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The story of the Yoruba – A review of ‘Gods and Heroes’ by Oladele Olusanya

On Thursday 19th March, a book launch with a difference took place at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs.

Oladele Olusanya was in the class ahead of yours at Government College, Ibadan, and in Medical School. Clearly endowed with slack capacity, he would sit in class sketching images of the lecturer even as he took in the lecture, and yet he would breeze effortlessly through the prescribed examinations.

Dele is today a physician practicing in Dallas Texas. He draws and paints and holds the occasional exhibition.

He is unveiling his opus major, an ambitious work that is nothing less than an attempt to tell the story of his people, the Yoruba, using a genre of literature that may be described as “faction”. It is a tour de force.

Dele hails from a family with a tradition of storytelling. From a mythical “Old Woman” down to his own biological mother, the story of the Yoruba is given active life through the personal drama of the Olusanyas and Odusanyas who have ended up, over centuries of migration, as citizens of Ijebuland and Remo.

It all begins wih the departure of Lamurudu from Nubia in North Africa, and proceeds to the arrival of his son Oduduwa in the land that would be known as Ile Ife.

Dele is doing what his mother and all his storytelling forebears did before him but putting the story on paper instead of oral tradition and enlarging the ambit.

The product is three volumes of work, totaling some one thousand pages, with the broad title “ITAN – LEGENDS OF THE GOLDEN AGE”.

Gods and Heroes” is the first of those three volumes.

Wale Babalakin, Chairman of the event, is mildly apologetic that he, a “junior boy” from the 1971 set of GCI, is being asked to preside over a book launch where the author is a ‘senior boy’ from the 1965 set, and where many in the audience are “senior boys”. Beyond the jokes, he goes on to speak eloquently, as is his wont. He announces he is purchasing of copies the book for every university in Nigeria.

Trawling through the book takes the reader through the epic journey of Oduduwa. He has inherited the mantle of leadership over a people who call themselves “Our People”, or “Inago”, and who would only be known as “Yoruba” much later. His arrival in Ile Ife. The intermingling with the aboriginal “Igbo”. The rebellion of the aborigines.

Oduduwa’s sons spreading out to found the seven original kingdoms. The heroic sacrifice of Moremi. Oranmiyan and the founding of Oyo Empire. Eweka, Oranminyan’s son and the creation the new royal lineage in the Benin empire.  The ascendancy of great Oyo Empire. The titanic struggles of great men of valour, and the women who inspired and often controlled them. The overweening cultural emphasis on “omoluabi” – the imperative to do the right thing for the individual and the collective.

In the raconteur’s recollections, one of his ancestors, a man named Osogbesan, is sent by the Alafin and his “cabinet” – the “Oyo Mesi”, on a mission to Afonja – the estranged Aare Ona Kankanfo in Ilorin, to reconcile him with the Oyo Empire and rescue him from the impending treachery by his erstwhile friend Alimi and his fighters – the al majiri, who they have discovered to have a hidden agenda through some intercepted communication.

Oyo is sacked, and its people are dispersed to the new centres of Yoruba power – to Ibadan, to Ijaiye. The advance of the rampaging jihadists is halted.

The founding of Ago d’Oyo. The debate over whether Prince Atiba should become Alafin in this new, much lesser homeland of the Yoruba.

The reader meets with Hugh Clapperton and the Lander brothers, as the outside world insidiously intrudes upon the Yoruba world. There is the story of how the Scotsman Mungo Park goes to his end gun in hand, confronting hostile locals at a waterfall.

Dele’s work introduces Yoruba life and mythology to the world, intermingled. Gods become men, and men become gods. There is a central kernel of recorded truth.

In 1796, when Alafin Aole is directed to “go to sleep” at the behest of his Oyo Mesi and Afonja, his rebellious Aare Ona Kankanfo, he angrily swallows the poison, but with his last bit of strength, he stands tall, reaches into his pouch and fires arrows to the four winds, uttering what has become known through the ages as Aole’s Curse:

“…May this curse of I, Aole, Alafin

Fall on the house of Oyo…

The rulers of Yorubaland shall be divided…

The old unity of the Yorubas

Will be lost…

The ancient house and legacy of Oduduwa

Unloved and unattended

Will be overthrown by a foreign people…”

Some authorities would aver that Aole’s curse haunts his people to this day.

In the book, Afonja, the Aare Ona Kankanfo himself is eventually discovered by Osogbesan, the emissary sent by the new Alafin and Oyo Mesi to warn him. He is freshly impaled on the spear of Abdulsalam – the son of his treacherous friend Alimi. The spear was driven in so hard that it has gone right through his body and into the body of one of the al majiri who was holding him from behind, joining them together in death. Abdulsalam would become the first Emir of Ilorin, a land newly excised from Yorubaland. To some, Afonja’s fate is held to be just deserts for treachery to the Yoruba.

Gods and Heroes, as well as the entire trilogy of “ITAN LEGENDS OF THE GOLDEN AGE”, is recommended reading as engaging literature, as a treasure trove of Yoruba history and as resource material for anyone interested in getting an insight into the nuanced and complicated Psychology of the Yoruba.

“Gods and Heroes” is published by Maven Publishing, Ibadan.

It is available in bookshops and online from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Okada Books.



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