The Ooni in America, promoting Yoruba culture

THE PUNCH Newspaper- Niyi Akinnaso

The story continues to be told in Cuba about how he brought rain to the drought-stricken land during his visit there. It rained again in Philadelphia on June 13 and stopped just in time for him to appear on stage to function as the cultural and spiritual anchor for the 35th anniversary celebrations of Odunde, a street festival, carnival, and marketplace, established in 1975 by Ms. Lois Fernandez as a celebration of Black culture. He performed a similar function at the Ifa conference at the Havard University two years ago. He has propagated Yoruba culture to many countries in Europe, the Americas, and the Caribbean.

He is no other than Alayeluwa, Oba Okunade Sijuwade, Olubuse II, the Ooni of Ife, who was making a repeat appearance at the Odunde festival. He was frequently invited to the festival in recognition of his position as the cultural and spiritual father of the Yoruba people. Accompanying the Ooni was the Governor of Osun State, Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola, who was also invited to the festival in dual recognition of his effort in establishing the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding, a UNESCO Category II institution located at Osogbo, Osun State, and of the central place of Osun festival in Odunde rituals.

The guests participated in three major activities, beginning with a special award ceremony in City Hall on Friday, June 11. The Ooni and Governor Oyinlola were presented with the Philadelphia Liberty Bell and City Council Citations and special awards by the Mayor‘s office and the Odunde Festival Committee.

The Ooni was accompanied at the ceremony by his wife, Olori Morisola, and two traditional rulers, the Olufon of Ifon, Oba Al-Maroof Adekunle Magbagbeola, Olumoyero II, and the Alayemore Olojudo of Ido-Osun, Oba Aderemi Adeniyi-Adedapo, Sapoyoro Akorede I.

Saturday, June 12, featured a special Town Hall meeting with Egbe Omo Yoruba of Delaware Valley and select African Americans. The Ooni and Governor Oyinlola were presented with special plaques and two new books, A History of the Yoruba People by Professor Banji Akintoye and The Cradle of Yoruba Culture by Chief Adedayo Ologundudu. The Ooni‘s response was given by Oba Aderemi Adeniyi-Adedapo, whose inspiring rendition of the Ooni‘s oriki drew loud ovation. The Ooni urged the continued reproduction of Yoruba culture throughout the world.

During the interactive session, Professor Akintoye spoke about the influence of Yoruba culture on Africans in the Diaspora despite their relatively small number and late entry into the slave trade. I spoke about the role of memorized Ifa texts in the retention of Yoruba culture and in providing the nucleus of Black culture in the Diaspora. Legendary Twin Seven-Seven wanted to know if Yoruba culture could survive now that English seems to be replacing Yoruba in many domains. I argued that it is precisely because of the shift to English by the new generation of Yoruba children that we must pay attention to our cultural institutions, art, clothing, traditional religion, festivals and other forms of cultural representation. Language is important alright and effort should be made to preserve it, but we cannot put the entire burden of the survival of Yoruba culture on language alone.

The final event in which the Ooni participated was the Odunde festival, which started on Sunday, June 13, with a procession to the Schuylkill River, taken as a surrogate of the Osun River. Practitioners pay homage to the Osun river goddess every August in Osogbo in the belief that she has fertility and healing powers and would bring divine favours.

Odunde practitioners perform the ritual for its symbolic linkage to Yoruba culture rather than in anticipation of rewards from a river goddess. Odunde festival itself is a joint celebration of the survival of Black culture in art, music, fashion, food, and other forms of cultural representation.

Odunde Festival must be understood as yet another in a series of reinvented traditions by African-Americans in their attempt to retrace their roots back to Africa. Notable among such reinventions is the founding of Oyotunji village in South Carolina in 1970. In a further search for authenticity, residents of the village celebrated the 25th anniversary of its founding with a ”pilgrimage” to Oyo town in Nigeria in 1995.

Advances in DNA research, genetic typing and better use of historical records have encouraged African-Americans to take the roots search even further. Those who can afford it can now find out about their original ethnic group in Africa. An African American colleague and friend recently informed me that he employed this new science and got a pleasant surprise: The findings indicate that he descended from the Yoruba stock. I immediately advised him to go take a Yoruba chieftaincy title, preferably from Ile-Ife. It is no longer merely a mark of solidarity with a fellow Blackman when he calls me brother. It is now an indication of genetic bonding.

That‘s why the Ooni‘s recent American visit was highly symbolic for many African descendants in the Diaspora, who no longer view him as the Ooni of Ife alone. This was quite evident in the City of Philadelphia‘s citation, which recognized his contributions in universal terms: ”supporting the development of humanity and sustenance of the culture of the Black race”.

The irony about the Ooni‘s global role is the range of criticisms he has been facing at home for his participation in politics, business, and even Christian worship. These criticisms highlight the problems confronting today‘s traditional rulers as they respond to the social, political, economic and global trends of our time. Ever since the colonial government subjugated the traditional political system under colonial authority, traditional rulers have had to work with the new structures of authority. Today, their appointment or removal is at the mercy of their state governors and their kingdoms coincide with one or more local government areas. This raises many questions: Should they fold their arms and watch as state governors and local government chairmen distribute the resources of their state or local government without lobbying for their kingdoms? Should they renounce their Christian or Islamic faith for the sake of the Crown? Should they close down the business ventures that fed them and their families before they ascended the throne? Should they only tend to ancestral shrines and not augment the paltry government salary, which cannot sustain them?

The question really is not whether or not traditional rulers should participate in political and economic processes. The issue is how to regulate and modernize their role in keeping with democratic governance and new socioeconomic realities. As a trailblazer among educated traditional rulers, the Ooni‘s effort in bridging the gap between democratic and traditional institutions must be acknowledged. So is his effort to propagate Yoruba culture and tradition worldwide.

However, now that the Ooni is in his octogenarian years, it time to consider establishing appropriate institutions, structures, and practices that would attract people from all over the world to Yorubaland, especially Ile-Ife, to learn about Yoruba culture on a regular basis. Occasional festivals and the Centre for Black Culture and International Understanding at Osogbo clearly have their role in promoting Yoruba culture. However, it is time to make Yoruba culture and tradition a major tourist attraction all year round. And the Ooni could lead the way.

Professor Akinnaso teaches Anthropology and Linguistics at Temple University, Philadelphia, United States.


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