaring their departure from a globally celebrated Pentecostal church returning to Ifa. Reason? In search of personal equilibrium and unalloyed truth. We do not need to find reasons for this in the logic of competition! That will show our intolerance.
I can still hear the Obatala priest say, ‘If you choose to live with the creed of Obatala, the Supreme Orisha, you must see all of humanity as equal in their diversities. There must be no anger in your emotions. You must see the afflicted as a creation of Olodumare and your contact with the afflicted must be with unconditional love. Obatala is the God of tolerance and healing of human failings.
Before Jesus came, the Yoruba saw in Obatala what Christians see in Jesus and the peace that Muslims see in Islam.
Today, we know what went wrong; the fraud and evils of colonisation, but we have come of age. In our history, we rediscover the reasons for the high rate of intolerance in our midst and that should make us reclaim what we lost along the way.
We have lost the virtue in accommodating the existence of the different person.
*This is an excerpt of notes made by Sowande at the Wole Soyinka Birthday Panel Discussion on ‘Intolerance’ at the June 12 Cultural Centre, Abeokuta recently