‘Ile-Ife is a product of Ekiti’
He set out to interrogate Yoruba regional interactions and political development, but found himself at the heart of the beginning. Welcome to The Yoruba: A New History, a book chronicling the origin and history of the Yoruba by archaeologist and anthropologist Prof Akinwunmi Ogundiran. At a reading at Page Bookshop in Lagos, the scholar, in conversation with former Lagos State Commissioner for Tourism, Arts and Culture Mr. Steve Ayorinde, revealed the book is more than just a historical documentation of the Yoruba. EVELYN OSAGIE was there.
There is always a story behind a story. A story informs a book like this. I will start with the story of being a researcher, a scholar. I did not set out to write this book; I was researching different topics about the Yoruba people. I’m an archaeologist, historian and anthropologist; a field scholar who goes out looking for evidence on different types of questions. I was interested chiefly in regional interactions and how Yoruba political institutions developed.
But, there are pioneers like Samuel Johnson, Saburi Biobaku, Prof. Akinjogbin and Prof. Akintoye and many other scholars who have written on Yoruba. In my research, I used the template they have provided to interrogate Yoruba regional interactions and political development. And there are certain canonical researches or topics that we don’t question because we feel they are already settled. But, at a point, I realised that the information I was discovering was not consistent with some of the canonical narratives that we have in the template. That took me a long time to come to terms with the reality that the template was not what I have been told.
So, about 10 years ago, I then decided to write this book. That means I had to return to the field several times to fill the gaps. By that time, I had abundant materials. I was planning to write the book from 1500-1800; then I realised I needed to go back to the beginning of Yoruba history, and that beginning was about 300 BC. That is why I titled it, The Yoruba: A New History. A new history that does not take away from what the pioneer did but has added to it and, at the same time, challenges all the things we think we know or we know as scholars. As scholars, we are always asking questions; we are never satisfied with the answers. New answers lead to new questions. That is what we do as social scientists. In this book, I challenged us to think about what we think we know. Then, we can have an open mind on Yoruba history.
Yoruba: Who are we?
We always use the tribal model to discuss African history, which is a European imposition that claims that we were trapped before their arrival. We were living on the tree. We were gyrating; we had no sense of the past, so we were trapped. One of the things I established in this book is that the Yoruba have been global in their thinking before the Europeans arrived. So, I used the term ‘Community of Practice’ to describe the Yoruba, that we are a people with privileged knowledge as the basis of identity.
In this book, I argue that many people were not Yoruba speaking before but became Yoruba due to their interactions with Yoruba speaking people or as a result of Yoruba Empires like Ife were the first Empire in Yoruba history, not Oyo. Oyo was the Second Empire. As a result of empire formation, the Yoruba could incorporate other non-Yoruba speaking to become Yoruba. So, I call the Yoruba a ‘Community of Practice’.
That’s why when you look at Yoruba oriki, there are people like Nupe that became Yoruba without their oriki as part of Yoruba history. Likewise, there were people like Bashorun Gaa that we celebrate or hate for his role in Yoruba history. He was a man of Ibariba descent. Even the name Gaa is not a Yoruba name, but because of the role that the Ibariba played in the formation of the Oyo Empire, they were incorporated into Oyo Empire and therefore, they did not lose their Ibariba ancestry but became Yoruba because they became Oyo.
We have Mossi from present-day Burkina Faso, who became Yoruba as well. When you look at some of the facial marks that we bear, and I discuss it in this book, a facial mark like ‘gombo’. Tell me the etymology of ‘gombo’. It has none. We have facial marks like Toure; what is toure? These are facial marks that other ethnic groups brought into the Oyo Empire. They celebrate their identity because the Yoruba are city people. We are city builders. City builders don’t discriminate. A city is like a corporation. A corporation always celebrates diversity because you want to attract the best talents to come into your city. You will always look for skills that other people have and integrate them into your city. This is what the Yoruba are, and it’s why the Nigerian question is a setback for the Yoruba.
I want to use this forum to ask our traditional leaders to be more sensitive to history. I wrote this book because I was tired of people making up narratives that do not exist to suit their interest. I think our traditional rulers should not be partaking in that kind of discourse because they are leaders. We look up to them to know the history and not to mislead the younger generation. I also want them to provide funding for historical research instead of making up stories because of their superiority. That’s not going to help the Yoruba agenda.
It will not benefit the African agenda. Maybe that will be a better way of putting it. Considering the importance of Yoruba history and culture in the global affair, many people who are not Yoruba are interested in Yoruba history. There are many people outside Nigeria, outside West Africa, who pay attention to what happens in the Yoruba region. They are always asking, what are your kings saying? They do not expect our kings to behave this way.
