On Thursday we made our way to Osogbo, Osun State, to see the first places where the Yoruba people formed and lived. This is where it all began and on the agenda was the Sacred Osun Grove, city of Ile-Ife and the sacred sights there and a trip to the city of Ejigbo. Our plan was to see as much of the old beliefs and customs as we could. These were all on the list because two of my favourite songs in Salvador mythologise these very places and they made up two of the tracks on the Batala London album. After listening to those songs so many times, now was the time to see these places for real.
We arrived in Osogbo and spent the night in a hotel bar up the road. This is real Yorubaland and a lot of people here speak only Yoruba. I’ve managed to pick up a few Yoruba words and phrases in my 3 weeks here so a whitey coming to town and speaking Yoruba makes the locals literally go mad. One bloke danced in the street when I shouted ‘E ka a le, bawo ni’ (good evening, how are you) at him off the back of a bike.
Ojo and I spoke about all sorts in the bar. The subject of reincarnation came up and Ojo mused on whether I have some ancestral link to Africa in some way because I’ve embraced it so much here and have always wanted to come. My Mum believed in reincarnation so it’s always been something I’ve been aware of. I remember a few years back having a conversation with some friends about consciousness. I was adamant that it must go somewhere when we die – it’s too abstract to just die with the physical form. This theme seems to crop up a lot.
I can’t remember why but we also talked about a phrase my flatmate and full time legend Huw said to me once. “There are three things you can never take back – the sped arrow, the spoken word and a missed opportunity”. It turns out this used to be four things – the ‘past life’ was included in an earlier citation. There it is again. It’s a Chinese proverb apparently. Ojo taught me a Yoruba phrase: “oro odabi iso”, which means ‘once you fart you can’t take it back’. I’ll keep that.
I also found out that the Igbo tribe, from the Eastern parts of Nigeria, are a lost tribe of Jews. They are the Israelites of Nigeria. Calabar, that we’re going to for Carnival in December, is Igbo and I’m going to Ethiopia in January so with the the links to Israel there, I’m gonna do some reading up on that. There are 30 million Igbo people, so there are many descendants.
We got an Okada to get some dinner and the driver became our friend for the whole trip. He drove us everywhere and joined us for all of our visits to these sacred places. He was lovely and a complete Godsend.
Our first trip on Friday was to the Osun Sacred Grove.
Osun, or Oshun, or Oxum, is the deity of the river and fresh water, of sexuality and fertility and of beauty and love. We were taken round the beautiful site by a tour guide, who luckily believes in it so had real passion for the stories. At one point in the past, every Yoruba city had a sacred forest.
This is one of the last sacred forests that adjoined the ancient Yoruba civilisations before the extensive urbanisation. It runs on the banks of the Osun River and is probably the most peaceful place I’ve ever been to. Shrines and artworks are everywhere, each representing a deity, symbol or story.
In the 1950s the grove had fallen in to a state of desecration. Trees were being felled, Yoruba Priests were leaving and Shrines were being damaged. It was an Austrian artist called Susanne Wenger who managed to place renewed importance on the area. With the support of the Oba of Osun and the local people, she built many artworks, restored shrines and brought the sacred area back to life again. This goes with what we’ve spoken about before – the traditions here are readily abused and forgotten and it even sometimes takes a complete outsider to restore it.
Wenger and her husband moved to Nigeria after the war because her husband was a lecturer at the University of Ibadan, about an hour from Osogbo. She continued as an artist (her art was banned in Vienna during the war) until contracting tuberculosis. There were no doctors on the ground to help her and she’d resigned herself to dying – until the Yoruba people stepped in. Using herbal and traditional medicines she made a full recovery and decided to devote her life to it. Early on she didn’t speak English or Yoruba so communicated “through the language of the trees”. She was an amazing woman and eventually became a high Yoruba Priestess.
Nigeria is predominantly either Christian or Muslim and she recieved great criticism at restoring these Pagan beliefs. Her response was “Orisha is merely a name which represents the supernatural forces which are basic expressions of life. It does not matter what you call it. It is a sacred force that represents the experience of life that informs human beingness. As with all religions, there is no true way to explain it along rational lines without leeching it of its meaning and intensely personal quality. You are part of it and it is part of you”.