The Nigerian question is a setback because becoming subjects of the British Empire meant that British colonialism transformed us into tribes. We were cosmopolitan. We were urban people who brought other people in, and that’s why you have different groups among the Yoruba. That’s why I call the Yoruba a ‘Community of Practice’. We had a system of integrating non-Yoruba into the Yoruba agenda. That’s why we have facial marks from Ibariba, from Mossi in our country today. Likewise, our culture influenced those other people. That’s why Benin was a member of the Ife Empire, no matter what people may say today. I know there are some revisionist history being written in some parts of Nigeria. The Royal House of Benin knows that they are part of the Empire.
Tracing the history of the Yoruba beyond Oduduwa
You will not see Lamurudu in this book; you will not come across Mecca. You will come across Arabia in this book. You will not see Sudan as the origin of Yoruba because the Yoruba did not come from Mecca or Sudan. We did not come from the Jews. In this book, I put together so many sources that no other book has ever done because I’m an archaeologist.
Our history began about 4000 BC. That was when Yoruba as a language community began to evolve. We always talk about climate change; no one has ever paid attention to the influence of climate change on Yoruba history. You can map Yoruba history into environmental changes in the last 2000 years. The history of the Yoruba is the history of resilience. It’s a history of change and continuity. It’s a history of how our ancestors were resilient in coping with ecological crisis; which led to the expansion of the Yoruba.
Yoruba, 300 BC
About 300 BC, the Yoruba were the smallest group of people. When I say the Yoruba, I’m talking about the proto-Yoruboid who lived around the present Kogi State, on the south-western side of River Niger. To the north, there were Nupe. This proto-Yoruboid gave birth to three major languages today; the Igala at the other side of River Niger, the Itsekiri and the Yoruba dialects. These are based on history linguistics. The climate change of 300BC is what we called ‘The Big Drive’ that led to the proto-Yoruboid expansion. Climate change does not have to lead to societal collapse but could lead to societal expansion and bring us to Ile-Ife.
These migrations led to innovations; political innovations. It led to the first kingdoms around 700 AD. That’s when kingdoms like Oba, in the present-day Igbomina stretching to the present day Akure, were developed. My argument in this book which will be controversial is to say that Ekiti people are not the product of Ile-Ife; Ile-Ife is the product of the Ekiti region.
The Yoruba: A New History
This book is based on the new frontiers of knowledge. I’m not saying the pioneer historians got it wrong. They used the limit of their knowledge. Today, I’m using the limits of mine.
Some of the innovations that happened in Ile-Ife in the last two centuries of the first millennium between 800 and 1000 AD were already taking place in different places. Ile-Ife was not the first kingdom in Yoruba land. It was the last of the first generation of kingdoms. Ile-Ife benefited from what other previous kingdoms have been doing. When Ile-Ife, now spearheaded by Oduduwa and Obatala, there was a conflict between the duo.
It was about power and control and a vision about the future for the people. Oduduwa took the leadership and transformed what was already there into something new. But what he did not do was to relegate other people that were there with him. Oduduwa did not come from Mecca; he was there. I always joke that how can someone travel from the desert and just land in the rainforest? It is not possible because people don’t migrate that way, and you don’t migrate by yourself either. You move to an ecological zone you are familiar with. It is only when something is chasing you that you go to a place where you cannot make a living. Fishers will not go to a desert because there is no water in the desert. An Arab will not come here; he might even die before he gets here. There were no airplanes in those days. So, for our children, who are learning the history of other people, we need to elevate our narrative and tell believable stories. We are teaching our kids to be rational thinkers, critical thinkers; our history must also be consistent with what we are challenging and asking people to do.
Later Stone Age people were living in the rainforest of the region before the Yoruba began to arrive around 500 AD. They met these later Stone Age people in Ile-Ife, who were later known as Ugbo. They were scattered people; they were fishermen. If you look at the topography of Ile-Ife today, you will realise that it is in a bowl, like a depression surrounded by hills. When the Yoruba arrived, they were living on the slopes of those hills. In the hollow itself, it was very swampy. The Later Stone Age people, the Ugbo people, were living in the swamp. Some of them were fishermen, but the Yoruba were farmers.
Initially, there was a symbiotic relationship between the two. But around 800 AD, they began to see changes in the ecological landscape. Things became dry; the ecological climate that started about 300 AD came to an end between 800 and 900 AD. That means that the riverine areas before began to dry up, and then the Yoruba began to move into those areas. Of course, they were moving into the homes of other people; the Ugbo. And that is the foundation of the conflict, first between Oduduwa and the Obatala groups, who were both farmers and leaders in their respective areas. But Obatala had more charisma, more prominent position in Ile-Ife than Oduduwa.
Descendants of the Ugbo of old are still living in Ile-Ife
Yes, they are. Today, they are one of the six powerful religious blocs of Ile-Ife. They were integrated. Igare is one of their names, but the general name is Ugbo. We also call them Oluyari. But those who were troublemakers were expelled. It appears that because they were fishermen, some of them gravitated towards the riverine areas. That’s why you have the Ugbo, where the river is.
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