The tour guide said that you’ll never see war in Yorubaland because the people are so inclusive of everyone and everything. There’s even a Shrine to Jesus in the grove, called ‘Ela’.
We took a dip in the river and walked over a bridge built in 1935 that had a gorgeous view.
The river’s source is in Ekiti and it meets the sea at Lekki in Lagos. You can feel how sacred she is as you spend time with her. There’s certainly a mystical quality within the water. But I like rivers anyway; real magic can be found in a river. Starting the trip here meant we could get a blessing for the rest of our time in Osun State.
Next up was our trip to Ile-Ife, the city where the Yoruba civilisation began. The Yoruba people used to be called Ife, as did the language, but it became known as Yoruba. It’s the same thing but a different name. Ile-Ife means wide ranging city.
The tour guide at Osun Grove gave us a number of somebody who works at the Ife museum who could take us on a tour to the shrines and spiritual sites. We bombed it on the Okada for an hour and a half to Ile-Ife and phoned the number. After some typical Nigerian bartering he and his wife agreed to take us to the Oranmiyan Shrine, Obatala Temple, National Museum of Ife and Ifa Temple.
We made our way to the Oranmiyan Shrine first. He was Oduduwa’s son (Oduduwa was a King of Ife) and although his last born, was the prime heir. Oranmiyan was born half yellow and half black and was a warrior. Stood in the middle of the Shrine is his staff.
Oranmiyan founded Oyo, where the Osun River also runs through, and one of his sons was the first Oba of Benin. Being a warrior, he regularly left Ile-Ife to conquer other states. However one time he left wasn’t for war, it was for pleasure, and back then there was a form of communication they used over great distances. He told his wife to contact him if war breaks out in Ile-Ife and to only contact him if so. He said he wouldn’t be gone long but after some weeks the people of Ife were worried about war breaking out and their lack of protection so they begged his wife to contact him. He returned and started killing people, thinking there was a war on. They told him that there was no war and he was killing his own children. He put his staff down, where it remains to this day, and went to rest in his chamber. They found him dead the next morning, on his horse. The place is now a Shrine to Oranmiyan and a festival takes place every September.
You can’t enter the Oranmiyan Shrine if you have Yoruba tribal marks on your face. This rule wasn’t enforced on the man taking us round, as he had very pronounced marks on his cheeks.
We then made our way to the Obatala Holy Temple.
Every 5 days they have a ceremony, much like Christians going to Church on a Sunday. We were lucky enough that one of these started just as we arrived. It was incredible. Everybody was dressed in white. It started with them eating Kola Nuts and calling out a deity as they picked one up, with the group then responding in unison. Orishala, Obatala, amongst others, all with a call and response. They then said prayer and drank Schnapps, offering some to the Gods as well. The women then sat on one side on the floor with the children. The men sat on chairs, hitting iron instruments together and singing. There were two drummers as well. Some of the women one by one got up to kneel down and bow to the Obatala Priest before dancing to the music. Then it happened – two girls and one bloke had their spirit take over. It was amazing to watch and very similar to the footage I’ve seen of Candomble Terreiros in Brasil. The spirit completely took them over and they jolted and shook and screamed their way round the Temple, eyes shut, consumed by the spirit. I didn’t take any pictures or videos because I didn’t want to gawp but it was incredible to watch. The Obatala Priest spent most of it on his phone.
We then managed to sit down and talk to the Priest. I asked him how he became Chief. It was a simple answer – he starts at the bottom and then as people above you die off, he climbed the ladder. Obatala is seen as the most important deity; the creator of everything. We got a picture with the Priest, who’d put his phone down.
He gave us Schnapps and it was all rather cosmic. So much of this stuff I’ve seen through playing Brasilian music and tracing its roots is quite the experience.
Next on the agenda was the National Museum of Ife. We couldn’t take pictures inside but some of the art here is gorgeous. Everything in the museum is pre-slavery. We saw the journey of Yoruba art from the 12th to 15th century from early first attempts at clay faces to eventual beautiful terracotta human heads. It had tools, cooking implements, costumes – a real old Yoruba history lesson and very touching.
I also asked if these old beliefs have a name, like being called Candomble in Brasil and Cuba. They don’t – it’s simply called traditional.
Last on the list was the Ifa Temple.
Inside the Ifa Temple was the Orunmila chain, inside the ground. Orunmila was the Godfather of Knowledge. He didn’t die, he vanished at that very point in the Temple in to the ground, and during their festival once a year, the chain comes out that spot in the ground. The other side of the Temple was a sacrificial pit that 3 live Rams are thrown in to during festival time. One person who worked at the Ifa Temple also said that the Biblical flood that Noah built his Ark for didn’t happen at the Temple.
We met with the Ifa Priest, housed opposite the temple. This is where the divination happens.
He sat down. Ojo spoke to some money and handed it to him. With an Orunmila chain of his own, the Ifa Priest began consulting Ifa with the chain. Because Ojo had spoken to the money, Ifa was supposed to communicate with him, but the chain kept coming back saying that I was related to Ifa, and pointing that it was communicating with me. The money had come out of my wallet so it might have been that. Or it might have been because the first track on the Batala London album is called ‘Uma Historia de Ifa’. I certainly felt something on the back of my neck in there. Who knows.
We made our way back to Osogbo, exhausted after a long day’s spiritual. There was plenty of time for me to get my Yoruba out to the girls in the restaurant though.
Saturday was our visit to Ejigbo. Immortalised in the song Uma Historia de Ifa mentioned above and written by Reg Zulu and Ytammar Tropicalia, it’s a very famous song in Salvador about a shining, flourescent Yoruba city called Ejigbo.
We went in to the Palace to try and speak to the King. Unfortunately he was busy but we managed to speak to somebody who was part of the royal family. He said Ejigbo was founded by Akinjole Ogiyan, son of Obatala. He also said Obatala was orginally from Sudan and Akinjole was from Ile-Ife. Ejigbo is also known is Ogiyan.
This is the statue of Akinjole next to the sprawling market.
He also told us that Ejigbo people are notorious travellers and many other countries have people who are natives from the city, including in Ghana and Brasil. Ejigbo people, no matter where they end up, make another Ejigbo in their new settlement.
He gave us the contact of Baba Olota, who is the Head of Masquerade in Ejigboland. He was really great and willing to answer any questions. He had astigmatism in his eyes and it appeared that he could look both Ojo and I in the eye at the same time as we sat next to each other. He offered us a drink, a piece of Turkey (significant because birds are used as sacrifice when asking the deities for something) and some sweetcorn as we asked him about the city and its people. We asked him how he felt about the traditions being carried on elsewhere. A lot of deities were taken from Ejigbo and are now worshipped elsewhere. He said that they are trying to bring a some of it back to Ejigbo, and create a cross cultural exchange between these other places. One Brasilian guy came to Ejigbo for their festival once and said to Baba Olota that he needs to head back early to celebrate a Witch Festival. It surprised Olota because celebrating witches in Nigeria is seen as an abomination. What has been rejected in Nigeria has been embraced elsewhere by the diaspora, which we’ve spoken about a lot in this blog. We asked him also about the preservation of traditions in Ejigbo. He said that the traditions were kept in the past by dedicated time in schools and at home for storytelling. It’s very rare now for tradititional Yoruba storytelling in schools and he hopes to see it bought back to keep it alive. One thing I love about Yoruba culture is that so much of it is oral history, but this does make it susceptible to disappearing.
Ejigbo now is very Muslim. Opposite the palace, with the old fashioned tradition of having the market right outside it, is a huge Mosque overlooking the city. We had a drive around and there are many Mosques and headscarves. The Christian presence was a lot smaller and the traditional even less so.
All of the people in the places we visited insisted that we come back during festival time. These customs are so sacred that they can only be celebrated once a year and they all said “iroyin koto amojube” – seeing is believing. Telling us about it is not the same as seeing it all for real. But I’ve seen more than I could ever have imagined and left Osun State profoundly touched by this beautiful culture and its fight for preservation.